I need a 20 on Callahan

Kelvin Adams, the new superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools, said during an interview on KWMU’s St. Louis on the Air Monday that the SLPS would have a person at every school who would be responsible for monitoring attendance and a developing relationship with each family in order to improve attendance.

I immediately thought of this ad.

SLPS reported an attendance rate in 2008 of 88.9 compared to the state average of 94. This is a dramatic increase over the 2006 low of 80.3 but is still not high enough. Improving attendance is a first step toward improving quality, including test scores.

Do content areas play together?

I expect, and will pay extra for, my computer programs to integrate seamlessly, or at least as seamlessly as possibly, which is constantly improving. When software doesn’t work together, customers are irritated and pressure the companies to play nicely. (Right now chat protocols are not standard, which is quite irritating!)

Districts are slow to learn this lesson. They still see each department as individual “silos” in foreign policy speak or islands unto themselves. Yes, they may spout some PC integration speech, but the way curriculum is developed and then presented to the school boards individually does not lend itself to a comprehensive outlook but a segmented one. If a school board is asked to increase funding for one department, will it consider funding requests by departments who will give their curriculum reviews two or three years later?

The asst. supe for curriculum would act as a “czar” in Obama’s world (why are we using Russian terminology?), but I’m not convinced that that is enough. I’m not advocating for the dissolution of departments; rather, I would like to see a change of methods used in curriculum planning at a district level.

I chose Parkway by random and searched its Board Docs for math. It completed the last comprehensive math review (pdf) in 2006 and, as is traditional, will review it again in another five years with updates in between. In going over the report given to the board and posted on the Board Docs, no mention is given to how the math department is connected to the other departments. Nor is any mention given to how recommendations would affect other departments.

I decided to check if its neighbor Rockwood had shown wider thinking. Nope, and their latest math review (pdf) was just approved this January. However, I do like Rockwood’s Curriculum Advisory Council, which looks over completed curriculum reviews and makes their comments/suggestions before they are submitted to the board. The council is made up of teachers, principals, board representatives, parents and students (plus more including counselors, librarians etc.). While I would like for the council to have input before the final document stage, I think this is an excellent idea although it still doesn’t address my concern about looking at the broader picture. At least though the council wouldn’t be made up only of experts in that particular field who tend toward tunnel vision so they could and probably do ask questions about how the proposals affect the wider body. This is an idea that all districts should follow. Maybe we can start to at least build some tunnels between the silos.

Longer school year?

Arne Duncan is looking at longer school days or years to help improve our country’s education and to help our students compete in a global economy in which many countries such as India and China go 20 to 30 days more a year. I’m sure students won’t like this idea, I doubt teachers will, and I’m not confident parents will either. However, I think that we should consider a longer school year.

I was at a committee meeting last night at my children’s elementary school in which the principal was telling us about a decision made to change the allocation of minutes. Every addition of time is a trade-off. Adding more minutes to the school day isn’t necessarily the best decision since young children need some time to play, but a longer year would ease the minute turf war and reduce summer retention problems.

The parents at the meeting kept asking about when the teachers were able to meet together district-wide by grade level. Teaching has traditionally been a solitary profession but is increasingly team-oriented as planning is done in groups. To facilitate this districts need to provide time for teachers to meet in various teams. Some districts do better at this than others, but all of them need to do more.

School year length ranges from 190 days for Farmington to 167 for Wheatland in Hickory County and Appleton City in St. Clair County. The St. Louis city and county districts have a narrower range from 174 to 178 with Ritenour as an outlier at 182 (good for it!). (Numbers from DESE)

The length of school day in St. Louis county and city ranged from 6.6 in Kirkwood (with quite a few districts at 6.5) to Jennings at 6.0. Jennings has a shorter day and one of the shorter years, but other districts mixed the two. For example, Clayton has one of the longer years but shorter days to allow for after school teacher meetings. Some of the districts such as University City and Bayless had a longer day at 6.5 hours but relatively shorter year at 175 days. Kirkwood, Ladue and Ritenour have students attending the most hours. Jennings and Hazelwood are at the bottom.

The number of hours taught ranged in the state from a high of 1209.5 (Centerville in Reynolds County) to 1014.5 (Calhoun in Henry County).

I predict that the we don’t have a significant change in the next couple of years but a quickening of the incremental pace we’ve been having in the increase of time as pressures mount on districts to improve. The state will need to come in and establish minimums for the rural areas that don’t face the same competition.

Parents as experts?

Photo by Brittany_G

When I go to the doctor, I expect to work with someone in a partnership to figure out what is wrong or to assess my current health situation. I don’t want a doctor who is offended when I suggest possibilities or when I do research on the net. I respect his or her experience and expertise, but I know my body. The best doctor/patient relationship is a partnership. If it isn’t, I’ll go elsewhere. There may be times in an emergency situation when I might rely more heavily on the doctor’s expertise, but usually if I don’t agree or don’t feel I’m being listened to, I’ll seek another opinion (or just avoid going—not a good alternative). Unfortunately, too many doctors still have the “god complex,” and bristle at any give and take.

School districts are facing the same philosophy tug-of-war. Educators want parents to be more involved in their kids’ academic lives, but not everyone agrees on their role in the school district. How much say do parents collectively have over curriculum? Does a district appoint a parent to the curriculum committee to give lip service to including parents’ views or do they actively seek and incorporate their input? Do the teachers and administrators have a “we know better—we’re the professionals” attitude, or do they value parents as equal experts with a different perspective?

A+ for school choice--private anyway


A fellow parent who is from the west coast remarked that while while her former area had schools in the typical top 10 lists, she is impressed with the educational opportunities in St. Louis, especially the choices available. Forbes recently ranked St. Louis #9 best places for education. We received an A+ in private school options and college opportunities. If there had been a category for public school options, we would have scored high there also (although not an A+ because of access). We like options.

The Libertarian-leaning Show-Me Institute is recommending tuition tax credits for families in St. Louis city, Kansas City and Wellston school districts that are under a certain percentage of the poverty level.

Another, very visible, attempt to increase access to choice is Mayor Slay's push to increase charter schools. Andy Rotherham of Education Sector has proposed five "deals" (pdf) for critics and advocates to work on.

I was especially intrigued by #3.

❝School districts should receive temporary transition aid to help them adjust to losing students, but that funding should be linked to giving charter schools access to unused space..❞

SLPS has extra room, charter schools don't have room, and transitional money would make everyone more likely to sit down at the peace table at come up with a plan to help our kids.

St. Louisans like choice after all. Now we just need to find a model that will work in real life and not just in ivory towers.

Photo of 6th grade Lift for Life students at space camp

Length of contract affects salary

When I first read Education Gadfly's post critiquing the Quality Counts 2008 report, I was struck by his reference to teachers only working 9 months as I always had to work longer. In looking over Missouri's data, however, I can see the disconnect.

While Mo. teachers ave. 181.49 contract days, St. Louis teachers average 190 contract days with several districts at 195 or above (Mehlville, Brentwood, Lindbergh). In looking through the state numbers, some districts only required 175 or even 174 (!) days. That's as much as a four week difference. Yes, the urban districts pay more, but they also expect more of their teachers. Since Missouri's minimum number of school days is 174, some of the rural districts must not have any or minimal professional development days. I think this needs to be addressed in any minimum salary legislation.

Numbers taken from MSTA Mo. Salary Schedule and Benefits Report

49th in teacher pay? Embarassing!

On the same week as the Quality Counts Report Card release, Mo. House Speaker Rod Jetton (R) introduced a plan to increase the state minimum for teacher's pay to $31,000, which is significantly higher than the current minimum of $23,000. The plan also includes other floors up to $46,000 minimum for the most experienced teachers. In fact he opened the 2008 session with increasing teacher pay as his first priority.

This raise would not affect the St. Louis area much as all but one St. Louis county district already exceeds the minimum (Hancock Place). St. Charles County also already meets the minimum, but some districts in Jefferson County would need to raise their salary schedules.

One of Jetton's problems is convincing the urban areas to go along with the legislation. Missouri has an urban/rural divide already, and some have the perception that the urban areas are going to pay for a benefit for the rural areas, again. Jetton counters that we need to entice young people to go into the profession in the first place and that improving rural education would also improve the county schools. (He called it the trickle up effect on the Paul Harris show on KMOX.) More practically, he said he was open to working with others to modify the bill.

The most interesting caller to me on Paul Harris's show (episode download) was the school board member who ranted about how big teachers' pensions were. I wouldn't want him on my school board--not necessarily because of his opinions but because of his lack of judgement in calling in to the show presumably against increasing teachers' pay. But maybe that's how he was elected. Jetton countered that his focus was on bringing young people into the profession.

Whatever your arguments are about whether to include benefits and the ten-month term in comparing salaries, 49th in teacher pay is embarrassing.

The unscientific but interesting Post online poll asked "What do you think of teacher salaries?"
73% They should be higher
6 They should be lower
21 They're fine where they are
(600 votes as of 1-11-08 at 8:54 a.m.)

The numbers really didn't change much as I had checked the poll Thurs. (78, 5, 17 with 348 votes)

Public opinion may be for increasing teachers' pay, at least until they see the bill, but we'll have to watch this one.