Sunday, January 11, 2015

Dear Gov. Wolf – 10 Ways to Help Pennsylvania’s Schools

By:  Steven Singer

Originally posted on his blog:
Dear Gov. Tom Wolf:
It’s so nice to hear your name. Wolf. Wolf. Wolf.
I could write it all day. It’s so much better than Corbett.
As one of millions who voted for you, campaigned for you and even posted a yard sign for you – I want to offer my most cordial congratulations and welcome to office.
I know it may take a few weeks to get used to the new job. Heck! It could take a month just cleaning out all the skeletons left by your predecessor. It’s no coincidence that most of them are child sized.
Your forerunner treated public education like his own private piggy bank. He slashed education budgets with glee blaming it on federal stimulus dollars, Gov. Rendell or anyone but himself. Moreover, he trashed a newly created funding formula designed to ensure needy districts received adequate support. He stopped partially reimbursing poverty-stricken districts for the extra costs of having charter schools drain their coffers. And for a candidate who campaigned on limited government, he dramatically expanded the state role in education policy.
In short, it was a disaster. As a public school teacher, those were the four longest years of my life. I dearly hope we can expect better from you. One could easily make the case that you owe your position as governor to your stance against all these policies and the expectation that you would reverse course.
So let me offer some help. This is what I’d like to see you do as governor. I know it won’t be easy. I know you’ll probably have to compromise to work with a Republican legislature that enabled all these disasters to take place.
But you play a vital role – to set the agenda. And I fully expect you to do that for the children of Pennsylvania.
These are the top 10 ways to Help Pennsylvania’s schools:
1) Reverse Course in York
Talk about an American tragedy! York City Schools is a victim of your predecessor’s Draconian budget cuts. But instead of actually helping the district recover from years of underfunding, it was further hobbled by ideologues and profiteers.
First, Pennsylvania underfunds the already impoverished York Schools. Then when the district can’t cope with the lack of support, it’s labeled a “failure” and forced into a ridiculous recovery program. How does this make sense: tighten your belt, try a few targeted reforms and if that doesn’t work, give control of the district to a for-profit charter operator with a record of failure!?
And when the duly-elected school board has second thoughts, the state snatches control away from them and sends the school into receivership so this ridiculous privatization scheme can be instituted unmolested by Democracy!?
No. You need to listen to the taxpayers. Give control of the district back to the school board. Give the so-called Chief Recovery Officer his walking papers, throw his “Recovery Plan” into the trash and properly fund the district. No charters. Just common sense reform.
2) Return All Schools to Local Control
Public schools should be exactly that – public. Their actions should be governed by the community – not the state. Within certain Constitutionally mandated limits, the state has no business deciding what schools should be doing. The state’s main job is to ensure schools have what they need to function.
Yet Pennsylvania is running a handful of districts. Philadelphia Schools have been under control of the School Recovery Commission and appointed CEO for almost two decades with no improvement. Likewise, Duquesne and Chester Upland districts have struggled through receivership with nothing to show for it but misery and lack of services.
That’s why these schools were taken over in the first place. New leadership was never the problem. It was lack of funds.
Restore all Pennsylvania districts to the taxpayers and democratically elected school boards. Fund properly and stand back. Watch them flourish.
3) Increase the Education Budget
You campaigned on it. It’s time to do it. Bring funding back to pre-Corbett levels. In fact, increase it to reflect the increased costs of services. And bring back the charter school reimbursement.
A small increase will not be enough. Our schools have suffered through too much neglect. We need to lower class sizes and restore arts and music, extra-curricular activities, school nurses, librarians – everything we lost under your forerunner.
Critics will say this is throwing money at the problem. The rest of us call it an investment. We need to put more money toward educating children than locking up high school dropouts. We need to put all the strength and power of the Commonwealth into ensuring the next generation will have a better chance at succeeding than the current one.
That takes money. It takes taxes – especially on the wealthy and corporations that have had a tax holiday for the past four years. It’s time to pay up.
4) Institute a Fair Funding Formula
This is another of your campaign promises. Even your predecessor eventually came around to supporting it – after he trashed the one that had already been in place.
We need to make sure schools get the money they need to operate. This means the state has to provide more funding to cash-strapped schools than rich ones. After all, wealthy districts can rely more on local taxes. Poor districts cannot.
Start by re-instituting the funding formula the legislature created in 2008.
5) Halt Charter School Expansion
Speaking of money, it makes no sense to have two separate educational systems. It’s unnecessary and wasteful. We don’t need traditional public schools AND charters.
It’s all about performance. Traditional public schools often do much better or as well as charters – especially cyber charters.
So put a moratorium on new charter schools. Then make the ones we have transparent and accountable. You know? Like we already do for public schools!
No more holding board meetings in private, keeping budgets secret and discouraging difficult students from enrolling. Otherwise, the potential for malfeasance is huge – especially at those organized for-profit.
Direct the state Department of Education to investigate all existent charter schools to determine which are exemplary and which substandard. Close the bad, keep the good.
We simply can’t afford letting profiteers suckle on Pennsylvania’s school budgets.
6) Divest from Common Core. Return to PA Standards
Technically Pennsylvania never adopted Common Core State Standards. It just plagiarized them. We pretend our wonderful PA Core Standards are something new and innovative. They’re not. They’re just Common Core with Pennsylvania in the name.
What a waste of time and money! We don’t need the state telling districts what to do. There’s nothing wrong with benchmarks – suggested goals to which districts can aim. But unfunded mandates? No, thank you.
The Pennsylvania Standards that preceded PA Core were closer to the benchmark ideal. They were a guide – not a high-stakes mandated gun-to-your-head de factocurriculum.
Every teacher knows you don’t help children by simply changing the bar. But you do help textbook publishers by making them uniform. You create a market.
It’s time to do what’s best for children, not corporations. Throw out Common Core. Return to PA State Standards.
7) Cut Back on Standardized Testing
Everyone is sick of standardized tests. Teachers are sick of them. The kids and parents are sick of them. Even politicians are sick of them.
It’s time to do something about it.
Pennsylvania’s standardized test system is a joke. We took our own Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSAs) – flawed as they were – and threw them away in favor of copying the horrific PARCC tests. The PSSAs weren’t exactly fair, nor did they accurately evaluate student learning. But at least they held reasonable goals.
The new state tests are so much like the PARCC, they expect students to be far above what is developmentally appropriate. Kids just aren’t ready for certain concepts until they’re older. These new tests ignore everything we know about how the growing mind works in favor of a scheme to fail more kids and sell more remedial textbooks.
We need to scrap these new tests and – in fact – dramatically reduce the number of standardized tests we give. In a perfect world, we’d give only one standardized test in high school and call it a day. Let kids in elementary and middle school learn their basic skills without the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.
Moreover, don’t attach high-stakes to any test. That corrupts the score. Use it as a tool. It’s a way of checking the oil on a school’s educational engine. But you don’t throw a temper tantrum and blame the car when it’s low on oil. You add more oil. (See increase school funding.)
8) Abolish VAM Teacher Evaluations. Let Districts Design Their Own Evaluations.
When experts like those in the American Statistical Association are complaining that you’re using statistics incorrectly, you need to listen. Value-Added Measures are ahorrible way to evaluate teachers. You simply can’t use student test scores to judge the effectiveness of teachers. It’s like measuring the size of the potholes on your work route to determine if you’re a good driver.
Moreover, the evaluation system now in place is a gothic, baroque mess. It’s cumbersome, takes way too much time from teachers and administrators and ultimately doesn’t provide a fair evaluation.
Let each school district come up with its own evaluation system. Yes, this probably means going back to relying on principals to actually observe their own teachers in their own ways.
Critics will complain this system is flawed because too many teachers get positive evaluations. So what? Most principals, parents and students are well satisfied with the quality of the teachers in their districts. Who are these corporate bureaucrats to tell them they’re wrong?
9) Appoint a Teacher as Secretary of Education
The state should have a limited role in setting education policy. You’d think your predecessor would agree seeing how he downsized the state Department of Education. But those employees he did keep – especially at the highest levels – hadlittle to no education background.
In the rare case when an educator was hired, that background was almost completely in management positions – hardly any time in the classroom.
The Secretary of Education and the majority of staff running the Department of Education should be teachers – not CEOs, political advocacy nuts with an agenda – not even principals, superintendents, or academics. They should have real world experience doing the job recently. No more corporate shills. If you want the state to do what’s right for children, you need to employ their best advocates, people who know what’s needed and how to achieve it – teachers.
10) Kick Out TFA
Speaking of teachers – that’s who should be running our classrooms – Not lightly trained temps who have no intention of staying in the field.
It is a sad joke that our politicians have valued Teach for America recruits equally or more than educators. Teachers graduate from intensive education programs at our best colleges. TFA recruits go through a few weeks of training.
It is ridiculous and insulting to accept TFA as a substitute for well-trained staff – especially at our poorest schools. As governor, you should push for a moratorium on any new TFA recruits at our public schools. Every student matters. Every student deserves a real teacher.
In closing, thank you for your time. I hope you will consider enacting these reforms. You would be doing what’s truly in the best interests of the citizens, parents, teachers and children of the Commonwealth.
But be warned. We have had enough of politicians who come into office on a promise and a smile but don’t back it up with real action. We gave you our overwhelming support in the last election. Now it’s up to you to keep it.
Steven Singer

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