Sunday, August 30, 2009

Upcoming Topics on the School Board

Back in January, I had been highly critical of the board leadership for not holding itself accountable for district performance. The board leadership’s position, at that time, was board members should only be held accountable for their voting record. The perspective was entirely passive; board members should not be expected to take any initiative but merely consider those items and information the administration chooses to present. Though I believe the board, as a whole, is still too passive for my own liking, I am pleased the board is moving forward on a number of areas of concern. Below are some of the topics that will be under discussion.

Nepotism Policy
Last year, the state mandated that all school districts update their nepotism policies to conform to New Jersey’s ethics rules. (Yes, New Jersey does have ethics rules.) The new nepotism policies unintentionally excluded board members’ close families from pursuing student work-study programs. Upon realizing its mistake, the state allowed all districts to include a work-study exception in their nepotism policies. The question before the board is whether a board member’s close family should be allowed to pursue a work-study position.

Proponents of the change argue that no qualified student should be excluded from any opportunity because of a close relative’s service, providing the district has implemented safeguards against improper influence in the selection process. Last year, following some board members’ concerns that existing safeguards weren’t sufficient, Mr. Glastein revised the selection process to include the following:

  • All open positions are included in the daily home room announcements from the time of posting to the deadline
  • All candidates are reviewed by a “council’ of senior administrators, including principals, directors, Mr. Glastein, and other staff who would be working with the student appointments
  • The “council” numbers around a dozen and jointly interviews the candidates
I am opposed to any exception. The nepotism policy only forbids financial compensation. All students are allowed to apply for any position, whether star of the school play, captain of the football team, or a work-study position, so long as he doesn’t get paid. So, the only issue is whether the district should be offering a “paid position” to a board member’s child. Some may argue that we’re only discussing a few thousand dollars a year for a child. I argue that it’s a few thousand dollars a year for a board member’s child.

If a board member’s child is appointed to a paid position, many in the public will reasonably suspect undue influence and that another child lost his opportunity because his parent isn’t on the board. Despite the safeguards, everybody involved in the selection process is influenced by the school board. Some are seeking tenure. All have their salaries and budgets approved by the board.

Nor do I believe this has anything to do with a child’s educational opportunities. There are literally hundreds of educational opportunities within the school district, not to mention outside the school district. Furthermore, if someone truly wants the school office experience, he can simply waive the salary.

This vote is purely about giving a paid position to a board member’s family. At the last board meeting, Mr. Glastein, a 30+ year veteran of the school district, could not recall a single instance when a board member’s child was denied a paid position. That alone should be sufficient to give us all pause.

Curriculums reflects community priorities, state mandates, and school board members’ personal viewpoints. The largest philosophical divide within the board is process vs. output. Regarding curriculums, what is the balance between offering exposure and opportunities and ensuring our students graduate with valued skills?

Our district places a high value on exposing our students to different studies and then offering them the opportunity to later pursue one area of study. The question before us is should the district devise curriculums that emphasize mastery in one area of the arts and one area of foreign languages or maintain its current emphasis on exposure to several disciplines.

I believe that our students will ultimately benefit far more from mastering a few things than attempting to be a jack of all trades.

Between high school and college, I studied four foreign languages for at least two years each. Today, I am only proficient in one foreign language (Hebrew) and can’t even read the one I studied in college (Arabic). Using 20/20 hindsight, I probably would have been better off mastering one language and becoming highly proficient in a second rather than studying four.

The same can be said for music. As a youngster, I studied piano, guitar, and the recorder. Today, I can barely whistle.

One third of our college seniors will be taking remedial English for failing to score 50% on the state HSPA exam. Naturally, English comes first. But if our students are struggling with English, despite it being, for most, their native language and studying it since kindergarten, why do we think a little French, a little Spanish, and a little Mandarin will help much?

I’d prefer students become proficient in one foreign language and one artistic discipline than having tasted several morsels in an educational smorgasbord.

As the old saying goes, the only two things for certain are death and taxes. The question before us is what is the maximum acceptable tax rate? Here we have three schools of thought.
  • School taxes should be determined by district needs
  • School taxes should be limited to a modest growth rate
  • School taxes should be limited to a percentage of household income
Everyone agrees a second question can always be added to the budget should the district require additional revenue. However, as policy, what should be the district’s goal?

According to the first school of thought, setting arbitrary limits runs counter to our societal responsibility of training and educating our children for the future.

The second school says it’s reasonable, even necessary, to place modest constraints on spending growth to ensure fiscal prudence.

The third school argues we can only afford so much. I belong to the third school.

In 1999, Aberdeen’s median household income was $68,125. The school tax levy at the time was $30.15 million. That averaged to a little under $3,000 per household, or about 4% of average income.

10 years later, even excluding the effects of the recession, average household income is almost certainly less than $80,000. This year’s school tax levy is $43.80 million, or about $4,000 per household.

Considering the proportion of households to students is greater than 2.5 to 1, I think it is eminently reasonable to push the tax burden back down to 4% of household income and, at the very least, to cap it at 5%.

This would be the equivalent of charging each household over 10% of income per public student in the home.

As for my past proposals, there’s been some development there as well. Board President Kenny has instructed the board secretary to begin tagging all board votes with at least one nay vote as a “Split Vote” so that all board votes entailing any disagreement will be easily searchable. That record will hopefully make board members more accountable to their constituents, my first goal’s objective.

Regarding goals to improve the likelihood of students completing programs of higher education, the board has hosted two half-hour discussions. At the last board meeting, I presented an analysis that, among Matawan-Aberdeen’s 2009 graduates enrolling in college, 70% of them will be attending “below-average” schools (as defined by U.S. News and World Report). As for the entire class of 2009, only 36% are expected to complete any program, whether a certificate, 2-year degree, or 4-year degree. Among those attending Brookdale Community College, only 30% are expected to either complete a program or transfer to another school.

Like the board minutes, I’m hoping to reach a compromise on my second goal. That would be two down and one to go. Taxes should be discussed when Board Member O’Connel presents financial goals for consideration.

More discussions will be forthcoming as we tackle other “big picture” issues and I commend Board President Kenny for promoting the open dialogue and debate. It’s good to see board members doing more than just casting votes. >>> Read more!

Friday, August 21, 2009

A School District in Transition

Large transitions, by their nature, are bumpy and unpredictable. Ideas, visions, and even personalities, must compete, negotiate, and adapt until a consensus is reached among a majority of decision makers. The Matawan Aberdeen Regional School District is going through such a transition. Whereas the prior focus was a “nourishing environment”, i.e. building a place where both students and faculty could grow according to their needs and desires, the new focus is cost effective academic achievement. Following are some of the issues we’ll be confronting in the near future.

School Psychologists
As discussed previously, Dr. O’Malley created the new position, School Psychologist II, to fill a vacancy following Ms. Rappaport’s resignation. According to the board agenda (page 15), at $65,920, the new appointment will be the only staff psychologist earning under $100,000 annually. At some point, the administration will need to justify the discrepancy in salary between two positions that, in practice, perform nearly identical functions.

Outsourcing Substitute Teachers
At the last school board meeting, Dr. O’Malley invited Source 4 Teachers to present a plan whereby the district could outsource its entire substitute staffing needs. According to the company, the district would save over $150,000, reduce its administrative burden, reduce its liability, and increase accountability. All current substitute teachers would have the opportunity to interview at Source 4 Teachers and maintain employment in a process similar to the transition when the cafeteria workers were outsourced.

Unless someone can present a convincing argument that academics will be adversely affected, I believe the board will support the change.

Data Mining
Last year, the board approved implementing Realtime, a web-based system that allows the school district to build substantial online profiles of students and faculty. Performance Matters is a company that provides web-based analytical tools for Realtime data. Over time, using the two systems, the district will be able to identify the impact of specific programs, teacher effectiveness, the benefits of masters degrees (as a whole and by institution), etc. The district will even be able to share data with neighboring districts to do more thorough analyses.

For the first time, we’d be able to see what works, what doesn’t, how much it costs, and whether it’s worth the effort and expense. Performance Matters has my strong support.

Nepotism Policy
Nepotism deals purely with the issue of governance. Due to recent events, the board will need to confront two distinct issues – appointments and work-study positions for the immediate family of sitting board members.

The first scenario involves a board member whose immediate family member is a district employee. Should that employee be barred from any expansion of responsibilities that would include a substantial rise in salary and/or benefits? In this instance we have a conflict of interests. On the one hand, opportunity for advancement is an incentive for greater performance (just as a lack of opportunity is a disincentive) and the district naturally wants to appoint the best person available. On the other hand, such an appointment creates the appearance (or worse) of an administration currying favors with a board member.

The second scenario involves a board member’s child seeking a work-study position. Should that child be barred from competing for the position? The argument here appears to be one of fairness. Is it fair to bar a child from competing for a part-time job to avoid a possible appearance of impropriety?

The two issues are plainly distinct from each other. In the first, the district has a clear interest in expanding a valued employee’s responsibilities. In the second, the district has no or little interest in filling a non-critical work-study position; the sole issue is fairness to the child.

Last year, Dr. O’Malley introduced the NWEA exams and EdSol consulting to improve test scores on the state exams. Preliminary results at most grade levels appear impressive. However, we don’t know how much of the gains are due to improved academics and how much to improved test-taking skills.

So long as we hold students and teachers accountable for test results, we need to develop exams that adequately test the skills and knowledge we wish our children to have.

What should be our self-imposed cap on tax increases, beyond which requires a second question on the ballot? Personally, I believe the cap should be set at wage growth. As a community, we need to decide what percentage of household income we’re willing to spend on our children’s education. Since we can’t calculate annual household income growth for our small community, we can rely upon state wage growth as a close approximate.

For certain, we cannot allow taxes to take an ever increasing share of household income.

As Shakespeare’s Macbeth said, a school board member is often “a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Board members need to hold themselves and the administration accountable. That can only be done by establishing measurable and public goals.
>>> Read more!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Small Classes Sound Great but . . .

Nationally, class size reduction is one of the most popular policies in education. Parents love the program because their children are more likely to receive individual attention. Teachers love them because the classes are easier to manage and smaller classes equal more teachers. According to Education Week, 32 states have programs to reduce class sizes. Naturally, these programs are very expensive. Florida has budgeted $2.8 billion towards class size reduction programs in 2009-10, not including costs borne by the individual districts or initial construction outlays. In the Matawan-Aberdeen School District, only Cliffwood Elementary has class sizes averaging 17 students or less. Is class size reduction, particularly in grades K-3, the best use of scarce dollars? After exhaustive research, I would have to say no.

Let’s begin with the claims of class size reduction (CSR) proponents.

U.S. Department of Education:

  • Studies have consistently identified a positive relationship between reduced class size and improved student performance
  • The benefits of class-size reduction are seen in kindergarten and through grades 1-3, and the effects are long lasting
  • A variety of studies confirm the findings of the STAR study
  • Findings from year one of an ongoing evaluation of the California initiative show positive achievement gains
  • The cost of implementing smaller class sizes in the early elementary grades can be offset by the resulting decrease in within-grade retention's, reduced high school dropout rates, a diminished need for remedial instruction and long-term special education services, and increased teacher satisfaction and retention
The Center for Public Education concurs and adds the following:
  • Project STAR found substantial evidence that reducing class size improved student academic achievement
  • A class size of 15-18 is the upper limit for capturing benefits in the early grades
  • The achievement of students in small classes outpaces that of students in larger classes by a widening margin for each additional year spent in small classes
  • Small classes in the primary grades can help close the achievement gap
Dominic Brewer, Phd, Rand Education:
  • The STAR evidence is quite strong and is undoubtedly the best we have on the underlying relationship between small classes and student outcomes (page 6)
  • Compelling evidence to support small classes (page 7)
The above claims are primarily based upon a single study conducted 20 years ago, Tennessee’s STAR Project.

“STAR was a state-funded program, operated 1985-89, that randomly assigned students entering kindergarten to regular classes of 22-26 students, small classes of 13-17 students, or regular classes with a teacher’s aide. Students remained in these small classes for four years. Schools and districts volunteered and were selected to participate but students and teachers were randomly assigned within a school.Teachers received no extra training or materials. Initially some 70 schools and 46 districts participated; by the end of study, the number of students had grown from 6,400 to 12,000.” (Brewer, 2005, page 5)

Proponents argue the STAR findings were later supported by California’s class size reduction reforms and Wisconsin’s SAGE program

“In 1996 the [California] state legislature introduced a class size reduction program affecting almost two million students in grades K-3 with a target of 20:1. Before the policy, the average class size in these grades in the state was about 28, so this represented a significant reduction. Priority was given first to grades 1 and 2, then to K and 3.The policy was passed just two months before the start of the school year. The program was voluntary—it provided funding of $650 per student (now $800) if they were in a “small” class—but almost all districts implemented the policy, which was popular with parents and educators. Over the past 5 years the state has spent more than $8 billion on the program.” (Brewer, 2005, page 9)

“In almost complete contrast, Wisconsin adopted in 1996 a highly targeted, phased-in class size reduction program as part of a reform called SAGE (Student Achievement Guarantee in Education).This five-year pilot program began in just 14 schools that had high concentrations of poor children, and reduced class sizes from 21-25 to 12-15. Molnar et al. (1999) have demonstrated that this program had effects on student achievement not dissimilar to STAR (a gain of about 0.2 standard deviations in achievement) with minority students gaining significantly more. Compared to STAR, this study was much smaller in scale and less rigorous (students not randomly assigned), but its findings are more recent and generally confirmed the STAR results.” (Brewer, 2005, page 10)

So, what’s the problem? Eric Hanushek, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, has uncovered several.

Contrary to the Center for Public Education’s assertions, the gains are not cumulative, they’re fixed. According to the available data from STAR (Hanushek, 1998, page 30) and SAGE, once a child is put in a small class, either in kindergarten or first grade, the benefit remains fixed regardless of the class sizes in later years; additional years of small classes don’t help and large classes don’t hurt.

(Another finding was that teacher aides provided no benefit whatsoever.)

What could possibly explain such an outcome? That placing a five or six-year-old in a small class will benefit a child for his entire life but keeping him in a small class adds no additional benefit. Is it biological or is there a problem with the studies? I suspect the latter.

As Hanushek notes, the source data from the Tennessee STAR project has never been released. Nor has the experiment ever been repeated, despite the tens of billions of dollars states are now spending on class reductions. (page 33)

Still, how does one explain that STAR and SAGE show gains after the first year that neither grow nor diminish in later years, regardless of later class sizes?

I believe the answer lies in student selection. In 2000, Steven Levitt, noted author of Freakonomics, researched the effect of school choice on student outcomes in Chicago. The initial data suggested that students, overall, performed better in charter schools. However, the charter schools were oversubscribed so many students who had applied were unable to attend. How did they do? Just as well as their peers who got admitted. According to Levitt, the higher performance at the charter schools wasn’t a reflection of the schools but a reflection of their student bodies; students who wanted to go to charter schools did better.

I believe we see the same scenario in the STAR and SAGE data. SAGE students were not randomly selected so students admitted to the smaller classes had a higher likelihood of coming from families that pushed for a better education. In STAR, “there is some evidence that students assigned to large classes switched to small ones, and there was considerable attrition (of the initial experimental group less than half remained for all four years).” (Brewer, 2005, page 6) Moving a “good” student to a small class widens the achievement gap by raising the small class’s average and lowering the large class’s average. As for having an attrition rate over 50%, undoubtedly some of it was caused by parents who did not want their children being kept in large classes for the sake of science and, on average, likely represented higher performing students.

Though pre-k students can’t be properly tested, students who did not attend kindergarten could have been tested at the beginning of first grade to establish a baseline but weren’t.

Again, data analyses are very difficult and often unreliable without access to the initial data or the ability to replicate the experiment.

There’s other research that also raise questions about the STAR and SAGE findings.

Following California’s reform, the CSR Research Consortium was established to review the data and make policy recommendations. “Our analyses of the relationship of CSR to student achievement was inconclusive” (page 9) and the “results of our evaluations, a changing state policy context, and new class size reduction research in other states—all of these provide justification for reexamining California’s current class size reduction policy.” (page 70)

According to Brewer, “Gains in student achievement in reading, writing and mathematics have been found, although they are typically very small, on the order of one twentieth to one tenth of a standard deviation difference in third grade between small and large classes, and are the same for all types of student.” (page 9)

Unfortunately, data on class sizes is very limited because the information is normally not collected by the states. Without it, researchers are forced to rely upon pupil-teacher ratios which are less reliable. For example, a special education teacher would reduce the pupil-teacher ratio without reducing the class size. Still, most researchers have found that, as pupil-teacher ratios drop, so do class sizes.

Hanushek reviewed 277 case studies involving pupil-teacher ratios and found 15% were positive, 13% were negative, and the rest were in the middle, strongly suggesting there is no relationship between pupil-teacher ratios and student performance. (page 23) When looking at studies that were restricted to a single state (so that differing state polices don’t distort the results), only one study out of 23 found a positive result. (page 25)

Nor is there any correlation between a country’s pupil-teacher ratio and academic performance. Japanese classes are much larger than America’s but perform better. (page 21)

Another point to remember is that class sizes have been dropping for decades without any noticeable improvement in education. From 1950-1994, the pupil to teacher ratio has dropped 35% and much of that is likely the result of smaller class sizes. (page 5)

Lastly, in response to our original question, is it cost effective, every study I’ve seen, from Harris and Plank (2000) to Breyer (2005) to Ilon (2006) to Yeh (2007) says no, that there are cheaper methods to obtaining the same results, specifically the 0.2 standard deviation improvement predicted by STAR and SAGE.

Those findings would be especially true in our school district. According to last year’s financial audit, our elementary schools are at full capacity. (page 132) Reducing class sizes would likely require additional construction.

I’m aware class size reductions are very popular but, in my opinion, they’re expensive, of dubious value, and not an appropriate use of limited school resources. >>> Read more!