My personal musings about anything that gets on my radar screen--heavily dominated by politics.


A Not-At-All Modest Proposal

I wrote at length last night about CSAP scores; it was prelude to a deeper discussion of education reform.

At current, schools are funded by a combination of sources (federal, state, local, user tax. . .) that funnel through the state, which then delivers to the school district a "Per Pupil Operating Revenue" (PPOR) from which is functions. The district then uses this money to pay for a variety of goods and services, including transportation, salaries and benefits for employees, and maintenance expenses. The district then passes on to the school an amount that represents each student in the school to fund programs, buy materials, and provide for building-level decisions about curriculum and support personnel.

To put some numbers to that: JeffCo Schools receives $5,776 per student from the combination of sources mentioned above. Incidentally, this is rather low compared to the average of the other six metro-area school districts, but I digress. . . Kindergarteners are funded by the state at 50% of that. In effect, the state gives between $5,000 and $6000 dollars every year for as long as the child is in the public schools, plus $2500-$3000 for that first year, to the school district for the purpose of funding one child's education (for context, I heard on the radio today that the PPOR in New York City is on the order of $14,000). And while a great deal of that money comes from local resources (property taxes, etc. . .) a large enough chunk comes from the state and federal governments that those bodies exert enormous influence and oversight on local school districts. Thus, local districts and individual schools are bound to make Adequate Yearly Progress, as measured by the CSAP test, and to meet Accountability Goals to the state and district.

Still with me? I know this is tedious, but it is necessary. The meat is coming up.

The big battle over standardized testing is how results of the test effect the monies the school and school district receive. Outstanding schools get rewarded, poor schools actually also get rewarded, but if they remain poor for too long they lose their standing, and the middling schools troll along as ever. When you tie financial incentives to schools for performance, the schools kick things into high gear pretty quickly, though that does not always translate all the way to the classroom. But built into this whole system is the assumption that the school is the only variable in the equation. Therefore, all incentives and punishments are geared at the schools and the teachers, with little or no meaning for the students.

The CSAP is a test that reports only in terms of a meaningless raw score, and how that score compares to the criteria for the test (Exceeds Proficient, Proficient, Partially Proficient, Unsatisfactory). Unfortunately, there is no method for reporting the progress students make, which, as I posted last night, is the best indicator of the effectiveness of the school and the teacher. For example, a fourth grader who enters the grade reading at a first grade level, and who reaches a third grade level by the end of the year still shows up on the test as Unsatisfactory--a black mark on the school and the teacher that are not indicative of how that year actually went. Again, little or no incentive for the student.

What I propose is an expansion of the testing program to encompass all thirteen grades. (I know, Kindergarteners and tests are a touchy subject, but we should know if a kid who is in Kindergarten is ready for first grade, and we can probably do this in a way that fits with what we know about 6-year olds). Reporting of test scores should now be given in terms of the developmental level of the student; for instance, a child reading at the level of a fourth grader in their 6th month would get a score of 4.6 (this method of reporting is in place and effective in Tennessee).

The performance of a school will now be given in terms of how many grade levels the average student in the school progresses in a single year, and a teacher will be evaluated on the progress that the individuals in their classroom make in a single year. It is a clean system, it is neat, and it provides specific accountability to the schools and teachers for the work that they are doing.

Here's where things get different. The state, for its part, will enact a contract with the students of the state that it will fund 12.5 years of education at the going PPOR--period. In addition, no student will be placed in a classroom until they have successfully completed the requirements of the previous grade, as measured by the test. So a student reading at 4.5 and doing math at 4.7 would never be placed in a sixth grade class room. On the other hand, an 8 year old reading at a 5.2 could very easily be placed in a fifth grade classroom to work among their intellectual peers.

The test must be made available at any time during the year so that students making extraordinary progress can attempt to 'test up' to the next grade level when they are ready. For those content to stay with their class, the test will still be administered generally at the end of the year.

Of course, there must be a safety net. If a student lags behind his or her age group for three consecutive years, despite intervention efforts by the school, at any time after the sixth grade, they should be re-routed into a technical or trade school. This must happen in time for them to learn a functional skill and be employable by the time their 12.5 years of funding runs out--assumedly, about when they turn 18. How much better would it be for the student and society as a whole to pass an eighteen year old with a Trade Certificate in hand and an employable skill than to turn them loose, as we do now, with a meaningless piece of paper and no prospects?

On the flip side of that, for students who are ambitious, if they happen to complete the twelfth grade test early--say, when they are only fifteen--then the state agrees to transfer the PPOR for that student to a state institution of higher learning for the duration of the 12.5 years of funding.

In other words, there is now only one graduation requirement: proficiency on the state test. This proficiency may be demonstrated at any time the student feels ready, but cannot happen after the 12.5 years of funding has expired.

For the schools, incentives must be created to guarantee that every student makes one years' progress in one years' time. For the school district, the onus of pushing schools along to make one years' progress--and to provide resources to make this happen--is squarely on them. And for the teachers, the clear numerical demonstration of their students' progress under their care will act (or should, with the help of the schools) to drive them to reach every kid.

For the students, the expectation and value of remaining with their peers will create a powerful incentive to come to school to work and actually learn. For the parents, the incentive is similar--and so much more powerful for them to properly prepare their children for school!

In this way, the burden of educating children is shared among the schools, the teachers, the parents and the students. This would truly be a partnership effort where the everybody at the table can focus on the learning of the student, which is, I would submit, the actual mission of public education. The state is relegated to a funding body with oversight of testing requirements, but little curricular control beyond that.

Tomorrow, I will attempt to shoot holes in my own plan. In particular, I will try to identify many of the groups that would vehemently oppose such a system, and, perhaps, address some of those concerns.

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