SWOT Recap: School District Performance

Posted: January 31, 2012 in Education
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One of the issues that most people agree on when discussing Amsterdam’s weaknesses is our school system. The lagging performance of the school district (ranked 80th out of 85th in last year’s Business Review School Report) has been cited as one of the major reasons that families with children pass on Amsterdam.

It’s clear that Amsterdam has a bigger challenge than most communities due to it’s percentage of students coming from impoverished families. A graph of school district ranking vs percentage of students eligible for reduced lunch, shows a clear correlation.

However, the graph also makes it clear that there are exceptions to the trend, which provides at least a glimmer of hope that with improvements to our districts programs and strategies, it may be possible to climb 10 or 20 ranking points higher. A jump in rankings would send a huge message to families in the region that something good is happening here. It’s difficult, however, to hold much hope when we hear so little indication from the Board of Education that they know how to accomplish this.

The last major change to our school system was the implementation of the magnet school concept. The idea behind creating a magnet school, as I gather, was to encourage voluntary de-segregation of minority students and to promote academic achievement. Under the magnet school program, parents are now allowed to pick which school they would prefer their child attend, subject to lottery system. Also, each school now has a themed curriculum.

With my children attending two different elementary schools, I’ve been able to get a glimpse at how the theme works into the schools’ curriculums. In my own estimation, the themes provide a nice form of enrichment to the student’s experience. But it’s hard to see how these themes affect performance on the cores subjects of math, reading and science.

Indeed, if you look at the test scores over the time period when the four elementary schools started the program (McNulty in 2006, Curie in 2007, followed by Tecler and Barkley in 2008) there appears to be no correlation in improvement for any school other than Curie. McNulty’s scores have consistently decreased. Both Tecler and Barkley showed upward trends which began before the magnet program was started. (Note: all schools showed a drop in scores between 2009 and 2010, which I believe was due to a change in NY standards.)

As far as the goal of equalizing the percentage of minorities in each school, this chart shows the relative percentages of Hispanic students registered at each school before and after the magnet program was started.

While implementing the magnet program brought in large amounts of grant money from the state, the data suggests that it has done very little to improve our school performance or diversity.

So what to do next? I see two questions that concerned residents need to answer. First, what new educational strategies are out there that could work for Amsterdam, and secondly, should we expect our existing officials and governing body to take the lead in studying and implementing new ideas, or does an external approach need to be taken?

One possible route which has been tried before, but may be worth taking another look at is to create a charter school. No doubt, the idea is controversial. The past two attempts to form a charter school in the Amsterdam area have failed.  But I think the idea that Flippin presents as part of his Big A initiative is worth considering. His idea is to create a charter middle school that focuses on digital arts, engineering and alternative energy. I believe that having one charter school, which would have the freedom to develop and innovate its own systems of teaching, would introduce an element of competition which could spur the school district to become more proactive.

Reading through the news archives on what happened with the last charter school effort, it seems the difficulty with creating a charter school in Amsterdam lies in the fact that NY State looks at the financial impact of the new school on the district. Adding a new school was judged detrimental to the district back in 2004. No doubt, an additional middle school, one that would take students away from Lynch, would face a similar challenge. Flippin suggests funding the school at first through bonding as part of a more comprehensive economic revitalization program. This method may reduce the financial impact of the new school on the district. Another idea might be to convert the existing middle school or one of the existing elementary schools to a charter school, instead of creating a new one.

Another idea that has been in the news recently is the “Flipped” classroom concept which is based on the growing evidence that the amount of  individualized attention that a student gets from the teacher is what makes the most difference in his or her academic performance. Basically the idea is for teachers to put all instructional teaching on video which the student would view at home. This frees up more time for the teacher to work individually with students in small groups during school time. In other words, the idea of what constitutes school work and homework is “flipped.” There are valid concerns about this method,  and it’s difficult to tell whether it would be effective here in Amsterdam or not. But it’s ideas like these that need to be considered.

I’ve said more than once that I believe that my children will receive a good education in the Amsterdam School District. I am confident of that because I am committed to being involved in my children’s education. But in order for our education system to be seen by the wider region as a strength and not a weakness, we are going to have to introduce further changes to our system to increase our overall performance. Those of us who care enough about this issue are either going to have to press hard on our school board and officials to come up with and implement new strategies, or we’re going to have to find ways to go around them.

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Comments
  1. diane says:

    Tim,

    You bring up excellent points, one of which is your belief that your children will do well in the local schools. While I have no studies to cite, studies have shown that when the parents are involved at all levels of the child’s education, they do better in school. So how do you involve more parents in the every day life of their child, at school and at home?

    • Tim Becker says:

      That’s a good question. I think the answer varies depending on how functional of a family the student has. For parents who just need a little more encouragement, maybe it’s just a matter of instituting a more disciplined method of communication. I know of one school that is using the online software InfoDirect to better facilitate communications between parents and teachers.

      For students with parents who are just not going to be involved, unfortunately, I think it just comes down to the teachers being able to provide more of that one-on-one that the student needs. The “flipped” model of teaching, in theory, makes it easier to do that. That way a student, when home, just needs to watch an hour or so of video teaching, then he or she gets help from the teacher with the “homework” at school.

      I wonder sometimes how much training teachers get in handling hard-to-teach students. It probably depends on what their college curriculum was like. Maybe it’s a matter of hiring teachers who have more training in this area, or providing more training to our existing teachers.

      Anyone else have any ideas?

  2. robert purtell says:

    I feel that you have some valid points, but every year the business reveiw does their report, I wonder how things would look if Amsterdam was in a smaller peer group. weather it was similar sized service area by sqaure miles or students served.The variables are very easily manipulated when there are so many,just school to school the comparison takes in 85 schools, then you add in the rest of the variables of size, budget, free lunch etc, it can become skewed. It would be interesting to take the data and boil it down, maybe it could look differently, then again it may look worse, who knows?

    • Tim Becker says:

      Yeah, it’s tough to sort it all out. But on the other hand, test scores are test scores. Regardless of how we rank or compare, the numbers show alot of students are failing and we need to do better. If we as a community were intensely focused on helping students to acheive academically, especially the at-risk kids, I think you would start to see better test scores which would lead to a higher ranking. If Amsterdam jumped 10 rankings in a period of, say, 5 years, that would be something we could publicize and would go a long way in dispelling the “Amsterdam Schools Suck” mentality.

  3. Mary Ann says:

    All of my 3 children went to Amsterdam Schools two for all their eductional years, one since 2nd grade. They all do well as adults and have promising careers. When I say this to many in the City they always say “things have changed”, but what has changed? My youngest who graduated 10 years ago, told me that there were so many students when he was in high school, being disruptive, he could sometimes hardly hear the teacher. When I asked him what they did about it he said they told them to quiet down and sit down, but most of them didn’t listen, and disrespected the adults, so it was a difficult learning atmosphere.
    Where does this come from?
    It all begins at home, I believe. Perhaps we should be disciplining the parents who cannot seem to control these individuals or just don’t want to be bothered. We would all like to believe our children are good decent people, but we all know as teenagers the buttons they can push, especially if they know they can get away with it.
    I myself have been a substitute teacher in this district as well as two others. When I substitute for the kindergardeners many times I have asked them how many of them read with their parents a few times a week. In a class of aprox 23 I might get 3 or 4 children raising their hands. I think, how sad, I too was a working mom but my husband and I always found time to play games and read with our children, even if it was on the weekends only. These were the things that made family and money was not necessary as we could borrow books from the libaries, or buy games & books at garage sales for little.

    Perhaps we can institute Parent or Guardian classes for a few hours each weekend like Sunday afternoons, with children included, and require it for endangered students who look like they are dropping out or failing, or who read at a below level pace. We are heating the schools after all. Those who don’t comply can be visited in the home, counseled, and as a last resort placed on probation. It would take an enormous effort but it would get the message through and perhaps save our Amsterdam youth…!!

  4. Charter schools face big opposition from school districts and teachers unions because they redirect State and Federal funds from the district to the charter schools. Unlike magnet schools that are controlled by the districts, charter schools operate independently and there is no mandate for teachers to join the union.

    This may be what Amsterdam needs to break out of the current cycle of poor performance. When an organization becomes too large or resistant to change, a wake up call in the form of a charter school may be a good thing.

  5. diane says:

    When my daughter was in school, every Wednesday an envelope came home for the parents with information etc in it. The parents had to sign off on the envelope and it went back to school the next day. It is a good communication effort, easily instituted and keeps parents in the loop to what is going in the school and classroom and with their child.

  6. […] Tim Becker at ParsNova has a well-written post on the GASD , test scores and the failure of magnet s… […]

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