Setting the Standard in Education

Posts Tagged ‘California’

Brown Vs. Whitman Part 3: The Comparison

In California, Federal on August 6, 2010 at 1:02 pm

While the Federal DOE is thankful to have an EduJobs bill that doesn’t cut any of Obama’s pet programs (although it does cut millions from welfare and financial aid funds), if you’ve been following along, you know that around these parts, that’s not the major storyline. This will be the third part of a three part series on Jerry Brown’s and Meg Whitman’s education platforms in their race for the governor’s seat. Today, I’ll go through a comparison of their policies. The easiest way to go about his is probably category by category. I’ll have a little scorecard to go along with it.

I couldn't resist this graphic from the San Jose Independent Examiner. Neither will win the looks contest from these pictures, but does one have a stronger education body of policy?

Higher education

Both Whitman and Brown have major selling points when it comes to higher ed. Whitman wants to give more money to the UCs and Cal States. Brown on the other hand wants to revamp the California Master Plan to make the system work with 21st century goals in mind, rather than the stratification that was set 50 years ago. Part of this includes online courses and making sure the community college system is aligned with the UCs and CSUs.

The point goes to Brown. He has a much more specific idea of what he wants to see happen in higher ed.
Brown: 1 Whitman: 0

Teacher quality

Both candidates want to recruit better teachers, but neither really says how this is going to happen. The closest thing that either candidate has for a recruitment plan is that Meg Whitman wants easier pathways to alternative certification, specifically for STEM subject teachers. This is a great idea, but it seems incomplete. Just making it easier to become a teacher is not going to necessarily attract better candidates. Her better idea is the idea of bonuses for outstanding teachers. While this might not attract better teachers, it could serve to retain good ones. Jerry Brown’s strength lies in his idea for teacher prep. He wants to see changes in how teachers are brought into the field. His idea actually has some major similarities to the Urban Teacher Residency model. To bring that to a large scale would be a great challenge, but it could be monumental in its effect. He also includes an idea for ways that teachers can move up, rather than keeping the same responsibility level for their entire careers.

This point goes to Brown. Again, he seems to have a very specific plan on what he’d like to see with real interventions.
Brown: 2, Whitman: 0

Education Funding

This is the topic that gets the most people riled up, although I think honestly it probably has among the least effects on students. You can argue that crowded classrooms and poor facilities result in poor performance, but I go back to the fact that money spent has little or no correlation to achievement. Whitman thinks that there should be less administrative spending and more in the classroom. She wants to cut a lot of the overhead so money can go to more direct funding of the classroom. Both candidates favor changing the formulas for classroom funding. Brown wants there to be fewer than 20 categories, while Whitman thinks there should be a few simplified grants for which districts can apply. They both think the spending should be more in the hands of the schools. Whitman says she’d take money saved from cutting welfare, whereas Brown says he’d save money from cutting prison programs.

This one is a tie. The only thing that really stands out in funding is Whitman’s idea to cut administrative expenses in favor of classroom spending. As I pointed out yesterday, there’s not much evidence this would lead to better performance.
Brown: 2.5, Whitman: .5

School innovation

This is an area where there are pretty clear-cut differences. Whitman is for abolishing the charter cap. That would allow for charters to blossom and create an environment with a penchant for change. Brown doesn’t want to be so hasty. Instead, he suggests that schools be given more freedoms and says that districts should be encouraged to be more innovative. I don’t really see how he expects these things to happen.

This point goes to Whitman. Brown really seems to be a waffler on this one, probably because of his large campaign contributions from a certain organization.
Brown: 2.5, Whitman: 1.5

School performance

A big part of Meg Whitman’s education policy is the idea to grade all schools A through F and then allow parents of failing schools choices of either allowing their student to transfer or to make it into a charter. I think parental involvement is important, but parents aren’t experts when it comes to education. They should have input, not control. A clear system of accountability could be very useful, though. Brown’s focus when it comes to school performance is on the tests. He thinks the testing system needs a big overhaul. Tests should be faster, more accurate, and throughout the year to gauge growth better.

Both candidates have decent ideas that are very different, so it’s hard to give this point to one of them. I’ll call it a tie.
Final score: Brown: 3, Whitman: 2

Feel free to change the scores for things you believe in to determine who you find the better candidate for education. Maybe you think charters are too dangerous or perhaps you really think there needs to be more funding for higher education. What’s clear is this: Jerry Brown has a lot more ideas when it comes to education. This could be a strength or a weakness, depending on how you look at it. It’s obvious his experience both as a founder of charters and a former governor makes him more aware of education issues. He tends to be more vague on a lot of his points, while Whitman strives to be straightforward, but I give him the edge when it comes to the policy potentials. Remember of course, that these are just platforms, so they don’t guarantee decision-making skills in themselves. Neither candidate seems to be terrible when it comes to education, but Brown falls a bit ahead of Whitman, it seems.


A Litttle Basic Math

In California on July 24, 2010 at 5:46 pm

I saw this article mentioned earlier this week, but didn’t put two and two together initially (ha! math joke!). The title is “Classsroom spending dips as ed funding rises.” That title sounds serious. California is spending more on education overall, but less on the classroom!? Well…no. We’re spending more and spending a lower percentage on the classroom. Spending went from $45.6 billion to $55.6 billion from 2004-2009 and at the same time, the percentage spent on the classroom went down from 59% to 57.8%. I’ll do a little multiplication for you to save you the trouble. That means classroom spending went from $26.90 billion to $32.14 billion. So while the increase in overall education spending grew by $10 billion, classroom spending grew by $5.24 billion. Let me put it in comparative terms. Classroom spending increased by 19.5% while other spending (administrative costs, property costs, buses, all of those things) increased by 25.5%. Thus, because other costs increased by more, the overall percentage of spending in the classroom decreased.

Does this mean we’re neglecting the classroom? Maybe or maybe not. What kinds of spending does a classroom have? Teacher salaries and supplies for the most part. Teacher salaries are usually stable for periods of time this short, since there are union contracts that often don’t change much. As for supplies, the biggest expenses there are on technology. There have been lots of complaints about purchasing of unnecessary technology, so is it a problem that we’re both spending more on technology and less of a percentage on it? In addition, technology prices are decreasing rapidly. In 2005, $1000 would’ve been a reasonable price for a computer. Now, computers are half the cost. We’ve also focused a lot more in the last few years on things like accountability and support. Increasing assessments is costly. Professional development has also become a major focus in the last few years. I’m guessing that’s not counted as a “classroom cost,” but don’t you think it’s worthwhile? The article quotes the study’s author, public policy professor and director of research for the Davenport Institute, Steven Frates as saying, “It’s not teachers’ salaries and benefits that are causing the financial problems in the education system.”

He’s right; it’s budget cuts. School districts are being asked to spend less while at the same time their costs are going up. A report earlier this year pointed out that California spent less than average in 2007-2008 than other states, despite having higher costs of living. It’s not like education is the only area in which the California government is having budget issues. It’s widely known that the state is hemorrhaging everywhere. The article also brings up the fact that the CDE, according to spokeswoman Maria Lopez, has actually spent less money since 2007-2008, because of those very budget issues. Perhaps a bigger focus on classroom spending is necessary, but I’m not going to make judgments unless I see ideas of alternatives that are effective. How do we know administrative costs don’t drive learning as much as classroom costs? We don’t and misleading math isn’t going to solve any problems.

Happy 50th Birthday, California Master Plan!

In California on May 9, 2010 at 11:55 pm

I know I’m a couple of weeks late with this, but April 26th was the 50th anniversary of the California Master Plan. Sounds devious, doesn’t it?

Hopefully better than his Master Plan. Rights to this image owned by New Line Cinema.

As an astute reader, I’m sure you’ve inferred  that the CMP is not actually the work of an evil genius. Instead, it was the state of California’s 1960 plan to improve the state of post-secondary education. The Quick and the Ed has a history of the California Master Plan and issues that it has caused along the way with racial inequality and problems with transferring. I won’t go into all of that, but it’s an interesting read if you’ve got a few minutes. Essentially, the organization of the various universities, colleges, and community colleges was irregular to say the least. The Master Plan put into writing the way that the schools are now classified: the big research schools (the UCs) that take the elite students in the top 12.5 percent of their classes, the state schools (the Cal States) that take students that are in the top third of graduates, and the community colleges who take everyone else.

I do want to comment on the outlook of the California Master Plan in the next 10 years. The Quick and the Ed points out some startling facts that needs to be resolved ASAP and the easiest way would be a revision of the CMP. This past year, the UCs enrolled 2,300 fewer students. Not impressed by that number? The Cal States took 40,000 fewer. Want your socks knocked off? The CCs enrolled nearly a quarter of a million fewer students than the previous year. Aside from the obvious education gap that this creates, it works against the state in its quest for a qualified workforce. One estimate is that at current rates, California will need an additional million people  to have bachelor’s degrees by 2025. With baby boomers starting to retire, there will be a huge need for current students to replace them and even add to them, because of probable changes to economic demands. So what needs to happen? Well, first of all, more students need to go to college in the first place. Only 36 percent of 19 year olds are enrolled in college. The national average is 42. Despite the strong institutions in the state of California (or perhaps partly because of them), California ranks near the bottom in college enrollment rates, but near the top of community college enrollment rates. However, it doesn’t do anyone any good for so many students to be enrolled and not actually get a degree or transfer. Even though California accounts for 23% of CC students in the US, it only gives out 13% of the associates degrees. That’s not because students are transferring to four-year institutions, either. Only 10-12% of community college students actually do so. This is an abysmally low rate, although it seems to be fairly common among community college transfer rates. One problem is the inability of the community colleges to coordinate transfer requirements. The UCs and Cal States all seem to have different requirements for transferring in credit and required classes. This becomes extremely frustrating to those who want to create a path for themselves to succeed. When community college advisors can’t tell their students what to do to prepare, then the students end up going nowhere, but that’s a separate rant completely.

So that’s where the California Master Plan comes in. The CMP needs to be revised to create systems of coordination and communication between the various institutions to better guide students through the process. The 4-year institutions need to graduate a higher percentage of their students and the community colleges need to prepare  their students better and get them into the 4-year schools. It’s a tough burden to educate students better, but a much tougher one to find money to push more of them through at the same proficiency rates.

Is California Getting Some Help with RttT?

In California, Federal, LA on May 6, 2010 at 12:36 am

This article in the LA Times suggests that the state of California has recently been told by the federal DOE that it doesn’t need to get full participation from every district for Race to the Top as long as LAUSD (which has more students than half of the states in the US) takes part. There has been a lot of talk recently over whether it is better to have full buy-in from the districts, unions, etc. or to be bold. Duncan has had some frustration with this topic. There has been lots of speculation that because Delaware and Tennessee both had strong union support of their ideas, that was the way to go. However, Duncan has specifically said, “watered-down proposals with lots of consensus won’t win.” This points to an opening up of how the funding works. If it’s true that the strength of the proposal lies in how much reform there is, California has more incentive to target just a few districts that are willing to make greater strides than a large number of districts.

California probably figured it could win the race by shedding some weight.

Andy Smarick isn’t so sure that the article is accurate, though. His contentions are that: 1. Any application would be game if this were true, as long as they meet the data requirements. 2. It doesn’t make sense that the Department of Ed would have given them specific advice, since they are not apt to do that. And 3. It’s the judges that do the scoring, not the Ed Department anyway.

I’m not so sure there’s as big of a problem as Smarick thinks. First of all, if you take a look at the Race to the Top FAQs, question A-4 says that

The State’s applications for funding under Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (Stabilization) program must be approved by the Department prior to the State being awarded a Race to the Top grant.

It doesn’t say anything about not being allowed to make sure your application is legitimate; in fact, it implies the opposite. While the DOE last year said that LAUSD couldn’t apply on its own separate from the state, they never said the state had to have all of its districts in the race for its own application. In fact, if you take a look at section K of the FAQs, it talks about the process for LEAs (local education agencies, usually districts) to sign up (emphasis added):

Participating LEAs must agree to implement all or significant portions of the State’s plan and must enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) or other binding agreement with the State that specifies the scope of work that the LEA will implement. The expectation is that participating LEAs will implement significant aspects of the State’s plan…If the State is awarded a Race to the Top grant, its participating LEAs (including those that submitted too late to be included in the application) will have up to 90 days to complete final scopes of work (referred to as Exhibit II in the model MOU). At the conclusion of that period, States will notify LEAs of their final section 14006(c) subgrant.

The implication seems to be that there is no expectation that all districts will comply. There even seems to be an expectation that they won’t and that the funding is based on those that do, rather than what the whole state is doing. So perhaps, the LA Times article wasn’t wrong, so much as misleading. What probably happened is that those in charge of the state’s application asked if they could have a more limited scope, because the population of California is bigger than the 18 smallest states combined. I don’t think that there were necessarily any lengthy negotiations of what they could or could not do. California may have submitted a proposal that was then approved. The author of the Times article also seems a bit unfamiliar with what they’re writing about, making it seem as if the deal with the Department of Ed means that the portions about charter laws and other factors can be glossed over. If anything, with fewer districts, expect the state to have its application more in line with what Duncan et al. want with more loosening of charter laws and tying performance to pay for teachers. The scenario really appears to be a win-win. The districts that participate have a higher chance of winning and the Administration doesn’t have to spend as much money if California wins, while still getting their participation.

Also, can someone please tell Andy Smarick that there are three words that start with ‘t” in Race to the Top, not two?

Update 5/6: It looks like my hunch was right. Edweek says that there was no deal between California and the Department of Ed. Rather than having a deal where California didn’t have to ask any other districts to participate (which the article never actually says, btw), the idea is that there is not a requirement that there be a large number of LEAs participating. There never was in the first place, but there were probably some conversations with Duncan encouraging the state to apply and reassuring them it would be OK. You can read the DOE’s damage control here.

Is There Something I’m Missing?

In California on May 3, 2010 at 10:54 pm

Today, the AP reported that state senator Joe Simitian (D Palo Alto) is trying to pass a bill that would change the age of admission for children entering kindergarten or first grade. The goal is two-fold, according to the article in Education Weekly. First, it argues that children are not prepared for kindergarten at four years old. I can understand that possibility. I didn’t even realize that it was standard for children to enter school at four years old in California. I personally turned six during kindergarten and as far as I know, that’s pretty standard in the country. However, the science behind this is mixed. The research that seems to be the most cited is a 1986 study by Lorrie Shepard and Mary Lee Smith. It basically says that moving the age earlier makes little to no difference:

Despite the promises, providing an extra year before first grade does not solve the problems it was intended to solve. Changing the entrance age will not correct the problems of the youngest first graders because a new youngest group will emerge.

The study looks at programs that hold kindergarteners back a year and concludes that it doesn’t help proficiency and if anything, hinders development, because of the emotional stigma of being held back, but that’s another story. Newer research has been more positive with a RAND study in 2005 concluding that there is a slight boost to reading scores when students wait until they are 6 rather than 5 to enroll. The study showed that in both reading and math, students who waited longer not only scored higher, but grew more and that the effect was amplified in children in economically disadvantaged families. While this is positive, there are two things missing from it. The study needs to be more longitudinal. It claims that the effects are lasting, based on persistence for two years. I would be interested to see whether these effects stay longer, as the Shepard and Smith research claimed that within three years, the effects were negated. The other point of contention I have is that it shows that the students were at higher levels and grew more when they were older, but isn’t that just logical? What the study should really show is which students gained more and were at a higher level when they were the same age. For example, would a student do better at seven if they had started at five, rather than waiting until six. I suppose opponents may argue that the student will have thirteen years of school no matter what  and that it’s how they do at the end of the grade that matters, not at a particular age, so that point could be moot. The question becomes how prepared a student is when they enter the workforce, rather than at a certain grade, given that that is arbitrary. I’m sure if we didn’t start students until they were 20, they’d be at a higher level than a 5 year old, too.

However, the second reason, the one that will sway the most opinion because California is $20 billion in debt, is that the bill’s proponents claim that the date change will save $700 million each year. I don’t really get the math behind that. I can understand that perhaps the first three years when the age requirements are being phased in, there will be fewer students in school, so there may be some money saved because of individual student costs. But, once the date is changed, there won’t be fewer students coming each year. There will be the same number, as the kids who didn’t quite make the cutoff the previous year will be added onto the following year. In the long-run, it doesn’t change anything. On top of that, the costs associated with a different number of students for one individual year can’t possibly be particularly high. It’s not like a school is going to fire a teacher for a year, because they have fewer students in that grade, only to hire them again the next year. If anything, it just means students in the roll out years of the bill will have slightly smaller class sizes, which isn’t a bad thing.

The RAND study points out one major downside of delaying the start of a child’s education – childcare costs. The parent has to do something with their child for another year while they’re not old enough for school, which disproportionately hurts poorer families more than richer ones. The bill tries to counteract this problem by taking half of the savings and funneling it toward state preschool programs, but as mentioned before, the savings won’t amount to a proportional amount and additionally, not all children benefit from state preschool programs anyway.

This is what you’d need to deal with for another year if your child has to wait.

Moral of the story? There may be some academic benefit to the change (yay!), but the financial differences in the long-run are negligible and end up costing parents more (boo!). my personal thought is that if the state can somehow help parents pay for the extra childcare (through tax-credits or what have you), then I’m all for it, but that it shouldn’t be seen as a cost-cutting measure.

Who Deserves to be Laid Off?

In California on April 29, 2010 at 10:55 am

That’s the question on the lips of many education  policy makers. It’s not that anyone really wants people to be laid off, but if someone has to, who should it be? In California, Governor Schwarzenegger has supported a bill that would end seniority-based layoffs. The current system, which forces school districts to get rid of their newest teachers completely ignores the strength of the teachers getting laid off. This has a few repercussions:

Someone's got to go, so who should it be?

1. The most obvious is that terrible teachers get locked in once they’re in a school long enough and great upcoming new teachers are kicked to the street. This not only lowers the quality of the teaching, it means that change rarely happens. New ideas in how to teach are much less likely to be put into practice. It doesn’t matter if teacher preparation gets better if none of the teachers coming out of those programs can’t hold down jobs. On top of that, it takes away some incentive for teachers to get better at their practice. If they are not pushed to be the best, they don’t have to be.

2. As Gov. Schwarzenegger points out, in a district like LAUSD, minority students suffer disproportionately. The ACLU has actually sued the state and LAUSD because of the extremely high rates of layoffs in poor neighborhoods. Because schools in high-poverty areas are often a rotating door for teachers, they have a much higher number of new teachers. How high? The three schools that the ACLU is suing over had between half and three-quarters of their teachers laid off last year.

3. By firing the employees who are newer and make less money, more teachers have to be laid off. A report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education from last year showed that almost 50% more people have to be laid off when layoffs are seniority-based, rather than seniority-neutral. For example, to have a 10% reduction in salary expenditure (which is a completely reasonable number in the coming year, by the way), more than a quarter million more teachers would have to be laid off using a seniority-based system.

Obviously, there are many great reasons to change the system. Opponents, like UTLA President A.J. Duffy think that without protections for teachers who have been teaching for a long time, the opposite will happen: the more expensive older teachers will be the first to be laid off, because they cost more. Obviously, this would also be a problem, since there wouldn’t be teachers with a great deal of experience to help newer teachers. However, aside from this not being very likely, the solution which is being proposed is simple: base firings on effectiveness and ignore seniority. That’s what should be done anyway. A strong veteran teacher should have the same protection as a strong new teacher and vice versa. Unfortunately, there are others who try to stall improvements. LAUSD superintendent Ramon Cortinez says he is fine with changing the system as long has it is a solution that is developed by the unions and a task force. For those who don’t know, these task forces are notoriously slow, taking years to make reasonable decisions. These layoffs are happening this summer. There is no time to wait -and perhaps that is his plan. Take so long that it becomes irrelevant. Thankfully the state is trying to come through when the local district doesn’t have the chutzpah to do anything.