Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fundraising and Budget Control

Essential school programs should not need to fundraise to meet core costs, and budgeting needs to be decentralized from the main administrative office.

Ok, some background: I spent over 10 hours last weekend (following 10-20 hours of planning) running two fundraisers to help get my students to Spain in February. We netted less than $800. While I'm confident we will eventually raise the $25,000 we need to substantially reduce costs for our travelers, the burden on me as the group leader is grueling, and attending to my teaching duties as well as our travel management agenda makes the phrase "work-life balance" sound like a sick joke. We have two students who are especially struggling to make payments. A firmer commitment from my school at the outset would make our fundraising stakes less dramatic and would signal a willingness to build the program for the benefit of future student travel. However, this type of commitment would place our school in an over-extended financial position, and since we depend on undependable state government and foundation grants, the launching of innovative programs require a sisyphean effort.

In the 21st century and our globalized world, international travel programming is a fundamental need, yet schools seldom treat this aspect of education as anything other than a teacher's pet project, approved of by the administration but not underwritten financially. Whether it is travel, athletics, arts or engineering, "extra-curricular" activities are frequently the glue that bind kids to school and the inspiration that leads kids to their careers, yet they are treated as peripheral window-dressing by bureaucrats and administrators.

In order to improve our schools, departments and programs need to have independent budgets much like departments within local, state and federal government. Staff should be held accountable for how that money is spent as they exercise this unusual autonomy. School administrators are often overwhelmed with approval requests for purchasing everything from class sets of books to dry erase markers and projector light bulbs. This is inefficient for management and employees, as teacher and program leaders wait needlessly for supplies and management drowns in emails and paperwork.

The move to bring business leaders into education has not shown clear evidence of improved student achievement; however, there is no doubt that some expertise in organizational and financial management is sorely needed. Our kids need cleats, costumes and plane tickets; and school leaders need better ways to focus on strategy as opposed to micro-management.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Finland, Big Schools, and The College Dream

As our nation today struggles though divisive debates about education reform, Linda Darling Hammond would have us look at the recent accomplishments of Finland, the world's number 1 school system based on the PISA scores, "an international test for 15-year-olds in language, math, and science literacy" (Rethinking Schools, Vol 24.4). In discussing the high performance of students in Finland, Hammond argues that Finland's "teaching and learning system" achieves results because of decentralized curriculum design and assessment, emphasis on qualified teachers, and thoughtfully supportive school environments. 

Hammond's account makes important claims about what a good educational system needs. Placing this in context of another recent development, we get an interesting picture of what makes good education and where it is happening. A September 27th NYT article called "4,100 Students Prove ‘Small Is Better’ Rule Wrong” discusses the turn-around of large Massachusetts high school that now outperforms 90% of the schools in the state. The reason was almost simple: according to Mr. Driscoll, who since 2007 has headed the National Assessment Governing Board, “In schools, no matter the size — and Brockton is one of the biggest — what matters is uniting people behind a common purpose, setting high expectations, and sticking with it.”

Yet not all the reforms in this school, particularly cultural ones, correspond with the finding in another recent piece of scholarship, this one called “College for All? Exaggerated Claims and Overlooked Options Prevent Some Students From Finding Their Way” (Rosenbaum et al. American Educator Vol 34.3). This lengthy treatment of the misperceptions and realities of the college experience and outcomes demonstrates how the one-size-fits-all mentality that we often recognize as problematic in pedagogy is also flawed when it comes to counseling for higher education. The statistics are staggering. While 89% of high school students in 2004 planned to earn a BA, the reality is that most of these students never will, and probably shouldn’t. High school students and Americans at large are misinformed about the benefits of other forms of post-high school education besides the BA, such as certificate programs and Associates degrees, credentials that are cheaper, attained more quickly, and often yield satisfying and lucrative career opportunities. In fact, students in the bottom quartile in their high school class who go on to earn an BA earn less than their top quartile high school peers who never earn a post-secondary degree (Baum, et al. Education Pays 2010, NY: College Board, 2010). The critiques from Rosenbaum, Stephan, and Rosenbaum provide a clear picture of how our educational system and expectations are flawed in their narrowness. All too often we prescribe BAs to students without giving them the information and preparation to earn them, or to consider alternatives that are both rewarding and utilitarian.

Just to look at these three articles in the same posting, especially with such a brief treatment, may seem transitory or shallow, but the purpose of this discussion is to reveal a pattern of efficacy even in these articles’ contradictions.  Teachers, schools and school systems that are successful hold students to high expectations, but more importantly differentiate their instruction and support to help students achieve ownership of their education. They leverage all available resources, emphasize the provision of accurate information to students, and use assessments strategically, whether they are locally produced or standardized.