Monday, September 26, 2016

Lessons Learned on the School Playground

What kid doesn’t have fond memories of the playground? But who knew that so many life lessons were being learned while we were outside enjoying recess? As I sat in the Supreme Court hearing on school finance last week, several old playground lessons came to mind.

When is tattling not tattling? Nobody likes a tattletale, the incessant whiner who ran to the teacher whenever something didn’t go his or her way. But when it is a matter of someone getting hurt, always go to the adult in charge. It is a common refrain that we need to stop the endless litigation over school finance in Kansas. School districts are portrayed as whiners who are never satisfied. The fact is that when kids are getting hurt, the Supreme Court is the adult in charge. Sometimes schools are left with no choice but to appeal to the courts.

The merry-go-round keeps spinning after you stop pushing. The state’s attorney argued that since student achievement continued to improve in spite of decreasing operational funds, money must not matter. The education process is like the merry-go-round, it continues to advance student learning for a while even after the appropriate funding stops. But it will not continue to turn forever.

In fact, the “Kansas schools are fifth in the nation” quote that was offered more than once at the hearing is not longer accurate. According to KASB research, Kansas has dropped to 10th in the nation since the trial started. The merry-go-round has stopped turning and is now going the wrong direction. It will be even tougher to make up the difference needed to turn our system back in a positive direction.

Put me in coach… Another argument made by the defense was that if we just fire all of the bad principals and teachers, education will improve and it doesn’t cost anything. I remember being picked last for softball at every recess. I possess the eye-hand coordination of a two-month-old puppy. No doubt that when someone struck out or missed a fly ball, my peers would like to have replaced the errant player, but when they looked at the bench and saw me sitting there, well, maybe not so much.

Replacing poor teachers sounds good on paper, but at a time when there are around 300 unfilled teaching positions in Kansas, not so much. It will cost money to improve the profession so that we have a strong bench. Kansas teachers have to be paid based upon the strong production we get compared with other states, or fewer and fewer will choose to go into the profession. That takes a long-term investment in our most important profession.

The teeter-totter reveals that not all kids are the same. It will horrify my older (and taller) sister that she once weighed more than me. That ratio reversed about fourth grade, but until that time she enjoyed luring me onto the teeter totter only to strand me at the top and the leap off, causing me to bottom out quickly. Eventually, I learned to only get on if she agreed to slide forward on the board. This simple adjustment corrected an inequitable system.

The state argued for a similar adjustment to the finance system. They argued that if a third of the kids are not meeting standard, we could simply offer less to the higher-level kids- scoot them a little towards the middle. The example offered questioned whether we really need Advanced Placement courses. Teeter-totter economics are not what Kansans want from their finance system.

Soon the Supreme Court will make a decision about the adequacy of the school finance system. Whatever the decision, in poll after poll, Kansans say they want to provide more resources to their public schools. Kansans want their kids to have a world-class education. The way to end the lawsuits is to simply do what the public wants and our children deserve.

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Lamb's Tale

Not an actual representation of the event- I was not that cute
It is a sad fact of nature that animals sometimes reject their young, some more aggressively than others. An early lesson we learned as kids was that sweet gentle bunny rabbits will actually eat their babies. Sorry folks, but that cute mother rabbit can be a cannibalistic nightmare! Others, such as cows and sheep, simply refuse feed or don’t produce milk, resulting in what are called bucket calves or lambs.

There are many farm kids who have experienced the joys of having a baby lamb or calf to feed. (And in the realities of the sometimes cruel circle of life, seen them carted off to market- just keeping it real for you.) One of my earliest farm memories involved a sweet little bucket lamb.

My Uncle Art can confirm the momentous day when I went with him to feed the lamb whose mother had rejected her. I was probably about four years old, and the lamb was so cute that when she was finished eating I wanted her to stick around. She started to wander off and I unknowingly grabbed the wrong handle. When I grabbed her tail, it came off in my hand. Horrified at the prospect of permanently disfiguring the poor little creature, I immediately began trying to stick the tail back on the beast. I remember my uncle roaring with laughter; and thinking, “my kind uncle has an evil side! He thinks mangling baby animals is hilarious.”

When my sheepish tears of terror subsided, my uncle explained that all lambs lose their tails. He pointed out that none of the sheep had tails, and they fall off because they are “banded.” Admittedly, it was much later this made any sense to me. (Contact KASB Past President Rod Stewart if you need more information.) And as the joke is told at every family gathering for the past fifty years, I realized the funny part was me trying to stick that tail back on.

Childhood can be so traumatic, for lambs, kids, and children. Unfortunately for children in poverty, trauma takes a far more dramatic shape than pulling off a lambs tail. Research tells us that children in poverty are exposed to environmental toxins inadequate nutrition, maternal depression, parental substance abuse, trauma and abuse, violent crime, divorce, low-quality child care, and decreased cognitive stimulation at a much higher rate than their higher income peers.

An early study on language development was done in Kansas City, Kansas by Rice University researchers. The six-year longitudinal study, called the Turner Preschool Study, found that by age three, children in poverty were subjected to 30 million fewer words than their middle class and professional peers. Perhaps more concerning, children of professionals received 6 words of encouragement for every one word of discouragement, compared to one encouraging word to two discouraging words for children in poverty.

One of the most recent studies uses neuroimaging to show that children in poverty’s brains development lags behind other children at a rate of 8-10 percent. Similar to baby lambs tails, this developmental lag lasts through adulthood. The researchers summarized their findings with this statement, “The results were clear—the effects of low socioeconomic status are apparent even in kids who grew up otherwise healthy.”

The Kansas State Board of Education established that kindergarten readiness is an outcome that should be measured to assure that eventually students will be college and career ready. Another outcome the board wants local districts to measure is social/emotional growth. These are worthy outcomes, for sure, and they are attainable given appropriate resources. However, achievement of the outcomes is greatly complicated by the conditions of poverty.

In Kansas, different communities, districts, and schools, have different challenges and struggles. One district records 4 percent of its students receive free lunches (The free lunch threshold is roughly 1.5 times the poverty rate.) while another reports 72 percent of its students get free lunches. The range among school buildings is even more dramatic. Several schools show less than 1 percent free lunch rates and at the other end, many hover around the 94 percent rate.

Districts in which 72 percent of students suffer from “environmental toxins inadequate nutrition, maternal depression, parental substance abuse, trauma and abuse, violent crime, divorce, low-quality child care, and decreased cognitive stimulation at a much higher rate than their higher income peers” will certainly have more challenges meeting the Kansans Can outcomes than those districts in which 4 percent have those challenges.

Comparing the resources needed to educate children from these widely divergent circumstances as if they were the same is a fool’s errand. The challenges are not equal and neither are the resources needed to meet them. That is the difficulty of writing a school finance formula, and that is why KASB members have determined that adjustments in resources are needed to accommodate differences in children.

At the same time, KASB members have recognized that in some districts, the challenges require more local flexibility for additional funding. Both of these challenges are far less formidable if the basic level of funding for all is increased to an adequate level. KASB members do not accept Billy Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” fatalism when it comes to accommodating the needs of children. Year after year, our members recognize that we all have to work together for the best interests of all children in our state.
Either banding a tail, or trying to put it back on?

Four-year-old boys can’t put the tail back on a lamb, but given the appropriate resources, educators and school leaders can meet the challenges that their local needs present.