Tuesday, August 16, 2005

August 16, 2005 Education

A reader recently made several good points regarding education in the blog comment section. She was concerned that students can not make change, speak correctly, or perform simple multiplication. I have heard this concern before, and it has been a real sore spot for me for a long time.

I have repeatedly stressed that teaching the basics and insisting on mastery of the basics--reading, writing, and arithmetic (OK, "math")-- is the essential foundation of education for all students.

I decided to post my reply to the reader as a regular blog entry--with a few revisions and additional comments...

It does take a lot of money to raise and to educate a child. Please let me share some information with you. By law, funding for education in Hamblen County can not go down--unless there is a substantial drop in enrollment or an economic crisis of some sort. Every year, funding for education from the state and from the local government has gone up. But has education really improved?

You point out that young people graduate from high school and cannot speak correctly, make change, and do basic multiplication. Will different textbooks correct these problems? No. Will new weight rooms correct these problems? No.

What can we do to address the problems about which you are concerned? Our primary focus should be on teaching the basics because the problems you have pointed out are examples of a failure to provide an educational foundation for basic success in life.

Unfortunately, it's not as easy as simply throwing more money into the "education" pot in order to get the better educational outcomes that we all seek--whether the outcome is as basic as being able to make change and speak correctly (as you have pointed out) or whether the outcome is as complex as being able to handle algebraic equations and analyze Shakespearean drama.

It will take a major revamping and overhaul of the educational system--both in Hamblen County and across the state--if we are to see real improvement and if we are to be assured that a foundation for success has been laid for every child. Does this require more money? Not necessarily. Does it require better management of existing funds? Absolutely.

Simply rearranging class schedules to provide significantly more instructional time for reading, writing, and arithmetic (aka "math") in grades 1-3 would bring about improvements in those basic skills that are the foundation for all advanced skills in later grades. Mastery of these skills is essential.

After school tutoring by teachers, volunteer tutors from Walters State and the community, and peer tutoring are all part of the solution--and some of this is being done now.

I believe that merit pay for teachers and a readjustment of pay scales with increased pay for those certified in areas of greater need (advanced math courses, physics, science) are also a part of the solution. (But this is one of those taboo areas that one doesn't talk about in polite company)

I believe that teacher tenure will soon be a relic of the past. I have mixed feelings about this. Tenure is good where it protects a good teacher from a politically-motivated firing; on the flip side, tenure is often perceived by the public as providing lifetime job security to marginal and even poor teachers.

I believe that we need to take another look at block scheduling that was adopted at our local high schools some 10 years ago. It may be an idea that sounded good in theory but that is not academically sound in practice. Some adjustments have already been made in math and other courses to provide year-round instead of semester instruction, but the entire block scheduling concept should be reviewed completely. I understand that a number of schools are starting to back away from the 90- minute classes that are the basis of block scheduling and are going back to the more traditional year-round 55-60 minute classes.

A number of different viewpoints and ideas for improving education should be considered--not just the same old "more money" requests that have failed in the past. It's time for new and creative ideas. And if something doesn't work, ditch it. Don't just keep throwing more money at it. By the same token, if a particular program does work, keep it and work even harder at it.

Many individuals, groups, and organizations in Hamblen County care about education. As for me, I have three children. As a parent, I was closely involved in my children's education every step of the way. All three graduated from the University of Tennessee.

As a teacher for 11 years, I was involved in the education of hundreds of young people. I enjoyed seeing the enthusiasm of my students, and I worked hard every day to help them both academically and socially.

As a supporter of athletics, I coached middle school basketball. I was a member and officer in several booster clubs at West High. I was president of the all-sports athletic booster club at West High. But let me add this...while sports programs are wonderful, there is nothing more important than academics.

I was an early and vocal supporter of improved educational facilities. Back in 1997--many years before you arrived in Morristown-- I was one of those who was actively involved in getting a comprehensive school building program off the ground.

I was teaching English at the old West View Middle School on Economy Road at that time. [It has since been remodeled and is now called Manley Elementary.] The old West View Middle was one of the last of the "open school" designs in Hamblen County. You can imagine how difficult it was to teach English to a class of 25-30 students while another English teacher tried to teach a classroom of 25-30 students right next to you. With NO walls to separate the two classrooms.

I wrote letters to parents about our need for walls between the classrooms and other improvements. I helped organize meetings at West View involving parents, teachers, and school board members. I attended joint school board-county commission meetings to encourage the adoption of a comprehensive school building program.

Many people, and I was one of them, were ecstatic when the building program was adopted and funded by county commission in 1998. Unfortunately, the school board then took the $32 million that was provided for school improvements across the county and drafted questionable contracts that resulted in conflicts of interest, numerous (22 or more) single bids being received and awarded, and cost overruns that resulted in the elimination of many of the planned improvements.

Waste of taxpayer money always concerns me. Over 1-1/2 years after the first contracts were signed, I realized what was going on in the school building program--that they were paying people to manage and supervise themselves while cost overruns mounted up and classrooms were eliminated. The waste was very disheartening for those of us who watched and saw what was happening.

I think it is important to try to correct situations instead of just wringing our hands. No one would do anything about this waste on the local level--except for lip service here and there.

Other concerned citizens and I spoke to the State Comptroller in Nashville in August 2001 about the supposed "competitive" bidding and the reality of the conflicts of interest that the school board denied all along. As a result of our efforts, state law was amended unanimously in 2002 to prohibit the local school board and others across the state from handling school construction management in the way that the Hamblen County School Board did from 1999-2002.

All this is to say that I value education as much and perhaps more than many people in Hamblen County. I have been involved in supporting better facilities, and I have supported athletics as well. The touchstone, however, is always academics.

I know that education is the key to personal success--of course, a little luck along the way can be very helpful, too. My parents stressed the importance of education to me, and I have stressed the importance of education to my own children.

I wish that money were somehow a "silver bullet" that would solve the problems within the educational bureaucracy. But it isn't. We have problems that money can't begin to address. We have problems that go deeper than financial shortages.

To solve the problems you have mentioned--time, time, and more time devoted to the basics is needed. And the same is true of the problem of not having a highly educated workforce. We have many excellent teachers, and we offer a varied and challenging curriculum for those who choose to avail themselves of it.

It is my opinion that an excellent education is offered to students in Hamblen County, but unfortunately some students and parents do not see the long-term value in education. Therefore, some parents do not push, encourage, and help their children, and it is also true that some students do not push themselves to get as much from the educational offerings that are laid before them, free for the taking.

You can lead a horse to the water, but you can't make him drink.

Once we are able to get support from all parents and once we are able to help students see the value of their K-12 education, then we will have a major part of the answer to our educational dilemma.

Thank you for your comments. You make many excellent points. We obviously agree on the importance of education, and I'm sure we both hope that more parents and students will come to realize the critical importance of education. Students should take advantage of the wonderful and challenging opportunities for learning that exist within our local school system.

3 comments:

Janice said...

Mrs. Noe,
Thank you for introducing me to your ideals, ideas and insight on one of the most important issues today. If local and/or regional papers were to print your latest blog, so many residents of Hamblen County would get a real, honest and precise view of what has happened and what needs to happen to our school systems. Your blog has a real voice, not at all what I have read about you in the Citizen Tribune, that is for sure.

I believe in my heart that there are more people out there who want and need to hear what you have to say and what you stand for. I agree on many things you say. And for the things that I don't I believe healthy discussions and compromise are the only solution in today's society.

It is true that money alone is not the answer for the educational shortfalls Hamblen County is experiencing right now. Accountability and a focused look at what our kids need now are just as important as the funds themselves. The BOE must run like a lucrative business, just like each school needs to.

One commissioner replied to an email I sent that stated 85 cents of every dollar brought into the local government goes towards education which leaves the other 15 cents to run 36 other departments in Hamblen County. This equation concerns me greatly. Does that mean 85% is too much for education or does it mean that there is not enough brought in to begin with. It's like 85% of nothing is still nothing. Even numbers and facts can be spun to look and sound different from one view to the next.

I have spoken to many people regarding the future of our schools, where Hamblen County fits in local, statewide and nationally. I am not the only one who thinks that our children need more and that what they need IS in reach.

I attended a meeting this week and one of the topics discussed was getting more parents involved in our schools on a volunteer basis. I gave my opinion that in order to get more parents involved, one of the first things that needs to be done is to have the mindset changed regarding volunteering in and for our schools. If the unspoken idea is that volunteering is a painful chore, then you won't have parents lining up to help. Parents need to know how fulfilling it is to help others. They need to know it can actually be enjoyable. And that the healthier the relationship between schools and parents are, the more their own children will achieve. One woman stated that "Morristown is a blue collar town, most families are a 2 income family, some are not very educated and they just do seem to care". I left it at that because I could feel my blood boiling! That is the very mindset I am so frustrated with!! There is nothing I do that is more rewarding than volunteering in the classroom with art projects for the kids to do. I find it amazing how this topic becomes so emotional for me. But it does.

Thank you for your response.
Respectfully Submitted,
Janice

Linda said...

Janice,

Thank you for your comments. The Tribune is a real problem for citizens and elected officials unless they parrot exactly what the editor believes. Needless to say, the Trib does not report my comments (see my blog) and tries to slam me every chance they get.

Just two examples: They did a 5-part series about two years ago about the school building program where I became involved only after I realized that they were paying construction managers over a million dollars to largely manage and supervise themselves. The Trib did not once call me for a comment--despite the fact that state law was changed unanimously as a result of my concerns. The Trib kept saying I had a "vendetta"--but they never could explain just how the entire state legislature agreed with my position, saw what was wrong, and did something about it.

Yep, it really bothers politicians when citizens don't "bark twice and then get back in their cage."

Second item: Before I took office, The Trib ran an article with the headline "County audit savings dashed" and said that we would not be able to save money by having the state do the county audit--a major cornerstone of my campaign in 2002. The Tribune never corrected that story and never reported that I introduced the proposal to have state auditors perform the county audit in Oct. 2002 and that we did, in fact, save $18,000 in 2003 and in 2004, and soon another $18,000 in 2005---a total savings of $54,000.

Education is a complex issue. You are absolutely right that there need to be healthy discussions marked by a willingness to listen to all viewpoints.

You also hit the nail on the head with the money issue.

Political "spin" is a fascinating (and frustrating) thing to watch when it is applied to numbers and to factual information.

That's why I subscribe to the "Trust, but verify" motto, and I try to apply that to every analysis of the spending of county money. If you've been following my blog, you know that my financial questions bring out anger instead of openness on the part of a couple of county officials.

Financial questions about the handling of county money should not threaten anyone. There should be a complete explanation about the $360,000 that got switched from fund to fund in 2004--not just an incomplete statement about somehow restoring funds to where they should have been to correct errors from past years. There will be a lot more to come...

If we are to have funds for education, law enforcement, health and safety, roads, and all the other services that we expect from our government, we must take care of every penny. We should spend the tax dollars of our fellow citizens in the same way we would spend our own money.

And I do think we have to remember that not everyone lives in that "average" $100,000 house or makes that average $24,000/year income or has health insurance.

I appreciate your input.

Linda said...

Clarification/Addition: The Trib article with the headline "county audit savings dashed" ran in March 2003.

The Trib never corrected the story and never reported total county savings of $54,000 over the three years 2003/2004/2005.

And in addition to the savings, we are getting an audit that is far superior to the previous audit that cost over twice as much.

At the same time, we need to be aware that the current state auditors--as did the previous local auditors-- only examine a small sampling of transactions.

Also, the auditors are only here periodically and most of that is after the fiscal year is already over.

Ultimately, local officials are the ones who have to provide checks and balances and oversight on an ongoing basis DURING the fiscal year. Trust, but verify.