All posts by Steve

Aquinas as a Magnet School – Good for Academics, Good for Space Crunch

A K-8 magnet school at Aquinas offers an intriguing double-bonus:

1. It gives us an opportunity to strengthen our academic program with a math/science academy, a Montessori program, or world language immersion (e.g. Framingham’s math charter school, and the highly regarded Holliston French immersion and Montessori offerings);

2. It will draw off every single elementary and middle school in Newton, reducing enrollment pressures at every single school in the district. If spending on Aquinas eliminates the need to spend for expansion at some of our other schools that must be added into the economic equation. Continue reading Aquinas as a Magnet School – Good for Academics, Good for Space Crunch

A Data Approach to Curriculum Assessment

I am looking forward to watching how Dr. Fleishman applies a data approach to curriculum assessment. Non-data folks have dismissed the proliferation of math tutoring schools to the ultra-competitiveness of Newton students. Others, including me, would like to understand whether the quality of our Math programs, including Everyday and Impact Math, are also having an impact. I consider this to be too important of a question to answer with gut feelings and speculation, which are the tools that Newton has used to evaluate this question until now.

The Impact of Math Schools?

In 2004, a limited NPS survey found that 25% of our students received tutoring or outside math school support. Since then at least three high-profile math schools have opened and are thriving around Newton. We haven’t surveyed our student population again, but we must determine whether the instructional credit for our high math scores should go to our expensive Everyday/Impact/math coach effort, or the local Russian Math school. Are we getting good value for the NPS program, or are we spending money and getting poor results, results that are only hidden by an affluent parent population who can afford outside math support? We must focus on educational results, followed immediately by the cost to achieve them. We must ask good questions, and be willing to act on the answers.

Money and its impact on class size

(A post I wrote to the NewtonParents listserve on 9-2-09, in response to a question about how to deal with growing class size)

The issue of class size is entirely one tied to money.

Here is the roller coaster: class size is going up, because teacher numbers are going down, because compensation is going up, while the rate of revenue increase is going down. Last year the school department cut 80 positions, and 80 more would have been cut for this coming year had NPS not budgeted for a freeze in COLA. The NTA has still not ratified this contract, so who knows what our final budget numbers will be.

Some options to deal with the roller coaster include: bringing more money into the system (property tax increases, hotel and restaurant tax increases, new growth, PILOTs, raising fees, taxing telecommunication company assets, etc.), finding cost savings and efficiencies, and shifting money from the municipal budget.   Continue reading Money and its impact on class size

Our math program and teacher compensation

Poor quality math curricula hurts the educational outcomes of our children, and compromises the work environment so important to retaining top quality teachers.

I have been concerned for some time about the quality of our Everyday and Impact Math programs being used in our elementary and middle schools. Personal exposure via my children, anecdotal commentary by fellow parents, discussions with Newton’s teachers, and a study of national literature and reviews strongly suggest that these two math programs are compromising the math education of Newton’s children.   Continue reading Our math program and teacher compensation

Historic Newton and our school buildings

I subscribe to the NewtonParents listserve, which serves as a discussion board for a wide range of school-related issues.  In recent days, the topic of renovation verses demolition/reconstruction of some of our elementary schools has come up.  Questions have been raised about whether Angier, Zervas, Cabot, and Ward schools have historic value, are tasteless eyesores, are physically suitable for renovations, or can be affordably replaced.  The topic drifted into properties that the city calls “historic” and a role that the Historic Commission has played.   I posted my own thoughts, which are largely captured below:   Continue reading Historic Newton and our school buildings

Bringing CAG to life…

Q:  Have you read the Citizen Advisory Group’s School Cost Structure Report?  If so, how would you see School Leaders and the School Committee creating “a blue print that clearly outlines what is essential to maintaining a high quality educational system”?  According to the CAG this blue print would require leaders to “make difficult decisions about the desirable and the essential.”   Would you support student user fees to maintain access to “desirable” school services?

I believe that the process to creating a blueprint must start with a long range budgeting study using multiple scenarios.  We should start by projecting out our present trajectory as a baseline.  The time frame for this projection should be between 5-10 years.

We should create multiple alternate scenarios that consider variations of compensation levels of teachers, the biggest cost driver; variation of the number of teachers; contributions of technology; energy savings alternates; the contribution of overrides of different levels; and possibilities of corporate funding, possibly through naming rights.

The imperative to”make difficult decisions about the desirable and the essential” will only be clear to our citizen/taxpayers when the outcomes of these scenario projections are presented.  Otherwise the thinking process is too abstract.

We should not forget the impact that our long range facilities planning will have on our educational choices.  Although the budget for capital projects come from the municipal and not the school side, capital costs will affect the funding available to support our direct educational mission.  We must spend wisely on buildings to insure there is enough to fund what will take place inside of them.

As a practice, user fees should be assessed in pursuit of specific policy goals, and not as a revenue source.  Their contribution as a revenue source is small relative to their impact on behaviors, and is miniscule relative to the cost drivers in our school system.  Therefore they should be assessed judiciously.  Currently assessed and proposed fees should be eliminated where they will result in lower access to instruction, such as the 4th grade music program, and maintained where they may proactively influence behavior, such as assessing parking fees at a level that will discourage students from driving to school.  School bus fees should be high enough to so a student will take the bus (“We paid for that bus pass, so don’t t ask your mom or me to drive you to school!”), but not so high that parents will choose to avoid the fee by driving their children in.

Early release days

Q: What is your opinion on early release days?

Our teachers argue that early release days are critical to their ability to provide quality teaching to our students, as they afford our teachers time to collaborate with their peers, meet with parents, and obtain professional development.

However, the periodic early release days reduce classroom instruction time, wreak havoc with parent schedules, and arguably compromise learning for the entire day, especially at the middle school level.  Is early release time bad for our students?

President Obama is the most visible of our leaders calling for an increase in classroom time for our students.  He argues that American children must have more quality time in the classroom to be able to learn 21st century skills, in order to compete with other nations on the worldwide stage.

Absent budget considerations I would scrap early release time.  The school day would be left intact, and teachers would extend their workday to fit what they do now during early release.

But we do have budget considerations.  Is there a meaningful compromise here?  I would try to find balance by reducing but not eliminating the number of existing early release days, especially at the middle school level, and lengthen the teacher’s work day.

Academic ability grouping

Q: Do you support academic ability grouping, even if it means groups of students may move through the curriculum at different speeds?

I support within-class academic ability grouping in grade schools for reading and math only.  Measurably positive results in ability grouping are shown in these subject areas, in multiple studies.  Both higher and lower achieving students show improvement.

In secondary schools, ability grouping by class has been the most common practice.  This proves to lead to significant improvement at higher ability levels, especially because these groups tend to advance at a rapid pace and are given more materials to study.  Low ability groups also show improvement but only if they are lead with high quality instructors.  This is an important issue:   I don’t know if studies have been done in NPS, but national studies indicate that lower ability groups are commonly lead by lower quality instructors and this results in lower achievement for these students than if they sit in unsorted classrooms.

Concerns about reduced esteem that students in lower ability groups may experience have not been borne out in studies.

In summary, I support within-class academic ability grouping in grade schools for reading and math only and between-class ability academic grouping in secondary schools if high quality instructors are available for all segregated classes.

Hiring, developing, and retaining top-quality teachers

I take a few things as givens right now:

  1. The factor that dwarfs all others in impacting the achievement level of our students is teacher quality. Which means that in order to return to the top level school system we once were, we must hire, develop, and retain top-quality teachers.
  2. Although class size has only been shown to be a meaningful factor in educational outcomes for the first few grade levels, Newton is not yet ready to grow class sizes across the board.
  3. The rate of teacher compensation growth in NPS is too high, and this is why the CAG has called the economics of our school system “unsustainable.”
  4. New revenue from overrides, new growth (development), closing tax loopholes for telecommunications companies, etc. is only a stopgap – cutting the growth rate of compensation is the only way we will get there, until our national health system costs are contained.

We are therefore left with this series of objectives – maintain the number of teachers we presently have, slow the growth rate of teacher compensation, and identify and implement all of the non-monetary features of a teacher’s work experience that will allow us to hire, develop, and retain top quality teachers as a means of taking pressure off of our budget.   Continue reading Hiring, developing, and retaining top-quality teachers