An Overhaul of High School Policies

What do we do to help our K-12 education system function at a higher level? There is no shortage of suggestions or recommendations.

Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is one of the more authoritative voices in this area. An excerpt from a recent column focuses on turning the system upside down. Currently, he writes:

“We have a system whereby millions of teenagers sleepwalk through so-called college-prep classes, graduate (sometimes without earning it), get pushed into college (often into remedial courses), and quickly drop out. It’s “bachelor’s degree or bust,” and for the majority of kids, the result is bust.

So what might work better? Twelve years ago, the Tough Choices or Tough Times report made an intriguing set of recommendations that would make the American system more like those in Europe. It’s time to dust it off again. Here’s my spin on them.

  1. In ninth or tenth grade, all students should sit for a set of gateway exams. Think of them as high school “entrance exams” rather than “exit exams.” They would assess pupils on reading, writing, math, science, history, and civics – the essential content and skills that all students should be expected to know to be engaged and educated citizens. There would also be a component assessing students’ career interests and aptitudes as best as these can be gauged for fifteen-year-olds.
  2. Students who pass the exams would then choose among several programs for the remainder of their high school years – programs that all could take place under the same roof. Some would be traditional “college-prep,” with lots of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or dual-enrollment courses. Others would be high quality career and technical education offerings designed to lead directly into degree or certificate programs at a technical college. All of the programs could set entrance requirements that ensure that students are ready to succeed in them. And their selectivity would make them prestigious and appealing to a wide range of students. At the end of high school, students would graduate with special designations on their diplomas indicating that they are ready for postsecondary education or training without the need for remediation.
  3. Students who don’t pass the exams would enter developmental programs specifically designed to help them catch up and pass the tests on their second or third (or fourth or fifth) tries. Those that catch up quickly can join their peers in the college-prep or CTE programs.

It’s a lot to tackle. It’s harder than just chastising teachers and principals who graduate kids who can’t read or do math. But in my view, its time has come. Perhaps one of the men or women running for governor this year would like to give it a try.


Keeping the Education Fires Burning

There’s no business like snow business (poor pun, I get it). But with our state and many other parts of the country continuing to suffer from Mother Nature’s wrath, K-12 schools are among those using that refrain. After all, most have to determine how to make up time lost to snow, cold, wind and other wintry elements.

In Ohio, at least some schools replaced snow days with “E-Days,” which are pre-approved times during which teachers post online assignments and are on “on call” to answer questions.

A follow-up noted that many parents enjoyed the coursework and praised the benefits of seeing their child’s schoolwork firsthand, while others complained about the time-consuming nature of the assignments. Outside observers noted the benefit of increasing parental engagement in education.

A few additional details from The Daily Standard in Celina:

Fort Recovery Superintendent Shelly Vaughn said each E-Day is considered by the state to be a full day of instruction.   Because students already missed so many days of school this semester, Vaughn said it made sense to use the online tool.

E-Days are an Ohio Department of Education-approved online calamity day plan in which students access class assignments on the E-Day Portal on the school’s web site. Students have two weeks to complete the work. Districts are limited to three E-Days per school year.   All district teachers submitted E-Day plans to Vaughn by Nov. 1. Knowing that inclement weather was expected, teachers last week adjusted the plans according to the content they were currently teaching, Vaughn said.

Teachers were on call during the three bad weather days to respond to emails from students and parents about the assignments.   Response from parents regarding the new system was mixed. Some claimed the experience was positive and they enjoyed helping their children. Others liked discovering what their children are learning in school and added they were glad to see their youngsters’ minds active on a snow day.

Other parents, especially those with multiple children in school, expressed frustration and anger, pointing out the problem of having only one computer, assignments that were time-consuming and the need for much paper and printer ink.   Not all parents are able to stay at home with their kids and some felt they were being forced to take on the duties of teachers.   Some parents questioned the quality of the education their children received through the E-Day lessons, wondering if making the days up at the end of the school year would have been better for the students.

Vaughn said like anything the district attempts for the first time, school officials will reflect on the matter and learn how to make it work better next time. They intend to survey students and parents about the process, she said.   “We already know of two areas we would specifically address for next time: improved communication to students and parents about how the lessons could be done virtually paperless or copies of needed papers could be provided in advance, (and) more detailed plans about modifications necessary for students on IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) to successfully complete E-Day work,” Vaughn said.

“As a full time administrator and parent of three children in the school system, I believe the E-Days are a creative way for students to utilize technology and work with their teachers in a different format,” she said. “As a principal, I looked at the E-Days the teachers set up in grades K-3 and found them to be a very educationally sound way to make up missed days of school.”

This School Board Deserves ‘A’ Grade

"Change" is not a four-letter word. And, despite what many seem to believe, it’s not always bad either.

Change is especially important when it comes to K-12 education. Reformers often appropriately use the term "kids first" when it comes to our educational priorities. Too many times, however, "adults first" is the prevailing philosophy. That has to change (there’s that magic word again) and it is in one Ohio school district.

Check out the excerpts from an excellent report by the Education Action Group:

Springboro’s old philosophy was like that of many public school districts: Teachers were given annual “step” raises and administrators received nice salary perks, whether there was money in the district’s budget or not. If the district couldn’t afford it, voters were expected to approve tax hikes to pay for it all, or accept cuts to student services.

That old “adults first” approach was on full display in 2009, when district officials chose to address their financial woes by eliminating busing for high school students, laying off 30 district employees, and raising pay-to-play fees for after school activities.

Not long after that, Kelly Kohls, a mother of five and a former college professor, joined the Springboro school board and a new “children first” philosophy began to emerge.

Kohls’ approach of challenging the “business as usual” mindset has proven very effective. The district now requires employees to contribute more for their health insurance plans. Backdoor bonuses for administrators have been eliminated, annual teacher “step” raises have been frozen, and a variety of spending cuts have been implemented.

The results are evident in the school’s financial trajectory. A few years ago the district was projecting a $30 million deficit. Today it’s projecting a $4 million surplus, even though the community is still reeling from the weak economy, which has caused a 400 percent increase in the number of people needing assistance from the local food bank, according to Kohls.

Kohls’ self-described “kids first” approach has caused a lot of heartburn among Springboro’s school establishment. During her brief tenure on the board, district officials have publicly blamed Kohls for the defeat of a $6 million school levy, the departures of a superintendent, a district treasurer, a school board president and the large turnover in school administrators.

Members of the Springboro Education Association – the local teachers union – use school board meetings to excoriate Kohls for opposing teacher pay raises and proposing budget cuts.
“Some people get so entrenched in the old philosophy that it’s tough to get them to think whether or not something is going to help the kids,” Kohls says of the criticism. “We need a different way of thinking.”
Voters seem to agree. Last November, they elected two of Kohls’ allies, giving fiscal conservatives control of the five-member school board, which began its current term in January.

Kohls says her approach has been to “ask a lot of questions” and to explain the board’s spending decisions to the community.
During her campaign for school board, for instance, Kohls asked why Springboro taxpayers were paying both the district’s and administrators’ contributions to the state retirement fund, especially since high school busing had just been cut to save money.
She reasoned that the amount of money spent on the retirement perk ($180,000) should be used to reinstate high school busing ($125,000). Kohls shared her proposal with the community on the Educate Springboro website and now the administrative perk is gone.
When the district’s health insurance costs increased by $830,000, Kohls proposed that employee contributions be raised to 20 percent – in line with what average Springboro residents paid – to offset the extra costs. She thought it made sense, especially since the district was in the middle of a financial emergency that left schools unable to purchase new textbooks or make basic building repairs. Her fellow board members at the time didn’t agree, and the district absorbed the increase.  
But Kohls used the Educate Springboro website to bring her case to the public, and the philosophical shift became evident.

“People started looking at the other four board members, and asked, ‘How could you say yes to the increase?’” Kohls says.

Today, employees pay 15 percent of their health insurance costs, and the district has joined a health care consortium which has resulted in nearly $6 million in savings.

Since January, the new board has enshrined its “children first” philosophy in a series of 28 goals, which include setting district money aside to help prepare students for the ACT test, among other things.
The board has switched to zero-based budgeting, meaning that school budgets will not automatically increase every year. Instead, teachers are being asked to submit annual budgets outlining specific resources they need.
The board is also developing policies that prioritize district spending, to ensure that student-centered spending needs are met before employee benefits and wage increases are considered. Kohls is crafting a point system to determine which employees will receive bonuses from the leftover funds.

Online Education, Florida Style

A well-traveled definition of insanity — doing things the same way and expecting different results.

Maybe a bit extreme for this example, but maybe not. Will following the status quo in K-12 education really change the outcomes for Indiana’s students and eventual members of the workforce? The evidence says no.

Options are essential. Charter schools are one of those options, and although Indiana has seen modest growth I would offer that we haven’t taken advantage of the possibilities offered by this alternative.

Virtual schools are another education choice that will only continue to grow. Indiana was close to having two virtual charter schools a few years ago, only to see funding pulled in a last-hour legislative agreement. Whether we’re talking education, entertainment or just about any aspect of life in today’s world, is there any doubt that online is/will be part of the mix?

During the last school year, more than 57,000 Florida students took at least one virutal school course. Now, those students and their counterparts can go all-online if they choose as every school district is required to incorporate virtual learning.

Will it work? We’ll have to wait and see. But you have to give Florida leaders credit for giving it the old online education try. Check out the story.