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by Colin Powell
New members of the local school board called for clearer academic goals and better ways to measure student achievement—and butted heads with a more senior member—at a March 28 workshop.
“I would really love to be able to tell teachers and the public that we have really clear and really specific goals for this year,” newcomer Linda Nelson said at the first workshop of the board since she and two other members were elected. She added later: “We need to be able to put numbers to things.”
But member Andrew Vaughn, who has served for two years, said he fears too much of that approach risks “forcing teachers to teach to a test or an assessment.”
“There needs to be a balance,” he said.
After a two-week delay because of printing troubles, the workshop was the board’s first look at the earliest draft of the next school budget.
The workshop began with an overview of how budgeting has worked in the past.
Vaughn told the newcomers the process usually starts with looking at the strategic plan and comparing that with new items proposed by administrators.
Given the board’s goal during the last few years of keeping increases down, members discussed what could be accomplished in the strategic plan and what could not.
As an example, Vaughn noted that a K-12 foreign language program was put on the back burner last year, but with the intention of revisiting it in this budget cycle.
Then Nelson voiced her wish for clear benchmarks and assessments.
As an example, she mentioned a benchmark such as 15 percent more students reading at grade level next year in the elementary school. She also recommended setting specific goals for expanding teacher quality through the use of professional development tools.
Vaughn said he agrees that everyone wants the best school possible with the money spent. But he said it’s not easy to correlate benchmarks such as 15 percent higher test scores with specific spending plans.
New member Virginia Olsen said the assessments Nelson referred to would not be full-fledged tests, but simple measures of whether a student is improving in a specific area over a set period.
“If we know we have a kid who is one-and-a-half years behind his grade level in reading, we should be able to see that,” she said.
The third new member, Victoria Zelnick, agreed with Olsen and Nelson. “We can’t look at test scores from year to year to make judgments,” she said. “We need much more frequent assessment.”
Zelnick said she wants to make sure administrators have the tools they need to successfully collect and manage that data and then present it to the board in a meaningful way.
Elementary school Principal Mike Benjamin said his school currently has an improvement plan based on hard data. He said the budget he presented to the school board is based on that plan.
Nelson said she wants an assessment plan that “allows us to celebrate the results,” and she pointed to companies, such as IBM, that set specific, reachable goals so shareholders can track the company’s progress.
But Vaughn took issue with Nelson’s analogy.
“I have very strong reservations about implementing assessments and goals so that we become more like a corporation,” he said.
Nelson defended her analogy.
“It’s funny to me that the only places where we measure results is with money, but the most important thing is with educating our kids, and there we say it isn’t important,” she said. “This really upsets me.”
She said her goals are not about teaching to the test, but about keeping track of student progress. She said a majority of children she knows in the school are not reading at grade level. “I want to see that we can move those kids forward,” she said.
Benjamin said the elementary school used to be very data-rich but that it lacked the manpower to analyze that data.
He said the school has turned a corner on the problem and is now working hard to use its data to improve student performance.
Board member Skip Greenlaw agreed with Zelnick and Nelson. Waiting a year for student performance data from testing “just isn’t cutting it,” he said.
Addressing a separate issue, Vaughn said the school board must think hard about maintaining class sizes the way they are. He said he has supported small class sizes for a while, but that he has not seen the results to justify them.
“We may need to look at whether we can support small class sizes,” he said.
Given the current status of the local economy, Vaughn said the board should only increase spending if it has very good reason, and if it will help accomplish the school’s strategic plan, or its literacy or math goals.
Zelnick asked how the school board could continue to justify the amount of educational resources in the district versus the number of students. “How do we continue, year after year, to justify these expenditures with our outcomes?” she said.
The first draft of the new CSD budget is up nearly 6 percent over the previous year, or about $385,000.
Major new expenses include nearly $100,000 proposed for a capital renewal and repair fund for projects at the high school, including repaving parking lots and replacing the trash shed. The budget also jumped almost $80,000 because federal stimulus funds will run out on hearing impaired/interpreter contract services.
The district will save money when two teachers high on the pay scale retire next year. However, there will also be three more students going to Hancock County Technical Center, for which the CSD must pay tuition.