Sunday, June 8, 2014

Our Best and Brightest not Good Enough?



To become a Valedictorian, a high school student must perform incredibly well, mixing her drive with her innate talent to secure solid A's for four years. In our school district, she also must take rigorous coursework, including Advanced Placement, Calculus and Foreign Language. Most school valedictorians are also involved in sports, student government or clubs during high school. If anyone is the ideal candidate for a top-notch school, it ought to be these guys.

Nationally, Lisa Wade's research showed that family income is a major determinant of how many valedictorians choose highly selective (or even private non-profit) colleges. Here are the types of colleges chosen by valedictorians, according to family income (SES) status.
University of Chicago

Nationwide Data
Highly Selective Other Private Other Public
High SES Vals 74% 10% 16%
Middle SES Vals 47% 20% 32%
Low SES Vals 43% 23% 34%,

She identifies the factors that matter:
  • Knowing others who attend/attended highly selective schools
  • Counselors or others explaining financial aid, application process and offering encouragement (perceptions of cost differences)
  • Family support 
The discrepancy between wealthy, middle class and poor families is concerning. Using the same criteria, I took a look at our local picture. Fortunately, our local newspaper publishes the names, achievements and goals of valedictorians from our six local high schools. I was able to identify the college choices for each of them over the past eight years. The high schools' enrollments range from 100 to 2000 students with four of them between 300 to 700 students. This is a rural high poverty county.

Percentages of Local Valedictorians Choosing Colleges that are...

Highly Selective (accept 30% or less) Selective (accept 50% or less) Other Private 4-Year Other Public 4-Year Community College Unknown
5% 10% 22% 51% 5% 6%

By school, arranged from largest high school to the smallest, the percentages attending ANY private or out-of-state college were:

39% 39% 65% 23% 20% 0%

None of our six local high schools sent more than 7% of valedictorians to a highly selective college. When neither parents nor friends have gone to these schools, it's up to schools and counselors to encourage students to make the reach.

Our public universities, community colleges, and other private non-profit colleges are wonderful destinations for students. This is not to argue otherwise. But students who attend certain prestigious universities do reap benefits from rigor to connections to confidence to career opportunities.

Aren't OUR kids good enough?  If so, what are we going to do to ensure they get a fair shake?

Why Teens Should Not Work

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Feds and our Schools



First a short quiz:

1. What percentage of K-12 education funding do you suppose comes from the federal government? Choose one
before you read on.
a. 40-50%
b. 30-40%
c. 20-30%
d. 10-20%
e. less than 10%

2. Now guess which of the following educational programs rely on federal funding for half or more of their revenues. Choose before you read on.

a.  Special Education
b.  State departments of education
c.  Charter schools
d.  Educational technology

The federal government has invested in public education since President Johnson's original programs to equalize school opportunity in 1965. Yet schooling is essentially a state and local responsibility in the US. Why then is it that so many federal candidates campaign on education platforms? And why are Race to the Top, school tests and charter schools dominating our news about schools?

The reality is that just 12% of education funding comes from Washington. (answer d for question one) The other 88% is local and state revenue and should be controlled locally. In theory, we have locally elected citizen school boards to run our schools. But what authority do they really have? 

The federal government exercises substantial control over public schools without footing much of the bill. In order to receive federal dollars -- primarily for Title 1 programs in high poverty schools and special education -- states and districts must comply with all federal requirements. If a school receiving Title I funds continues to have students who test poorly, the federal government can close down the school and fire all the teachers.  States enact policies to align with federal regulations, then require districts in turn to enact similar ones.

President Obama's signature "Race to the Top" programs place requirements on states to continue to receive
federal dollars. This includes adopting the common core standards and student tests, evaluating teachers based on their students' scores, sanctioning high-poverty schools for low scores, encouraging charter schools and other reform measures. "Race to the Top" was billed as a more flexible version than the previous "No Child Left Behind" requirements.

I was a special education director for a medium-sized district from 2000 - 2005. I managed a $5,000,000 budget for special education in our fifteen schools. In my first year, the federal contribution to our special ed services was just $472,000 -- less than 10% of the total spent. About $3.5 million came from the state of Oregon. The rest came from the district's general fund. By 2005, the federal allocation had increased to $890,000, but the rules are stacked against districts. Even when federal funding increases, districts are not allowed to reduce their general fund expenditures because of something called Maintenance of Effort (MOE). As the person responsible for special education spending, I had very little authority to tighten my department's belt or to implement cost-saving measures. This was endless frustration in a district perpetually facing budget cuts and higher and higher personnel costs.

Maintenance of Effort requires districts to show that they have not reduced their non-federal spending on programs that receive federal support (like Special Education and Title I). This means that when district revenues fall -- for whatever reason -- they must continue to pump the same amount into their special programs. The intent is to insure districts don't "supplant" federal funding, using it to pay for things the district would otherwise have paid for itself. In other words, federal dollars cannot be used for normal school expenses, but only for add-ons.  This alone is enough to cause education wonks like myself to wonder: then just how valuable are those federal dollars?

Who is hurt by this? Regular classroom instruction is hurt. If revenues decline 5% but part of your budget can't be cut the same as others, then the rest (classrooms) take an even bigger hit. This same principle applies to Title I programs which support high poverty schools. The dollars can only be used for "extras", not to replace those priorities the district has already funded.

 States and districts are in a trap. Either refuse the federal support (12% of total) or continue to follow all of the rules drafted in Washington, DC. The champions of those rules tend to be located in the state capitals. In Oregon, our Department of Education (ODE) has a budget of $120 million. A full 73% of the department's budget is paid by the federal government, tying those who work in Salem closely with federal programs. (answer b for question 2)

In 1965, President Johnson's landmark education bill was designed to equalize schooling as part of his War on
Poverty. It went a long way to accomplishing that. Unfortunately, now fifty years later, the federal dollars constitute less help and more control, resulting in testing regimens and a hyper-concentration on the tested skills that undermine programs in the arts and sciences as well as experiential learning that has been shown effective. We are now down the rabbit hole of tightly managed programs with single metrics (tests) that lead to ever more restrictive programs. Schools in poor neighborhoods are scapegoated while other poverty factors are ignored. And because we can now blame public schools for their alleged poor performance, more and more of public education dollars are skimmed off by charter schools, many of them run by highly profitable corporations.

I don't advocate a complete removal of the federal government from our schools. But I must side with conservatives who question whether or not federal intrusion constitutes a net gain or a net loss for our kids. When federal dollars can only be spent on "extras" but their rules supplant the wisdom of teachers, administrators, parents and school boards in all areas, it's hard to be their champion.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Bizarre Institution of High School Sports

I grew up in Santa Clara, in the heart of Silicon Valley. At that time, Santa Clara had three claims to fame: the Santa Clara Mission, Santa Clara University and the Santa Clara Swim Club. The Santa Clara Swim Club has 80 Olympic medalists, including 59 gold medals.  One of those, winner of gold and silver medals from the 1972 Olympics, was my classmate Tom Bruce. Tom might well have won even more if not for his teammate and fellow Santa Clara swimmer, a fellow you may have heard of, Mark Spitz.


Public and private sports clubs have been the place for sports all over the world. In Germany, there are 91,000 sports clubs with 178,000 teams.  One in every three Germans (of any age) are part of one of these clubs. One of these is the new FIFA World Cup champion. Throughout Europe, sports are a big part of community life, with sports clubs organized by town, workplace, church or neighborhood. In Argentina, Brazil, South Korea and Australia, independent sports clubs or civic groups organize youth sports.  This is by far the model of most of the world. Soccer, rugby, baseball, basketball and dozens of other sport teams practice, play and compete as community or private organizations.

My kids grew up playing Little League and Youth Soccer with neighborhood coaches and lots of parental involvement. By high school though, those
opportunities were gone, replaced by school teams. My son, a talented tennis player, had six different tennis coaches in his four years of high school, none of them knowledgeable or passionate about tennis. He did okay but how much better with a trained coach? He played basketball too, though "played" might be a stretch since he spent most of his time on the bench. You see, high school sports have become elitist. They're not for everyone and kids are cut from teams or excluded from the field every season at every school.

Only in the US and a small handful of other countries are sports the responsibility of secondary schools. We pay a cost for this -- in the quality of coaching, in hiring teachers for reasons other than their teaching,  in students missing class for games, in distractions from academics and in daily miscommunication about the purpose of education.

The Atlantic magazine published an excellent piece in October about how our fixation with school sports affects learning. Given international test scores that show American students performing well in elementary and middle schools, then dropping off in high schools, the author wonders why this unique American institution isn't being examined. A similar piece in the New Yorker raised many of the same questions.

There are parent groups, parks, cities, YMCAs and other organizations already interested in providing youth athletic opportunities. The facilities may have been built on school campuses, but team organization and management doesn't have to be a school function. If the YMCA wants to organize basketball teams and Pop Warner wants to manage football, why shouldn't they?


At my high school in the late sixties, we still all turned out for the football games on Friday nights. But our real athletes were in the pool --  not because of Peterson High's coaches, but because they were coached at the Santa Clara Swim Club. If you believe that sports -- especially competitive sports -- matters, why would you want moonlighting history teachers in charge of it?