Small Class Sizes=Big Results

As the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Board of Education considers its budget for the coming year, some school board members are supporting an initiative to reduce class sizes in high poverty elementary schools in kindergarten-third grade classrooms. This initiative is supported by at least 4 board members (Anna Moffit, TJ Mertz, Nicki VanderMeulen and Dean Loumos), but 2 board members (Mary Burke and Kate Toews) appear to need more research to demonstrate the benefits of small class sizes.

The STAR (Students-Teacher Achievement Ratio) project is a well-known study of a class size reduction program in Tennessee. The study was conducted with a controlled group of 10,000 students. Classes of 22 through 26 were reduced to 13 through 17 students. In addition, the schools in the study had an adequate number of quality teachers and adequate classroom space. The project found that smaller classes resulted in substantial increases in academic performance of children in primary grades, particularly for poor and minority children.

In the second phase of the Tennessee study, known as the Lasting Benefits Study, it was demonstrated that,

year after year, the students who were originally in smaller classes con- tinued to perform better than the students from regular-sized classes with or without a teacher’s aide.

This graphic shows that the lasting benefits of small class sizes for low income children extend all the way through significantly improved high school graduation rates.

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These results should not be surprising given the benefits of fewer students in a classroom such as:
  • Students receive more individualized attention and interact more with the teacher.
  • Teachers have more flexibility to use different instructional approaches.
  • Fewer students distract teach other than a large group of children.
  • Teachers have more time to teach due to fewer discipline problems.
  • Students are more likely to participate in class and become more involved.
  • Teachers have more time to cover additional material and use more supplementary texts and enrichment activities.

Improved high school graduation rates for low income students, students of color, and students with disabilities should be among MMSD’s top goals. A review of the district’s most recent report card shows that although the district on average meets state expectations, one of the district’s four main high schools (LaFollette) fails to meet state expectations and another (East) meets few expectations. Equally disturbing is the overall graduation rate disparity for children of color, low income children and children with disabilities as follows:

  • 93% of white students graduated compared to just under 58% of Black/African-American students, just under 70% of Hispanic/Latino students;
  • 94% of students who are not economically disadvantaged graduated, while only 62% of those who are economically disadvantaged did so;
  • Just under 92% of students without disabilities graduated, while just under 57% of students with disabilities did so.

Although MMSD has made some progress in closing these gaps, the remaining gaps are cavernous. The school board should consider closing these gaps of the utmost importance and the best evidence is that the most effective way to close these gaps is to reduce class sizes in high poverty elementary schools just as some board members have proposed. Hopefully, this important initiative will pass when it comes to a vote.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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Close the Achievement Gap: Increase Intensive Support

As the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Board of Education reviews the budget which its administration has prepared for the coming year, it would be wise to take a close look at its continuing problem with the ongoing racial, disability and poverty achievement gap and focus on how appropriate staffing can help to close that gap. While some improvements have been made, persistent gaps remain.

Students simply will not succeed if they are not in school. During the 2014-15 school year 2,477 MMSD students were habitually truant (meaning 5 or more days of unexcused absence from school) representing 9.8% of all MMSD students. But 1,235 of those students (nearly half) were African-American, representing 26.9% of all MMSD African-American students.

During that same year, MMSD suspended 1,713 students. But, 1,069 of them were African-American representing well over half of those suspended students. 402 of MMSD suspended students had disabilities, representing 10.9% of all MMSD students with disabilities, nearly half of all MMSD suspended students. While the data does not reveal how many African-American students with disabilities were suspended, when one adds the African-American suspended students and the suspended students with disabilities, that number almost equals all MMSD suspended students so it is safe to assume that African-American students with disabilities have the highest rate of suspension in the district.

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That MMSD’s discipline data reveals troubling racial and disability disparities is consistent with national data. But that should come as no solace to anyone, as nobody should admire the data. Instead, we need to apply solutions that we know will work to solve the problem.

While MMSD’s Behavior Education Plan has succeeded in significantly reducing the total number of suspensions, it also reveals another glaring gap for children in poverty. While 48% of MMSD students qualify for free or reduced lunch, a shocking 89% of MMSD suspensions were doled out to low-income students.

Finally, graduation rates also reveal a troubling achievement gap. At the end of the 2014-15 school year, 80.1% of MMSD seniors graduated in 4 years. But only 57.8% of African-American students; 56.8% of students with disabilities; and 62.1% of low-income students graduate in 4 years.

Fortunately, MMSD has a program designed to address the needs of its students with the most intensive needs. The Intensive Support Team (IST) takes requests from MMSD staff to address the needs of students in crisis. As of May 2, 2016, during this school year, there were 455 requests for support to IST. Of these, 411 were served by the team in one of several capacities (consultation, intake/assessment, professional development, short term stabilization), 250 were closed and the rest still active. This means that nearly 10% of referrals were not served and over 1/2 of all referrals are still receiving intensive supports.

Unfortunately, staff cuts were made to this team last year and the administration’s proposed budget does not propose to fill those cuts. The good news is that the budget is still in the discussion stage. School board member Anna Moffit has proposed to increase the IST staff by 3.5 FTE staff to address the unmet need for these students at a cost of approximately $250,000. In an era of tight budgets and state imposed revenue caps, Ms. Moffit recognizes that the money must come from somewhere so she has identified the following reasonable places where this money can be found: reduce spending on Technology Plan; reduce spending on Educational Resource Officers; or utilize funds saved from not filling the position of Special Assistant to the Superintendent ($125,000 dollars).

The school board and our community must recognize that failing to meet the needs of these students has a significant cost both to these students and to society at large. A recent report by the UCLA Civil Rights project from which I extrapolated the high cost of suspensions in Wisconsin, reveals that each suspended student who fails to graduate results in:

  • $19,572 in fiscal costs; and
  • $60,962 in societal costs.

Thus, if the IST is able to help only 5 more students at risk of suspension to graduate, it will have saved our community far more money than the additional cost which Ms. Moffit proposes spending on this worthy program. Thus, her proposal makes senses for educational, equitable, social and economic reasons and should therefore receive the support of the full school board.

Residents of MMSD who support Ms. Moffit’s proposal should e-mail the school board to encourage them to approve her amendment at: board@madison.k12.wi.us.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

Music Improves Academic Performance & Behavior

As politicians and pundits continue to call for school reform, one rarely hears calls for increasing music education.  This is troubling, as there is strong evidence, which I have witnessed first-hand, that music education improves academic performance and behavior.

Just last year, University of Kansas researchers studied music education’s impact on students in the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.  The results are nothing less than remarkable as students from all backgrounds benefit both academically and behaviorally.  In fact, more music education resulted in:

  • Increased school attendance;
  • Decreased discipline reports;
  • Increased grade point average;
  • Dramatically increased graduation rates (60% for students with no music education; 81% for students with as little as 1 year of music education; and 91% for students with more than 1 year of music education); and
  • Higher ACT English and Math scores.

These improvements were found across race and ethnicity.

These dramatic improvements are because music participation increases school engagement which results in increased academic achievement and decreased discipline problems.  Researchers further found that music education provides a positive impact in many ways including:

  • Improved positive identity;
  • Improved habits of mind including: self-discipline, concentration, persistence, and leadership;
  • Skills transfer from music to other academic subjects including mathematics, literature, and foreign language; 
  • Improved motivation leading to positive self-behaviors and to persist toward the learning goals and expectations;
  • Positive impact on mood; and
  • Improved outlook towards students’ own future.

Despite these dramatic results, schools struggle to fund their music education programs, and parent groups are called upon to raise funds for instruments and lessons.  Fortunately, at my son’s school, the East High Band Parents Group, which I currently lead, understands the important impact of music education and it has funded music lessons and scholarships. Recently, the band director informed us that the East High band did not own a key piece of timpani, which was meant to be played in 25% of the music performed by the band.  This led us to authorize the purchase of this beautiful timpani since the school district did not have the over $2,000 purchase price.

Here is our wonderful band director, Mark Saltzman, showing off East High’s new timpani.

20141110_190739We look forward to hearing the East High band playing this beautiful instrument to  complement the rest of the fine young musicians at its upcoming concert on November 19th.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

The Synergy of Individual Advocacy & Systems Change

Recently, I had the opportunity to demonstrate, once again, the synergy of individual advocacy & systems change.  For nearly 20 years, I have been combating the schools to prison pipeline, as I wrote about over a year ago.  In January, I started writing a series of blogs and submitted them to the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) school board as its administrators developed a series of 4 drafts of what started out as a proposed revision of its discipline plan, but on my advice, became the new Behavior Education Plan, which will go into effect on September 1, 2014, and you can review here.  That plan had been sailing under the radar with relatively minimal public input, until my clients and I recently went public with an expulsion case which was a classic  example of zero tolerance run amok.  Fortunately, in one night, the school board ended my client’s expulsion, and then proceeded to approve the new Behavior Education Plan, in front of a packed auditorium, putting 2 nails in the coffin of zero tolerance.

As I testified to the school board that night, MMSD’s new, improved plan is not perfect, as it fails to set specific goals for reducing out of school discipline such as suspensions and expulsions, and accordingly fails to set specific goals for reducing the racial and disability disparities in both discipline and academic achievement which the district has long struggled to overcome.  In addition, I encouraged the school board to place advocates in each school to assist students and their parents through the discipline process as well as other challenges, including academic, which students may encounter.

Unfortunately, after I made that suggestion, the President of the MMSD School Board, publicly criticized my suggestion, as he does not view the discipline process as “adversarial,” which is fairly remarkable given his work as an attorney, but even more remarkable given that he truly does not understand the role that advocates actively play not only to improve outcomes for the children for whom they advocate, but to help change flawed systems for the better.

For nearly 30 years, my career as a civil rights attorney has involved taking individual cases and evolving them, when appropriate, into positive systems change.  This includes the struggle to finally pass a new law prohibiting the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint, which only occurred after representing many students harmed by this horrific practice and shedding the bright media light on it.

Any system that desires continuous improvement should recognize the value of advocacy as both an individual corrective tool, as well as a vehicle for identifying systemic problems. Dane County, Wisconsin, has recognized the value of having an internal ombudsman in its human services department to “ensure that people are getting appropriate services.”

While it is unclear whether MMSD can afford to place ombudsmen or advocates in each of its schools, it should certainly examine its budget to pilot such a program in schools with the highest discipline and academic problems.  Moreover, it could partner with outside agencies, which have existing advocacy services, such as Wisconsin Family Ties, which uses non-lawyer professional advocates, Wisconsin FACETS, which uses non-lawyer paid and volunteer advocates, and Disability Rights Wisconsin, which uses non-lawyer advocates with legal back-up and occasional direct lawyer involvement.  However, all of these agencies only work with children with disabilities, and I know of no agency providing school advocacy services to non-disabled students.

If the MMSD truly wants to ensure that its new Behavior Education Plan succeeds, it should actively engage with existing advocacy organizations, and work to obtain foundation support to fund advocates for non-disabled students.  Working together with the school district, on behalf of students, these advocates can correct natural human errors in the new system, and provide useful data to the MMSD administration so it can take corrective measures when repeated problems inevitably crop up.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

The Fallacy in Government Budgeting

For many years, advocates of streamlining government have suggested that government should operate like a business, using phrases like “government should not spend money that it does not have.”  While such phrases may sound appealing, these same business oriented advocates tend to pick and choose which parts of government they think should operate like a business to suit their policy goals, instead of actually applying sound business principles to all aspects of government.

At the state level, the most obvious example of the diametrically opposed methods of budgeting is how most states budget for roads versus how they budget for schools. Not only do most states budget as much road money as road builders request for both new projects and repairs, but specific projects are then put out to bid and states award the contracts based on the amount the road builders claim it will cost to perform the work requested.  This is how business typically works.  A business wants to buy a product or service.  It examines the cost, determines if it has the money, and pays the required cost if it has the money.  Some are so concerned about keeping road money sacrosanct that in Wisconsin, they are moving closer to a Constitutional Amendment to preserve the Transportation Fund from being used for anything other than transportation projects.

When budgeting for education, on the other hand, absolutely no serious consideration is given to how much it costs to educate children properly.  Rather, a pure political decision is made about how much money government is willing to spend on educating children, and then school districts are told to produce high achieving students without any consideration about whether the funding is sufficient to accomplish the desired goal.

Tonight, Governor Walker will announce a biennial budget proposal that calls for vastly increased per pupil funding for children in voucher schools vs. public schools.

The governor’s proposed budget would increase state aid to kindergarten-through-eighth-grade voucher schools in the 2014-’15 school year to $7,050 per pupil from $6,442, an increase of $608 per pupil, or 9.4%…Walker is also rejecting an increase in the state-imposed cap in revenues that public schools are allowed to raise from both the state and local property-tax payers. Before Walker’s tenure, the cap had gone up around $200-plus most years. Two years ago, Walker cut the cap by 5.5%, or about $550 per student.

Leaving aside the issue of the lack of any documented improved educational performance in voucher schools, the budgeting question is this: why is there a complete lack of budgeting analysis about how much it costs to achieve the clearly identified state and federal education standards that are written into law?

There is a method for doing this kind of education budgeting.  It is called, “Adequacy.”  The Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES) started promoting adequacy funding as far back as 2003.  However, even WAES stopped promoting it as it has failed to gain political traction.  In many states, the failure to adequately budget for successful educational outcomes has resulted in litigation, which has had mixed results.

An additional disparity between business based budgeting and both school and human services budgeting is that business would never appropriately refuse to raise revenue.  No business can survive without bringing in revenue.  Yet, ever since the Reagan taxpayer revolution, those who want to reduce spending on education and human services believe it appropriate to take the government revenue side of the equation off the table.  They should be challenged on business grounds, i.e., if they were running a business would they take revenue off the table?

Ultimately, whether in business or in government, if you want a good product that produces a good result, you have to pay an appropriate price for it.  If that means raising revenue, then raise it in a responsible manner as I described in my prior tax reform blog posts:

It is time to have honest business like budgeting when educating our children instead of using them as political pawns.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.