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Trouble with Top-Down Federal Funding for Education
posted by: Colin | July 21, 2010, 02:47 PM   

Joyce Irvine is a casualty of bureaucratic necessity.

A stellar principal by all accounts, Ms. Irvine was traded by her Burlington, Vermont school district for $3 million in federal stimulus funding. Despite a myriad of successes listed in a recent New York Times article, Ms. Irvine's couldn't significantly raise annual test scores during her six-year tenure as principal of Wheeler Elementary School. Under an Obama administration funding formula, Ms. Irvine has to lose her job if her school district is going to receive stimulus dollars.

Even Ms. Irvine acknowledged the sense in the decision: “You can buy a lot of help for children with that money.”

It is true that annual scores at Wheeler Elementary School weren't improving enough and accountability is crucial to long-term success in education, but it is possible that Ms. Irvine's school deserved an exception. Wheeler has a 97% poverty rate. 37 of 39 fifth graders are either refugees (with little previous education) or special education students. One-half of the students are foreign-born, and collectively the student body speaks 30 languages. Any students enrolled at least one day before the No Child Left Behind standardized tests are required to take the exam. One year Wheeler was inundated with 28 refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Kenya, all of whom were required to take the state math test after one month of being in an American school. And the list of unique challenges goes on and on.

Ms. Irvine's work, given her circumstances, is praised by her superintendent and even a sitting U.S. Senator. And yet, she is now unemployed. Her work has reduced suspensions from 100 to only seven. She converted the school from a struggling elementary school into a successful arts magnet. Burlington superintendent Jeanne Collins even noted that if "progress" were measured for each student, Wheeler would excel, but the state relies on annual tests and the unique situation at Wheeler Elementary cannot be made an exception. In fact, the reason decisions are made at the local level is so that such exceptions can be considered. But with more money coming from Washington, there are likely to be more Joyce Irvine's who suffers for not conforming to a bureaucratic formula.

Recent African refugee John Mudasigana captures both sides of the story at Wheeler. John's 11-year-old daughter Evangelina is learning to play the violin, while his son, a fifth-grader named Oscar, got five questions wrong on a reading test because he thought the paragraph describing astronaut Neil Armstrong's trip to the moon was fictional. "Oh, Mrs. Irvine," Oscar said, "Man don’t go on the moon, man don’t go on the back of eagles, this is not true."

Although superintendents, politicians, and local communities see dollar signs when the federal government offers funding, what they don't see is what it might cost to comply with a broad policy that has to ignore the nuances of each local community. Money always comes with strings attached and by the nature of federal policy people are going to fall through the cracks. It seems like Joyce Irvine is a capable and hard-working principal who benefited the students of Wheeler Elementary, but her dismissal is the flip side of each coin the federal government sends to a local school.

Is there a disconnect between your classroom and Washington, D.C.?
Should Joyce Irvine have been let go?

Comment below.

Comments (3)Add Comment
written by Bobby, via Facebook, July 28, 2010

amen roger
written by Roger, via Facebook, July 28, 2010

"Is there a disconnect between
your classroom and D.C.? Are federal funding decisions affecting you?"

Answer to the first question....YES! Answer to the second question....YES!
written by Bob, via Facebook, July 28, 2010

In the classroom over which I preside, I invite people to think. The possibility of voters who can think should send shivers of fear up and down the spines of candidates for public office.

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