I am one member of a five person board. The opinions I express on this forum are mine only, and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Escambia County Staff, Administrators, Employees, or anyone else associated with Escambia County Florida. I am interested in establishing this blog as a means of additional transparency to the public, outreach to the community, and information dissemination to all who choose to look. Feedback is welcome, but because public participation is equally encouraged, appropriate language and decorum is mandatory.

Monday, March 23, 2015

#NSBAConference 2015 Nashville-Day 3--VPK, Distance Learning in Alaska, and Montel Williams.

Day three of the NSBA conference for 2015 began with a break out session on the value of VPK programs-- presented by officials from Pennsylvania that are intimately involved with VPK in that state.  I must admit that I attended this session with an open mind, however I remain skeptical as to the educational benefits, long term, that these programs impart. Nancy Fishman, the director of Pennsylvania's Early Learning Investment Coalition, and Kathy Swope, the 2015 President-Elect of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, led the panel.  The presentation began with graphics illustrating that the human brain develops the majority of its simplest, yet most important "circuits" early in life, with sensory pathways, language, and higher cognitive functions developing in the first five years.  The group described the educational benefits of ECE based upon results gleaned from the Perry/Highscope project from the 1960's.  Several other studies were mentioned, but no one specific study was listed as the proof that investment in ECE increases graduation rates.  A couple of interesting survey responses were presented in this session, although the value of this information does not really pertain to the efficacy of ECE programs so far as I can tell.  Statistic One:  93% of more than 300 employees surveyed agreed that a candidate's demonstrated soft skills (extensive list here) are more important than their undergraduate degree of study.  Statistic two:  56% of 1000 middle schoolers would rather eat broccoli than do math homework?  Also stated at the conference without any studies supporting the claim was that larger investments in ECE reduce a school district's ESE spending.  Interesting tidbit that I will look into and research.  At the end of the study I asked the panel to explain where the proof of ECE's long lasting educational impacts could be found and I asked their thoughts on the recent Vanderbilt Peabody study and the Head-Start study that appeared to both show no lasting long-term academic benefit from these programs.  The panel said that they believe the head start study had design flaws.  Needless to say, I'm still skeptical.  I believe these programs are beneficial socially, economically, and that these programs may ease transition into school for students--however I take issue with the huge amounts of taxpayer cash being fed to these programs under the guise that these programs result in higher graduation rates.  I have seen no compelling proof of this from well constructed research.

The next presentation I attended was a discussion of distance learning presented by members of the Lower Kuskokwim School District  (LKSD)from Bethel, Alaska.  This district's story is compelling.  This district is in a part of Alaska that has no roads--most all transportation takes place by air, boat, or snow machine.  The district has 4,100 students spread out in small towns and Native Alaskan Villages in a massive geographical area of 21,000 square miles--roughly the same size of the entire state of West Virginia!  To ensure all students in this district receive a world-class education, the district has invested in an extensive wireless network that links all of the school sites via computer.  The cost of the wireless network in an astonishingly huge $23 Million yearly--however the superintendent reported that the majority of this cost is met by federal and state grants.  Many of the students receive their education remotely via Video Tele-Conferencing (VTC)--which solves what would otherwise be a daunting transportation challenge. This district has made huge strides in technology; to put this district's massive move toward technology into perspective, the presenters note that as late as 1979--there was but one (1) phone in the entire town of Bethel, the main city in this district. People from around the whole area would have to line up at city hall to take "turns" using the phone.  Nowadays,  students in LKSD have many teachers that remote in from Alaska and also from as far away as Wisconsin.  The technology allows students in this remote part of the world to access the resources necessary to receive a world class education--and this district has fielded championship robotics teams three years running--teams that have competed in the world robotics challenge.  Interestingly, this district's students are utilizing technology today that is literally on the cutting edge--technology that in many respects points to the future of education for many students in our nation that live in remote areas.

The final presentation of the day was a fiery, inspirational appearance by television personality Montel Williams.  He came to NSBA's final general session with an up-beat, positive message for the assembled school board members.  Before he even started his presentation, he led the audience in a series of exercises to "Wake the crowd up" he stated.  He walked around the room for most of his presentation, rarely getting up on the stage.  He talked a lot about his own journey in life and his early days in public schools, and some of his challenges and many of his successes.  He thanked the crowd for what they do for enhancing American education, proudly exclaiming to the crowd "Do you know that our graduation rates in America today are at 82%, and this is an all-time high!"  he continued "We hear a lot about this country doing this or beating us by three points on this test or that metric---but let me tell you what, Who Cares! I mean, when was the last time Finland or Sweden produced  a start-up company that anyone has heard of?!? We live in America, the greatest country in the World" said Williams to enthusiastic applause.  He next talked about his military service, and his enlistment in the U. S. Marine Corps where he excelled and was invited to attend the Naval Academy and was the only African-American selectee among the 40 who were chosen for this honor.  Eventually, he was but one of 4 that completed their education in the Naval Academy from this original group of 40.  Williams earned his degree in Engineering, attended the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, California where he learned to speak Russian.  He ended up serving the country for 22 years in the Marines.  After his service, he began a successful career in television broadcasting, with a 17 year run doing "The Montel Williams Show"  His message to the group was to keep working hard to make the public schools as good as they can be, and he imparted his no excuses mantra to the audience>, stating "It does not matter where you come from, what your family looks like, what your level of support is--none of that matters as long as you are supported with a strong public school--you can succeed in America!"

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