Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Funding to Improve Student Achievement

In an Op-Ed column in today's Pioneer Press, I noted that the activities proposed by the Saint Paul School District, as justification for the levy on the ballot in November, make sense. If implemented, they have the potential to increase student achievement. At the same time, I pointed out that, if the District obtains the funds they seek through the levy, the superintendent and other administrators must be held accountable for installing the educational features that research shows can be effective. Increased funding does not automatically translate into better results, without enhanced curriculum, classroom features, and instructional techniques that research shows can influence learning. Funds can’t just stabilize the budget and preserve the status quo.

Both all-day kindergarten and early kindergarten for 4 year olds have support from the research. While not yet definitive, studies give good reason to believe that these two measures will improve academic achievement, especially for children most at risk of failure. Reduced class sizes do not have as strong an effect, unless the numbers go below 20 and unless teachers with average and less-than-average skills improve their instructional performance.

What about alternative sources of funding? Should school funding be completely a state responsibility, for example? (While I have not come to a final opinion, I tend to think so. We need all of the state's children to become competent community members, parents, and members of the workforce. Whether they happen to spend their young years within one jurisdiction or another should not affect their educational opportunities.) Or, more specifically, should state income taxes, or a state sales tax, pay for education, rather than local property taxes? (That would perhaps move more responsibility to the state. However, I have not thought through all the pros and cons of these options.)

I focused on the effects of specific education activities. Research speaks to those effects. Research does not indicate that those effects differ if the dollars used to finance them come from different sources. We should consider, however, whether more equitable or productive ways exist to finance what we need in our schools.

No matter what, as I stated, "We all have the obligation to work together to educate our young people, to produce new generations of competent employees, parents, and community leaders, and to strengthen our region within the global economy."

If you don't have today's paper, you can read the online version at: http://www.twincities.com/mld/twincities/news/editorial/15831464.htm

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

World Class Schools in the Information Age

A recent conference which I attended at the University of Minnesota focused on the development of "World Class Schools". A "Call to Action" from 27 school superintendents proposed 8 traits that schools should have to prepare students for the global Information Age.

The superintendents' overall vision for education includes: raising student achievement; eliminating educational disparities; focusing on best practices; and leading the way to prepare students for the global economy in the Information Age.

In brief, the 8 traits that the superintendents encourage, to achieve this vision:

1. There are many academic roads, but all are rigorous and lead to higher education. The superintendents' report states: "...providing every student with academic rigor is the single most powerful step we can take toward closing the achievement gaps that exist..." They feel that no student should have to travel along the "low road" in education.

2. Educational investment starts early. They cite a high rate of return for every dollar spent on early childhood education; they encourage all day, every day kindergarten for five year olds.

3. Learning takes as much time as it takes. At least two important points here. One, students should have the amount of time they need to learn what they need to know to meet state standards. Two, we need to adjust our school year from one designed for the agricultural calendar to one that fits the Information Age. Minnesota averages 172 school days; England requires students to attend 190 days; Japan and Australia 210; and China 230!

4. Great educators have great support. Research shows that, of all the things in the school, the quality of a student's teacher has the strongest effect on learning. Teacher training and continued development and support are crucial.

5. Data and research inform teaching and improve learning every day. The superintendents encourage productive decisions, made by principals for schools and by teachers for classrooms, based on data and research.

6. Funding is predictable and sufficient to produce world-class performance. The United Kingdom, for example, guarantees three year budgets, in order to give principals and teachers confidence to plan for the future.

7. Services for students with special needs emphasize outcomes, not processes. The superintendents advise: Don't specify an inflexible process. Identify outcomes, and enable schools to reach those outcomes in ways that work best for their own situations.

8. Global citizenship is a core academic subject. Two important points here. One, students need to see the "increasing cultural, racial, and linguistic diversity of our state as an asset"...and schools should equip students "with the skills and sensitivity to interact with people and communities whose backgrounds are very different..." Two, students here, as in other countries, should enhance their "knowledge and understanding of international affairs, world history, geography, global economics, and foreign languages." Students should achieve basic fluency in a language other than English.

Whether we agree entirely with what the superintendents proposed, their intent is very worthwhile: They are attempting to create a vision for the future; without a vision, we won't know what we should strive to achieve.

Any thoughts??