How can the state help local school districts without sending them more money?

This post is a summary of the answers to this question that came out during a forum in Belmont in March with Commisioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, Mitchell Chester.

Among these recommendations, I am particularly focused on implementing the first. But I would be very willing to add others to my agenda based on comments from professionals and parents.

  1. Develop the implications of Clayton Christiansen’s book, Disrupting Class — allow districts to credit kids with school time for independent learning using emerging technology.
  2. Reduce the paperwork burdens on districts
    • Eliminate redundant certification requirements
    • During the fiscal crisis apply a moratorium to paperwork
  3. Reduce regulation of districts more generally– Massachusetts Association of School Committees, Executive Director, Glenn Koocher distributed an inventory of all the unfunded or partially funded mandates on districts (this link leads to a package of several documents which includes the inventory)
  4. Encourage district consolidation (there was push back on this idea — possibliity of bad marriages)
  5. Eliminate or reduce the role of MCAS (there was push back on this idea — value of MCAS in encouraging attention to all students)
  6. Bring more of special education teaching back within school districts — make it more feasible to reduce out of district placements (while preserving instructional quality); support collaborative solutions for hard to handle cases

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

6 replies on “How can the state help local school districts without sending them more money?”

  1. I like the basic concepts from Disrupting Class (I haven’t read the whole book) in the sense that they encourage the educational system to acknowledge the multiple needs of students in a classroom and support expanded use of technology as a central part of learning for the world we live in. That said, I feel that students are already in school for far less time than would be ideal, and I am not sure I like the idea of crediting students with school time for independent work. The reality is that the differentiated instruction and real technology integration (laptop carts in classrooms, smartboards, online school communities that link students, teachers, and home) have the potential to address the basic concept of “disrupting” our current system and could do so without removing some of the classroom/school time from the equation.

    The integration of these ideas, in my opinion, would have to be different in each district. And—if you add in the MCAS and related learning standards the puzzle changes again. In higher performing (based on testing #s) districts, the implementation might be smoother in that alternative learning time (likely not test prep based) would not hinder a student’s ability to perform on state mandated assessments.

    Also, this book, as well as Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole new Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, are written by business people, and school is not business. Ideas that can be well applied to adult workers cannot always translate to children and adolescents, and they certainly will require educators to be better trained in regard to technology, integration of technology into core curriculum ideals, differentiated instruction (the trickiest of all), etc. I do think that the business world has much to offer to the discussion of ed reform, but I feel it is important to remember that k-12 education is its own animal.

    I love the idea of getting technology into schools at all levels and making it an intrinsic part of the teaching and learning process. I strongly feel that the system that MA and the US at large has now would benefit greatly from some major changes, and perhaps those changes do involve some separation of learning from school. I do believe that student directed learning can prove very effective in motivated students, but to do so in a 180 day, barely six hour a day system doesn’t feel right.

    As for some of the other items on your list-

    2. Reducing paperwork is a great idea- even in non-financially strapped times. The redundancy and time loss related to paperwork requirements is such a waste.

    5. I am not anti-testing, but I don’t love the MCAS. I think that creating a test so far ahead its use can be limiting to teachers and creates curricular stagnancy. So, I certainly would be interested in seeing changes to the design and implementation of the test. As I mentioned earlier, the idea of giving students credit for emerging tech work doesn’t flow easily into the MCAS model. My last comment on testing would be that it is geared toward one learning style only and therefore does not truly capture the real learning that has occurred for many students.

    I will be interested to see where the education discussion goes next at the state level.

  2. Thank you, Will, for arranging the Belmont forum that I attended along some others from Arlington. As I recall, most of the requests from the audience involved MCAS reform and reduction of regulations and mandates. MCAS re-structuring is essential to real learning, in my opinion, but that’s a whole other conversation in itself.
    I’m most interested in ideas that can provide fairly immediate financial relief and / or otherwise improve education for the students in our schools today in spite of the budget crisis.
    I haven’t read Disrupting Class yet but I just ordered it. If Sara’s description is accurate, I agree with her. Aside from all the reasons she mentioned, I believe the concept is far enough outside the box that it would be too hard to sell in the foreseeable future. Technology is certainly the 21st century way to go but Arlington can’t afford smart boards and updated computer software right now. Massachusetts’ frameworks include knowledge and skills related to computer technology that we simply don’t have. What the frameworks doesn’t include, but we can afford and accomplish in the short term, is developing learning skills that will enable students to access and process the overwhelming amount of information that could be at their disposal if we could afford the technology.
    Cutting regulations and paperwork is feasible in the short term. A group including Miriam Freedman, a special education attorney, has developed “Procedures Lite” which is a voluntary agreement between parents and schools to waive excessive paperwork. This is a small but immediately useful tool. You can see this document by clicking here. Click here for Miram Freedman’s website.
    Bringing special education programs into home school districts is an obvious financial benefit and this is where regionalization has worked in the past and may be more useful in the short-term. Money saved could then be applied to preparing students for life and learning in the 21st Century.

    1. Mary, thanks for speaking out!

      I think that the Procedures Light idea is a very interesting one that ought be tried out locally. Have you been in touch with local officials about it?

      Regarding Disrupting Class, and further replying to Sara, I think the point that business is a different world is very well taken. But I don’t think that point diminishes the power of ideas Clayton points to. I think we have to deal with those ideas.

      Let’s start by agreeing that to raise achievement, kids have to spend more time learning. But let’s recognize that school is only one possible means to that end.

      And let’s also be brutally honest with ourselves about we are capable of. We are barely keeping the current K-12 model afloat financially and that’s going to get harder not easier over the next few years. The idea that we can create more learning time by expanding school time is realistic only for a few communities who, because of their huge social needs, get massive outside assistance — federal, state or private.

      For me, the key idea is not technology, it’s independence. Most of the learning that people do in life is already independent. Much of the learning that successful kids do is already outside of school. What technology adds is the ability for kids to work with others — peers and coaches — online, and the opportunity for accountability.

      The idea is not to bring technology into schools. The idea is to let kids use the technology they and their families own or can get access too. Broadband internet access is getting close to 100% in urban communities. The schools can’t afford to buy technology in classrooms, but a home computer is a necessity that very few families do without today.

      The real barrier is uncertainty as to reliable online curricula for kids. Right now, it’s kind of the wild west and not everything online is of good quality. My efforts in this area are currently focused on that problem — how to identify high-quality online curricula for school administrators.

      1. Will-

        While I do not doubt your commitment to education, teachers, and the schools, the idea you propose of encouraging independent, i.e. out of school learning time as opposed to classroom time not in addition to it, suggests that the k-12 system is beyond repair, and I do not think that is the case.

        There is also, in my view, an extreme equity issue inherent in this idea. The range of technology knowledge among students and between families is massive, and to have students working alone at home without any guarantee of immediate support is problematic. This is an ongoing issue with homework as it exist now.

        To have school sanctioned learning occurring without teachers appears dismissive of the extreme role classroom teachers play in educating- and in motivating- students not only as learners, but as whole individuals. As you state in your post, your goal is helping “administrators” locate good curricula. In addition you mentions “coaches”- who are these people, what training do they have, and how are they overseen? More importantly, where do the teachers fit in?

        Recently, Belmont’s elementary library aide positions were in doubt for next year. Impassioned parents and educators spoke about the importance of the aides, not only for the service they provide in the library, but because they know the students and are able to apply that personal knowledge to help foster a love of reading in students through personalized book choices and specific encouragement. I mention this because teachers, like these aides, know their students and are often a primary force in encouraging students to expand their learning base into areas that might otherwise seem unavailable. Focusing on learning outside of school instead of in school removes, at least partially, the guide of the teacher.

        I would want to see school’s encouraging independent tech work- with direct teacher guidance. This might mean that the independent work would be connected to the in-school curriculum. I also feel that many students do not have the discipline or support outside of school to engage in this kind of learning, and the likely result wold be that these students’ learning would be diminished even more.

        Outside of school, independent work is a great idea — if it is in addition to school time. And I feel the goal should be to focus on improving school time, not suggesting kids simply work on their own as a replacement for active education. The financial constraints facing MA at this point are staggering, and I appreciate the efforts being made to encourage support for education, but I really feel that programs proposed at the expense of classroom time are not the solution.

  3. Sara below raises a number of the important concerns about independent learning as discussed in the “Disrupting Class”. All of these concerns are valid and need to be reflected in any implementation:

    (1) No one is proposing an elimination of school! The idea is to use online learning for some percentage of the kids (especially older kids) for some percentage of their time in some percentage of their subjects.

    (2) Independent learning is not a new idea. We have long valued and respected scholarship and reading. Emerging online tools make scholarship easier and richer, but do not fundamentally transform the exercise of applying oneself to subject materials and working to achieve mastery.

    (3) Online learning will expand available offerings, rather than replacing or degrading or competing with classroom instruction — for one example, kids should be able to take advanced languages and science courses that aren’t presently offered; for another, kids should be able to do catchup learning in the summmer in subjects that they have not fully mastered during the school year.

    (4) Even the minority of older kids who choose to use online learning for many of their subjects will need to participate heavily in high school for discussion-oriented learning and for social and extracurricular activities.

    (5) Teachers will always be needed to help kids learn and to give kids positive emotional support for learning. Their role may change in some subjects — the emphasis shifting towards problem solving and encouragement and further away from rote exposition. They may become more like coaches for some of the kids and some subjects.

    (6) Traditional classroom learning will continue to be the backbone of K-12 education for quite some time, forever, perhaps at the lower grades. But online learning is expanding rapidly at the secondary and post-secondary levels across the country. Other states have gone much further than Massachusetts in making “Virtual High School” available. See generally links in these posts.

    (7) Students have varying levels of support at home. Therefore a reliance on independent learning may have equity implications. Terribly true. Part of the motivation for increasing independent learning activities for those students who are able to take advantage of them is to free resources to provide additional help for those who need it most. We need to recognize the widely varying needs and learning styles of children and online learning provides one more way of responding to that variation.

    (8) Finally, and here I am just repeating my own practical concern, the quality of online learning tools varies widely and we need to recognize that and provide assistance to districts in evaluating their options.

    This is an important discussion and I’m grateful to Sara for raising these concerns.

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