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July 31, 2004

Alphabet Soup

Student Photography: 117 pupils at John B. Dey Elementary School, armed with disposable cameras were sent to photograph the alphabet. Here's a look at the project, from A to Z.

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July 30, 2004

From the Underground

You can read John Taylor Gatto's The Underground History of American Education (2000) for free online.

A former teacher and long-time critic of the system, Gatto is the author of Dumbing Us Down, A Different Kind of Teacher, The Exhausted School and Educating Your Child in Modern Times: Raising an Intelligent, Sovereign, & Ethical Human Being.

Via Joanne Jacobs.
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July 29, 2004

Starting over in Chicago's Poor Schools

Sam Dillon writes in the NY Times:

But there was an alternative - the city could shut them down on its own and create small, new, privately managed schools to replace them. And that, Mr. Martin wrote, would bring a crucial advantage: the new schools could operate outside the Chicago Teachers Union contract.

It seemed a fire-breathing proposal, since in its entire history Chicago had closed just three schools for academic failure, and the union is a powerful force in the school system here, the nation's third largest. But Mr. Duncan was already convinced of the need for direct intervention in many failing schools, and the business group's proposal helped shape a sweeping new plan, which Mayor Richard M. Daley announced in June. By 2010, the city will replace 60 failing schools with 100 new ones, and in the process turn one in 10 of its schools over to private managers, mostly operating without unions. It is one of the nation's most radical school restructuring plans.

"It's time to start over with the schools that are nonperforming," Mr. Daley said in an interview July 19. "We need to shake up the system."

The schools slated for closing include 40 elementary schools and 20 high schools. In all of them, most students perform far below grade level.

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July 27, 2004

Barb Williams on The Harlem Project

Barb Williams forwarded a recent letter to the NY Times Magazine regarding the June 20, 2004 article: "It Takes a Hood" on The Harlem Project:

Of the many efforts aimed at interrupting the effects of poverty on kids' lives, none has left me more hopeful than Paul Tough's piece on The Harlem Project. Geoffrey Canada, to my mind, has got it right. His focus on poor black kids' success in school, his goal to reach those least likely to succeed, and his preference for programs that emphasize accountablility are not new. But combine that with his plans for a charter school with longer days, a longer school year and a demanding curriculum (despite rifling the feathers of the teachers' union) while having in place a network of support had me, a sometimes sad cynic, rooting him on. Maybe one day kids like Janiqua Utley will be guaranteed the kind education Canada envisions, rather than land on a waiting list. And perhaps Canada has identified what needs to be in place in order for children to imagine their own possibilities--unconstrained by their circumstances--and the means to realize them. We ought to pay very close attention. I salute Canada.

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July 24, 2004

School Tax Relief Plan "all but dead"?

Amy Hetzner notes the interesting paradox to the current situation:

Residents in more than half of Wisconsin school districts could have ended up paying more under an all-but-dead idea to raise sales taxes to provide $1.44 billion in property tax relief, a new study says.

Milwaukee residents, in particular, could have paid $1 more in sales taxes for every 77 cents their property taxes were reduced if the plan had been in effect in 2003, claims a Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance report released Friday. In all, the study found 223 school districts containing 56% of the state's public school enrollment would pay more in sales taxes than they would save in property taxes.

The study found that taxpayers in the Madison Metropolitan School District could get $1.20 in property tax relief for every new sales tax dollar.

"What this tells me is that when I see districts like Madison and Middleton in our area and Menomonee Falls or Wauwatosa in the Milwaukee area with positive returns of $1.20 per $1 sales tax or $1.30 or $1.40, that suggest a pattern going on," Berry said.

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July 22, 2004

Doyle on Milwaukee School Choice Program

Steve Schultze summarizes recent comments by Governor Jim Doyle regarding Milwuaukee's school choice program. In effect, Doyle is willing to support expansion of the choice program as long as the legislature provides more money for the public schools (it would be interesting to see the numbers behind this, along with the logic for and against).

Posted by Jim Zellmer at 8:21 AM Subscribe to this site via RSS/Atom: Newsletter signup | Send us your ideas

School Technology Monoculture?

The Madison School District has more or less standardized many computers on Microsoft's Windows operating system software. This approach, pitched as "sensible" because "that's what most people use" ignores the explosive growth of other technology platforms such as:

The MMSD technology approach also ignores the fact that much will change by the time today's K-12 students enter the workforce. At the end of the day, the network (the internet, essentially built on unix) is truly the computer.

Finally, one of the arguments for a windows monoculture is price. Advocates argue that windows pc's are cheaper (generally ignorning the cost of virus, worm and other TCO (total cost of ownership) issues such as ongoing security patches, software compatibility issues and network support). Some of the cheapest pc's around are linux based "LindowsOS PC's, starting at $278.00.

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July 20, 2004

School Finance Strangeness

Amy Hetzner summarizes the absurd aspects of the current state school finance schemes:

For example: If a school district with a maximum levy of $1 million one year decides to levy only $900,000, that district annually would collect $25,000 less from then on. Districts that voluntarily restrict their levies one year will not be able to catch up unless they ask voters to approve a tax increase in a referendum.

Hartford High School plans to levy taxes as high as it can for the coming school year but will be able to carry over only $118,000 of the unused levy from the previous year, Tortomasi estimated.

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July 15, 2004

Madison Schools Property Tax Levy Exceeds Milwaukees (MKE schools are nearly 4X Madison's!)

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (via Don Severson, who mentions that Madison per pupil spending is now $12,500):

The new figures show that the Madison district will collect property taxes of $196.2 million next year, while the MPS tax levy will be $194.8 million, the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance reported.

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July 14, 2004

Latino Parents Decry Bilingual Programs

Samuel Freedman writes:

ON a sultry night in late June, when the school term was nearly over, two dozen parents gathered in a church basement in Brooklyn to talk about what a waste the year had been. Immigrants from Mexico and the Dominican Republic, raising their children in the battered neighborhood of Bushwick, they were the people bilingual education supposedly serves. Instead, one after the other, they condemned a system that consigned their children to a linguistic ghetto, cut off from the United States of integration and upward mobility.

These parents were not gadflies and chronic complainers. Patient and quiet, the women clad in faded shifts, the men shod in oil-stained work boots, they exuded the aura of people reluctant to challenge authority, perhaps because they ascribed wisdom to people with titles, or perhaps because they feared retribution.

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The Importance of Phonics

Relevant to the sucess of students at Marquette Elementary School, U.W. Psychologist Mark Seidenberg has a new paper in Psychological Review that shows that phonics is critical for skilled reading. Seidenberg's research "suggests that teaching young children the relationships between spellings and sounds - or phonics - not only makes learning to read easier, but also allows the flourishing of other skills that lead to faster, better reading." "If you have a teaching method that discourages learning the connections among spelling, sound and meaning, you make the task of learning to read much harder for the child," says Seidenberg. "You also leave out an important component of what ultimately makes us skilled readers." You can read a press release here.

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Social Promotion & Summer School

The WSJ Editorial page, in a wide ranging piece, discussed social promotion and the utility of summer school:

That's because the get-tough approach - flunking students - isn't realistic: Repeating a grade does more harm than good. Such students are much more likely to cause behavior problems, skip school and eventually drop out.

And simply advancing students to the next level - called "social promotion" - with no extra help only ensures the children will fall behind even faster the next year. Wisconsin law now prohibits social promotion out of fourth and eighth grades.

With both social promotion and grade retention discredited as phony strategies that harm, not help, student achievement, summer school starts to look like a good investme

Posted by Jim Zellmer at 9:05 AM Subscribe to this site via RSS/Atom: Newsletter signup | Send us your ideas

3rd Grade Reading Scores Released

Wisconsin DPI just released statewide third grade reading test results:

  • DPI Superintendant Elizabeth Burmaster's comments: (6 page pdf)
  • Sarah Carr: Still, at the state level, educators need to work on closing a persistent achievement gap between students of different races and socioeconomic classes, said Joe Donovan, state Department of Public Instruction spokesman. This year, 64% of African-American and 65% of Hispanic students scored in the top two categories, compared with 90% of white students.

    Lindsey added that too many MPS schools - 18 to be exact - have fewer than half of the students reading at proficient or advanced levels.

  • Lee Sensenbrenner: Marquette, a school for third- through fifth-grade students, partners with Lapham Elementary, which teaches phonics-based reading to its kindergarten through second-grade students.
  • Lee Sensenbrenner writes:

    Notable within the district were the two elementary schools that led the county for the percentage of students reading at the advanced level:

    Shorewood Hills, drawing from affluent homes and graduate student housing on the near west side, topped the list with 70.1 percent of its students at the top level.

    Second was Marquette Elementary, a near east side school where more than 28 percent of the students come from low-income homes. There, 65.7 tested at the advanced level, while another 28.6 read at the proficient level.

    This approach, coupled with an individual remedial reading program called Direct Instruction, is somewhat different from the curriculum in other Madison elementary schools.

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After School Changes or not?

Lee Sensenbrenner on the MMSD's recent board discussion regarding after school services (The District is attempting to replace privately funded after school services with those paid for by Madison taxpayers - via Fund 80, which is not capped by state revenue limitations.).

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Property-Tax Rise Triggers

Ray Smith's article on the growing property tax backlash is one of many excellent examples of why Ruth Robart's ongoing efforts to create a more strategic & transparent Madison Schools budget process is vital. The district's plans for 2005 referendums simply increases the urgency for a well thought out process - rather than throwing hot button fee issues against the wall and determing what sticks. Read the entire article:

Property-Tax Rise Triggers Backlash in Some Areas Homeowners, Legislators Move to Limit Big Increases Used for Funding Shortfalls

July 13, 2004 10:49 p.m.; Page A1

In an election year in which national candidates have focused on issues such as jobs and the war in Iraq, many voters are rebelling over an issue closer to home: a huge jump in their property taxes.

In many parts of the country in recent years, strapped local governments have imposed big increases in property-tax rates, as well as in home assessments, to fill budget shortfalls. In response, voters have organized efforts to repeal or slow property-tax boosts in states from Virginia to Oregon, in some cases with the support of frustrated local officials.

Governments give a range of reasons for the increases, from gaps caused by cuts in federal revenue to declining commercial bases, rising health-care and pension costs and demands for more school funding.


See the changes in tax bills in the suburbs of 12 large metropolitan areas.

"There's been a complete devolution of fiscal responsibility onto the backs of the cities and municipalities and taxpayers," says Charles Lyons, one of five selectmen -- who handle the functions of a mayor and city council -- in Arlington, Mass., a suburb of Boston.

While state funding to Arlington has dropped in recent years, he says, his town raised property taxes 4% in the fiscal year ended June 30, following increases of 3% and 2.5% in the last two years, and he expects taxes will go up a further 4% in this fiscal year.

Meanwhile, he says, the town "cut the number of teachers, police officers and fire-department employees. We were in this inevitable position."

Nationwide, property taxes -- used to fund everything from police and fire departments to schools and recreational services -- rose an average of more than 10% between 2001 and 2003, estimates Joseph M. Mulcahy, a national deputy managing principal at Deloitte & Touche LLP's Property Tax Services Group. In some municipalities, he says, home assessments have gone up between 20% and 50%.

Particularly hard hit have been some desirable and growing suburban areas outside major metropolitan areas, where home prices and assessments have been on the rise. In a survey of such suburbs outside 12 major cities across the country, Runzheimer International, a management consulting firm based in Rochester, Wis., found that property taxes rose an average of 23.3% between 2000 and 2004.

The survey, conducted for The Wall Street Journal, found that property taxes rose a whopping 56.9% in the San Francisco suburb of Danville, Calif., the single biggest jump.

In the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Va., they jumped 53.1% over that span, while in Yorba Linda, Calif., outside Los Angeles, they increased 48.7%. Only two of the suburbs in the survey showed declines. Property taxes in Littleton, Colo., fell 1.6%, while those in Redmond, Wash., were down 0.5%.

For many homeowners, the increases have eaten into benefits they gained from President Bush's cuts in federal income taxes. Mark Zandi, chief economist at Inc., a research firm in West Chester, Pa., estimates that nearly a fifth of the income-tax benefit Americans are receiving from federal tax cuts this year is going to pay for higher property taxes. Mr. Zandi says he expects property taxes to continue rising "very rapidly."

While many homeowners took advantage of low interest rates to get good deals on mortgages, the median monthly mortgage payment, including principal and interest, on a median-priced single-family home rose slightly between 2001 and 2003, to $793 from $789, according to the National Association of Realtors. Over the same period, assessments rose rapidly, thanks to the housing boom. The median price of an existing single-family home rose to $170,000 from $147,800.

Alexander J. Aitken, a 56-year-old pilot for American Airlines, says that taxes on his four-bedroom, two-story home in Culpeper County, Va., rose 45% in 2003 from the year before, to $6,000. The 2003 figure was 237% higher than it was when he bought the house for about $450,000 five years earlier, he says.

A big culprit, he says, was a boosted assessment. In March of last year, his house was reassessed at $625,000, an increase he blames on an influx of newcomers who have heated up the local market. "People have been moving out here from Washington, D.C., to get away from the hustle and bustle and have been willing to pay $600,000 for a home," he fumes. "That has nothing to do with me."

Mr. Aitken has helped start a group called Virginians Over-Taxed on Residences, or VOTORS, that is pushing for a range of state measures that would cap property taxes, including a constitutional amendment that would reset property values to their January 2000 level.

Similar movements have taken off in other cities and states, putting pressure on politicians to stem the tide of increases and inspiring legislative measures and even a few taxpayer proposals that may be on ballots this November.

They are the latest in a wave of modern tax revolts that began with the 1978 passage of Proposition 13 in California, which rolled back property taxes and limited the ability of municipalities to raise them. Even Californians, though, have seen big increases in recent years, since properties there can be reassessed when sold or transferred and there has been a flurry of such transactions. Property taxes "have grown very vigorously," says Marianne O'Malley, an analyst at the state's Legislative Analyst's Office in Sacramento, which provides nonpartisan fiscal and policy advice to the legislature.

Earlier this year, voters in Oregon recalled an $800 million tax boost, which included increases in property taxes, passed by the state legislature last August to plug a hole in the state's budget. Led by antitax activists, voters collected more than twice the number of signatures needed to force a recall referendum.

In Maine, where property taxes assessed rose an average of 7% in 2002 and another 5.51% in 2003, a group called the Maine Taxpayers Action Network, led by Carol Palesky, an accountant and grandmother in her mid-60s, is pushing to get an initiative for a 1% property-tax cap on the November ballot.

Meanwhile, state legislatures in Illinois and South Carolina, in response to citizen outrage over high taxes, recently passed bills limiting increases in property-tax assessments. On Monday, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed legislation intended to slow the rate of increase in assessments.

In Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas, Tax Assessor M.W. Schofield has called on the state legislature to limit to 6% the maximum annual increase in assessed home values. Land prices are rising so fast in the county that, without a cap, property tax bills next year are likely to shoot up 20% to 50%, depending on the neighborhood, says Michele Shafe, assistant director of the assessor's office.

"That's enough to put somebody out of their home, especially senior citizens," she says.

With the economy improving, some municipalities have moved to offer a bit of relief. New Jersey's recently signed $28 billion budget includes increased taxes for the state's wealthiest residents to fund property-tax rebates. But that followed several years of heavy increases in property-tax bills. In 2003, the average bill was $5,269, up from $4,958 in 2002, and $4,651 in 2001, according to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.

Some local governments, meanwhile, have sought other sources of revenue to offer some relief. In Pennsylvania, for instance, state lawmakers passed legislation this month permitting 61,000 slot machines, the most in any state east of Nevada, in horse racetracks, resorts and gambling parlors. Within three years, the machines are expected to generate $3 billion annually. About $1 billion of that is earmarked to reduce local property taxes throughout the state.

Nationally, Democrats have tried to seize on the rising anger over property taxes and shortfalls in municipal budgets to attack the Bush administration for tax cuts that reduce funds available to local governments, contributing to what presidential candidate John Kerry has dubbed a "middle-class squeeze." Sen. Kerry has proposed an economic stimulus package that includes payments to state governments to help them avert spending cuts and tax increases.

"Sen. Kerry has long recognized that the decision to focus on tax relief for the wealthy over any form of state fiscal relief has led to many backdoor tax and tuition increases at the state and local level," says Gene Sperling, a Kerry economic adviser, who headed the White House's National Economic Council during the Clinton administration.

Tim Adams, policy director for the Bush-Cheney campaign, counters, "The effect of the Bush administration's tax cuts on state revenues is minimal compared to the impact" of the economic downturn. He adds that some of the states' budget problems can be traced to spending sprees in the 1990s, as well as other broader economic shocks.

There's no doubt that many state and local governments experienced big shortfalls with the economic downturn that began in 2000 after the flush years of the 1990s boom. Sales taxes, which had been rising rapidly, suddenly tumbled, while revenue from corporate taxes shrank. Tax cuts spurred reduced federal spending. Many states, feeling the pinch, cut back their funding to local governments, dealing them a double whammy.

At the same time, local expenses have increased for everything from infrastructure to public safety, especially in areas with fast population growth, says Chris Hoene, research manager at the National League of Cities, a Washington lobbying and membership group representing more than 18,000 local communities.

In 2003, 62% of cities said they were increasing public-safety spending, in part to respond to terrorism concerns, he says. More than a third also were increasing spending on such items as health care, pensions and roads, he says.

School funding, which generally absorbs the largest share of local-tax revenue, also has surged. Since the 2001-2002 school year, local-school funding rose an estimated 6%, or between $11 billion and $13 billion, with probably about $8 billion to $10 billion coming from property taxes, estimates Steve Smith, senior policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, a Denver-based bipartisan organization that serves local legislators and policymakers.

"It may have been more since localities have had to take on a larger share," he says. "The budget crisis has been so severe, there's been a lack of significant increases in state funding."

During that time, schools have seen costs rise for everything from upgrading facilities to increased employee health-care costs. Some districts have also had to accommodate a growing population of students. The number of children in U.S. schools in 2005 is expected to rise to 54 million, up from 50 million in 1995.

Another factor has been new education standards mandated by the federal government. Dan Fuller, director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, points to a federal program designed to improve education for disadvantaged students called Title I. While Congress originally said it would provide $18.5 billion in funding for the program in fiscal year 2004, it ended up giving only $12.3 billion. For fiscal year 2005, the amount is slated to be $13.3 billion, down from original projections of $21.5 billion, Mr. Fuller says.

"Communities are paying because the federal government won't," he says. "A portion of the property tax is essentially a federal government tax."

In Texas, school costs ate up much of the approximately 78% increase in property taxes between 1997 and 2002, says George Zodrow, an economics professor at Rice University. The property-tax share of schools' finances in Texas increased to 55% in 2003, up from 45% in 1999, he says. The national average is about 27%.

Wall Street Journal Link (subscription required).

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July 12, 2004

High Schools Nationwide Paring Down

Caroline Hendrie writes in the June 16 edition of Education Week

As a strategy for reforming secondary education in America, small schools have gotten big.

Prodded by an outpouring of philanthropic and federal largess, school districts and even some states are downsizing public high schools to combat high dropout rates and low levels of student achievement, especially in big- city school systems. For longtime proponents of small schools, the upswell in support for their ideas is making for heady times.

Despite the concept�s unprecedented popularity, however, evidence is mounting that "scaling up" scaled-down schooling is extraordinarily complex. A sometimes confusing array of approaches is unfolding under the banner of small high schools, contributing to concerns that much of the flurry of activity may be destined for disappointing results.

"It�s very, very difficult to do this well," said Tom Vander Ark, who heads the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation�s mammoth initiative to create small high schools. "Small is not a panacea. It�s a platform that helps you do the things you need to do to help kids succeed."

Whether that platform becomes a springboard to higher student achievement on a broad scale and for a sustained period remains an open question. Even in places where small schools have won strong support, educators are being hard pressed to take what has been essentially a succession of experiments and move them to the mainstream.

"Whenever you have a reform that has been successful in some places and then it�s scaled up quickly, with a lot of people who only understand it superficially, there�s a lot of danger that some people will do it poorly and that the idea will go down in flames," said Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University who is an expert in small-school design.

�Culture Change�
Well aware of that risk, advocates of scaled-down schooling have been working overtime to put supports in place for educators to combat a host of emerging challenges. At the same time, they are scrambling to put their ideas into practice before the interest and money run out.

"We�re talking about a culture change, not just an institution change," said Deborah Meier, the progressive educator and author who has founded small public schools in New York City and Boston. "The trick is how to sustain interest in a reform that requires a generation to complete."

For the moment, that interest is running high.

During the past few years, calls have intensified for reinventing what many education leaders see as an outmoded institution: comprehensive high schools that do a better job of sorting students into academic tracks than of educating all students to the levels needed in today�s knowledge-driven economy.

Pressure to act on those calls has mounted as new demands for higher graduation rates and test-score gains have kicked in, thanks to the federal No Child Left Behind Act and state accountability systems. School safety concerns, heightened by the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, have contributed to a sense that the contemporary high school is in crisis.

Against this backdrop, more educators are buying into the notion that less may be more. Private foundations and the federal government are offering aid to spur the downsizing of public high schools. Across the country, educators are taking the bait.

In the 1.1 million- student New York City school system, city leaders have launched a major initiative to phase out the lowest-performing high schools and replace them with small schools. Poised to open 60 more small schools this year on top of the 42 that opened last fall, officials see those new schools as central to a broader push to ratchet up performance systemwide.

Statewide efforts are taking root from Maine and Rhode Island to Oregon and Washington state. Some districts, such as Houston, Kansas City, Kan., and Sacramento, Calif., have committed to districtwide strategies of small high schools and learning communities. In many others, including Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, San Diego, and Oakland, Calif., district leaders are in the midst of major efforts to start new small high schools and restructure existing ones.

Influx of Funding
In some places, early indications are that efforts to rapidly scale up smaller, more personalized learning environments are meeting with success. In others, though, ambitions for widespread change seem to be outstripping results. And that reality has some small-school proponents asking themselves questions:

Is the movement growing too fast? Are people jumping on the small-schools bandwagon for the wrong reasons? Was it wise to pour so many resources into scaling up small schools before a consensus emerged on how to do it right?

Two major funders, often working with local and regional foundations, have been helping to spread the small-schools approach over the past four years at the national level: the federal government�s Smaller Learning Communities Program and the Seattle-based Gates Foundation.

Since 2000, the foundation started by the Microsoft founder and his wife has pumped nearly $650 million into efforts to establish small high schools that embody a set of attributes it believes are conducive to high achievement. (See chart below.) The foundation stresses that small size is necessary, but not sufficient, to create such schools, and that structural innovations must be accompanied by instructional ones. To serve students well, foundation officials say, small high schools must offer what they call the new "three R�s": rigor, relevance, and relationships.

Headed by Mr. Vander Ark, the Gates initiative has fostered the start-up of a potpourri of small schools as well as the conversion of large high schools into complexes of compact campuses. The foundation has poured millions of dollars into small-schools efforts in two dozen large cities, as well as into statewide initiatives in a half-dozen states. It has also financed more than two dozen organizations that are working on building networks of schools based on existing models at a regional or even national level.

By its calculations, the foundation has so far helped support the start-up of more than 740 new small high schools� typically defined as no larger than 400 students�and the redesign of 460 existing large high schools.

"Our goal is not to create more small schools, although that has certainly been an outcome of our early grantmaking," said Mr. Vander Ark. "Our goal is to help more students graduate with the skills they need for work and citizenship."

While the Gates initiative has garnered widespread attention, the U.S. Department of Education has been quietly running a Clinton-era program that the Bush administration has consistently urged Congress to eliminate, so far without success.

With funding that climbed from $45 million annually in fiscal 2000 to $174 million this fiscal year, the Smaller Learning Communities Program has doled out 542 grants worth nearly $275 million to hundreds of districts since 2000. The program is now reviewing applications for its fourth grant cycle, which is expected to yield another 140 one-year planning grants and 144 three-year awards for implementation. The grants are targeted to high schools with at least 1,000 students.

Projects that qualify for the federal grants can fall far short of breaking up large campuses into independent or semiautonomous schools, usually the minimum degree of restructuring that is required under the Gates Foundation�s grants for existing schools. Opening career academies, assigning students to advisory groups, and even revamping the schedule to allow for longer class periods are among the changes that can qualify.

Given the expansive criteria, some critics see the federal program as contributing to a fuzzy sense of just what the small-schools movement is or should be about. Mr. Vander Ark, for one, thinks the Bush administration is right to question the program�s effectiveness.

"Schools need very clear guidance, quality outside assistance, sufficient multiyear resources, and a support network to draw on," he said. "The federal Small Learning Communities Program�s insufficient in all four of those areas."

Still, the program has defenders, including Michael Klonsky, a co-director of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Mr. Klonsky, who provides technical assistance to many schools that have received the federal grants, said the program�s lack of stringent criteria is preferable to the approach taken by some private funders who, in his view, seek to micromanage the change process when they "dictate a certain model�a certain degree of autonomy, a certain governance structure."

"At least the [Department of Education] grant is a public grant," he said. "It�s not like 12 rich people sitting in a room and saying, �This is how we do it in our business � and if anybody gets in our way, we�ll fire them.� "

Staying Power Questioned
Mr. Klonsky is among a group of small-schools proponents who are concerned that the boom in the approach�s popularity is driven primarily by the availability of funding, particularly from the Gates Foundation.

"You really have to ask yourself whether these big districts would be doing this without the Gates money coming in," said Jon Schroeder, the coordinator of Education Evolving, a nonprofit organization based in St. Paul, Minn., that promotes new forms of schooling. "It remains to be seen how genuine this is, and whether it�s really something that�s emerging from the system itself � or whether it�s funder-driven and just sort of the �in� thing to do."

Whatever the impetus, it�s clear that policymakers are taking the small-schools idea seriously. A recent report synthesizing the themes to emerge from seven national conferences last fall on redesigning secondary education concludes that "the concept of smaller, more personalized high school learning environments has moved from the sidelines of high school reform to center stage."

But the report by the National High School Alliance, a partnership of more than 40 national organizations interested in high school redesign, also argues that education leaders have yet to devote enough attention to the many practical problems "of bringing innovation to scale."

Among the most pressing of those systemic challenges is finding enough principals and teachers with a deep understanding of the complex features of successful small schools. Researchers studying the Gates Foundation initiative have found, for example, that many small schools are struggling to put into place strong curricula and instructional practices, in part because their "detracked" classrooms include youngsters of widely varying skill levels.

"To really use this money wisely, we really need people who understand why small is better," said Bill Klann, who teaches 11th grade humanities at the 340-student Vanguard High School in New York. "It can�t be because it�s a fad. It can�t be because there�s money. It can�t be because there�s less kids to get to know in a small school. It must be to significantly change how people interact and how learning takes place."

Retrofitting old buildings and securing new ones at a time of overcrowding and tight budgets pose other serious roadblocks in many places. Altering district practices to support small schools is a heavy lift. Ensuring that successful small schools will thrive after their founders and funders move on is yet another problem, particularly because of the hard time many small schools have in making ends meet on per-pupil funding allocations in some states.

Beyond those and other systemic challenges is the often-fierce resistance that arises from teachers and administrators, and sometimes from students and parents, when districts set out to convert big high schools into smaller units or separate schools.

Amid such difficulties, a split has emerged between those who see value in creating smaller learning communities within jumbo schools, and those who see such efforts as largely pointless.

"There�s a big debate in the reform community on whether it�s even worth the effort to try to convert large high schools as they are, or whether the only useful strategy is to go to new, small, completely autonomous schools," Ms. Darling-Hammond said. "Those are very different approaches to the change process that seem in many cases to be producing very different results."

To date, no one has conducted a major comparative study on the benefits of converting existing schools versus starting new ones, she said.

Even anecdotally, examples are scarce of large high schools that have seen dramatic learning gains after restructuring into smaller learning communities or schools-within-schools, Ms. Darling-Hammond said. That has led some veteran small-schools proponents to conclude that the approach may be misguided.

"Too many people are saying, in Wizard of Oz fashion, to a bunch of teachers, �You are now School A, you are School B,� " said Ms. Meier. "The odds are it won�t work. I think it�s a waste of energy."

Bush administration officials, for their part, regard the smaller-learning- communities approach skeptically. When it comes to raising student achievement, said Susan Sclafani, the Education Department�s assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, whose office oversees the Smaller Learning Communities Program, the technique of "taking a large school and turning it into small learning communities � has almost no research behind it."

Yet other veterans see breaking down big schools as a critical element in the scaling-up equation. Questions about which approach is better are at best premature, some say.

One Best Way?
"I don�t think one way is easier or better. I think there are trade-offs," said Joe Nathan, a University of Minnesota-Twin Cities professor who is helping both to start new schools and restructure large ones under a grant from the Gates Foundation.

Although he�s seen efforts to break up big schools go bad, Mr. Klonsky says they can succeed, provided that the impulse for reform comes from those most affected. For that reason, he regards much of the debate among elite observers over the best way to downsize as beside the point.

"I don�t think all these great ideas about small schools, including my own, are sustainable without community engagement," he said. "It�s got to be rooted in people�s prior experience and concrete conditions."

In Los Angeles, where top school officials are drawing up plans for smaller learning communities, Superintendent Roy Romer has yet to publicly weigh in on the debate over how downsizing should proceed. But as he reviews five-year plans for high school restructuring drafted by the heads of the system�s 11 subdistricts, admonitions about community engagement are being taken to heart.

"It has to start at the school, and it has to involve the school community, because if Superintendent Romer said, �OK everybody, we have to do this,� it wouldn�t work," said Rosa Maria Hernandez, the director for small learning communities in Local District F, a subdistrict of the 775,000-student school district. With help from a federal grant, the subdistrict is planning the redesign of three large high schools, including one with more than 5,000 students.

As debate continues over whether and how to scale up scaled-down schooling, Mr. Vander Ark of the Gates Foundation urges decisionmakers to keep their eyes on the big picture.

"What we�re doing today is a disaster, particularly for low- income and minority kids," he said. "We need to come to grips with that."

Posted by Jeff Henriques at 5:52 PM Subscribe to this site via RSS/Atom: Newsletter signup | Send us your ideas

July 11, 2004

For the Children: Biometric ID's

Via Kuro5hin:

Thanks to the kind generosity of the civic-minded folks at Ingersoll-Rand, teachers at Boca Raton's Don Estridge High Tech Middle School will no longer have to take attendance. Side benefit: malleable, young students will become conditioned and eager to submit their body parts for biometric identification in the future.

Obligatory stomach-churning quote:

"It's for the teachers' protection as well as the kids ... my kids are telling everyone about it. They think it's so high-tech, so FBI, so cool."
In case you experience any cognitive dissonance with the sentiment above, just keep repeating the following handy mantra to yourself: "it's for our protection, it's for our protection, it's for our protection..."

BTW - Don Estridge headed up the skunk works in Boca Raton that led to the 1981 IBM PC. (Estridge died in the 1985 Delta L-1011 crash at DFW airport).

Posted by Jim Zellmer at 8:39 AM Subscribe to this site via RSS/Atom: Newsletter signup | Send us your ideas

July 9, 2004

Rethinking the Grading System

"There's a lot of latitude for teachers to do what they think is right, and there's not a lot of commonality, consistency, across classrooms." David Schmidt, Waukesha school superintendent in an article by Amy Hetzner.

Posted by Jim Zellmer at 10:27 PM Subscribe to this site via RSS/Atom: Newsletter signup | Send us your ideas

July 6, 2004

Home Delivery for Madison School Board - Your Tax Dollars at Work

Every Thursday before the Monday meetings of the Madison School Board, a school district employee driving a district vehicle pulls up at each of the seven homes of the board members to deliver a packet of information for the upcoming meeting. Sometimes the vehicle is a van. Sometimes it's a diesel truck.

On June 17, a driver in a truck brought me a folder that included the following: a copy of Education Week, photocopies of the monthly meeting schedules for June and July, a photocopy of the agenda for the committee meetings, and two small plastic folders. In the folders were a second photocopy of the committee agendas and photocopies of materials for each meeting. In all, the driver brought me 35 pages of photocopied materials. The final page was a photocopy of a message telling me that ?there will be another delivery of materials tomorrow, June 18.?

On July 18 I received another 32 pages of photocopies via courier.

I have asked the Board President to end courier delivery of paper copies and to initiate electronic delivery programs similar to those adopted in higher education and state, county, and local government levels. Where implemented, electronic delivery has proved to be an expedient way to distribute and share materials while saving labor, duplicating, and paper costs.

Electronic distribution has the additional benefit of being environment-friendly since materials are printed only when the end user feels that it is necessary to do so. Similarly, electronic distribution saves on expenditures for and consumption of gas used to drive bundles of paper across town one or more times per week.

Such a plan should be easy to implement because the district provides to each board member a free laptop computer and printer on request. Under this plan, board members could pick up commercial and other materials that are not time-sensitive on Mondays. On July 12 the Board will consider my request.

So far, Board President Bill Keys is "adamantly opposed? to these changes, even though the district purchased over 200 tons of mixed office paper in 2003-04 and even though schools are already recycling paper to save money.

Here?s a summary of my e-mail request to President Keys and his responses.

According to Doug Pearson's recent report, MMSD purchased 220 tons of mixed office paper last year. That's 32,040 trees and lots of dollars that could go to the classroom.
I am requesting that the Board of Education set a good
example by changing how we receive information in order to save money, time and materials. Given that the district provides laptop computers and printers to Board members who want them, it seems that we could institute the following practices.

1. End weekly delivery of materials to our homes via MMSD staff in vans or trucks. Savings: cost for use, fuel and upkeep of the vehicles and staff time, if over-time involved. Better use of staff.
2. Have Board secretaries save all written materials that are not
time-sensitive for distribution at Monday meetings. Examples,
magazines, ads, publications, letters, school bulletins, weekly
newspapers. Savings: same as 1.
3. Have all administrative reports and materials delivered
electronically to the Board on the Thursday prior to the Monday meeting. Savings: paper, use of copying machine, staff time.
4. In situations such as expulsions, where many of the materials are copies of boilerplate provided to every student's family, limit the materials sent electronically to Board members to those items that are unique to the student under consideration. To the extent feasible, have staff summarize the unique materials, such as hearing transcripts, reports from neutral-site teachers, etc. for electronic delivery. Savings: paper, use of copying machine, staff time.
I ask you to consider this suggestion and get back to me. ?Thanks for considering the idea.

I disagree with you on every recommendation. If you wish to bring this up to the Board, I will certainly respect your right to do so, and will guarantee you an impartial opportunity to be heard by your colleagues. But I will not make any of these recommendations.
Would you mind telling me why you disagree on each item? It's hard to see whether we could achieve any agreement with a blanket statement of your disagreement. Thanks.

I repeat. I encourage you to bring this up at a board meeting for a full discussion by the full board if you wish to, and I will guarantee you a fair opportunity to make your case. The suggestions you have made I am adamantly opposed to: I appreciate getting materials early, in print form, (which certainly means the magazines, bulletins, and other relevant publications as well as school news and correspondence because I can read them at my leisure, and well before the Board meetings, and without the problems that e-mail, or computers can cause through the very nature of their technology. The "boiler plate" packages for the expulsions actually save time because separating them item by item, student by student takes up more time than the money expended in simply bundling them together; additionally each bundled expulsion papers creates a more complete case, possibly protecting us from later litigations for improper procedures. Certainly the legal office is not responsible for even a significant portion of the 220 tons of office paper.
How can we "achieve agreement" when I don't agree in any way?
I can't be any clearer than this.



Posted by Ruth Robarts at 4:49 PM | Comments (488) Subscribe to this site via RSS/Atom: Newsletter signup | Send us your ideas

July 5, 2004

Charter school meeting - July 7, Madison

"Charter Schools: A New Vision of Public Education in Wisconsin."

Date: July 7, 2004 (Wednesday morning)

Time: 9:00 am to 11:30 am

Site: Madison - Concourse Hotel (Capital Ballroom A - 2nd Floor)
Concourse Hotel

Purpose: Discuss the significance of the evolving charter schools sector as an institutional innovation within Wisconsin's public education system. You and your colleagues are invited to participate in the discussion, sponsored by the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association, along with:

JOHN WITTE --- John Witte bio
John is a UW-Madison Professor of Political Science & Public Affairs. He directs a major study of charter schools in Wisconsin --- LaFollette Insitute

JOE GRABA --- Joe Graba bio
Joe is a Senior Policy Fellow at Education/Evolving in Saint Paul. His
career in public education spans forty years and an impressive array of leadership positions including teacher, union leader, state legislator and higher education administrator.

COMMENTERS - Moderated by Jonathan Gramling

JONATHAN GRAMLING, Editor, The Madison Times


MAI SEE THAO, Student, Madison

CHARITY ELESON, Executive Director, Council on Children & Families

BARBARA GOLDEN, Madison Area Family Advisory/Advocacy Council


JUAN JOSE LOPEZ, Member, Madison Board of Education

DOUG & DEE THOMAS, Gates-EdVisions Project & MN New Country School

TOM SCULLEN, Superintendent, Appleton Area School District

REGISTRATION: This invitational meeting is FREE. Please register in advance by sending your name and contact info to:

Senn Brown, Secretary, Wisconsin Charter Schools Association

PO Box 628243, Middleton, WI 53562
Email: Tel: 608-238-7491

Barbara G.
Madison Area Family Advisory/Advocacy Council
MAFAAC~Closing the achievement gap through information, advocacy & support
Join MAFAAC and be part of the solution

Posted by Ed Blume at 10:36 PM | Comments (404) Subscribe to this site via RSS/Atom: Newsletter signup | Send us your ideas

School Finance/Reform Articles

Amy Hetzner writes that school finance reform is necessary, but no one agrees on the formula. Hetzner points out the strange nature of this issue: spending, in many cases has gone up significantly despite "spending controls". Excellent article. Steven Walters writes a followup today on the proposed sales tax boost.

The State Journal has posted four more editorial pieces on schools:

Posted by Jim Zellmer at 8:24 AM Subscribe to this site via RSS/Atom: Newsletter signup | Send us your ideas