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President Obama Calls For Education Reform, Part I March 19, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in Education, politics.
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President Obama this week announced his plans for education reform, which many in the MSM hailed as courageous, as calling for sweeping change….  Wait a minute.  I think I missed something.  While he called for some reform, like lengthening the school day and/or the school year (but maybe only for those students who ‘need’ it) and doing more to support early childhood education (for which I applaud him) his message fell well short of a transformative vision.  He wants to hold teachers accountable, link pay to performance (as measured by student testing), close failing schools, and promote charter schools.  All of this sounds like President Bush were still in office.  

He wants the ‘best and brightest’ teachers, yet he did not call for paying teachers as though they are professionals.  Average teachers’ salaries range from the mid $20s to the upper $40s, depending on regional differences in the cost of living.  That is not the pay that will attract the ‘best and brightest.’ That’s not to say that many of our teachers are not the best and brightest, but the best and brightest who choose to teach in the public school system must also be something more.  They must be strongly dedicated to giving back to their community.  The best and brightest can find their first jobs, straight out of college, that pay beyond the median American income, in the mid $50s (and even more in expensive parts of the country).  And those with advanced degrees, as many of the best and brightest teachers have, can find jobs that pay far more (or at least they could before this economic crisis was brought upon us).  In addition to the low salaries teachers receive, they are under-appreciated, and are too often blamed for every failure in education, though so many problems in our educational system are far beyond their control.  

Teachers are expected to teach classes of 25 – 30+ students, even though, as I will flesh out in more detail below, most researchers believe that providing classrooms with 20 or fewer students is the single most important reform we can make to enhance learning.  Yet President Obama uttered not one word about decreasing classroom sizes.  

The best teachers are filled with innovative ideas, but are strapped by the testing requirements of No Child Left Behind, which should be scrapped, but which he will keep.  To his credit, he did say that he wants to replace NCLB’s rigid multiple choice exams with tests that measure real learning – analytical ability, problem solving and the like.  While this will be a vast improvement, it alone is not enough.  Children must be provided with the resources they need to learn in order to score well on any test.  And too many of them aren’t.  

President Obama was elected on a platform of change, and he claims a strong commitment to education, but he failed to provide a transformative agenda about which progressive educators and advocates of reform can get excited.  

President Obama Announces Secretary of Education Pick, Arne Duncan

President Obama selected Arne Duncan as his Secretary of Education, a controversial choice.  Hailing his great success in Chicago, the president said,

“For Arne, school reform isn’t just a theory in a book – it’s the cause of his life. And the results aren’t just about test scores or statistics, but about whether our children are developing the skills they need to compete with any worker in the world for any job…. In just seven years, he’s boosted elementary test scores here in Chicago from 38 percent of students meeting the standards to 67 percent. The dropout rate has gone down every year he’s been in charge…. He’s worked tirelessly to improve teacher quality, increasing the number of master teachers who’ve completed a rigorous national certification process from 11 to just shy of 1,200, and rewarding school leaders and teachers for gains in student achievement. He’s championed good charter schools – even when it was controversial. He’s shut down failing schools and replaced their entire staffs – even when it was unpopular. 

And Duncan said, in accepting the post, 

“Whether it’s fighting poverty, strengthening the economy or promoting opportunity, education is the common thread. It is the civil rights issue of our generation and it is the one sure path to a more equal, fair and just society. 

But neither the president nor the education secretary addressed the vast inequalities that exist in our educational system.

Duncan, of course, has his fans and his critics.  Rod Paigs, President Bush’s Education Secretary, whose Texas reforms were the model for the hated NCLB,  called him a “budding hero in the education business.”  Is public education a business?  I suppose it makes sense, then, that Duncan was the ‘Chief Executive Officer’ of the Chicago public school system.  

But others, like Chicago education activist Michael Klonsky think that under Duncan we will see “more standardized testing, closing neighborhood schools, militarization, and the privatization of school management.”  

On the other hand, according to MSNBC’s report, Obama Education Pick Sparks Conflict, some teacher’s unions like him, saying he is willing to reach out to teachers in collaboration.

So, the jury is out.  President Obama did credit him with providing teacher training and certification on a grand scale, and he has lowered the drop out rate in Chicago schools, but I wish I’d heard more about his ideas for decreasing class sizes and ‘advancing educational opportunities in economically disadvantaged areas.’  I am skeptical, and I will keep a close watch, but for now I will try to be hopeful.

Class Size Matters.  As I mentioned above, most researchers agree that class size is an important factor in education.  Studies show that, while small reductions in class size have little effect,  students benefit substantially when class sizes are cut to around 20 students per classroom, particularly in the early grades, but also in grades 8-12.   Yet NCLB removed funding for cutting the size of classrooms. 

A consensus of research indicates that for K-3 education, class size reduction to a point somewhere between 15 and 20 students leads to higher student achievement that many believe lasts throughout the child’s education.  The Public School Parent’s Network, a resource and information website for parents, reports that the research data from The US Dept of Education’s publication Reducing Class Size, What Do We Know?,  indicate that if class size is reduced from substantially more than 20 students to below 20 students, the average student moves from the 50th percentile to above the 60th percentile.  And, for disadvantaged and minority students the effects are even larger.

A study commissioned by the US Department of Education analyzed the achievement levels of students in 2,561 schools, as measured by their performance on the national NAEP exams.  The sample included at least 50 schools in each state, including large and small, urban and rural, affluent and poor areas.  After controlling for student background, the only objective factor found to be correlated with higher student success as measured by test scores was class size. (Class Size Matters.org)  

A study from the Public Policy Institute of California shows significant improvements in test scores for all groups of students in smaller classes (with no changes in curriculum or instruction).  In California’s six largest school districts (Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Long Beach, Oakland and Fresno), class size reduction substantially raised the proportion of students  who exceeded the national median, after controlling for all other factors.  

                                                    Math        Reading        Language    

Los Angeles                            13.9%            9.5%            14.5%

Next 5 Largest Districts        10.5%           8.4%

LA High Needs Students        27%             19%               28%

100% Black Population         14.7%          18.4%

 

Also note that:

(1) This study looked only at 3rd graders who spent just one year in a smaller class;

(2) Gains improved the longer students remained in small classrooms;

(3) Even larger gains were found in schools with a higher percentage of poor students; and

(4) Studies show that parents are more involved in schools where their children are in small classrooms.

(Relationships Between Class Size Reduction and Student Achievement, Research Brief, Public Policy Institute of California)

These findings are consistent across states.  Studies from Tennessee, Wisconsin, and elsewhere show that students in smaller classes from grades K-3 do better in every way that can be measured: they score higher on tests, receive better grades, and improve their attendance.  And, again, students who need the most help show the most improvement.   Indeed, Alan Krueger of Princeton estimates that reducing class size in early grades shrinks the achievement gap by about 38%.

Class size reduction changes many features of the classroom which lead to higher student achievement.  Perhaps most importantly, the teacher has more time to give each student individualized attention, allowing the teacher to know each of their students better, to know how they learn, and to keep track of how each student is progressing.  As such, the teacher can intervene more rapidly and effectively to help  each student.  Furthermore, the research shows that students develop better relationships with their teacher and classmates in small class settings.  We all know that learning is enhanced by classroom participation, and in smaller classes, each student has more time to – and is more likely to – speak while others listen.  There are also fewer students to distract each other, and researchers report fewer disciplinary problems.  These findings are significant and should be a part of meaningful school reform. 

In 2007, the average class size in California (not including independent study and other self-contained courses) was 20 students in K-3 and 28 in grades 4-12.  Class sizes in Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi and many others were similar in 2006 and 2007, especially in grades 4-12, while K-3 classes were generally somewhat larger. Georgia law allows for 32 – 35 students in grades 9-12, depending on the subject matter.  

So it is unfortunate that in February, the NY Education Department issued a report that found the average number of children per class increased in nearly every grade this school year.  And now comes new that, in New York and California at least, there will soon be even more students in each classroom due to state budget gaps.  In one California district, budget shortfalls have already increased the size of kindergarten classes to 33 students per teacher.   Unless class size is made a priority and funded as such, given today’s state of affairs, the outlook here is bleak and the impact on student achievement is too great.  

 

School Financing Matters.  President Obama did not address the widespread disparity in spending among school districts and states.  Underprivileged children often attend the worst school, though they are generally the students who need the most help.

The US Department of Education reports that current expenditures for public elementary and secondary schools will be about $519 billion for the 2008-09 school year. According to the its website, he national average current expenditure per student is around $10,418, but this provides little information.  Rather, they simply tally up spending, divide it by the number of students, and voila, there you have average spending.  But this information is close to useless because we know that is not the way spending occurs.  We do not spend the same amount to educate every child.  Rather, as I outline below, there remain vast differences in spending.  The information they provide does not even tell us the mean or the median.  It doesn’t tell us how much is spent on instruction, how much on administration (we know some districts have bloated administrations, wasting taxpayer money).  It does not tell how much disparity there is among school districts.  Over the past couple of decades, many states have made gains in funding schools more equitably, but sizeable differences remain.  Yet it is difficult to find data that will allow us to be informed consumers of education.  To take an example for their reporting on class sizes, the US Department of Education website tells us that classes are much smaller than reported by the Departments of Educations in the individual states.  This lack of transparency is inexcusable, and often the information they do provide is misleading.

It is difficult to ascertain how funding is apportioned among school districts across the nation.  The data provided by the Department of Education is too broad to be useful, other available data is too old to be useful and, where financing per district is available, it is not coupled with the average income per district, leaving one only to speculate how money is apportioned among wealthy, middle class, and low income communities.  For example, according to South Carolina’s General Appropriations Bill for fiscal year 2008-2009South Carolina spends an average of  $11,480 per student, but spending among districts ranges from $8,659 to $18,081.  

And according to SF Gate, the San Francisco Chronicle’s websitein 2006 funding per pupil in California schools ranged from $4,806 to 34,279.  These are vast differences that must be addressed if we are to make a commitment to all our children.  Yet neither President Obama nor Education Secretary Duncan spoke to this issue.

New York spends the most money per pupil of all the states except Alaska, but we know that many inner-city schools have crumbling infrastructure and lack basic resources.  

The Washington Post reports that while the number most widely stated as per pupil spending in the Washington D.C. is $8,322, total spending is actually closer to  $25,000, about the same as the cost of an education at Sidwell Friends, where the Obama children attend school.  It asks, then, “So why force most D.C. children into often dilapidated and underperforming public schools when we could easily offer them a choice of private schools?”  My question is, if D.C. public school districts receive equal funding as some of the most expensive private schools, why do they have dilapidated school buildings?  Where does the money go?  We know that teachers at prestigious private schools earn more than their colleagues in the public sector, that private schools offer a broader cirriculum, including art programs and physical education that have been cut at many public schools, and have more resources for the students, such as science labs and computers, so this data is hard to reconcile.  

But it gets more complicated.  The Census Bureau reports that per public spending for D.C. students is $13,446, but adds that funding per pupil from local sources is $16,195 (it adds this information to clarify that local funding is high relative to other school districts across the nation because other districts, unlike those in D.C. also receive state funding).  Add to this that D.C. schools also receive about $81 million in federal funds, and the picture is pure confusion.  How much does Washington D.C. spend per pupil?  I can’t say with any certainty.  But it is clear that transparency in public school funding and expenditures is necessary if parents are to make informed choices about where to send their children.

Making matters worse, as some states were just beginning to make gains in a more equitable distribution of funding, school budgets are now being slashed as a result of our present economy.  While, as many argue, ‘throwing money at the problem’ isn’t the entire solution, all schools must be sufficiently funded to provide the basic necessities for learning.  It is a disgrace that some students do not have text books, that some go to school in unsafe buildings, that many do not have adequate facilities to learn science.  President Obama must call for equitable funding for our public schools or we will continue to leave far too many students with enormous potential behind, depriving them of the promise of opportunity and us of the benefit of their knowledge, both as citizens and as participants in our economy.

Conclusion, Part I.  Linda Darling-Hammond, a former teacher, expert on teacher quality and professor of education at Stanford and an Obama advisor writes in  The Nation   that the US should adopt some of the practices that higher-achieving countries have been using over the past twenty years “as they have left us further and further behind educationally.”  She reports that the US ranks twenty-eighth of forty countries in mathematics and graduates only about 75% of students, though other top performing countries graduate more than 95% of their students.  She tells us that most high-achieving countries fund their schools centrally and equally, then provide additional funds to the neediest schools.  They also have  better-prepared teachers whom they pay competitive salaries and provide with high-quality teacher education, mentoring and ongoing professional development. These are exactly the reforms we need if we are to recruit and keep the best and brightest teachers.  President Obama should heed her advice if we are to build and maintain an educational system that provides a world-class education for our students, all our students, even the disadvantaged who we too easily leave behind.

Education Reform, Part II.  In the second part of this piece, next week, I will discuss many other issues surrounding education, including student testing, merit pay, charter schools, innovative teaching methods, single-sex classrooms, and the US Supreme Court’s ruling on what right to education is guaranteed us by the education and the importance of that ruling’s being reexamined in light of the requirements of today’s world.  I hope it will shed even more light on what is going on in our classrooms, including the vastly different approaches some pioneers in teaching are taking.

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Comments»

1. Liz Burke - March 20, 2009

Fantastic! Great stuff, I would love to see what the other countries with more successful education systems are doing that works and if it is something we can bring over the pond. Also, small classes would require more schools being built. Now I believe there is money in the stimulus bills for that, but is it enough? Is our school age population outgrowing the existing system? Will we have enough money to pay for the new schools?

2. Steve John - March 23, 2009

This is such a fascinating topic and one that won’t be exhausted in many lifetimes. It is worthy, however, of everyone’s attention. I am struck by the breadth of the educational crisis in the U.S. and the depth and the force of the perils we face as we stare into the future that is public education funding, administration and delivery.

Over the course of several months, I’ve had the privilege of sitting down with several attorneys representing public educational institutions – and a few who represent private universities – to discuss governance issues, financial management and the quality of the delivery of educational services. As you and your readers might imagine, everyone has a firm opinion of the challenges and opportunities before us. I thought I would share the most common observations of those I’ve interviewed.

Changing Demographics
For better or worse, each state faces a number of demographic changes in their populations that have direct impacts on how education is valued. This is not a normative statement and I wouldn’t pretend to know if these changes are good or bad, but they are very real and represent challenges to our notions of what education is and how it ought to be paid for and administered in the future. Significant tensions are developing between ethnic groups, socio/economic classes and the political elite. No state is spared.

Political Clout
Public schools and universities have lost the bulk of their political clout in their relationships with state legislatures and the U.S. Congress. In a recent counsel interview, a very astute university attorney noted that in her home state, the university system and the state itself came into being at the same time. Importantly, the university system was created FIRST out of recognition of its importance to the social and economic development and well-being of the territory. Our founders understood the difference between educating and not educating and they chose rightly. In a state like California, where the university system is now a first-rate, world class institution and a $20 billion enterprise, one might think that the people – and by extension their legislature – would see the value in continued funding and support. Sadly, they do not. Today, all public school districts and universities must fight tooth and nail to be heard in the legislatures. They must make the case for their very existence against the backdrop of greed and political corruption.

Expectations in Service
We have ignored, to our peril, the changes in demand for how education is delivered. Public school administrators are struggling to keep abreast of changing technologies in an environment of fiscal hoarding. Cash strapped school districts are unable to afford computer labs and the network infrastructures to make them work. Classrooms are poorly supplied and teachers do not have the time or personal resources to put what they do have to good use. I’ve spoken with a grade school teacher in Utah who expressed deep frustration in her districts lack of technical resources – not enough computers for those who are ready for them on the one hand, and too much time spent with those too young to benefit from learning to keyboard. Priorities seem to be out of whack and the issues scream for better leadership. This seems to be common to all but the richest of school districts. At the university level, administrators and faculty are struggling with the growing demand for alternatives to the classroom and increased competition from private institutions with the means to provide online learning opportunities. Again, this is a problem at the state level. However, everyone I’ve spoken to believes real leadership at the national level would go far in helping all institutions move beyond these unnecessary roadblocks.

Accountability/Transparency
This is another one of those situations that is neither good nor bad. It is simply the case that schools face greater scrutiny from the public that funds them in return for a professional service. The temptation, of course, is to shift priorities away from real learning and community building in an effort to satisfy the wolves at the door. I think most of the folks I’ve spoken to would agree that what we’re seeing not only from Washington, but from our own state legislatures, is a reaction to a demand for accountability that misses the point all together. Of course, many can’t come to agreement on just what that point is or ought to be. Is the point to open schools to greater scrutiny to ensure the quality of education meets the community standard? Is it to call institutions to account for including the largest number of students possible? Can we achieve both with limited resources? And where, ultimately, should the money come from? Tough questions, but the burden of accountability is real, regardless of the point behind it.

Keep blogging, Suzanne. I think the work your doing with your blog is admirable. I just wanted to add my two cents to this discussion and now I’m afraid I’ve added more than might be welcome.

Suzanne Robinson - March 25, 2009

Steve – Thanks for your insights. I haven’t been in contact with educators since my early days as lawyer representing students. And what I saw then only seems to be worse now. I believe this is a social problem that is larger than administrators or teachers can address without the political will of our representatives. That is why I call on the president to live up to his promise to make education a top priority. Even Democrats have long been neglecting our schools. Abraham Lincoln, who, as a boy, wanted more than anything to attend school and learn (though his father wouldn’t let him and, in fact, his being caught reading rather than working the farm often led to a beating), recognized the importance of education to an informed citizenry, not just as an entree into the job market. He was a strong proponent of public education, and would be terribly dismayed at our current circumstance, as are many of us. President Obama holds him up as as an outstanding leader, and he should heed his call here.

I will write about more difficulties and some innovative approaches to learning this week, so stay tuned. In the meantime, your two cents, ten cents, even a dollar’s worth will always be welcome here!


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