Putting together the puzzle pieces

Delaware won the Federal Race to the Top grant in 2010. With it came to the state $120 million. Of that $120 million, the 19 school districts and 20+ charter schools received roughly half to implement key programs like data coaches ($8.2 million to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.). The other half of that $120 million was reserved for the DoE to use toward their internal programming. These funds likely went towards new units at DoE like the Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Unit and other areas of bureaucratic largesse.

However, it was revealed quite a while back that the state hadn’t fully spent its half of the RttT funds by the time the grant expired on June 30, 2014. They were given an exception by Federal DoE to keep the funds as long as they were to use it in an appropriate manner.It’s expected that those leftover RttT funds will be used toward this Priority Schools initiative in Red Clay and Christina.

In order to fully inform myself where the monies are expected to come from for these Priority Schools AND to get an idea of HOW the DoE’s portion of RttT funds were spent in those four years, I sent the following email to DoE Sec. Mark Murphy:

Hello, Sec. Murphy:

 

Hope the school year has gotten off to a great start for you. I’m feeling quite at home with my new friends at Warner Elementary. They’re quite the dedicated and talented staff.
In doing my own research related to the proposed Priority Schools in my District, I’m interested in getting some financial information from you. In this email, I’m requesting year-by-year financial reports on how the Department spent its portion of the Race to the Top funds. As is known, roughly half of the $120 million dollars went to the school districts and the other half remained at the Department. I’d first like to know the total amount received as the Department’s portion. I’d then like to see the annual reports of how those monies were spent. As well, I’d like to see how much has been unspent and what projects DoE will be doing in order to spend down those monies.
If this information is easily accessible — and digestible — on the Department website, please feel free to forward me to that link. I’ve had members in my Association question me about this new Priority Schools initiative and the potential connection to RttT. Some of those members and myself are quite concerned about the lack of details provided at the press conference on Thursday and would like to peruse financials to learn more.
Hope you enjoy the weekend and thanks so much for your assistance,
Mike

It’s also expected that a California transplant named as DoE’s Chief Accountability and Performance Officer, Penny Schwinn, will be heading up this project at DoE. For those interested, John Young has some information on what Mrs. Schwinn brings to Delaware.For some perspective, she has less than a handful of years of actual teaching experience. At last month’s State Board of Education meeting, she was quoted by multiple sources, myself included, as saying that violence in our city communities “isn’t necessarily something our children need to overcome.” Mrs. Schwinn must have some perspective to make that comment. However, considering she only started her job in Delaware on June 9 of this year, I fail to see how her perspective and understanding is relevant.

I’ve shared with some of my RCEA members my concerns about the state’s plans. There is still much internal discussion to be had, particularly with our three impacted buildings, Warner, Shortlidge, and Highlands Elementary Schools. Within the next week, I’m sure you’ll all be hearing as more and more information and interpretation of said information is digested. Stay tuned.

 

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“While this could be attributed to several factors…”

Read the whole logic-proof, absurd letter from the Delaware Department of Education here. Anyone who thinks this agency is working in 100% good faith is deluding themselves.

This organization either suffers from amnesia or several delusional schizophrenia considering in years’ past across districts they’ve worked their hardest to specifically increase attrition at high-needs schools by either contracting with the saviors from Teach for America or invading key high-needs schools with the authoritarian “Partnership Zone” ideology.

Read it here. And do something.

A Better Idea

In my post below I took a rather heated position against what I feel is outright bullying by the Delaware Department of Education in its continued attempts to shove teacher attraction and retention bonuses down our throats without providing evidence to prove effectiveness. Truth is, there’s very little — if any — evidence to show that throwing more cash at the most “effective” teachers will get them to back up and move to a high-needs, “low-performing” schools and then work their “magic” there.

So yesterday was my complaint post.

Today is my solutions and ideas post. I’ve heard Sec. Murphy say over and over — rightfully so — that he doesn’t just want complaints. He wants good ideas to combat the weaknesses in our schools today. Here’s one: For high-needs schools that are showing progress and are achieving certain levels of growth, how about turning those bonus funds over to the schools instead of to a very limited group of potential bonus-recipient teachers?

This idea has been floated by DoE several times, but they have not bitten. Why, you ask? Well you’re answer is as good as mine. Why would the DoE continue to stand by this flawed bonus ideology when they’ve been given another, far superior, idea that could help bring a school community together as opposed to tearing it apart? Perhaps that’s a topic for another post…

Here’s how I envision such a plan rolling out. Race to the Top monies that were pegged for teacher bonuses would instead be turned over to schools if that school meets certain criterion. Identified schools would have a certain time after being notified of the reward to form a committee of staff and come up with ideas that would best meet the needs of that school’s community. Of course, the way the funds are spent would have to be approved by the DoE, which is fine by me.

However, imagine if a school was awarded $50,000 in a one-year period. What could a school do with those funds? I can only imagine what my school would do with an additional $50,000 per year. Some ideas:

  • Increase the number of parent-engagement nights: FOOD. Yes, it’s true. If you feed them, they will come. And I’m not simply talking about the neediest schools. Promise anyone food at ANY TYPE of school and a crowd will be drawn. But that food costs money. Aside from the food, there are ways schools can effectively partner with outside non-profit agencies to come in for informational nights with these parents. At our highest-needs schools we often find many of the parents need a good dose of education. Bring them out. Feed them. Teach them. That’s what it’s about.
  • More Literacy Nights and Math Nights: We’ve had some great successes at my school with these kinds of activities. But we only have one each per year. Title I funding pays for these events, but those funds are quite limited. It would have been great had Race to the Top funds been pegged to more community engagement activities like this.
  • Professional Development: There are so many amazing professional development opportunities out there for educators. The PD we receive from the District isn’t always the best quality. Worse, it isn’t always relevant to the assignments we undertake. Just like the instruction in our classrooms, PD must be differentiated for educators. Allowing schools to use funds for innovative and outside-the-box PD would truly be empowering.
  • After-school activities: For the most part, teachers REALLY want to do the things that will help their students. Teacher bonuses may help a single teacher, but that won’t necessarily trickle down to his or her students. If a school were awarded funds, then the school could decide to implement more after-school activities, something that is DESPERATELY needed at some of our high-needs, Title I elementary schools.
  • One-time technology upgrades: Technology is a never-ending issue in so many of our schools. Not enough computers. Computers that don’t work. Poor access to computers due to wild testing schedules. If a school received $50,000 then that would be great cash to put into a new computer lab. That is…provided there’s enough space IN your school for a new lab. 🙂

So, Sec. Murphy. You’ve asked for constructive ideas in the past. I’ve provided you five above. I’ve only scratched the surface and haven’t given the topic the true amount of time it deserves. Will you consider any of what I’ve written above as opposed to the ill-conceived and ultimately divisive teacher bonuses the Department is looking to implement in the coming months and years?

Teacher bonuses a raw deal for most

As many of you know, I hold dual-employment. I work full-time in the Red Clay School District as a special education teacher. On top of that, for the past six years, I’ve worked a part-time job at a local bank on the weekends. This affords me a unique look at the quirks of being both a “private” and a “public” employee. I must say each has its advantages and drawbacks.

One of the great advantages of working for this bank has been my participation in my company’s annual Performance Compensation program. Read: Bonus! It always shocks people when I tell them I qualify — even as a part-time employee. The benefits at this gig have been truly rewarding and I’ll miss it when I finally pack up and leave on June 24. The great thing about my company’s bonus program is it’s fair. It’s clear. And it allows for a great amount of employee buy-in. Once a year, each employee designs his or her own set of goals to achieve in that year. There are several check-in points throughout the year to make sure you’re following through and making adequate progress. At the end of the year, each employee has a sit-down with his or her manager and it’s decided the amount of pay-out that employee will receive based on the outlined goals.

I have met 100% of my goals for four out of the five years I was eligible. One year was a little rougher and I only got 80% of the pay-out. But I understood why and I absolutely self-corrected so the following year wouldn’t be the same. Those bonuses were so delicious that the thought of losing one thin dime made me just a bit crazy. The great thing about my company’s bonus system was that it was clear throughout the process. There was a certain amount of control it provided the person receiving the appraisal. We could design our own goals, but we had to hold tight to them if we were going to get the desired pay-out. There was also consistency; every employee was eligible. And while some people, no doubt, didn’t receive a pay-out because they failed to keep up their end of the deal, their eligibility for a bonus was always made clear.

Yesterday The News Journal published an article confirming what many of us knew was coming. Thirty “high-need” schools eligible for teacher bonuses.

The $8.2 million, three-year program is meant to help reward and attract teachers to challenged schools in Delaware. Thirty schools were named by the state as eligible for the program, which will award a $10,000 bonus to certain teachers in these schools who meet yet-to-be-defined student test score goals set by the state.

I love this. $8.2 million dollars. Three years. Temporary cash. Temporary period of existence. Sound familiar? Race to the Top, anyone? And, like Race to the Top, it sounds like Dept. of Ed. doesn’t know what it’s doing before announcing it, as evidence by the line above saying they’ve “yet-do-define” the goals that will justify this bonus to select teachers. Check out Steve Newton’s post on this topic over at Delaware Libertarian. He outlines more thoroughly some of the same concerns I have: Did anyone actually think this through before announcing it?

Also:

“The one thing that I really think about … is how important educator retention is in the highest need schools,” said Christopher Ruszkowski, chief officer, teacher and leader effectiveness unit in the state Department of Education.

I can’t say I much disagree with Mr. Ruszkowski on this point, though I fail to see how his comment on improving educator retention can — in any way — be connected to bonuses. I could do a quick Google that would perhaps gut his argument that providing bonuses will keep the “best teachers” in the “most difficult” schools, but who would actually read that research? I’ve done my own research. It’s called a raised-hand survey. At a union meeting last year, the issue of bonuses was discussed. When asked if teachers in more affluent, “high-performing” schools would move to the needier, “lower-performing schools” in exchange for a bonus, none of their hands went up. NONE.

As anyone who has completed more than a two-year stint in our public schools knows, there’s a bit more to this equation than the simplicity the Department of Education may like you to believe. Teachers aren’t holding back their best instruction because of lack of pay. We’re not shorting our students that world-class education in the hopes of a $10,000 bonus. In general, we’re doing the best we can with the limited resources we’re provided in way of manageable class sizes, technology, student and family supports, and a bureaucratic system that seems to generate an obscene amount of paperwork if only to justify its own existence. But that’s another topic. I’m digressing again.

Let’s get back on topic here. Bonuses.

For the first year of the program, the only school employees eligible will be reading and math teachers who have students in grades 3-10 who take the Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System. Teachers selected for a bonus must remain in their schools for two additional years as part of the program.

You see that? This program will only be open to reading and math teachers — those subjects for which data is easily available. So, rather than doing the fair and equitable thing — like my part-time bank job — in opening this up to all teachers, Dept. of Ed. takes the easy way out by offering this to teachers for whom simple data would be available to justify rewarding them a bonus.

We have departmentalized classes in our fourth and fifth grade. Meaning one teacher teaches reading/ELA, another teaches math, and the third teaches science/social studies. Having previously taught in the science/social studies capacity, I helped beef up the math and reading instruction with all 75 of my fifth graders, particularly as test time got nearer.  Would I have been eligible for this bonus? Or would my other two team mates have been the only ones eligible? This is a hot mess waiting to explode.

And this pretty much confirms what many already believe about the Department of Education. It’s big government at its worst. It has lots and lots of money to spend on programs (in this case bonuses) for which adequate measures aren’t established before implementation. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so infuriatingly pathetic.

The News Journal adds:

It’s up to school districts and charters to decide if they wish to participate by the end of this month. If they don’t, their teachers will not be eligible for the bonus.

I will be in touch with administration and the school board at my school district and ask that they reject these funds and the likely increased scrutiny and regulation that will be attached to them. I recommend other teachers in other school districts do the same. We don’t need this diviseness infecting our neediest of schools. We need tangible and concrete resources being pegged to those schools. Not another piece of mumbo-jumbo straight from the Michelle Rhee book of edreform.

Instructional Coaches=Magic Pill?

The News Journal has an article out today discussing the mid-year results of the Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System (DCAS). (Sidenote: My apologies if you don’t subscribe to The News Journal. I (obviously) won’t be reprinting whole articles here, but I will paraphrase key points.) DCAS is taken at three points during the year to measure a student’s progress on grade-level curriculum. I won’t debate the efficacy of this test as it relates to certain segments of our students; I’ll save that for another post.

I also won’t get into the results of the test, as that’s apparently why we have data coaches — to assist our teachers with data interpretation and tell us how to magically make those students’ scores increase, external influences be damned! I will get into a conclusion that writer Wade Malcolm — perhaps illogically — draws in relation to certain successes from the winter scores in one school district:

The use of instructional coaches — funded by the state’s Race to the Top initiative — is part of the reason Indian River School District has so far exceeded the state average in reading and math for every grade level tested.

Now, it’s wonderful that Indian River School District has exceeded the state average in reading and math. We should absolutely magnify success whenever it’s shown at any of our public schools, be they traditional, magnets, charters, or otherwise.

I’m just a little interested in how a District — or Mr. Malcolm, in this case — can draw the conclusion that “the use of instructional coaches…is part of the reason Indian River” saw such success. We educate in an almost myopically, single-focused environment of “Data! Data! Data!,” so I’m wondering if Indian River has ACTUAL data to prove that the instructional coaches were a part of that success.

Or is this just the District’s attempt to find some — any! — successes in the state’s Race to the Top program, which has proven to be not at all that popular among  many teachers across the state?