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Friday Churn: Wrong track?

Updated – A new report says U.S. education reforms are out of sync with what’s occurring in higher-performing countries and are unlikely to produce major improvements.

The report, from the National Center on Education and the Economy, sets out an agenda for improving American schools based on efforts undertaken in those countries whose students score the highest on international assessments.

Among the steps: less frequent standardized testing and a greater emphasis on the professionalization of teaching.

“We’ve been unwilling to pay teachers at the level of engineers,” Marc Tucker, NCEE president, told Education Week. “We’ve been solving our problems of teacher shortages by waiving the very low standards that we have. We have been frustrated by low student performance, and now, we’re blaming our teachers for that, which makes it even harder to get good people.”

Read the EdWeek article and see the full report, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants.

What’s churning:

A community campaign will keep Jefferson County’s outdoor lab program open through 2011-12, district officials announced Thursday.

Closing the program, a popular rite of passage for Jeffco sixth-graders since the early 1960s, was part of a budget reduction package announced by the state’s largest school district in March.

But supporters of the Mt. Evans and Windy Peak Outdoor Lab schools, where students spend a week immersed in environmental education, rallied to raise dollars to keep it going. They set a June 15 deadline to raise $600,000.

Thursday, Jeffco officials said more than $625,000 had been raised – about half from community efforts, including an anonymous donor’s gift of $99,000, and the rest from matching district funds.

“As a result of conservative spending on the part of district departments during the 2010-11 budget year, Jeffco had $1.2 million in surplus funds,” district officials said in a news release. “Members of the Board of Education directed that $450,000 of that money be put toward the Outdoor Lab schools in matching funds.”

Students fees also will increase next year, from $199 per student to $300, to help support the program.

Also Thursday, Colorado Department of Education officials for the first time posted school and district improvement plans online, as required by the Education Accountability Act of 2009. You can access the plans via this SchoolView tool.

“We strongly encourage parents and community members statewide to explore these plans and learn more,” new education Commissioner Robert Hammond states in the news release. “Every school is unique and has its own story to tell.”

EdNews, which has written at length on the new school and district ratings required under the accountability act, checked out several improvement plans using the nifty data tool, focusing on those schools and districts rated “turnaround” – the lowest in the state.

As many required reporting documents are, the plans are blindingly bureaucratic in places: “Learning gaps are not efficiently identified and appropriately addressed to support concurrent instruction in the grade-level expectations” is one of many “root cause” analyses listed by Douglas County’s Hope Online about why students continue to lag significantly behind state averages on annual exams.

Others are more succinct: “Teachers have limited knowledge of state standards and a broad range of instructional strategies,” is a root cause listed for Denver’s Cheltenham Elementary.

Persistent readers can find interesting data. Denver’s Manny Martinez Middle School plan describes the academic deficits of children entering its program – 43% of incoming sixth-graders in fall 2010 were reading below grade level, with a quarter of those three or more grades behind.

Perhaps it’s the sheer work involved in publishing 179 district plans and 1,476 school plans but Thursday’s online posting is several weeks behind the April 15 deadline. Which made it even more surprising to see several of the plans obviously dated. For example, the Cheltenham plan is blank in some areas, advising readers that some information is “Not available until Nov 2010.”

Read the department’s news release for more details.

Educators at chronically low-performing schools will have a chance to compete for $6 million in federal turnaround grant dollars, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced Thursday.

“When a school continues to perform in the bottom five percent of the state and isn’t showing signs of progress or has graduation rates below 60 percent over a number of years, something dramatic needs to be done,” he said. “Turning around our worst-performing schools is difficult for everyone but it is critical that we show the courage to do the right thing by kids.”

The $6 million is Colorado’s share of the total $546 million available to states for the School Improvement Grant program in fiscal year 2010. That’s a lot less than the $3.5 billion available in 2009. Details.

Good reads from elsewhere:

Data drops – Two interesting education data reports were released this week:

  • Public Education Finances 2009, a report from the U.S. Census Bureau, shows “Public school systems spent an average of $10,499 per pupil in fiscal year 2009, a 2.3 percent increase over 2008” and other trends. New York spent the most of any state, averaging $18,126 per pupil while Colorado came in 40th at $8,718 – federal, state and local sources were included.
  • The Condition of Education 2011 also focuses on trends, such as the overall increase in bachelor’s degrees earned between 1975 and 2010 by white, black and Hispanic 25 to 29-year-olds. Yet the gap in bachelor’s degree attainment between blacks and whites during that period increased from 13 to 19 percentage points and the gap between whites and Hispanics increased from 15 to 25 percentage points. It’s from the National Center for Education Statistics.

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