The Power of Policy

School leaders know well the power of policy to increase clarity, reduce conflict, and simplify decision-making. We have policies for tardies and absences, discipline, appropriate dress, and more, and these policies save an enormous amount of time and hassle.

When we have a policy, it means we’ve thought through a particular situation enough to realize that it’s going to come up again, and that having a well-thought, consistent response as a school is a priority.

When we have a policy, we don’t have to rely on persuasion or personal capital to convince others to go along with our decisions. If the policy says it, we’re doing it; the debate was over when the policy was created.

When we have a policy, we don’t have to re-invent the wheel; we can do what we did last time and not spend too much time on a simple matter.

When we have a policy, we can make purposeful decisions about when to update or revise our approach to particular issues. Many schools, for example, are revising their cell phone policies to enable students to use their phones for learning. If we aren’t as clear on our rules – for example, if every classroom has a different policy about cell phones – we end up wasting time on endless debate and negotiation as students move from class to class, and making changes is a more involved process because there’s no agreement to start from.

Rules board by Flickr user ilovememphis

Policies don’t take the place of caring and responsive leadership, but they do allow us to focus our time and attention on the truly novel and emergent situations.

One day, I was the only person in the office for a few minutes while the nurse and secretaries were dealing with something. A student came in complaining of a stomach ache, and I spend the next 5 minutes talking to the student and trying to figure out whether to call the parent. The student wasn’t made to feel better, and I got nothing done until the nurse returned and followed her well-rehearsed policy for dealing with (real or imagined) stomach aches.

Some of our policies, like this one, are more personal than organizational, and it’s these policies that store what we’ve learned from experience.

Think about the situations you encounter over and over again in your work (if you need help, check out Dr. Frank Buck’s book Get Organized!). What personal policies could save you duplicated effort and time?

Leeds National Benefit-Cost Study: Dropout Prevention Saves $127K Per Student

From the introduction to “The Costs and Benefits of an Excellent Education for All of America’s Children” (PDF):

Broad policy decisions in education can be framed around a simple question: Do the benefits to society of investing in an educational strategy outweigh the costs?

We provide an answer for those individuals who currently fail to graduate from high school. The present cohort of 20-year olds in the US today includes over 700,000 high school dropouts, many from disadvantaged backgrounds. We investigate the economic consequences of improving their education.

First, we identify five leading interventions that have been shown to raise high school graduation rates; and we calculate their costs and their effectiveness. Second, we add up the lifetime public benefits of high school graduation. These include higher tax revenues as well as lower government spending on health, crime, and welfare. (We do not include private benefits such as higher earnings). Next, we compare the costs of the interventions to the public benefits.

We find that each new high school graduate would yield a public benefit of $209,000 in higher government revenues and lower government spending for an overall investment of $82,000, divided between the costs of powerful educational interventions and additional years of school attendance leading to graduation. The net economic benefit to the public purse is therefore $127,000 per student and the benefits are 2.5 times greater than the costs. If the number of high school dropouts in this age cohort was cut in half, the government would reap $45 billion via extra tax revenues and reduced costs of public health, of crime and justice, and in welfare payments. This lifetime saving of $45 billion for the current cohort would also accrue for subsequent cohorts of 20-year olds. If there is any bias to our calculations, it has been to keep estimates of the benefits conservative. Sensitivity tests indicate that our main conclusions are robust: the costs to the nation of failing to ensure high school graduation for all America’s children are substantial. Educational investments to raise the high school graduation rate appear to be doubly beneficial: the quest for greater equity for all young adults would also produce greater efficiency in the use of public resources.

Additional reports are available on the CBCSE website.

Disciplinary Alternative Programs Used for Nonviolent Offenses, Study Finds

A study by Texas Appleseed, a “non-profit, public interest law organization,” reports that many students are being sent to alternative schools for minor, nonviolent infractions. The report, entitled Keeping Schools Safe While Reducing Dropouts: Breaking the School-to-Prison Pipeline, asserts that zero-tolerance policies are inappropriately funneling students into alternative programs, which have a dropout rate five times that of a traditional school.

As the report’s title indicates, there is a strong correlation between being sent to an alternative school for disciplinary reasons and being sent to prison. However, school administrators have significant discretion in sending students with nonviolent behaviors to these programs. As the following chart shows, the majority of Disciplinary Educational Alternative Program (DAEP) referrals are for nonviolent offenses:

graph showing that vast majority of referrals are for discretionary, nonviolent offenses

According to the Houston Chronicle, referrals to DAEPs disproportionately affect students of color and students in special education programs. In some districts such as Pasadena (a suburb of Houston), students in kindergarten or first grade are sent to alternative placements:

Suburban districts tend to be the most the most punitive, said Deborah Fowler, Texas Appleseed legal director.

Of these, the Pasadena Independent School District was one of the harshest.

It is the only district in Texas to appear on the report’s Top 10 districts with the highest alternative school referral rates each of the last five years. Houston-area school districts that made multiple Top 10 appearances in the past five years also include Galveston (twice), Spring Branch (twice) and Katy (three times).

“These numbers indicate that it is not the behavior that determines whether a student is referred to a (district alternative education program),” the report’s authors wrote. But rather, “it is, in large part, the district where the child goes to school.”

Other districts were spotlighted for sending black or special education students to alternative schools for nonviolent, noncriminal offenses at at least twice the rate of other students for the past five years. They include Humble, Klein, Katy, Pearland, Tomball, Goose Creek, College Station, Bryan and Huntsville. link

While clearly this is an embarrassment for the districts named in the Chronicle article, there are several implications for school leaders:

  • We must do whatever we can to reduce racial and socioeconomic disproportionality in discipline referrals
  • We need to create schools where students are set up for success and safety, not assume that kids will need to be sent to alternative schools
  • We need to create systems and structures to promote positive behavior, not just systems for punishing negative behavior efficiently
  • For the small number of children who cannot be successful or safe in a regular school environment, we need to create alternative schools where students can become successful, not take the next step down the path to prison

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Governor Gregoire Releases “Washington Learns” Report

Via email from Washington Governor Christine Gregoir comes this announcement about the release of the Washington Learns report:

Dear Washingtonian,

Education is the most important investment we can make in our economy, our state and our future. An essential part of The Next Washington plan, Washington Learns is a comprehensive review of our entire education system, from early learning through K-12, higher education and workforce training. The goal is to educate more Washingtonians to higher levels.

Since July 2005, the Washington Learns steering committee, which I personally chaired, and advisory committees, composed of 75 state and local leaders, educators, and business and community representatives, have been studying our education system. Today I am releasing a final report with strategies and recommendations for a ten-year plan to create a world-class, learner-focused, seamless education system for Washington. You can find the report at www.WashingtonLearns.wa.gov.

The final report focuses on five major initiatives: the early learning years, math and science, personalized learning, college and workforce training, and accountability. Washington Learns recommends that we invest in early learning so that children start off as lifelong learners; improve math and science teaching and learning so that our citizens have a competitive edge; personalize learning so that every student has the opportunity to succeed; offer college and workforce training for everyone; and hold ourselves accountable for results.

I understand the urgency of improving our education system if Washington is to remain competitive in the global economy. We have set forth a ten-year plan. Some recommendations can be acted upon immediately, some will need to be phased-in, and, for some, we will need to collect more information before fully implementing them. We will work to do as much as we can, based on sound evidence, as soon as we can. Our commitment is to deliver real results within a decade.

I’ve heard your voices and ideas on education. In September 2006, we received public testimony from nine communities on a draft report. Public hearings were held in Olympia (with live video links to Wenatchee, Grays Harbor and Yakima), Spokane, South Seattle, Vancouver, Mt. Vernon and Pasco. Over 1,500 people attended the six public hearings and we received over 1,000 written comments by mail or online. A telephone survey of 600 citizens statewide was also commissioned. All of this public input was considered in crafting the final report and I appreciate all of your time and interest in improving education for every Washingtonian.

I want to thank you for your dedication and hard work, for your contributions to your communities and for your commitment to our children and our state’s future. I look forward to working with you to create a world-class, learner-focused, seamless education system for Washington.

Sincerely,
Chris Gregoire
Governor

Integrating Schools by Socioeconomic Status

Several districts have had initial success with integrating schools by socioeconomic status rather than race in order to eliminate the achievement gap.

Districts using this model distribute students so that no school has no more than 40% of its students qualifying for free and reduced lunch:

As policymakers grapple with NCLB’s goal of reducing the achievement gap, they are coming to terms with the reality that no one knows how to make high-poverty schools work on a systemwide basis. Some school districts have concluded that rather than try to achieve the nearly impossible, they should take measures to ensure that all students have a chance to attend solidly middle-class public schools.
Educational Leadership – May 2006 | Volume 63 | Number 8 | Challenging the Status Quo | Pages 22-27

The Four-Day School Week

Some schools are shortening the school week to four days, staying longer Monday through Thursday and keeping schools closed on Fridays:

In parts of the American West such as Salmon [Idaho], sharply higher fuel prices have prompted a growing number of school districts to save money by shortening the school week to four days.

School systems in such remote, sparsely populated areas, where school bus routes can stretch across many miles and take hours to complete, say far higher transport and other energy-related expenses are squeezing already shrinking budgets. link

Parents are concerned about the cost of daycare for Fridays, and schools are concerned that longer school days may make it harder to keep students engaged productively. However, many districts have successfully transitioned to the four-day week, saving money and giving teachers three-day weekends.

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