Friday, March 16, 2018

Let's arm teachers with...

The KASB School Board Review editor asked me to write a column about school safety.

I’ve spent time over the past two weeks reading research and opinion about school safety. I’ve read about schools being the safest place for kids and about the extreme number of shootings we have compared to other countries. I’ve read about too many guns and not enough guns. There is research about mental health problems causing-and not causing-school shootings. And of course, there is a great debate about whether we should provide firearms to school staff. 

The conclusion I have reached is that we should arm teachers and time is of the essence.   

Let’s arm teachers with a salary commensurate with their skills and training. More importantly, let’s arm teachers with pay that aligns with their responsibilities. A recent Bureau of Labor statistics study, reprinted in The Economist, shows Kansas has the largest teacher salary to private sector gap in America. 

Let’s arm teachers with time. The time they need to work together, to plan curriculum and lessons. The time they need to develop healthy relationships with all their students.  

Let’s arm teachers with quality training. Arm them with the opportunity to learn about the latest research on trauma and mental health, instruction, and content.  

Let’s arm teachers with quality leadership. The number one reason new teachers give for leaving the profession is lack of administrative support.  

Let’s stop complaining about so many overpaid administrators and start arming teachers with strong administrators who are also compensated in a manner equal to their responsibilities.  

Let’s arm teachers with quality spaces in which to teach. Educators need classrooms and buildings that are up to date and have the latest safety enhancements. 

Let’s arm teachers with reasonable class sizes. Smaller numbers of students per teachers means safer schools. When teachers have manageable class sizes they have the ability to get to know students and recognize when students are hurting and need help. 

Let’s arm teachers with quality support staff, arm them with counselors and social workers who are trained to recognize and support students and families who are under stress. 

Let’s arm teachers with respect and consideration equal to their responsibility for the future success of our nation. 

Finally, let’s arm teachers with visionary and supportive school boards. School board members like the ones we have in Kansas, focused on keeping our students safe while we prepare them for post-secondary success.  

Thursday, February 15, 2018

An Economist's Guess is Liable to be as Good as Anybody Else's. - Will Rogers

As much as Mark Tallman makes fun of me for being an “economist” because I taught sophomore economics for a semester at Lawrence High School, I should be able to tell an old economist joke:

A mathematician, an accountant and an economist apply for the same job. The interviewer calls in the mathematician and asks, "What does two plus two equal?" The mathematician replies, "Four." The interviewer asks, "Four, exactly?" The mathematician looks at the interviewer incredulously and says, "Yes, four, exactly."
Then the interviewer calls in the accountant and asks the same question: "What does two plus two equal?" The accountant says, "On average, four - give or take ten percent, but on average, four."

Then the interviewer calls in the economist and poses the same question: "What does two plus two equal?" The economist gets up, locks the door, closes the shade, sits down next to the interviewer and says, "What do you want it to equal?”
It is totally unfair to diminish a profession based upon a silly joke. I am sure those students I taught back in 1980 would agree that economics is an honorable discipline. (At the very least as honorable as executive director.) However, when one of the folks doing the hiring of the economist who is to study the Kansas School Finance system makes the statement “We’re focused on finding experts who can help show the court that funding is adequate,” it doesn’t help the perception.

In the interest of fairness, we should give any study a fair hearing. But we should be listening with a critical ear. With that in mind, what can we expect from the upcoming study being conducted by Texas A & M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service Professor Lori Taylor? For school finance fans, the best clues will be from Dr. Taylor herself when she briefs the legislature on February 23 (Watch KASB publications for times, location and broadcast information.) Another opportunity will be on Saturday, February 24 at 10 a.m. at KASB offices, 1420 Arrowhead Road, Topeka. Legislative leadership has graciously arranged an opportunity for the education community to hear from Dr. Taylor at that time. We should thank Dr. Taylor and Legislative Leadership for this chance to meet and interact.

It will be important to learn about and understand some critical aspects of the study. The first concerns the assumptions being made in the formulation of funding models. Does the researcher assume that all districts are alike, or is the researcher making assumptions about variations in local districts that need to be accommodated? Functions such as school and district size, location, population density, demographics and cost-of-living are assumed to affect funds necessary for educating students in our current finance model. Will they be included in this new study?

Another set of assumptions has to do with individual students. Do different students have different learning needs? Do these needs translate to additional costs? Does the funding model allow for the differences associated with poverty, social and emotional needs or trauma? It will be important to understand how a study provides for students with additional needs.

Assumptions can also be made about how money can be spent. Does the researcher lump all funds together and assume that all money can be spent directly on classroom instruction? Some studies do not allow for the fact that funds like school lunch cannot be spent on an additional teacher. How will this study treat different funds?

While the aforementioned assumptions and issues are important, the most important aspect of any school finance study is the measurement of success. For over a decade, schools were measured by a reading score and a math score. The courts, legislature, executive branch and state board of education of Kansas have all acknowledged the need to move beyond this limited view of student success. The Rose Standards have been endorsed by all of the previously mentioned groups as what Kansas students need. Any study that ignores these as an outcome does not fit the expectations of success for Kansans. The Kansas State Board of Education’s Kansas Can vision defines what Kansans want for our children.

By changing assumptions and desired outcomes, the total dollars necessary to fund a system can be changed dramatically. It is essential the we learn about the principles behind the new study that is being conducted. Please take the time to get educated.

Watch KASB publications over the next few days to learn more about how you can engage in the process. Dr. Taylor will be addressing the legislature on February 23 and will be at the KASB offices on February 24. Educate yourself!

Monday, February 12, 2018

School finance: We’re not in sasnaK anymore

Superman geeks will remember when “htraE,” otherwise known as Bizarro World, a strange iteration of Earth, was created by a Superman wannabe.  Others will remember the Bizarro Jerry episode of the TV Show “Seinfeld,” in which Elaine hangs out with a group of friends who are kind, thoughtful and considerate, complete opposites of Jerry, George and Kramer. These cultural references come to mind because it is starting to look like 2018 will be the year of Bizarro Kansas.

It may have all started when Kansas Basketball Coach Bill Self shed his usual suit and tie and donned a pullover that matched his West Virginia counterparts.  We also saw the Kansas City Chiefs announce that they would be starting their own number one draft choice at quarterback, instead of the one traded from San Francisco. The last year that actually happened, us older folks were watching the season finale of M*A*S*H. I’m not ready to say things are so topsy-turvy that KU won’t win the Big 12 or the Chiefs won’t lose in the first round of the playoffs, but Kansas sports have had a weird month.

The ‘Rule of Law’

On a more serious note, former Kansas Governor Brownback’s State of the State speech called for $600 million more for education and for the Kansas to follow the “rule of law” when it comes to funding schools.  Previous speeches have included statements like this one from 2015 in which the Governor decried “…massive increases in spending unrelated to actual student populations or improved student achievement.”

Or this from 2016: “Yet today, of the more than $4 billion the state puts into education funding, not nearly enough goes toward instruction. That’s highly inefficient, if not immoral….”

So, it was starting to look like Bizarro Kansas was going to be a better place with a kinder, gentler state of mind. But then things got even more bizarre. A venerated public servant with 53 years of service was villainized in a letter full of legalese, like “not questioning his honesty…if true” and “alleged communication” and “misallocated.” A crafty attorney can lead you right up to the ugly accusation without using words that will land them in hot water.

Kansas political leaders reacted strongly to this unprecedented attack on an individual civil servant. All four former governors (Republican and Democrat), the former chairman of Senate Ways and Means committee, and former president of the Senate, along with nearly half the members of the House Representatives, have provided written support for this esteemed public servant.
The concerns could and should have been expressed without casting aspersions on anyone’s reputation or intent, and using language more easily understood.

Legislative Intent

Here’s my attempt at some of that “alleged communication.”

The issue in question? How to determine an obscure statistical estimate for “line of best fit” that even mathematicians cannot agree on. When the law passed decades ago, legislative intent on how to calculate the aid was sought, and information about the calculation has been provided to committee through the years. The funds were used as intended, to aid in the safe transport of children to school for at least 30 years. Students would have been denied the opportunity for a ride to school had legislative intent not been followed.

Superman’s Bizarro World never really ends well.  Elaine is ultimately rejected by her new Bizarro friends. Kansas basketball might be struggling, but the fourteenth championship is still within our grasp. And I’d sure love to see the Bizarro Chiefs take a Super Bowl and $600 million added to the school finance formula. 

In the end, Kansans will favor following the rule of law, as now-Ambassador Brownback finally acknowledged. Kansans also understand the rule of law needs interpretation, as long as it is done honestly and in good faith.