Friday, March 27, 2015

Biggest Bully

The Biggest Bully
Many parents have to teach their children how to deal with school bullies. When the bullying is implemented by the state Department of Education, however, the problem may be harder to solve.
The town of Croydon is sending four children to schools that their parents chose. Three children are going to a Montessori school, one to a rigorous college-prep institution just down the road from my house in Plainfield. These schools fit these particular children. They are charging fees less than the state average per-pupil cost ($16,269.59 last year, according to the state web site). So it’s win-win-win, students, parents, and town all benefit.

This is not unusual in New Hampshire. The town of Derry sends its children to Pinkerton Academy; Coe-Brown Academy receives public students as well. Orford NH sends children to be taught by the Elven Council at Rivendell, in eastern Eriador. (Eriador is apparently in Vermont, though not displayed on Google Maps). New England towns have always put education above state borders; there have been school-choice arrangements here for hundreds of years.

But Virginia Barry and the bullies in the NH Department of Education are throwing their considerable weight in against the four Croydon children. They claim that for parents to choose where their school taxes are spent is illegal. They claim that the state, not the town, can force these children to go to a school that doesn’t fit them.

The keys to education are personal choice, self-motivation, and immersion. Read any biography of a successful person, and you see a series of enthusiasms and projects pursued with total focus. No Branson, Jobs, or Gates ever rose to prominence by following a rote curriculum designed by a committee of people they had never met. A successful education gives more and more control to the student, until by the time they are in high school they are planning and directing their own projects.
Choice is no less important to the “special needs” child. (Who may be one and the same as the “gifted”. Today children who behave like Edison, Wernher von Braun, or Richard Branson may be force-fed Adderall and herded onto the short bus). Children with physical or mental disabilities need the most individualized attention of all. They may need the direction of parents longer, and the parents need access to resources that fit the child.

For a small percentage of US children, this is how education works. Their parents choose between private schools, home school, or a good public school in an expensive suburb. This is how education works for the children of businessmen, professionals, and politicians.

The opponents of school choice often send their own children to private school. Obama’s children go to private school. Governor Hassan’s children went to private school. In Philadelphia, 44% of the public-school teachers send their own children to private school. They have chosen the education that best fits their child’s situation, as all parents should.

For the working-class taxpayer and parent, choices are much more restricted. New Hampshire has a limited educational choice program through the Network of Educational Opportunity, but it only supplies $2500 per child and only to low-income families. Meanwhile, there is over $16,249 available to educate every child… but the money is jealously hoarded by the bureaucracy.
Superintendent McGoodwin of the Claremont school district last week proposed to reduce Claremont’s tuition charged to students from small neighboring towns (currently set at $19,000). As the variable cost to Claremont for an additional student is only $9,000, the school benefits considerably from attracting more outside students (who can pay $14,425 to go to Lebanon high school, or less at various private schools).

This is the right approach for the public schools to take. Compete for students, to expand the opportunities available to every young mind in our state.

Croydon is going to fight the educational bullies. They will win in court. But wouldn’t it make more sense for the state to spend our education money on expanding choices for every child… instead on trying to bully them out of a good education?

Bill Walker 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

School Choice Improves Education

The following piece appeared on the Friedman Foundation website.   Do we want to protect a failing system or do what is best for our Children? 

Improving America's Classrooms Through School Choice

by John Merrifield, Ph.D.

Problematic public school classroom conditions have survived decades of education reform efforts. With federal lawmakers considering reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act—and new state lawmakers pursuing different types of education reforms—it is worth reviewing the root causes of our school system’s ineffectiveness and the policy reforms that would eliminate those problems—for the benefit of educators and their students, alike.
The latest edition of the “Nation’s Report Card,” shows that only 38 percent of 17-year-old students are proficient in reading, with 27 percent lacking even basic skills. Obviously the frenzied activity since the first Nation at Risk declaration in 1983 has done little to adequately address the core reasons for insufficient, properly focused engagement in high-value academics. It’s not that the reasons are hard to grasp. They’ve all been noted in a piecemeal fashion, including especially:
  1. Weak, often poorly targeted, incentives for educator effectiveness and parental involvement.
  2. Classroom composition policies that minimize student engagement.
  3. High rates of out-of-subject-field teaching.
  4. The micro-management of professional educators.
  5. Teacher tenure, combined with high rates of teacher burnout.
  6. Misleading, boring curricula and textbooks.
  7. Discipline problems coupled with related regulation and lawsuit fear among educators.
This blog will discuss the first three; saving the others for future posts. Policy leaders with the wisdom and will to propose and successfully fight for systemic change must not ignore that addressing those issues would greatly improve educators’ classroom experiences and students’ academic progress.
On a personal note, my review of America’s education ills and solution proposals have very humble, ground-level starting points. As a college professor, I noticed severe deficiencies in the preparedness of many of my students. Basic skill deficiencies in the college bound are especially alarming. The average skills of the non-college-bound are even lower. And, as husband to a former public school teacher who taught diverse groups of children, including students with special needs, I heard firsthand information on the workings of the public school system and tales from inner-city and suburban school districts. The stories my wife brought home were often so traumatic to her we had to set limits on when and where such discussions could occur. That anecdotal evidence painted a picture of inefficiency, chaos, and disappointment no one should have to endure. As an economist, I had to investigate whether the problems evident to my wife and me were the exceptions or the norms of a low-performing system—and then offer solutions.
Weak, often poorly targeted, incentives for educator effectiveness and parental involvement
With the exception of some chartered public schools, the taxpayer-financed part of America’s K-12 education system provides for few, if any, immediate, tangible consequences for educator effectiveness, for parental involvement, or for student achievement. Even the intangibles are often misaligned. For example, it is quite common for educators to face negative peer pressure for entrepreneurial and innovative initiatives they employ.
The widespread disconnect between pay and performance is about more than the political challenges of implementing genuine merit pay. The intricate explanations of why it is difficult to objectively and accurately assess merit through administrator observations and checklists and why the zero-sum nature of taxpayer-funded merit pay creates problems is worth an addendum to this series. For now, it is enough to note that reward for individual educator merit, or punishment for lack thereof, is rare. And often what is rewarded in those rare instances of something called merit pay is school merit—typified by increases in the school’s budget—and not individual merit via salary raises. 
As for parental involvement, a key reason it is low is that report cards and teacher conferences typically lack the critical information that parents need to make good decisions. Grade inflation, including social promotion, is known to lull parents into a false sense of security, in part because for many teachers talking to parents is among their least favorite things to do. And even if lack of progress is evident to a parent, and the child might be successful in a non-mainstream setting, parents may be powerless – lacking adequate school choice – to influence the factors that would benefit their children. Powerlessness discourages involvement.
Despite much talk about increased accountability, it has been widely considered politically incorrect to hold many of the current system’s players accountable for anything. Furthermore, it is arguably unfair to hold teachers accountable for poorly conceived instructional strategies; for example, sorting children into public school classrooms only by age and neighborhood. Then in that often overwhelmingly diverse setting, teachers are glibly implored to be successful through the impossibly demanding feat of broadly differentiated instruction. And then after maximizing the difficulty of the teaching task, the system denies the professional status that might give teachers a fighting chance to achieve tolerable results. For example, teacher micro-management includes system-selected curricula, tests, textbooks, and mandated teaching timetables, including those insultingly termed “teacher proof.”
Classroom composition policies that minimize student engagement
By matching children only by age and neighborhood, the current system ignores children’s and even educators’ learning styles, subject themes, or interests. For example, a high-quality science subject theme would achieve engagement of some children, but leave others behind. And even if all those students were equally interested in science, some children learn better in front of a computer with great instructional software whereas others do better in a traditional face-to-face classroom setting.  
 Relying solely on children’s age and neighborhood frequently leads to classrooms with a mix of overwhelmed, bored, distracted, and disinterested students. Education reform scholar Dr. Herbert Walberg makes this salient point:
“Compared with privately provided goods and services, perhaps the most fundamental market problem with publicly funded schools is to provide a uniform education that is satisfying to all families. How difficult would it be for automobile manufacturers, restaurants, hairdressers, and barbers to satisfy the majority, let alone all, of their clients with a single, uniform product or service?”
The resulting difficulty feeling successful and maintaining good relations with parents and administrators is a key reason why so many teachers quickly abandon teaching careers. It also is why so many teachers suffer burnout, but stay on the job for lack of viable income-producing alternatives and lack of pressure to improve or exit.
The same overwhelming challenge—meeting the diverse needs of each attendance zone—explains why district superintendents so often struggle to dent districts’ academic performance levels, and why superintendents suffer from such high turnover rates. Longtime education scholar, Paul Hill, argued that, “many superintendents have concluded that, in the words of one, the job is undoable. Most agree that a successful superintendent is usually one who has avoided a financial crisis or survived a tense labor negotiation, not one who has transformed a district’s schools.”
High rates of out-of-subject-field teaching
Teacher pay almost always depends just on teachers’ formal credentials and seniority. Though it is grossly unfair to the more advanced teachers, varying pay by teacher subject field is also widely considered politically incorrect. The resulting surpluses and shortages of specific types of teachers yield pandemic out-of-field teaching. For example, 69 percent of fifth to eighth graders are being taught math by teachers without a mathematics degree or certificate, and 93 percent of those same students are being taught physical sciences by teachers with no physical science degree or certificate. With so many math and science courses staffed by teachers who did not major in math or science, is it any wonder so few American students are succeeding in those subjects? (That’s not meant to slight non-math teachers but rather to recognize how important it is schools sync teachers to their fields of expertise.)
To be clear, policymakers should stay out of the classroom as much as possible. The issues addressed herein should be left to principals, teachers, and parents to solve. So where then do policymakers fit in?
Policymakers should reduce instructional challenges and create tangible incentives to deliver the highest quality, correctly targeted instruction by letting parents decide the schools where public funding will support their children. They are much closer to classrooms and their children. Empowered with information and full control of the money earmarked for their children’s schooling, parents can work with principals and teachers to provide localized incentives, identify their children’s educational tracks, and choose the teachers skilled in the instructional approaches that best fit the needs of their children.
Other issues facing educators and students will be explored in part two of this series on America’s classrooms.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Why School Choice is Good for a Community and the State

Expanding School Choice would benefit all Vermonters

Mar 24, 2015

There are plenty of reasons for parents and kids to love school choice in the 90 plus Vermont towns that already have it, and there are plenty of solid educational and social arguments for expanding the program to all Vermont towns. But why should folks without kids care? Property values.

A recent study by Susanne E. Cannon (DePaul University), Bartley R. Danielsen (North Carolina State University) and David M. Harrison (Texas Tech University) shows that living in one of Vermont’s tuitioning towns substantially increases the value of your home. Given that a house is the largest investment most people will make in their lifetimes and the fact that in 2014 Vermont was the only state in the union to see home values decline, expanding school choice is an attractive policy.

The logic is intuitive. Many people choose where to live based on the educational opportunity their zip code offers. Towns with a good school attract more demand, which increases prices. Therefore, it makes sense that towns with access to more good schools — in fact, pretty much any good school along with the ability pick the one that’s right for you — is considerably more valuable.

How much more valuable? As much as $24,181 (or a 16.1 percent increase) more valuable for an 2,000 square foot home with three bedrooms and two baths. As the authors break down their findings:

… the presence of school choice alternatives within a 20 minute commute increases property values by approximately $10,879 (or 6.9 percent), while the more restrictive presence of higher achieving schools within this same drive time catchment area is associated with a substantively higher $24,181 (16.1 percent) increase in housing prices. Similar results are found with respect to our 30 minute commuting distances. ... Alternative schooling options within 30 minutes enhance property values by $7,618 (or 6.3 percent), while the presence of higher achieving schools within this same region increase values by $12,805 (or 8.5 percent).

Another way of looking at that is to say that when we assign students to poorly performing schools with no way to escape, we are effectively depressing real estate values in those school districts on average by more than $24,000.

One other valuable piece of information the study documents is the availability of choices. An argument critics of school choice in rural Vermont use is that there are too few schools to make choice meaningful. You may have “choice” but your still stuck with one school within driving distance. This is overwhelmingly not the case.

The typical Vermont residence, which turned over during our sample period, was also located within a 20 minute (one-way) commute of two to three schools, and a 30 minute (one-way) commute of more than five schools.

To put this in more concrete terms, the head of an independent school in southern Vermont where tuitioning is wide-spread, recently testified before the House Education Committee. She described how parents in southern Vermont can choose between the Mountain School at Winhall, the Long Trail School, Maple Street School, Manchester Elementary & Middle School and Dorset Middle School.

Having so many choices empowers parents and kids. Students with choice tend to be more invested in their education because they have made an active choice about where they want to be. Parents also play a more active role in their child’s education. As an example, this headmaster testified that at her school the percentage of parents who participate in teacher conferences is 100 percent. Choice increases the value of their education.

It also increases the value of their houses. The authors of the study note, “with each additional viable school choice and voucher alternative increasing property values by nearly $4,380 (or slightly over 3 percent).” This argues for a policy not of consolidating schools and making them more similar (the current goals being pursued by Montpelier), but rather expanding opportunities and making them more diverse.

We all want Vermont’s education policies and the opportunities we offer students and families to be unique and positive enough to attract and keep families here. This is especially important for a system that has lost over 20,000 students since the passage of Act 60 in 1997. School choice has proven its value in very real terms. It’s time we shared this value with all Vermonters.
Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe. All letters will be received in care of the editor.

The above piece appeared in full in the Eagle Times.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Homeschooling More Than Doubles Among Black Families

Excellent, ecstatic to see families leave a system that is failing to serve them. 

The following article appeared on

"WASHINGTON, D.C. – A growing number of black families are choosing to homeschool their children, the U.S. Department of Education reports.

Although increasing numbers of black families are choosing to homeschool, RiShawn Biddle, who runs Dropout Nation, an education news and policy magazine, says it is difficult to know exactly how drastic the increase has been.
“There are more black families that are taking up homeschooling,” Biddle said. “The question is how many. Currently the data we have on homeschooling comes from the U.S. Department of Education, which reports that 139,000 black children aged five through 17 were homeschooled in [the] 2011–12 [school year]. This is a 127 percent increase over levels in 2007.”
Biddle says some traditional public school administrators have been trying to decrease the number of students who drop out by counseling students to attend other schools or be homeschooled."

To read the rest of the story go to

“I’ve said that, Tom, that if I were the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan and I wanted to sabotage any opportunity for black academic excellence, I could not think of a better means for doing so than the public education establishment in most of our cities,” Walter Williams.