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You are here: Home Newsroom Our Ideas Themes in the News Archive August 2010

August 2010

Aug. 6: Not a Rescue, but Schools Catch a Financial Life Raft// Aug. 13: Political Determination Salvages Funds to Keep Teachers Teaching// Aug: 20: Publication of Teacher Data Distracts from Real Evaluation// Aug. 27: California Schools Lose Race for the Money

Not a Rescue, but Schools Catch a Financial Life Raft

  • 08-06-2010
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By UCLA IDEA staff

Themes in the News for the week of Aug. 2-6, 2010.

There has been a lot of education-funding activity in Washington, D.C. this week. Some of the funding will give breathing space for some schools in some states.  Education supporters, up against great obstacles, have managed to keep many schools from sinking out of sight.

After barely meeting the deadline to sign on to the Common Core Standards (Los Angeles Times),  California was one of 18 states selected for the second round of the competitive Race to the Top grant program.  There is $3.4 billion in the program, but it hasn’t been determined yet how it will be distributed.

The Department of Education also announced winners of 49 grants  (out of 1,669 applications submitted) from the Investing in Innovation Fund, known as i3 (Education Week). Recipients were schools, districts, and nonprofits, and they will share $650 million.

Los Angeles Unified School District will benefit from up to $5 million in i3 funds. The money was brought in through the efforts of the L.A. Compact, a collaborative of 18 Los Angeles institutions working to enhance the district’s school choice program, support implementation and improve accountability measures to turnaround its lowest performing schools. UNITE-LA, United Way, the University of Southern California, the city, the chamber of commerce, and the teachers union are among the partners.

Lastly, the U.S. Senate approved a $10 billion bill that would save 140,000 kindergarten-through-12th grade teachers from being laid off (Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post).   Though the House still needs to vote on it, preliminary estimates by the Department of Education suggest California would receive about $1.2 billion to save about 13,500 positions. “While this latest round of funding isn’t enough to avert all layoffs, it is a critical investment in our children and in our future,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chair of the House committee overseeing education (Christian Science Monitor).

The new funds coming into the state are considerable and welcomed, but they are mainly directed toward desperately low-performing schools in the midst of a continuing funding crisis.  Still absent is a rational and adequate structure that allows schools to plan and reform.  The overall financial condition of California’s schools remains precarious, complex, and confusing to California residents as well as to education leaders. 

In April, the Public Policy Institute of California surveyed residents’ attitudes on education.  Fifty-two percent of public school parents said they thought California schools received as much or more money than schools across the nation.  In fact, California is near the bottom in per-pupil spending. On the other hand, 72 percent of those surveyed recognized that their local public school does not receive enough funding.  It is not clear how the public will interpret this week’s headlines.  Californians might mistakenly think that their schools’ hard times are nearly over.

Political Determination Salvages Funds to Keep Teachers Teaching

  • 08-13-2010
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by UCLA IDEA staff

Themes in the News for the week of Aug. 9-13, 2010


After they were called back from their August break for an emergency voting session, the House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a $26 billion bill that will go toward saving jobs and covering Medicaid payments. Ten billion dollars—less than half the $23 billion in the original bill—is designated for saving about 160,000 teaching jobs across the nation.

Although the Democratic majority and most mainstream media focused on the bill’s intention to save jobs and stabilize state budgets (Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, Education Week, KPCC), some prominent Republican legislators described it as a “teachers union bailout.” Much less political and media attention was given to the tremendous difference the money would mean to the education of students who ultimately would benefit from having more teachers at their schools.

California is expected to receive $1.2 billion for about 16,500 teachers. That breaks down to about $200 per student, on average, to blunt the state’s education shortfall. The money won’t restore all lost teaching positions and school programs, nor will it replace many of the days cut from the school year.

It will take time and resources to undo the chaos created by the long delay of help. The state’s approximately 1,000 school districts had to adopt budgets for the 2010-11 school year in June, making cuts based on Gov. Schwarzenegger’s May proposal that called for $2.5 billion in reductions to education. Furthermore, it will be weeks before California receives any federal funds and districts do not know how big a slice of the pie they can expect (California Watch). Add to that the uncertainty about which teachers will be back in classrooms or when. Jeffrey Seymour, superintendent of El Monte City School District, asked “[who] could be hired, could music teachers be rehired, or does it have to be regular classroom teachers?” (KPCC)

“There’s still unmet need out there,” reported Education Secretary Arne Duncan (Education Week). Duncan said he planned to streamline the application process for states and districts to receive money quickly. Some have said the effects will be more apparent during the 2011-12 school year (Sacramento Bee).

Hundreds of thousands of California teachers and students returning to school in the next few days and weeks will face that “unmet need.” As she prepared for the first day of school, a Spring Valley third-grade teacher added eight desks to her classroom and cut erasers in half. “Giving students half an eraser is not going to hurt them—not having the reading teacher, the bilingual teacher and a counselor this year will. I wish I could cut myself in half to give my bigger class of kids more personal attention” (San Diego Union-Tribune).

Districts’ typically accommodate large budget gaps by increasing class sizes so schools can operate with fewer teachers—their most costly educational resource. There is a point at which classes get so large that teachers cannot simply work harder, smarter, or longer to make up for the lost personal attention they could otherwise give to students.

Representative David Obey, D-Wisc., who advocated this spring for the $23 billion version of the bill, said the new measure would help the economy but also blunt the pain felt in classrooms. “We do the country no favors if we allow the weakness of the economy to strip qualified teachers from our schools, which in turn would result in exploding class sizes and a decline in educational opportunities for children” (New York Times).

Publication of Teacher Data Distracts from Real Evaluation

  • 08-20-2010
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By UCLA IDEA staff

Themes in the News for the week of Aug. 16-20, 2010

The Los Angeles Times created an uproar in the education community with the publication of a story—the first in a series—that analyzed teacher effectiveness using a value-added model.  Later this month, the Times plans to follow up by releasing information about 6,000 third- through fifth-grade teachers, ranking them on a scale from least to most effective. Reactions of shock and deep concern are coming from many corners of the education community, even those rarely in agreement.

Diane Ravitch, who opposes the use of standardized tests as single tools for evaluation, called the public outing “disgraceful.” In a blog post, Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank and a proponent of using data for teacher evaluations also said he had serious problems (Education Week).

Value-added analysis measures the movement up or down on a student’s test scores from one year to the next. According to the Times, the higher the jump, the more effective the teacher.

Most expert reports on this method, including one by the National Academy of Science, point out that the value-added metric, alone, is insufficient in evaluating teacher effectiveness. In agreement is Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Ramon Cortines, who asked, “Would a person be diagnosed with diabetes solely on the basis of a high blood pressure reading? (Color Lines)

Barnett Berry, president of the Center for Teaching Quality, offered another medical analogy. It is “the equivalent of a newspaper indiscriminately listing the names of doctors, in rank, based on mortality rates, irrespective of the type of medicine they practice or the context in which they practice” (Christian Science Monitor).

A Sacramento high school teacher distinguished between data-driven and data-informed. “In schools that are data-informed, test results are just one more piece of information that can be helpful in determining future directions” (Washington Post).

And the data the Times intends to publish is limited in several ways.  It purports to identify the value added by particular teachers, but does not take into account student mobility, absenteeism, the role of tutors or team teachers, summer school programs or after-school programs (Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post). 

Parents are being invited to act on powerful conclusions they draw from the teacher data, but it is difficult to find positive steps they can take.  In the short term, parents might compete among themselves to win their child a spot in the “most effective” teacher’s classroom. School morale, already low after a season of pink slips, could receive another blow. Teachers might do their best to avoid teaching grades 3, 4 and 5.  Or, turn inward and narrow their curriculum to teach solely to the test.

Public disclosure and a culture of blame could create a chilling effect on teacher collaboration. It could also dry up the pool of people willing to enter the teaching profession.

People love rankings, sorting, and surveys; it’s hard to resist the appeal of the “10 Best” or “10 Worst”.  But the facile display of numbers and rankings can be misleading for a public that is not well acquainted with nuanced statistical models or with critiques of how to use that data. That is why the National Academy of Sciences worries about the “considerable limitations to the transparency” of value-added analysis.

The Times, by focusing on a narrow and underdeveloped measure of teacher effectiveness, distracts attention from the real reform need: a comprehensive teacher evaluation system that provides ample support to improve student learning.

California Schools Lose Race for the Money

  • 08-27-2010
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By UCLA IDEA staff

Themes in the News for the week of Aug. 23-27, 2010

California spending graph
As announced on Tuesday, and accompanied by great fanfare and skepticism, nine states and the District of Columbia secured the last remaining dollars from the Race to the Top pot. California advanced to the final stages in the second round but failed in its bid for $700 million in federal funding. That sum would have averaged about $111 per student for each of the state’s 6 million students.  

Although Race to the Top is billed as a competition among states, it is students who are the winners and losers. On Tuesday, most of the students in the country turned out to be losers. The winning students attend schools in Massachusetts, New York, Hawaii, Florida, Rhode Island, District of Columbia, Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio. Their states will receive anywhere from $75 million to $700 million to implement reforms that are in line with President Obama’s education plan to improve low-performing schools (Education Week).

Race to the Top was created last year as part of the country’s economic stimulus plan. States interested in competing for a slice of the $4 billion available created new laws, changed evaluation systems, adopted the recently released Common Core Standards and provided more support for charter schools. All the measures could provide extra points in the application process. Tennessee and Delaware were the only winners in Phase 1.

California did not reach very far in the first round and had to be prodded to reapply. The second round application was led by seven district superintendents, including Supt. Ramon Cortines of Los Angeles Unified. However, the competition judges responded negatively to the state’s overall tepid support for some of Race to the Top’s controversial measures (Los Angeles Times, Educated Guess). The teachers unions were unenthused and the majority of school districts did not participate. Less than a third of the state’s more than 1,000 districts—representing 1.7 million students—signed on. California’s inadequate data system also cost points in the competition (San Jose Mercury News, Educated Guess).

Each of the winning Race to the Top states already outspends California (see graph). The District of Columbia and Rhode Island spend more than twice as much on students as California spends. The new influx of federal dollars will further increase the disparity between California and higher spending states. California’s per-pupil spending dropped by more than $1,000 between 2007-08 and 2009-10. And though this year’s budget has yet to be approved, the current proposal calls for a $2.7 billion cut, or another $432 for each student.     

People continue to debate the Race-to-the-Top strategy for leveraging school improvement across the country (Christian Science Monitor, Education Week, EdWeek Politics blog). The administration’s theory is that even losing states like California are better off because they will change their laws in order to compete, they will learn from “successful” states, and they will become motivated to improve. Yet, there are few precedents for such a top-down federal strategy to succeed—especially one that demands a lot from local schools and, on average, offers so little support.  Although California is taking halting steps to align itself with federal education leadership, it is not clear whether its students will be beneficiaries or victims of Race to the Top (California Watch). What is clear is that the resource gap continues to grow between California students and students across the United States.

Weekly Themes In The News

Each Friday “Themes in the News” explores one of the current week’s “breaking news” topics—selected by IDEA staff and its partners—for summary and reflection.   Hyperlinks of the news stories, which are cited, allow readers to explore the theme on their own.