Education News Digest: 12/22/10Posted on: 12/22/2010
Temporary budget deal freezes K-12 spending
Funding for K-12 programs will remain frozen at current levels for more than two months under legislation approved by Congress late yesterday, leaving it to the new more-fiscally conservative Congress that takes office next month to set final spending levels for fiscal 2011.
The bill extends funding for almost all federal programs, including those in the U.S. Department of Education, at fiscal 2010 levels until March 4. Advocates are already bracing for a potentially protracted budget battle when lawmakers finish the job of writing the spending bills for fiscal year 2011, which began back on Oct. 1.
By the time the measure expires, the now-Democratic House of Representatives will have changed to Republican control and the GOP will have larger numbers in the Senate—the party gained six seats in that chamber in the 2010 midterm election.
House Republican leaders have pledged to restore federal spending to fiscal year 2008 levels, although they haven’t been specific about which programs they would like to scale back. Senate Republicans and some Democrats also have pledged to take a tougher fiscal line.
The short-term extension is “the worst option for education,” said Joel Packer, a principal at the Washington-based Raben Group, which represents the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition.
Mr. Packer, who previously worked as a lobbyist for the National Education Association, is expecting a grim fiscal fight come January. He said an unfinished fiscal 2011 budget makes it harder for districts to plan for the future, and he held out little hope for increases once the new Congress in place.
“It’s going to be terrible,” he said. “I think we’ll be negotiating between a significant cut and a freeze. … I would be hopeful that President Obama actually draws some firm lines in the sand and says if they send me a bill that cuts education [and other priorities] below [certain] levels, I will veto.”
Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, last week pulled from consideration a $1.1 trillion budget bill that would have funded all federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education, through September 2011.
Republican leaders said the measure contained too many earmarks, even though many of the members making that claim had requested their own pet projects. Republicans also objected to the process by which Democrats put the bill together, including funding the entire government with one large bill, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a speech on the floor of the Senate
“Members on this side of the aisle increasingly felt concerned about the way we do business,” he said Dec. 16. “Let’s come back here after the holidays with a renewed desire to do our business in a timely fashion and avoid this kind of thing in the future.”
But Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate committees that oversee education spending and policy, said in an email, “In the same week that congressional Republicans fought for billions in tax breaks for the wealthiest in the nation, they fought against additional funding for programs that provide working families access to affordable and high-quality child care and early-learning programs.” Increases for both programs were included in the Senate bill.
The legislation also includes language on highly qualified teachers that would essentially reverse an October court ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco.
The court found that the Bush administration’s 2002 regulation on “highly qualified” teachers improperly broadened the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act because it allowed alternative-route teachers to circumvent the definition.
The law requires teachers to hold full certification in order to be considered highly qualified, while the regulations issued by the Bush administration permit teachers in alternative routes to be considered highly qualified under the law, even without certification, if they are making progress in their programs. Fans of high-profile alternative-certification programs, such as Teach For America, were dismayed by the appeals court ruling.
Earlier in the budget process, education advocates and the Obama administration had seemed to have gain traction among lawmakers.
For example, the omnibus measure would have provided a small boost to Title I grants for disadvantaged students and federal funding for students in special education.
And it would have put $300 million in new money into a fund to help states improve their early-childhood programs, as well as $240 million to extend for an additional year the Investing in Innovation program, which scales up promising district practices, and was first financed under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
It also would have provided $550 million for a second year of the administration’s signature Race to the Top program, also created under the recovery act. The program rewards states for embracing tougher academic standards, new teacher quality practices, and other education redesign priorities
But a short-term extension makes it difficult for districts to plan their budgets going forward, said Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director of policy analysis and advocacy for the American Association of School Administrators.
Most school officials aren’t banking on a major funding boost from the federal government, she added.
“The message has been very clear with the new Congress: There’s not going to be a ton of new spending, if any,” she said. “Our members understand that, they’re not budgeting around increases.”
Still, she said flat funding—or even a cut for Title I and special education—would come at a particularly painful period, as districts are coping with the drop-off in one-time aid from the recovery act, which provided some $100 billion for education, and the Education Jobs Fund, a separate measure passed last summer that directed $10 billion to prevent layoffs.
The new spending deal could also set up a situation where Congress is trying to finish the fiscal year 2011 spending bills at the same time members are digesting President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2012 budget proposals, which are likely to be released in February. That could add fuel to the funding fight.
The final budget deal culminates a protracted, complicated struggle to pass the spending measures for fiscal year 2011.
Lawmakers left to campaign for the midterm elections this fall without finishing any spending bills for this year. They passed a series of stop-gap measures, keeping funding for most programs flat. The latest of those measures expired Dec. 18.
To keep the government functioning, the U.S. House of Representatives voted for a proposal that would have provided funding for most federal programs, including the U.S. Department of Education, at last year’s levels until fiscal year 2011 ends Sept. 30.
That proposal also would have included $550 million for another year of the Race to the Top competition. Lawmakers had to make a special exception for Race to the Top because it was financed under the recovery act, not the regular, fiscal year 2010 budget bill.
Advocates for pre-kindergarten programs were dismayed with the Senate’s decision to scrap the broad spending bill, which would have provided $300 million for the Early Learning Challenge Fund, a competitive grant program to help states boost the quality of their early-education programs.
Given Republicans’ plans to clamp down on spending, it seems like a long shot that a new program would be created in whatever final budget is approved for fiscal 2011.
When he was campaigning for office, President Barack Obama called for an additional $10 billion annually for early-childhood programs, but that money has never materialized. Advocates were also hoping to see a new pre-kindergarten program, financed using projected savings from a bill making major changes to the student-lending program, but that program was jettisoned due to lack of money.
Some advocates remain optimistic. Marci Young, the Project Director of Pre-K Now, a campaign of the Pew Center on the States to improve early childhood programs, said she would like to see a new focus on pre-kindergarten put in place when Congress renews the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. “We certainly hope this is a stumbling block and not the end,” she said.
New York’s schools seize a chance to expand
After the Norcor Management Corporation bought the Sunnyside Jewish Center in Queens in 2006, it demolished the synagogue in expectation of building residential housing on the site. But like so many projects, the plans were dashed in the wake of the real estate crash, and the parcel has sat vacant for years.
Now, the School Construction Authority is in talks to buy the site and build a 379-student primary school on the land, located at 45-46 42nd Street. The new building, which would open in 2014, is in New York City’s most congested school district and would help ease overcrowding at nearby public schools.
“The downturn in the real estate market has afforded us some new opportunities,” said Lorraine Grillo, president of the School Construction Authority, which is financed jointly by the city and state, “including residential developments that stalled and are now available for us to acquire.”
The proposal in Queens is in the midst of a public review process, and must be submitted to the mayor and City Council for final approvals.
The education sector, and especially the School Construction Authority, has become big business in the world of New York City real estate. As residential condominiums, office towers and other private sector projects have faltered, the authority has swooped in to take advantage of lower construction costs, amenable landlords and available land to pursue an aggressive expansion.
This year, the S.C.A. has built a record 26 new facilities, creating room for 17,500 students. The authority, which oversees the building and maintenance of the city’s nearly 1,700 public schools, is in the second year of an $11.7 billion five-year capital plan, to run from the 2010 to 2014 fiscal years. The city Department of Education is lobbying for an additional $4.4 billion that would put it on track to have added nearly 124,000 seats from 2003 to 2013.
“The S.C.A. is the biggest game in town,” said Richard T. Anderson, the president of the New York Building Congress, a construction trade group. “In terms of actual construction, the S.C.A.’s five-year capital plan is the largest agency program in the city,” he said.
The education sector accounted for more than half of all construction starts in New York City from May 2008 to the end of last April, a pattern that is expected to continue, according to the building congress. In addition to traditional public schools, the number of charter schools in the city has surged to 125 in 2010, from just four in 1999, according to the New York City Charter School Center, and several private schools have been in the market for new buildings. At the postsecondary level, the City University of New York, New York University and Columbia University are all planning major expansions.
“Working with the School Construction Authority is a great opportunity, especially in this market,” said David Lowenfeld, the executive vice president of the World-Wide Group, a developer. World-Wide broke ground in May on a $700 million mixed-use building at 250 East 57th Street at Second Avenue that will house two public schools, expected to open in 2012. The building, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, also includes 38,000 square feet of retail space that has been leased to a Whole Foods Market. A second phase of the project will include an additional 74,000 square feet of retail space and a 660-foot residential tower with rental units and condominiums. World-Wide is leasing the air rights from the city to build the residential part of the project, and these lease payments are paying for the construction of the schools.
With so much money available for publicly financed schools, large construction firms that once eschewed public sector jobs in favor of private projects are now angling for the work.
“There are no new commercial office buildings being built, but there are a lot of schools in the works, so we have gone back and focused more on the S.C.A.,” said Charles Murphy, a senior vice president at the Turner Construction Company and the general manager of the New York office. Turner is building four schools for the School Construction Authority, which now makes up about 12 percent of the company’s work in New York, up from zero during the real estate market peak, Mr. Murphy said.
“All of a sudden, marquee construction firms that would only do projects that were $15 million and above are bidding for S.C.A. jobs,” said Louis J. Coletti, the president and chief executive of the Building Trades Employers’ Association, the largest contractor association in the state.
All this competition has been good news for the construction authority. “We have seen the cost of building stabilize, and we are attracting a number of high-end general contractors who are now bidding on our projects,” Ms. Grillo said.
In addition, she said, “landlords seem more willing to work with us, as they recognize the value of a city tenant.” In downtown Manhattan, for example, “we have been able to find a lot of rental properties in office buildings; if the market was hotter, these landlords might not have been so willing to rent us the space.”
In addition to new schools financed by the construction authority, charter schools, private schools and universities are also rapidly expanding. This year, 27 new charter schools — which are public schools that are mostly privately financed — opened, and only one closed, the charter school center said. Civic Builders, one of the largest developers of charter schools, is building or about to build 440,000 square feet of space, said David M. Umansky, the firm’s chief executive.
Private schools have also been eyeing real estate. The all-girl Brearley School recently acquired three buildings on the Upper East Side, and a school founded by the Blue Man Group theater troupe recently purchased the Seamen’s Church Institute building at the South Street Seaport, where it will provide a new nursery and elementary school. Columbia University is expected to begin work next month on an adjunct campus north of 125th Street near the Hudson River, while New York University is starting a 25-year expansion plan. And there are a number of construction projects at the City University of New York, including a new Science Building at Lehman College and an expansion of John Jay College.
There are signs, however, that the School Construction Authority’s spending spree may soon be over. The city and state are both facing looming deficits, and have financed the authority’s five-year capital plan only through the 2012 fiscal year. The city is estimating a deficit of $2.4 billion next year, and last week Mark Page, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, asked that various city departments, including the Department of Education, submit proposals to shave 20 percent a year from their capital spending. The state is facing a projected deficit next year of more than $9 billion.
Still, said Mr. Murphy of Turner, by the time the School Construction Authority begins winding down its work, either because of a lack of city and state money or because the need for new schools has eased, the rest of the real estate market should be rebounding.
“By the middle of the decade, around 2013 or 2014, I see an increase in private sector construction,” he said. “So in the short term, the S.C.A. funds are there to help us through this year and next, and then other parts of the industry will begin picking up.”
Source: New York Times
In reforming schools, quality of teaching often overlooked
Sitting in the library during a break, two veteran teachers at Edwin Markham Middle School rattled off the names of principals who had been sent to fix the chronically low-performing school in Watts.
There was Kimbell, Miller, Norris and Borges. Then came Mir-Rivera, Miyahara, Stroud, Sullivan. This year, Hernandez arrived — the ninth in 20 years.
Each came with a long list of remedies, they said, and most left after a few years with little to show for it.
For those two decades, Markham has been considered one of the worst middle schools in California, despite the best efforts of those principals and an army of well-intentioned reformers, including big-hearted volunteers, private foundations, corporate sponsors, the city attorney's office and — most recently — the mayor of Los Angeles.
In the last seven years alone, they tried changing the curriculum, reducing class size, improving school safety, requiring school uniforms, opening after-school programs and spending a lot more money per pupil.
The one thing they didn't do was improve the teaching — at least, not until last year, when layoffs swept out many of the school's worst performers and test scores jumped, a Times analysis found.
Since 2003, Markham has had dozens of the district's least effective instructors, as measured by the analysis of their students' progress on standardized tests. Seventy percent of the school's English and math teachers have ranked well below the Los Angeles Unified School District's average in effectiveness. Fewer than 10 Markham teachers have been in the district's top 20%, and most left the school within three years.
There are thousands of Markhams across the country, schools whose low test scores have triggered wave after wave of reform efforts over decades, mostly in vain.
"It's not a lack of new initiatives, it's too many initiatives, and no sense of what's working," said Robert Manwaring, a senior policy analyst at the Washington, D.C., think tank Education Sector who has studied turnaround efforts at Markham and other schools. "They don't use data to inform those decisions — they use a gut feeling or get marching orders from higher up."
The Obama administration is now making its own bid to fix failing schools, steering $3.5 billion to those that adopt one of four radical turnaround approaches. The options include shutting down, bringing in new management, dismissing most staff and administrators, or adopting specific reforms aimed at boosting teacher quality.
So far, more than 730 schools in 44 states have signed on, with most choosing to overhaul the staff or retool instruction. The bet is that similar efforts in the past did not go far enough and often ignored those key elements of success.
Markham, with $5.5 million in federal money over the next three years and the guidance of the mayor's management team, is among nine schools in Los Angeles to take part.
For some teachers, like science teacher Tizoc Carrasco, it's hard to get excited. The school, he said, has had a "restart every other year."
His advice to President Obama: "Look into how you can create consistency at the schools. That's the one thing I've never heard anybody talk about."
Markham, a maze of brick bungalows in one of the poorest and most crime-ridden parts of south Los Angeles, was not always considered a failing school.
Tucked away in a dusty storage area above a sixth-grade science classroom are several boxes of trophies from the 1980s that honored the school for its academic prowess.
By 1991, however, the school's test scores had fallen far enough to inspire a turnaround effort. With the benefit of a state grant, staff members spent a year developing a plan for the school. But the second year of funding to make the changes never came through, recalled John Miller, who was principal from 1991 to 1997.
On his own, Miller tried a range of popular strategies: He broke the school into more manageable groups of teachers and students. He created time for teachers to plan lessons together. He opened a parents' center and partnered with corporations and foundations that sent money and dozens of mentors to take the students on field trips and college visits.
"Let's try whatever, and if two of the 10 programs worked, fine," Miller recalled thinking.
None of it had much effect on the school's test scores.
In 1997, the year Miller retired, L.A. Unified's superintendent ranked Markham 28th on a list of the district's worst 100 schools. The designation fueled new efforts to fix it.
The state steered thousands of dollars to develop an 11-point "research-based" plan for change, including teacher training and community involvement. The effort was scrapped several years later after it was deemed to have made little difference.
A second program in 1999 directed more money to the school, and doubled the number of reforms —including data analysis — but also was ultimately judged to be ineffective.
And so it went year after year: New state and federal programs with can-do names often brought more money and more ideas to the campus, but little actual improvement. Not that the ideas were all bad.
"Everyone comes here with good ideas and good concepts, but no one has stayed long enough to see any results," said Sheila Woodley, a Markham teacher since 1986.
Why is it so hard to create lasting improvement at failing schools?
Most turnaround efforts target schools that rank in the bottom 5% to 10% on state achievement tests year after year.
Research has shown that these test results are largely a reflection of socio-economic status: Poor and minority students often start school well behind their wealthier white peers, and the disparities persist — or grow larger — in troubled schools.
"When Watts has the same things as Brentwood does, then you might have equal scores," said veteran Markham English and social studies teacher Teresa Sidney.
Short of that, those students need to learn at least 1 1/2 years' worth of material for every year of schooling to erase the achievement gap, experts say.
That rarely happens. A recent Thomas B. Fordham Institute study of 2,000 chronically low-performing schools in 10 states found that about 1% had reached their state's average performance five years later. A Brookings Institution study found that two-thirds of California schools that were low-performing in 1989 were still low-performing two decades later.
There is no magic formula to change low-scoring schools into top performers, and change, when it does happen, is often incremental.
But many experts agree that past efforts have ignored the most important factor in a school's performance: the quality of its teachers. Highly effective teachers routinely impart 11/2 or more years worth of material during the school year.
One way to find them is "value-added" analysis, a statistical method that estimates teacher effectiveness by looking at improvements each of their students makes on standardized tests. Because it measures students against their own track record, it largely controls for socio-economic differences.
For this story, The Times used value-added analysis to estimate how effective math and English teachers at Markham were in raising student scores compared to their peers across the district.
Value-added also can be a powerful diagnostic tool to figure out which changes are working in a school. It is part of several turnaround strategies put forth by the Obama administration, which were modeled after a handful of successful efforts across the country.
"Great teachers and great principals are at the heart of this work," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in an interview. "You need to ID those folks and bring them in."
One of the biggest challenges is getting the most effective teachers to take jobs in schools that are failing, as well as getting more out of the teachers already there.
Duncan and others cite the successes at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, where officials have used incentives — sometimes called "combat pay" — to lure effective educators to seven struggling campuses.
Principals whose campuses had among the highest test score gains were given a 10% bump in their salaries to transfer to the low-performing schools. They also were allowed to remove up to five of the struggling schools' teachers and recruit replacements from a pool of instructors who also had proved effective. The teachers who transferred also received bonuses — worth about $20,000 over three years.
Over the last couple of years, students at most of the seven low-performing schools made strong progress, judging by their test scores.
"We didn't look at it as some miracle program," Supt. Peter Gorman said. "It's about having your most effective teachers with your most challenged students."
Among other changes, Nancy Hicks, the principal at Ranson Middle School in Charlotte, decided to recruit five math teachers because "that program was really struggling." In the two years since, the school has significantly increased the number of students deemed proficient or above in math, from 39% in 2008 to 56% last year.
Also receiving attention for its striking gains is Maryville Middle School, south of Knoxville, Tenn.
On his own initiative, Principal Joel Giffin began using value-added data in the early 1990s to match teachers with the type of students with whom they had proved most effective in the past. For instance, teachers with a successful track record in raising the scores of remedial readers were assigned a classroom full of them, rather than to students with a wide assortment of abilities.
"Instead of randomly assigning kids, we'll place them where they have a better opportunity to be successful," said Giffin, who is now retired. Teachers liked it too, he said, because they were teaching to their strengths.
For a decade straight, Maryvillehad the greatest gains of any middle school in the state, with improvement far exceeding the national norm.
In Los Angeles, much-heralded turnaround efforts are under way at numerous campuses.
Fremont High School in South Los Angeles made its teachers reapply for their jobs and fewer than half were rehired. Management of 30 other schools was put up for bid last year, and the majority of successful bids were submitted by teacher groups. And in 2007, a nonprofit controlled by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took over management of severalof L.A. Unified's lowest-performing schools, betting new leadership could change their course.
None of these efforts, however, has been guided by value-added analysis. The district has long had the necessary data but only this year announced plans to analyze it.
Nevertheless, some educators at struggling schools have, without much fanfare or credit, reviewed test score data they do have to guide decisions leading to significant improvements, if not full-scale turnarounds.
When Veronica Aragon was appointed principal at Wilmington Middle School in 2006, she pushed the staff to look more closely at scores. She began a voluntary program of posting students' results during grade-level meetings.
"It was a little uncomfortable at first, but that level of transparency really helped," said Scott Paek, a math coach at the school. "We were able to see where we needed to improve and see how we could help each other."
Since 2006, the percentage of students proficient in math went from 21% to 32%, while in English it climbed from 19% to 31%.
Because the district hasn't used value-added, it seems to have taken little notice of some of its own success stories.
Park Avenue Elementary, a long-struggling school in Cudahy, had among the highest growth in math of any of the 470 elementary schools analyzed by The Times.
The key, according to school officials, was teaching the teachers.
The school hired veteran math coach Judy Sugimoto, who found a group of instructors eager to improve.
"They were teaching the old-fashioned way," Sugimoto said. "There wasn't much emphasis on helping students understand the logic."
Sugimoto began encouraging instructors to use different methods or make better use of existing tools. Teachers had all been given blocks and other props to help students visualize more complex equations, but "they were in the closet, gathering dust," fourth-grade teacher Maria Corona said.
Now, Corona regularly uses the blocks. During a recent lesson, Corona's 24 students spread a series of squares and rods before them, dividing them into equal piles as they tried to divide 643 by five.
"What's the problem here?" she asked one boy whose piles had an uneven number of blocks.
The boy rearranged his piles, and Corona gave him a quick smile. "Good," she said.
The approach might not have worked at another campus, or with another coach. Sugimoto gave credit to the Park Avenue teachers.
"They were open to making a change," she said. "Not everyone wants to do that."
At Markham, a majority of teachers and parents was willing to gamble on one more change. They voted in 2007 to bring the school under the management of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.
Even so, many teachers left because "they were tired of the changes," said Woodley, the teacher who has been there since 1986.
She was tired too. But she decided to stay after getting a promise from the new principal, Tim Sullivan, that he would stay at the school for at least five years, she said.
Sullivan's first year was focused on restoring order, and test scores actually fell. That summer the school suffered what appeared to be another grievous blow: More than half of the teachers were laid off, based on their low seniority, and many were replaced by more experienced instructors from around the district.
Undaunted, Sullivan and his largely new team of teachers tried many of the reforms that had been attempted before at Markham: reopening the parents' center, breaking the school into smaller learning groups and continuing intensive teacher training.
This time, the results were different: Markham had the fastest rate of student progress among district middle schools last year, The Times' analysis found.
Apparently, the layoffs had an upside. Many of the replacement teachers Sullivan picked from the district's hiring pool proved more effective than their predecessors.
Twenty-one teachers who were laid off in 2009 ranked, on average, in the bottom fifth among district teachers in raising students' English scores and in the bottom third in boosting math scores. They were replaced by teachers whose effectiveness was close to average in both subjects.
In addition, many of the low-performing teachers who survived the layoffs got significantly better, jumping to near average effectiveness compared to their peers districtwide.
Markham had not been "turned around." Its students still were significantly behind their peers statewide. But if they could repeat last year's gains for several years running, they had a chance of catching up.
Last summer, however, layoffs came again. Sullivan had had enough, and left to join a charter organization.
His replacement, Paul Hernandez, took over in September. As the partnership's reforms proceed, including plans to try value-added analysis, he has run into skepticism in the hallways.
His first week on the job, he said, "two or three teachers asked me, how long are you guys going to be here?"
Source: Los Angeles Times
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