Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Critical Issue: Schools

It seems to me that this year's election will turn on two issues, Schools and Jobs. And those two issues are fundamentally inter-related. Good schools make businesses want to locate here, bringing in good jobs. And correspondingly, many businesses see the role of schools as creating the next generation of employees, while schools have a fundamental public charter not to create employees, but to educate citizens. This tension is often at the root of many efforts around school "reform" and debates over funding. If we don't need to educate our kids to be able to think critically about public policy, then we can certainly pack them in 30 per class!

In this post, I want to express some thoughts on Education as an issue this year.

There are about 312,000 opinions on how to "improve" Loudoun County schools, which is to say about one per County resident. From our land acquisition policies to student achievement to "doing more with less," every candidate - and voter - seems to know what's best for the Loudoun County Public Schools. Of course, this begs the fundamental question as to whether LCPS is actually doing a good, or a bad, job educating our kids. I think in general, and overall, LCPS does a good job. The vast majority of LCPS students graduate on-time, with the knowledge and tools necessary to succeed in our society. (Nevermind whether other parts of society are failing to provide them with the educational or vocational opportunities to put what those students learned in Loudoun schools to use...)

Are there areas where we need improvement? Of course. Minority student achievement is an area that needs continuous focus and attention. In-school hiring policies are an integral aspect of addressing that weakness. Similarly, many people have apparently drunk the "it's not the class size, it's the teacher" kool-aid. I believe the science is still out on that.

I mention all of this on schools after reading an amazing piece by Virginia's own TeacherKen, over at DailyKos. (with a tip-o-the-hat to Emily's "Learning: Theory, Policy, Practice" blog) Here's a little taste, in which TeacherKen succinctly outlines the paradox behind "AYP."
Simpson's Paradox - a statistical anomaly which explains why you need to disaggregate data. Let me illustrate

Year One ten students take an exam with a score range of 400-1600 (the old SAT0.
9 are white upper middle class who average 1000 = 9000
1 is black working class who scores 800 = 800

Total points 9800 average score is 980.

Next year both groups do better, but the mix is different

white upper middle class 8 x 1010 = 8080
black working class 2 x 810 = 1620

Total points 9700, average score is now 970.

OHMYGOD - our SAT scores dropped!!! Yes, but that was mean SAT score, and your mix now has more lower scoring students. If you report is the one overall mean score you present a distorted representation of what has actually happened, which is improvement in both groups. - TeacherKen
Go. Read. You'll be much smarter for it.

This is not to say that every opinion about schools and education is uninformed, but it is to make the point that education is a profession with just as much skill, training, and critical value to our society as lawyers, doctors, policemen and firemen.

This is among the reasons I strongly support Kelly Burk for Leesburg Supervisor. She's a teacher, and has spent decades teaching in Loudoun County schools. Education is the largest single budget item the Board of Supervisors deals with. I think it is invaluable to have an actual teacher involved in those debates and decisions! And it must be noted that Kelly got clearance from the Attorney General of Virginia to participate in those debates, and she recuses herself from any debate or vote that involves teacher compensation, to avoid any appearance of impropriety. (Something that cannot be said for others.)

It's also the reason I strongly support the election of Valdis Ronis in Ashburn and Tom Bellanca for Chair. Both Valdis and Tom have made the point that our schools need the right physical resources to get the job done as well as possible. Valdis is focused on school overcrowding, while Tom Bellanca has promised to bring his real-estate experience to bear on the school land acquisition process. A process that has improved under the current Board, but is far from perfect.

Kelly, Tom, and Valdis are campaigning on a recommitment to our schools, even as their opponents are campaigning against our schools, accusing them of being inefficient or ineffective. My kids will attend Loudoun Schools in the not-too-distant future, so I admit my vested interest in this question. But all of Loudoun has a vested interest in good, well-run schools, with sufficient staff and space to ensure a quality education for every child. Because that is our legacy for the future, that is our responsibility to our community, and that is a testament to our strength as a society. And that is an important issue in 2011.


Lyd said...

Re: class size kool-aid. I believe that research is pretty robust, however it really should have no bearing on class size decisions until the county is confident that EVERY teacher employed is capable of handling those classes. There are plenty of teachers still working on improving their craft who can teach 20 a loooot better than 30.

the jocker said...

I don't think that the election will turn on two issues, Schools and Jobs.I think after it, the situation will be better..

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