Learn About: 21st Century | Charter Schools | Homework
Home / Edifier


The EDifier

September 4, 2015

Parsing religion’s place in schools

Religion and schools Few issues can spark more emotion and confusion than the role of religion in public schools. As Charles C. Haynes recently noted, “schools still struggle to get it right.” Here at CPE, we see evidence in the fact that, nine years after it was first published, our paper on the topic is still consistently among our top downloaded reports.

Edwin C. Darden, a lawyer and the author of the CPE paper, attributes the confusion to “the clashing and equally forceful commands contained in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” There is the right of students and staff to “freely exercise” their faith – a guarantee that does not go away when individuals enter the school door. At the same time, the First Amendment prohibits the government and its institutions – including public schools – from “establishing” religion.  Simply, schools must respect the religious rights of individual students and staff but do so while not appearing to endorse or favor any particular religion or even religion itself.

Sometimes the push and pull between these clauses leads to conflicts that eventually require the courts’ judgment to resolve. Haynes argues that many of these cases did not need to get that far. He writes, “What’s striking about these conflicts — and others like them across the country — is that far too many school officials are violating settled law. Either they don’t know the law or, worse yet, they simply choose to ignore it.” I think there is a lot of truth in what Haynes says. But there are also some situations where the lines are not all that clear between what is and is not allowed in schools, leaving even the most conscientious school leaders somewhat baffled.

Under the Establishment Clause, schools may teach about religion, which has an academic, secular purpose, but they must not cross the line to proselytizing or promoting religion. Darden gives the example of a school choir that sings songs of praise as part of its repertoire. He explains, “While the music originates from church, the choir is learning principles of performance, vocal control, and other artistic concepts by participating. The words of faith are viewed as secondary.” This, he argues, is an allowable school practice. But the distinction can get complicated.

A recent case in Laurens County, Georgia, also involves a song of faith, but some are questioning whether its purpose is truly secular. According to a news report, the West Laurens High School band has a decades-long tradition of playing “Amazing Grace” before football games followed by a moment of silence. Many in the crowd use the moment to recite the Lord’s Prayer together.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sent a formal request to the school to stop the prayer and song, and at this writing, the school board’s decision is pending. The case is far from clear-cut. The song “Amazing Grace” itself has a long history in the U.S. and could, therefore, fit comfortably in the educational, secular bucket. The individuals in the crowd also have a right to pray. But by following a school band’s performance of a song of faith with a moment of silence whose purpose is reflection or prayer, the school may be crossing the line from the secular to non-secular, and this could be a case of what the courts call “entanglement.” As Darden puts the question, “Does the government involvement with a religious activity stretch so deep that it is indistinguishable from the religious nature itself?” If so, then the practice would be judged unconstitutional.

These questions are confounded when community opinion and local tradition enter the fray. Little wonder, then, that many schools take the easy way out and essentially declare the school building a no-religion zone. But this is not a solution and can lead to other problems. Haynes cites the case of a Nevada school that refused to allow a sixth-grade girl to use a Bible verse as part of an assignment called “All About Me,” no doubt out of the teacher’s concern about allowing religion in the classroom but in clear violation of the child’s right to free expression. Religion avoidance also leaves gaps in children’s academic preparation. How can they understand history without understanding the role religions played in the political and social development of movements and nations? As an English major, I can’t imagine how to even read a large body of the world’s literature without some basic understanding of its religious context and metaphors.

The fear of religious controversy also affects the teaching of secular content that some faiths take exception to. This is especially true in science. The Fordham Institute found that most state science standards gave short shrift to the study of evolution, and that even in states that address this central biological concept, the mention of human evolution is “conspicuously missing.”

Haynes calls for in-service workshops for educators and administrators on “how to apply the religious-liberty principles of the First Amendment.” I would go further. I suggest that pre-service teacher and principal preparation require First Amendment training. And that all school leaders, including school boards, be given opportunities to better understand how to allow religion in the school that respects individuals’ rights while remaining neutral, as a public institution must.






March 19, 2015

Leading the Change to higher performance

Leading the Change

Public schools are excelling. Public schools are in the toilet. It seems like the rhetoric around public education in America these days goes from one extreme to the other, divorced from any history or context. The reality, as always, is more nuanced. There are public schools that rival the most prestigious establishments in the world and there are public schools whose performance is, admittedly, abysmal.

That’s actually the first step: admitting there are schools in the system whose performance leaves much to be desired . The second step is to find out why because until you can identify and articulate the problem, you won’t be able to implement the appropriate solution.

This, in essence, is what CPE’s work and mission is all about. This has also been the focus of NSBA’s current president, Anne Byrne, who wanted her tenure to not only highlight the good work occurring in public schools but the work that still remains to move all our schools forward.

Because while public school students are performing higher and graduating in record numbers, we also know that in many districts, one or more schools seem to languish at the bottom despite the efforts of teachers and desires of parents. Understandably, school board members can feel helpless trying to turn them around— though, if it were easy to turnaround chronically low-performing schools, there would be no low-performing schools in the first place. As is often the case, struggling schools are emblematic of deeper issues that extend beyond the campus grounds, issues like poverty, disenfranchised communities and inadequate infrastructure.

Enter Leading the Change, a set of data-driven decision-making tools to help school boards lead the transformation of chronically low-performing schools into high-quality institutions.

Currently housed on our Data First site, the tools build off the Data First decision-making process, which was developed by CPE in partnership with the California School Boards Association, the Illinois Association of School Boards, and the Michigan Association of School Boards.

Informed by research on what works to turnaround schools, as well as real-world experience and insight from a diverse working group of nine school board leaders, the Leading the Change toolkit represents the best thinking on effective local school governance as it relates to tackling underperforming schools.

While designed with school board members in mind, we think this is a valuable resource for anyone interested in getting beyond the rhetoric and blame game that seems to typify school reform debate, and toward meaningful progress for all students and all communities.

Let the change begin!






November 20, 2014

Growing concerns on testing

A recent opinion piece in the Denver Post challenged the commonly claimed notion that American public students are being tested too much. Recently, high school seniors in Colorado refused to take state assessments in science and social studies, arguing these assessments do not reflect what they have been taught.

But Alicia Caldwell, an editorial writer at the Post, writes that students from third to 12th grade are only tested 1.4% of the time in school, citing data from the state of Colorado’s Department of Education. Caldwell also points out that there was local input on these testing decisions, as eight educators from these school districts were placed on the committee that enacted the social studies standards in 2009.

These standards were put into place because Colorado students were required to take way too many remedial classes in college, which they received no credit but have to pay for. In essence, the Colorado students had to pay for classes that they should have already passed in high school. Finally, the author highlights the role of local districts, as “local districts are layering their own assessments on top of those required for the state, adding to total test time.” This reminds us that the amount of testing is the result of federal, state, and local policies. If parents or students, such as those in Colorado, are complaining about too much testing, then it is the school board and local government’s responsibility to make their testing information transparent.

Colorado is not the only state where communities have voiced their concern on testing. Maryland has also engaged in the debate over the right amount of testing. Eighth-graders in Baltimore schools, for instance, spend 14 to 46 hours a year on standardized assessments. A school year amounts to approximately 1000 instruction hours, so this would mean students are spending 1.4 to 4.6% on testing. When expressed as a percentage, this level of testing does not seem as significant as some of testing critics claim it to be. In Anne Arundel County, students are tested 46 hours per year and 33 of these tests are locally mandated tests. This again demonstrates the role of local government and school board decisions in testing.

An upcoming brief from the Center for Public Education will examine these and other concerns on testing and explain what studies have found on the subject. Stay tuned!






November 7, 2014

How Can School Leaders Respond to Concerns about Testing?

Many teachers, parents, and policymakers have argued that there is too much testing in American public schools, but how much testing is really going on in American public schools? TeachPlus executed a 2014 study on 32 districts in the United States and found that there is a wide variation of time spent on testing across different districts.  Seventh graders spend on average 17.1 hours on ELA and math testing per year in urban districts, while suburban districts spend 1.3% less time on testing than the urban schools. The variation between districts is a result of local policies as many of the tests students are required to take are district tests.

Achieve has provided a new tool, Student Assessment Inventory for School Districts, which can help school boards and other education leaders audit the amount of testing that occurs in their schools. Piloted in Connecticut and now available nationwide free of charge, this tool allows education leaders to evaluate current levels of student testing, determine the minimum amount of testing that will meet diagnostic, instructional and accountability purposes, and ensure that every district-mandated test is of high-quality.  By evaluating current student assessments, school districts will open a discussion over the amount of testing and become more transparent to parents. The tool provides a way local leaders can respond to the ongoing concerns over testing. — Courtney Spetko

Filed under: CPE,School boards,Testing — Tags: , — Courtney Spetko @ 12:58 pm





October 28, 2014

Building a better reporting system

As readers know, CPE is all about the importance of using data and research to craft effective school policy and practice. We also encourage everyone who has an interest in public schools to look at data when gauging their quality. Unfortunately, getting that data isn’t always as straightforward as it could be. Even when found, it’s often presented in long tables, complicated graphs and confusing formats that obscure rather than shed light on school performance.

The Data Quality Campaign sought to address the all-too-common lack of quality in the way states report school data to the public. DQC recently convened a task force of national education experts and advocates — an effort we were proud to be part of — to identify best practices in state reporting systems. The results of our meetings are contained in the publication, Empowering Parents and Communities through Quality Public Reporting, released today.

The recommendations are intended for state policymakers to inform their design of state data systems. These systems should feature the following characteristics:

  • First, the data is trustworthy. There’s obviously little value in data that is wrong or out-of-date so every effort must be made to ensure accuracy. In addition, an essential part of gaining the public’s trust in data systems is protecting student privacy. Indeed, parental concerns about who has access to their child’s data and how it is used have grown a lot over the last year. Both states and districts have a role in putting fail-safe limits on access to individual students’ data. (To learn more about how, NSBA’s general counsel’s office produced this excellent guide on assuring student data privacy and CPE/DQC developed this data privacy fact sheet for school boards.)
  • Good systems are also focused on meeting people’s information needs. Many state systems were developed with a view toward compliance with federal and state regulations. If this information was also useful to educators, administrators, policymakers, parents and press, it was merely by happenstance, not design. A good data system, however, is designed with the consumer in mind, going beyond compliance to provide a real service to education stakeholders.
  • State reporting is timely and ongoing. The data collection and vetting process can often delay public reporting for as long as two years. This doesn’t help teachers or parents who need to respond to students’ needs in real time, not long after the fact. The same is true for administrators and school boards who need current data to inform their decisions.
  • Finally, in a good system, data is easy to find, access and understand. Some state report cards are buried in the department of education website. Many others are hard to navigate or present the data in ways that are difficult to interpret. The DQC report features state-of-the-art data systems from Illinois, Ohio and others that demonstrate the possibilities in presenting data that is easy for non-statisticians to locate, understand and, ultimately, use effectively.

While the Empowering Parents report is intended for state policymakers, the accompanying fact sheets are written specifically for parents, administrators and school boards and they discuss how these different stakeholders can use data and be strong advocates for better data systems. — Patte Barth

Filed under: CPE,Data,Parents,School boards,teachers — Tags: , , , — Patte Barth @ 3:43 pm





Older Posts »
RSS Feed