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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Governing the School District of Philadelphia.

There is a conversation happening in the City around the issue of local control of the School District of Philadelphia, and moving away from a state run district. It is virtually inarguable that the state controlled School Reform Commission has not solved the issues of the District. Indeed, one could argue that the premise that governance was the problem has been proven false.  Clearly, the citizens of Philadelphia must have more say, while still ensuring that those who allocate funding are directly engaged with the decision making.
Local control most likely means either an elected board or Mayoral control, each presenting challenges.  There are numerous troubling issues with Mayoral control: it has been trendy, but it is not a proven improvement strategy and people should be wary of it.  Furthermore, it is not substantially different that the SRC – a handful of appointments, insulated from the public and other elected officials.  Headed into an election year, voters should be skeptical at best about people who want to be handed the only set of keys to the district.

There are also reasonable concerns about how an elected school board might work, including the influence of money and political deals. But these worries alone do not outweigh the need to have democratic access to how the district is run.

And all this focus on governance takes us away from the key questions: resources and support.  A significant issue for the district has been insufficient resources to provide an adequate education for students.  Because of this fact, there are advantages to the state government having some direct responsibility for our schools. And, some people worry that if the school board were to become entirely elected, the state could continue to fail to meet its responsibility but all fingers would point to the local board, which will always be at the mercy of city and state allocations.

We must restore confidence in the decision making process at the district.  Therefore we must take steps to both build confidence at the community level AND within government, and provide the people who allocate the funding with the access they need to both understand and be accountable for how resources are being used. This includes our elected officials with budgetary control, and we the people – the stakeholders, the community that prospers or falters with the success of its schools, the taxpayers.

Perhaps there is a way to achieve this. For consideration, here is a straw man proposal to change the distribution of appointed positions to a broader group of elected officials, including local ones, AND add a contingency of elected members - a hybrid which can try to harness the needs that are represented by both approaches.

We could create a 9 member board (thus bringing Philadelphia into line with other PA school boards) consisting of 4 elected and 5 appointed members. All of the various entities that have responsibility to ensure the well-being of the Commonwealth’s largest school district would have someone at the table.  The Governor could appoint two, the members of the Philadelphia General Assembly delegation to Harrisburg could appoint one (for example, a nominee and confirmation process); and then one by the Mayor and one by approval of City Council. The people of Philadelphia would control a clear majority: 4 elected and 2 put in place by our local elected Mayor and City Council. 

With elected officials appointing people to a portion of the seats, they would have an inside view on difficult discussions, decisions and the challenges faced, as well as the opportunity to influence those decisions with a vote.

The four elected positions could serve for 4 years (on staggered terms, with elections being held every two years) which would give the people of Philadelphia direct access to the governance of the district – people who are on the inside, yet who are accountable to the citizens of Philadelphia and must face them when asking to continue to serve, not just obligated to the entity that appointed them.  Then, if the direction of the board is out of step with the community, we have the opportunity to act.

If elected officials have a direct line into the operations of the governing body, it will hold them to a closer level of participation and responsibility. And, the citizenry of Philadelphia would elect people who are directly accountable to the community. Presumably these people could ensure that key discussions are held in public and that the rest of us are more aware of what is being proposed and undertaken.

This arrangement could help prevent lock-step action – the voters of Philadelphia would have the biggest bloc of votes, but coalitions would have to be built. It also keeps the General Assembly, in particular, our local representatives, and the Governor, with skin in the game – appointees who are present, getting information and keeping a line of communication open with the elected officials who are responsible for allocating resources and effective oversight. 

The mere presence of popularly elected people could impact the way that the appointed people serve, and vice versa, raising the bar for all.

Rather than talking about the form of governance, let’s talk about what we need from it: understanding the issues facing the district as a community, transparency, responsibility and tying authority and finances together.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Money Matters

How increased supports improve education

The reality is that money matters. Targeted funding directed at instructional practices, that are supported by evidence can have dramatic impacts. Money impacts class size which matters, especially in the early grades. Giving teachers smaller “caseloads” means more individual attention for students, more tailored lesson plans, more specific feedback to students, and more in-depth learning. Art and music are supported by research, as well as extended learning time.
The biggest potential for change lies in how well we develop school leadership. We need to recruit excellent teachers and principals, respect them as professionals and provide good compensation packages. Training staff, analyzing data, goal setting, follow up, planning, giving people feedback and quality evaluations –all these beneficial things take time. We need to provide school staff with this time – which means adequate staffing levels, staff support for principals, and planning time for teachers. All of these things have a cost associated with them.
Specific programs lead to higher student achievement for in numerous ways:
·       Higher per-pupil funding results in having better quality facilities and more access to necessary materials.[i]
·       Students perform worse in math on national testing when computers are not a part of their everyday curriculum. The state average’s access to computers is 7 students to a computer.  Some districts have as many as 20 students to a computer.[ii] Having more access to technology is important and can only come from more funding.
·       Research shows that teachers with higher education have a better grasp on the subject-matter which improves student learning. Teachers with higher education tend to go to districts where compensation is higher.[iii]
·       Increasing teacher wages increases education. Higher salaries lead to better quality of teaching, which in turn leads to better student performance. In fact, raising teacher salaries by 10% decreases the high school dropout rate by 3-4%.[iv]
·       Teachers need ongoing training throughout their careers. Pennsylvania schools can only spare 1-3% of their budgets on continuous training; the suggestion is to spend 10%.[v]
·       Smaller class sizes have shown better rates of achievement. Children in smaller classes in grades K-3 score 60% higher on testing than their peers in larger classes.[vi] Even in high school, students who were in smaller classes during their early education continue to outperform their peers.[vii]
·       Smaller classes also help close the racial and socio-economical achievement gap. In small classes the achievement gap declines by 38% in K-3, and declines by 15% in the years after.[viii]
·       Children who attend pre-school have a 10% better chance of graduating high school and are 29% more likely to graduate from college. Pennsylvania is one of nine states does not provide pre-school funding.[ix]
·       Participation in arts programs for low-income students has many benefits including higher G.P.A and higher scores on testing. Participants are five times more likely to graduate high school and are much more likely to pursue a four-year college than their peers who did not participate in the arts. Yet arts programs are being cut across America due to lack of funds.[x]
·       Putting money into the education system saves money! For every $1 put towards reducing class size, society saves $2 in economic benefits.[xi] Reducing class size in elementary grades alone will yield a savings of almost $170,000 per high school graduate. These savings are even higher for low-income students, saving $195,000 per high school graduate.[xii]

Skeptics say that even with increases in funding, we do not see measurable improvements. When education funds are raised incrementally, the money is often dedicated to rising costs (operational & personnel).  Over the past 15 years, more resources have been directed at the costs of required testing. Inadequate resources are going towards the things that are proven to work—maintaining arts programs, attracting desirable teachers, tutoring and extended learning times, enriched curriculum, and lowering class size. If new incremental money merely goes to cover the rising costs of current operations, then expecting different results is not reasonable. Yet research shows that funds put towards creating and maintaining early education and arts programs, reducing class sizes, and attracting highly-qualified teachers, makes a big difference. Money does truly matter— it plays a vital role in creating a better and more efficient education system
One of the ongoing questions people have about educational programs is: what works?  What should we do with money if we have it?
·       Students who attend full-day kindergarten have higher long-term achievement (especially for low-income students.)[xiii]
·       Schools with better ratios of guidance counselor to students have higher entry to college rates. Application guidance, provided by guidance counselors, increase the percent of low-income students who apply (55 to 67%), are accepted (30 to 39%), and enroll in selective institutions (29 to 34%).[xiv] The American School Counselor Association recommends 1 counselor for every 250 students. Some schools in Pennsylvania have as few as one guidance counselor to 3,000 students and do not have the ability to employ more with the present funding.[xv]
·       Getting exercise increases students’ math scores and executive functions, in addition to their health.[xvi] This is why we need physical education classes, recess (which means adequate staff and facilities), and after-school sports. Increasingly as money gets tight extracurricular activities, such as school sponsored sports, and physical education programs are being cut. Currently, only a little more than half of the nation’s students are enrolled in physical education.[xvii]
·       Students who participate consistently in well run after-school programs show improvements in grades, in testing, in school behavior, and in work habits. Well run after-school programs require good staff, high-quality facilities, and access to materials, all of which require funds.[xviii]
·       Having teacher’s aides in the classroom allows more one on one time between teacher and student. It also improves class behavior and helps students be less distracted throughout the day.[xix] As such, being able to employ teacher’s aides allows the teacher to be more efficient in the classroom.
·       High school teachers with degrees in the field they teach provide better rates of achievement. In Pennsylvania 16% of high school teachers do not have a degree in their field. This number rises in high-poverty areas (22%) and schools with high minority populations (26%) where the budget is tighter.[xx] Without the funds to hire more qualified staff, many districts employ less efficient teachers.   
·       Access to digital textbooks aid children with disabilities as well as English-as-a-second-language students by providing audio, images, pronunciations, and interactivity as the student needs it. Students with access to digital textbooks perform better than those who do not have access to this type of technology. Some forms of technology also help save money. Technology such as soundfield amplification allows students with mild hearing lost and students with ADHD to stay in the classroom instead of being in more costly special education classes.[xxi]

[i][i] Baker, Bruce. "Revisiting That Age-Old Question: Does Money Matter In Education?" The Albert Shanker Institute, 2012. Web. 18 Sept. 2013.
[ii] "Why Money Matters | Operation Public Education | The Center for Greater Philadelphia." Why Money Matters | Operation Public Education | The Center for Greater Philadelphia. Center for Greater Philadelphia, 2004. Web. 18 Sept. 2013.
[iii] Figlio, David N. "Can Public Schools Buy Better-Qualified Teachers?" Industrial and Labor Relations Review 55 (2002): 686-99. Web. 18 Sept. 2013.
"Archived: Highly Qualified Teachers for Every Child." Archived: Highly Qualified Teachers for Every Child. U.S. Department of Education, Aug. 2006. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.

[iv] Loeb, Susanna, and Marianne E. Page. "Examining the Link between Teacher Wages and Student Outcomes: The Importance of Alternative Labor Market Opportunities and Non-Pecuniary Variation." Review of Economics and Statistics 82.3 (2000): 393-408. Web. 18 Sept. 2013.
[v] "Why Money Matters | Operation Public Education | The Center for Greater Philadelphia." Why Money Matters | Operation Public Education | The Center for Greater Philadelphia. Center for Greater Philadelphia, 2004. Web. 18 Sept. 2013.
[vi] Mosteller, Frederick, Richard J. Light, and Jason A. Sachs. "Sustained Inquiry in Education: Lessons from Skill Grouping and Class Size." Harvard Education Review 66.4 (1996): 797-842. Web. 18 Sept. 2013.
[vii] Mosteller, Frederick. "The Tennessee Study of Class Size in the Early School Grades." N.p., Summer 1995. Web. 18 Sept. 2013.
[viii] Krueger, Alan B., and Diane M. Whitmore. "Would Smaller Classes Help Close the Black-White Achievement Gap." (n.d.): n. pag. Princeton University, Mar. 2001. Web. 19 Sept. 2013.
[ix] "Why Money Matters | Operation Public Education | The Center for Greater Philadelphia." Why Money Matters | Operation Public Education | The Center for Greater Philadelphia. Center for Greater Philadelphia, 2004. Web. 18 Sept. 2013.
[x] Catterall, James S., Susan A. Dumais,, and Gillian Hampden-Thompson,. "The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies." National Endowment for the Arts, Mar. 2012. Web. 18 Sept. 2013.
[xi] Krueger, Alan B. "Economic Considerations and Class Size*." The Economic Journal 113.485 (2003): F34-63. Web. 18 Sept. 2013.
[xii] Muennig, P., and S. H. Woolf. "Health and Economic Benefits of Reducing the Number of Students per Classroom in US Primary Schools." American Journal of Public Health 97.11 (2007): 2020-027. Web. 18 Sept. 2013.
[xiii] Rafoth, Mary Ann, Sara A. Grimes, and Beth Buzi. "Kindergarten - Full Versus Half-Day: Information for Parents and Early Childhood Educators." NASP Center. National Association of School Psychologists, n.d. Web. 19 Sept. 2013.
[xiv] ""Expanding College Opportunities for High-Achieving, Low Income Students"" What Works Clearinghouse. U.S. Department of Education, Apr. 2013. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.
[xv] McCorry, Kevin. "In Philly Schools, When Students with Dreams or Traumas Seek Counseling, the ..." N.p., 18 Sept. 2013. Web. 19 Sept. 2013.
[xvi] ""Exercise Improves Executive Function and Achievement and Alters Brain Activation in Overweight Children: A Randomized, Controlled Trial"" What Works Clearinghouse. U.S. Department of Education, n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.
[xvii] Sealey, Geraldine. "No Sweat When Gym Class Cut." ABC News. ABC News Network, 30 Sept. 2003. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.
[xviii] Perkins-Gough, Deborah. "Special Report / Do After-School Programs Help Students Succeed?" Educational Leadership:Building Classroom Relationships: Do After-School Programs Help Students Succeed? ASCD, Sept. 2003. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.
[xix] Friedberg, Judy. "Teaching Assistants Don't Boost Pupils' Progress, Report Finds." The Guardian. N.p., 4 Sept. 2009. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.
[xx] “Why Money Matters | Operation Public Education | The Center for Greater Philadelphia." Why Money Matters | Operation Public Education | The Center for Greater Philadelphia. Center for Greater Philadelphia, 2004. Web. 18 Sept. 2013.
[xxi] "Why Technology in Schools? | EdTech Action Network." Why Technology in Schools? | EdTech Action Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Sept. 2013.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Going to Court.

Pennsylvania’s system is neither adequate, nor equitable; thorough, nor efficient

Going to court.

Today, Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP) and Education Law Center- PA filed a lawsuit on behalf of individuals, school districts and organizations, making the complaint that the funding system in Pennsylvania is not only wrong, it violates the Constitution. Around the state, our schools have not received adequate and equitable funding to meet our children's educational needs.  But our Constitution says “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” 

The state government is breaking its own law and our kids are suffering.

So, a lawsuit is being filed to try to force the state to fix the way it funds schools. 
Specifically, the complaint is asking the court to:
“(1) Declare that the current system of funding our schools does not comply with the state constitution; and
(2) Order the defendants to cease using a funding system that does not provide adequate funding where students can meet state standards and which discriminates against low wealth districts.
(3) Order the defendants to create and maintain a constitutional school funding system that will enable all students to meet state academic standards and does not discriminate against low-wealth school districts.” (From an FAQ by the law centers).

We know Pennsylvania’s funding system is broken. Fair school funding relies on two basic pillars: adequacy, which means that there is enough money to give all children the instruction and support they need to learn and equity, which means that they system distributes money is such a way as to give all children equal access to opportunities.

Pennsylvania’s system is neither adequate, nor equitable; thorough, nor efficient

These problems existed prior to the budget cuts in recent years, although those cuts have highlighted the starkness of how thin the margins are for some districts, and the breadth of the problem – how many districts are challenged because of Pennsylvania’s flawed system of funding.  It is also true that our funding system has a racial bias.

There are three basic pillars for school funding, what we have called a sensible approach to funding schools: it must be based on what students are expected to learn, which means the instruction and support that they need to do it; fiscally responsible principles including the use of updated data, stable and predictable funding, fair local and state share (including reducing the pressure on property taxes) and it must meet any test of fairness and legality (meet the Constitutional requirement; provide for every child, end the practice of distributing funding based on political clout). 

The courts must act and rule in favor of the plaintiffs – it must declare what is happening is legally wrong and join the demand for a just remedy so every child in PA has an opportunity to learn.

But the courts alone will not solve this problem.  It will require all of us.

·       The legislature must act – utilizing its own Basic Education Funding Commission; the recommendations of last year’s Special Education Funding Commission and the data it has available to it to develop a new approach to allocating funding.
·       Our new Governor-elect, Tom Wolf, must act. He must propose a budget that meets the needs of the Commonwealth and he must put together a Department of Education that is resolved to work on this.

And, the public must continue to act - we must continue to send the message that we will hold them all accountable – not just the Governor -- for producing policy that is sensible and fair to all.

We must fix Pennsylvania’s ability to provide every child with a good public education.