Q & A: School superintendents speak out on key issues

September 23, 2013
(capitalert.gov)
(capitalert.gov)

Have Washington area school systems been hurt by federal budget cuts? Are students being bombarded with too many standardized tests? How are schools handling the implementation of the Common Core State Standards?

I asked superintendents around the Washington region to answer these and other questions about key education issues as the 2013-14 school year gears up, to try to get a sense of their views and approaches to leadership.

Five superintendents responded: Joshua P. Starr in Montgomery County, Karen Garza in Fairfax County, Patrick K. Murphy in Arlington County, Edgar B. Hatrick III in Loudoun County and Kevin M. Maxwell in Prince George’s County. D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson declined to participate, Steven L. Walts in Prince William County said he was too busy opening schools and Morton Sherman was forced out as Alexandria superintendent just before the school year began.

Among such subjects as budgets, teacher evaluation, testing and charter schools, there was universal agreement on standardized testing: They all agreed that students are being tested too much.

Here are the questions with complete answers the superintendents answered by e-mail:

BUDGET

Did the federal sequester affect your budget for this school year and if so how? Did your budget grow or shrink for this school year and how do you plan to either spend the new money or cut?

STARR: We don’t receive a significant amount of federal money (less than 3 percent of our budget) so while we have had to deal with some cuts—about $6 million—we were able to offset the impact with local dollars. Our bigger concern about sequestration is the impact it will have on the local economy overall. Montgomery County relies heavily on fed eral contracts and employment and that could, down the road, have a significant impact on our ability to fund education. Our budget grew enough to allow us to keep up with enrollment growth (about 2,300 students)—the “maintenance of effort” level. We used some of our budget surplus and reallocated money to make investments in some strategic areas, such as mathematics, middle school instruction, and professional development, especially around the implementation of the common core. Going forward, maintenance of effort won’t be enough to fund everything we need to do to prepare our students for the future. We will lose funds as part of sequestration, but total federal dollars only make up 1.7% of our total operating budget.  The total loss dollar amount of sequestration in FY 2014 will be approximately $1 million (IDEA, Head Start and Title I).  Obviously the potential greater impact of sequestration is the effect on the local economy (from loss of federal jobs and reduced income from furloughs).  Local dollars fund the biggest part of our budget at 66%.

HATRICK: Our budget grew slightly in FY 2014 by about $20 million or 2.5%.  The new funds were not enough to even cover the cost of new enrollment and cost of opening additional buildings so cuts were made by flat lining (keeping at FY 13 levels) the cost of most non-salary items as well as taking actual  reductions in healthcare subsidies to employees and retirees.  Some personnel reductions were made such as funds budgeted for substitutes and part-time employees. For the fifth year in a row, no new non-school-based positions were funded. Additionally, expensive technology initiatives were delayed with hopes to fund them in a subsequent year.

GARZA: Federal funding accounts for less than two percent of the overall Fairfax County Public Schools’ (FCPS) budget and this year that equals about $42.5 million in a total budget of $2.5 billon.  Under sequestration, we are anticipating about a five percent reduction or a $2.1 million reduction in the school operating fund primarily under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act which is used to help offset the additional cost of educating students with disabilities.  Along with that, there is the anticipated reduction in federal impact aid which is provided to local school districts to mitigate the cost of educating children whose parents live on federal property.   Under this program, the majority of funds in Fairfax County are provided for pupils whose parents live and work on federal property – primarily Fort Belvoir. In addition, another $1.7 million would be lost in the Grants fund – primarily Title I funding which is allocated to schools with a high percentage of students from low-income families. Overall, it is a relatively minimal impact on the FCPS budget.  However, it’s still less federal dollars and that means those dollars need to be made up either through reductions in these programs or elsewhere in the budget or through increased state or local aid.

FCPS’ FY 2014 Approved Budget of $2.5 billion includes a mid-year compensation increase of 2 percent for employees and funds the final phase-in of mandated employee contributions to the Virginia Retirement System (VRS). The increase to employee pay from the compensation increase is reduced by the impact of the retirement rate shift and health premium increases. The FY 2014 budget includes nearly 300 additional positions to address enrolment growth—projected to be 184,625 in FY 2014, an increase of 3,089 students—and student demographic changes, and is a 1.1 percent increase over the FY 2013  approved budget.  The budget includes a 2 percent market scale adjustment for all employees, effective January 1, 2014, as well as a 3 percent mandated salary adjustment to offset a 3 percent increase in the VRS employee contribution rate for those impacted participants.  The budget includes $21.7 million to address student membership growth and changes in student demographics, adds 5.0 school psychologist and 9.0 social work positions, increases support for advanced academics and Young Scholars by $0.5 million, expands world languages to five additional elementary schools, expands FECEP (Family and Early Childhood Education Program) to serve more than 100 additional students and increases funding for preventive maintenance by $1.6 million.

MAXWELL: Yes, it impacted federally funded programs, and we adjusted revenues in the FY2014 Approved Budget to reflect a projected impact of $3.2 million. The FY2014 Approved Budget is $23.3 million over the FY2013 funding level. Funds are being used to meet compliance requirements for mediated settlement agreements, cover mandatory costs of conducting school business and meet key student achievement goals, including supporting Secondary School Reform, the Health Sciences Academy, the new Visual & Performing Arts Center and implementation of Student-Based Budgeting in all schools.

MURPHY: Arlington Public Schools does not expect to be impacted by sequestration this school year.  Action by the U.S. Department of Education held education funding harmless for this year.  What remains unclear is whether this year’s cut to education due to sequestration will be deferred until next year where it could be experienced as two cuts.  APS did, however, anticipate a reduction in federal funding in our budget due to previous federal budget cuts. Overall, federal grant funding for APS has decreased approximately 6 percent each year for the past few years.   However, since federal funding for education is generally directed at at-risk students or students with disabilities, reduced federal revenue results in less funding available for program expansions and/or other expenditures throughout the division.

 

COMMON CORE STATE STANDARDS

(FOR DC/ MARYLAND, which are implementing the standards): Have you read the Common Core standards and, if so, did you have any opinion of their quality? How much will teaching and learning in your district change as a result of the implementation of the Common Core?

STARR: I’ve read the Common Core State Standards and think they are of high quality. That being said, the quality of the standards is only part of the puzzle. We must invest in professional development and take the time to align our curriculum, teaching and learning, assessments and data systems to the demands of the CCSS.

In some areas, it [teaching and learning] changes significantly, especially in mathematics because the standards shift around when certain concepts are learned and how they are taught.  There is also a much greater emphasis on students being able to show multiple ways to solve problems, not just memorizing one procedure and replicating that on a test. It will take time for our students, parents and teachers to learn this approach. In English, I appreciate the greater emphasis on writing and we’ve realigned our curriculum to reflect that. The emphasis on literacy across the content areas is also very helpful for kids – we spent a lot of time this summer working on that with secondary schools.

MAXWELL: Yes, and I think they add a depth and rigor to the curriculum that can reasonably be achieved by all districts across the state. Teaching and learning will change significantly once CCSS is fully implemented as both students and teachers adapt to the new standards.

(FOR VIRGINIA, which did not adopt the Core) Your state is one of the few that have not signed onto the Common Core. Do you support this decision by state officials or do you think Virginia schools should implement the Core?

HATRICK: I support this decision so long as our standards are a good match for those in Common Core.  As we are already seeing, the rub in Common Core will come with assessment.  I would rather put Virginia’s efforts to refining the testing we have rather than signing on for a whole new testing regimen.  Ideally we will all find ways to reduce the huge amount of time and money being invested in over testing our students.

GARZA: It’s not necessary as long as Virginia instructional standards meet or exceed Common Core standards.

MURPHY: We support the decision of the Virginia Board of Education and the Virginia Department of Education to continue to use the Virginia Standards of Learning for state and federal accountability. We also continue to be proponents of using the NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] to replace state assessment systems to serve as an indicator of performance and progress. This would provide a more equitable basis for comparisons across states.

 

STANDARDIZED TESTING

A well-regarded poll recently said that most Americans think high-stakes standardized testing has gotten out of hand. Do you think your students are tested too much? If you had the power to change your district’s standardized testing program, what would you do?

 STARR: I believe in giving students meaningful assessments that provide data that can be used to improve teaching and learning and deliver individual interventions and support. I do think our students are tested too much. If I had my way, we’d test at critical moments in a student’s educational journey—3rd grade, 5th grade, 8th grade, 9th grade and in certain classes in high school. These are the milestones we are monitoring in our Strategic Planning Framework. At the very least, we need to admit that the current state assessments are not aligned to what we are doing every day. So, why are we giving them?

HATRICK: See my previous answer.  I would limit high-stakes testing to once in elementary school and once in high school.  Time could then be spent on formative assessments that can inform instruction.  I believe Finland, which is held up as a world standard, only tests its students once before graduation from high school.  I would prefer to take the money being spent on testing to improve the quality and quantity of our teaching force.

GARZA: In our public schools today, we seem to experience the most angst around the state assessment program. We support strong, transparent accountability systems to be able to demonstrate our effectiveness to our communities. However, we believe accountability can be accomplished without having to test every student, every year. We advocate for the use of sampling or rotating years for state testing and the substitutions of nationally recognized assessments, where feasible, for state testing. The most effective assessment practices, those that are instructionally meaningful, occur at the school and classroom level. Teachers using quality assessments, often collaboratively developed common assessments, are the most effective tools for improving student learning.

MAXWELL: Standardized tests do provide necessary measures for monitoring student achievement. However, if I had the power to change anything, I wouldn’t have our students taking both the Maryland School Assessments (MSA) and the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests.

 MURPHY: We have been responsive to that concern. At my direction, over the summer Arlington Public School staff reviewed all of our current grade level and system-wide testing in our regular education classes.  As a result, we identified several major tests that we could eliminate because that information is available from other existing assessments.  In addition, we have begun the implementation of an online formative assessment tool that will eliminate the need for our existing paper-and-pencil formative assessments.  This will have the dual benefit of increasing time for instruction and facilitating a more rapid sharing of results, trends, and analysis among teachers, grade levels, and schools.

 CHARTER SCHOOLS

What has been your district’s experience with charter schools, and how do you view the charter school movement? What is your view of movement in some cities where traditional public schools are in decline and the systems are becoming a collection of separate charter schools?

STARR: Montgomery County Public Schools has one charter school, and it is just in its second year. Overall, we’ve heard and seen good things about educational program but, as is often the case with charters, there have been some operational and financial challenges. Those are being worked out. I do not think that charters are a panacea, but can provide options for parents and can be incubators for innovation. It is my hope that some of the innovation we are seeing in charters—longer school days; specific academic focus; community/school collaboration—could be used more in traditional public schools as well.

HATRICK: Our district School Board voted not to approve a charter application.  I believe that public charters can play a part in completing public education offerings if those charters are required to meet the same standards as traditional public schools.  When charters were first introduced their purpose was to experiment with different educational strategies that would then be replicated in traditional schools if those strategies were successful. They were also to provide a forum for reducing regulations with a view toward extending the same reductions to all schools if the reductions did not diminish quality.  I’m afraid in some cases they have become a parallel offering with limited accountability.  The bottom line is that our public education system is essential for our democracy, and we should be working to improve all public schools, period.

 GARZA: I believe there is a place within local school divisions for uniquely designed schools, schools that address specific, unmet needs within the division but, ultimately, that is a decision for the School Board.

 MAXWELL: I have seen mixed results, with some charter schools providing outstanding learning experiences for students and others not meeting curriculum content or administrative expectations. While public charters offer options, they are not the only solution for improving public education.

MURPHY: We believe that Arlington Public Schools is a very strong school system; therefore, the impetus for charter schools is lessened.  Just as important, APS has long offered a variety of choice schools and programs within the County that were developed from a combination of parent and faculty interests.  As a result, APS has never received a charter school application.

 

TEACHER EVALUATION

Part of school reform in recent years has been to overhaul teacher evaluation systems, using student standardized test scores as a big part of the assessment. Are you doing this in your system and do you think it is fair to evaluate teachers on student test scores?

 STARR:  Student outcomes are a substantial part of our teacher evaluation system, which is nationally recognized for its ability to improve teaching and learning and to get underperforming educators out of the classroom. I think it is fair to use outcomes, but I am concerned about building a teacher evaluation system around STATE standardized tests—especially now that the tests aren’t aligned to what we’re doing in the classroom. When the PARCC assessments are ready, we will work that into our Professional Growth System, but not as a hammer—as a way to start conversations about what we are doing in the classroom and how we can support our teachers and leaders.

HATRICK: Virginia requires that 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on student achievement.  Teachers in Loudoun County Public Schools set rigorous, measurable student achievement goals in collaboration with their principals.  We encourage the use of multiple measures.  Depending on single test score to measure a student’s progress is ill-advised, and using that same single test score to try to measure teacher success is a formula for disaster.  Teaching and learning are complex enterprises not given to simple measures.

 GARZA: The state of Virginia agreed to make student academic progress count for 40 percent of its new teacher evaluations in order to receive a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Law.  Schools must rate teachers on seven standards: professional knowledge, instructional planning, instructional delivery, assessment of learning, learning environment, professionalism and student academic progress.  Based on the new standards, Fairfax County Public Schools  implemented an evaluation program that promotes collaboration between the administrator and teacher, teacher growth and professional development, provides structure by defining common expectations and effective instructional practice, and offers flexibility by allowing for individual teacher initiative.  A set of key elements and matrices have been developed for each of the seven standards. Teachers are not limited to SOL scores when setting student progress expectations.  Administrators and teachers are made aware of the many options that are available to measure student academic progress.  Teachers and principals are asked to set SMARTR goals for student progress (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-Oriented, Time-Bound and Rigorous). Using their baseline data, an elementary teacher might create a goal regarding each student’s progress in reading, assess that progress at mid-year, adjust strategies to achieve the goal as necessary and assess the progress again at the end of the school year. Many SMARTR goals are also aligned with the school improvement plan.

MAXWELL: Our district has already started including student achievement as a part of the teacher evaluation process. I think it’s fair as long as it remains just one piece of the puzzle – there are many ways to evaluate teacher success, and student achievement on standardized tests is just one of them.

MURPHY: The accountability movement over the last several decades has continued to intensify. The bottom line on this is that people want assurances that kids will be successful. The teacher evaluation is one aspect of this accountability picture because the teacher is directly responsible for student success, and data is part of that effort to ensure success. Recognizing the complexities of the teaching and learning process, it’s imprudent to boil it down to only one measure and one moment in time.  We recognize the importance of looking at a series of data points to glean a holistic picture of student success. In the end, the continuous feedback part of this is most important so teachers can continue to adjust their strategies to help students succeed.

TEACHER TRAINING

Teacher preparation programs are coming under increasing scrutiny. Where do you get most of your teachers – traditional education colleges or alternative programs, and how do you rate the overall quality of teachers you recruit? Do you have a contract with Teach For America? If so, how many corps members do you have and have you found that the five weeks of training they get in the summer before starting work is enough to prepare them for their jobs? If you don’t,  why not?

STARR:  Most of our teachers coming from traditional educator prep colleges. Overall, I think Montgomery County Public Schools attracts the highest quality teachers, but we also have to invest a significant amount in training and supporting them in their early years. It’s my hope that our teacher prep programs will begin to align their work with the knowledge and skills teachers need in order to provide students with the knowledge and skills they need in the 21st century. We do not use Teach for America in MCPS.

HATRICK: Most of the teachers we hire have completed traditional programs through accredited colleges and universities.  About two-thirds of new hires have masters degrees or higher.  We hire both traditional graduates and those who have completed Virginia career switcher programs.  We believe that the quality of teachers we hire is high.  We do not have a contract with Teach For America because our supply of fully licensed teachers is sufficient.

GARZA: This year, Fairfax County Public Schools received 27,029 applications and hired approximately 2,000 new teachers.  Our teachers are from highly selective colleges and universities.  Through a robust screening and selection process, FCPS teachers are hired based on unique traits associated with the school division’s mission and vision. The following criteria are used during the hiring process:

  • Strong interview conducted by FCPS staff
  • Exemplary professional references
  • Experience as a teacher in an accredited school or completion of a student teaching experience
  • Ability to obtain a VA teaching license
  • Fit for school and community

FCPS has hired applicants who received training through Teach for America, but also obtained a state teaching license.  The Fairfax County School Board adopted a position as part of its 2013 legislative platform stating that it “would choose not to employ teachers holding only a Teach for America provisional license.” All FCPS teachers must meet licensure requirements set forth by the Virginia Department of Education.

MAXWELL: The majority of our teachers come from traditional preparation programs through colleges and universities, which we have found to produce teachers who are generally well prepared for the classroom. We do have a contract with Teach For America, and this school year they represent about five percent of our new teachers. We have approximately 100 TFA teachers working in our district, and from what I’ve observed in the classroom, they seem to be doing well. However, there is both a financial and staffing impact with hiring these teachers, as their initial contract with us is only for two years. Working together, our district and Teach For America provide ongoing professional development, mentoring and support during those two years.

 MURPHY:  The majority of the candidates who have been hired for positions in Arlington Public Schools have come from traditional education colleges; however, we also receive many qualified applicants from alternative programs, such as the Career Switcher Program.  Over 75% of the new teachers hired by APS this year have earned a master’s degree or higher, and more than half have three or more years of teaching experience. APS does not have a contract with Teach For America.

DREAMING

 If you could make one change in your school system this year — no matter how expensive or dramatic — what would it be?

STARR:  I would make sure our students come to school each day feeling hopeful about themselves, their education and their future. Many of our students are dealing with very difficult circumstances each day. If our schools can work with their parents and the community to keep these students engaged and feeling good about their education, the academic results will come. I wish this was more of a focus nationwide than making sure our students follow the rules and are ready for standardized tests.

HATRICK: I would increase the financial resources available to hire and retain excellent employees.  This would require a rise in taxes, but the investment in the future is worth it.  After I retire from Loudoun County Public Schools next June, I will continue to advocate for better funding of public education at all levels.  Public schools are being asked to do more and more with less and less.  That formula does not work, and our children suffer for the lack of investment.

GARZA: I believe very strongly that having high quality, engaged teachers and educational leaders throughout our system is the most essential factor for creating and sustaining high levels of success for our students. Thus, it is important that we create conditions where our employees feel valued and where we are able to hire and retain the very best educators. It is a priority of the Fairfax County Public School School Board and administration to increase compensation for our employees. This will be challenging to accomplish given the current financial forecast for the coming years. We are committed to finding solutions to these challenges, so that we are able to continue to retain the best teachers in the state.

MAXWELL: I would make our employee compensation package more competitive so we can attract outstanding teachers to our district and retain them over the long run.

MURPHY: That all of us who work in public education – from the classroom to the board room – fully realize the influence we have in our students’ lives and exercise that influence so that all kids can reach their full potential.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | September 23, 2013