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March 31, 2008

The non-layoff letters

Some anxious employees will return to North Avenue from spring break this morning, after receiving not one but two letters over the break about the upcoming elimination of their positions. Many of the letters went to employees who will be transferred from the central office to schools if they want to stay employeed; some also went to administrators who will need to reapply for jobs at North Avenue. "While Dr. Alonso does not anticipate layoffs," the first letter says, "the process of re-assigning employees to vacancies will take several weeks."

The first letter, from the district's head of human resources, outlined dates and times for "a series of networking sessions and workshops to assist employees with this transition," recognizing that "the anxiety associated with this transition is difficult."

After the letters went out in the mail, it seems, system officials realized that the first of those workshops was scheduled for April 1, before the school board's scheduled April 8 vote on the budget that will make the changes a reality. So then there was another letter to change the workshop date.

The school system has also set up a "transition hotline" for the displaced employees.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:04 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

March 28, 2008

Racial slur results in resignation of Carroll County school board member

In the past year, we’ve repeatedly seen the need for racial sensitivity. Just ask Don Imus. This week, Carroll County has been grappling with its own controversy connected to a school board member, Jeffrey L. Morse, who admitted using a racial slur during a visit to a high school construction site.

Fellow Sun education reporter Arin Gencer reports that Morse resigned Wednesday from his position after a board meeting where several people expressed outrage with him and the decision-making of the group.

According to Arin’s article, the incident where the racial slur was used occurred a few weeks ago at the construction site of the new Manchester Valley High School. Morse was at the site to learn about problems encountered with some dark rock, according to the article. Arin reports that when a large boulder was pointed out to Morse, he mentioned a term that he said contractors in the area around Littlestown, Pa., not far from where he lives, used to describe it.

Morse, who was appointed by the governor to fill a vacant board seat last year, currently teaches biology at Littlestown High School and was running for his first full term this year.

According to the article, Morse previously offered to resign in a closed session that the board held a couple of weeks ago to address a complaint filed against him. His fellow members instead told him to apologize, according to Edmund O'Meally, the board's legal counsel.

What do you think? Should Morse have resigned immediately? Should the school board have requested his resignation instead of relying on a simple apology? Or are you tired of apologies associated with this type of behavior? Talk to me.

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 12:26 PM | | Comments (3)

Do Teach for America teachers get better results?

A new study by the Urban Institute says yes. The nonpartisan think tank studied achievement data in North Carolina high schools and found that students whose teachers were placed through Teach for America scored higher on math and science exams than their peers.

Teach for America, or TFA, selects graduates of the nation's most prestigious colleges and universities and assigns them to work in some of the nation's toughest schools for a two-year commitment. With 17,000 applicants, TFA placed more than 2,000 teachers in 2005 and expects its ranks to grow to 4,000 by 2010. While few would question the intelligence of the program's participants (several of whom work in Baltimore), critics have two major gripes: 1) that TFA is sending to our neediest schools teachers who are not only uncertified, but sometimes culturally unprepared for an inner-city environment, and 2) that it perpetuates a revolving door of teachers in needy schools (since some college grads see the program as a resume-builder while they figure out what they want to do with their lives).

The Urban Institute's study indicates that those criticisms are unfounded. "TFA teachers are able to more than offset their lack of teaching experience, either due to their better academic preparation in particular subject areas or due to other unmeasured factors such as motivation," the report says. The advantage still held when TFA teachers were compared with colleagues fully certified in their fields. The report's authors say their findings stress the importance of finding teachers with strong academic backgrounds and -- yikes! -- indicate that teacher recruitment is more important than teacher retention.

I have no doubt that this report will generate controversy. Do its findings ring true in your experience?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:06 AM | | Comments (20)
Categories: Study, study!, Teaching

March 27, 2008

What are your gripes with NCLB?

Yesterday, after an hourlong discussion where Raymond Simon, deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, met with 19 of Maryland's high-ranking educators and fielded their questions and concerns about the No Child Left Behind Act, several superintendents were left dissatisfied.

While some said they were pleased with the opportunity to dialogue about some of the problems associated with the act, they also said that they were not pleased with some of Simon's responses.

During the discussion, the educators spoke about the shortage of qualified teachers, financial hardships caused by trying to meet the act's goals, and the challenge of closing the achievement gap for foreign-born students and special education students.

Sydney L. Cousin, superintendent of Howard County Schools, asked Simon about providing more testing flexibility for foreign-born students who are learning English.

Cousin explained that research shows that it takes five to seven years for foreign-born students to become fluent enough to take tests in English, yet No Child Left Behind gives them a one-year waiver before applying their test scores as part of a local school's achievement.

Simon launched into a spiel about holding accountable students who have grown up in this country.

Anne Arundel's Superintendent Dr. Kevin Maxwell immediately clarified that Cousin was talking about immigrant students.

“That is an issue that many of us are grappling with,” Maxwell said.

Simon responded that the one-year waiver was the result of a compromise between the federal government, local school systems, and advocates for foreign-born students. He also said that some schools have been able to offer assessment tests in the student’s native language. (Most of the superintendents appeared to be unaware of this option.)

Maxwell later said that Simon did not address the issue.

“I was a little disappointed by the response,” he said.

Cousin also wasn’t pleased with the response, but he said he did not have high expectations for the discussion.

"Given the limited amount of time, there really wasn't an opportunity to go into depth," Cousin said. "I don't know if that was the right forum."

Cousin was impressed by the fact that Simon wanted to meet with local superintendents.

"At least they said they want to hear what we have to say," Cousin said. "The follow-up is the critical question."

If you had the opportunity to talk to Simon about No Child Left Behind, what would you say? One reader e-mailed this morning and said he would have questioned Simon about the achievement gap among African-American students.

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 12:10 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Around the Region, Howard County, NCLB

Kids with the write stuff

They've crossed their T's and dotted their I's, and now a group of nearly a dozen Maryland students with impeccable penmanship have earned the designation of "statewide winners" in a national handwriting competition and are vying for national honors.

More than 177,000 students from across the country in first-grade through eighth-grade entered this year's competition, according to the folks at Zaner-Bloser, a national publisher of handwriting programs.

A panel of professional handwriting experts judged the writing samples based shape, slant, spacing and size. (To see the writing sample from last year's Grand National Champion, click here.)

As many as 16 state winners may be chosen for each state to compete in the national round. In Maryland, the 2008 statewide winners are:

Kayla Moffett, 6th grade, Lanham Christian School, Lanham
Gopika Mini, 1st grade, Padonia Elementary School, Cockeysville
Arianna Johnson, 3rd grade, Padonia Elementary School, Cockeysville
Veena Sivaraman, 5th grade, Pot Spring Elementary School, Timonium
Erin Dodson, 3rd grade, St. John Evangelist School, Hydes
Colleen Crowley, 5th grade, St. John Regional Catholic, Frederick
Katherine Mullin, 8th grade, St. Joseph School-Fullerton, Baltimore
Christina Kilmer, 4th grade, St. Jude Catholic School, Rockville
Jeffrey Perez, 1st grade, St. Matthias Apostle School, Lanham-Seabro
Mekbib Belachew, 2nd grade, St. Matthias Apostle School, Lanham-Seabro

The Grand National Champion is expected to be named on April 16, according to Sarah Grafner at Zaner-Bloser, host of the 17th annual Zaner-Bloser National Handwriting Contest. National winners are awarded a Nintendo DS game package and a $500 U.S. savings bond. The classroom of the Grand National Champion is awarded $1000 worth of computer equipment. The teacher of the Grand National Champion gets a trip for two to Washington, DC.

Posted by Gina Davis at 6:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region

March 26, 2008

Jonathan Kozol coming to Goucher

The renowned author on educational inequality, who waged a hunger strike last fall to protest No Child Left Behind, will speak at Goucher College at 8 p.m. April 16 in the Haebler Memorial Chapel. His talk, called "The Soul of a Profession," is free and open to the public, but tickets must be reserved in advance. Call 410-337-6333 or email

Kozol is speaking in honor of Goucher education professor Eli Velder's 50th anniversary with the college.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:39 AM | | Comments (0)

Towson Towerlight newspaper site redesigned

Sharon Leff, editor of the Towson University campus paper The Towerlight, dropped a note to say the student-run paper's Web site has been redesigned.

Check it out here.

Posted by Gadi Dechter at 10:29 AM | | Comments (0)

March 24, 2008

A school at North Avenue?

Once upon a time, the fortress that is 200 E. North Avenue was a school for blind children. Then it was Polytechnic Institute. In recent decades, it has been the Dr. Alice G. Pinderhughes Administration Building, headquarters of the Baltimore school sytem.

Now that Andres Alonso is starting to dismantle the building's staff (the number of employees is scheduled to shrink from 1,500 this school year to 1,200 next school year), he wants there to be a school at North Avenue again. No, the central office wouldn't move, but Alonso thinks it would breathe new life into the place if a small school -- maybe even a few classrooms or grades -- could co-exist with all the administrators. During numerous public appearances in the past few weeks, he's floated the idea that schools could come to North Avenue on a rotating basis, perhaps while their permanent facilities are under construction.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke was exasperated when she heard Alonso say this during a meeting of the council's education committee last week. Some years back, Clarke and others lobbied to put an annex of Dallas Nicholas and Cecil elementaries at North Avenue so the schools could offer grades six through eight. The councilwoman said school system administrators told her the suggestion was crazy. "I would've done it, Mary Pat," Alonso said.

Could he do it now?

"We don't have enough space," replied a laughing Alonso, who has pledged further cuts to the central office in the future. "It's gonna take a couple of years."

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:05 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

March 21, 2008

Feds to test growth models under NCLB

Now that the city schools are on vacation, I can turn my attention to the world outside Baltimore...

There was big news in the world of No Child Left Behind this week. U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings invited states to submit proposals to hold schools accountable under NCLB based on progress rather than overall scores. The federal government is looking to try these "growth models" in up to 10 states, and Maryland is one of five that's getting preference. (Spellings, who once called herself president of the Nancy Grasmick fan club, said the state has been a leader in accountability. Her remarks from this week are here.)

In response to the Spellings announcement, the nation's largest teachers union -- the National Education Association -- issued a statement saying the plan addresses "one of the major one-size-fits-all flaws of NCLB" and calling it a "long overdue step in the right direction."

"While we welcome the news, it comes more than six years after the law was enacted and less than a year before the Bush administration leaves office," the NEA statement says.

The second-largest teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, wasn't as kind. "This pilot program would not even begin to address the major problems with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)," the AFT's statement says. "The proposal does nothing to fix NCLB’s adequate yearly progress formula, a poor measure of school quality. Nor does it change NCLB’s wrong-headed approach -- providing punishment instead of help -- to schools and students that are struggling." The statement concludes that NCLB "is in need of a dramatic overhaul and cannot be patched up with Band-Aids and pilot programs."

Which side (if either) do you agree with?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:04 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: NCLB

March 20, 2008

Wednesday night lovefest

"Lovefest" and "love-in" were two of the words that speakers used to describe last night's hearing on Dr. Alonso's proposed budget. Not a single person spoke against the plans to start dismantling the central office and empower principals in exchange for accountability, even after Brian Morris asked if anyone had any constructive criticism. Several pillars of the city's educational community heaped praise on the proposal and pledged their support to help implement it. Among them: Pat Welch, the former city school board chair and Morgan's education dean; Ray Lorion, the Towson education dean; Anne O. Emery, a retired administrator and Maryland Higher Education Commission member who now runs a charter school; and Mariale Hardiman, the former Roland Park Elementary/Middle principal who now works at the Hopkins School of Education. Several current principals and charter operators also spoke glowingly.

I wonder if there will be more public debate when the school board votes on a funding formula that inevitably will take money away from some schools and redistribute it to others. As I reported in my story today, the board will be facing some tough questions in the next few weeks as it tries to figure out what's fair -- which students are worthy of more funding and how much money the system should take out of the base for everyone else.

By the way, a "Frequently Asked Questions" document about the budget is now on that system Web page with all the budget stuff.

Happy spring break to all of you headed on vacation today. InsideEd will be here in your absence, posting whatever we can muster on a week when schools are closed.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 9:53 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore City

Early childhood education in Maryland

A new state education ranking is out, this time on early childhood education, and it shows that Maryland isn't providing as much money as other states for pre-kindergarten programs, but the state has a higher than average percentage of four-year-olds attending school.

The National Institute for Early Education Research ranked states on their efforts to provide good pre-kindergarten. Maryland school systems provide 34 percent of four-year-olds with pre-kindergarten, the 10th best in the nation.

While the amount of state funding for pre-kindergarten went up this past year, the state still only ranks 27th in that catagory. When local and federal sources of funding are added, the state does better, ranking 13th.

The state also met seven out of the 10 criteria for quality programs. More information is available here.





Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:05 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Around the Nation

March 19, 2008

Can students be scared straight?

My colleague Nick Madigan attended a meeting this week where Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy talked to students from Robert Poole Middle School about the criminal justice system. Five of the students' classmates are on trial in connection with a December incident where two passengers on a city bus were brutally attacked while the kids were riding home from school.

The session was trying to get the students "scared straight," giving them a tour of former juvenile holding cells. Yet only a few of them raised their hands when Jessamy asked who would commit to avoiding a life of crime. One of the boys readily confessed that he'd been locked up before.

In response to his story, Nick got a number of e-mails from readers suggesting that all city students be given the opportunity to witness what the kids at Robert Poole did. And Jessamy said she conducts such sessions regularly. But clearly, the students from Poole are already incredibly jaded by middle school. Is it too late to scare them off from engaging in crime? To those of you who work in the city, do you think a "scared straight" program would be effective with your students?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:03 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

March 18, 2008

Sex Ed in the Public Schools

Parents in the Pittsburgh Public School System want the sex education offerings beefed up.

The organizers of the "Pittsburgh Public Schools Silencing Sex Education" campaign say the current policy to teach teenagers about sex by preaching abstinence does not answer many of their questions and provide them with the information they need to make healthy and responsible decisions, according to the article.

The campaign organizers want "comprehensive sex education that would teach students about contraception and sexual practices in addition to abstinence," according to the article. 

I thought this was especially interesting because of last week's news that one in four teenage girls in America has at least one STD.

What are students being taught about sex in schools in Maryland? Is it sufficient? Should abstinence be taught? Is that even realistic in the current social climate?

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 12:45 PM | | Comments (0)

More details on the BCPSS budget

Looking for details about the budget that Dr. Alonso proposed last week? 

The city school system keeps posting new budget-related documents here. The site really is a goldmine of information if you're willing to sift through it all (as I'm doing now).

The school board will host a special work session from 3:30 to 5 p.m. this afternoon in room 301 at North Avenue. There will be a public forum on the budget tomorrow night in the first-floor board room starting at 6:30.

UPDATE: Once again, I've heard from a few folks having trouble getting the above link to work. This is the same link that people had trouble with last week. And for the second time, I'm not sure what's wrong because it's working fine for me. So here is the full URL:

UPDATE: A reader suggests using the domain (which should be interchangable with but evidently isn't having the same problems):

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 12:19 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City

Slots for education funding?

Catching up after a few days out of town, I've been reading about the decision by the Maryland State Teachers Association to endorse slot machine gambling in an attempt to offset further funding cuts to education.

Do you agree with MSTA that it's worth it to legalize slots to protect Maryland's public schools? Or does StopSlots Maryland have a point, that education funding should be the state's priority regardless?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:38 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Around the Region

March 16, 2008

School reform: how fast is fast enough?

My story today looks at the amazing speed with which changes are happening in the Baltimore school system. Dr. Alonso says he cannot possibly move fast enough.

But can he? Do you agree with his philosophy that if change doesn't happen rapidly, the forces of inertia will return the city school system to the way it's always been? Or would you rather see reforms such as decentralization tested on a small scale before they're implemented systemwide?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:05 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore City

March 13, 2008

Who raises the red flag on absentees?

In today's paper, I write about 15-year-old Tyisha M. Brown, a Woodlawn High School student who was found shot to death in a high-crime area of the city. Tyisha was never reported missing by family members and it took three weeks for police to learn her identity.

The circumstances surrounding Tyisha's death raise questions about the obligation of school officials to raise a red flag when students abruptly stop showing up. According to a school official, she was neither chronically absent nor a disciplinary problem. But her long absence did not prompt the school to look into her whereabouts because school officials wait about three weeks before investigating. "Unfortunately, schools deal with kids who get up and move and don't tell us," the school officials explained.

Should school officials move quicker when a student abruptly stops showing up for classes and remains absent for a long time?

Stunt seeking the nation's worst teachers

The anti-union Center for Union Facts is launching a campaign calling for nominations for the nation's worst public school teachers whose jobs are protected by collective bargaining agreements. It will offer 10 "winners" $10,000 each if they quit their jobs.

Seriously, I'm not making this up. You can see for yourselves in a USA Today article here. The center's "Teachers Union Exposed" site is here.

The campaign's organizers, who ran a full-page ad in the New York Times, say they want to start a national conversation about how hard it is for schools to get rid of bad teachers once they have tenure.

In my reporting this week about principal autonomy in Baltimore, I've heard a lot about how principals need autonomy over their staff. And while they'll have control over future hiring decisions, they have very little say over existing staff because of the protections in the union contract. But, clearly, unions exist for a reason. (I am, for the record, a union member myself.) It's hard to imagine the kind of personal vindictiveness that might come into play if administrators could fire teachers at will.

A few weeks ago, readers of this blog took great offense at someone's suggestion that teachers are overpaid. But are they overprotected?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:04 AM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Around the Nation, Teaching

March 12, 2008

Decision issued in planning time dispute

The arbitrator hired to mediate the dispute over planning time between the city school system and the Baltimore Teachers Union issued his ruling late this afternoon. The verdit is a partial victory for both sides but is overall very supportive of Dr. Alonso's quest for principals to be able to mandate collaborative planning once a week. At the 20 or so elementary schools that only give teachers three weekly planning periods, the system would have to provide a fourth period if collaborative planning is to be required.

More to come in tomorrow's paper. For more on the origins of the dispute, earlier entries are here.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:58 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

Baltimore's benchmark tests

Amid all the activity at last night's city school board meeting, something outrageous got lost in the coverage today.

Three English teachers from Thurgood Marshall High spoke during public comment about the many flaws of the Baltimore City Benchmark Assessments that they must administer quarterly to their ninth- and 10th-grade students.

First off, the tests are filled with spelling and grammatical mistakes. (One example from a 10th-grade test that the teachers noted: "Write a response that explains a theme of the both the essay 'Clocks'  and a passage from 'Dandelion Clocks.'") One of the teachers, Brandon Arvesen, said two texts used on the exams are plagarized. One reading passage doesn't contain the answer to the question students are asked about it. The tests don't measure students' knowledge of the city's English curriculum, and they don't measure what students need to know for the English High School Assessment. Passages, such as one about growing up on a cow farm, are also culturally irrelevant to urban students. And some of the readings, such as two Emily Dickenson poems, are far above a ninth-grade reading level. The HSA contains poetry by Robert Frost, which Arvesen said is more appropriate given that many city students come to high school at a fourth-grade reading level. He said he's watched students with A averages in his class close the benchmark testing booklets in frustration and say they can't do it.

The teachers clearly caught the attention of system officials, and Dr. Alonso said he'll investigate.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 1:30 PM | | Comments (18)
Categories: Baltimore City

The Alonso budget presentation

You can find it here.

UPDATE, 8 p.m.: The page above now also links to the school system's current organizational chart and the proposed organizational chart for next year. The charts show that the bulk of cuts come from positions falling under the chief academic officer (608 positions cut to 444) and the chief operating officer (1,535 positions cut to 917 -- partly a result of custodians being moved under principals' oversight). The total number of positions in schools is set to increase from 9,767 now to an estimated 10,411.

But in the midst of the cutting, there's a new hire at the central office: Kathy O'Donnell Volk, a 34-year veteran of Baltimore County schools, was named academic achievement officer at last night's school board meeting. Volk has worked at the Maryland State Department of Education since 2000. In BCPSS, she'll work on "the development, implementation, monitoring, evaluation and support of curriculum and instruction," under the direction of Chief Academic Officer Mary Minter, according to a press release.

In response to some of the questions from commenters on this post: In early April, Dr. Alonso will propose to the school board a specific accountability structure under which principals will be evaluated, and the board will have to vote to adopt it. The evaluations will not be exclusively made on test scores.

Since principals will be getting exponentially more money to use at their discretion, it will be up to them to decide how many librarians, guidance counselors and social workers to fund (except for social workers who work with special education students as a part of their IEPs -- they will continue being sent by the central office). Alonso has said he expects that schools will end up with more people in such positions since principals will be able to afford to hire them.

UPDATE, 3/13: A couple people have emailed saying they're having trouble getting the above link to work. I'm not sure what the problem is (it's working fine for me), but here is the URL where you can find the budget presentation and the organizational charts:

Regarding Epiphany's question about whether schools will have an incentive to hire inexperienced teachers because their salaries are cheaper: The answer, for this year at least, is no. Alonso is recommending that principals pay average, not actual teacher salaries, out of their budgets so as not to discourage the hiring of experience teachers. It sounds like he wants to move eventually toward using actual teacher salaries, but he doesn't think the fight is worth it this year. He also said the difference between actual and average salaries in Baltimore isn't nearly as great as people expect, and not nearly as great as in other districts that have less turnover in their workforce.

Regarding Claude's comment on the IEP team associates: Anything involving special education will continue to be funded centrally, but Alonso says he wants principals to have more autonomy in hiring IEP team associates for their schools.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 1:00 PM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Baltimore City

March 11, 2008

Wanted: Teachers to help turn around failing schools

Baltimore County school officials today posted openings for all of the teaching jobs at Woodlawn High School, Lansdowne Middle School and Southwest Academy. The hiring spree is part of the system's restructuring process, the result of years of failing to meet state benchmarks in reading and math.

As many of you already know, the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires schools that fail to reach federal standards after five consecutive years to enter the restructuring planning stage. Failing schools must develop a plan to replace most or all of the staff, reopen as a charter school, contract with a private entity or bring in a "distinguished principal" from another district.

Anyone planning to apply?

Posted by Gina Davis at 5:04 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore County, NCLB, Teaching

March 9, 2008

Autonomy for principals

Around the country, the role of a principal has changed a lot through the years. Once upon a time, a principal was responsible for the logistical operations of a school, and not much more. Then in recent years, the focus turned to "instructional leadership." In Baltimore a few years ago, during Bonnie Copeland's tenure as CEO, the city school system was trying to shift administrative responsibilities back to the central office to clear principals' plates so they could focus on instruction. 

But for the last decade, principals in Baltimore have had little autonomy to shape their schools' instructional programs. That's about to change.

On Tuesday, Dr. Alonso will present a budget that increases principals' responsibilities astronomically, while a dismantling of the central office begins. Those principals who are successful will be rewarded -- some with merit-based bonuses possibly as early as next year. Those who are not successful will be removed.

I'm hearing that a number of principals in the city are nervous about their newfound responsibility, in some cases urging Alonso to keep making certain decisions at the central office. Some of them feel like they're being set up for failure. Decentralization didn't work when Baltimore tried it in the 80s and 90s -- I'm told because there wasn't an adequate support structure for principals, nor was there meaningful accountability.

But a study published last year by the Fordham Foundation and American Institutes for Research, called "The Autonomy Gap," found that principals nationally believe they don't have the autonomy needed to make effective changes in their schools. (The report talks more about autonomy in personnel decisions than spending decisions.) Research by UCLA professor William Ouchi found that the most successful urban school districts are those with decentralized management.

In reporting my story for today's paper, it was interesting to compare what Alonso is planning for Baltimore with John Deasy's strategy in Prince George's County: to give autonomy to principals whose schools are successful or showing improvement. The idea there is earned autonomy, not autonomy for all. I can see the advantages to both approaches. Alonso's model of universal autonomy will probably make it easier to attract new talent to the system. Deasy's model of earned autonomy will probably provide better safeguards for schools with weak leadership.

Which structure do you prefer? And what do you see as the role of a principal?

UPDATE 3/11: Sorry I didn't have the energy last night to do a separate post on my story today, but it should answer many questions about what's coming. Until 5 p.m., I wasn't planning on having a budget story until tomorrow's paper, but, well, I guess it pays to check BoardDocs ... (The budget presentation was taken down right away when the system realized what had happened, but I think it will be reposted at some point later today or tomorrow.) Much more to come, in the newspaper and on this blog, in the next few days. Wondering which positions at North Avenue are being cut? The system is scheduled to release a new organizational chart -- with names of positions, not people -- on Wednesday.

UPDATE 3/12: Last night's documents aren't up yet at BoardDocs but check back here and there later for more details. 

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:02 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Baltimore City

March 8, 2008

To freak dance or not to freak dance?

In my story today, I explore the freak dancing craze and the tactics administrators and parents are taking to thwart the behavior.

Several schools have banned an extreme form of freak dancing. Some schools have rules that dictate the type of music played at dances in order to prevent the provocative moves. Other administrators have even banned school dances altogether to avoid the headache of having to enforce non-sexual dancing.

One principal I interviewed essentially said that he runs a school, not a dance club.

Should students have a say in the matter? Is freak dancing a way for them to express themselves? Or do you think that this type of dancing has not place on the dance floor? Does your school have an innovative way to combat freak dancing? I want to hear all your anecdotes and opinions!

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 8:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Around the Nation, Trends

March 7, 2008

What would you do for $125,000?

This article from today's New York Times features a charter school in New York City that will pay teachers $125,000 a year, testing the theory that having a great teacher in every classroom is more important than anything else, and that truly competitive salaries will attract great teachers. Making the structure even more radical: The school's principal will start out earning just $90,000. For the school to afford the salaries, classes will have 30 kids apiece, teachers will work longer days and have responsibilities outside the classroom, and there will be fewer social supports.

Want to apply? The Web site for the school, called The Equity Project Charter, is here.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:58 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Around the Nation, Charter Schools, Teaching

March 6, 2008

Budget briefing, behind the scenes

I heard a rumor on Monday that the Baltimore school board would be meeting that afternoon for Dr. Alonso to brief members on the budget. When I called the school system and asked (a.) if there was a meeting and (b.) if I could attend, the answer to both questions was no. I was told that the CEO was giving a briefing to board member Kalman "Buzzy" Hettleman, who was heading out of town and will miss the big board meeting next Tuesday where the budget (containing $50 million in cuts and a massive reorganization of the system) is publicly presented.

But as I later found out, there was a period of the briefing when five board members -- a quorum, or majority, of the nine-member body -- were present. Apparently the meeting started with four: Hettleman, Robert Heck, Jerrelle Francois and Maxine Wood. And then George VanHook showed up, making it an official board meeting that should have been posted and open to the public. While the board is permitted to meet in closed session to discuss legal and personnel matters, state law stipulates that policy briefings must be public when a quorum is present. And even for closed session meetings, public notice is supposed to be given (which, in Baltimore, means a notice is taped to the door at North Avenue, so you have to be in the building to know about it). 

Janet Johnson, the board executive, said VanHook was only in the room for about 20 minutes on Monday, maybe less. He came late and left early. Another board member present estimated that VanHook stayed closer to an hour.

Johnson said she typically tries to monitor who will be attending board committee meetings, briefings and other gatherings to make sure that a quorum is not present. The board has several three-member committees that meet privately all the time on topics ranging from finance to special education. And this week, Alonso scheduled multiple briefings for board members individually or in small groups, to prepare them for what's coming. 

On Monday, Johnson said she was only expecting a few board members for what was billed as a finance committee meeting. (Hettleman chairs the finance committee.) "The third was fine, the fourth was scary, the fifth came in and left," she said. 

Turnout was better than she anticipated because board members were so curious about what Alonso had to say, they didn't want to wait until later in the week to be briefed. After last year's fiasco, where the board approved a budget filled with errors and discrepencies, I don't think anyone would argue against strong board involvement in the process this time around.

But the law is still the law.

I asked Jack Schwartz, assistant attorney general with the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board, about what's supposed to happen when a public body inadvertently ends up with a quorum. His response:

"The general rule is that you have to give notice of meetings, and a meeting consists of a gathering of a quorum. If a situation arises where there was no anticipation of a quorum but it turns out that unexpectedly a quorum materializes and no notice was given, then the members of a public body need to be conscious of that fact. I’d say the response under those circumstances can be that enough people leave so there’s no quorum, or they can avoid the conduct of public business."

In other words, the board members should have turned the conversation from Alonso's PowerPoint to social banter (perhaps about Hettleman's upcoming trip?), or someone should have left right away -- not 20 minutes, or an hour, or however long it was, later.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:32 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore City

Want to increase academic performance among girls? Give them more physical education, study says

If childhood obesity and health-related reasons were not enough proof, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now reports that time spent in physical education may help improve girls’ academic performance.

While this sounds like good news, teachers and administrators will probably tell you that it is a serious struggle to incorporate more physical education into the school day. Many educators are busy trying to live up to mandates that focus on standardized test scores and increases in student achievement in math and reading.

The study, which is published online in the Journal of American Public Health, indicates that trimming physical education programs may not be the best way to raise test scores in schools, this USA Today article states.

Researchers tracked the reading and math skills of more than 5,000 students between kindergarten and fifth grade as shown on a series of standardized tests, according to the article. They discovered that girls who received the highest levels of physical education, or 70 to 300 minutes a week, scored consistently higher on the tests than those who spent less than 35 minutes a week.

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 6:02 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Around the Nation, Teaching, Trends

March 5, 2008

Why Baltimore County teachers aren't getting a raise

County Executive Jim Smith has released this letter to teachers explaining why he can't afford to give them a raise this year.

Gina's coverage of the topic and an earlier blog discussion can be found here, here and here.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 12:01 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore County

And then there were four...

Sharon Kanter, an area academic officer overseeing a group of high schools in Baltimore, has retired, a school system spokeswoman confirms.

The area academic officers -- the administrators who supervise Baltimore's principals -- are clearly having their positions phased out. By my count, only four of the nine AAO positions remain occupied, and one of those is filled with someone who holds the job on an interim basis. Six AAOs have resigned, retired or been promoted this school year.

We'll probably get an idea of what the new administrative structure will look like on Tuesday, when Dr. Alonso releases his proposed budget for next school year.

For more on administrative turnover in BCPSS, check out earlier entries here.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:11 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City

News of beef recall took too long, schools say

Surprise, surprise. Some school systems claim that the announcement of the historic beef recall last month came way too late.

Based on prepared congressional testimony to be delivered yesterday, two officials with the School Nutrition Association were expected to urge the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to update its recall communications system, according to USA Today.

Dora Rivas, director of child nutrition for Dallas schools, said 12 days passed from Feb. 5, the day she heard from the state commodity office about a recall of one type of ground beef, which she pulled, to Feb. 17, the day the USDA announced the full Westland recall, the article states. It wasn’t until Feb. 22 that Dallas knew the full extent of the recall and pulled all of the affected beef, the article adds.

Maryland school systems, on the other hand, were told to put the meat on administrative hold on Feb. 1 by the Maryland State Department of Education.

It is unknown whether any of that meat made it into school cafeterias.

The MSDE warning did not catch the meat that went to Allegany, Prince George’s, St. Mary’s, Montgomery, Worcester, Wicomico, Baltimore County and Baltimore City in 2007.

In total, about 37 million pounds of the 143 million pounds of beef recalled went to school lunch programs and other federal nutrition programs since October 2006, according to Ron Vogel of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. 

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 6:01 AM | | Comments (0)

March 4, 2008

Does studying music make you smart?

For years, educators and researchers have noted that students who are good at the arts also seem to be high-achieving students as well.  Look at the test scores from the Baltimore School for the Arts or the Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Baltimore County and you can see this trend clearly. Those schools admit students based on their promise in a particularly artistic field, but not necessarily on their grades. So how is it that they do so well academically too?

The question, according to a Dana Foundation report released this afternoon, is this: "Are smart people drawn to the arts or does arts training make people smarter?"

The report examines the correlation between arts education and brain development, comblining the research of cognitive neuroscientists from seven universities in this country. Each one worked on a different study about the arts and the brain. So it appears that children who study the music, dance or drama develop "attention skills and strategies for memory retrieval that has apply to other subject areas," the report says.

There are several conclusions of interest, according to report:

1. Being involved in the performing arts gives students motivation to focus for a long period of time. That long attention span helps students in other areas.

2. Correlations exist between music training and reading acquisition.

3. There is a link between high levels of music training and the abilitly to minipulate information in both working and long term memory.

The research is preliminary and does not establish definate causal relationships, according to the researchers. More study is needed to do that.

For those who want to read the studies, they're available here.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 1:05 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Study, study!, Trends

What do you think about harassing helicopter parents?

They hover. And many teachers say that they harass, and disrupt the learning process in the process. Helicopter parents are landing at a school near you!

My article today looks at the overbearing actions of parents in schools.

Take Howard County as an example. For the past two years, 60 percent of the teachers responding to a job satisfaction survey conducted by the Howard County Education Association reported that they have been subjected to harassment. Last year's survey specifically identified parents as the offenders in 60 percent of the cases. This year's survey will report similar results, according to Ann DeLacy, the HCEA president.

Through my research I talked to educators from school systems throughout the state who recalled numerous examples of over-zealous parents who made their lives miserable.

What do you think? Have you witnessed parents who overstep the boundaries and interfere with the learning process? Are you a teacher who has been harassed by a parent? Please share your experiences. Or, are you a helicopter parent?

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 11:00 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Around the Nation, Howard County, Parents, Teaching, Trends

"Teaching to the Testosterone"

That's a headline on the cover story in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, exploring the always controversial issue of whether boys and girls should be taught separately. The article says that single-gender classrooms and schools, which have become easier to establish as a result of No Child Left Behind, are growing exponentially in public districts. Still, the numbers are relatively small: A leading advocate quoted in the article estimated that there were a dozen public schools in the United States offering single-gender education in 2002, and there are upwards of 360 today. The article says that many of the schools are in the South or in low-income areas. Some educators are hopeful that single-gender classes can help reverse the tide of underachievement particularly for poor, minority boys.

Single-gender education has existed in the Baltimore school system for well over a century. Western High is one of the nation's oldest single-sex public schools, and probably one of the finest, too. But while Western's girls enter the school having already demonstrated a relatively high level of academic acheivement, other schools in the city are experimenting to see if single-sex education gives a boost to children coming in behind. There are single-gender classes in the middle grades at New Song Academy, a well-regarded innovation school in Sandtown. And this academic year, the charter school Bluford Drew Jemison opened as an extended-day program for middle school boys.

Does single-gender education segregate unnecessarily, or is it an effective strategy to meet students' individual needs?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:03 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Around the Nation, Baltimore City, NCLB

March 3, 2008

How do schools treat gay and lesbian parents?

Not well, according to a new report by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and two other advocacy groups. The study looks at the experiences that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families have in K-12 education. Its title: "Involved, Invisible, Ignored."

The study's authors received completed surveys from 588 gay and lesbian parents nationwide and from 154 of their middle and high school-aged children. Compared with a national sample of all parents, the gay and lesbian parents were more involved: 94 percent had attended an event such as a back-to-school night or a parent-teacher conference in the past year, compared with 77 percent in the general parent population. They were also more likely to have volunteered in their children's school and, in high schools, more likely to be a member of the PTA.

Yet more than half of the parents reported being excluded from their school community in some way, and more than a quarter said they had been mistreated by other parents. Among students, 42 percent said they had been harassed in the past year because of their parents' sexual orientation. Twenty-two percent said that a teacher, principal or other school staff member had discouraged them from talking about their family at school.

What steps can schools take to make all families feel welcome? In this case, the report recommends anti-bullying policies and legislation; training school staff to intervene in cases of bullying and harassment; supporting of clubs such as gay-straight student alliances; and increasing student exposure to information about gay and lesbian people, history and events.

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