Saturday, February 2, 2013

What's All About Students All About Anyway?

I have been meaning and meaning to write about the Virginia Governor's 2013 education agenda, Part I and Part II, and so I will (belatedly) and unlike my response to his education agenda last year, it will be brief (mercifully).

First of all, as it's sprinkled liberally throughout his agenda, it seems that the Governor hasn't received the memo on the term "achievement gap." Even TFA got that memo and has responded with a good ol' liberal arts-style deconstruction (not that I would ever in my wildest dreams imagine that a Virginia GOP political leader would be caught dead reading such a thing).

And speaking of TFA. . .

1. Teach for America Act (HB 2084):

You probably already know what I think. I have written about TFA before. It's my most popular piece.

The only thing new I have to say is: Why does Virginia need TFA? There are budget and teaching positions being cut across the state and I hear it's hard for our college graduates to get teaching positions. Where is the evidence that there's a teacher shortage anywhere in Virginia? And if there is one, why don't we have a Teach for Virginia instead? Teachers who are being laid off could be given incentives to go and teach in hard to staff areas. Top students at Virginia colleges and universities, especially ones seeking a teacher's license, could also be granted incentives to start their careers in these supposedly "hard to staff" places.

Otherwise, it doesn't seem like anyone's fighting it, so meh.

2. 2% increase for Virginia Public School Teachers

I don't know any other way to say this, so here goes: This is a lie. The governor is pledging a one-time grant of 58.7 million dollars to contribute towards a 2% raise. That means the state will only fund a certain percentage towards the 2% increase and will not re-new that funding next year. Basically, the governor is promising a raise that he doesn't really plan on paying for in any sustainable way. So he's making promises on behalf of broke localities.

3. A-F School Report Cards (School Grading Bill - HB 1999)

This is just a ridiculous idea and unlike some of these other bills, no one else in Virginia supports it--for example, the VEA, VSBA, VASS and the VA PTA are all opposed to it-- except for Jeb Bush. Oh wait, he's not a Virginian

If you want to read why school grading bills are a bad idea (and hear a more nuanced version of "ridiculous or "bad idea"), read here and here.

4. Stem-H Incentives

This grants extra money to "high quality people" (um, I think you meant to say highly qualified individuals, Mr. Governor) teaching math, science, technology, health, and engineering. Yes, it's harder to find people able to teach those, but I'm not sure a one-time grant of $5,000 will make the difference. If we raised the stature, education, and pay of ALL teachers, we might stand a chance.

5. K-12 Red Tape Reduction (SB 1189, maybe)

Yeah! Red tape reduction! Wahoo! Because who likes red tape, right?

Wait a minute. The explanation on the VDOE site says, "Local school divisions may be released from Board of Education-approved regulations and standards of quality requirements." Well, which regulations and standards of quality? If it's something stupid, by all means, let's get rid of it. If it's a standard that says all elementary students must have a certain amount of art per week, I'm not so sure I want my kids' school district getting a waiver from that. 

6. Strategic Compensation Grant Initiative

Otherwise known as: Merit Pay. Merit pay for teachers doesn't work.

7. Staffing Flexibility for School Divisions 
(I think this is HB 2098 or 2066 or both)

From what I've read, this seems to make sense, though if someone can tell me why it doesn't, please speak up in the comments.

8. Educator Fairness Act

The VEA (Virginia Education Association) thought this was a grossly unfair educator fairness act and it seemed so to me, too. Since then a deal has been agreed to that all parties seem happy with, so I will say no more. (But, readers, speak up, if you feel or have evidence to the contrary.)

9. Teacher Cabinet

I'm all for a teacher cabinet to advise the governor. 

10. Governor's Center for Excellence in Teaching

As long as this is to promote excellence in teaching and not excellence in testing, I'm all for it. The proof will be in the pudding, though.

11. Reading is Fundamental Initiative (HB 2114)

Ugghhhh! Again with this reading stuff! Yes, dear readers, that is the sound of my head banging against the wall. I can not get anyone in this state to hear me on this.

I have written about this even more than I have written about TFA. And it's a place where I find common ground with some in reformy pro-TFA factions. If you don't want to take the time to read what I've written, watch this and read this.

The idea behind this is well-intentioned but terribly misinformed. They think that kids can't learn about science and social studies until they can read, that they have to focus on reading as a skill and then learn content. Yes, kids need to learn to decode. Decoding is a skill. Yes, kids should be presented with one-time mini lessons on reading strategies. But reading comprehension is not a skill; it's not transferable. Reading comprehension depends on knowledge. So, if we cut science and social studies and other subject matter "to focus on reading," the kids will not progress. They "can't read" mostly because they're not being taught about enough stuff. They will learn that they are bad at reading and that school is not interesting.

12. Literacy and Algebra Readiness Initiative (HB 2068)

As long as they avoid the pitfalls mentioned in item 5 above, this isn't so bad as far as I can tell--it targets grades K-2 which are the younger de-coding grades. 

As for the algebra part, I happen to be in the pro-algebra group, as in, I think it is necessary and I think people do use it in their everyday lives. Otherwise, I don't know as much about math education except to say that the Math SOLs seems to be far superior to the Language Arts ones. If you have thoughts, speak up (though I'm decided on algebra, so don’t waste your breath there).

13. Funding for Reading Specialists


By now, you already know how I feel about teaching reading as a subject past second or third grade and why I think so many American kids struggle with reading, so I'll spare you.

14. Kindergarten Readiness

I'm all for giving teachers for information and diagnostic tools to help them figure out where their students are, but I'd have to learn more about these particular tools and how long they take, if they're developmentally appropriate, and if there a part of our wrong-headed accountability structure.

15.  Effective School-Wide Discipline

I'm in favor of giving teachers more training and practice in classroom management, but I don't know what the particulars are of this disciplinary program.

Blah, blah, blah, achievement gap. Blah, blah, blah, innovation. Blah, blah, blah, school choice.

This is All About Reforminess a la Jeb Bush, Michelle Rhee, and ALEC.

Updates to original post: 
I. I’m not sure why I didn’t notice this in the Governor’s agenda, but thanks to Kirsten Gray, a parent of two Richmond Public School students and board member of the Alliance for Progressive Values, I just became aware of HB 2096, part of the goal of which is to create an “Opportunity Education Institution.” In any case, this bill seems like bad news. As Kirsten commented,

I do not trust this bill. This “board" is appointed. This "institution" is created by the governor and can take over any failing school (based on data from tests is my guess). We know most of these "failing" schools are predominately in poor areas serving families without means. The charters this "institution" puts in place aren't likely to be charters created by parents and communities. No they are likely to roll in the "for profit" charters. I think they are banking on it. Read all the stuff in yellow in the second half of the bill.

"B. The Board shall supervise and operate schools in the Opportunity Educational Institution in whatever manner that it determines to be most likely to achieve full accreditation for each school in the Institution, including the utilization of charter schools and college partnership laboratory schools."

II. Then, there's SJ327 (which seems related but maybe isn't--thoughts, readers?) According to the VSBA blog, this is another bad bill:
SJ327 is a constitutional amendment that would allow for state takeover of public schools that are denied accreditation.  The constitutional amendment does not set forth specifics for such a state takeover, thus giving the General Assembly broad authority to devise a state takeover in future years.  Most importantly, the constitutional amendment would allow the state to take not only the state share of per pupil funding  but to also take the local share of per pupil funding for each student in a school that is taken over.  In other words, this constitutional amendment would force localities to send local dollars to a state-run entity without any control over what the state does with those local dollars.