Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Schools That Do Too Much

On Monday, the Upper St. Clair School Board "reluctantly" voted to reverse their previous decision to eliminate the International Baccalaureate program. According to the Post-Gazette, "Funding will come from a combination of $45,000 raised by families of the students and $85,000 guaranteed by Gov. Ed Rendell to the district." But "additional money will be needed,"the board president said.

The question that has gone unanswered in all of the debate about the International Baccalaureate program is: What else does Upper St. Clair spend its $52 million budget on that it can't find the money for this program?

Educator Etta Kralovec, in her book Schools That Do Too Much, proposes a remarkably simple principle that could not only help resolve whether Upper St. Clair can afford the IB program but could also help the dozens of other school districts in southwestern Pennsylvania that are struggling to improve mediocre student proficiency. The principle: get rid of all the school programs that don't directly contribute to enabling students to meet educational standards. Kralovec says:

Rarely do we conduct a systematic analysis of the way teachers and students spend the school day or the way we allocate school dollars. Children's birthday parties, fundraising for worthy causes, character education, and drug education all compete with core academic learning for the hours in the school day...Principals bemoan the time that teachers spend getting ready and celebrating holidays -- making paper turkeys for Thanksgiving and May baskets in the spring.

In terms of school dollars, this is not to say we don't scrutinize school finances; we do, and to a ridiculous extreme. At one school board meeting I attended recently in a community with an $8 million school budget, the audience engaged in a twenty-minute heated debate about a fifty-six-dollar expenditure in the library budget for a particular periodical. This kind of community discussion is what passes for a budgeting process in many of our schools. Unfortunately, it actually precludes hard questions about how our school dollars and days should be spent.

Kralovec says that before even trying to assess whether schools need more money to improve school performance, the first question should be whether the existing money is being used as effectively as possible. She argues for a zero-based budgeting process: rather than making incremental adjustments that will likely have little impact, start from zero and ask which programs/expenditures are most needed for student proficiency, and work down the list until the money runs out.

Rather than asking the community how to cut a certain number of dollars from the existing budget, a zero-based budgeting process takes us back to the drawing board to think anew about school programs, their price, and their place in the overall curriculum and co-curricular offerings of a school.

What kinds of things might be cut out?

Brace yourself for one of Kralovec's top items -- it's sports:

School-sponsored sports, especially in our high schools...serve a small number of students, distract from valuable teacher time, and waste money and time that could be better spent on other resources more relevant to teaching, the central mission of schools. Eliminating school-sponsored sports from our educational system would be one of the most powerful ways we have for addressing misplaced priorities in schools.

She doesn't mean eliminating sports for school children altogether -- she means shifting competitive sports from being a school responsibility to being a community responsibility.

All schools must have strong physical education programs, ones that help all students to meet education standards in physical fitness and health. Beyond that, do competitive sports have a role in the public schools? Or should community organizations take over the responsibility of running competitive sports programs?

Imagine if a bank sponsored the women's basketball team; bank staff interested and prepared to coach basketball could work with the young women athletes, team practices could be held before work. The bank could perform meaningful community service by arranging employee schedules to meet the demands of coaching.

The local police department might have an interest in taking on the football team. With this kind of authentic interaction between the police and the young people in the community, the police would not need to run programs in the local schools trying to improve the students' attitude toward them. Interested parents and community members would have opportunities to work with young people in ways not currently available to them, thus building intergenerational bonds that we all know are vitally important to youth development. The point is that looking to communities to sponsor competitive athletics frees the schools to do what they are charged with accomplishing and strengthens communities by calling on them to perform necessary work in the rearing of children.

Moving competitive sports into community organizations would...free up teachers to teach. It would free up much needed school resources to align school programs and curricula to education standards, design tests to measure achievement, and provide for the necessary professional development for teachers.

What else could be done if you cut out all the programs that don't contribute to students meeting educational standards? Kralovec says: Eliminate homework. Not eliminate schoolwork, mind you, just homework:

The pedagogical value of homework is overrated; the problems it causes families are well-known and it is a black hole when it comes to accountability...The all-important principle that should guide a redesigned [school] schedule is that all assigned schoolwork should be completed at school, where all students have equal access to educational resources. Students should be able to go home at night knowing that they have completed a full day of rigorous academic work and that their evening can be spent participating in community events, learning on their own, and enjoying an enriched family life.

With 1 out of every 3 southwestern Pennsylvania students failing to meet state proficiency standards, even as early as 5th grade, and with little improvement being made over the past five years, it's probably time for more radical changes in school structure and budgets like these to be considered. When an organization consistently fails to meet the goals that it and its shareholders (in the school's case, these are the parents, property owners, and voters) have set for it, it needs to reinvent itself.


Blogger ellenweber said...

You are so right that it is time to renew. I'd love to see another story about what a "brain friendly" school would look like... I am visualizing a place where teens prosper and where they become the kind of leaders we need and they deserve to develop into for the age they live in. What do you think...?

12:30 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home