Pennsylvania’s Hunger Games

My younger daughter this week announced that her final project for English 12 is a research paper. For their research, they have to utilize a novel that they read in class this year. Her chosen title is Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Brave New World was dystopian literature before dystopian literature was the realm of young adult literature. My thoughts went to a comparison and contrast of BNW with one of this generation’s dystopian trilogies: Divergent, The Hunger Games, or The Maze Runner.

 

I’m not going to write her paper for her but I was interested in finding some thematic connections. I was especially interested in the theme of social class in these novels and how they might have changed to reflect the political scene of the times. The same thing kept coming back to me as I read about the Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons of BNW, the 13 Districts of The Hunger Games, The five Factions of Divergent, The Inner Party, The Outer Party and the Proles of 1984: This reminds me of education funding in Pennsylvania.

 

I’ve written on this topic before. The injustice created in education exists throughout the world but the 500 districts of Pennsylvania provide a microcosmic glance at what occurs worldwide. I read a couple of pieces this week that brought that notion to light. The first was from Downingtown School District’s technology department: “Downingtown First in Nation to go 1:1:1.” The gist of the article is that every student will have an electronic device for every class. From Kindles for English and iPads for math to Fitbits for PE and Android phones for World Languages. Sounds awesome! The other piece was actually cited by many members of the Pennsylvania House: “Wolf Angers GOP with Funding Formula that Gives Smaller Hikes to Most School Districts“. The linked article is specifically about Lehigh Valley schools but you can find similar articles in newspapers across the State. GOP lawmakers, in general, are upset that the schools that need the money to offset current inequalities, are receiving more money than other districts in the state. The three big winners are Philadelphia and Pittsburgh City Schools and the Chester Upland School District. Chester Upland is the school district whose teachers famously started the year without being paid because of the dire straits of the District’s finances. Being a winner in this case is more like a consolation prize.

 

For this analysis let’s just say that Downingtown is District 1 of The Hunger Games and Chester Upland is District 12. District 1 is the wealthiest of the 13 Districts where they reportedly have a device that turns graphite into diamonds.  Downingtown, while not the richest school in  the state based on aid ratio, is benefitting from a new amusement park that will soon move them up the ladder. An aid ratio of .35 puts them at the number 65 spot of the richest schools in PA.  District 12’s chief function is coal mining and is the poorest of the District’s. In the Hunger Games District 12 historically has no chance of winning the Games. They view the tributes as a sacrifice of their children. Chester Upland is the 4th poorest school district in the state based on aid ration at .85. At Chester Upland being economically disadvantaged is the norm with 82% of the student population falling into that category. Downingtown, on the other hand, has fewer than 1 in 10 students who are living at that economic level. http://paschoolperformance.org/Profile/93 http://paschoolperformance.org/Profile/135

 

To make this characterization even harder to swallow, the cuts of 2011-12, hit the poorer districts harder than the richer districts. Districts in the bottom quartile, the poorest 125 school districts, saw an average cut of almost $1300. The top quartile, on the other hand, saw an average increase of about $125 per student. Yes, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. The median household income in District 1 was $40,000. District 12 maxed out just over $70000. Katniss and Peeta have no chance to catch up. 

 

The mindset of the legislator seems to be that some children deserve more than other children. And let’s remember, that’s what we are talking about: children. Children who didn’t make the decision about where they live. Children who didn’t make a choice to be poor. Does every child in our state deserve the same chance to succeed? Does every student in this state deserve to be prepared for the 21st Century? How can we in good conscience continue to support the concept of the haves and the have nots?

 

A fair funding formula is necessary to support our children. An equalization of opportunity is vital to the future of our children. Katniss and Peeta with the help of Haymitch rose above the richer Districts to become champions but even in their triumph they were unable to break the chain of poverty in District 12. No amount of grit is going to save Chester Upland. A few may get out and break the chain for their families but many will continue to repeat the cycle of poverty for another generation. We definitely need a Brave New something. A Brave New approach to funding would be a godsend for many of our children.
Until then, May the odds be ever in your favor.

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Rich School , Poor School

Is there any question that every child has the right to the same education? I would say that education is a human right. When we talk about human rights we talk in terms of every child having equal access to a quality education. People from all sides of the argument can rally around that last statement. One side of the debate can argue that charter schools are the answer. When families have choices and competition exists, public schools will rise to the occasion. Another side will say that teacher quality is at an all time low and that is especially  relevant in low achieving schools. Obviously there are more than three sides but another legion will claim that a consistent, rigorous set of standards such as CCSS will equalize the education that every student receives.

Just so we’re clear, the people above fall into two categories: either they have have no concept of what education is like for some of our poorer citizens or they are outright liars with some kind of profiteering agenda.

According to Do Something, students who live below the poverty line have higher absentee rates, higher dropout rates and lower rates of post secondary education. In a post I wrote several months ago I compared PSSA scores to school district aid ratios. That research showed that the richer the school district is, the better chance that students will reach proficiency. That doesn’t really sound equal.

I can’t speak of all states but in Pennsylvania the funding inequities are tremendous. I know that I’ll hear that poor schools receive way more state funds than rich schools.No kidding. Spend more than a millisecond trying to figure out why that is. Poor schools, especially poor rural schools, have a very limited tax base. A limited tax base means poor local funding and I can assure you that the state does not make up that difference. That of course leads to districts surviving on a shoestring. Cutting positions that lead to larger class sizes. Cutting positions that make a difference to student achievement: literacy coaches, math coaches, reading specialists, counselors and paraprofessionals. According to a study by the Pennsylvania Education Law Center, the highest poverty school districts spend $75,000 less per classroom than the wealthiest schools. As in many other areas of our country, the privileged rich continue to flourish as the poor continue to languish.

As a human right, education should be of the same quality no matter your demographics. Students should have access to the same resources no matter their economic status. Education should aim to raise the achievement of every child not just the rich, powerful and politically connected.

What we have in Pennsylvania and across the nation is not an achievement gap, what we have is a funding gap. Rather than billionaires spending there money on influencing education policy, what if they used some of that money to equalize the funding in our impoverished urban and rural school districts.

Trust Me ;)

“Integrity has no need for rules.” -Albert Camus

This week the graduate program led us to the topic of trust in the workplace. In my estimation there probably couldn’t be a timelier subject for educators. Not sure that it is the same everywhere but trust is no where to be found in the Pennsylvania Department of Education. I had an unfortunate conversation last week with a teacher in our building. Noticing that the implementation of the PA Common Core Standards had been pushed back a year, he wondered if it was due to the new teacher evaluation and PDE thinking it may not be fair to evaluate teachers on an assessment that contained new content. I laughed out loud. I wish I would have held on to some of that naivete that allowed me to think that PDE had the best interest of teachers and schools at heart. I say it was unfortunate because I probably should have held back but I didn’t. I assured him that if PCC was pushed back it had nothing to do with teachers, it probably had to do with money. I had lost my trust in my “employer.” Not that I work directly for the PDE but don’t all of us answer to their mandates?

I don’t believe my distrust is misplaced. Recently the Bureau of Assessment  the long arm of the PSSA, determined that beginning this year, all teachers who administer or proctor the standardized assessment will be trained by a computer module that will be completed online. This job was previously completed by the building principal or school assessment coordinator. Apparently there is no trust in the way that was being completed. (Read: we are all cheaters or at best half-assed at our jobs). In addition we received a communique from PDE telling us exactly how we must discipline our students if they are caught with cell phones during the PSSA or the Keystone Exams. You know, because if they don’t tell us, we don’t have the capacity to use our common sense. They don’t trust the administrators who are responsible for the results.

One more, just for good measure. Currently in New York and California administrators must undergo “calibration” training sessions in order to assure that there is interrater reliability when using the Framework for Teachers. Oh, how I wish I was kidding. It’s coming to Pennsylvania too if it is not already here. You should read the article in the link. I don’t think I can explain it any better.

I know what you’re thinking: “What’s so bad about making sure that everyone is seeing the same thing?” Well, the problem is that we do this everyday. We have a vision for our school and believe it or not we work hard to make sure that we have the best schools that we can have. We definitely don’t need a non educator telling us how it should be. Bill Gates is an extremely intelligent guy but he never spent a day with 30 teacher and 500 kids. He is the hero of calibration. And we feel like the trust is gone. 

I could go on. Tom Corbett’s assault on PSERS not to mention education funding in general. Michelle Rhee’s, another non educator, report card for public schools. Jeb Bush’s Cheifs for Change, Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top and his RESPECT Project. Corbett is the only teacher in the group and the knew pretty early that he couldn’t do the job. There’s not even any indication on the PDE website indicating that Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis ever taught. But why does that matter, Arne Duncan never taught.

Trust? Trust who? It does make sense to rebuild education from the outside. I would want a lawyer telling my doctor how to improve my health and the doctor would be a great help in expanding the mechanical capacity of my mechanic. I think the dentist should critique the local cop during a ride along or may he can go with the fire company. 

Like my grandfather used to say, “You can trust a dog to watch your house but you can’t trust him to watch your sandwich.”

Screwed Again!

Welcome to Tom Corbett’s Pennsylvania! The state where people who don’t cause the problem are nonetheless punished.

If you are a public employee in Pennsylvania, you had better listen to the pension reform proposal released today because you will be bailing out the people who didn’t pay their fair share over the last decade. You know that little retirement contribution that they take out of our checks on a biweekly basis? Well, to my knowledge they never gave me a vacation from paying that in the last 23 years that I have been in education. Seven point five percent every check. Bet most of you didn’t know that there were years that the state and the school districts didn’t pay anything. In the years from 2001 to 2010 the school districts and the state combined to contribute an average of 4% while teachers were paying themselves and average of 7 percent. The handshake with state employees required that all three parties pay equal shares. So what happened? Someone didn’t understand that you can’t beat the stock market forever. They should have bought Nate Silver’s book.

Now, the pension system is over 40 billion dollars underfunded. So Mr. Corbett’s plan is to put that on the backs of the people who were paying their fair share all along. You can keep your 2.5 multiplier if you pay more or you can pay the same and work seven and half more years to get the same benefit. And of course, the employers’ (state and district) contribution won’t change fast enough to make up the difference. With a cap of 2.25% increase per year, it is still less in one year than it will cost state employees.

There are some other gems in there too as we again cut into the people who serve our state, the Corbett administration plans to cut corporate income taxes as well as raise the cap on the amount of loss a corporation may claim in a year.

My guess is that this is another cog in the Administration’s machine that will eventually privatize education in Pennsylvania. In my graduate class we have failed to mention yet when educators and state employees became the dregs of the earth.

Prisoners of Bureaucracy

I started graduate school this week so the posts may get thin over the next several weeks. The advantage is that I’ve found a lot of inspiration from my reading so I’ll have ideas built up when I have time to write.

This week I ran across a quote about being an educational leader today is akin to waking up in a maximum security prison and saying, “What am I going to do today?” The comparison is simple, if you are a prisoner you have two choices: follow the rules or be punished. Similarly it seems that school leaders – teachers, principals, superintendents – have them same choices: follow the mandates or be punished. On a larger scale, schools and entire districts are also prisoners of the test-well system.

I’ve written about it before and I will probably write about it again. In a system where the only thing that matters is how you score on one standardized test is the standard that determines excellence, educators must decide whether they will teach to the test or whether they will choose to expand the knowledge of their students by instilling the desire to learn. These are not the same thing. I’ve told teachers for several years that I could guarantee we could be 100% proficient in two years. I know how to do that. We have all the tools: great teachers, great kids, supportive parents, better than average socioeconomic standing, etc. The trade off that we would have to make is whether we want to solely “teach to the test” or do we want to continue to do the things that have brought us to the level of success that we have already achieved? Our school believes it has the ability to transform from a good school to a great school but we also believe that the measuring stick of greatness is not a percentage of proficiency determined by someone other that us.

One of my large projects for my graduate class is to come up with a plan to address improving student achievement using the Getting Results Template. The Getting Results Template is what schools in school improvement are required to complete as part of their school improvement plan. I think I may blow someone away. I can right an excellent plan for improving but I think at the end I will tell them how I really feel. Like a prisoner of bureaucracy.

Quantifying Quality

One of the things that I very often do to find inspiration is to read. I’m kind of a nerd when it comes to reading because about 99% of what I read is non-fiction. I take some grief about this from the few people who know this about me. It is deeply imbedded in my personality.

My most recent inspiration came from reading The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver. Silver’s expertise is in the area of prognostication. More so in using Bayesian statistics to draw conclusions about probabilities of future events. For example, he correctly predicted 49 of 50 states in the 2008 presidential election and all 50 states in 2012.

Bayesian statistics utilize a sometimes subjective prior probability to make a prediction about the probability of a future event. For example, the number and strength of past earthquakes increase the probability of future, stronger earthquakes.

The reason for my post, as I normally right about education, is whether we can use Bayesian statistics to determine whether the new Framework for Teaching, developed by Charlotte Danielson and adopted by Pennsylvania as it’s new evaluation tool, can predict the number of ineffective teachers in a school.

The Danielson model, by her own admission was developed to provide teachers a framework through which to improve their teaching. Therefore, what we probably want to predict is how likely are teachers to improve by utilizing the Framework.

Another question to answer, and Silver has eluded to his desire to attempt it, is whether any subjective measure can really quantitatively measure the effectiveness of a teacher. In a reddit IAmA, he stated, “There are certainly cases where objective measures applied badly is worse than not applying them at all, and education may well be one of them.” He said this in regard to a question about using test scores to rate teacher effectiveness.

In Pennsylvania, teachers and administrators will be rated on a combination of both: standardized test scores and the Danielson Framework for Teaching. One concrete measure that historically has been shown to be determined more by location than by quality teaching and one qualitative, formative measure that will be applied quantitatively.

I know it’s like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic but the argument continually needs to be made that education is more qualitative; more art and less quantitative; less science.

Anchored to the Core

The Common Core Standards, as I have said before, whether here or elsewhere, most definitely will increase the rigor of education throughout the United States.  I have no doubt about that.  They will push academic expectations possibly passed what is developmentally appropriate.

But that standard of achievement has been broken for decades.  When I was in kindergarten 40 years ago I recall only a handful of students who could read by the end of the year.  Now the expectation is that students will be reading at least a few words when they enter K.  If they can’t they are already behind.  Who determined the developmental appropriateness of that giant leap?  I don’t know but kindergarten parents have risen to that challenge.

Or have they?  In 1972 and for at least a couple decades after that, the starting age for beginners was five by the end of January.  Wow!  You could still be four in many places until after Christmas and still be in school.  Now the standard in most states is September 1 or the first day of school. That’s up to five months difference.  In addition, and possibly thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliersparents of means very well may keep there children out of school for a year if they are born in the spring or summer months.  Read Gladwell for an explanation.  I reiterate, people of means.  People on the other end of the spectrum of affluence may not have the luxury of keeping there children at home for another year.  Child care is expensive.  That puts our poor students that I spoke of last week at an even bigger disadvantage of possibly 16 months.

Now back to the point.  When the common core is fully in place the expectations of proficiency in kindergarten will be heightened once again.  Without regards to where you came from, what you already know, how many words you have heard in your short life, what experiences you carry into the classroom, or the education level of your mother. And every year we will be pushing further and further past the current expectations.   Again without regard to any of the above plus identified learning disabilities, capacity for learning, or mental health issues.

If all of that isn’t enough.  We are going to do it all SIMULTANEOUSLY! By that I mean it won’t be scaffolded through the grades from K-6 with a possibility of seven years to advance through the levels. Every grade will be responsible for meeting proficiency on grade level Common Core standards in 2014.

Its hard for me to give an example based on the standards because you would have to be familiar with both the Common Core Standards and the Pennsylvania Academics Standards to know exactly where the gaps are.  I can give you an analogy though:

Your school district is required to write a novel by the end of the year.  Your school district will be evaluated on the quality of the writing in your district’s novel.  Every grade level starting in kindergarten will be responsible for one chapter.  Every school district in the state will have a thirteen chapter book.  Sounds like an awesome project!  Problem is, everyone has to write at the same time.  Oh, yeah, we’ll give you some context.  Let’s say the story is about Little Red Riding Hood.  That’s fair.  Now write.  No, sixth grade, you can’t know where fifth grade left off!  Fifth grade didn’t know the content that fourth grade produced.  And only the student and teacher’s in the kindergarten classes know where the story began.

But the Core has become the Anchor