from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

education policy for Democratic congressional candidates 

cross posted in diaries at dailykos and on front page at myleftwing
As a result of stopping by the event in DC earlier this month for the Fighting Dems, I have been involved in a process of offering assistance on educational policy for a variety of Democratic candidates for government, not all of whom are among the Band of Brothers / Sisters.   This is an ongoing process, and I am happy to look at any specific proposal to point out questions that might be raised, or counter arguments to which one might have to respond, as well as point at information that might be supportive.

My role in this is not to dictate policy, but to assist on an issue that quite frankly Democrats should own.   I will continue to respond to individual requests as they arise.

What I offer below is a general - and admittedly disorganized and rambling - document that covers a number of points about which I believe candidates should think.  I offer it for general perusal, and to provoke additional thinking on how to address educational policy.   Do with it what you will.
Some general thoughts on education, about which Democratic candidates for Congress should think. These are offered to provoke thought and discussion. How these, or any other, educational issues should be approached will vary by Congressional district, and by the need of the candidate to have some consistency among her/his policy proposals. These thoughts are neither comprehensive, exhaustive, nor even necessarily consistent.

I am happy to work with anyone who would like further input from me.

NCLB is due for reauthorization. What will be your position on it? Among the concerns expressed by many is that the target of 100% proficient by 2014, and also the idea of Annual Yearly Progress for each disaggregated group for each grade towards those targets is unreachable, except for very schools, most of which are characterized by high Socio-Economic Status and families in which (almost) all parents have a bachelor’s degree or better.

The requirement of disaggregating scores provides meaningful information only if ALL states set groups at the same size, both within state and for cross-state comparison purposes. If not, we get a classic apples versus oranges comparison, and states are able to hide problem areas.

The comparisons required on NCLB do not, however, provide meaningful information, because they do not involve tracking the same group of students on a longitudinal basis. Rather, it is a comparison of cohorts which might be very dissimilar, both as to demographic characteristics and prior knowledge: this year’s 4th graders and last year might be quite dissimilar, so that comparing 4th grade scores across years is fraught with peril.

No Child Left Behind is NOT an unfunded mandate, and attacking it on that basis is incorrect. The testing and other (teacher proficiency, for example) requirements are conditions of aid. If you want the funds the Federal government offers (largely Title I), then you must accept all the conditions of the receipt of that aid, even if those conditions cost you several times the amount of federal funds received of funds from other (state, local) sources. It is my belief that Ted Kennedy and George Miller accepted the proposal because they thought they could get more federal funds for things like inner city schools, and Miller in particular had a real concern that students in those schools were not being well served. The two were able to get the voucher provision out of the original proposal, but depending on how you count, the cost of the increased testing is more than the additional aid. The Education Department will argue that such a situation need not occur if one does not create customized tests but will use off the shelf tests instead, which should cause one to note that the testing companies have been among the biggest supporters of the testing provisions of NCLB .
QUANTITY / QUALITY OF TEACHERS -- both of these are real issues. In some fields there is an ongoing shortage of even minimally qualified teachers -- special ed, foreign languages, math, science. These problems get exacerbated by requirements to decrease class sizes, although that should not be used as an excuse to avoid addressing class size issues. Similarly, issues of teacher compensation will also intersect with this topic and with class sizes. Candidates do not necessarily have to have a comprehensive approach that addresses all of these issues, since education is primarily NOT a federal response, but their positions and statements should recognize that addressing part of this relationship from a Federal perspective will invariably impact other areas even if there is no specific federal program. Thus the requirement in NCLB for all students to be taught by “highly qualified teachers” (even though the definition of that term is left up to individual states) potentially can lead to a shortage of people to man classrooms. One can legitimately question if replacing a certified but not “highly qualified” teacher with a substitute who in many states is not even required to have a bachelor’s degree represents an improvement in the teaching quality given the students.

There is a way to increase the pool of teachers for areas of shortage. That could be done by a program which would forgive all/part of federally funded loans for college to those students in areas of shortage willing to teach for a fixed period of time (probably at least 3 years) in a school in something like a rural area, an inner-city, an Indian Reservation. Another way to supply teachers in general for such areas, which often are unable to pay competitive salaries, is for the federal government to designate part of its aid as a supplement to highly qualified teachers willing to relocate to such schools for a period of time, the additional pay as a stipend for improving the instruction of others in those schools. One can argue that supplements being paid for Nationally Board certified teachers by states and localities could also be similarly shaped -- here I note that I am now able to receive supplements from both the state and my district, and yet I am not required to relocate from my already high-performing school as a condition of receiving that aid.

SCHOOL FACILITIES -- many of our school buildings are either old, obsolete, decrepit and/or some combination of the above. In some jurisdictions, there is an insufficient tax base to be able to fund the bonds necessary to address this problem. It is a bit unrealistic to expect children to take learning seriously in buildings that are falling apart, which have few or no working toilets. It is exceedingly difficult to learn in a classroom which is stifling, with no air circulation and a temperature in excess of 90 degrees, or n which despite 35-40 children crammed into a space designed for 25-30, the temperature stays well below 50 degrees. While it is probably unrealistic to expect the federal government to fully pay for addressing this problem, there are a number of possible approaches that might make sense. This could be done separately or possibly in cooperation.

- have the federal government provide a pool of loan money, to be matched in part or in whole by other funding resources.

- have the federal government guarantee bond funding that meets certain fiscal requirements. This could keep the interest rate significantly lower., as it has for things like VA mortgage loans.

- have the federal government pay part / all of the interest on bonds for this purpose in high impact areas

CLASS SIZE / SCHOOL SIZE / TEACHER LOADS - these are related issues, but not the same. Yet there is a need to understand the relationship among them.

CLASS SIZE is the number of students in an individual classroom. There is some research that shows reducing class size below a certain level (18) for elementary school students makes a real difference in performance on standardized scores (and unfortunately, far too often this is the only measure used, which is fraught with all kinds of difficulty, but I do not wish to address that right now). At the elementary level, the class size is equal to the teacher load except for specialty (art, phys ed, music, etc.) teachers. At the secondary level the real concern may not necessarily be the number of students in each class, but the total number taught. Thus I teach 6 periods. If I have an average of 25 students per class, that would be 150 students for whom I am responsible. If I give an assignment that requires me 1 minute to read and one more to mark up, offer suggestions, make corrections, etc., that is a total of 300 minutes, or 6 hours to correct ONE assignment. In any course in which writing is an important skill, students will develop only by doing more writing. Thus each of my classes could be manageable but the total load might be unreasonable. It is also important to note that class size demands can vary by content and by the skill of the students. I can run an AP class among seniors successfully with 30 students, although that is likely to limit the ability of individual students to participate seminar style. The counter argument to this is that many college courses are large lectures, with hundreds of students. That may true, but the number of people who can successfully lecture is no where near the number who attempt to teach by that method.

Also remember -- teacher/student ratio is not usually an accurate reflection of class size. You may have teacher slots which do not represent people in the classroom. Special Ed teachers often co-teach with subject matter teachers. One needs to look at average class size at each level: E, MS/JrHi/HS

SCHOOL SIZE has also become a hot issue, especially with funding for small school initiatives provided by the Gates Foundation. Some argue for schools now larger than 500-800. While that might well make sense in an elementary school, it presents some problems for high schools -- will there be a critical enough mass to offer the breadth of courses that meets the needs and interests of all students? One might find a rare individual who, say, can teach Government, Comparative Religion, coach soccer, and do musical theater, but how do you replace that one individual if he leaves? BTW, I just used a real world example, myself . I have also done American History, World History, Reading, English, Study Skills, and outside of school SAT prep. To insist a minimum or a maximum size can be counterproductive. In the case of the minimum, it can mean loss of schools in smaller communities and extended travel time via bus to reach a larger school. In the case of larger schools, it can mean a sense of anomie for many students, that no adult truly knows her. One solution to larger schools is to have schools or programs within schools to which students belong so that they have a sense of being known, and so that there can be adults who do truly know and and can follow them.

IDEA -- this is the federal requirement on special ed. The initials stand for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (although the most recent version is Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act). In its original incarnation the Congress was going to fund 40% of the costs incurred by the mandates. Federal funding has never reached even half of that level. The biggest single boost to public education possible would be to meet that commitment. Failure to do so requires states and localities to shift funds away from general education, or from non-educational purposes, and often winds up pitting parents of special ed students rightly concerned about their children with parents of others who believe their own children are being shortchanged.

Were the federal government to fully fund its share, on the understanding that this would represent additional funds and not replacement funds, most school systems could address many of the needs they must now ignore, as well as many desirable programs. Candidates should contact local school systems to find out the impact of such additional aid. This could be a potent topic.

I fully realize that the immediate question would be how such additional funding could be provided. Methinks a candidate could come up with a powerful comparison using the money for tax breaks for millionaires or energy companies versus the needs of individual children.

VOUCHERS - no level of Federal voucher has ever been proposed that would (a) fully pay for most private schools (b) require any nonpublic school to take a student bearing a voucher (c) require the school receiving the voucher student to be subject to the same strictures (such as standardized tests). In some voucher proposals at the state or local level, students who have already left the public schools have been eligible to receive them.

For some vouchers are a philosophical issue, flowing from the work of Milton and Rose Friedman, and are advocated by people who do not want to see public schools at all. For others it is a political issue -- this is a way to gain support from Catholics, since at many Catholic schools the influx of students with vouchers could mean the difference between surviving and not surviving. For others, they want to have their children out of public schools so that they cannot be required to learn about evolution or other things to which they object, and they resent having to pay taxes for a function from which they do not DIRECTLY draw benefit is they do not have children in public schools, or from which they would like to withdraw, but cannot afford to do so. Each of these represents a separate issue.

Let me go through a couple of things.
- vouchers are not like the GI Bill, where in fact the individual could go to a religious college. The GI Bill represents a form of deferred compensation - I complete college at Haverford College as a result of my service in the USMC. The current Montgomery GI Bill makes this connection with service explicit. I would also note that there were far greater restrictions as to where the GI Bill payment could be made (which was directly to the educational system) than there are in most voucher proposals (where often the voucher is given directly to the family, similarly to the food stamp or WIC programs).

- one argument for vouchers is to allow parents to remove children from “failing” schools. But if the student receiving the voucher haas herself achieved a passing score on the tests used to determine the school is failing, one could argue that the child in question is NOT being failed by that school. This is an argument on which one needs to exercise great care. - one does not want to get caught in the frame of ‘failing schools”

The cost of education remember again that education is NOT primarily a federal responsibility, but there are points worth connecting with at a state-wide level, and there are relevant federal interventions

K-12 --- found out how much each school district in your CD spends per student. Then find out how much it costs to incarcerate each person in the state penitentiary. You are likely to find the latter is several times the multiple of the former, even higher for those incarcerated in maximum security facilities. You may then want to explore dropout rates in the schools and literacy rates of newly admitted prisoners. Those who cannot succeed in school often have little choice but turning to crime. It makes far more sense to intervene when children are young.

This is not merely a question of teaching. We have a subsidized (through agriculture department) school lunch program because we recognize that a hungry child is not likely to learn. In far too many cases school lunch may be the only opportunity a child has to get a nutritious meal. Many come to school without having eaten breakfast. And then under the pressure of raising money we have soda and junk food machines in our schools. We cut phys ed in order to test more -- and we are heading towards serious health problems for our young people. How can we use the leverage of the Federal government to address some of these issues? What about related issues of health, of safe places to go?

Crime is very expensive. Much crime is committed by adolescent and young adult males in the hours between the end of school and midnight. What if the Federal government pioneered programs to use school facilities more efficiently, having libraries and study centers open, use gyms for rec centers? What if the federal government were willing to fund studies of the impact of such programs on (a) juvenile crime (b) dropout rates -- etc.

Post-Secondary --- why not explore more combining of secondary and post-secondary institutions? Why not locate community college and apprenticeship facilities along with high schools. This would enable ways of enriching secondary education for those ready for some college level work, providing access to resources and facilities and teachers for those needing remedial work, and allow those heading towards trade careers(which should be respected) the ability to simultaneously work on their basic academic skills and those skills they will need to be productive members of our economy and society?

FUNDING FOR POST-SECONDARY LEARNING - besides possible forgiveness of loans for those who go into teaching in critical subjects and locales, reexamine federal funding of loans and grants to allow for subsidized apprenticeships, possibly combined with some course work delivered through community college systems. Far too much of what federal aid is available is limited to those pursuing more academic courses of study. Not only do we need more skilled craftspeople, there is also a fairness issue.

Explore more certificate rather than degree based completion programs at a post-secondary level. This ties in with what is just above.

RECRUITMENT / TRAINING / RETENTION of TEACHERS - this has in part already been addressed, with the idea of forgiveness of loans. And this is largely NOT a federal issue. But the Federal carrot -stick approach could be used. Perhaps offer a bonus to districts or states able to retain highly qualified teachers willing to work in high impact schools. While the idea of teacher qualifications is currently set on a state basis, why not set up a national registry of possible teacher candidates who meet some set of necessary qualifications, who if hired as teacher interns (that is , people willing to work under supervision of experienced mentor teachers) would have part of the costs of the first year paid by Federal funds. Use federal funds to do intensive training of people transitioning -- ex military might be possible, so might people who have lost other jobs. Perhaps provide some benefits to people willing to relocate to where they are needed.

If you have read this far, I commend you. I recognize this is not presented in a coherent fashion. it is intended to provoke, to get you thinking about why education is important, and how the federal government can play a POSITIVE (rather than punitive) role.

For any policy you propose or support, you need to carefully see what the impact will be on schools and others within your CD. Ask local school officials (administrators and school boards, teachers and parent activists) what concerns they have. Talk with local elected officials and state legislators.

Potentially education is a key to persuading people who might not otherwise support you to listen to what you have to say.

NOTE CAREFULLY -- you will always have to connect any proposal on education with other ideas. Education properly done is NOT CHEAP. As an investment it returns far more to our society and our economy than do things like further tax cuts for millionaires, tax and other breaks for energy companies, or whatever else you choose to use as an illustration.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

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