Thursday, August 11, 2011

Another Summer Ends

At the end of another summer, I find myself revisiting an old question once again, Year-Round School. (Read previous related blogs Summer Controversy and Longer School Day/Year) As pointed out in this article there are many different forms of year-round school and the data is inconsistent on the effectiveness of it.

However, I am a proponent of year-round school and we have modeled our own school this way for the following reasons:

1. According to Duke University, the average student loses approximately 1 month of learning during the summer months, but for some students it is even more!

2. Memory must be used to be maintained. Insuring information is stored in long-term memory rather than short-term is key to learning. Read a great article about memory here.

3. It seems to be what most parents want, in my experience. This summer we had a math class with 4-5 students in both sessions. We had several students attending morning summer school classes that we offered. Also, we worked with 10 or more students individually, on a consistent basis, over the summer. People want their kids to learn in the summer, not just play!

4. Chunking is an important strategy in the learning process. By having smaller session periods of 3-5 weeks, with a short break in between, we allow for greater chunking of topics with a clear break in between units.

I have to add one other thing, while we are increasing the number of school days to 185 and chunking our learning into 3-5 week blocks with 1 week off in between, we are not extending the school day. In fact, we are shortening it to just 4 hours, leaving the afternoons open for students to experience a variety of opportunities in the afternoons. We want our students to explore their community by participating and contributing while gaining hands-on experiences. So if a student is interested in golf, why not intern or get a part-time job at a local golf course. Also, since jobs are not a one day a week experience, let's chunk the learning here as well by providing the opportunity for these interactions multiple days of the week.

What are your thoughts on year-round school? Shortened learning days? Daily opportunities for hands-on experience? Is it a good idea or a bad idea?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The President on Education

Yesterday, President Obama said that there should be a new way to measure school effectiveness for student achievement. He would do away with standardized testing and make use of other means such as high school graduation, attendance rate and college preparedness as a means to measure school effectiveness.

Having just finished CSAP (Colorado standard tests) before spring break, I would have to agree with our president on finding alternative methods for assessing students and the effectiveness of teachers and school. For instance, I have one student who spent the last 8 weeks between Christmas and the tests just doing chapter summary pages at the end of the math textbook. This coupled with summary lessons from her teacher over the material encompasses the information she was expected to know for her grade level on the CSAP test. If this isn't a classic example of teaching to the tests, I don't know what is. Did my student retain the information? Usually not which is why I had to go in and reteach the information to her in order for her to complete her homework.

However, as we already discussed in former posts (see Bruce Randolph School and Higher Graduation Rates = More Remediation?!?!?, the types of accountability being suggested are not necessarily effective ways to measure school success either. Competition seems to be the only thing that works in business to keep people on their toes and effective, so why aren't we applying that to schools? Unfortunately, charter schools are judged before they have a chance to be effective (see NYC Experiment - Part 2) or the results are marginalized rather than emphasis on specific positive impact.

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Step in the Right Direction

Douglas County Schools did something landmark in the realm of education this week. On Tuesday, the board UNANIMOUSLY approved a voucher plan of $4,575 each, for up to 500 students in the district to attend private schools.

As a stronger believer in choice, I view this as a positive step in the overall poor direction that public education continues to travel. Furthermore, if the public schools are as good as they claim to be (and I have no opinion on this district personally), then a little competition is healthy and certainly not a threat to them.

So why do people fear vouchers so much? One of the reasons is that many of the private schools are religious based schools. Another is that many of the schools cost 2 to 4 times more than the voucher amount, which will still prevent many people from accessing the vouchers.

But where there is a will, there is a way. So, even if the vouchers help just one child access a better education than they currently are getting in a public setting, isn't that worth it?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

NYC School Experiment - Part 2

First off, I do have to say how disappointed I was that this was only 13 or so minutes out of the whole episode. Also, I found that Katie's ignorance on why a school after only its first year (and probably the testing was done in March of their first year) didn't have better test results. Sorry, can't fix a kid who can't read in 5th grade overnight. Just doesn't work that way. Not to mention that they said 2/3 of the kids that came there were reading below grade level when they first arrived.

There were some things that I really did like about the model for the school such as no asst. principal or other duplicate staff members that take up much of the expense of running a school. The principal said that he looks for 3 things in a good teacher, all things I can also agree with are important; Classroom Management, Student Engagement, and Evidence that shows student achievement. Although, I think we all expect that from the typical public school, don't we? Plus the teachers don't have a contract. They are like any other business employee, an at will employee which means they can be fired any time.

However, I am concerned that their employees said they were putting in 80 to 90 hours a week! When do you have time to sleep? I also felt badly for the one teacher who said she put her family on the back burner for this job. Was it really worth $125K? They are often video taped for training and review purposes which occur after school hours. Since they don't have as many staff, it seemed like they never had a break to plan for their classes. Another thing that puzzled me is the ratio of 16.5 students per teacher and yet many of the class sizes were 30 kids.

Honestly, I love what I do and sometimes work 12-16 hour days myself. But as much as I love kids, I don't think I could work in this environment even for $125K. It was interesting because Katie asked the one of the two teachers that was fired after the first year how she felt about it and she said that she was actually relieved. I think I would be too.

I am still not sure that the TEP School is the answer to our education woes. I think you could pay a little less, hire a few more staff members and possibly get the same if not better results because your teachers aren't working 80 hours of work each week. Yes, high salaries will attract good teachers, but I think it would attract any teacher. Like the good principal said, "There are great teachers in almost every public school in the city." Yet, I can guarantee they aren't there because of the money.

Here is the video in case you missed it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

NYC School Experiment - Part 1

This came across my desk this morning. Perhaps I was vaguely aware of it, but until now I have not paid attention to it. However, as part of furthering the dream of meeting the needs of kids educationally, it is important to me to see what others are doing. Is this school doing it right?

In a Time Magazine article on education spending from this past December, there is mention of a charter school in NYC that is paying its teachers $125,000. The difference with this school is that the teachers don't have tenure. The extension of their contract is based on their performance, from what I can gather. You can check out The Equity Project charter school website for more information.

But, the real reason I am posting about this particular school today is that 60 Minutes will be doing a story on them this coming Sunday at 7pm ET. I will be tuning in and you can expect another blog post Sunday night. But for now, here is a sneak peek provided by the 60 Minutes website.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Senator Heath’s Initiative isn’t Perfect, but it's a Start....A Guest Blog by Megan Miclette

Many of you already know that Governor John Hickenlooper has proposed a $375 million cut to education funding. In theory, I can understand the rationale behind it; after all, education spending is currently tying up 40% of Colorado’s budget and after spending some time trying to balance the budget myself using Colorado Backseat Budgeter, I can certainly understand the predicament that faces Gov. Hickenlooper. However, in practice, it doesn’t appear that anyone’s given much thought to a way to address the widespread and severe consequences that these cuts are going to have on teachers, students, parents and staff; for example, according to the Colorado Education Association, around 5,500 teachers could lose their jobs because of these cuts.  Apparently, “job creation” has taken a buzzword backseat to “reduce spending.”

There are no easy fixes to the situation that approaches us, but I have to give Sen. Rollie Heath (D-Boulder) credit for trying. Recently, Heath proposed a controversial citizen’s initiative tax increase that would do the following: -Increase individual and corporate income tax rates to 5 percent from the current 4.63 percent.
- Increase the state portion of sales and use taxes to 3 percent from 2.9 percent.
- Earmark spending of revenue from the increases for K-12 and higher education.
- Start the higher rates on Jan. 1, 2012, and end them on Dec. 31, 2014.

It’s hard to find a person on either side of the political spectrum that agrees with Sen. Heath’s proposal; in fact, only 10 Democrats put their support behind Heath when he proposed the initiative on February 28th. However, this plan strikes me as a good compromise.  Yes, it’s more money out of voter pockets at a time when no one really wants to spend, but is there ever a time when people want to spend money? The old adage about voting with one’s wallet comes to mind here: as someone who is passionate about education, I would be willing to consider this initiative, even though it means slightly less money in my own bank account, approximately .37% less, to be exact.

I can understand the criticisms that many lawmakers have raised about this issue; people just do not want to spend more money, and the initiative is just a temporary fix anyway, something that Heath made a point to emphasize.KDVR covered this story and House Majority Leader, Amy Stephens R-Monument, had this to say; "We're not going to tax our way into prosperity. There is no appetite for taxing Colorado families who are trying to balance their budgets, find work and send their kids to school."

However, I was hoping for a more salient argument from the opposition than, “people won’t want to do this”, or at the very least, a better suggestion. At a time when everyone else is arguing and wringing their hands, I respect Sen. Heath for attempting to put more options on the table. Is it a perfect solution? Absolutely not, and I think Sen. Heath would agree with that criticism as well. But it’s a constructive suggestion in a climate where there seems to be a dearth of helpful attitudes. It’s a start. I look forward to hearing (hopefully) substantial, meaningful debate on this issue and other ways to solve our budgeting issues so that Colorado’s students can get the funding they deserve to keep our state’s schools among the best in the country.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Finding the Perfect School

I wanted to take the time this week to reflect on a few things and get a little more personal about something that has really affected me. As many of you know, I have a passion for teaching that often overwhelms me, even to the point of tears, when I hear some of the sad stories about what is happening to kids with disabilities currently in the local public schools.  For those of you who don't know me, you will just have to take my word on this.  This week I was astounded and outraged as my heart broke at another expectation that wasn't met by a promise for something new.

On Wednesday I heard that a new private school finally announced their opening as an alternative for students with specific disabilities.  I had heard the rumors and was hopeful because it was a mom who helped start it.  Yet, when I visited the new website I felt let down and betrayed.  The trend I see in the private school arena in our area is very sad indeed.  The schools locally all seem to want the best and brightest kids, the ones who have high IQ's and no underlying issues with behavior or remedial skills.  When I see a school catering to a very narrow band of students with disabilities that probably could make it in the current public system, I have to wonder why they even bother?  I ask myself, “Where is the school that will take a student at their level, whatever level that is, and create an individual program that truly meets their needs?  Where is the school that isn't worried about behavior issues because they know how to effectively engage and educate the kids who come to their school?” 

Not only that, but the money issue is insane too!  20K, 30K, 40K or more to provide a quality education for these special children?  They advertise low staff to student ratios, but then you come to find out that this number doesn’t reflect teachers or paras in the classroom.  It includes staff that may be sitting on the other side of the building, behind closed doors, doing the business of the school.  It is the numbers game and if you can somehow make your ratio low by manipulating those numbers, then you can justify charging more.  Of course private schools don't have to provide any services or special education.  Which honestly doesn't bother me because, if they are a good school and provide quality for their price, I believe they will thrive as families see the value in what they do.  If not, then they will eventually close.  What does bother me is if they claim to serve a population, yet when you get down to the nitty gritty they aren't really serving that population at all.

So when are we going to see a real change?  When will our focus shift from private schools for high functioning students to meeting the real needs of all students at a price that doesn't rival the cost of college?  I hope to address those questions in the next few months for families in my local area.  It isn't an easy road I have chosen to take, but my passion and desire to reach all students is important enough that I would gladly go hungry for a day to see just one of them smile as they realize they can succeed in learning.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Higher Graduation = More Remediation?!?!?

I am not sure how they can explain this one away! The Denver Post reported last week that while High School dropout rates have dropped and more students are graduating, colleges are reporting that they are now having to provide more remedial classes.

This doesn't make much sense to me. But then again neither does the teacher changing a grade because the administration put pressure on them for failing too many kids or because the parent called to ask what all those extra special education classes are for if the child isn't succeeding in the classroom. Instead, it seems that the schools are lowering their standards rather than figuring out how to teach these children. However, I am not sure that is the only thing going on here. In our label happy, over medicated, and over stimulated society, I think we have hyped up disability as an excuse.

Yes, I did say that. I work with children and adults who have disabilities on a daily basis. It is very real and for some it impedes their ability to live independently. Yet, I see some families and therefore their kids using that excuse as an explanation for their failure. They become apathetic and no longer want to take personal responsibility for their own actions. It is something that has become more and more prevalent in our society and it makes me sad.

In my generation, Special Education was just beginning its movement. It was about bringing those kids and adults, who were hidden in the shadows, out to shine in the spotlight! Yet children who didn't fit in the mainstream had to find their own way. Hundreds of children went undiagnosed with Aspergers, AD/HD, sensory, or processing disorders. They had to forge ahead like those before them. Many of those people went on to be our best scientists and out of the box thinkers.

So how do we change the mindset? How do we get kids back on their feet, confident in themselves and their own abilities? I know that I don't have all the answers, but I am sure going to try everything I can to make every child and adult I work with see the value of wanting to learn, setting goals, and reaching for the stars! For my students, there is no excuse for not trying their hardest and working towards their goals.

Oh, and one more thing, it is  ok  fantastic to be different! That is what makes you special and uniquely who you are.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Bruce Randolph School

Guest Blog by Megan Miclette

Last week, Colorado got a special nod from President Obama during his State of the Union address. “Take a school like Bruce Randolph, in Denver,” he said, “three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado… but last May, 97% of seniors received their diploma.” He went on to describe a young woman who thanked her tearful principal at graduation, saying, “thanks for showing that we’re smart and we can make it.” So how did Principal Kristin Waters (now an administrator for the Denver Public School system) create such a drastic change? Is the new system actually working? What does this mean for the future of other failing schools?

In 2005, when Kristin Waters decided to create and implement her reform plan, the school was on the brink of closure. Her plan involved two major changes: re-evaluating each of the teachers—after the rehiring process, only 6 of 40 teachers kept their jobs--and gaining autonomy from the school district. That’s right—autonomy. Waters, as the principal, no longer needed district approval for hiring, curriculum, scheduling, or budgeting. Did it work? I would argue that it did, to a degree. What if schools got to decide how to best motivate and challenge their students? What would a school district look like that trusted its principals to make these sorts of decisions, rather than tangling them up in webs of red tape? Moreover, if more schools were willing to critically evaluate at their teaching staff and replace bad teachers, we might see a significant change in our children as well. What would happen if our children actually wanted to go to school because they were actually being challenged by good teachers?

With all of the changes that took place, the success of the school’s reform can’t be denied—in the six years since the school’s reform policies were implemented, the school has gone from one of the worst in the state to having a 97% graduation rate. Their test scores, dismal at best before the reform’s implementation, have been steadily and quickly rising in the last five years; in 2005, only 7% of the students at the school scored proficient on math, and only 11% scored proficient on reading. Last spring, however, 17% of students scored proficient or advanced in math, and 32% scored proficient in reading. Test scores two and three times better in five years is a great accomplishment, but let’s be honest here—despite the increase, the school is still failing. If only 17% of your entire student body is proficient in math, how many of those students who fell way below average got diplomas that year? How many of the 97% of students who graduated are really ready for college or the career job market?

There are no easy answers here. This model seems to be contributing to the steady increase in the school’s success, but that doesn’t guarantee that the students who go there are getting a high-quality education. If education reform was as easy as replacing the bad teachers, we wouldn’t still be here talking about it. If raising test scores was an accurate way to measure student learning, no one would be worried about “teaching to the test”—which, by the way, is probably partially to blame for Bruce Randolph’s success. While we can sit and complain about the how’s and the why’s, the fact is that the reform is working for The Bruce Randolph School, which means we might have gotten one teensy, tiny step closer to successfully reforming what I see as a failing educational system.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Jail for Moms who Want More for Their Kids

I almost didn't believe it when I saw it.....

Mom Sentenced to Jail for Sending her Kids to a Better School

Seriously? Wow. I understand she falsified records, bad. But the father of the children lived within the good district and they wouldn't allow the children to attend because mom was the primary caregiver. So?

The district claimed it wasn't fair to others who pay the taxes for the district and this mom didn't. But the kids' father does. Who knows where the childrens' grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. live?? And for that matter, I pay taxes for schools and I don't even have children. Perhaps I could sponsor a child from another district?

All I can say is, thank goodness we live in a state that allows for open enrollment. Although I would remind my readers to stay ever vigilant on education news. While we currently enjoy many charter school options and open enrollment in our area, there is nothing that prevents someone from coming along tomorrow from saying it is wrong. If you don't believe me, just google the words "ban open enrollment", "ban charter schools", or even "ban homeschooling" and you will see how many people are unhappy with the way we do things here in Colorado.