Reading the Tea Leaves in Tight Times

Posted by Bob Blackney on January 30, 2013

Image of scissors For school districts, this year could see the worst budget struggles in California’s history.  Most districts used up their reserves long ago; the rest have scant reserves left.  Districts have tapped categorical funds in historically-unprecedented ways.  One-time funds and the American Renewal and Reinvestment Act money have been expended.    Maintenance projects have been deferred year after year.  Furlough days and salary cutbacks have been implemented.  What to cut next?

How districts choose to reduce budgets can be very revealing. When under pressure, a district’s true colors come out.    Let’s look at some of the most common ways that a school district might approach budget reductions.

Across-the-board cuts

One of the most common is an across-the-board simple percentage cut of all budgets.  For example a district might cut all school budgets by 10%.  This kind of cut can be politically expedient; it treats every budget and program equally, and has the appearance of being even-handed.  What an across the board cut does not account for are the goals of the district.  If a district has a goal of getting all students to learn and use twenty-first century skills, an equal cut to all budgets will reduce the funding on programs that support this goal and the programs that are unrelated to the goal equally.

Targeted cuts

Another common way to reduce budgets is to target specific programs for reduction. Ideally, the long-term goals of the district are used to select which programs will be eliminated.  On the other hand, such cuts may be linked to certain personalities or to local politics.  For example, an easy way to eliminate a personality conflict is to transfer or lay off the person at the center of the conflict.  It is an old budget axiom that in tight budget times, “dead wood burns fast.”  Targeting programs for reduction can be a beneficial to an organization if it goes through a period of reflection and makes choices that increase the efficiency of the organization as a whole.

Turning down the flame

“Turning down the flame” is budget reduction strategy in which programs are reduced to a level where they are kept alive but are not given the funding to be particularly effective.  The organizational statement here is that the program is valued, and there is hope that when funding returns the program can be rejuvenated.  To implement a turning down the flame strategy, each program is evaluated to see the minimal level of funding that it it would need to survive.  Each program is given a reduction based those calculations.  Such calculations are time-consuming and difficult to predict. What appears to be the minimal level to one observer might appear very differently to another.

Focus on the future

Finally a district might choose to focus on the future.  In this method a district would fully fund the programs that link  directly to the most important goals of the district first, and then reduce other programs.  In this method the district commits to achieving stated goal, even at the risk of doing damage or eliminating other programs.  A district at a turning point might adopt this approach, because it is essential that strategic goals be accomplished regardless of the ramifications. This is a very difficult approach to implement and requires strong leadership and vision and clear goals linked to a shared vision.

Insights into decision-making

Each of these strategies provides insight into the decision-making of a school district.  They are indicators of how a district functions, what it values, and the goals it is setting for the future.  Perhaps a number of these strategies are employed.  An observer might examine the motivation and inspiration for each.  Interpreting how a school district chooses to reduce  expenditures in hard times is like reading tea leaves at the bottom of a the cup—a skilled observer will see more than tea leaves.

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Three Wishes for the New Ed Tech Task Force

Posted by Bob Blackney on April 30, 2012

I guess you know when you are getting old when you can say things like, “I have watched educational technology in California for thirty years.”  Unfortunately, this statement is all too true in my case.  From the days of AB 803 to the current state initiatives, the State of California developed many technology master plans and visions for technology in education.

Recently, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson called together a group of bright and energetic stakeholders from across the state to update the California State Technology Plan.  As this talented group headed to Sacramento, I thought, “If I could have three wishes that could actually be granted by this group, what would they be?”  After some hours of pondering—and lowering of expectations from grand to achievable in the present budget environment—I was left with these:

Wish Number 1: A simple tech plan

While Wish Number 1 would cost no money, it could save hundreds of hours of time at each school and district.  Right now we have the “kitchen sink” template for technology planning.  It includes detailed planning for the next three to five years out.  The resulting document easily exceeds 100 pages.  Much more beneficial would be a simple two to five page document that is updated yearly/bi-yearly in light of the changing technology and budget landscape that might be accomplished within that shortened period.  This makes particular sense given how quickly the tech environment changes.  Fives years ago, who could have foretold the present explosion of mobile technologies, software as a service, and lightweight operating systems?  Certainly not Microsoft.

Wish Number 2: On-line learning

Most of the nation has devised a plan to enable schools and districts to provide on-line learning and for districts to collect ADA for student participation in these programs as part of the general educational program.  On-line learning in its many forms is not a futuristic vision, but is a fact for most industries, local governments and state educational systems.  Woefully, this is not reality in California. California should look to the many states that appear to have this figured out and adopt or adapt one of their systems.  Last year, it appeared we might have new legislation that would allow our schools to offer on-line learning, but at the last minute the bill was gutted and morphed into a bill to protect shark fins.  (Really!  You can’t make this stuff up.)  California’s students should have the same priority as shark fins, but in the meantime, we deprive students of valuable options.

Wish Number 3: Funding for schools

Funding for technology in California has varied between miniscule and non-existent.  Given this dearth of funding, two general strategies have been used, both based upon the notion that since there is so little money in the pot, equal distribution would be too small to make a difference.  One strategy has been to pool funding into more significant amounts and have schools write grants to access resources.  Using this strategy, successful applicants might have enough money to implement a program.   The second, and current, plan gives funding to leadership projects and county offices to provide services within the counties.  What’s the matter with that approach?  The answer is pretty simple.  Learning takes place in schools, and if no money is going there then students never get it.  In some form, at least half of the state funding should find its way to support schools.

Some general principles

In granting my three wishes, there are some general principles I recommend to the Task Force.  First, allow for a great deal of local discretion in planning and implementation.  California is a big place and planning for the whole state is difficult if not impossible to do from Sacramento.  How can a single school district in a remote area of the state do the same things that a large urban district might?  Would you even want them to try?   Second, shoot for the middle.  The average teacher and student are not looking for a cutting edge solution but for simple, easy-to-use, proven technologies.  Lastly, plan for a “beer budget.”  We don’t have the funding to support grand designs and would be better not to start there.  California is more like the Simpsons than the Kardashians, and a plan that acknowledges the budgetary facts would be welcome.

Well that’s it, my three wishes.  None of these would cost additional money and could be accomplished in the next school year.  Not a grand vision of a digitally connected future with each student linked to a myriad of digital resources, but a more pragmatic look at what can actually be done.

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Tech Equity: It’s not just for kids

Posted by Bob Price on November 28, 2011

Like most districts, we want our teachers to have access to powerful instructional technology.  And, like most districts, technology purchases for us have been made with a mix of limited district funds, some grants, and site categorical funds.  This has led to a situation where there are haves and have nots in terms of access to instructional technology.  A recent grant allowing for most of our math classes to have access to Promethean Boards caused our teachers of other subjects and grade levels to ask about access to these powerful technology tools.  When we took an inventory of the technological tools available to our teachers, we were surprised at the discrepancies across the district.  Our classrooms ran the gamut from full Promethean tools with document cameras to a single overhead projector sitting in a corner.  We realized we had a serious equity problem.

Our model of allowing sites to drive the educational technology available in classrooms had created a situation where student and teacher access technology varied dramatically.  A student could experience a relatively rich or embarrassingly poor access to technology tools depending on the luck of what teacher he/she was assigned to.  It was possible for students to spend their entire K-8 careers having only had access to teachers with an overhead projector.  Or they could be the lucky ones that had teachers with state-of-the-art technology.  This unacceptable situation led us to initiate our Tech Equity Project for teachers.

Utilizing a highly motivated Tech Vision Team, we developed minimum standards for technology for teachers.  After much discussion, it was decided that each classroom should be equipped with a teacher laptop, sound system, smart projector and document camera.  Funding for equipment would come from excess bond funds.  Sites agreed to pay for maintenance, repairs and supplies with the funds they were allocating previously to purchase hardware.  Our Tech Vision Team members offered to provide the necessary professional development at their sites in exchange for access to new technologies.  After much planning, meeting with vendors, and individual meetings with teachers and principals, our vision will be realized when teachers return from Winter break.

The next step in our vision will be the issue of equity of student access.  We have the same problem of haves and have nots with student technology.  Our goal will be to have all classrooms with an internet device available for all students within the next two years.  Whether that device will be a notebook, netbook, or tablet has yet to be decided.

The other big issue for us is whether our teachers will utilize all of this technology in powerful ways to improve student achievement.  One thing is certain.  No one will implement technology they do not have.  We are looking forward to the next steps in our journey.  Parent, teacher, and community support for our Tech Equity Initiative has been overwhelmingly positive.

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Summer School: Lessons for the rest of the year?

Posted by Devin Vodicka on August 10, 2011

It is hard to believe that summer is almost over.  Like most districts in California, ours has been under intense fiscal pressure due to ongoing budget cuts.  This influence, coupled with increasing expectations for student achievement, led us to redesign our summer school options.  We now have an opportunity to reflect and evaluate the merits of our decisions.

The silver lining in the current financial crisis has been the relaxation of rules for programs like summer school.  In the past, our revenue would have been linked to the number of hours of attendance for students that qualified for varying rates of reimbursement.  Now that the supplemental hourly programs such as summer school are flexible, we asked ourselves what the needs of our students were and how we could best use existing resources to address those areas.  As a result, we decided to offer a distance learning program for students in need of credit recovery at the high school level and an English Learner academy for all grades.   Thanks to recent funding from the Education Technology K-12 Voucher Program, we had some iPads and iPod touch devices that we decided to deploy as part of our EL academy.

How did it work?

Our district sits on the edge of the Pacific Ocean about 35 miles north of San Diego.  I mention this because the first thing we noticed was that attendance, which usually drops off during the summer, held steady in spite of the lure of our coastal diversions.  Student engagement, which typically is not at its peak during summer interventions, was remarkably different than in the past.  Teacher enthusiasm—also subject to variation during the summer—was off the charts in a positive direction.  Grades and local assessments also showed higher levels of success than we previously have seen in the summer.

Here are a few recommendations based on this experience:

  • Take advantage of the existing options to be creative with program design.
  • As always, consider multiple funding streams to support your plans.  We used Voucher funding for the hardware, Title III dollars for the EL academy instruction, and some Tier III revenues to provide for distance learning resources.  Much of the planning was supported by a one-time, ARRA Technology grant.
  • Remember that many technology resources—hardware and software—are unused during summer.  For us, having the iPads sit in storage would not have served our students.  The distance learning licenses we purchased earlier in the year were “annual” subscriptions that also were viable for use in the summer without any additional expenses.
  • Use student achievement data to guide your areas in need of attention.
  • Empower teachers and staff to best use the technology resources.  Our teachers discovered new and creative ways to motivate and instruct students that we would not have been able to anticipate had we provided too much of a script for their plans.

As educational leaders, my hope is that we find ways to turn our challenges into opportunities for improvement.  Strategic and novel deployment of existing technology resources is one strategy that will help us to best serve our students and communities.  If we can make it work during the summer, what is to stop us from doing the same throughout the year?

Learn more:

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Taking the “Mist-ery” Out of Cloud Computing

Posted by Donna Hackner on May 17, 2011

During the late 1980’s, while working on my Masters in Educational Computing degree at Pepperdine University, I came across this quotation:

The next schism that will exist between those that have and those that do not have is access to information.

That schism has since become known as the “digital divide.”  This quotation has been the catalyst for me and my involvement in educational technology. Every student should have access to resources available on the World Wide Web, and countless debates and much energy have been put into providing access.  The solution is simple: cloud computing.  I call it the “great leveler” because it presents a solution for leveling the playing field and providing  access for students.

What is cloud computing?  And what are the implications for educators?  Cloud computing in education allows resources to be equitably accessible to students without worrying about the many technical aspects of technology. Basically, resources needed by students and teachers are maintained on a server elsewhere—i.e. the “cloud”—and are accessible through a portal.

The advantages to schools, especially charter schools, are great in terms of  savings in the cost of hardware, software and tech support.  Academically, cloud computing provides 24/7 access to students, parents and teachers.  And most importantly, as stated before, it levels the playing field and allows access to critical learning resources.

Learn more about cloud computing.  The video Cloud Computing Plain and Simple, by Santee School District,  does a good job at explaining it.

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