Twice Told Tales in Education

For most of the past decade, I have discussed with classes of graduate and undergraduate students the impact of unions in the private and public sectors. Although providing a number of important benefits to the modern work force, the use of seniority as the controlling measure of a worker’s value has created problems to their continued growth in this age of fiscal austerity. Unions and the public have recognized this and are moving toward systems of performance based measures of rating employees. While the rest of the world is moving toward performance based measures, it is strange in the extreme to find that the Federal Department of Education and Institutions of Higher Education are making evaluation of instructors for performance illegal.

During the week of April 4, 2011, I was summoned to a town hall meeting for my school to discuss the new regulations being implemented in July of 2011. The meeting was scheduled for 8:00AM, which was a significant problem if you had classes until 11:00PM the day before. None the less, I stumbled into the meeting at 8AM only to find out it really did not start until 8:30 AM. The early start time was to be sure we would be there for the teleconference start. That’s right, it was a teleconference. After waiting with a room full of sleepy and grumpy people for half an hour, the administration (Campus Director and Corporate Representative) entered the room.

They announced that due to recent changes in Federal Department of Education regulations, we would no longer use performance to determine compensation. Merit raises were outlawed, as were performance awards, except for time in position. Each year, and once a year only, all employees would be eligible for a single salary adjustment based on a, “cost of living adjustment” or “COLA”. There would still be performance factors attached to each job position, but meeting those performance factors could not be used to establish your rate of pay. As long as you are employed, your pay would be uniform, based on a calculation of the national cost of living for the country. There would now be two ways of getting increases beyond the “COLA”. Once each year, employees that qualify for advancement may, “voluntarily”, request promotion. If the request is made and the person making the request meets all the requirements for the job, they will be granted that position. Their salary will be adjusted during the next annual salary adjustment period. However, if they take the promotion, they must satisfy all of the new job requirements, or face corrective actions up to and including termination. There was no provision to allow employees to be demoted. If you elected to request promotion, it was succeed or…. well, you know the rest.

The room erupted in a chorus of questions for clarification, out of which came the following verbatim response:

We are revising our compensation and performance programs to comply with the Department of Education’s new Incentive Compensation regulation that goes into effect July 1, 2011. The Incentive Compensation regulation bans all payments of value, other than a fixed salary or wages, to covered employees for services rendered based in any part, directly or indirectly, on activities engaged in at any point in time through the completion of a student’s educational program for the purpose of the enrollment of students or the award of financial aid to students. The regulation also states that multiple (i.e., more than one) adjustments in any calendar year to a covered employee will be presumed to violate the prohibition.

As the realization of this change sank in, my mind flashed back to the many classes in which I had discussed this very problem with my students concerning unions, where performance was far less important than longevity. The young energetic employee, full of new ideas and eager to try them out, is often frustrated by a system that values longevity over innovation. Now, after years of arguing against such systems, I found myself in just such a system. I spend an enormous amount of time writing, studying, belonging to professional organizations to stay current, as well as working with advisory boards, and boards of directors for various businesses, so I can provide my students the best possible education. All that effort would now be considered wasted. If I sat at my desk watching movies and playing video games rather than preparing for classes, I would get the same pay as everyone else.

This strange twist of events was brought about by the effort of the Federal Department of Education to force for profit colleges to not base the pay of their recruiters on the number of students they brought into the institution. Over the last few years there has been growing concern over methods employed by these schools to attract students that use federal dollars to finance their education. While representing about 11% of total student populations, they account for 48% of student loan defaults. These figures appear ominous on the surface, until you understand the make-up of student populations in these schools. Most are students that could not, or would not survive in more traditional institutions. They are returning veterans with physical or emotional impairments. They are single mothers, or fathers, struggling to find the path to a better life. Some are mentally ill, with conditions that make it all but impossible to function in a traditional setting. Or, they are just old and uncomfortable with the college environment. These students require additional tutoring and additional attention that they will not receive in traditional settings. It is no wonder their failure rate is outside the norm.

Regulation of all educational institutions is good. In the present economic environment, every dollar is and will be precious. Safeguarding this dwindling resource is the responsibility of all of us, but instituting a regulation that institutionalizes mediocrity is not the answer. When the meeting ended, one individual made a statement that had the clarion ring of truth to it. He said, “We all have just become employees of the state.” Many of my colleges and me joined for profit institutions to avoid being encumbered with the archaic system of tenure. A system that rewards staying in the job, rather than innovation. At a time when our country desperately needs new ideas and perspectives, the promulgation of this rule by the Department of Education was a bad idea.

Off-Site Solutions Recognised by Department of Education

The Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, announced in 2004 by New Labour, planned on renovating or rebuilding every English secondary school in a £55 billion scheme.

BSF was cancelled due to coalition spending cuts on the 5th of July 2010, and 719 schools that had been in pre-construction stages were left unable to proceed with their plans. A further 706 schools, having already signed contracts with private construction companies, are to go ahead with works, but have been forced to make substantial savings.

The future for the 719 leftover schools looked bleak. However, a leading off-site construction company have offered up a solution using modular and off-site techniques to lower the cost and enable the remaining schools to be built. A company representative spoke with Milton Keynes MP, Iain Stuart in September, explaining the benefits of off-site construction, and the options available for building schools from standardised modules.

Stewart proceeded to put forward this representation to the Department of Education, and received the following response from Lord Hill, who is responsible for schools capital policy:

“The purpose is to ensure that future capital investment represents good value for money and strongly supports the Government’s ambitions to reduce the deficit, raise standards and tackle disadvantage. Off-site construction…is one of the options under consideration by the Capital Review.”

Lord Hill gave his thanks for raising modular construction methods to his attention and has passed it on to the Capital Review team who he was sure would “find it of value”.

Modular construction techniques provide a cost-effective and efficient alternative to traditional building methods, with a wealth of design opportunity available.

The off-site industry is striving to remove the preconceptions of modular buildings – the modern capabilities being a far cry from the portable classrooms of the 50s – and to show the design flexibility off-site construction can offer.

Modular construction offers broad design flexibility contrary to preconceptions of ‘boxy’ prefabricated buildings of the past. The beauty of many off-site buildings is that they have developed tremendously in terms of visual appeal, and it is often impossible to distinguish them from a traditionally constructed building. Essentially, a menu can be created for schools to be built from, that architects can help to visualise and create.

Innovation in modular buildings over the past 10 years has been significant, making off-site construction even more relevant to the education sector. Corner-Loaded Modules are available that increase design flexibility and generate significant cost savings on site and throughout the life of a building. These hybrid buildings are based around a steel frame, which provides greater architectural freedom in an economical and space-efficient building system. This type of system means the building designer can ‘break out of the box’ and specify modules that are non-rectangular or have internal atria or balconies. The design scope is extensive and this also includes the possibility of corner-to-corner glazed walls, a feature that is becoming very popular in schools.

Off-site capabilities also include energy efficient and sustainable building techniques and materials, as well as a range of environmental additions such as sun tubes and rainwater harvesting. The Hybred® is an innovative modular building solution which offers the potential to achieve ‘A’ rated energy performance, an environmental consideration that is becoming an increasingly important target for schools.

Modular building has been proven to reduce programme times by 50% (PSLG Building June 2010 pp48). The reduction of project time and increased speed of construction mean that buildings can be erected in weeks rather than months; there are no weather constraints as units can be made watertight before arriving on site; and cost certainty can be achieved, because the industry and its techniques are far more predictable than tradition building methods. Statistics show that 99% of off-site projects are completed on time and budget (PSLG Building June 2010 pp48).

With off-site starting out with the prefabricated classrooms of the 50s and 60s, the modular industry has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to meeting schools’ needs. Schools lie at the heart of the community, which means they are often located in built-up residential areas, where long term construction work could cause a nuisance to local residents. Similarly, because of where they are located, access is often difficult and normally restricted. Added to this are the tight deadlines which are imposed due to the need for construction works to be carried out mainly during the school holidays, in order to minimise disruption and prevent health and safety issues on site. Six weeks during the summer is a small window of opportunity in the construction world – and even shorter if you are looking at Christmas, Easter or half term breaks. Being able to create a weathertight seal, often in days, means that even during a two-week half term, the building can be in place with work progressing in the internals – and minimal disruption to the day-to-day activities of the school.

Off-site construction has long presented an attractive option to schools and, in many cases…it is the only practical option.

The Secret To US Department of Education Loans

If you have heard about any kind of Federal financial aid for students, you are already familiar with US Department of Education loans. The US Department of Education handles all government aid for defraying the cost of attending college in America, from grants to loans. The first thing that you will need to do to apply for US Department of Education loans is to fill out a FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid form. FAFSA forms compare the amount of money required to attend a specific college to the amount of money that can be expected to be paid by the family of the attendee. Any difference is the amount of money eligible for student aid.

Qualifying for US Department of Education Loans
US Department of Education loans have specific qualifications that an applicant must meet to be eligible. The qualifications include US Citizenship (some non-citizens with social security numbers are also eligible), financial need, possession of a valid Social Security Number, and proof of eligibility for higher education in the form of a high school diploma, General Education Development (GED) certificate, or similar. Furthermore, applicants for US Department of Education loans must be in good financial, academic, and legal standing. In other words, they must be registered with the Selective Service if required, they must not have defaulted on a student loan in the past, they can have no record of conviction on charges of sales or possession of drugs, and they must maintain a certain grade point average (GPA) to continue to receive student loans from the Department of Education.

Types of US Department of Education Loans
There are three main possibilities when considering US Department of Education loans: grants, which are monetary gifts, student loans, and work-study programs where the money for education is earned. Only in the case of student loans
does the money need to be repaid. Most federal grants are based solely on financial need, and some are given on a first-come-first-served basis, so it is important to apply as early as possible.

Work-Study programs are not technically US Department of Education loans, but they are a federally mandated way to
receive financial aid to attend college. A number of work-study hours are specified as part of the financial aid package.

These usually involve jobs working with non-profit companies or on campus, and pay a modest salary. The money earned can be used for college tuition. True US Department of Education loans include the Perkins Loan, the Stafford Loan, and the PLUS loan for parents.

Perkins loans have a particularly low interest rate and can be paid back over a time period of as long as 10 years. There are a limited number of Perkins Loans available to each school every year. The Stafford Loan has a higher interest rate than the Perkins loan, and doesn’t necessarily offer a grace period after graduation. However, there are more Stafford loans offered by the US Department of Education every year. Stafford loans are even available to students who don’t have a pressing financial need. Stafford loans may be paid off over a period of as long as thirty years.

PLUS loans are the final type of US Department of Education loans. They are offered to parents of undergraduates, as opposed to the students themselves. Payments on Federal PLUS loans start two months after the money is received, and can be paid off over a ten-year term.