Monday, October 10, 2011

The Governor’s Message in OWH Interview

Does More schooling = More success?

Governor Heineman laid out his vision for providing a quality education for every child in this Sunday’s Omaha World Herald article, and stood by his “truancy legislation” as a key piece in his agenda. We can all agree that quality education is where we should start to address high-school drop-out rates, academic failure, and preventing further penetration into the juvenile justice system. Where we diverge with the Governor is with his insistence that this aggressive re-write of school attendance policy is the answer.

He has cast a wide net over every student and every family from Kindergarten to High School Seniors, has completely removed a parent’s role to judge what an appropriate absence is, and has mandated the reporting of all students to the county attorney, shifting discretion over school attendance to lawyers and judges and away from parents and principals. In the words of an Elkhorn mother, Kori Radloff, “It seems really backward that our means of keeping ’truant’ kids from becoming entangled with the law is to entangle them with the law.”

All of this has been done in response to what some state officials have defined as a “truancy crisis,” because only a true crisis could warrant the total “oversight” of parents by state agencies in every school district state wide. When you look at the numbers they cast doubt on the notion. Nebraska graduation rate ranks 6th in the Nation at 90.03% compared to the national average of 74.9%. This rate is much higher in many districts across the state. For example, Millard Public School has a 98% graduation rate. The statewide attendance rate in 2010 was 94.76%, with just under 7% of all students missing 20 or more days. This means that 93% of Nebraska students missed fewer than twenty days. So where’s the crisis?

The Governor accurately defined the real problem when he said, “We have to do something about kids who are underperforming. How can you look a kid in the eye, walking across the stage, and tell them 'Congratulations, you just graduated our high school and you can't read.” He focused on discrepancies in standardized test scores between OPS and outlying and rural districts, and said the state’s “African-American achievement gap is one of the worst in the country”. This is unacceptable, but if we’re going to solve these serious problems we need a more creative, targeted approach.

The studies I have reviewed that link truancy to educational attainment also conclude that low academic achievement could just as well cause truancy as be one of its effects. If a student struggles academically and is failing they are more likely to escape the classroom and choose instead to hit the streets. Truants in secondary schools said they skipped school because they were bored. We can’t just force a student to sit at their desk and expect that it will fix the problem. The problem is not attendance; attendance is the symptom.

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Studies compared a variety of components that produce improved educational outcomes and concluded that “there is limited evidence on the effect of classroom instructional time.” They found that “the productivity of instructional time is higher in countries that implemented school accountability measures, and in countries that give schools autonomy in hiring and firing teachers.”

Unfortunately the Governor has not put forward any bold plans to increase the quality of learning time in the existing school day. A truancy by University of Glasgow, reported that the impact of absence was dependent in large part on the “pupil’s ability and motivation.” So the real questions we should be asking is not how to we force kids to be in school but how do we motivate them to be there. It is not surprising that students get bored when as studies show students are on task for about a third of the hours spent in school. These findings suggest that a focus on improving the delivery and quality of instruction would be a better investment than lengthening the school day or elaborate measures to address truancy.

My interest was piqued when Governor Heineman reported that 2,500 of the students referred to the county attorney under the new truancy law were in K-3. These are 4 to 8 year olds. This is worthy of closer examination. A significant portion of the 2,500 K-3 don’t fall under the state’s mandatory attendance law. They certainly aren’t the students Sen. Amanda McGill spoke of when she said, “If a person's child is walking the streets during the school day and getting involved with a gang, don't you think the parent should be held accountable in some way?” The Governor said that this group was of particular concern to him because at this age parents are entirely responsible for the absences. It was for this age group that lawmakers believed it was necessary to have “oversight” in all cases, including when absences were excused by parents. Out of concern for our smallest students, the governor asked, "What's going on there?"

Any mother knows the answer; they're little children! They get sick more often, recovery is more difficult, and they can't handle going to school with even minor illnesses the way older kids can. They are mentally exhausted by longer and longer school days, and the ever increasing testing demands by state and federal agendas. They play less and less for kids their age, and it is easier for parents to keep them home and still keep them current on their work than it would be with older kids.

In addition to the Governor’s usual comments on school attendance, he discussed "instructional time" as another needed change in our state. The Governor told the World Herald that “We need a longer school day and a longer school year… God forbid we add 10 minutes to the school day and impact some football practice.”

He’s on the federal conveyor belt that is currently driven by Arne Duncan, President Obama’s education secretary, who was totally serious when he said: "The days of telling kids to go home at 2:30 and having mom there with a peanut butter sandwich, those days are gone." In all seriousness it is Duncan’s preference that our kids spend “12, 13, 14 hours a day, seven days a week, 11-12 months of the year.”

Families have already felt the pinch of longer school days this year. Districts city wide have increased the length of their school days to compete for state funding under the “instruction time allowance” rule. That rule requires school districts to keep their "instructional hours" above the state average or loose state funding. The obvious result of the rule is the continual lengthening of school days and school years. The increase of time in most cases was added to the elementary school day, putting more pressure on our smallest students.

From the Governor’s interview, it is clear that he is listening to only one set of experts who believe that our schools would be leading the world if our kids started school younger, were in school longer each day, and had 100% attendance throughout the year. These experts hold up high ranking European and Asian school systems as an example.

While it is true that kids in many other countries have more school days; it's not true they all spend more time in school. Kids in the U.S. spend more hours in school (1,146 instructional hours per year) than do kids in the Asian countries that persistently outscore the U.S. on math and science tests -- Singapore (903), Taiwan (1,050), Japan (1,005) and Hong Kong (1,013). That is despite the fact that Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong have longer school years (190 to 201 days) than does the U.S. (180 days).

In Finland, which routinely leads the world in assessments of literacy, math, and science, children don’t start formal schooling until age 7—and then they only attend half days. Compared to countries like the U.S. or the United Kingdom, children in Finland spend less time overall in school and rank first in the world on standardized test.

In 2010 the Herald reported that, "An initial comparison found that the [Millard] district's elementary school pupils, while meeting the state standard, spent the fewest hours in school of any students in the 11 learning community districts in the Omaha metropolitan area." Yet their scores were significantly higher. Why is that if there's a direct correlation between time at a desk and educational results?

More school is not the answer for all of Nebraska’s kids. A hard look at the data shows that the age at which kids should start school and the amount of school they need for success differs significantly between socio-economic and ethnic groups. In analyzing the research that has been done on the topic, it’s evident that delayed school entry can have a negative impact on low-income and minority children, and a positive influence on middle class children.

In Wisconsin’s McFarland School District, parents can choose between regular kindergarten, transitional kindergarten, and Just Five classes. Now in its seventh year of operation, Just Five is a half-day class for children who aren’t quite ready for a full-day kindergarten. It has proven successful. Both Everson and Weisberg estimate that about half of their students go on to first grade the following year, while the rest opt for another year of kindergarten. By then, many of the children are developmentally ready to tackle the increased academic demands placed on them, and they’ve got the social skills and confidence to be successful.

A 2007 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics addresses the damage done by the modern pressures of ever increasing instructional time and higher educational standards and the importance of self-directed child play and personal free time for kids and youth. It specifically addressed the impact of an increased focus on the fundamentals of academic preparation in lieu of a broader view of education among middle class youth who have plenty of opportunity for constant activity. Those forces that prevent children in poverty and the working class from benefiting fully from play deserve full, even urgent, attention, but that was not the focus of this report.

The report states that "the national trend, to focus on the academic fundamentals of reading and arithmetic, spearheaded by No Child Left Behind, has decreased time left during the school day for recess, creative arts, and physical education." Compound that with extended hours in after-school programs that emphasize academics, the hours of unsupervised video gaming and constant T.V. and you have a recipe for a nation that cannot create, work, or think.

It has become an "established fact" by these same experts that our kids need more "instructional time”. They need to be "schooled" at ever younger ages. They need to be in school longer each day and throughout the year. And they shouldn't miss more than a few days of school lest they "fall behind"!

Reliance on the expert opinions of educators of the past has led the Federal Department of Education to drown our kids in testing, cheat them of this critical development, and squelch their love of learning and self-motivation. I think it’s time we get off this national conveyor belt and start focusing on the root causes of educational failure that lead kids to miss school habitually and puts them “at-risk” of dropping out.

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