Federal investments in education: Are you up for it, legislators?

This morning, I was asked to respond to three “homework” questions for our school board to take to the 2016 Advocacy Institute to discuss issues applicable to our school district with members of Congress and/or their staff. Having crafted my states over the past three hours, I use my responses as today’s blog post.

Preface
As noted in my recent TEDx Talk, “Education Is None of Your Business,” education is a state of flux. It has operated on a traditional, industrialized, business model for well over a hundred years. Education is not a business; and the United States can no longer operate it as such if we want our children to enjoy the freedom, comfort, and security we’ve accustomed to. America’s schools were not designed to teach all children to high levels.

Despite the fact that No Child Left Behind has been deemed a failure and architects such as Diane Ravitch have come out apologizing for its creation, we continue these types of reforms as evidenced by the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which continues to federally mandate standardized assessment. Yet each new reform is merely putting lipstick on the pig. Like its predecessors, this new federal legislation emphasizes standardized assessment despite knowing that weighing the pig won’t make it fatter. Dr. Jeffrey Turner, Retired Superintendent, said, “The real challenge for education today is that we are running a 19th-century system, using a 20th-century accountability model, and expecting our kids to gain 21st-century skills.” The business model of standardization is not effective, nor is it appropriate. Children are not widgets. They are human beings each uniquely crafted with a diverse set of natural talents and abilities. And do we really want standardized kids? Or do we want to celebrate diversity, cultivate creativity, inspire curiosity, promotion innovation, and cherish individual talents?

So long as we remain shackled to the business model of standardization, there is little hope for the education necessary for the 21st Century. Our system of education and ideals of teaching isolated subjects in defined blocks of time dates back to 1892 when the so called “Committee of Ten” recommended “every subject which is taught at all in school should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil so long as he pursues it, no matter what the probable destination of the pupil may be, or at what point his education is to cease.” Twelve years of education with students grouped by age followed. Today, we know all children can learn, but they learn at different rates. Yet we cling to the same number of hours and the same number of days. Some children just need more time. For myriad reasons, human beings learn at different rates of speed. And as Jamie Vollmer, a businessman by trade wrote in his book, Schools Cannot Do It Alone, “as long as we choose to hold time constant for teaching, learning, and testing, we are sorting children not on the basis of their intelligence, but on the basis of that speed.” As long as we continue to mandate high-stakes standardized assessments, our nation’s schools will find a burgeoning Special Education population (as well as an inordinate number of diagnoses such as ADD and ADHD) as students are assessed on concepts they are not developmentally ready to master. A significant amount of the dollars pumped into Special Education continue to support an upside-down model of tiered instruction.

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Question: What are some of the ways your school district utilizes Title I funds to successfully close achievement gaps and drive greater academic success? For example, how is Title I raising or increasing overall proficiency levels? Has specialized instructional support through Title I improved student achievement in core subjects such as reading and math?

On a number of schools that receive Title I, campuses provide supplemental reading and math interventionists whose role is to work with students identified as at-risk of not meeting state academic standards. Interventionists work with students in small groups on targeted skills yet to be mastered. Because of the high numbers of students in need of intervention, there is not often enough time during the school day to serve all students. Campuses host Saturday School sessions as well as before and after school tutorials, which are funded with Title I dollars. There is evidence supplemental intervention is successful. Unfortunately, because of our state and national obsession with standardized assessment, this time is spent primarily in test prep. So long as we measure students as we do, this will be an inevitable reality.

Question: What are the additional resources that will help your district (such as additional tutors and intervention for students, investments in professional development and retention of effective teachers and leaders, and greater resources for community partnerships and parental engagement)? As your district and state education agency make changes to assessments, standards of learning, staffing, curricula and student support services, pursuant to ESSA, please state what resources are needed to ensure a successful transition for your school and community.

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*Graphic borrowed from the publication, More Than a Hunch: Kids Lose Learning Skills over the Summer Months

On its website, the National Summer Learning Association writes, “For the more than 25 million low-income public school students in America, summer is often anything but a vacation. Instead of a relaxing break to explore new interests and places, it’s often a time when children, youth and families struggle to find and afford food to eat and a safe place to be.

Summer learning loss, the phenomenon where young people lose academic skills over the summer, is one of the most significant causes of the achievement gap between lower and higher income youth and one of the strongest contributors to the high school dropout rate. For many young people, the summer “opportunity gap” contributes to gaps in achievement, employment and college and career success.

Every summer, low-income youth lose two to three months in reading while their higher-income peers make slight gains. Most youth lose about two months of math skills in the summer. These reading and math losses add up. By fifth grade, summer learning loss can leave low-income students 2 1/2 to 3 years behind their peers. Research shows that while gaps in student achievement remain relatively constant during the school year, the gaps widen significantly during the summer.”

“Ensuring that books are available to any child at any time of the year will be a good first step in enhancing the reading achievement of low-income students and an absolutely necessary step in closing the reading achievement gap,” writes Anne McGill Franzen and Richard Allington, the foremost experts on summer learning loss.

In a detailed account of the realities of summer learning loss that emphasizes the need for access to books, McGill Franzen and Richard Allington sound the alarm writing, “summer reading loss accounts for at least 80 percent of the reading achievement gap by 9th grade. Yet almost no federal or state programs or school district initiatives target summers as key to closing the achievement gap loss. As we all know, the gap in reading achievement between economically disadvantaged students and other students in American schools is substantial and to our dismay, stubbornly persistent. According to the NAEP data for high school seniors, that gap is roughly four years in reading achievement, with poor twelfth graders scoring almost identically to more advantaged eighth graders. One immediate response to the reading achievement gap is access to books. “We should make it a national priority that all children from all backgrounds have easy access year-round—at home and at school—to all the books they want to read.”

The Washington Post cited further research in an article titled, “Why we should let kids choose their own summer reading books,” noting “a Scholastic Corp. study of 1,000 readers found that middle and high school students who are given the opportunity to choose the books they read are more likely to read more frequently for fun.“ In an intriguing case study, and one I’m considering replicating, the article mentioned above, “Why we should let kids choose their own summer reading books, describes a local summer reading research project.
“Stemming the summer slide isn’t impossible. Students who read just four to six books over the summer maintain their skills (they need to turn more pages to actually become better readers.)

Schools have tried to enforce this with a summer reading list. Students are assigned several books that they must write a report about or take a test on once they return in the fall. These programs often include a mailed package of books selected by well-intentioned educators, who evaluate the material on educational and literary merits and then ship books home sight-unseen by students.

In 2013, Dr. Erin Teresa Kelly, resident at the Internal Medicine-Pediatrics program at the University of Rochester Medical Center, wondered “if there was a way to make programming more effective and subsequently tested a small tweak in two low-income classrooms in Rochester, N.Y. Although 84 percent of students in the Rochester City School District qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch program, this school had a particularly high concentration of poverty, with 96 percent of students eligible for the program. For one class, researchers and teachers let the kids choose the books they read over the summer. They ran a book fair and each student picked 13 books to take home at the end of the school year. The fair featured a broad range of selections — fiction and nonfiction, classics and newer works — and students eagerly passed the books back and forth, reveling in the opportunity to pick those matching their personal interests while chattering with one another about familiar stories. Many also chose works considerably above or below their reading levels so they could share with siblings. The other class of students received books by mail from the already-in-place community program. Both classes were given literacy tests before summer vacation and again when they returned in the fall. Sure enough, the students who chose their own books did better, improving from the previous summer. Those in the community program showed no improvement.”

Summarizing the same article, Pam Allyn, a literacy advocate, told The Washington Post, “You become a lifelong reader when you’re able to make choices about the books you read, and when you love the books you read.” “If we stop telling kids what to read, they might start reading again.”

Jim Trelease, author and staunch advocate of reading aloud to children as a way to instill in them the love of literature, said, “If we wish to close the gap between the rich and poor in this nation and we know where the gap grows and widens, then it is criminal to ignore it.”
Based on the research mentioned above, I’ve long considered replicating this study. My concern in doing so is that auditors would deem such an opportunity for students as gifting public funds by considering the books as “gifts,” which is unallowable in federal guidelines.
One of our campuses that receive Title I is opening its doors to students and families this summer allowing access to its library. It is not without its challenges. Because the school roof is being replaced, the campus is unable to allow students into the actual library; and books will be available by cart. Because of the cost of paying personnel to oversee the hours of operation, the campus will only be open two days per week.

Question: The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) calls for a national study on Title I funding regarding equitable distribution among states regarding poverty levels and communities with the greatest need. Provide examples and/or data to support the Title I investment in your school district, such as geographic isolation or challenges, poverty levels or per capita income, lack of industry/community engagement to support students and schools. Such data and information can help inform NSBA and your members of Congress as the study is developed.

Eligibility for free and reduced lunch in Denton ISD schools range from 2% to 90%. This is based less on the availability of industry, but more on the separation of economic classes (or geographic isolation).

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midincomeAs evidenced by recent research from the Pew Research Center, the middle class is shrinking while the upper middle/highest income households and lowest/lower middle class increase. As noted in a number of recent articles and books such as Helping Children Succeed by Paul Tough, for the first time in our nation’s history, the number of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch is the majority. A recent U.S. News & World Report article, Most U.S. Students Live in or Near Poverty, cites a study conducted by the Southern Education Foundation noting on average, 51 percent of student across the country were low-income in 2013, with half or more students in 21 states qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches. The authors note the number of public school students from low-income backgrounds, as collected by the National Center for Education Statistics, has steadily grown from less than 32 percent in 1989, to 42 percent in 2006 and 48 percent in 2011. In 2012, the national average fell just below one-half, at 49.6 percent.

Another report mentioned in the article found that in the last decade, “the number of low-income students has grown at a rate three to four times greater than the increase of per-student spending in most of the country. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in October found 30 of 47 states analyzed were spending less per student this school year than they did before the recession.” This fact is certainly true in the State of Texas.

Additionally, the report found “low-income students are also significantly more likely to attend intensely segregated or majority-minority schools, which the most segregated schools also had the highest concentrations of low-income students. These trends toward increasing segregation for the last two decades will undoubtedly have lasting negative impacts both for minority communities and for the community at large.” Closing, the article notes a number of realities in our home district. “Minority segregated schools have fewer experienced and less qualified teachers, high levels of teacher turnover, inadequate facilities and learning materials, high dropout rates, and less stable enrollments.”

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I would be remiss if I did not offer the following. Until legislators are held accountable for reducing the rates of poverty in our nation, the impending economic crisis will continue to loom and advantage gap will continue to foster and support the achievement gap. According to the latest 2014-15 Texas Academic Performance Report, of the 5,215,282 children enrolled in Texas public schools, 58.8% live in poverty (3,068,820 children), one of the highest rates in the union. Perhaps we the people should demand our lawmakers to be held to the same standards as they hold our teachers. Rather than punishing children, teachers, and administrators by shuttering schools based on arbitrary standardized test scores on a few days of an inappropriate, antiquated, school calendar year, perhaps we the people should demand the reelection of incumbents on a similar methodology. For example, if poverty statistics in the representative’s districts are not reduced significantly, reelection is no longer an option. “But that’s not fair!” those representing congressional districts with debilitating poverty would shout. “That’s not in my locus of control.” And our teachers would nod.

Consider the following statistics shared by Dr. Ruby Payne. A female with no GED or high school diploma has her first child in her teens and on average has 2.5 children. In 90 years, that is five generations (18 x 5 = 90) with a total of 48.6 children. On the other hand, an educated woman with a BA or BS degree has her first child at 30.1 years of age and has 1.1 children. In those same 90 years, that equates to 3 generations with a total of 3.3 children. According to Payne, if this multiplier effect holds true, the 3.3 must carry the economic burden of the 48.6.

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Yet our nation continues to ignore the long-term ramifications for short-term gain. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. “Natural aristocracy” and elitism continues. The so-called 1% sit on high counting profit-margins, while underpaid teachers try to reverse the unintended (or more likely, intended) consequences of the separation of classes. Despite this notion, educational rhetoric will likely continue to be touted by political leaders, but until they withstand the pressures of big business interests, this trend will likely continue (with teachers taking the brunt of the blame).

Legislators, you’re up. Are you up for it?

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