Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Pay Freeze Sends Wrong Message

President Obama announced a two year pay freeze for federal employees. This move would reduce the federal deficit by $60 billion over ten years. However, be careful of numbers when speaking of federal policies because everything is on such a huge scale. For example the $60 billion pales beside the fact that stopping the two wars and allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire would reduce the deficit by $7 trillion over the same amount of time.

Economists and political operatives are characterizing the move by Obama as symbolic, but symbolic of what? Symbolic of a pattern of always asking working people to sacrifice and share the burden, while avoiding the tough battles with the wealthy and powerful?

Make no mistake, federal employees are overwhelmingly working class, just like state employees and educators. Federal employees make 20% less than their private sector colleagues doing comparable jobs. Grade 1, Step 1 on the federal pay schedule is $17,803 per year. That sounds awfully close to Step 1 for a para-professional educator in Delaware who makes $17,228 per year.

Freezing the pay of federal employees will not create one new job. It will not cause one business to rehire one laid off employee. In fact, when coupled with another year of state and local public employee cuts (this sector will lose another 250,000 jobs this year) the impact will be more slowing of an already faltering recovery.

Again, if this is symbolism, it is sending the wrong message. The pay cut enables enemies of public services and public servants to continue to spin a tale about over-paid bureaucrats delivering unneeded and intrusive public services. When in fact public servants educate our kids, catch the bad guys, make water safe to drink and bridges safe to cross, cut the check for your grandmother's Social Security, treat the wounded soldier, take the abused child to safety, and perform a thousand other services necessary to provide the infrastructure for a complex and profitable society.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Challenges As Well As Thanksgiving

Yesterday, the Delaware Department of Education made their budget request. The DOE requested a less than 1% increase (.9%) from last year. Much of this will be used to deal with new teachers needed for increased enrollment. As we have discussed before in this blog, as the economy slows, we have an increase in public services including children who were once in private school returning to public school.

Although the DOE is asking for an increase, the education budget is still lean and mean due to continued low state tax revenues. Last year's unpopular cost shift to local school districts on student transportation is back for consideration. The Joint Finance Committee rejected this cut in the FY 2011 budget.

The federal Education Jobs Fund money that was available for 2011 has been saved by local school districts for use in FY 2012. In Delaware, the funds are worth $27.4 million. The state communicated with districts last year in less than diplomatic terms that they should not use the money for FY 2011 because they would need it in FY 2012. Indeed, this money will in practical terms simply supplant other cuts this coming year.

There is no end in sight for robbing Peter to pay Paul in state budgets. Most economists believe that employment in the US will not fully recover for a decade. That's a long time for always hungry public services to starve for income tax revenue. It's a long time for American workers to go from jobless spell to jobless spell; or from wage and benefit cuts to more of the same. It is a long time for kids to experience the framework of education reform without a foundation of funding for the best in staffing and facilities. It is a generation with a college education in jeopardy. If you wonder why the National Education Association and her affiliates are becoming increasing interested, educated, and activated around fiscal policy and economic justice, this is why. We cannot pretend that we can produce a world class educated population in a safe bubble while the economy continues to crash around us.

Soooooo, Happy Thanksgiving?

Yes, I think so. Ultimately, what will get this country to thinking about a different way of doing things are the values of Thanksgiving: family and community. We are more than taxpayers. We are more than consumers. We are families and communities. All of our systems including economy, government, and education exist for the benefit of families and communities, not the other way around.

So, Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Where Have All the Librarians Gone?

Public school librarians seem to be disappearing. Librarians who retire are not always replaced. Librarians are often pulled from their traditional duties to be testing monitors, or sometimes to simply watch (babysit) classes as teachers are involved in activities like collaborative planning time.

Public schools have traditionally implemented one of two models for use of librarians. The older model, probably the one most of remember from our own school days, is the Flexibly Scheduled Model. In this model classes make use of the library as needed with the teacher and librarian working together with the students on a project. Additionally, the librarian responds to walk-in needs of students and teachers. Flexibly Scheduled Models are in decline. The alternative is the Fixed Scheduled Model. This is equivalent to "library as a class". The librarian teaches classes about library science and research in 45 minute blocks throughout the day. Some librarians on this model do as many as 7 of these classes in a day.

In the Flexibly Scheduled scenario librarians act as a resource for every subject and grade level for teacher and student. The librarian maintains the collection of books, technology, and periodicals; as well as running an orderly lending and use system for those materials. Increasingly, librarians are technology experts, training students and teachers in the use of the latest education and research tools. The reprieve from a constant onslaught of classes allows for such duties.

The Fixed Schedule Model serves two primary needs. First, it teaches students use of the library and technology. However, because the classes are not tied to a project, the knowledge retained from these classes may be limited. Second, the classes free up teacher time for the 1,001 duties that now challenge class time. It should be noted that the Fixed Schedule has another serious weakness. Operating a serious lending program requires time, for supervision of browsing time and for cataloguing the check outs and ins. Libraries with librarians on the Fixed Schedule do not do much lending. They reduce the open library time.

Some observers of the decline of school libraries may not be alarmed. After all, with the Internet, everyone is their own librarian. Also, if kids want to read their parents take them to the public library or to Borders' Books. First, the Internet is a maze of information, some accurate and some inaccurate and much of it hard to find. Furthermore, there is more to technology than the Internet and much of the best of it is being underutilized because there is no one to walk through it with educators and students. Finally, many students do not have access to public libraries or bookstores. Parents may lack the time, money, or will to provide these opportunities.

In education discussions there is often a desire to return to basics. It seems so basic to a child's education to be able to browse endless rows of books and check out an armful. In an earlier post, I referenced the need for self exploration and unstructured time in learning. The library with knowledgeable, helpful librarians seems to fit the bill.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Letting My Mind Romp

I recently had the good fortune to attend a conference where workshops gave good information and new skills. It reminded me, however, of how many conferences I’ve attended where the value was in the networking and flow of ideas that took place on the breaks and at the hotel bar at the end of the day rather than during the actual conference agenda.

All of this in turn had me thinking about education, and by comparison, how much did I learn as part of the curriculum and how much did I learn (really learn) from the non-regimented aspects of school; such as a teacher who told a life anecdote, or during free library time, or even recess?

A few years ago, about this time of a year, a kindergarten teacher told me of a concern. She wanted to have the children trace and color turkey pictures and cut them out. However, she expressed genuine concern that her administrator would witness this activity and discipline her for being off the pacing of the curriculum.

Many children are being denied art time, library time, recess time, gym time, and self-study time all in the pursuit of more structure, more control, more testing, and more accountability. Why? In the hopes that children will perform better in ways that can be quantified (tested).
That is a sad statement about the pursuit of measured performance at the expense of child development. It makes one wonder if the education reformers are even speaking to the cognitive development scientists. Cognitive scientists have told us that children need more time for self exploration and unstructured play time. Please note, unstructured play time does not include sports, enrichment, or music. In unscientific terms, we need to lighten up.

The idea of “lightening up” on our kids is not a popular one nowadays. We have gone back to a “spare the rod, spoil the child” outlook. Much of this is about our own middle class anxiety of the last few decades. We see, hear of, or have experienced the decline of the American middle class. We believe that we can save our children from a life of struggle with a “good” education.

However, there has not been deep thought given to what constitutes a “good” education. Is a good education one that teaches you how to think and gives you a life- long appreciation for learning? Is a good education more like a trades school that gives you skills for the future economy? The perception and direction of country would seem to indicate the latter.

Even in the case of viewing education strictly in the economic utilitarian sense, we do not seem to have given much thought to a “good” education. Currently, we are pushing all kids into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). There is nothing well thought out in this pursuit. Today, for every three STEM graduates, there is just one US STEM job available. Even if every Johnny and Mary were capable of being a rocket scientist, we just do not need that many rocket scientists.

Yet, acknowledging these unpleasant realities would require us to move beyond pushing the kids, driving the teachers to madness, and condemning the public schools. We would have to think about systemic change to the economic and social structures of our country, first; and then build an educational system that compliments the new order.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Yesterday's Post

Dear Readers,

My comeback was marred by technical difficulties. The post from yesterday had about half the text missing. I was trying to post from my laptop using an air card and evidently the connection failed in the middle.

I have edited yesterday's post to include the rest of the material.

Thanks again, for your patience.


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Delaware Way Prevails in Election

The Delaware election season is over. The "Delaware Way" of personal relationships, moderation, and thoughtful deliberation was a sharp contrast to the national trend of "I'm mad as hell, and I'll vote for candidates who are as angry and ill informed as I am".

Hopefully, the Delaware Way will prevail in the next General Assembly which will take office in January. We will need a spirit of cooperation and thoughtfulness in dealing with yet another year of budget difficulties. Much of our fate is in the hands of federal law makers, and that alone should be a red flag. Consider the following crisis situations that need the intervention of the federal government, but will not receive it because the majority of the newly elected do not believe in such intervention.

  • Real growth in Gross Domestic Product has slowed. In order to keep our heads above water we need at least a 3% GDP growth and we will not make that for 2010.
  • We still have around four million homes either in foreclosure or ninety days behind in payments.

  • The European sovereignty crisis (Greece et al) has shaken confidence in the global economy. Corporations will now drag their feet on hiring, again.

  • Most economists believe we could see low employment numbers for at least a decade. Extended unemployment benefits are scheduled to run out for millions of Americans before Christmas. Capitol Hill observers predict lawmakers will extend the benefits for 3 more months to avoid the "Scrooge" accusation, but then will leave the unemployed to their own means.

  • State and local governments will retrench due to both continued low revenues and the new fiscally conservative environment. Economists estimate the public sector will shed another 250,000 jobs.
The Federal Government has the ability to deficit spend in bad times to jump start the economy and to keep the citizens from going hungry and homeless. In good times the Feds should make up the difference by reducing deficit spending and increasing revenues. Since 1980, the Feds have too often gone in the opposite direction: In good times federal decision makers have found some military action in which to spend billions of dollars and have given tax breaks worth billions as well. When the bad times hit, the Federal Government suddenly become fiscally responsible and tells the people to eat cake.