Monday, October 28, 2002


People may be reluctant to vote "NO" on the OPS tax increase Nov. 5 because they think it would be snatching chalk out of children's hands, unplugging their computers, and saddling teachers with class loads of 50 kids apiece.


Here are 10 common-sense ways that OPS could, and should, adjust its spending patterns to save beaucoup bucks for taxpayers, and meet children's academic needs a whole lot better:

1. Performance audits.

Put together a star-studded committee of liberals and conservatives NOT employed by the school system to choose an objective, outside accounting firm to do a performance audit on the $705.9 million OPS is spending this year. Purpose: to spotlight wasteful spending, and disclose facts the public needs and deserves in order to tell whether OPS is being fiscally responsible. Let's have a hard look at the books!

2. Phonics.

Get rid of whole language instructional methods in kindergarten through third grade. They're OK after that. But if you don't teach K-3 with systematic, intensive, explicit phonics, the kids won't learn to read, write, spell and think properly. It's that simple. That's why the inner-city kids are doing so poorly. It's not the money spent on them; it's the method. The method OPS uses, whole language, is TEN TIMES more expensive than phonics. It uses disposable curriculum that is used once, then tossed. The books are not written, but "engineered" to contain the same few words that are added to the kids' vocabulary each year through memorization. A phonics reader has TEN TIMES the vocabulary of a whole-language reader, and vocabulary gain is the name of the game.

3. Traditional classroom style.

Get rid of "Developmentally Appropriate Practice" and "Child-Centered Education" for K-3, too. That's why there's no discipline in schools: schools aren't set up to be disciplined environments any more. Teachers are no longer supposed to be authority figures who direct the learning; instead, they're the "facilitators" who try to stay out of the way of the learning process. Desks aren't placed in rows, but in face-to-face groups, so the focal point is the other kids, not the teacher. Kids are moving around in tight quarters all day, from "center" to "center," and there's almost not a single minute of the school day where there's peace and quiet. No wonder it has flopped, and so many kids are acting out behaviorally. They're confused, frustrated and overstimulated, that's why. Kids can't focus, read, write, think and figure in those wild, chaotic classrooms. Kids are laying around on the floor with a pencil jammed in their fist, attempting to write with little or no penmanship instruction. They're sprawled in a beanbag chair with a book, but they're reading "in their own style" -- looking at the pictures, guessing at the words, looping their eyes all over the page -- instead of working from top to bottom, left to right, in an orderly fashion. The teacher is reduced to a "file server" just handing out learning materials and curriculum, instead of what a teacher should be: a wise, wonderful guide, coach and authority figure who plans the year based on the idea that adults DO know more than children and the only way to make a person competent is by teaching the skills, not hoping children "luck in" to them on their own. We would save an unbelievable amount of money and headaches, too, in reducing behavior problems when kids know the rules and see school staff as authority figures again.

4. Handwriting.

Handwriting should replace keyboarding in the grade schools as the communication method of choice. There's a lot more to it than just making your papers look nice, although that's a benefit. A child's brain becomes ordered and disciplined by staying on the lines, spelling words correctly, erasing what's not well-formed, and so on. OPS denies kids a lot of the natural brain development they need, by denying them handwriting lessons. Handwriting plays a significant role in the proper teaching of phonics because of the brain connections it helps kids make. It is the physical element that goes with hearing the sounds the letters make, saying them aloud, and writing them down properly. The best thing about phonics that is taught properly, such as the Spalding method, is that it is multisensory . . . using all of a child's senses. A child is on the threshhold of reading once he or she can write alphabet letters quickly and accurately. Since OPS does not teach penmanship, much less full-blown phonics, the kids are denied this gateway to reading. That's why so many of them are failing and struggling and winding up in costly reading remediation. OPS really should get rid of about 90 percent of the expensive social engineering it is doing in grade schools to try to help kids learn, and simply teach penmanship. Voila!

5. Reduce the influence of bad federal programs, mainly Title I.

Title I is the federal reading and math remediation program that draws millions and millions of dollars into OPS ostensibly to help reduce the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and the rest of the student body. The trouble is, the methods used in Title I programs are exactly the same failed methods that are used in the regular classroom . . . only the Title I teachers get a lot fewer children to work with at a time, and talk LOUDER and s - l - o - w - e - r. It's an enormous waste of time and money, and just makes the kids feel worse when it doesn't work any better than what the regular classroom teacher was doing. Once again, there's nothing wrong with the kids. There's a LOT wrong with the methods teachers are using, that Title I pays for. Either use Title I funds for systematic, intensive, explicit phonics . . . or quit taking it, because it's a "last resort" that actually destroys the hopes of our kids. Similarly, federally-funded English as a Second Language (ESL) programs have been shown to be inferior to the English immersion programs now in place in California and Arizona. Much better to use local funding and do it right.

6. Math basics.

Get rid of whole math textbooks, computers and calculators in the grade schools, and you'll save an enormous amount of money and space, plus improve the learning environment for math a great deal. You don't build math brain cells with a steady diet of computer games and the loud, colorful stimulation of technology. Kids need a classroom to be relatively peaceful and quiet in order to concentrate on math and think concepts through. They need the many benefits of copying a problem out of the book or from the blackboard or overhead slide, onto their own paper, and then working it out with a pencil and their heads . . . alone. You help kids get better at math with paper, pencil, a good textbook (OPS' curriculum choices are terrible; see www.mathematicallycorrect.com), maybe an overhead projector, and a teacher who knows that the best way to higher-order thinking skills in math is to help the kids master the basics first. Again, the building blocks for math achievement are just not there in the early grades in OPS.

7. Truth in Special Education.

OPS should reveal how many students are labeled "special education," and for what reasons. Report to the public how many dropouts and "ungraded" kids there are, who are not going to graduate at all, or on time. Report what percentage of kids labeled SPED for any reason ever leave SPED. Do even 10 percent? 20 percent? Doesn't the incentive seem to be to get struggling learners into SPED and leave them there, just because that label brings the school district more money? Shouldn't there be a DISINCENTIVE for nonmedical SPED labeling? A switch to proper phonics, K-3, would improve the children's skills and behavior patterns so much that they could go back to the regular classroom. We could probably reduce the SPED rolls by at least 50 percent over the next five years, making hundreds and hundreds of kids feel better about themselves and saving untold millions of dollars. Try it, OPS! You'll like it!

8. Reduce overstaffing.

OPS should identify and reduce its overstaffing, especially in nonclassroom jobs.

9. Repeal early retirement for school employees.

OPS and other districts around the state should 'fess up that the lavish teacher retirement law they got the Legislature to pass a few years ago is 'way too expensive and has driven most of the good, experienced teachers out of the classroom. Under the "Rule of 85," if you reach age 55 with 30 years of teaching experience, you can retire with full pension. Many people are choosing to resume teaching on a contract basis . . . so they are drawing, say, 75 percent of their salary in the form of their pension PLUS whatever they make as a private-contractor teacher or district employee. WUZZUP WITH DAT? OPS should reveal how much this change has cost taxpayers, work to get the law changed, and go back to full retirement at age 65.

10. Insurance.

Health insurance is significantly cheaper for school district employees than for those who work in private-sector jobs and pay the taxes to cover those skyrocketing costs of health care for our education workers. But the public has no idea about this perk. OPS should release a meaningful report on its coverages and costs so that the public can see a straight-up comparison. One reason school salaries are justifiably a little less is that the fringe benefits are so much better, and the difference is more than made up with cheaper health insurance. A change to more reasonable premiums and deductibles would save taxpayers substantial money and go a long way toward restoring the public trust in OPS' willingness to treat taxpayers fairly. They need to prove they recognize that our dollars mean as much to us as theirs do to them. That's the only healthy response, in today's economy.

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