You can trace No Child Left Behind and the Common Core to November 22, 1963. Fifty years ago today President John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas, TX. Vice President Lyndon Johnson succeeded to the presidency and almost immediately embarked on a series of reforms that came to be known as the “Great Society.” Before being derailed by the Vietnam War, the Great Society changed the federal government’s role dramatically — including public education. It is unclear to historians if JFK would have supported the Great Society the way that LBJ did, or whether Congress would have been so amenable to passing such sweeping legislation had he not been killed.
After Kennedy’s death, LBJ and Congress (where LBJ was a master politician before becoming vice president) passed a series of laws expanding the role of the federal government. Voting Rights, the War on Poverty and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) were just a few of these initiatives. (Note: it took until 1975 for Congress to pass the special education legislation, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.)
In fact, one could argue that without JFK’s death, ESEA would never have happened. It was the single largest expansion of the federal role in local education and remains so to this day. The original law has been amended and reauthorized numerous times over the years and is now known as No Child Left Behind. This is the law that everyone agrees needs a major overhaul but Congress hasn’t been able to come to a consensus on what to do. So the law continues but with a series of waivers that the federal Department of Education (a Department that did not exist in 1965; it was originally part of the Health, Education and Welfare Department) that required states to adopt new standards for teacher evaluation, administrator evaluation, data reporting, standardized testing and new curriculum (most states have chosen Common Core).
The original intent of the law was not as a lever to get states or school districts to enact prescriptive policies thought up by Washington. The intent was to level the educational playing field by providing money from the federal government to make up the funding deficit for poor children and their families, who mostly lived (and still live) in jurisdictions with limited ability to fund public education the way their wealthier counterparts do. It sounded so simple. (Later versions added money for professional development for teachers, for expansion of science and math education and immigrants.)
The issue in getting this massive funding bill passed had little to do with the money itself. One huge issue was that many in Congress would not pass the legislation unless funds also flowed to private (mostly religious) schools. I wonder if this issue would have been more or less front and center if JFK had been alive, since he was the first Catholic president, and Catholic schools were (and still are) the single largest type of private school in the country.
The problem was the Constitution — this First Amendment prohibition about church and state. Could federal money go directly to religious institutions? The answer appeared to be no. In fact, for many years after the law was passed, Title I services under ESEA could not be held in religious schools but had to be provided off-site to avoid this conflict.
The breakthrough came when the Johnson administration decided that the money would not go directly to private schools but rather would “follow the child.” Funds would be allocated to local districts who would in turn allocate a portion of that funding to private schools based on how many poor children from that town attended the private schools in that community. Voila! Problem solved, law passed, and local school districts to this day go through the laborious process of determining each private school’s allocation, tracking the dollars and filling out massive amounts of paperwork to comply with this fix. But without this breakthrough ESEA never would have passed. And the concept of “money follows the child” continues as a policy issue in education funding as it applies to school choice, vouchers and charter schools — its origination was ESEA.
I try to get to as many high school events as I can, especially the ones between the two high schools. This year I set a goal to attend every Warde vs. Ludlowe athletic event. So far, I’ve made them all, with two to go (tonight: girls volleyball and Thanksgiving Day: football). The other fall sports are cross country, field hockey, swimming, girls soccer and boys soccer — these have already occurred. A few thoughts:
Our students have great school spirit. It doesn’t matter what the sport or the relative strength of the teams, every sport (except Cross Country, which this year was held in Wilton) generates a large student crowd that is very vocal in support of its team.
The loudest event is swimming. Held at the Fairfield University “Rec Plex,” this event generates a boisterous crowd in a contained space that seems to magnify the cheering. After about three events, you have little ability to hear. And as an added bonus, it’s also very hot. But there’s nothing like a relay coming down to the finish in a close swim race with the crowd cheering — even though I doubt the swimmers themselves can hear any of it.
I’ve played, coached or officiated athletics for over 30 years at various levels and there are two sports I will never understand how to determine the rules — field hockey and diving. I may as well be watching cricket. It doesn’t make them any less enjoyable to watch; it just makes it less likely that I can get upset at an official’s call when I truly do not understand the rules. (I was a high school basketball official for 23 years. Ignorance of the rules never stopped people from criticizing my work, but most people have a general understanding of basketball rules.)
It’s hard to go to these events and root for one team. That’s an odd feeling. Generally, I root for a tie. That seems safe. On Thanksgiving, I spend one half of the game on the Ludlowe side of the field and one half on the Warde side. I may be the only person at these events who is not cheering. I am officially in favor of no overtime in any of these events. A tie is just fine with me.
Our administrators at the high schools do a great job of organizing these events and supervising the kids so that they have a good time and show their school spirit without going “over the top.” Our high school administrators put in a lot of extra hours going to athletic and other night events (almost all of the Warde/Ludlowe events are at night), but they have to put in extra work during the rivlary games. This includes the athletic directors, housemasters and headmasters at both schools.
On the first day of the opening of the health care exchanges, it’s time for a primer on the impact of the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare on the school district’s finances. ACA has already had an impact on the current year budget, will have an impact on next year’s budget and its influence will grow into the future.
The immediate impact in the current year budget was a tax (fee) in the legislation that applied to self-insured plans as of January 1, 2014. Self-insured means that the school district (like the Town) is responsible for paying its own claims, subject to employee premium-cost-sharing, co-pays and deductibles. The fee (tax) amounted to about $125,000 in the current year budget — it’s added to our health insurance costs. But this was for only six months. In next year’s budget that begins July 1, 2014, we will need to budget for the other half. These costs cannot be passed on to employees.
There are two other potential costs. One is the employer mandate. This has been put off by a year and so we may be spared from dealing with it until July 1, 2015 (still looking for certainty on this one, however). Basically, if we employ someone for 30 hours a week or more, we need to offer coverage. Many of our employees have this coverage, but some do not — and we would be required to offer them coverage if they had worked 30 hours or more during the previous 12 months. Think of substitute teachers as one example of such employees. And we cannot just offer bare-bones coverage — the law provides that it must meet certain benefit levels. And we cannot make the employee pay a huge share of the premium, as I will discuss below. Failing to provide such coverage triggers massive penalties. (Employee-only coverage is mandated. Two-person or family coverage is not.)
The other issue is the 9.5 percent rule. We will be prohibited from charging employees more than 9.5 percent of their household income for the health insurance coverage. If we do, we pay a very steep penalty. We do have some lower-paid employees for whom this will be an issue. There are some logistical issues as well — for example, if premium cost-shares are negotiated into union contracts, but exceed 9.5 percent, what do we do? Second, we don’t have access to everyone’s household income; we have access to their wages with us, which may be two very different figures. Do we need to collect household income data? Can we require the employee to provide it? Who verifies it? The folks in the benefits office down the hall just had their job multiplied by a thousand.
Finally, in 2017, the “Cadillac Tax” kicks in. Health insurance plans cannot exceed a certain benefit level. If they do, we pay another penalty. That’s a topic for another day.
So — we must offer health insurance but we can’t offer a bare bones plan. We also can’t offer a luxurious plan that triggers the Cadillac Tax. We also can’t charge someone more tha 9.5 percent of their household income. As if health insurance isn’t a complex enough topic — it’s about to get even more complex.
By now parents should have received their children’s scores from last spring’s administration of the Connecticut Mastery Test (grades 3-8) and Connecticut Academic Performance Test (grade 10). This version of the CMT has been around now for 8 years and this version of the CAPT has been around for 7 years. (For those of you who cannot get enough details, this is the Fourth Generation of the CMT and the Third Generation of CAPT. For history buffs, the CMT started in 1985 and tested only in grades 4, 6 and 8 and was given in September of each year.)
For 29 years, parents and schools have relied on CMT data for a number of purposes, from gauging how well an individual student was doing compared to a state standard to determining “holes” in curriculum and instruction that needed to be improved. Not to get nostalgic here (I was working as a teacher before there was even a CMT), but this is the end of an era. Next school year, if not sooner, the CMT will be gone. Why?
First, the CMT is a Connecticut-only test. You can’t compare student performance in Connecticut against student performance in another state, because every state gives its own version of the CMT. (Massachusetts has the MCAS.) Evidently, it is important for people to be able to make these comparisons and it cannot be done if each state gives its own test. If you want to sort and rank states on test scores, you’re left with SAT scores or ACT scores of AP scores and not every student takes those. If your goal is to sort and rank, you can’t give choices about the assessment (or the standards that underlie it).
Second, 45 states are transitioning to the Common Core State Standards in Language Arts and Mathematics. The CMT is not aligned to these standards. The early results from states who have tried out early versions of these new assessments have found that student performance dropped dramatically from previous standardized test results. Or, put simply: the CMT is no longer rigorous enough (in the eyes of policymakers). Two consortiums of states are working on an assessment that will be given across the states — Connecticut is in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. These tests will be rolled out in 2015 and quite possibly in 2014.
Third, the new tests are intended to be adaptive, so students can progress to more difficult items if the test is easy for them. The vast majority (and eventually all) of the test will be done on-line and scores should be reported back much more rapidly than they are now. One of the criticisms of the CMT is that the test scores don’t come back until the summer (or later). Back when the CMT was administered in September, scores came back right around Christmas vacation. Supposedly, the turnaround time on the new SBAC assessments will be much sooner than that.
If you are bemoaning the loss of the CMT (and CAPT), do not despair entirely: CMT Science (grades 5 and and CAPT Science (grade 10) will continue until standards and assessments are completed in Science. Federal and State law require testing in Science, and there is no SBAC science test in development (yet).
Some criticisms of the CMT/CAPT will not be alleviated by SBAC. In fact, some may get worse. The (unintended) consequences of CMT and CAPT in recent years has been to narrow curriculum, for example, to concentrate mostly on what is on the test. If this was a concern for CMT/CAPT, it will be a more so with SBAC. Soon, test results don’t just count in determining whether your school is labelled as “failing” (under NCLB); the results will directly impact each teacher and each principal’s evaluation. The stakes are getting higher for standardized tests. When you raise the stakes, you get unintended consequences.
To use a poker analogy (not that I play poker): When CMT/CAPT started, it was a penny ante game. Starting with SBAC, we are at a hundred dollar table.
In my report to the Board of Education Tuesday night, I made some passing comments about transportation that seemed to catch the attention of the Fairfield Citizen reporter. That’s actually fine but I thought I could expand a bit on my comments for thosse of you who may be curious. This year is really not a lot different from previous years in terms of transportation.
We contract our transportation to First Student, Inc. This year the company is in the first of a five-year contract awarded through the competitive bid process last year. Part of the contract stipulates that the bus fleet, on average, must not exceed a certain age; in addition, no individual bus can be older than a certain age. We do this to ensure that our children are transported on the most up-to-date vehicles that have the latest safety features and are less prone to breakdowns. It is up to the contractor to procure buses that meet those standards. We do not control which specific brand of vehicle the contractor chooses. We don’t want our kids riding on 15-year old buses. Over the course of this year, about 70 percent of the fleet is being replaced.
Unfortunately, while the new buses have better safety and reliability, they are also taller. So we’ve had to re-route our buses so they go around the low railroad bridges in town. It’s a bit of a problem and we’re still adjusting to it.
There are always transportation “issues” in the first weeks of a school year, even without taller buses. We use a bus routing software program called EduLog that maps out the routes in the most efficient manner, considering the number of children, the length of the ride and the safety of the stops. As I mentioned at the meeting, we currently have a backlog of 150 requests for additional or changed bus stops. Each one is considered carefully by our transportation department but it does take time, usually several weeks. This is a fairly typical number for the start of the year. Students new to the system can also cause changes to the transportation system.
The transportation department also monitors route times (buses have GPS units in them) and adjust them if necessary. In rare circumstances sometimes we have to add a bus, but each bus costs about $60,000 per year to operate, so that’s not always the first option. Of course, if we grant requests for additional stops it will mean longer bus rides which can impact the number of buses, as well as the number of complaints we receive from residents who get ‘stuck’ behind a school bus that seems to stop at every single house.
The Board of Education has a policy that guides the transportation department in its decision-making. Safety is always the first priority. If a request is not granted there is an appeal process but, in my experience, our director of transportation has been doing this so effectively for so long and is so well-versed in the Board’s policy that rarely does an appeal get sustained.
Transporting approximately 8,000 students every day is a major operational challenge every year. (We also transport students in Fairfield to private schools which is another matter entirely.) I hope this gives you some insight into the nature of these challenges and the work of our transportation department.