Don’t blame schools for violence

“To end the killing” — 141 murders so far this year – a Baltimore Sun editorial called for  ”effective police and prosecutors, ample drug treatment, better schools, and more economic opportunities.”

Don’t blame the schools, responded Dave Miceli, a veteran teacher, in a letter to the editor.

I have taught in the Baltimore public school system for the past two decades. What we need is better students. We have many excellent teachers. I cannot count the number of students who have physically destroyed property in the schools. They have trashed brand new computers, destroyed exit signs, set multiple fires, destroyed many, many lockers, stolen teachers’ school supplies, written their filth on the tops of classroom desks, defecated in bathrooms and stairwells, assaulted teachers (beyond constantly telling them to perform certain impossible acts upon themselves) and refused to do any homework or classwork.

Miceli blames the crime rate on “a total disregard for life” in Baltimore and other cities.

Who’s responsible for a culture of violence? I’d look to parents.

Retraining is tough for ex-steelworkers

When RG Steel closed in Baltimore, laying off 2,000 well-paid steelworkers, Community College of Baltimore County offered workers a chance to retool. But college was a hard sell, despite federal retraining aid for displaced workers. “It’s a group of men who think college is for other people,” says Brian Penn, who runs the college’s heating, ventilating, air-conditioning, and energy technology program.

Baltimore: Cut suspensions, get a bonus

The “Baltimore school system is paying bonuses to teachers and administrators at struggling schools that reduce suspensions for non-violent offenses, drawing criticism from union leaders who say the program could provide a financial incentive to ignore problems and jeopardize school safety,” reports the Baltimore Sun. Teachers also can earn more if their schools reduce truancy and absenteeism.

Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said she fears that the bonuses could exacerbate the problem of educators feeling pressure to keep suspension numbers down, sometimes at the expense of maintaining order in the classroom.

“I’m worried about the safety of our teachers,” English said. “When you offer a bonus for something like that, you are putting a price on what’s going to happen around safety in a school.”

So far, 72 teachers and assistant principals have been given bonuses of $5,000 to $9,500; two principals received  $3,000 each. Teachers must have satisfactory evaluations and attendance rates to qualify for a bonus.

Baltimore is using $695,000 in federal Race to the Top funds to pay for the program.

Teaching for America in the ‘Terrordome’

After Teach for America’s five-week teacher boot camp, Heather Kirn Lanier was assigned to a Baltimore high school known as “The Terrordome.”  Students roamed the hallways or barged into classes to disrupt lessons. While she was teaching one day, a student lit her classroom door on fire. Her book, Teaching in the Terrordome: Two Years in West Baltimore with Teach for America, recalls her frustrations at Southwestern High School, now closed.

Southwestern was too big and impersonal, Lanier tells the Baltimore Sun.

A small, close-knit community, where the principal knows every single student by name and where the teachers work in teams, would have been helpful. It wasn’t until I got to know my students and their problems that things started to click.

Lanier praises the teachers who stayed on the job, avoiding burnout. After two years, Lanier left K-12 teaching. After earning a master’s degree in creative writing, she taught remedial reading and writing to immigrant Berkeley students.

More choose two-year colleges, but few graduate

Increasingly, Baltimore’s college-bound students are choosing community colleges, but only 5.8 percent earn a degree in three years. A report advocates encouraging more to start at four-year universities.

Also on Community College Spotlight: Reinventing higher education in California, where most college students enroll in community college. The estimated 18 percent graduation rate looks great compared to Baltimore.

Filipino teachers in Baltimore

The Learning, a film about four Filipino teachers recruited to teach in Baltimore, will run on PBS’s POV tonight. The women “bring idealistic visions of the teacher’s craft and of life in America, which soon collide with Baltimore’s tough realities.”

Getting more brains for the buck

Education productivity — the return on our investment in schools — varies widely from one district to another, concludes a study by the Center for American Progress.

Education spending per student has nearly tripled over the past four decades, after adjusting for inflation, the report notes.  Student achievement has remained about the same.

In more than half of the states included in our study, there was no clear relationship between spending and achievement after adjusting for other variables, such as cost of living and students in poverty.

Some districts spent thousands of dollars more per student to reach the same level of academic achievement. For example, Baltimore spends $2,500 more a year per student than Austin, Texas, after adjusting for the cost of living and student poverty. Yet Baltimore’s students are much less likely to score at or above the proficient level.

. . . after accounting for factors outside of a district’s control, many high-spending districts posted middling productivity results. For example, only 17 percent of Florida’s districts in the top third in spending were also in the top third in achievement.

Not surprisingly, the most productive districts make student achievement a priority. Leaders are willing to make tough choices, such as closing schools with low enrollment. The least productive districts spend more on administration, operations and other non-instructional expenditures.

Only Florida and Texas evaluate school-level productivity, the report finds. Often nobody knows which schools are spending money effectively and which are not.

Among the recommendations are improving data analysis, creating “performance-focused management systems that are flexible on inputs and strict on outcomes” and directing funding to students based on their needs.

Here’s a cool interactive map showing the return on education investment in various districts. In California, I see that San Francisco and San Jose rate fairly high in productivity, while Los Angeles is quite low.

Baltimore teachers reject new contract

Baltimore teachers rejected a new contract that would have changed the traditional salary scale based on seniority and academic credits.

The proposed contract included pay raises and kept health benefits at their current rate. But some were wary of a provision that would have replaced a system where seniority and degrees determined pay with one where they were paid by effectiveness in the classroom and pursuit of professional development.

Some 58 percent of teachers rejected the contract.

The contract had been hailed as a sign that teachers’ unions are open to reform, notes Teacher Beat. Apparently, the leadership of the AFT-affiliated union couldn’t persuade its membership.

Baltimore revamps teachers’ pay

Baltimore teachers will gain higher salaries and input on working conditions in exchange for abandoning the old pay system, reports the Baltimore Sun. Effective teachers could earn up to $100,000.

The new contract, being hailed as the most progressive in the nation, would in part link teachers’ pay to their students’ performance. The structure does away with the old model of “step” increases, or paying teachers based solely on their years of experience and the degrees they have obtained.

By the third year, all schools will let teachers “help set working conditions not outlined in the general contract, such as a longer work day or more planning time.”

Reprieve for a KIPP school

KIPP Ujima Village Academy, one of the highest performing middle schools in Maryland, will be able to stay open for another year, reports the Baltimore Sun. A year is not enough, the Sun editorializes.

The school’s day runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. with weekend and summer programs added on.

Teachers at KIPP schools work, on average, about a third more hours each year than those at regular public schools, and they are paid about 20 percent more in salary and benefits.

That, however, is the basis of the union’s complaint. Unlike teachers in many other states, charter school teachers in Maryland must belong to the union and abide by the pay scales in the union contract. Based on the number of hours they work, the union calculated that KIPP teachers should be earning 33 percent more in salary and benefits under the standard contract – even though all the teachers there had volunteered to work for what the school was offering.

This year, KIPP was forced to shorten its school day by an hour, lay off administrative staff and cut art and music programs to meet the union requirement. And officials feared they might have had to cut even deeper next year, raising the question of whether the KIPP model could survive in Baltimore.

Now the union has agreed to let the charter teachers accept a nominal raise in pay, making it possible to restore the longer school day.

To get Ujima Village off the cliff’s edge, the state should let charter teachers decide if they want to join a union or go it alone.