Notebook

New Mexico Expands Kindergarten-Plus

It's no secret that, on average, disadvantaged children enter school behind. Even before first grade, they typically lag behind their middle-class peers when it comes to knowing their letters and numbers and exhibiting well-developed social skills. Poor kids tend to have fewer books at home and fewer opportunities for enrichment outside of the classroom. To catch up to their middle-class peers, they need extra time in school.

State officials in New Mexico realized this a few years ago. They responded by implementing Kindergarten-Plus, an initiative devised by the late AFT president Sandra Feldman to lengthen the kindergarten year for our most disadvantaged students. In the 2003–2004 school year, New Mexico started Kindergarten-Plus as a three-year pilot program administered in four school districts—Albuquerque, Gadsden, Gallup-McKinley and Las Cruces—and focused on literacy, numeracy, cognitive and social skills. The districts' programs varied. Some added 40 instructional days to the school year, others implemented a half-day pre-kindergarten program, and others added time at the beginning of first grade, rather than at the end of kindergarten.

Based on the pilot's success, Gov. Bill Richardson has signed legislation to extend the three-year pilot for another six years, expanded it to include disadvantaged students in kindergarten through third grade, and provided $8 million for the program. A 2005 state evaluation found that the program "seems to be an effective way to nurture student success, particularly among high-poverty students." The evaluation also said that the at-risk students "displayed gains in literacy skills ... developed important social skills and benefited from increased parental involvement."


English Lit. 101

A key to understanding American history, literature and culture rests in the once indomitable British Empire, which at its height encompassed 400 million to 500 million people. At its center, of course, was England. That small island, miles across the Atlantic Ocean, inspired our country's democratic and literary traditions, a fact with which young Americans are all too often unfamiliar. A new book, however, can help teachers instruct students in the British influence on America and the world. The English Reader: What Every Literate Person Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2006) is an anthology of some of the greatest works in English literature, edited by education historian Diane Ravitch and her son, Michael Ravitch, a freelance critic and writer.

The collection is impressive. The nearly 500-page volume is filled with poems, essays, speeches, black and white images and songs from seminal moments in British history. There's Queen Elizabeth's inspiring oration before the invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and Winston Churchill's powerful words to the House of Commons during World War II. Of course, Shakespeare's sonnets and plays are included, as are the poems of John Donne, a priest whose vibrant writing influenced the likes of W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot. The works of political philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan), John Locke (Second Treatise on Government) and John Stuart Mill (On Liberty) are sprinkled throughout. The volume also includes the essays of scientific thinkers like Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

With such wide-ranging selections, this volume is an excellent resource for high school humanities and science teachers looking to add depth to their lessons. But remember, as the editors explain, an "anthology is merely an introduction."


Largest Study Yet: Teacher Transfer Rights and Equity

Various studies have indicated that high-poverty schools are more likely than other schools to have high teacher turnover rates, relatively less experienced teachers and a larger proportion of teachers without full certification.

As we reported in our winter issue, a number of researchers and organizations have claimed, based on having examined a handful of school districts, that this "quality gap" was caused by teacher unions and specifically, collectively bargained transfer rights for senior teachers.

A new study, the first to look at a large number of districts, refutes this claim. For this study, two Stanford University researchers analyzed 488 collective bargaining agreements in California and examined the relationships between their provisions and relevant district characteristics. Here's how they summarized their findings:

Contrary to prior research and conventional wisdom, districts with strong transfer provisions tend to have larger percentages of credentialed teachers.

This study finds that school districts with more determinative transfer and leave provisions tend to have larger percentages of credentialed teachers. These provisions, which allow more senior teachers to transfer to their preferred schools, might help districts recruit and retain higher-quality teachers. It is unclear, however, whether the stronger seniority provisions act to attract and retain teachers, or whether there are other attractive contractual provisions or district-level factors. Moreover, the authors note that the relationship may go the other way. Strong seniority preference provisions may be the result of more qualified teachers and stronger unions. The finding that districts with more determinative transfer and leave provisions have greater percentages of credentialed teachers persists even when the authors controlled for a wide range of other district characteristics.

Strong district transfer and leave provisions have no systematic effect on teacher-quality gaps among schools.

Consistent with prior research, the authors find that schools with larger percentages of minority students, with more students, with enrollment growth and with smaller average class sizes all have fewer certified and experienced teachers. They do not, however, find convincing evidence that this problem is greater in districts with strong (i.e., more determinative) transfer and leave provisions. In other words, such strong provisions have no independent effect on the quality of teachers in schools within districts. There is also no compelling evidence that the transfer and leave provisions have an indirect effect on teacher distribution among schools by either strengthening or weakening the observed relationship between teacher quality and school characteristics (percentage of minority students, average class size, student enrollment and school growth). (Summary, p. 2.)

In a follow-up set of interviews with 19 human resource directors from a sample of the studied districts, the researchers probed why the strong transfer language didn't impede equitable hiring and assignment practices. Their finding? Mainly, the reasons were positive: The contracts included language that put students' needs above teacher seniority; the administrators and union leaders worked together to make sure that students' best interests came first; and policies were developed to encourage teachers to choose schools where they were really needed. However, some administrators circumvented the contract by, for example, hiding openings until they could be advertised outside the district.

To sum up, the researchers' write, "While all administrators reported that they 'live within the letter' of the contract, most find that the contractual language and working relationships permit a great deal of discretion in most cases. Consequently, our quantitative and qualitative analyses both suggest that the teacher-quality gap is most likely not due to nor exacerbated by the CBA (collective bargaining agreement) transfer and leave provisions" (main report, p. 78). The AFT has argued that the most effective way to remedy any teacher "quality gap" across high- and low-poverty schools is to use improved working conditions and incentives to attract highly qualified teachers to high-poverty schools.

The study, titled Curbing or Facilitating Inequality? Law, Collective Bargaining, and Teacher Assignment Among Schools in California, is available online both in full and as a summary.


Kids' Quality of Life: What's Up? What's Down?

After years of steady improvement, the quality of life of America's children appears to be at a standstill, according to the Child and Youth Well-Being Index (CWI). The CWI is based on a composite of 28 key indicators of well-being that are grouped into seven quality-of-life domains: family economic well-being, health, safety/behavioral concerns, educational attainment, community connectedness, social relationships, and emotional/spiritual well-being. The CWI has been tracking the well-being of children annually since 1975.

Despite an eight-year upward trend from 1994 through 2002, improvements in the quality of life of America's children and youth have stalled. The study found that children's health continues to decline largely due to a slowdown in the improvement of child mortality rates and a dramatic rise in the number of children who are obese. The CWI also found that progress in narrowing racial and ethnic disparities has stalled.

On average, children and youth in the U.S. are doing only slightly better today than they did in 1975. And their education results have shown only marginal improvement. The CWI's educational attainment domain, which is based on national mathematics and reading tests, has shown slight improvements in math scores since 1980, improvements that have accelerated since 1999 at age nine in both mathematics and reading scores, and at age 13 in mathematics scores. At age 17, however, there is only a slight improvement in mathematics scores, and a slight decline in reading scores since 1980.

On a positive note, children, more than ever before, are safer and engage in less risky behavior. The CWI found a continuing decline in the rates of teen pregnancy, violent crime and drug and alcohol use among youth.

The CWI's full results are available online here.

Click here (PDF) to view a chart adapted from the 2007 report of the Foundation for Child Development, Child and Youth Well-Being Index.


Want to Support Our Troops?

The Summer 2007 issue of American Educator included a call to support United Through Reading by sending children's books to Iraq. This book drive has come to an end. To learn about current AFT book drives, contact the AFT public affairs department at press@aft.org.

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