Thursday, April 30, 2009

Growth, costs, choice of schools (in Manhattan)

Kindergarten waiting lists are overflowing, and parents in the Big Apple don't know if their children will have any school next year, much less the program of their choice. The New York Times reports that families moving into new condominium buildings and parents trying to avoid private school tuition are flooding the public schools, with predictable results.

Enrollment growth raises a cost issue there that applies just as well in Kentucky. Adding one more child to a classroom with space has limited costs. Once the classrooms are full, though, breaking ground for new classrooms is hugely expensive. Ask folks in Boone County how that works, and they can give you a complete tour.

No discussion of school choice is serious unless it tackles this central supply problem. Private schools, charter schools, and schools with open enrollment will happily admit students right up until the last desk is taken. After that, they will cheerfully turn away all further applicants. When expanding "production" would cost more than they can charge, they simply will not expand.

What's this blog about, anyway? (April edition)

Here's a summary of the issues I've seen as most important in this month's blogging, with the top three stories first and the others clustered around instruction, results, and funding.

1. Senate Bill 1 gives us a chance to raise standards, with a helpful option of collaborating with other states and using stimulus funds to develop short, clear statements that will strengthen classroom work. I'm looking forward to learning about the planned process and timetable for that work (posts here, here, here, here, and here).

2. The SB 1 transition period will not have statewide accountability for all subjects, but three state education groups will offer a transition index, and press reports show multiple district discussions about continuing progress in all subjects (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

3. The Best in Class loan program gave student teachers good reason to expect their loans would be repaid, and not keeping that promise is wrong (here,here, here, here, here, and here, with comments to break your heart).

4. Reading combines decoding, vocabulary and knowledge of background content: if we drop science, history, literature, and art from early elementary education we can expect students to struggle with middle school textbooks (here, here, here, here, here, here and here).

5. Professional learning communities focused on collaboration to move each student forward may require a major change in school culture, but they promise a major step up in student performance (here, here, and here).

6. NAEP results show that our science gaps are disturbing even though we're ahead of national average, and a new approach to writing is needed for Kentucky to catch up to the nation (here, here, here, and here).

7. The ninth grade bulge makes it harder to calculate graduation rates. If the original ESS summer school vision were still in place, I think that bulge would be much smaller. (here, here, here, here, and here).

8. Kentucky postsecondary degrees have increased and so has the share of degrees given in science, technology, engineering and math (here and here).

9. Postsecondary enrollment declined faster here than in any other state (here).

10. P-12 funding in Kentucky is more equitable than most states but still behind national average (here, here, here, and here).

11. Postsecondary funding in Kentucky is above national average, and it's puzzling that there is so little discussion of why costs keep rising so much faster than inflation (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

12. The recession means fiscal worries for many districts and program cuts at the School for the Blind. Federal stabilization money may go to fill holes rather than to add new strength to education (here, here, here, and here).

Change for loans, Loan People?

The federal government has long promoted higher education by subsidizing student loans from banks, non-profits, and government bodies like Kentucky's Student Loan People.

President Obama's budget proposal asks Congress to:
  • Eliminate those subsidies to other lenders.
  • Increase the number of students who can borrow directly from the government.
  • Take competitive bids for private contractors to service the loans.
  • Use the subsidy savings to expand Pell grants to low-income students.
If the proposal passes,the Student Loan People will substantially downsize their current staff of about 425, according to today's Courier-Journal report. The remaining employees will handle current loans, compete for federal contracts, and administer state scholarships, including KEES.

The article includes no student perspective, but does note that:
Some Kentucky universities have already started shifting their student loans to the Federal Direct Loan Program. The University of Louisville announced last month that starting this fall it would do so, citing the desire for a simplified process that would offer students a more stable and predictable funding source.

The University of Kentucky, Kentucky State University and Morehead State University also use the direct loan program.
To read more, check out the White House proposal here, and the C-J article here.

Reading and culture

Although I haven't seen anything formally published on the links between email messages and tribbles, I consider it only a matter of time.
A perfect example of how cultural experience at 9 can enhance reading comprehension at 49, spotted in DeanDad's post on "the inbox police" here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Writing improves too slowly

Kentucky eighth grade writing performance, as measured by NAEP, is not keeping pace with the nation. While Kentucky scores have improved since 1998, the country has improved more quickly.

Kentucky scores are now significantly behind the nation for all students, female students, white students, students with disabilities, and students without disabilities. Details are below, along with a parallel 1998 chart that shows only white students’ performance significantly behind.

NAEP on-demand writing prompts are different from portfolio pieces, but both ask students to craft their own pieces, and strength in one kind of writing should spill over into other kinds. With our unique investment in writing portfolios, I expected our students to improve faster than the nation as a whole. That didn’t happen.

Senate Bill 1 offers us a new start on efforts to improve our students' writing skills. Those changes need steady attention to be sure they are implemented well and with a stronger impact on student writing skill than we see in these NAEP results.

Triathalons and reading

Suppose you trained for a triathalon by running on a treadmill. You'd become a sturdy runner with good aerobic conditioning and endurance, and you might do well in the foot race. You wouldn't, though, be a skilled enough biker or a strong enough swimmer to win the complete event.

In reading, skilled decoding matters, but it's not enough. For upper elementary reading assignments, students need decoding skills and rich vocabulary and content knowledge of science and social studies and literature and art. If primary classrooms teach only decoding, kids will score well as long as they're only tested on decoding. They 'll lose ground on later reading tests that check for comprehension, and they'll struggle with the textbooks and other materials assigned to them in class.

Decoding alone won't equip students to go the distance.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Index results to be calculated by CBE, KASC, Prichard


For Immediate Release
Date: April 28, 2009


DANVILLE, Ky. - School progress on state tests will be tracked by a partnership of education advocacy organizations during the next three years, while the state is suspending its accountability reports and developing a new testing system. The Council for Better Education, the Kentucky Association of School Councils, and the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence will issue a report each fall on school, district, and state progress on students’ academic performance.

Kentucky is scheduled to start a new test in 2012, as required by this year’s Senate Bill 1. During the 2009 to 2011 transition period, the state Department of Education will release student scores but will not provide an “accountability index” combining all results in a single snapshot of progress being made.

To fill the gap, the three organizations plan to use test results and other information to calculate a “transition index” that closely resembles the academic data published by the state in past years.

“Our transition version will leave out the writing portfolio, arts, and practical living, because they’ve been dropped from statewide testing. But otherwise it will be similar to scoring the state department has used for years,” said Bob Sexton, the Prichard Committee’s executive director. “We think we can provide a valuable annual snapshot each year.”

Speaking for the school councils’ group, executive director Ronda Harmon, points out that “An index provides the big picture on whether schools’ strategies are working with kids. We see this transition project as a way to help schools measure their progress until the new 2012 assessment begins.”

Statewide results will also be reported. “We need steady data on whether progress in our statewide school system is strong enough, and whether we’re moving quickly enough toward proficiency for all students,” said Daviess County Superintendent Tom Shelton, president of the Council for Better Education.

The Council for Better Education represents 168 of Kentucky’s 174 school districts in efforts to ensure an efficient system of public schools. The Kentucky Association of School Councils is a membership organization supporting school councils, which are responsible for key school decisions about how to improve student achievement. The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence is an independent, non-profit, citizens' advocacy organization working to improve education for all Kentuckians.

Common assessments (SISI, PLCs)

Gaining Traction, Gaining Ground (downloadable here) shares results of a systematic look at high schools with strong records of raising achievement of students who enter school behind. The 2005 report identifies common assessment as a powerful practice with rapid results, illustrated with a North Carolina example:
The 11th-grade English teachers developed the model used by other teams. Beginning with the state standards for their course, they decided what needed to be taught in each unit of study. They agreed on the texts they would use and the skills they would teach for each unit throughout the year. The team also detailed the types of writing assignments students would complete and even developed sample writing prompts. But most important, they developed a common test for each unit.
* * *
After the common assessments are administered, teams of teachers analyze the results to determine what they need to focus on, which teachers seem to have figured out instruction in certain areas, and which teachers are struggling in certain areas. This information about their students’ achievement provides them with information that will inform their instruction and help their students to improve academically.
* * *
The efforts are paying off. Today, the school has more than 90 percent of students meeting state standards, while continuing to have a strong track record accelerating the learning of students who enter ninth grade behind academically.
Those three excerpts pull out the teacher practices and the results. It's also important to say that this level of collaboration built on a strong school culture of trust and was a major priority for an effective, focused principal.

The story starts out as classroom assessment, but in it you can feel curriculum, instruction, culture, professional growth, and leadership, all working together. For fans of Kentucky's Standards and Indicators of School Improvement, that's six of the nine Standards in a single collaborative effort. For folks working to understand and apply the research on professional learning communities, it's a powerful example of the key ideas coming together.

(Earlier posts on professional learning communities (PLCs) are here and here. An explanation of Standards and Indicators (SISI), with a link to the full text, is here.)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Senate Bill 1 timetable reminder

Section 2(2)(a) says:
Within thirty days of the effective date of this Act, the Kentucky Department of Education in collaboration with the Council on Postsecondary Education shall plan and implement a comprehensive process for revising the academic content standards in reading, language arts including writing, mathematics, science, social studies, arts and humanities, and practical living skills and career studies. The revision process shall include a graduated time table to ensure that all revisions are completed to allow as much time as possible for teachers to adjust their instruction before new assessments are administered.
The bill became law March 25th, so we should have news soon on how this process will work.

Postsecondary costs, thoughtful answers

The "Confessions of a Community College Dean" blog points out that most businesses don't buy equipment or add staff without a clear idea of the payoff for their own bottom line. The logic is different for health and higher education:
We adopt innovations not because they pay off for us, but because they pay off for other industries. We prepare students to work in the current economy, at jobs as they're currently configured. That means not just professors and libraries, but human patient simulators, multimedia labs, imposing IT infrastructures, and the lab technicians to tend to it all. We don't capture any of the economic gains from these investments. Our students do, and the economy as a whole does, but we don't (at least not directly). We upgrade even when it isn't 'efficient,' because we couldn't do our job otherwise.
The full post, with additional insights into why health and postsecondary costs keep rising so much faster than inflation, is here.

"Wax museum" learning

Do read this wonderful story of students acting out a "wax museum" of historical figures at Shepherdsville Elementary. I value this part the most:
The museum, April 9, was the culmination of months of hard work as each fifth-grader was challenged to choose a historical figure and become a mini-expert on him or her.

Before they even worried about costumes, students had to write a poem, a feature article, a monologue and a PowerPoint presentation on their historical figure.

The best part of the project, however, was when they became their historical figures.

April Shattuck crouched in front of her daughter Storm McLeod, 10, and "pushed" the red paper circle or "button" on the floor.

Storm unfroze and began telling her mother about how Pocahontas helped the English settlers at Jamestown.
It's easy to say kids will remember what they learned because it was fun. That's true, but there's much more there.

First, look at the writing and the presentations. The articles made them organize and clarify what they read. The PowerPoint work required choices about main points and supporting details. Both steps expected students to work out how the story fit together, building a deeper, more lasting understanding.

Second, notice the arts in action. The students created poems and costumes and planned dramatic performances for a live audience. That work will last in their memories in a way that little else will.

Third, expect dividends from that work in their future reading. Fifth-grade Sacagawea will pay extra attention to high school maps of exploration and settlement. The Einstein beside her will be the one who can summarize relativity in physics class. The Elvises will pick up details of the 50s and 60s faster. And many of them will also gain from what they watched one another do. This early learning gives them useful content, and that same content will help them understand textbook information in future classes.

Finally, notice that the students chose their own characters. Those choices almost certainly reflected what each one enjoyed learning even earlier, whether from primary classes or independent reading or television and movies. In that step, they were already bringing early content study to later content engagement.

Great instruction sees writing and arts as paths into science and social studies, and it sees early science and history as paths to success in later reading and study--and this was great instruction.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Viewpoint: SB 1 and raising standards

Since 1990, Kentucky testing has had three scoring systems, each easier than the last. By easier, I mean two things.

First, we set new "cut points" when we changed from 1998 KIRIS to 1999 CATS and when we changed from the 1999-2006 version of CATS to the revised 2007 and 2008 CATS. At the moment that we put the new cut points to work, many more students were counted as proficient.

Second, we asked for less complex kinds of student performance. From KIRIS to CATS, we dropped performance events and added multiple choice. From "CATS I" to "CATS II" we gave multiple choice more weight than it had before.

Senate Bill 1 demands something different. It calls for P-12 standards to be aligned with college expectations, and it calls for international benchmarks to be taken into account. In short, standards will need to be higher, and initially, fewer students will be counted as meeting them.

That has some implications.

First, greater rigor deserves our support. The standards must be demanding without being impossible. As the standard-setting process happens, many voices should support aiming high.

Second, greater rigor means our educators will need support, too. SB 1 expects teacher education programs to equip new teachers to address higher standards well, and it expects statewide professional development to prepare current teachers for the new expectations. We can't let that support piece slip through the cracks. Making SB 1 work will require strong EPSB action, major KDE initiative, and responsible state budget decisions to support the changes we've put into law.

SB 1 is a major opportunity to set stronger, clearer standards and then deliver on them for Kentucky students.

(My special thanks to Roger Marcum for the conversation that helped me see this point clearly.)

Science achievement, disability, gender

There's strength for Kentucky here. Our female students with disabilities and our male students with and without have statistically significant leads over similar students nationally in science. Our female students with disabilities show a six-point lead, but that does not qualify a statistically significant. (Since we test a small sample, the gap has to be huge to be significant.)

There's also pain for Kentucky here. Scores are 15 points lower for boys with disabilities than for boys without, and 22 points lower for girls with than without.

That gender gap, with girls behind, is news to me. In Kentucky data, our problem is usually boys lagging--and it's usually small enough that I can't see it as important compared to other gaps. This time, seeing the numbers this way, I imagine female students with disabilities having just about given up, and given up by age nine. That's only a first guess of what the gap could mean, but whatever the reason, these aren't numbers we should accept.

(Small note on data: For years, NAEP data has been available for one group at a time, so I could see how male students perform and how students with disabilities perform, but not how male students with disabilities are doing. Suddenly, with the new version of the Data Explorer, the combinations are available. This post and yesterday's on race and poverty (here), are the first things I've checked out. More as I have time to learn more.)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Fiscal stabilization wild card

Can Kentucky spend $532 million on education without quite spending $532 million? The rules for the fiscal stabilization education dollars say each state must:
  1. Keep state P-12 and postsecondary funding at the 2006 level in 2009, 2010, and 2011.
  2. Use the first slice of the federal money to restore the 2008 level of state P-12 funding, or 2009 if that's higher. The distribution must use the state's main funding formula
  3. Use the second slice to do the same thing for postesecondary education, again using the state's main formula.
  4. Distribute what's left to P-12 districts using the Title 1 formula.
Steps 2, 3, and 4 are pretty rigid. Step 1 is where Kentucky leaders have choices to make.

The 2011 budget could drop state education funding down to the 2006 level, and use the stabilization dollars to pull us back up to 2009 levels. That would free some state dollars for something else.

The 2011 budget could also hold education funding steady and let the federal money take schools and universities to a new level of strength for a couple of years.

Naturally, there are options in between those extremes, and the 2010 budget, although it's already been adopted, could be revised along the same lines, especially if revenue stays below original projections in the coming months.

Key point: the net education impact of stabilization dollars won't be clear until we see state budget decisions for the next two fiscal years.

(Notes: All years above are fiscal years. The $532 million is 81.8% of the $651+ figure available here. The stabilization rules in the ARRA are here, with the requirement to spend 81.8% on education and the rules for distributing the dollars appearing in Sec. 14002(a)(2)(A) and (C), and the requirement to maintain 2006 funding being shown in Sec. 14005(d)(1)(A).)

Science achievement and gaps

Good news:
  • As I blogged earlier, Kentucky fourth-graders overall outscore their peers nationwide by a significant margin in science.
  • The graph above also shows a statistically significant lead for black students in the free and reduced lunch program and for white students both in and out of the program.
Not good news:
  • The gap between our black students in the lunch program and our white students not in the program is a huge 31 points.
  • The gap between our white students in the lunch program and our black students not in the program is 11 points.
Poor white students outscore non-poor black students in Kentucky's strongest NAEP subject. That's fast, painful evidence of an ongoing truth: we still let race divide us and we still let race undermine our children's shared future.

Transition accountability: Union County

From a Union County Advocate article (here) on "Schools Ready for Cats":
Every board member gave a word or two of encouragement to students for this year’s testing process, which begins in nine days.

Many schools, including MES and SES [Morganfield and Sturgis Elementary Schools], are setting their goals high for this year's testing. Both Interim Principal Sam Smith and Principal Melissa Brantley say their schools are aiming for an index score of 100 out of 140.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Transition accountablity: Bullitt County

From the CJ:
Despite the state's decision to change its testing system, the Bullitt County Public Schools system doesn't plan to let up on its efforts to boost student achievement, district administrators said.

Bullitt schools have to continue to account for improving student performance, said Greg Schultz, assistant superintendent of curriculum, told board members during an April 13 meeting.

Civics push (in Jefferson County)

The CJ reports here on a new freshman civics course. To whet your appetite:
"Students are engaged in a social studies class in a way I have never seen them engaged before," said Seth Pollitt, who has taught high school social studies for three years at Iroquois.

Superintendent Sheldon Berman, who pushed for the new class, calls it "the single best piece of curriculum that I know of because of its impact on students and its level of sophistication."

Best in Class: letter (and reply)

Here (on page 2), there's a letter to the editor from Bill Braden, executive director of the Kentucky Counseling Association, about the loan forgiveness being withheld from more than 4,000 Kentucky educators. I especially notice this statement:
I believe that most Kentucky teachers and counselors who received this benefit understood the fact that the funds were based on availability, were not guaranteed and could change or be withdrawn at any time.
To learn why I believe most teachers and counselors were promised a continuing program that would not be withdrawn, start here and here with the Student Loan People's own publications. Then read teachers' own words in the comments on the posts here, here, and here.

To learn more about Dr. Braden's organization, click here.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Best in Class: more proof of a promise

Background: The Best in Class loan debacle has left more than 4,000 Kentucky educators paying off loans they expected would be forgiven by the Student Loan People. One key issue is whether the Student Loan People really made that promise, or whether it consistently told borrowers that the program could be canceled at any time.

On January 11, 2005, KHEAA issued a report on Student Benefits from the Student Loan People: FY 2003-2004. You can download the full document here, but check out the sample to the left.

"Interest is forgiven at the end of each academic year" surely describes a program expected to last.

"Up to 20% of the loan can be forgiven each year" also sounds precisely like an ongoing program.

"Teachers can eliminate their entire student loan debt" comes with no warnings at all that the program itself might not last for the five years in question.

Yes, it was a promise. Yes, it was reasonable for teachers to rely on it. Yes, the only reasonable thing now, the only decent thing left, is for the rest of us to make sure the promise is kept.

Gaps, Economics, McKinsey Report

The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America's Schools, newly released by McKinsey & Company, deserves our very close attention. The main report and the supporting detail are here. A single sentence from the introduction captures the main point:
The persistence of these educational achievement gaps imposes on the United States the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession.
The report also offers dollar values for the gaps, saying that our 2008 gross domestic product could have been:
  • $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion if our achievement matched "better-performing nations such as Finland and Korea."
  • $310 to $525 billion higher if our black and Latino achievement matched white achievement.
  • $400 to $670 billion higher if our low-income achievement matched that of other students.
  • $425 to $700 billion higher if achievement in low-performing states matched other states.

PLCs: more on what they take

Professional learning communities are a pivotal concept for changing schools in ways that raise student performance. Having introduced the idea earlier (here), I want to add another thought from Richard DuFour, one of the leading PLC advocates:
When educators do the hard work necessary to implement these principles, their collective ability to help all students learn will rise... The rise or fall of the professional learning community depends not on the merits of the concept itself, but on the most important element in the improvement of any school--the commitment and persistence of the educators within it.
Reading DuFour and talking to educators, I think that teachers' commitment and persistence are an outcome, as well as an input, in the PLC process. The collaborative approach helps teachers sustain the high energy needed to keep finding and trying new approaches to move every student forward. Where one person working alone could run out of steam, the team approach fuels lasting effort.

Sources: The quotes are from From On Common Ground, edited by DuFour, Eaker, & DuFour, pages 32-40 (Solution Tree, 2005), by way of KASC's Insights journal.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Professional learning communities

Here are the two questions that I think matter most in education:
  1. What kind of classroom can help all students learn at substantially higher levels?
  2. How can we develop many more classrooms that work that way?
Richard DuFour's work on professional learning communities offers the best answer I know to the second question. A few quick excerpts from his edited volume, On Common Ground:
The professional learning community model flows from the assumption that the core mission of formal education is not simply to ensure that students are taught but to ensure that they learn.... Every professional in the building must engage with colleagues in the ongoing exploration of three crucial questions that drive the work of those within a professional learning community: What do we want each student to learn? How will we know when each student has learned it? How will we respond when a student experiences difficulty in learning?
* * *
Despite compelling evidence indicating that working collaboratively represents best practice, teachers in many schools continue to work in isolation.... The powerful collaboration that characterizes professional learning communities is a systematic process in which teachers work together to analyze and improve their classroom practice.
* * *
Working together to improve student achievement becomes the routine work of everyone in the school. Every teacher team participates in an ongoing process of identifying the current level of student achievement, establishing a goal to improve the current level, working together to achieve that goal, and providing periodic evidence of progress.
The PLC concept combines professional development, school culture, school improvement planning, and leadership ideas. It's easy to summarize and challenging to implement. My hunch is that for schools to take it on, they must be able to push aside many other competing demands on teacher attention.

As a state, we've made several efforts to head this way. The key PLC appear repeatedly in the state's Standards and Indicators for School Improvement, and the 2005 improvements to our professional development regulation push in the same direction.

At the local level, I count the "Black Box" high performance, high poverty schools as examples of the idea in action. In recent months, I've also heard superintendents Dale Brown and Stu Silberman describe the impact of this sort of engagement within their districts.

This big idea is changing our schools for the better, and we need to accelerate its impact.

Sources: The quotes are from From On Common Ground, edited by DuFour, Eaker, & DuFour, pages 32-40 (Solution Tree, 2005), by way of KASC's Insights journal. The Standards and Indicators are here, with the PD regulation here, and the Prichard Committees "Black Box" study here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Best in Class: proof they promised

Who went back to school believing the Student Loan People would repay her loans?

Who thought she would graduate without crippling debt?

Where did I find these claims that Best in Class and Best in Care were programs people should rely on as they enter school and trust to protect them after they graduate?

The borrowers were promised repayment. They've done their part, and it's time to pay them.

Best in Class = money we owe

As I write, there are 25 different gut-wrenching comments from teachers cheated by the Best in Class debacle, here. By the time you read, there may be more. Two big points come through.

First, these people showed up to teach. They showed up to serve our children in the fields that are usually hardest to fill. They're doing important work every day. They're heroes.

Second, Student Loan employees did tell many people the program would last. They did present it as an incentive program. They did encourage people to go into debt, and they did encourage them to defer repayment. They did it by phone, and I think it's very likely they did by e-mail, letter, and brochure.

That means there's no fine print excuse. Yesterday, I thought there was, and I was wrong. I was also wrong to think the borrowers had misunderstood. They were diligent, checked the offer in multiple ways, and understood it correctly.

The borrowers are owed the loan repayment, just as they say they are.

In 2007-08, the repayment cost a bit more than $4 million. Add in nurses and public defenders, and the total was just over $7 million. The price tag will be higher with an added year of hard-working people factored in--but not vastly higher. The money must be found, either in the reserves held by the Student Loan People or in the state's general fund.

If we can't afford honor and roads, I choose honor. If we can't afford state parks and honor, honor wins. If we can't afford economic incentives, honor again. We owe, and we have to pay.

Once we admit that, this problem is completely within our power to solve, even in a terribly difficult budget situation. Let's get it done.

Brutal facts, strong response (in Franklin County)

Scholastic audits are Kentucky's process for evaluating school and district practices when test scores identify a major problem. Their impact depends heavily on how the school system responds to the audit findings. The State-Journal's report on a recent Franklin County district audit spotlights disturbing news on current practices, but also notes what looks like the ideal starting response to move those practices up to strength:

A state scholastic audit has found six deficiencies in Franklin County Public Schools, including a lack of rigor in the classroom.

“You have to welcome the brutal facts,” Superintendent Harrie Buecker told members of the Board of Education Monday.

“It’s the only way you get better.”

The full State-Journal article is here, with hat tip to KSBA.

Best in Class, troubled funding

If I could tell this story well in fewer words and simpler terms, I would. Sadly, the details seem essential.

The collapse of the Best in Class loan program was a very bad thing. The basic story is discussed here and the failure of communication here, but the underlying finances also deserve attention.

Problem I: Cuts in federal fees
The widely circulated explanation is that the Student Loan People were forced into the cancellation by 2007 federal legislation that reduced some fees they received from the federal government.

That's part of the story, but not all of it.

Reading the Financial Statements: Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority/Kentucky Higher Education Student Loan Corporation: June 30, 2008, I'm convinced that the Student Loan People had two other major problems. (Click here to download the report.)

Problem II. Federal guarantees and ineligible loans
For several years, the Student Loan People received growing"special allowance" income on loans that were tied to tax-exempt bonds issued before October 1, 1993. Loans financed by those old bonds were entitled to a 9.5% guaranteed return. By transferring loans from one financing instrument to another, a number of lenders claimed that they could expand the total loan amounts eligible for the guarantee. For several years, the federal government paid what they asked. (Source: Money for Nothing, here)

In September 2006, the Department of Education's Inspector General concluded that another lender's claims like that were wrong and and the loans that had been transferred were ineligible for the guarantee. In January 2007, the Undersecretary of Education announced that the Department agreed and that “Other lenders also will not receive payments at the 9.5 percent floor rate until they can demonstrate that their loans come from eligible sources of funds.” (Source: Press release here)

The Financial Statements document continues the story this way:
On January 24, 2007, USDE sent a letter to the Authority/Corporation which set forth the same restatement and also imposed management assertion requirements for any 9.5% SAP billings after September 30, 2006, as well as guidance regarding the audit and certification requirements for those management assertions. A detailed list of management assertions to retain the 9.5 SAP was included in a separate DCL letter published by USDE on April 27, 2007. Due to the nature of the management assertions needed to bill for 9.5% SAP, the Authority/Corporation was unable to make such assertions and therefore lost all 9.5% SAP payments effective for all quarters ending on or after December 31, 2006.
That is, the Student Loan People asked for guarantee payments on a bunch of loans. When the Department asked for proof that the loans were eligible for the guarantee, the Student Loan People couldn't provide proof the Department would accept.

Cash flow from "special allowances" dropped from $42,483,265 in fiscal 2007 to $15,861,119 in fiscal 2008. I believe that's heavily a result of losing the 9.5% payments.

Problem III. The credit crisis
The credit crisis hit student lending long before it swept the headlines last fall. The Financial Statements take three pages to describe the impact, but a few snippets illustrate the danger:
  • "Beginning February 13, 2008, all of the Authority/Corporation’s [Auction
    Rate Securities] from that day forward were in failed auction mode, which triggered the maximum interest rate allowed under the related bond official statement."
  • "By May 2008, two-thirds of the Authority/Corporation’s [Variable Rate Demand Obligations] were placed with the liquidity provider, creating a need to refinance these debt obligations."
  • "In May 2008, that national bank informed the Authority that it was calling the $170 million line of credit, payable in three installments; $83.4 million upon closing of a planned refinancing bond issue, $16.6 million on September 30, 2008, and $47 million on December 31, 2008."
  • "On May 1, 2008, the Authority/Corporation temporarily suspended making FFELP loans to new borrowers due to a lack of funds available."
Later in May, President Bush signed a bill designed to free up loan funds. In the Financial Statement's explanation, I think the key phrases are the ones I've highlighted:
The participation program is operationally complex and results in negative cashflow for fiscal year 2008; as lenders are required to use operating reserves to pay all costs related to loans held in the participation trust.... The participation program is a profitable line of business, but the profits must remain in the closed trust until the loans are sold to another financing deal or the USDE and the trust is dissolved.
Reading that, I think the Student Loan People were compelled to tie up money that might, in better times, have helped the Best in Class borrowers. Best in Class was not canceled in the spring of 2007 when the 9.5% was lost, nor in the fall of 2007 when the federal fees changed. It was canceled later, when student loans faced nationwide danger and needed federal intervention to survive.

Bottom line
The mammoth fiscal crisis is the most important reason the Student Loan People could not do what student borrowers expected from the Best in Class program. The loss of the 9.5% guarantees and the reduced federal fees can vie for second place, but the federal fee issue is simply not the main reason Best in Class collapsed.

(Added source note: this Higher Education Watch post alerted me to the other sources I used to understand the ineligible loans. However, I do not agree with the weight they put on the loan problem. Having read their sources and the Financial Statements, I think that development is a smaller factor than the fiscal crisis, though still relevant to the total Best in Class story.)

KSB summer program (followup)

The Courier-Journal reports here on the Kentucky School for the Blind's summer program, canceled for financial reasons. There's a glimmer of hope from Senator Shaughnessy, who attended the parent meeting and thinks there can be a way to restore funding.

I've just had two ideas on how it could be done:
  • The federal stimulus includes major IDEA funding increases. Maybe dollars can't go directly to the School for the Blind because it isn't in a standard school district. If so, maybe school districts could receive the money, include the program in students' Individual Education Plans, and then pay KSB in an added step.
  • The 2009 program could be paid for out of the 2009-10 budget. That's how ESS has worked for years, and it's a bad idea--but maybe better than no program at all.
My earlier post on the cancellation is here, but do read the CJ version. It's a case study of why bloggers like me will never replace "shoe-leather" journalists like Deborah Yetter.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Best in Class, responsibility, and fine print (UPDATED)

The collapse of the "Best In Class" loan forgiveness program (described here) is a disaster we should learn from. I spent most of today trying to understand what happened.

Students thought they were being offered an incentive: borrow today, study the right things tomorrow, and we'll pay back your loans in future years. They have explained what they expected over and over, including here, here and here.

The Student Loan People can argue that they never made that promise. Press releases (here and here, for example) only invited people to apply for help with their current payments, with no promise about the future. Plus, the releases included a notice that:
Benefits may change or be canceled without notice, at any time, by operation of applicable laws or by The Student Loan People, for any reason at its sole discretion.
Legally, that probably covers them. Courts will likely accept the Loan People's argument that they could cut the program off at a moment's notice. [UPDATE: THIS IS NO LONGER MY VIEW, FOR REASONS SHOWN HERE, HERE, AND HERE.]

Morally, that doesn't cover it at all.

The borrowers were young adults part way through their education. The lenders were veteran professionals with fiscal and legal training on these issues. When they sent out the press releases, they used a smaller font for the disclaimer, literally relying on fine print. They put the disclaimer at the end of the releases, where any newspaper that was short on space would leave it out. They surely saw summaries like this one from Asbury that didn't say the program might vanish overnight.

The Student Loan People had options that could have prevented the debacle. They could have announced the program each year as a one-year program. They could have started all announcements with words like: "For 2003 and 2003 only, the Student Loan People will pay back up to 20% of the loans owed by people in the following situations. " They could have followed that with large print, bold print, underlined print, to say "There is absolutely no guarantee that we will offer to do this ever again. No one should borrow money expecting we will have this program in 2004."

One lesson here is for anyone borrowing money. If you don't get a written, signed promise about how it will be paid back, you don't have a deal. Look out for yourself. That's the the small lesson.

The big lesson is for anyone lending to students. Your job is to make your borrowers stronger and smarter by providing trustworthy information in ways that systematically discourage misunderstanding. Look out for others, especially those you were created to serve. The "Best in Class" program did not meet that duty of care. Future loan and loan payment programs need to do better than that, without excuses, and without fine print.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

QuickNotes: Personal bits for Sunday

From first grade: I found the word "circle" about as astonishing and resistant to phonics as any word could possibly be. (After yesterday's post on decoding and content learning, I hasten to add that recognizing the concept was only the tiniest bit of help.)

From law school: The NY Times reports that Yale and its support staff unions have entered new contracts without a strike. Remembering the reasons for the 1984 picket lines, I'm glad to read that "The university also agreed to help increase the pensions of some long-ago retirees, whose pensions sometimes total $300 or $400 per month."

From parenting: Preparing for extemporaneous speaking as a Danville High School extracurricular activity has my son on the prowl for all sorts of new knowledge. He's asked me to subscribe to the Economist, and also to explain the concept of inflation. It's not every parent's cup of tea, but stuff like that makes this mom's heart go pit-a-pat. My thanks go out to Steve Meadows and everyone else who makes that great forensics program run.

From parenting again: My daughter gave me permission to share this cartoon rendition of the tensions of her senior year experience.

End of Course Exams (in Missouri)(again)

This comment arrived earlier today in response to our January post (here) on Missouri testing:
I'm a Biology teacher in Jefferson County, Missouri (Northwest R1). Our EOC's are worth 10% of the student's grade and we have spent the last two years (including the preparation for field testing in 2008) preparing ourselves as teachers to bring our teaching in line with the EOC's.

Three years ago Missouri published Course Level Expectations to replace the more general Grade Level Expectations. We realigned our curriculum to match these new CLE's with the understanding that the coming EOC's would be built from these new CLE's.

It's been alot of work. In my opinion, EOC's are easier to prepare our students for than the old MAP tests because EOC's are course specific and relevant in both time and content.

I'm interested to see how my students perform this year as our testing cycle begins Monday, April 20th. What I've seen of the test looks challenging since we teach Biology to freshmen, but I do believe that the long term outlook will be to bring the level of our Biology classes to a higher standard.

As to subpar teachers facing no consequences - I haven't seen that in either of the two school districts I've worked in recently. Lots of pressure on us to get our students' performance up - it's a prime feature in our MSIP (Missouri School Improvement Plan) program so everyone is concerned about making it happen here. The only way that I can make that happen is to fully prepare my students for the test.

In fact, right now I'm reviewing the results of a practice EOC that we worked on in class Friday after spending two days reviewing material that the EOC might cover.

Questions about the validity of standardized testing are legitimate but, as a teacher, I appreciate knowing what is expected of me and having some kind of benchmark to show whether I'm reaching those expectations or not.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Reading, content, personal experience

E.D. Hirsch argues that students need to learn rich content (science, history, civics, literature, art) from their earliest days in school. That's how they get the background knowledge to make sense of reading assignments as they move up in the elementary grades.

Having posted about Hirsch's argument here, here, and here, I've been remembering fragments from my own early elementary years, including, in roughly chronological order:
  1. A flag drawing where I knew I had too few stripes even though I couldn't count to thirteen yet.
  2. Pilgrims and Indians to color in, plus turkeys made by tracing my hand.
  3. Washington and Lincoln silhouettes.
  4. Lima beans sprouting on paper towels as part of a plant lesson.
  5. A solar system model made by classmates.
  6. A map of Vietnam, and explaining to the principal that the southern part was "our side."
  7. "I have seen the crocus children dancing in the cold/Some are dressed in purple and white, and some are dressed in gold," sung in my first school play.
  8. "We are marching to Pretoria, Pretoria, Pretoria...."
  9. Georgia peaches, peanuts, and cotton, from my first library research ever.
  10. Chicks hatching in an incubator.
  11. The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and its alternate version involving a teacher and a ruler.
  12. "Taxation without representation" applied to nails and glass as well as tea, and stuck forever to a sketch of Ben Franklin's childhood home in a biography with a blue-gray cover.
Art work has a huge role in those memories. There were crayons involved with the flag, the pilgrims and turkeys, Lincoln's beard, Vietnam, and Georgia. There was music for the crocuses, Pretoria, and the Battle Hymn. Paper maché went into the solar system, along with colors so bright that I loved it as though I'd made it myself.

There was also active learning and responsibility, not only for the art work, but for the beans and the chicks, and the oral report on Vietnam and the written work on Georgia.

The Franklin biography might look like an exception, except that I chose the book because I loved the costumes in the illustrations--and got the civics background as a bonus.

By the time I got to Franklin, I was doing what Hirsch said reading requires: combining decoded words and substance I already knew to pull new knowledge from printed word. In the other items, my teachers were giving me substance that was worthwhile in itself and that also prepared me to understand later textbooks, school assignments, and hundreds of books and articles I'd read as an adult.

In each bit of science and history, and in every drawing and song I can remember from those days, my teachers were equipping me to read.

First video: Governor, early childhood, education reform

I especially like "Our children are more than worth it."

Special note for e-mail subscribers: if you are not seeing a video in the e-mail, you can click here to see the Governor's message.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Kentucky tuition in context

After I posted recent Kentucky tuition increases (here) Bob Sexton asked me if I could provide some sense of national context. Here's a downpayment on that.

On the one hand, the graph is flawed because it clearly shows after-inflation changes but doesn't say that or say how. On the other hand, it conveys the main point forcefully, and it's hard to resist a chance to offer a hat tip to the White House.

Shared standards: SB 1 meets stimulus funding

EdWeek reports breaking news:
After years of debating the idea of national content standards, representatives from 37 states are set to convene in Chicago today in what organizers hope will be a first, concrete step toward common guidelines in mathematics and English-language arts.
The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers—the Washington-based groups that are co-sponsoring the meeting—want to build a prototype of high school graduation standards by summer, and grade-by-grade academic standards in math and language arts by the end of the year.
The undertaking would start with rigorous math and language arts standards that are aligned with college- and career-ready expectations and made available for states to adopt voluntarily.
Following the meeting states ready to support common standards are to be asked to put their commitment in writing within weeks.
The article continues with considerable detail well worth a read, here.
This is a movement Kentucky will be part of. In February, Commissioner Farris noted the state's planned involvement in the KDE white paper on Assessment issues here. Even the timetable aligns perfectly with SB 1's requirement that new math standards be completed by the end of this year.
The project is also ripe for funding under the ARRA stimulus bill. "The Race to the Top is officially on," writes EdWeek's Politics P-12 blog in reporting on today's announcement, linking the standards work to the competitive grant money to be awarded by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in the coming months. If you wondered what a "shovel-ready" project looks like in education, this work is your answer.

Fastest enrollment decline in the nation

Kentucky public higher education lost 2.2% of its full-time equivalent enrollment, falling from 145,605 in 2006-07 to 142,382 in 2007-08. Only five states had declines, and none fell as fast as Kentucky. In the same period, FTE enrollment rose 2.2% for the nation as a whole.

This decline may confirm earlier concerns raised by Auditor Crit Luallen. Based on data that ended in 2006-7, she raised concerns about slowing FTE enrollment growth, especially for Kentucky residents, and suggested that rapid tuition growth might be the cause.

(Source: State Higher Education Finance: Early Release 2008 provides the FTE data. The report is here: in the first column, look for SHEF Early Release 2008 as the link to download the 12-page report. The Auditor's 2007 report is here.)

Transition Accountability: Laurel County

The Sentinel-Echo offers the details of a school board discussion that's deeply invested in keeping the focus on improving performance:
Laurel County superintendents and school board members expressed their concern Monday over the crumbling of the CATS test, with unaccountability the top worry. According to Senate Bill 1, state-level accountability has been suspended for the next two school years until a new assessment system can be developed.

School board member Tommy Smith was the most vocal in his unease.

“Is there not going to be a goal?” he said in response to a presentation summarizing the bill. “Is (setting a goal) something the board needs to look at? That’s my biggest concern about this whole thing: What about our accountability?”

Assistant Superintendent Denise Griebel, who made the presentation along with Director of Assessment & Accountability Tharon Hurley, agreed with Smith.

“We second your concerns,” she said. “We do not want to lose the progress that we’ve made.”

“We do have things in place to carry that accountability forward,” Superintendent David Young added. “We meet three times a year with principals. We have curriculum coaches in place. We intend to continue with that. That accountability from the state level is a big input but we do have things in place at the district level.”

Still, Young agreed with Smith’s point.

“Without accountability, we have a tendency not to move forward,” he said. “And that’s what education is all about. There’s no doubt that with KERA education has improved.”

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Scores v. Grades (in Chicago)

Since 2003, Chicago has required double-period ninth-grade algebra classes for students scoring below national median on an eighth-grade math tests. A new systematic study of the policy reports:
Providing support courses improved algebra test scores for the target population but only modestly affected grades and failure rates. Students with very low initial abilities benefited less than students close to the national median. The policy also led schools to track algebra classes by students' entering math skills. As a result, it affected academic outcomes among students not targeted by the policy; test scores among high-ability students improved whereas their grades declined.
That's puzzling. It sounds like students getting the same grades as past classes, while doing better work. [Study here, with EdWeek reporting here]

Of course, if teachers are setting their grading scale based on a curve that limits the number of A's and requires some quota of D's and F's, that would explain the gap. That would also signal a great opportunity for some discussion about setting standards and then working to help every student reach or exceed that goal.

Funding struggles

This week's headlines (gathered by KSBA) note three districts struggling with tight funding.

Here in Danville, we may face cuts of fifteen certified and nine classified positions. According to Advocate-Messenger coverage of our last board meeting, "$500,000 to $600,000 would be extracted from a total annual operating budget of $15 million to $16 million."

In Scott County, kindergarten may be cut back. Instead of a half-day program, the district is considering an alternating day program. At a guess, the goal is to be able to transport those students at the same time as slightly older children. In recent coverage, parents are frustrated and teachers concerned about continuity--and my guess is that the district will need to find a different creative idea to solve this crunch. The district is wrestling a $3.5 million potential deficit.

In Garrard County, Superintendent Ray Woolsey is retiring, and explained in part by saying, "I'm tired of having to tell people they don't have a job. It has been a very tough year."

Meanwhile, Floyd County Superintendent Henry Webb said recently that any staff cuts would be due to enrollment declines, rather than the overall economy. I

That led me to notice that the Danville, Scott, and Garrard articles didn't provide detail on the source of the shortfalls. We're not looking (yet, knock on wood) at major cuts to state funding to districts. Other possible issues are:
  • Declining enrollment or average daily attendance.
  • Declining local tax revenue, especially for districts that have some "Tier 2" revenue that gets no state equalization.
  • Rising retirement costs for classified employees.
  • Rising pay costs as staff members move up in rank and seniority.

SEEK base: Visualizing equalization (minor update)

Earlier, I wrote about the basics of SEEK base funding here. Now, some pictures of the same data from the 2009-10 SEEK forecast.

Above, the twelve districts with the most taxable property per student put in more local money and receive less state money than state average, yet all have total base funding within $400 of the average.

Below, the twelve districts with the least taxable property put in less local money and receive more state funds, yet all end up with base resources within $615 of the average.

Why do the numbers vary at all? They vary because the formula starts with a base guarantee of $3,909, then adds money based on student disabilities, limited English proficiency, free lunch participation, and transportation. The districts that receive the most (combining district and state) under the formula have the highest identified needs in those areas.

(Minor update: A reader found the last paragraph unclear, so I've added the three words shown in italics. I hope they make my point easier to follow.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A bit about taxes

Today's post at the Gruntled Center:
Today is Tax Day.

This is the day when all Americans should celebrate the services that we have hired the government to provide. I have already eaten food that was safe and regulated, sit in a house that was built to code, use electric appliances built to standard, and wear clothes made cheaper by trade agreements. Soon I will walk down city sidewalks, cross a state highway, past dormitories built with government-backed bonds, to teach students who can be at Centre College because of their federal loans.

But before I go to work, I will put up the flag and thank all those who served in our armed forces to keep me and my family free to enjoy all of this and much more.

Paying taxes is a patriotic duty that I can do with a grateful heart.
(Happy disclosure: I'm married to author Beau Weston.)

SEEK Base basics (using 2009-10 forecasts)

Support Education Excellence in Kentucky, our main school funding program, reduces financial gaps between districts with the most and least property per pupil. Here's an overview* of how the SEEK formula will provide basic funding in 2009-10, using state forecast numbers:
  1. $484,507 is the average taxable property per pupil statewide.
  2. $5,332 is the average base funding per student required by the SEEK formula, including a standard $3,909 per student, plus added amounts for students with disabilities, students in the free lunch program, students with limited English, and transportation.
  3. $1,454 of the $5,332 is the average share that comes from districts. By law, each district contributes 0.3% of the value of their taxable property, usually stated as 30¢ per $100.
  4. $3,878 of the $5,332 is the average part from state funding. That's the amount left when you subtract the local share.
Only, no district has exactly the state average taxable property, so no district's local share is exactly average either. Here's a forecast of how the base formula will work for the twelve districts with the lowest taxable property, with the state providing more and the districts less than the average used above:

And here's a forecast for the twelve with the strongest taxable property, with the local share larger and the state share smaller than average:

* To keep this overview short, I've left out some details, like the way the formula uses average daily attendance to count students, and the way that the attendance numbers can't keep up with rising numbers in the fastest growing districts, and the way districts can use something other than property taxes to raise their local 0.3% share. Also, SEEK has two additional optional elements on top of these base funding numbers, and the state and federal government provide added funding beyond the SEEK totals.

KAAC deserves the applause

Yesterday, I posted the great Learning Pledge recommended by the Kentucky Association of Assessment Coordinators, but attributed it to the Kentucky Association of School Councils. I apologize to KAAC for the error: I knew the right name and typed the wrong one. The Freudian slip, linking it to a group I worked with for 15 years, came from my deepest admiration.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

STEM degree gains, gaps

In 2006-07, Kentucky made a bit of progress in graduating students with bachelor's degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Based on data reported in the Digest of Education Statistics 2008, Kentucky:
  • graduated 75 more students with STEM degrees than in 2005-06.
  • registered a 3.2% increase in STEM degrees, while the nation improved 0.9%.
  • increased STEM as a share of bachelor's degrees slightly from 12.5% to 12.6%, while the country decreased the STEM share from 15.7% to 15.4%.
  • ranked 42nd in the nation in STEM as a share of bachelor's degrees, improved from 44th in 2005-06.
Continuing at that rate, Kentucky would likely meet the goal of Top 20 by 2020, but we'd do it in part by watching the country as a whole losing ground. Instead, we need to increase Kentucky STEM degrees more quickly, and also cheer on other states' growth in this area.

Triple congratulations to Elaine Farris

Earning the Clark County superintendency is sweet.

Reading it announced as "Clark County’s own Elaine Farris was hired Tuesday as the new superintendent, punctuating an illustrious career in education that includes three local schools" is sweeter still.

Noticing that the reporting cited by KSBA's news service comes from GRC Online, created by George Rogers Clark High School adds sweetness on top of that.

Governor tags key issues for review

Addressing the Boone County Education Foundation yesterday, Governor Steve Beshear identified areas of Kentucky education that he sees as needing systematic review and improvement, including:
  • graduation rates
  • content standards
  • college and university teacher preparation programs
  • remediation for college students
The Enquirer adds that "Beshear did not advocate changes to the [SEEK] funding formula, though he did pledge to avoid cutting the funding." [Full article here, with hat tip to KSBA]

Great Stuff: The Learning Pledge [Corrected]

Faced with concerns about the testing transition and its instructional implications, the Kentucky Association of Assessment Coordinators recommends a principled pledge for educators:
I, a staff member of ______________________school and the _____________school district, hereby proclaim and steadfastly adhere to the following pledge of learning.

• Regardless of test measures, instruments, or accountability features I will provide each individual child with the highest level educational opportunity possible.
• I resolve to adhere to the Program of Studies by teaching all core subjects each year. Non-tested subject areas and grades will not be treated as inferior, in time or quality, to tested subjects and grades.
• I will provide and support quality, authentic writing instruction for all students at all grade levels. This will include compiling continuous samples of student work.
• The use of “writing to learn” will continue in all grades and all subjects, regardless of the form of assessment.
• All students will continue to receive high level of instruction and opportunity to participate in the arts and practical living skills.
• I will continually seek to provide instruction relevant to the learning level of each child, be it acceleration or remediation. I will be driven by the individual needs of students, not by test design.
• I will provide a reasonable subject review just prior to the assessment window and resolve not to “practice test” throughout the year.
• I will, at every moment, do what is right for the child.
• I agree to be held accountable to myself, my students, and my community on the principles listed above.
A handsome PDF version is available here.

[Correction: I initially attributed this work to the Kentucky Association of School Councils. I apologize to KAAC for the error: I knew the right name and typed the wrong one. The Freudian slip, linking it to a group I worked with for 15 years, came from my deepest admiration.]