Archive for Tuesday, March 29, 2011

First Bell: Obama backs away from standardized tests; small-class advocate criticizes task force report; ideas offered for budget cuts

March 29, 2011


A few education-oriented items from around the area and beyond:

Turns out President Obama sees eye-to-eye with folks in and around Lawrence on more than his belief in the Jayhawks.

Obama — who, for the second year in a row, picked Kansas to win the NCAA men’s basketball championship — also backs many teachers, administrators and school board members in the Lawrence school district.

Their common assertion: Students should take fewer standardized tests, and the government should find ways other than such assessments to judge the performance of schools.

“One thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching the test because then you’re not learning about the world, you’re not learning about different cultures, you’re not learning about science, you’re not learning about math,” Obama said Monday, during a town hall meeting at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, D.C., as reported by The Associated Press.

“All you’re learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test and that’s not going to make education interesting,” Obama said. “And young people do well in stuff that they’re interested in. They’re not going to do as well if it’s boring.”

Obama is busy working to rewrite federal education laws, including the “No Child Left Behind” regulations that have frustrated educators in Lawrence and elsewhere. The Lawrence district is “on improvement” because it has missed targets on state assessment tests for two consecutive years for particular sets of students.

Superintendent Rick Doll has supported shifting to more of a “growth model,” one in which students are judged on how much growth they achieve during a particular year as opposed to meeting a standard that rises each year until 2014, when 100 percent of all students would be expected to meet standards.

Like many crimson-and-blue supporters in Lawrence, of course, Obama has missed on his hoops predictions in each of the past two years. Whether he’s more successful on education changes will be determined in the months ahead.


Add another name to the list of detractors* of the conclusions of the Lawrence Elementary School Facility Vision Task Force.

Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, an advocacy group based in New York City, sent a letter this weekend to members of the Lawrence school board, critical of several of the task force’s conclusions.

Among them: “Class size alone is not as important to student achievement as other factors...”

Haimson, in fact, counters that having smaller class sizes actually is one of the few evidence-based ways to increase student achievement.

To see a copy of her letter, you may download it from the section beside this story, or by visiting, where she writes as a blogger.

Haimson said she wrote the letter at the “persistent” urging of Greg Hough, parent of a student at Wakarusa Valley School and a member of the task force. Haimson figured that taking the opportunity to write a letter to the Lawrence board — and then posting it on Huffington Post, to gain a widespread audience — would be a good idea.

The Lawrence district, she said, is far from alone in searching for ways to save money in a down economy.

“Almost every school district in the country is grappling with that challenge right now,” she said. “Every single state and most localities are facing budget cuts.”

Haimson said she wouldn’t mind the district recommending school closings or consolidations so much, as long as they were honest about the financial pressures and not trying to misrepresent research to falsely minimize the importance of class sizes.

“This was fundamentally dishonest, as far as I was concerned,” she said.

Officials often assert that “teacher quality” is the most important factor in boosting student achievement.

One way to retain quality teachers and to make them more effective is to keep their class sizes relatively small, she said.

“A smaller class will make a good teacher better, and a mediocre teacher better,” Haimson said. “A teacher can’t do their best in large classes.”

* Hough himself is among the detractors, having filed a formal letter outlining his opposition to the conclusions of the task force. Other supporters of Wakarusa Valley also have criticized the task force, which recommended closing the school next year and consolidating others within three to five years.

Rick Ingram, a candidate for school board, has criticized some of the task force’s work, saying that some research was misinterpreted, leading to conclusions that lacked proper justification.

Others have lauded the task force for its eight months of work and reaching consensus on issues that have vexed the community for years.


So, where should the Lawrence district find savings, as it looks to fill an expected $3 million budget hole as it begins the next school year?

Well, Haimson doesn’t know the particulars of school finance in Lawrence or Kansas, but she knows of a few places districts tend to spend more than they need to:

• Teacher merit pay. “That’s never been shown to work.” That’s also not available in Lawrence.

• Testing and test prep materials. Those “are not helping our kids succeed.”

• Huge investments in online learning. In New York City, for example, the push is on to spend $500 million next year on technology — a push that could lead to even fewer teachers making personal connections with students.

Best case, in any district: Redeploy out-of-classroom positions into in-classroom positions, she said, reversing the “explosion” of positions during the past 20 years that have gone away from classroom instruction.,

“Do everything you can so that you actually invest in the classroom,” she said. “If you have a lot of math or literacy coaches, or intervention specialists or professional developers — or a lot of administrators doing who knows what — you really should be putting them back in the classroom, and making sure the max amount is invested in the classroom.”

The district is just now starting its budget discussions for 2011-12.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years ago

Reply to jafs

"If the standards are set well, then the vast majority of students, especially if you take out the dd or otherwise impaired population, should be able to meet them."

I don't know what you mean by just taking them out. What do we do with them if we just "take them out?"

"Are you really saying that a high percentage of kids are never going to be able to be educated to basic standards through high school?"

"High percentage" is a relative term. But clearly, many people believe we currently have a high percentage who don't meet basic standards. I would say that a high percentage of those people are meeting the standards because of factors well outside the control of schools or teachers, particularly in areas of high poverty. We should do all we can to improve schools in those areas, but blaming them for the shortcomings of society will get us nowhere.

"Thinking of schools as daycare is a big mistake, and/or if we think of them that way, we're paying way too much for the daycare."

You can think about them however you like, but they serve that purpose, as well, and parents who work really have no choice but to look at them that way. That doesn't mean that education should be secondary one, largely de facto, function that they fill.

"What's your conclusion - we should just let kids graduate without being educated to basic standards?"

I think that kids should be required to meet basic standards in order to graduate. If they can't do that, there needs to be a plan B, which for the most part doesn't exist.

"The point of education is to educate children - why shouldn't we demand that system function as it should?"

We should demand all that is reasonable, but no more than we are willing to pay for. To demand what's unreasonable won't satisfy anyone, or lead to a better educated populace.


Clevercowgirl 3 years ago

I'm just glad to see a researched article, albiet after the fact,attempting to show both sides of the issue. It's very refreshing after a steady stream of Politburo news blurbs from the ESDC.


gr3sam 3 years ago

Fagan: Huffington Post is a "progressive" publication. As co-author of the now-disgraced taskforce subcommittee report on class sizes, don't you think an interview of the "progressive" Ms. Shannon Kimble would be appropriate??


Paul R Getto 3 years ago

"That teacher had been moved from building to building each year. When we approached the principal about the possibility of termination, the comment was, "Why should I stick my neck out, I didn't hire (that teacher)!" The teacher was in a different building the following year." === Buffalo: This is known as the "dance of the lemons." Courageous boards and skilled administrators can solve these issues, if they are allowed to do so.


jhawkinsf 3 years ago

Wow, all these comments on testing, roles of teachers and administrators, programs for this and that. Not a single word about the role of the parent. Almost every student will fail if the parent does not fully participate in the educational process. The student will fail, the teacher will fail and the administrator will fail. I've seen so many parents that simply have no business being a parent. And their children will fail no matter what test you give the child, whether or not the teacher has tenure or if the administrator is or is not doing their job. You have to pass a test to get a driver's license but any fool with an IQ of a tomato can make a baby. And the school cannot fix that problem no matter the test and no matter the amount of spending.
In all honesty folks, there is no solution to the problem. None. Sorry. Really, really sorry.


Paul R Getto 3 years ago

Good discussion. NCLB was based on a lie from Houston. If/when NCLB collapses under its own weight, another state's model would suffice. Mid-90's QPA regulations, with some real teeth, would be an excellent model. We need accountability, but relying on test scores as the main indicator is not the best approach. QPA once required three big issues and if schools had to prove they did them well, we would see some improvement. 1. Account for all groups of students and make sure they are making continous academic progress. 2. Have real, behavior-changing professional improvements for all staff and 3. Engage and involve the community in the process. Doing all three of these things well won't take us to the promised land, but it would be better than the current system. I also agree that poverty is a prime indicator of potential academic achievement. Buried in the 1,000+ pages of NCLB is the requirement that the best teachers be placed in the most challenging schools, but it is usually ignored. The medical model should be applied to education: The 'sicker' you are (academically) the better service you will get from the system. Money is also an issue, of course. I think NSBA quit counting, but not too long ago the feds were probably 50 billion behind what they promised when GW promoted the program in 2000/2001. Ted Kennedy signed on because he thought they were finally serious about helping poor kids, particularly poor kids of color.


SynjynSmythe 3 years ago

Mr. Fagan: Does Mr. Hough's persistent urging that Ms. Haimson, an internationally recognized expert on class size issues, weigh in on an erroneous conclusion make Ms. Haimson's comments any less relevant? NO! What Ms. Haimson's comments do is totally discredit a subcommittee's findings and cast further doubt on a taskforce recommendation that bears no resemblance to the legitimate findings of its subcommittees. What you should be reporting is that the school board has no sense, that the taskforce had no vision, and that the best interests of the school children of USD497 have not been served!


jafs 3 years ago

Let's try an example: A child in 9th grade is reading at a 3rd grade level. They make "reasonable progress", and can read at a 6th grade level. Are they being educated well enough?

I say no - someone graduating from 9th grade should demonstrate reading skills at a 9th grade level, at the least.

Whenever attempts are made to ensure consistent standards, I hear many objections, similar to yours - teaching "to the test", different children learn at different rates, etc.

What's your proposal for ensuring consistent standards? Standardized tests are the most obvious method, and have been used for many years.

Other than developmental disabilities or other physiological issues (brain dysfunctions, etc.), I think that all children are capable of learning all required subjects through the end of high school. Do you disagree? If so, why?

And, yes, poverty is a big problem - we should be doing what we can to help kids who are poor, and help their families as well. But just lowering our standards, and letting them continue through the educational system without learning enough isn't really helping anybody.


jafs 3 years ago

I think the idea to shift to how much progress a student is making is a bad idea.

We need to ensure that all children are performing at grade level, not just improving. With the caveat for DD, and other kids who may not be able to do that.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years ago

Sorry, Shardwurm and commuter, but if the goal is to actually improve educational outcomes, there is really no place for your Ideologically based Schadenfreude.

You want to know what the single greatest hindrance to improved educational outcomes really is? It's poverty, which afflicts at least 23% of all kids in this country.

Now, I understand that in your worldview, these kids deserve to be poor because they pissed off Jesus or Ayn Rand or the Koch brothers or some other supernatural being(s.) But if you and your ideological brethren continue to be successful at punishing the most vulnerable among us, simply for being among the most vulnerable among us, don't be surprised when the only tangible result is deja vu all over again.


buffalo63 3 years ago

The public doesn't understand that tenure DOES NOT mean a bad teacher can't be fired! It does mean that the administration has to have a reason to not renew a contract. This means the admintrators have to DO THEIR JOB, which is to evaluate a teacher, assist the teacher to improve with specific goals and then recommend rehire or fire. My son had a teacher one year that obviously was not doing the job. That teacher had been moved from building to building each year. When we approached the principal about the possibility of termination, the comment was, "Why should I stick my neck out, I didn't hire (that teacher)!" The teacher was in a different building the following year. Tenure means that a teacher can't be fired just because they tick off the principal or because a school is closed. It means that the administrators need to do more than just sit in the office. They need to be interacting with teachers and students and being in the classrooms observing. A good principal is one that mentors and provides the support teachers need to be successful in the classroom. If there is a bad teacher in a district, then the administration has not done their job properly.


Shardwurm 3 years ago

" in which students are judged on how much growth they achieve during a particular year as opposed to meeting a standard that rises each year..."

I think we need to shift the focus from the student and put it on the teacher.

Eliminate tenure and the union, give teachers one-year contracts, and pay them appropriately. By that I mean - if you are no good you go away. Give parents and students a voice in evaluating the teachers - they are the customers you know.

All of this would lead to better education...but it won't fly as long as teachers continue to brainwash the public about how special they are. Oh....some of them are - not ALL of them. Just like in any organization, 20 percent do 80 percent of the work. Please don't tell me that every teacher out there is the living example of an instructor. I know that's not true because just about every week there is one somewhere being arrested for sex with a student.

So when people run around screaming that teachers are underpaid, overworked, and blah, blah, blah. My answer is: "Some of them are." Make the jobs competitive by issuing one-year contracts and only the good ones will remain - and they have nothing to worry about because they are the performers.

Worried about the supply of teachers in those circumstances? Ha! Colleges are cranking them out by the thousands every year and they can't find work because Mr. Smith has tenure.


commuter 3 years ago

Did the LEA send a letter to this group to help further their cause. More pay for less work?

While I di not think NCLB was the best idea, there needs to be a way to hold districts & teachers accountable for teaching our children. I don't teachers teaching to a test but too many of them should be reviewed evey year & the bad ones should be let go. Get ride of "tenure." Make teachers have to do their work like the rest of the people not working for the government - knowing that bad employees would be let go if they do not perform.


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