Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

The Public School Insights Blog

It is no secret that districts are struggling in the current economic climate. They are looking to cut costs every way they can.

One area worth exploring in cost-cutting debates is energy. With energy costs rising—to say nothing of the environmental impact it is becoming more and more clear that our current sources of energy can have—districts need to take a closer look at how they are using energy.

Louisiana’s St. Tammany Parish Public Schools did. And as a result, this growing district, which currently has 72 facilities and serves about 36,000 students, has saved about six million dollars in utility costs over the past four and a half years. They’ve put that money back into schools, providing resources to help the district maintain its reputation as one of the best in the state. And they’ve received national and state recognition for their work.

How did they do it? A comprehensive energy management program. And when we say comprehensive, we mean COMPREHENSIVE. The program includes everything from customized reports for principals on their school’s energy performance (generated by the district’s two energy management tracking systems) to an energy awareness curriculum correlated to the state’s grade-level expectations. Automated lighting and temperature controls to daily reminders of energy saving behaviors in the form of posters, stickers and morning announcements. And much, much more.

Of course, in a time of fiscal crisis, districts may not be able to afford the upfront costs of some of the software and automation that St. Tammany now has. But it is important to note that St. Tammany started this program right after Hurricane Katrina, at a time when they were unable to do more than tell principals to turn off the lights and set thermostats to the lowest possible setting in the winter and the highest in the summer. But those behaviors alone saved the district 7% in energy costs.

We recently spoke to the district’s supervisor of administration, John Swang. He told us more about the program and its results. Below are some highlights of our conversation. Or read the full edited transcript.

At the Beginning: Runaway Energy Costs

Public School Insights: Why did St. Tammany Parish decide to start a comprehensive energy management program?

Swang: About four and a half years ago, our energy bills were skyrocketing. At one point, the cost of energy doubled in three years. We were sending a lot of our resources to the utility companies. It was no different than what the rest of the country was experiencing—it was a kind of runaway situation. And still, to a large extent, the cost of energy is increasing and probably will continue to do so.

But at that point the St. Tammany Parish School Board began talking about getting control of ...

It is fast becoming a received truth that teachers, teachers, teachers make all the difference in a child's academic performance. But what if analysis of students' scores on state tests threw that belief into question? It may have in L.A.

That's not the impression you'll get from the recent L.A. Times story on teacher quality. The Times used student test data to estimate 6,000 L.A. teachers' relative effectiveness. The  story suggests that it's all about the teachers:

Year after year, one fifth-grade class learns far more than the other down the hall. The difference has almost nothing to do with the size of the class, the students, or their parents.

It's their teachers.

But blogger Corey Bunje Bower had a look at the report behind the Times analysis, and he drew another conclusion. The Times notes that the best teachers aren't all crammed into the "best" schools. Bower weighs the implications of that finding:

Teacher quality varies widely within schools--just as with test scores, there's far more variation within schools than across schools. ("Teachers are slightly more effective in high- than in low-API schools, but the gap is small, and the variance across schools is large"). Which means that the highest performing schools don't have all the best teachers and the lowest performing schools don't have all the worst teachers. Which means that something other than teacher quality is causing schools to be low and high performing. Which means we should probably focus our attention on more than just teacher quality.

Of course teachers are very important. Why would anyone teach if teachers didn't matter? But should we put ALL our eggs in the teacher basket?

Other bloggers have raised strong objections to the L.A. Times piece. Can we trust the tests? Can we trust "value-added" analysis of test scores? Is it right to publish names and even pictures ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Defining the Gap

An article in yesterday's New York Times reminds us that the common definition of "achievement gap" is quite limited. We usually define it in terms of proficiency on state tests. (In other words, how many kids passed?) We seldom define it in terms of absolute performance on those tests. (How well did kids do?) You can raise the cut score on the state test and watch your gaps widen overnight, but your absolute achievement gap won't have changed a bit. That's what happened in New York State.

It's an object lesson for every state in the country and a reminder that we always need to keep both definitions well in mind. ...

A couple of days ago NCES released a new report on teacher attrition and mobility. Among many interesting findings, the report shows a 20-year trend—the percent of public school teachers leaving the teaching profession is steadily rising. The report, which is based on the 2008-09 Teacher Follow-Up Survey, doesn’t go into the reasons behind this trend. But thanks to some of the recent debates here on Public School Insights, I wondered how it related to the average age of our public school teachers. It could be due to the aging of the workforce—the number of teachers retiring. Or maybe the young, TFA-type teachers—in the profession for two years and then out—are playing a role.

So I went back to an earlier version of the survey, the May 1994 report based on the 1991-92 Teacher Follow-Up Survey. Of the six such surveys over the last 20 or so years, this one showed the lowest percent of teachers leaving the profession—5.1% that year (compared to ...

Eagle-eyed Larry Ferlazzo found this modest proposal in Slate Magazine: Fire 80 percent of new teachers every two years. The authors of the study Slate describes admit that their idea might not be practical. (Larry's response: "Ya think?") They see it as a "thought experiment." But here's my question: Could such thought experiments, like Frankenstein, overwhelm their creators and wreak havoc in the wider world?

Such experiments don't tend to stay in the laboratory. They get picked up by the papers and start to change the way people across the country think about teaching and teachers. Papers like Slate admire the bravado of the wonks and economists who float extreme ideas--the bolder, the better--and they love the crazy headlines. But they don't always put things into context.

Slate offers a case in point. It praises Teach for America but fails to note that TFA produces only 4,500 new teachers a year--a drop in the bucket. The article claims that great teachers are "born, not made" and then says nothing at all about staff development.

The Slate article doesn't ask a very important question. Who would want to go into teaching if you have an 80 percent chance of getting the axe in two years? I can see the logic of raising the bar almost impossibly high if we manage to make teaching one of the most alluring jobs in America. Give teachers movie star status, support them in their jobs, and make the job as rewarding as ...

Young teachers aren't buying it, either. That's one of the main findings from a recent Public Agenda poll of teachers from three generations. "Generation Y" teachers are very skeptical of ideas that dominate current debates on school reform. This finding does not bode well for the reform agenda. It suggests that policy makers and pundits may be alienating the very people who must carry out the reforms.

The poll results tell us that resistance to some of the big reform ideas is by no means confined to old union stalwarts. The younger folk don't believe test scores should be the main determinant of teacher pay. They believe it should be easier to remove bad teachers, but they don't think tenure should go the way of the dodo.

It's at least as interesting to note what the young 'uns do want. They want staff development, help with discipline, constructive feedback on their teaching, and the chance to collaborate with their peers. In other words, they want the support and the conditions they need to do their jobs well. Those issues seem largely absent from national discussions of school reform.

Another finding of the Public Agenda poll struck me: Young teachers plan to stick around. Almost seven in ten planned to stay in classroom for more than a decade. The notion that those kids ...

Dubious school turnaround outfits are rushing in where some more experienced groups fear to tread, The New York Times reports. Of course, we can expect this sort of thing to happen whenever speculators and pitchmen smell billions of federal dollars. But the hype that attends much of the talk about school reform can make matters worse.

The uncomfortable truth is that no single turnaround strategy is a sure bet. A recent review  (PDF) of major turnaround models found that none rested on strong evidence. The research base remains thin.

That has not stopped quite a few people from insisting that, to save a struggling school, you have to start from scratch. You have to give the staff its walking papers if you want to see big changes, the theory goes. Powerful people often invoke the Harvard School of Excellence in Chicago as proof of this strategy. After the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) cleaned house at this elementary school, test scores soared.

Few have paid much attention to the Chicago public schools whose gains have equaled or surpassed Harvard's. Cardenas and Cather elementary schools were among the most improved schools in the city, and neither school fired staff to jump start its reform efforts.

Cardenas and Cather are among eight schools working with a Chicago non-profit called Strategic Learning Initiatives (SLI). Those schools have made big strides since 2007 without replacing staff. And their turnaround efforts have cost a fraction of what the restart model costs. None of the SLI schools has enjoyed the kind of praise heaped on Harvard. (For more information on SLI's work, see our interview with SLI president John Simmons).

Harvard has earned the praise, but the uneven media coverage of school reform efforts offers a very skewed vision of our turnaround options. Indeed, the New York Times piece on turnarounds implicitly endorses the restart model. It quotes someone from AUSL who calls ...

Should teachers be free agents who take their skills to the highest bidder? Or should we encourage them to stay put in stable teams where they work in concert to improve their students' performance?

A thoughtful reader of this blog came out in favor of the former vision. Let great teachers take their talents on the road. Then let the market decide their value.

A different vision appeared in yesterday's New York Times. In Boston, the Times reports, struggling schools are hiring entire teams of experienced teachers to ground their turnaround efforts. The principal of one such school said the strategy "had provided such a strong core of teachers to anchor the school that it helped him recruit other experienced teachers. And it has allowed him to take a chance" on new teachers.

I prefer this vision to the free agent vision. The best schools I've seen--wealthy or poor--have strong teams of great teachers in place, and those teams are more than the sum of their parts. I've also seen excellent departments unravel when they lose their core of experienced teachers. Even platoons of great new teachers couldn't quickly knit those departments ...

Earlier this week the California Department of Education awarded (though only temporarily) $315 million in School Improvement Grants to over 100 schools in 31 districts. These grants are designed to reform persistently low-achieving schools, so this is great news, right? Over 100 low-performing schools have a better chance to improve.

The problem is that California identified 188 persistently low-achieving schools back in March, which means that not all the schools that need this money got it.

Now, this was a competitive grant program. Districts containing schools identified as persistently low-achieving applied for the funds to reform them, knowing that the state would decide whom to fund. So we knew going in there would be winners and losers.

The kicker is how they chose the winners:

[S]tate officials gave priority to those [districts] that requested grants to help turn around all campuses on the list. Districts that didn’t request money for each of their lowest-achieving schools were placed behind others for funding, even if the other districts didn’t score as highly ...

Is it any wonder that veteran teachers feel a bit threatened these days? They keep hearing the message that they're so darn expensive. Unless their students' test scores get better and better every year, many pundits are ready to dismiss them as a mere liability on the books. That kind of rhetoric can have a corrosive effect on the teaching profession. The notion that teaching is a young person's game seems jarring in a profession where the demand for new teachers can quickly outstrip supply.

We often hear that a teacher's effectiveness, as measured by test scores, tends to level off after five or so years. Should we be surprised by that finding? Imagine the career of a good teacher. If by her third year on the job her students are showing one year of academic growth for one year in the classroom, what should we expect from her 25 years later? Ten years of growth? Should she be sending her third graders off to Harvard?

Or should her income growth stop when her students' value-added gains level off? If we use value-added measures alone, it's hard to imagine how a good teacher could get better and better for years on end. And if years of experience really don't mean anything, then great young teachers should expect their salaries to stay put after they're 30.

Some people will tell you that income stagnation is just fine. Pay people what they're worth in test scores, and let them leave for some other job when their earnings plateau. One commentator writes that "we can compress the salary schedule so that 5-year veterans and 25-year veterans get paid about ...

Syndicate content