Vote “Yes” for the Meals Tax

Fairfax County voters: Be sure and vote “Yes” on the meals tax referendum. “The meals tax is intended to diversify county revenue and to supplement and not supplant support for school and county services,” Chairman Sharon Bulova of the Board of Supervisors and Chairman Sandy Evans of the School Board said today. “The meals tax is intended to diversify county revenue and to supplement and not supplant support for school and county services.”

Bulova and Evans explained the meals tax:

The meals tax would create a new revenue source, paid by diners in Fairfax County who are county residents, tourists, and workers who live in neighboring jurisdictions.

The School Board has committed that its share, estimated to be almost $70 million in new funding, will be used primarily to address teachers’ salaries, which have lagged behind neighboring communities.

Almost $30 million would be available to address general county services or capital improvements such as in public safety, mental health services, libraries, and parks, as well as providing for property tax relief.

More information on the meals tax referendum is available online.

Note: the meals tax, if approved, would not be levied in the Town of Clifton, or in the Towns of Herndon and Vienna, where a meals tax has already been implemented.

Colleges should place more importance on the teaching of political history

Political history was once a dominant specialization of American historians. In today’s New York Times, Frederick Logeval and Kenneth Osgood ask the good question: Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History?

  “American political history as a field of study has cratered,” Logeval and Osgood say. “Fewer scholars build careers on studying the political process, in part because few universities make space for them. Fewer courses are available, and fewer students are exposed to it. What was once a central part of the historical profession, a vital part of this country’s continuing democratic discussion is disappearing.”

These two history professors conclude:

Knowledge of our political past is important because it can serve as an antidote to the misuse of history by our leaders and save us from being bamboozled by analogies, by the easy “lessons of the past.” It can make us less egocentric by showing us how other politicians and governments in other times have responded to division and challenge. And it can help us better understand the likely effects of our actions, a vital step in the acquisition of insight and maturity.

Zapping zeros in grades for students

Fairfax County is reforming its grading policies for high schools and middle schools  next year. I support the effort to limit zeros on grades. The Washington Post reports that other school districts are also discouraging or prohibiting teachers from giving out zeros.

In the past, some teachers have used zeros to punish minor failures to follow directions. This is not a productive learning environment. It is particularly unfair to students with attention deficit disorder. I agree with Gregory Hood, the principal of James Madison High School in Fairfax County, who says that a zero on a 100-point scale distorts a student’s overall grade. “A zero provides no information about what a student has learned, and it negatively impacts a student’s grade when averaged with other grades.”

The Post reports that critics of this shift argue that “teachers are losing important tools to enforce diligence and prepare students for college and the workplace.”

Drastic sanctions are just as inappropriate in the workplace as they are in school.

Fairfax County will implement four major changes in the grading policies for middle school and high schools next year:

Limiting or Eliminating Zeros in a 100 Point Scale

  • If a student has been given multiple opportunities to complete work and has not done so, a 0 may be entered in the gradebook at the end of the quarter.
  • If a student has made a reasonable attempt to complete work, teams are encouraged to assign a grade no lower than 50.
  • Schools that have established “no zero” polices in previous years may continue those policies.

Separation of Work Habits and Achievement

  • All grades entered into the gradebook will relate directly to the standards listed in the Program of Studies or other designated curriculum and should reflect a student’s mastery of content or skills.
  • Student’s attendance, effort, attitude or other behaviors will be communicated to parents through report comments or other means that do not include grades.
  • Late work will be accepted to document learning/mastery. Teacher teams must set reasonable guidelines for turning in late work to encourage work completion by their students. If a student misses an assignment, a placeholder (such as M for missed, I for incomplete, etc.) should be entered into the gradebook.
  • Patterns of late work should be reported to parents through email or other means.
  • Homework for practice or preparation for instruction may account for no more than 10% of a quarter grade.
  • Class participation may be included in a student’s grade if it is based on the quality of a student response and not the quantity of responses. If a team will include class participation in a student’s grade, guidelines for assessing must be included in the course syllabus.
  • Students will not be given extra credit or grades for activities such as bringing in classroom materials, providing parent signatures, participating in fundraising/charitable events or participating in non-curricular activities.

Maximum/Minimum Weights Grades Can Carry

  • Collaborative teams are encouraged to set grading design so that no one assignment/assessment counts more than 30% of the quarter grade.

Retakes with Associated Guidelines

  • For major assessments, at least one new opportunity to demonstrate proficiency shall be provided to any student who scores below an 80% and completes corrective action determined by collaborative team.

  • An opportunity to demonstrate increased proficiency may be provided to students who score at or above 80% at the discretion of the collaborative team.

  • If not all students are afforded the second opportunity then the highest grade that can be earned is an 80%.

  • If all students are afforded the second opportunity then the highest grade shall be recorded in the grade book.


Handwriting and cursive writing are helpful in learning to write

Why handwriting is still essential in the keyboard age. According to Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, research suggests that children need introductory training in printing, then two years of learning and practicing cursive, starting in grade three, and then some systematic attention to touch-typing.

She was the lead author of a study published in The Journal of Learning Disabilities that “looked at how oral and written language related to attention and what are called “executive function” skills (like planning) in children in grades four through nine, both with and without learning disabilities.”

She told Perri Klass that “handwriting—forming letters—engages the mind, and that can help children pay attention to written language.”

“As a pediatrician,” Klass writes in the New York Times, “I think this may be another case where we should be careful that the lure of the digital world doesn’t take away significant experiences that can have real impacts on children’s rapidly developing brains. Mastering handwriting, messy letters and all, is a way of making written language your own, in some profound ways.”

Klass says, “There is a tendency to dismiss handwriting as a nonessential skill, even though researchers have warned that learning to write may be the key to, well, learning to write.”

See also: More time might allow more teaching of cursive writing,
Students should have enough time to learn cursive writing, and
The Declaration of Independence as a model of good writing.

Elections can be improved

Many people are not wildly enthusiastic with the way we elect our presidents or our local officials.  Clearly there is room for improvement, from the national level to the local level.

Kathleen Parker says, after Trump, the GOP may need a better voting system. People pay more attention to the presidential voting system than to how votes work for other offices. But the idea of an “approval” ballot is something that might be useful for local elections such as school board elections.

In Virginia, school board elections are supposedly nonpartisan. Practically speaking though, in a large school district such as Fairfax County, it would be difficult to be elected without an endorsement from either the Republicans or the Democrats.

Parker reports that one ranking method, “advanced recently in the New York Times by economists Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen, was developed by 18th-century mathematician and political theorist Marquis de Condorcet. This process called for ranking candidates in order of approval — or not ranking them at all, as an indication of disapproval. The candidate with the highest approval ranking would win.”

There are several other ways of winnowing candidates and selecting the ultimate winners. It’s a good idea to think of ways of improving our elections.

Fairfax will start school one week prior to Labor Day in 2017

Tonight the Fairfax County School Board voted 11-1 to begin school one week prior to Labor Day for the 2017-18 school year. Superintendent Karen Garza will present a detailed calendar incorporating this change for the school board to consider in late fall.

Ryan McElveen (D-At Large), made the motion, saying “We wanted to give the community as much advance notice as possible.” He said there were 56,000 responses to a survey on the proposed change in the start date: 56 percent of the parents and 64 percent of the staff members supported starting school prior to Labor Day. Steve Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, testified that his group supported the change.

Tamara Derenak Kaufax (D-Lee District) voted against the proposal, saying she would be the lone voice speaking for those who prefer to start school after Labor Day. She said that the earlier start would have minimal impact on the “summer slide” or on SOL prep.

Several  board members cited having extra time to prepare AP tests as a welcome benefit of the pre-Labor Day start. Elizabeth Schultz (R-Springfield) said she wished that students had been included in the survey. Ben Press, the student representative to the School Board, agreed. He said students and teachers were stressed out trying to prepare for the AP exams, which start next Monday. He had earlier advocated a reconsideration of the current policy of requiring all students in AP classes to take the exam. He suggested that this should be a matter for the student to decide.

The discussion showed some ambivalence about the role of tests, but clearly the issue of test prep (particularly at the high school level) was a major concern of the board.

I will be interested in learning more about the rationale for the current schedules of the AP and IB exams. I liked the old tradition of starting school after Labor Day.

Board of Supervisors increases funding for Fairfax County Public Schools

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted this morning to increase funding for schools by $104 million. In amending County Executive Ed Long’s FY2017 Advertised Budget at Budget Mark-Up, the Board voted 7-3 in favor of a $1.13 tax rate for FY2017, an increase from the FY2016 rate of $1.09 per $100 of assessed value. Chairman Sharon Bulova wrote, “The 4-cent increase will generate approximately $93 million in additional County revenue that will invest in valued County services such as education, public safety and human services.”

Here are more details from her email:

This Budget provides a needed “booster shot” to support our excellent School System and to ensure the quality services our residents expect and rely upon. Throughout these past months, our Board heard from thousands of residents advocating for an increase in taxes to address our community’s needs.

Thank you to the Virginia General Assembly for increasing State funding for FCPS by an additional $16.8 million. In addition, this budget strongly supports public safety in Fairfax County and allocates funding for Diversion First, which provides persons with mental illness treatment rather than incarceration in the case of minor offenses.

Please see below for more details and links regarding this year’s budget. Thank you to everyone who called, emailed and testified at town hall meetings and budget public hearings to share your views and guidance on the budget. Community feedback and engagement is critical to the process of adopting a budget, and this budget is a reflection of what our Board heard from the community this year.

Some FY2017 Budget Details:Some FY2017 Budget Details:

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Young students should not be suspended or expelled

Nancy Hanks, the chief of schools in Madison, Wisconsin, and Superintendent Jennifer Cheatman developed a new discipline policy that eliminated suspensions in preschool through third grade and greatly reduced the number of suspendable and expellable offenses in grades four through 12.

In a speech reprinted in the Washington Post, Hanks explained how she met a student she expelled, and it changed her approach to discipline.

Under the new policy in Madison, suspensions decreased by more than 40 percent across the district, “which restored 1,900 days of what would have been lost instruction—1,200 of which were for African American students.”

I think avoiding suspensions in preschool through third grade makes sense. Another article published in the Huffington Post in 2012 explains why suspension makes no sense in the early grades. Laura Bornfreund states:

Alternatives to suspension take more thought, time and in some cases investment — like making counselors available. But those investments are worth it to help children learn from their mistakes, and develop the skills that will ultimately keep bad behavior from repeating. In the early grades, discipline should be a teaching tool. Suspension does not teach. All too often, it is the canned response. When it comes to young children, even one suspension is too many.

Is Algebra II useful to students?

Algebra II has to go is the argument made by Andrew Hacker in a new book. Slate Magazine reports that he proposes replacing algebra II and calculus in the high school and college curriculum with a practical course in statistics for citizenship.Only mathematicians and some engineers actually use advanced math in their day-to-day work, Hacker argues—even the doctors, accountants, and coders of the future shouldn’t have to master abstract math that they’ll never need.”

He notes that between 2010 and 2012, 38 percent of computer science and math majors were unable to find a job in their field. During that same period, corporations like Microsoft were pushing for more H-1B visas for Indian programmers and more coding classes. Why? Hacker hypothesizes that tech companies want an over-supply of entry-level coders in order to drive wages down.


Garza justifies her proposed budget increase for Fairfax County Public Schools

Superintendent Karen Garza makes a good case for increasing the budget for Fairfax County Public Schools by 4.8 percent over the Fiscal Year 2016 budget. In order to balance the budget, and due to  nearly flat state aid, a 6.7 percent increase in the county budget transfer to FCPS is requested..

Here is the email message that Garza sent out today:

Dear FCPS Community:

I am so grateful to be the Superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools – a school system with a tradition of excellence and one that has long enjoyed the tremendous support and engagement of the entire community. FCPS’ reputation for excellence is forged through genuine community investment. Our dedication and success is first and foremost to ensure success for every FCPS student, but this success also attracts businesses and people to our county, and fosters meaningful connections to our schools for residents of all ages.

Last night, I presented the FY 2017 Proposed Budget of $2.7 billion to the School Board. This year, I am asking our employees, students and families to stand with me to reverse the trend of nearly a decade of underfunding our school system. This is the year we must begin the restoration and rebuilding process. We have heard loud and clear from our community they do not want additional cuts to the programs and services that make FCPS great.

For the past nine years, we have cut a half billion dollars from our budgets due to insufficient funding to meet our increasing enrollment, rising health care costs, state retirement increases, and employee salary needs. Our teacher salaries are lagging behind other local jurisdictions, and this year we started school with an unprecedented 200 vacancies, we must do everything in our power to see that this never happens again.

The skills that we want for our students are taught, fostered and honed by great teachers in the classroom. I am pleased to announce that this budget has two key priorities focused on investment in the classroom:

  1. As a first step in a multiyear strategy to invest in our entire workforce, we have included a step increase for all eligible employees, a 1 percent market scale adjustment for all employees and an additional $40 million investment in the teacher salary scales. This investment narrows the salary gap for teachers and is an important first step toward improving compensation for all employees. Teachers make up the largest percentage of our workforce so that is where we begin with this initial investment. The budget also includes a salary adjustment for those employees whose hourly rates are below Fairfax County’s living wage standard.
  2. We are also making a significant investment in our elementary students through the lowering of class sizes. Class size has risen three times in the past decade to balance annual budgets. We are including more than $10 million to hire additional classroom teachers at the elementary school level to reduce class size in every elementary classroom to below 30 students, where classroom space is available.

We are calling on our funding partners at the state and local level to help us to fully fund the FY 2017 budget. We are asking for a 6.7% increase in the county budget transfer, which is needed to fund the basic needs of our school system. If we are unable to receive the revenue necessary to meet these basic and pressing needs then we will be forced to make unthinkable choices about where we cut next.

It is time to start investing in our community’s most important resources….our schools and our students. You can learn more about the budget proposal, and obtain resources to get engaged at

A quality education is not a luxury, it is a necessity!

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