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

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.