The DeHavilland Blog

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Histrionics in education

I've been watching the annual school budget process unfold here in Charlotte, and it's hit a predictable point that gets played out in districts across the country every year: the district isn't getting everythingit wants, and as a result they're screaming that the children are going to be wearing burlap sacks and reading yellowed and outdated textbooks by candlelight.

From an article in the May 22 issue of
The Charlotte Observer:

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools faces "potentially devastating cuts" if County Manager Harry Jones's budget plan goes through, Superintendent Peter Gorman said Wednesday.

Gorman offered no specifics on what he'd cut if county commissioners follow Jones's recommendation to give CMS $351 million in 2008-09 -- $10 million more than this year, but $18 million less than the school board wants. That's barely enough to cover enrollment growth and the opening of seven new schools in
August, Gorman said.

"This could represent potentially devastating cuts ... that would have a negative impact on student achievement," he said. "We've got a real battle ahead of us."

Can we stop pandering to the public with these kinds of histrionics?

While the Charlotte market hasn't felt the subprime crunch like many others have, these are still tight times. Regardless, Gorman is asking for an 8.2% increase in funds from the county. When told he can only have an increase of 2.9%, he runs screaming to the cameras to tell parents how their children are going to suffer.

There's no talk of looking for efficiencies, or of reviewing existing programs to see what could be cut. In fact, the county manager asked Gorman what he would do under different budget scenarios, and Gorman refused to answer the question.

Let me be clear: I like a lot of the things I've seen from Gorman. He's been exceptional in reaching out to the community, and has made a lot of moves that could improve student achievement - some not particularly popular, like moving district-level people into the classroom and moving teachers into high-need areas.

But this kind of overacting is counterproductive, and crying wolf like this is going to destroy the credibility he needs when things do become difficult. A 30% cut in funding would be devastating; getting a 2.9% increase instead of the 8.2% you wanted in a down year is no such thing.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Great quote on education

A great line from Andy Rotherham (a.k.a. Eduwonk) in a post about Teach For America (TFA):

The genius of TFA is that they've figured out a way to screen for some of the other traits that matter to effective teaching. Unfortunately, as is often the case in our field, rather than replicate or learn from that people are still mostly attacking our industry if you build a better mousetrap you either get an argument about mice or they just come to your door and burn down your house...

Monday, May 26, 2008

Why do we wait?

One thing about education reform that strikes me as odd is the fact that so much of it focuses on high school intervention. Why would you not want to intervene earlier - much earlier - to give successful reforms a chance to compound their impact over several years of school, rather than over just a few?

Consider, for the sake of discussion, some reform that raises annual academic achievement by just 5% per year, an effect we were able to replicate each year over the course of a child's remaining school years. If we were to introduce that intervention in the 3rd grade, that child would leave high school at the academic level of a college junior.

Onthe other hand, if some influence reduced annual academic achievement by just 5% per year with a compounded impact, that child would complete high school at the level of a 9th grader.

See this chart to see the impact of such an early start:

Just a 5% change in achievement, assuming it was repeated in each subsequent year, shows a dramatic impact over a long academic life: it's the difference between leaving high school at an academic level between 9.6 - 15.2 years.

In contrast, an identical effect introduced in 9th grade shows only a one-grade level gap between students being accelerated or slowed 5% each year:

Given the dramatic change in course we can effect at the earlier grades - why aren't we focused on reform at that level, rather than when it's too late to make a major difference in the academic paths of students?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Rising costs, static revenues

This from the Houston Chronicle, in "Schools say inflation puts them at risk":

"It's an untenable system. No business in the world would be able to survive with fuel, health insurance and salary increases and a flat revenue source," Falick said. "It's not sustainable.

The solution, according to the article, is to raise taxes and reallocate current apportionments. Not cutting costs. Not fundraising. Not partnering. Just raising taxes.

Based on current trends, I think it's clear that this single-minded approach is (or will soon be) a nonstarter. Let's hope the folks in Texas explore their alternatives before it's too late.