Budget Busters…

This year I have the pleasure of serving, again, on the Gainesville / Brentsville District budget committee.  The people serving on this committee, who all volunteered to spend several hours almost every Sunday night examining the school division’s budget and even more time reviewing the budget in advance of the Sunday meetings,  amaze me.  We are teachers, nurses, CPAs, CFA,s engineers, lawyers, and Moms and Dads.  We come from all walks of political life – conservatives, liberals, libertarians, Democrats, Republicans, and gosh darned independents.  The one tie that binds us is our commitment to our public schools.  We may not agree on any other political issues, but we all agree that our teachers and our children’s classrooms have been stretched beyond the breaking point.  We willingly volunteer hours of our personal time to try to find the pennies that may have been missed that might help our teachers and our classrooms.

Those of you who follow this blog know that we struggled a bit last year with some of the answers we got from school division staff.  Some of the budget lines seemed odd to us, with projections that had little relationship to the past actuals.  I was worried that we’d encounter more of the same this year.

We haven’t.  In fact, we’ve found the opposite.

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School Board Report for February 5, 2014

School Board Report for February 4, 2014
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Rich Kids of Northern Virginia

Its’ that time of year, when the feds, state, and local government’s prepare their budgets for the coming fiscal year.  Each year we hear different claims about the relative wealth and tax burden borne by residents in our jurisdictions, with the statistic cited generally the one that supports the argument of whomever is asking for more money.

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To Common Core or Not To Common Core

Several nights ago I participated in a panel hosted by the Prince William County Committee of 100 about the future of standards in Virginia’s public schools.  Of interest to the Committee was whether the panelists believed Virginia should stick with the SOLs, adopt the Common Core State Standards, or do something else.  I chose doing something different, specifically adopting a Common Core Plus strategy that could be followed either by the state or the county if the state chooses differently.

That may seem like a strange recommendation to followers of this blog as I haven’t hidden my displeasure with the Common Core, so I thought I’d explain.

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Anti-Bullying Programs Leading to More Bullying…

That’s the conclusion of my colleague Katherine Beals, editor of Out in Left Field, in her article A comprehensive bullying prevention program for selective schools.Katherine states:

“The proliferation of Social and Emotional Learning programs is part and parcel of the American school system’s campaign against bullying. Ironically, as I’ve noted earlier, these programs often end up further enabling the bullies:

Socially savvy kids can take advantage of zero tolerance policies and subtly goad a more socially clueless peer into lashing out. The victim rather than the perpetrator is then the one who gets punished. In whole class discussions in which children are supposed to share their experiences with bullying, the victims may be too uncomfortable to do so, especially if those experiences involved subtle, difficult-to-articulate forms of bullying like shunning, and especially if the victims expect subtle reprisals from peers once the adults are out of earshot.

Also worsening the social climate for quirky kids is the rise of group-centered learning, which proponents claim teaches valuable cooperative skills:

The anecdotes I collected for my book strongly suggest that group learning environments, rather than preventing bullying, are often arenas for it. Bullying can be quite subtle and difficult to detect; teachers cannot supervise multiple groups simultaneously; unsocial and socially awkward children regularly report being teased and ignored as the social hierarchy of the playground creeps into the classroom’s “cooperative groups”–whenever the teacher is out of earshot.”

I’ve often felt that the anti-bullying programs in our schools are little more than a joke; that they’re opportunities for anti-bullying industrialists to push their  programs into schools under the guise of bullying prevention.   That there is little to no evidence of the effectiveness of these rather costly programs appears to be of little concern to anyone.  Far too often it seems like our schools are more intent on checking the box that says they’ve provided bullying prevention programs to students than on actually preventing bullying.

The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Oil

What is the biggest issue facing Prince William County Public schools right now?  Is it student achievement, testing, class sizes, overcrowded schools, technology, teacher compensation and benefits, or teacher training?  If the school division were to find its annual recurring budget increased by $20 million, what should they spend it on – reducing class sizes, increasing teacher compensation, increasing access to technology in our schools?

Based on the people who have addressed the school board in public session, the answer is none of the above.  Based on public feedback, the biggest issue facing PWCS right now is inadequate indoor pools.

To date more than 40 parents and students have addressed the school board in support of the school division spending its scarce resources to build and operate an indoor pool.  Fewer than 10 have addressed them about class sizes.

Based on public sentiment expressed at school board meetings, it seems we Prince William County residents believe indoor pools are a higher priority than reducing class sizes.

The squeaky wheel gets the oil, folks.  If you think reducing class sizes is a higher priority than indoor pools, you might want to start squeaking.

The next school board meeting is Wednesday, November 6.  The meeting will start at 7PM.  If you want to speak you’ll need to sign up in advance with the clerk (email pwcscleark@pwcs.edu  phone (703) 791-8709) or at the door before 6:15.

The Forgotten Middle….

Public education people talk a lot about the achievement gap and making sure we serve our at risk students.  Kids who aren’t meeting grade level expectations are supposed to receive intervention from specialists who work in our schools.  At the elementary level children with reading struggles are supposed to meet with their teachers daily in small groups so that they don’t fall further behind and can catch up.  Same with children who struggle with math.  Elementary schools with high percentages of economically disadvantaged students receive additional funding and have significantly lower class sizes than schools in financially stable areas.

These are all good things.  PWCS has made tremendous strides in improving the academic performance of our economically disadvantaged and at risk students.  There’s much more we can and should be doing for these students.

Children who are assessed as gifted at the elementary level receive additional instruction on above grade level content in their pull outs.  Schools are given additional money for each gifted child so that they can hire resource teachers for gifted programs and purchase instructional materials for these students.  These are all good things.  There’s much more we can and should be doing for these students.

What public education people rarely talk about are the kids who aren’t at risk and haven’t been assessed as gifted.  These “average” kids have been forgotten by everyone.

If an “average” child has already mastered the grade level content for a particular subject or unit, he or she will get no additional instruction on topics above grade level standards.

It could be that this “average” child is capable of writing more complex reports, but since they only need to write three 4 sentence paragraphs to meet grade level standards, then three 4 sentence paragraphs is what they’ll be taught to write.

It could be this “average” child has already mastered adding and subtracting fractions and is ready to learn how to multiply and divide fractions, but since they only need to be able to add and subtract fractions to meet grade level standards, then adding and subtracting fractions is all they’ll be taught.

For “average” kids, it’s one size fits all grade level standards and nothing more.

You may hear that teachers differentiate.  There’s a difference between differentiating instruction and providing instruction on above grade level content.  Differentiation means your child will be given activities to “enhance their understanding of grade level content” – activities like building a board game or calculating the volume of the classroom in several different measures.  Differentiation DOES NOT mean that your child will receive instruction on above grade level content.

So the “average” kids who have already mastered the grade level content for a subject or unit get nothing more than meaningless busy work under the guise of “differentiation”.

Many of our teachers want to provide additional instruction to their students who have mastered grade level content.  Many are more than capable of doing so, but they don’t have the instructional materials needed to do it and wouldn’t have the time to provide it even if they did.

I think that’s unacceptable.  It sends a message to our “average” kids that they don’t matter; that they aren’t worth the effort.  If every child deserves an education that is appropriate for them, why are we doing nothing for so many kids?

Is Giving iPads to Students a Waste of Money?

The LA Unified School District (LA USD) recently initiated a program to provide students with iPads, which the justified by claiming that the iPads would cost less than providing every student with textbooks and other instructional materials.  The LA USD provided 30,000 students with iPads that were already populated with the textbooks, instructional materials, and educational programs the district had selected.  Each iPad was programmed to block certain web sites, like Facebook.

The problem – students aren’t stupid and figured out how to overcome the security programming so that they could access any web sites they wanted within a few hours.  The school division will now be confiscating the iPads and providing students with hard copy textbooks and instructional materials.

Many schools in our county have begun providing iPads or other tablets to students, claiming that the devices cost less than textbooks and other instructional materials.  I haven’t seen the math to back up that claim and find it dubious at best.  Parents have been assured that the devices are enabled with security that will prevent students from accessing unauthorized web sites, but, as the case in LA USD indicates, students are pretty darn smart when it comes to gaining access to the information they want.

Maybe our schools need to re-consider their plans to provide iPads or similar devised to students.  The claims of reduced cost have not been substantiated and the devices aren’t without risk as students will be able to access information we may not want them accessing.  Most important, however, is whether the devices actually improve student learning. There is no evidence that iPads or other devices actually improve student learning and some evidence that they actually undermine it.

We need to think before we jump.

2013 SAT Scores

As Dr Waltz said in the press release, “Our schools are focused on increasing student achievement and college readiness. These results show gains in all areas, which indicates that our students are on track for success.”

The Class of 2013′s SAT scores have been released by the College Board.  Scores nationally were unchanged from 2012. Scores for PWCS students in the class of 2013 increased 8 points over the class of 2012.  

Some PWCS high schools saw significant improvements in their scores versus 2012.  Brentsville High schools scores increased 52 points, rebounding to above highs achieved by the class of 2009 and breaking 1600.  Woodbridge High school scores increased 42 points overall, exceeding previous highs achieved by the class of  2009.

This is indeed an accomplishment and our teachers, students, and families should be proud of their accomplishment.

But….there’s a catch.

While SAT scores nationally were unchanged, scores in the state of Virginia were up 11 points.  PWCS increased 8 points.  That means we continue to fall further behind statewide averages.  SAT scores are up in the school division, but those increases aren’t keeping pace with increases across the state.

While some schools saw significant increases in scores achieved by the class of 2012, others were stagnant or down.

So, while we deserve a pat on the back for the improvements achieved, we still have a long way to go before we’re where we ought to be or before our children’s scores begin to compete with those achieved in the state.

Note:  PWCS has released SAT data for the Class of 2013.  You can find that data here.  Many neighboring jurisdictions have not released their scores on their web sites.  As soon as that data is available we’ll update the SAT section of the test scores page.

UPDATE:

Here is a fie with the 2013 SAT Scores for all NOVA High Schools (2013 SAT scores – NOVA High Schools) Chart also includes percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch. I’ll update the file as more scores are published.

Misplaced Priorities

It’s the third week of school and I’m already heartbroken.  I’ve received emails from teachers across the county informing me that their schools are rationing supplies like ink for their printers, toner for the copiers, and copy paper.  I’ve heard from several  different teachers from one school in particular that tell me their school didn’t have any toner for the copier last week.

It is the third week of school.   Something has to give.

The priority in public education HAS to be on the students and classrooms and it seems to me that there isn’t enough money for our schools to provide our children and our classrooms with the materials they need.  The adults in the school system have to stand up and speak out and they need to be able to do so without fear that they’ll lose their jobs or will be hauled before their school Principal and Associate Superintendent and threatened with termination for violating the code of conduct.  Rationing paper or toner in the third week of school is unacceptable.

This year’s budget is clearly not working and needs to be cleaned up.  We need to put our financial resources where they’re most needed, and that’s in our classrooms.

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