Sunday, October 5, 2008

Mini Debate Series II: Hedke and Chappell talk School Finance, NCLB, the Achievement Gap, and the race for the State BOE

One of the races on the ballot in the November 4th elections will be the race for State Board of Education. In recent years our State Board has been subject to some pretty radical and dramatic policy shifts depending upon it's composition. And with several key education isses on the table, such as School Funding, NCLB, the academic achievement gap, and the drop-out crisis, now more than ever, we need to lend our focus to these critical races. To help shed some light on these particular issues, we are proud to release our second round of the community mini-debate series.

For this discussion, we prepared a list of 8 questions dealing with School Funding, NCLB, and the Achievement Gap, which were presented to Mr. Dennis Hedke and Dr. Walt Chappell; candidates for the District 8 State BOE seat.

Their Unedited responses are presented here for your consideration...

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1. What in your opinion, are the *Root* causes of the academic achievement gap?


Dennis Hedke:
i. Far too many fathers are not showing up in their roles as head of the household;
ii. Due to (i), the necessary discipline in early years is absent, and children start drifting away from social ‘norms’;
iii. Once the pattern in (ii) begins, it is very difficult to reverse, students lose interest in ‘institutional education’, in favor of ‘street education’;
iv. Historic inequities, generally racially based have not helped the situation.

Having said this, I do believe we can change this picture via the commitment to growth and excellence that will bring all racial, ethnic, and socio-economic groups to the same table, where they can enjoy the fruits of freedom that come with personal achievement. We must all believe that there is untapped potential in each and every child.


Walt Chappell:
The achievement gap between Caucasian/Asian students and Black/Hispanic students has existed for decades due to many factors. It is not due to a difference in intelligence between the races but more to do with the attitudes and decisions of students, parents, teachers and administrators.

The first and foremost cause of this gap is the importance which each child’s parents put on learning. If the parent(s) did not learn much in school or earn their diploma, then there is often little desire to want their children to be smarter than they are. Or, if no study space is provided at home, and parents allow watching TV, playing video games, listening to loud music and “hangin out” with friends to be more important than whether their child completes their homework assignments, then any student will not stay up with the rest of the class.

Second, there are unequal learning resources in schools which are predominately Black and/or Hispanic. Local school boards and administrators throughout the USA have historically left out dated textbooks, poorly equipped classrooms and frustrated teachers in schools where students of color attend. In these buildings, there is a tolerance for low expectations and years of excuses as to why the students and teachers are not performing on par with the white students across town.

Third, putting so much emphasis on the athletic ability of a few Black students to entertain adults at sports events diminishes the importance of learning real, useful knowledge and skills. The rest of the students feel like if they could only run fast or jump high they could be successful and get attention. As a result, they try to copy the clothes, attitudes and language of the athletes rather than focus on learning knowledge they can use to succeed in life.

Another “cause” is due to the fact that the curriculum and teaching methods are not effectively challenging students of color to learn. The “fill in the blank” assignments and long lists of vocabulary, formulas and historical dates to learn, without any understanding of how this information can be used to get a good paying job, turns students off. They see the jobs their parents have been forced to take and feel that what they are required to memorize and repeat on multiple choice tests has little to do with their future employment opportunities. So, many students simply “tune out”, give up and stop trying.

This frustration in combination with low achievement expectations from parents, teachers and administrators has created the achievement gap which will not go away without leaders on the State Board of Education who understand these causes and have experience to make significant changes in how, what and why students are taught the way they are. I have the understanding and leadership experience to help close this gap for Kansas Black and Hispanic students.
***

2. Is it possible that we could accelerate the academic outcomes for lower performing student demographics without sacrificing the gains we are currently making in raising the academic achievement of all students?.. and what are your suggestions for doing so?


Dennis Hedke:
It is certainly possible, but I see it highly unlikely if NCLB in its current form is maintained as the primary guide toward this goal.

We must not over emphasize the needs of one group in such a way that the needs of another segment of society are neglected. Historically, this is the reason for much of the hindered achievement by many groups being left behind with second-class schools and reduced opportunities.

What are your suggestions for doing so?

(If we are going to succeed in truly balancing academic outcomes, we will have to look very hard at question 1 above, and get a better grip on how to advance students in that very challenging environment.)

We begin making progress when we identify the needs of a specific group, determine to meet their needs, and learn strategic ways to do so. Whether English Language Learners, students with disabilities, economically deprived students, or any others, we must identify who they are, what their specific challenges are, and how best to meet them. Then we must provide the personnel, facilities, learning tools, and the focus necessary to move students from their current place to improved knowledge, skills, and productivity. Technical education is a great way to help a number of individuals who are not college-bound to find their niche in the productive American culture so that they too can embrace the American dream.

Walt Chappell:
YES!! When I taught middle and high school Science in Inner City schools, I was able to excite the Black, Hispanic and lower income White students to achieve. I showed them how to use scientific facts to make decisions in their lives.

I first divided each class of over 40 students into small groups of 6 to complete their experiments and assignments by working together to solve problems. The more advanced students in each group helped the slower students understand the concepts I was teaching.

In addition, I allowed these brighter students to come into my classroom before school, eat their lunch in my classroom or come to my room to do their own experiments after school. This also meant that I was in my room to help tutor slower students after school was dismissed. In addition, I formed a Science Club and took my students on field trips to see how science is applied in the real world.

As a result, the “rising tide raised all boats”. All the students got excited. They saw the relevance of what they were learning. And, by the end of each school year, 80% of these “At Risk” Inner City kids EARNED A’s or B’s. They had been used to “sliding by” with a D, but I refused to let them fail. My students chose to learn science, turn in their assignments and pass tests. They earned their high grades. In the process, we had fun and all students learned up to their ability!!

So, I know from first hand experience that each child wants to learn as much as possible. Most are naturally curious and smart. As teachers, parents and administrators we need to provide them with the resources and opportunities to turn on their minds. This means letting each student grow at their own pace without holding any student back who wants to learn more.

As a State Board of Education member, I will be a leader who will do my best to make sure that each Kansas K-12 student reaches their full potential. I will work to assure that ALL children have an EQUAL OPPORTUNITY to learn and that learning resources are provided to help each student excel.
***

3. What, if any, curriculum changes, programs, outreach efforts, or initiatives would you propose or support to address the academic achievement gap?


Dennis Hedke:
I have reviewed the “Four Point Plan to Eliminate the Achievement Gap, as submitted by the Wichita Branch NAACP/Community Advisory Committee To Kansas Education Commissioner Alexandra Posny on 08/09/07”.

In addition to the Plan, I would recommend the following:

i. I would require all students to take the equivalent of a ‘Kuder’ test at around the 8th grade to try to determine natural affinities and skills.
ii. Focused efforts for special needs students, immigrants, the gifted, struggling, and even apathetic students must be improved and advanced.

Walt Chappell:
Schools need to put more emphasis on HOW science, math, history and technology facts are used to make decisions and our economy function. Learning needs to be REAL for students and not just force them to memorize lists of terms, formulas and dates without any understanding of how this information is used.

There also needs to be much more interaction between parents and teachers. Parents must support teachers at home and in the classroom. When homework is given by the teacher, the parents need to make sure that there is a quite space for the student to study and complete that assignment. Waiting until the end of the semester to try to pass a course never works, so parents need to stay informed as to what their child is learning, what assignments are to be completed and offer to help tutor at school if needed. Good parent/teacher communication is essential to each student’s success.

Schools also need to work more closely with business and labor leaders to make sure that the knowledge and skills students are learning will prepare them with employable skills. Students are not dumb. They realize when “smoke” is being blown in their face and they are being asked to learn irrelevant information. We need to revamp much of the current curriculum to make sure that students know how to use the information they are learning to make 21st Century decisions and graduate with the employable skills they need to earn a living wage.

As a member of the State Board of Education, I will work hard to join teachers and parents, plus business and labor leaders to review our curriculum and teaching methods to make sure that we are doing our best to prepare each student to reach their full potential.
***

4. As mandated by NCLB, several schools within USD259 are now undergoing a process of reorganization as a result of having fallen short of their Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) goals. What changes would you hope to see in the newly reorganized schools?


Dennis Hedke:
If a school has been tagged as deficient in teaching a particular subject, I would hope they would have either sent the teacher(s) responsible for that subject to advanced training, or if that did not adequately resolve the matter, then steps should be taken to replace the teacher in favor of one with a demonstrated track record in teaching to this type of challenge.

In some instances, it may be the case that the top administrator would need to be replaced.

I am aware of certain cases where ‘classification’ errors (of students) resulted in recommendations for reorganization, which were later overturned by careful review of circumstances.

Efforts should be focused on bringing family, community, business, and student buy-in. There is apathy and weariness in many situations. Achievement and personal accomplishment are the sparks that ignite Americans. Tapping the professionalism of educators in conjunction with the input of community stakeholders carries the greatest promise that every school would become a highly achieving school. Schools like Buckner Elementary in Wichita demonstrate the type of success possible when all work efficiently together.

Walt Chappell:
I have been in each of these Wichita schools which did not achieve AYP. It is no surprise that they are required to reorganize.

For decades, these schools have not had equal educational resources provided for students to learn. Also, the atmosphere in some classrooms in these schools is not conducive to learning and is more like a confrontation between the students and teachers. The noise in the halls and classroom disruptions make it hard for students to concentrate on their assignments and takes teachers off task to “police” rather than teach.

I would recommend that some new, experienced teachers from other schools be assigned to each of these buildings. Fresh energy and higher expectations will go a long way to producing more learning. In addition, classroom discipline and student/teacher attitudes needs to be improved with emphasis on learning real, useful knowledge rather than busy work to keep students quite. It is also necessary to hear from parents of the students attending these schools and engage them in the learning process at home.

To be successful, both teachers and parents need to work as a team. It is not entirely up to the teachers to make sure that each student learns. As the saying goes—“you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”. The same goes for students. Teachers can do their best, but if parents and students don’t do their part, then all the learning resources in the world will not teach the students what they need to learn.

As a member of the State Board of Education, I will work hard to make sure that each school has the resources necessary to teach the students enrolled in that building. I will also encourage PTA and other parent organizations to support the teachers and administrators who are trying their best to teach each student. And, if the educators have “given up” on the students in “their school” I will help remind them of the importance of a positive attitude and the need to implement changes necessary to make sure that students are learning by working together as a team to reach AYP.
***

5. Do you believe that Kansas schools are Adequately funded? Please elaborate on any changes that you would advocate for the School funding formula...


Dennis Hedke:
Many Kansas schools are very adequately funded, others are not. Mathematical formulas may be ‘inadequate’ to deal with the reality we have in today’s classroom. The science required to fully define the problems we have, then solve them to the satisfaction of all involved will require interaction from teachers of all backgrounds, administrators, parents and students.

I will work diligently to understand how best we can influence the legislature to seek a funding plan that is equitable and flexible, meeting the needs of our rural areas while facing the intensified needs of large cities like Wichita.

Walt Chappell:
YES!! Currently, half of the Kansas state budget is spent on K-12 education. When higher education is included, nearly 2/3rd of all State revenue is spent on Kansas schools, colleges and universities.

As a result of the Montoy v. State of Kansas lawsuit, the State Legislature has recently added nearly $500 million dollars to the public K-12 school appropriations. The student population has not increased in Kansas but other costs have such as energy, salaries and health insurance premiums. So, it is not a question of adding more money to achieve higher test scores but how that money is spent.

As a businessman and educator, I understand how to prepare and manage budgets. I studied school finance in my Doctoral program at Michigan State University and developed a predictive unit cost model of educational programs for my Dissertation. I was also elected to a school board and served as district budget coordinator. Later, I was Budget and Planning Director for a 6 State Federal project which included 125 schools. I also worked with the California Legislative Research Office to develop a new school finance model designed to equalize educational opportunities for each student. I understand how school budgets are put together and where to “cut the fat”.

School district administrators can not keep coming back to the taxpayers and Legislators asking for more money instead of making the hard choices necessary to work more effectively with the money they already receive. This is especially true in our current tight economy. They must first assure parents, teachers, Legislators and students that there is an adequate plus fair distribution of resources and dollars to each school in their district so equal learning can occur.

As a member of the State Board of Education, I will work hard to implement school based budgeting. Just like in business or manufacturing firms, the school should be the basic management and cost center for how we educate our kids.

This new budget process first identifies the learning needs of the students attending each school. After the student needs are documented, the teachers and administrators in each building identify the existing resources they already have to teach these students to reach the learning objectives established by the State Board of Education. Unavailable, needed resources and their costs are then added.

Once all the resources required to achieve these objectives are combined from each school within a district, these district level budgets will be sent on to the State Board of Education before being submitted to the Legislature to be funded by a combination of State and local taxes. Adjustments will obviously need to be made by the State Board and Legislature in the amount appropriated to each school and district based on available tax revenue, but the budget will at least be based on the learning needs of each student, the priority objectives to be met and the learning resources required in each school.

This student centered process will take several years to adequately distribute learning resources to each school in Kansas. But, school based budgeting will immediately allow transparency for parents, taxpayers, legislators and teachers. Business and labor leaders can see where dollars are being spent and how it impacts teaching students’ employable skills. The current, line item, district budgets hide where money is spent and how it actually applies to learning. However, school based budgeting will allow all stakeholders to actually see and adjust spending to meet learning objectives. It will also help control costs and hold district administrators accountable for funds received.

It is time to “put our money where our mouth is”. We must allocate dollars and resources to each school based on student learning needs and the resources required in each school building to meet those needs. Otherwise, there is no assurance that each child in Kansas is being give an “equal educational opportunity” or that “a suitable” education is being provided to meet each student’s needs—regardless of where that student attends school in our State.

Shifting to school based budgeting is particularly important in low income and limited tax base rural districts plus urban schools attended by low income students. Viewing district wide, line item budgets shows nothing about how those funds are actually distributed at the school building level. Without equal funding, both students and teachers in these “disadvantaged schools” have two strikes against them before the school year begins. No wonder they are having trouble meeting AYP, have high drop-out rates and have a huge “achievement gap” on test scores.

I understand these issues like the back of my hand. I look forward to serving on the State Board of Education to help stay within budget, control costs, meet learning objectives and equalize each student and teacher’s opportunity to perform to the best of their capabilities.
***

6. Some years ago, there was some talk about changing the definition of "At-Risk" as it related to the distribution of Title I funds. Would you support a change in the current definition of "At Risk"?


Dennis Hedke:
The current definition covers a very broad range of conditions which could render a student deficient academically. I would probably delete some language, such as “is pregnant or is a parent”, and “has come into contact with the juvenile justice system”. These are challenging situations, but can also be dealt with very positively to considerably alter a temporarily wayward path. I know many students who were in these situations, and I would not consider them to be “At-Risk”. With proper guidance, they have straightened up and are performing just fine today.

As we identify changes in sociological and economic factors, we must always be ready to reexamine any definition. If we discover that the “At Risk” label is not describing the needs of those who actually are at risk, then the definition must be investigated and changed if appropriate. Society is not a static reality. It is a dynamic set of ever-changing relationships.

Walt Chappell:
YES!! As a professional educator and businessman, I know that there is little relationship between the amount of money earned by the parents of a child and how smart that student is. Because a parent’s low income qualifies for “free or reduced” school lunches does not mean that their child is dumb or “AT RISK” of not being able to learn.

Instead, we need to focus attention and dollars on these students who are truly having difficulty learning relevant, real knowledge and skills. In addition, using the ability to pass multiple choice tests as a measure of how smart a child is does not tell much about that student’s ability to apply what they have learned.

It has been easy for school district administrators to count heads of those students on “free and reduced lunches” and pad their budgets. Yet, when the State Legislature has appropriated more money for this weighted category, there is no accountability for dollars spent or assurance that students who are truly “At Risk” of failing are actually receiving the resources they need to succeed. As a consequence, thousands of students are “falling through the cracks”, simply drop-out of school or get so frustrated trying to learn, that they become disruptive and are expelled. The “At Risk” money was spent but not on these kids.

We can not treat students who are having trouble learning like disposable trash. Ridiculing them, embarrassing them, calling them dumb or lazy in front of their peers does not build up their confidence. And using funding definitions based on the inability of their parents to pay for school lunches in an effort to identify which students are “At Risk” of failing is a foolish way of dealing with a very serious challenge. We MUST educate each child to the best of their ability and stop throwing money and words around as if we are seriously trying to reach this important objective.
The failure of the educational system to provide each student with employable skills is a huge financial burden in future welfare and prison costs. So, as society, we either pay a relatively small amount now to “suitably” prepare students for 21st Century jobs or to go on to college—or pay a huge amount over the rest of their lifetime.

As a State Board of Education member, I will work with the Legislature and other Board members to help make sure that the “At Risk” definition makes sense and that the dollars allocated actually reach the teachers and classrooms where these students are trying to learn. Unless the dollars go to teach specific students who are having trouble learning—we are only kidding ourselves and going through the motions. Kids are still failing, dropping out or being expelled. That is wrong and we must do better!!
***

7. Should all High School children take a 'College Bound' curriculum?


Dennis Hedke:
We have done a great disservice to many students and families by propagating the notion that if you don’t pursue a “college” career path, you will be forever diminished in your ability to participate in society. We now know that about 3/4 of all students do not pursue and complete a college degree.

We have not been as effective in developing viable learning and training alternatives to this very substantial fraction of our society. We need every one of them to be contributors to our economy, helping to expand our taxpayer base, which will also help finance our education system. We must connect with them early, and allow them to take something like a “Kuder” test, so they can get a better handle on their natural interests and start on either an academic or a technical training path that will maximize their natural strengths and gifts.

Walt Chappell:
NO!! Only 20% of the high school graduates who go on to college actually earn a college degree. The other 80% received their high school diploma but with few if any job skills to earn a living wage. Furthermore, in some schools as many as 40% of the students entering 9th grade, drop-out before graduating.

Currently, the cost of college is out of reach for students from most low and middle income families. And if they can qualify for a loan in this tight economy, then students who actually finish college have such heavy debts that it takes them and their parents years to pay back—if they can get a job. Those who started college and had to stop, still have loans to repay but no job skills to pay what they borrowed. This is a huge problem all across America.

So, to make sure that each student is qualified to earn a decent wage, I strongly support teaching employable skills starting in middle school. These vocational courses will be offered as a choice and count toward high school graduation. Students and their parents can decide early on whether to enroll in the college bound curriculum or take courses which will prepare them to enter the workforce as soon as they graduate from high school.

Just because a student goes on to college does not mean that they are smarter than those students who choose to go into a trade. The use of math, science and technology to compete for 21st Century jobs is very important and essential to our economy. Kansas schools and teachers must adapt to these realities and help each student become a productive and employable citizen of our modern society. The “College Bound” curriculum of “one size fits all” students is not enough. We must allow EACH student to reach their full potential and not force every student down the same path.

I have already been meeting with education, business and labor leaders to build on what the State Board of Education has started for vocational education. It will not be easy to make this shift in our curriculum. But for the Kansas economy and families to be successful, we must do the hard work now to make sure that every student who graduates from high school is prepared for either college or to go into the work force. We can no longer just set them adrift in a competitive global job market in hopes that they will find their way. A high school diploma must mean that certain knowledge and skills have been learned. Otherwise, employers are forced to pay the added costs to teach new employees the employable skills they could and should have learned during 13 years attending public schools.
***

8. NCLB has an explicit emphasis on helping all students reach a minimum level of proficiency. But what more should be done to address the needs of high achieving and gifted students?


Dennis Hedke:
Gifted students and their families must be allowed to help in developing programs that meet the needs of these quick-learners in more creative ways. Independent studies, extra-curricular opportunities, and special recognition can all work to enhance their education. Experiences that prepare these students for their promising future careers must be encouraged and embraced by school administrators.

Walt Chappell:
The whole NCLB program, expectations and regulations needs to be changed. It is not working and is an unfunded mandate from the Federal government. It is like a “tail waging the dog”.

In many cases, the demands of NCLB are “dumbing down” the curriculum and forcing teachers to teach rote facts and terms which are irrelevant and unnecessary for college or earning a living wage. Furthermore, how a student performs on easily scored, multiple choice tests has little to do with how well they can apply the facts and skills they have learned to solve real world problems.

I will work hard with other members of the State Board of Education to negotiate with the US Department of Education on how this NCLB law is implemented in Kansas schools. We must get this “monkey off of the back” of teachers and students. The expectations and “teach-to-the-test” methods are unrealistic and harmful to the learning process.

However, I strongly support the objective of accountability for how our education dollars are spent. We can not spend billions of dollars each year in Kansas schools without seeing measurable results of how well each student is learning. It is only through constant monitoring and verification of learning achievement that students, parents, teachers and taxpayers are assured that our top priority investment in public education is being met.

So, I am not going to join those who want to “throw the baby out with the bath water” and do away with the objectives of NCLB. I will work with teachers, administrators, parents plus business and labor leaders to make sure that we have meaningful measurements of learning success plus make necessary adjustments in funding and allocation of educational resources to help each student reach their full potential.

By keeping our focus on students and their success, all members of this team can better measure how much we have achieved and how far we have yet to go. The artificial, unrealistic standards of NCLB must be changed to make it real and more conducive to learning relevant, employable skills and knowledge. I look forward to participating as part of this important negotiation process to keep the best intentions of NCLB while making it work for students and their future employers.

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