Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Schools can do better with less money

Budget cuts and demands for improved student achievement test public-school administrators more than ever – but, undaunted, some scrappy innovators are passing that test with an 'A.' -- by CUTTING BUREAUCRACY. Rather unbelievable

When Alberto Carvalho took charge of Miami-Dade County Public Schools last September, his first goal was to scour the district's nearly $5.5 billion budget to find money for teacher raises, which had been on hold because of state funding cuts. He brought together a budget review team – including some outside experts – for a series of weekend number-crunching meetings fueled with buy-your-own-pizza lunches. They were able to cobble together the needed $45 million – in part by cutting overtime and changing food service delivery.

The superintendent recalls feeling "euphoric." But he didn't stop there. Maybe there were more savings to be had if they dug even deeper, he reasoned, so the search continued, line by line. The euphoria was short-lived: The leader of the 340,000-­student district, the nation's fourth largest, discovered he was on the precipice of a financial crisis that previous budget scenarios hadn't projected. Healthcare and other costs had been underestimated, revenues overestimated. It added up to $158 million of imminent deficits. And more state cuts were on the horizon. Raises would have to wait again.

Educators across the country find themselves staring over the edge of some steep financial cliffs these days. As never before, they're squeezed between the twin pressures of budget cuts and calls for improved student achievement. The demand is to do more with less, and it's a daunting one. But even in the darkest shadows of the recession, there are many – scrimpers, innovators, or just plain optimists – who are finding ways to do exactly that.

Mr. Carvalho saw the Miami-Dade crisis as an opportunity for a "budget transformation ... that would increase efficiency and force us to invest more in our core function." His approach, colleagues say, boils down to a keen sense of frugality and common sense. The plan he and his team came up with last fall redeployed administrators to classrooms, whittled down central-office expenses dramatically, and protected teachers' jobs.

The result of the leaner and meaner approach: a healthier budget – with reserves to offset future revenue drops – and impressive academic gains. "The traumatic impacts of budget reductions and the economy have pushed us to do more with less, but also to do better with less," Carvalho says. The district starts its new year Aug. 24 with state grades dramatically improved for many of its schools – including one "F" school earning an "A."

This kind of self-examination and reinvention is what US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is urging districts to do as they receive infusions of federal economic stimulus. The more they spend wisely and innovate, the more money he's likely to send their way. But traditional approaches – laying off teachers with least seniority, closing schools, and cutting back nonacademic classes – may prevail, observe scholars and advocates who follow education trends.

"There are [several] states, like California, where there's a supercrisis and a broad awareness that ... practices are going to have to be dramatically altered in order to cope," says Edward Kealy, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a coalition in Washington.

Still, while basic savings on everything from cafeteria food to transportation are widespread, many districts anticipating the federal stimulus aren't going beyond stopgap measures, perhaps in hope of maintaining the status quo until the good times roll again, Mr. Kealy observes. "They're in a strange period of [wondering], 'How bad is it really, [and] is it going to turn around over the next year?' " he says. In the meantime, school districts share a common quest to accomplish more with less. How successful will they be?

The Monitor took a closer look at Miami-Dade's transformation – and three examples of individual schools' approaches – to glean creative ways education leaders have been directing dollars in the hope of bringing out better results for kids.

While his colleagues cite Carvalho's methodical common sense, they also note that what he does is not common at all. Out of seven superintendents that chief budget officer Judith Marte has worked for, Carvalho is the only one who has probed the budget line by line and vetoed hotel expenses for professional development or BlackBerrys for employees who didn't need them.

Chief financial officer Richard Hinds, who came out of retirement to work with the new superintendent, offers another anecdote: When Carvalho saw movers this summer clearing furniture out of a central-office space slated to become a new school, he canceled the $12,000 contract and rounded up school custodians, already on the payroll, to do the job.

Last fall, the budget team started at the top, eliminating about 350 positions in the central office (a 20 percent cut), including the seven with salaries over $200,000. More than half were reassigned to teaching jobs or other open positions.

By looking at average costs and best practices in other large districts, they found they could save millions on food and transportation and could cut dozens of assistant principal jobs. They froze hiring and all purchases of nonessential supplies. They trimmed overtime spending by more than $15 million.

Overall, the district cut 27 percent of central-office costs. Miami-Dade now spends less per pupil on those costs than any other school district in Florida, while before it ranked 27th, according to the district's analysis.


MA: Science MCAS stymies many

6,000 seniors still lack passing score Other data show improvements. The response: Water down the requirements, of course

Approximately 6,000 high school seniors are in jeopardy of not graduating next spring because they have not yet passed the new science MCAS exam, state education officials announced yesterday, possibly setting the stage for a new revolt against the 11-year-old standardized test system. The students, members of the first class that must pass the science exam in order to receive a diploma, will have at least two more chances to take the test before school officials face the difficult prospect of barring them from the graduation stage.

Those who do not pass by graduation day would probably have to delay any college plans and return to high school for more science instruction, then take the test again the following February. Or they could instead try to earn a General Educational Development credential, which involves passing multiple tests.

The seniors’ plight surfaced yesterday as state education officials announced the results of the spring’s MCAS exams, which showed progress at most grade levels in most subjects, but a lingering disparity between students from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. Although state education officials expressed concern about the failure rate in science, they emphasized that the problem is not nearly as widespread as earlier this decade when passing the English and math MCAS exams first became a graduation requirement, starting with the class of 2003. When those students entered their senior year, 19 percent of them still had not passed one or both of the tests. This year, 10 percent of seniors have not yet passed all three test subjects, with failure on the science exam representing by far the largest chunk.

“I’m always concerned if students are not being successful,’’ Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said in an interview. “But I do think holding onto this requirement [passing the science exam] is the right thing to do. It’s important to prepare students for opportunities after high school.’’ Since last fall, as members of the class of 2010 have retaken the exams and passed, they have cut their failure rate in half, from 20 percent.

Chester said the state is working with individual high schools to help students pass the exam this year, but officials also are preparing for an onslaught of requests from high schools to exempt students from the testing requirement.

Last year, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education eased rules for bypassing the science test requirement, in recognition that students often show an understanding of the subject through experiments. As long as students have strong grades in a comparable science course, schools can appeal after the student fails the exam just once, instead of after three failures as is required for English and math appeals.

More here

Britain: Larger sixth forms help students perform better, say researchers

Another blow to the "smaller classes" religion bleated by most teachers

Teenagers studying in large sixth forms perform better on average than those in smaller establishments, research shows. Small primary schools have a reputation for achieving good results, but the reverse may be true when it comes to further education.

Research by the Association of Colleges (AoC) suggests a link between a sixth form or college’s size and the attainment of its pupils at A level and equivalent qualifications.

Martin Doel, AoC chief executive, said: “The poor performance of smaller school sixth forms is a source of concern, as it raises serious doubts about continued political support for an increase in the number of school sixth forms. New smaller school sixth forms do not look like an efficient investment, according to this data, particularly at a time when public spending is so constrained. “This is not a colleges-versus-schools contest. It’s about getting the best for young people in a way that is cost effective for Government — a point that needs to be accepted by all three parties.”

The AoC examined the average Level 3 point scores (equivalent to A levels) per student, which show a difference of 241 points between the largest and smallest school sixth form providers. At schools or colleges with fewer than 50 pupils, the average score was 561, for those with 101 to 150 students this was 657, and institutions with more than 250 pupils had an average score of 802. This excludes independent schools.


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