Monday, November 18, 2013

Lessons for Our Schools from Apple and Microsoft

Let me begin by saying that I am emphatically NOT suggesting we run our public schools “more like a business.” Businesses exist to make a profit, not to provide a service. And manufacturers practice strict quality control over which “raw materials” they allow to pass their doors, unlike traditional public schools, which welcome every child — no matter how poorly equipped, prepared, or supported at home.

I am suggesting, however, that the examples of both great and poor techniques used by two of our largest and most successful companies may instruct us on mistakes we can and should avoid.

First, What NOT to Do

An insightful analysis by Kurt Eichenwald (Vanity Fair, August 2012) called “Microsoft’s Lost Decade” explains how a company that once dominated the tech industry has “fallen flat in every arena it entered: e-books, music, search, social networking, etc.” Again and again, it blew long leads on competitors, and now even its strengths in operating systems and Office are being threatened by the free Google Chrome OS and Google Docs. A single Apple product, the iPhone, had come to produce higher sales than the entire Microsoft Corporation.

How did it come to this?

Eichenwald found intriguing and instructive answers in “interviews with dozens of current and former executives, as well as in thousands of pages of internal documents and legal records.” They might be summarized as (1) emphasizing immediate profits and losses killed innovation and design, and (2) force-ranking employees against one another killed collaboration and actively undermined the core business.

The first change came when a brilliant technical guy, Bill Gates, was replaced as CEO by Steve Ballmer — not a “product guy”" but rather “a businessman with a background in deal-making, finance, and product marketing.” If great marketing could produce more revenue, the products themselves were less important. Everyone started watching the daily stock price, and long-range research and development suffered. Even with huge leads on e-readers and mobile operating systems, Microsoft was left in the dust by competitors.

But the real damage was done by forcing employee evaluations to fit the bell curve of a normal distribution. Microsoft called this “stacked ranking,” and the resulting corporate culture of “self-immolating chaos” nearly sank the company. No matter how good staffers were, only ten percent of each unit could be ranked as excellent, and ten percent would be ranked as poor, with three other ranks between. Not surprisingly, they learned not to collaborate, to withhold vital help and information, and even to actively sabotage one another. After all, they “were rewarded not just for doing well but for making sure that their colleagues failed” — and fail they did. One pernicious feature of the system was that “outcomes were never predictable.” Even achieving all your objectives was no guarantee of a high ranking; crippling your (coworker) competition was the safest way to stay afloat. And “worse, because the reviews came every six months, employees and their supervisors — who were also ranked — focused on their short-term performance, rather than on longer efforts to innovate.”

Sound familiar?

As mandated by the federal Race to the Top legislation, Michigan (and most other states) adopted laws requiring teachers and schools to be similarly “stack-ranked” against one another in a normal distribution. No matter how well they perform objectively, only a few will be designated as top performers, and a steady percentage will be labeled as failures. And such teacher evaluations have proven to be capricious, if not random, from year to year: one year’s “teacher of the year” will be rated as ineffective the next year. Just doing your individual job effectively is not enough to guarantee a high ranking. And the test scores of the moment are The Most Important Thing, crowding out the serious intellectual work it takes to perfect one’s professional craft.

To absolutely no one’s surprise, the “poorest” performers are those who deal with special education, English language–learning, and economically disadvantaged students. These students start from behind, have greater needs and fewer supports, and tend to cluster in the more poorly resourced schools with the least experienced teachers. Ask yourself: if you were a teacher, and your job depended upon how much progress your students made on standardized tests, why would you want to teach those destined to perform more poorly? Sure, there are innate rewards to helping those who most need the help, but you still have a family to support.

Teachers may not sink to actively sabotaging one another, as Microsoft workers did, but will they be inclined to share their secrets, their reliable tricks for helping kids to learn better? Will they actively collaborate to help one another and their schools and districts reach organization-wide excellence? Will they put in the time to study, test, evaluate, and share best practices, getting ever better at what they do, rather than doing endless test-prep for the only measure that seems to count? We had better hope so, but this discredited management system does everything possible to prevent and undermine that vital collaboration and professional development.


Microsoft has finally learned better. A few days ago, its head of human resources announced, “No more curve…. No more ratings.” The performance evaluation system had to change in order to foster the teamwork and long-range perspective that once made the company great. “We are optimizing for more timely feedback and meaningful discussions to help employees learn in the moment, grow and drive great results.” Wow. Do you think we could do that in our public schools again? Microsoft had a “lost decade” under this misguided system. It appears we are headed for a “lost generation.”

What TO Do

Apple’s “design wizard” insists that the company will always choose product quality over any strictly numerical measure of it. By that, he means that product specifications are not proxies for how good a product is or how satisfying it is to use. Marco della Cava, in a September 2013 USA Today, profiled Jonathan Ive, “the fertile and detail-obsessed mind behind culture-shaping products such as the lollipop-colored iMacs (1998), the iPod (2001), iPhone (2007) and iPad (2010).” His hardware group and Craig Federighi’s software group collaborated to produce the new IOS 7 and fifth-generation iPhones.

This duo notes that people care more about the quality of photos they take than the megapixels their phone boasts. The price and the screen size are similarly easy to measure but imperfectly aligned with perceived quality. As Ive notes, “There’s a more difficult path, and that’s to make better products, ones where maybe you can’t measure their value empirically. This is terribly important and at the heart of what we do.”

Apply THAT to schools!

Imagine if, instead of focusing seemingly all of our time and energies on “attributes that you can measure with a number,” in Ive’s words, we looked at students — our product — more holistically. Test scores are always a proxy for something else: knowledge, abilities, likelihood of future success, “college readiness.” Because they are simple numbers, they are very easy to compare across nations, states, districts, schools, and individuals. But test scores do not accurately measure nor reliably correlate with those real outcomes. Just as Microsoft found its personnel evaluations unpredictable, test scores vary from one iteration to the next in inexplicable ways. That is because they are actually quite poor measures. Using them to evaluate teachers and schools compounds the error, since the inputs on the child that produced that output included many, many more factors than those controlled by the teachers and the schools.

They don’t measure what we pretend they do, and the measurements are invalid because they vary in ways that we cannot explain. We rely upon them solely because they are numbers and therefore have an unwarranted cachet of “objectivity.” As Apple’s successful designers assert, numbers do not begin to tell the real story. What we really want for our children’s education, for our end “product,” is graduates who know how they learn, know how to find and evaluate information, can acquire skills on their own, know how to find and ask for appropriate help, are intellectually curious, take the initiative and the responsibility in their own learning process, are self-directed and self-disciplined, can work collaboratively with others, are self-confident in their written and presentation skills. Isn’t that what you want in your coworkers, hirees, managers … your own children?

The Apple folks say that they “care about how to design the inside of something you’ll never see, because we think it’s the right thing to do.” At its core, schooling should be about forming and molding the inside of our children, to help them become the top-quality products the world recognizes as the best. I fervently wish we’d catch a clue from the geniuses amongst us on how to do that.

Too Much Power Equals Danger

This post is not directly related to education. It may sound like the whining of an aggravated political partisan, but it is not. I am not necessarily opposed to the laws referred to below, but I do find the PROCESSES alarming. Abuse of power is never a good thing, and concentration of power tends to be corrupting — as demonstrated repeatedly through the millennia of recorded history. It appears that no amount of power is enough for those now in charge of our affairs....

In Michigan, the Republican Party firmly controls all branches of government, but that level of power is apparently not enough. In the legislature, for example, they routinely use voice votes to give immediate effect to legislation, despite their not having anywhere near the super majority required for that, should the votes actually be recorded. This legislature now also routinely attaches a small appropriation to any act it wants to make referendum-proof, to keep those pesky voters from getting in their way.

For example, the people voted a year ago to repeal an emergency manager law (which allows governor-appointed czars to take over municipalities and school districts bankrupted in large part by huge cuts in state revenue supposedly mandated by other laws). That aggravated the legislature, which immediately passed a replacement law, attached an appropriation so that it could not be repealed again, and used a bogus voice vote to give it immediate effect — clearing the way for the Detroit bankruptcy, among quite a few others in process or soon to come.

Another irksome thing has been the way folks keep trying to stop such over-reach through lawsuits, which are first heard by the Lansing-area (read: Democratic) Circuit Court judges. Yes, their rulings can be overturned by Republican judges on the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, but that slows things down!

Enter the fast-tracked Public Act 164, which moved the Court of Claims (for lawsuits against the state) from the capital’s Circuit Court to a panel of four Michigan Court of Appeals judges, all to be named by the (5:2 Republican) Supreme Court rather than chosen by blind draw. It was, of course, given immediate effect by bogus voice vote, and cases already before the Ingham County Circuit Court were transferred to the new panel.

Interesting side note: the Michigan Judges Association chose not to oppose the new law, as members lobbied that doing so would endanger their hoped-for pay raises: it would be “a suicide mission” while “it’s big boy politics being played.” Sure enough, two days after the law was passed, the long-awaited bill to increase judicial pay was introduced. EVERYONE denies any connection.

Things just have a way of working out for you when you get out of the way of this determined political majority. And vice versa. I don't know about you, but I find the whiff of tyranny in this kind of steamrolling frightening.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Report Cards that Offer Zero Useful Information

Years ago, my niece gave a colorful report on her aggravating and disappointing trip to see the pyramids with the title “I Went to Egypt so that You Don’t Have To.” My trip through the labyrinth to try to understand the new school accountability system was similarly aggravating and disappointing. No, I did not have people trying to pick my pockets throughout, but I ended feeling just as ripped off and disgusted. Here is my report. Do not expect much local color.

In compliance with federal Race to the Top legislation, Michigan has now implemented a new Accountability Scorecard for every school and district, giving them color-coded ratings ranging from red (terrible!) to green (terrific!). The great majority (more than two-thirds) were rated yellow (caution: red is imminent!). This has been confusing to all, since many educational entities appeared to be doing well in every sub-category, yet they did not achieve a green rating overall. How can that be?

The short answer is that the system is rigged to produce failure. And that is exactly what it did.

The system requires 85% of children to become proficient in every subject by the end of the 2021–22 school year, mandating incremental progress toward that goal in every subgroup every year. The subgroups include students with disabilities, English Language–learners, economically disadvantaged students, the bottom 30% (in terms of proficiency), and various ethnic groups (white, black, Hispanic of any race, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaska Native, and multiracial). In addition, there are requirements regarding test participation rate, attendance rate, graduation rate, and compliance with school improvement, educator effectiveness, and other kinds of reporting.

The state’s database lists 5,816 schools and districts to be rated. Of that number, 1,144 (almost 20%) are given no color/rating, mostly because they are too new to have the requisite historic data trail. The lowest, red, rating was given to 692 (14.8% of those given a rating). Another 263 (5.6% of rated entities) were rated orange. A whopping 3,180 or 68% were rated as yellow. None were given the lime green rating. And a tiny 135 (2.9% of the total rated) got the coveted green designation. To summarize, then, more than 97% of schools and districts rated are considered “failing.”

But the news is actually worse than that. Of the 135 green schools, 41 (nearly one-third) got “zero of a possible zero points” — so how is it that they are rated green? Most are so designated on the basis of three-year participation rates (how many children actually took the tests) and “compliance factors” (planning and reporting requirements that earn no points). They have no student test scores because all their grade cohorts are under 30 pupils — a prime indicator that they are likely to be charter schools. Other “green” schools with very low point totals got them for such factors as student attendance. You will note that student attendance, test participation rates, school improvement planning and teacher evaluation reporting are ALL FACTORS THAT HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT.

Looking more closely at the data, the news is even worse. Here is an example: the Jalen Rose Academy is Green on the strength of Student Attendance (2 of a possible 2 points) and Compliance Factors (no points). Its only assessment participation rate is a three-year average for social studies — which made me realize it is just three repetitions of the sixth-grade participation rate they brought with them to this high school. How is that at all relevant to this school?

This exposes the glaring hole in the rating system — and the reason nearly every entity will be “failing” in short order: it requires incremental improvement in student test scores every year, but not all tests are given every year. So, students who were not proficient in social studies in sixth grade are unable to show improvement until they take a social studies test again in ninth grade. Students who were not proficient in science in fifth grade will be unable to show improvement until the eighth grade test. For three years they WILL fail to achieve the required incremental progress. Students who are not proficient at writing in seventh grade will not be able to demonstrate progress for four years, until they take the ACT in eleventh grade. Any one such failure mandates a yellow rating, at best, for the school and district.

The system also requires a steady progress (equal increments over each of the next ten years) toward proficiency targets. The farther away a group is in a particular subject, the larger those increments will be. In the subject in which the state’s students do most poorly overall, science, the improvement targets will be almost impossible to reach. If 15.9% of eighth graders statewide were considered proficient in 2012 (they were), and 85% must achieve proficiency by 2022, then the proficient group must increase by 6.9 points [(85 - 15.9)/10 years] every year. If the target is missed one year, it just gets higher the next. Improvements of that magnitude are almost never achieved anywhere, let alone consistently every year for a decade. If not one of a particular subgroup was proficient in 2012, as was true in many places for special education or bottom 30% groups in science, then their improvement target will be even higher: 8.5% per year — which simply cannot be done for ten years straight. It will be impossible to achieve green status once student achievement data is used for all schools, unless those schools already have elite, selective populations that are universally high-achieving. The only way to guarantee that is to exclude special education, English Language–learning, and economically disadvantaged students — which is exactly what is occurring at charter schools today.

Another wrinkle — or perhaps “monkey wrench” is more evocative here — in the system is that cyber schools can now provide one-third or more of educational classes for grades five through 12, but the home school district will be held accountable for student achievement results. Let me repeat: traditional school districts will be punished for the failures of on-line schools over which they have zero control.

Presumably, the point of the rating system is to give parents the information they need to exercise the vaunted “choice” that is supposed to be making all schools more effective. If the basis for the ratings is so hard to understand, and if all are rated as failing — as they soon will be, how is this helpful to anyone?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Uncommonly Undecided about the Common Core

I am conflicted about the Common Core.

The minority of folks shown by polling to be at all aware of Common Core State Standards probably know little more than that they are controversial. Those who’ve read a bit more may realize that CCSS opponents include some truly strange bedfellows: leftist progressives like Diane Ravitch (I am a fan) who see this as one more ersatz “reform” actually designed to reveal the “failure” of public schools, and rightist, libertarian and/or Tea Party types who see it as Big Government undermining “local control.”

A little background

The Common Core originated with corporate executives, major philanthropists, and state governors, prompted largely by a concern over economic competitiveness. Besides worry on a societal level that we must keep up with competitor nations, fewer manufacturing jobs here mean that our high school graduates need better skills to guarantee their own competitiveness for jobs.

CCS Standards discount rote learning in favor of an encouraging emphasis on deeper understanding, application to problem-solving, the ability to translate knowledge and skills to novel situations, and skills in collaboration and in evaluating information sources. All of these abilities will produce confident, competent young people with both hard and soft skills needed to thrive in today’s college and work environments.

CCSS are also part of a new accountability system to replace the mandates of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Early in the George W. Bush administration, NCLB aimed for all of our children to be proficient in all tested subjects by the end of the current school year. This was an unrealistic goal, and the draconian penalties for failing to make “adequate yearly progress” toward it have failed to produce such universal success. The successor plan to NCLB, called Race to the Top (RttT), allowed states to apply for waivers from the NCLB standards and penalties if they adopted the Common Core and other revised accountability measures, including the evaluation of teachers and administrators on the basis of student academic progress.

This new system restarts the clock, in a way, still requiring most (but not all) children to become proficient by the end of the 2021–22 school year, and requiring incremental progress toward that goal in every subgroup every year. The subgroups include students with disabilities, English Language–learners, economically disadvantaged students, the bottom 30% (in terms of proficiency), and various ethnic groups (white, black, Hispanic of any race, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaska Native, and multiracial). In addition, there are requirements regarding test participation rate, attendance rate, graduation rate, and compliance with school improvement, educator effectiveness, and other kinds of reporting. Because it is so multi-factored and complex, the system is difficult to understand — and its results are difficult to interpret (more about that below). But the aim is praiseworthy: that we expect more from our students and from our educators, and that we help them reach that higher bar.

So, why is this controversial?

The two sides

The left side argues that CCS Standards are so high, and the assessments written for them so difficult, that they are useless for assessing learning — think of giving a middle schooler a calculus exam. Even worse, the resultant low scores will be used to bludgeon teachers and schools, feeding the narrative that both are failing and must be replaced by charters (demonstrably no better than traditional public schools when measured by these tests) or privatized, for-profit options via vouchers (demonstrably worse). A huge and extremely profitable industry has grown up around producing materials and assessments aligned with CCSS, the digital tools and software required for on-line assessment and classroom management, the translation of student growth assessment into teacher evaluation, and even a newly privatized effort to train teachers and to test them for certification. Generally, all that money is diverted from the classrooms where it had been, and should be, more properly applied.

The right side argues that CCSS impose federal control where it does not belong. [I must interject that certain Michigan legislators, who suddenly champion “local control” after passing literally hundreds of micromanaging laws re education, must not have an ironic bone in their bodies.] Much of this opposition appears to be rooted in an unshakeable distrust of the Obama administration, more than anything else. I do not find their arguments nearly as compelling as the left-wing objections.

My fence-sitting

I have seen some of the CCSS “exemplar texts” for primary-grade language arts. My first reaction, as a long-time advocate for differentiated education of gifted children, was to think how much they would love these rich and challenging literary resources. Second thought: would the average student be able to handle them? Frustration level is very important in learning. If something is a stretch for you, you grow in pursuit of it. But, if it is too far over your head, you give up in resignation. Like Goldilocks, we do best when something is “just right” for us. Since we do not fully individualize teaching and learning — yet — it is probably best to err on the side of expecting more rather than less. After all, low expectations are as damaging in their impact on children as low test scores.

In general, higher standards are a good thing, as both teachers and students will strive to meet them. A ton of money and years of effort has already been invested in curriculum redesign; new materials; common assessment development; teacher training; infrastructure, hardware, and software for on-line assessment; and prodigious training and skills upgrades for all the professionals involved. What purpose would be served by throwing out the CCSS assessments at the eleventh hour? What tests would we use for all the federal and state requirements, both to asses student learning and to evaluate staff, as newer laws mandate?

I think we should continue on the CCSS path, but I know that the assessment results will be used unfairly, to malign good people working hard to serve our children and our society’s future.

This has already happened in New York, where scores on the first round of CCSS-related testing made it look as if both teachers and students had been lobotomized: 77.4% of students passed last year's exams but only 31.1% did so this year. To exemplify the absurdity of the new assessments, in one Long Island district where students take algebra early, eighth graders took the traditional New York Regents algebra exam for ninth grade, and 95% passed it. They also took the eighth-grade CCSS-related new test, meant to assess whether they were ready for algebra, and only 39.5% were deemed ready for the course they had already successfully completed. Results like this are simply useless. Even the much-celebrated Harlem’s Children Zone schools, where about three times as much as average is spent per child to provide extended schooling and wrap-around services, did not do well on the new exams. So, they will be used to call students, teachers, and schools failures — you can take that to the bank.

What to do?

I say we adopt and adapt to the Common Core standards and, as much as possible, ignore the testing results. Unless they are deliberately skewed for political reasons, as happened Indiana, they will make us all look pretty bad. This is just what happened with the recently released new Accountability Scorecards [link will download Excel spreadsheet] in Michigan, which rated less than 3% of our schools and districts as green (i.e., good) — and a third of those “green” schools were so labeled after achieving zero of a possible zero points. In all my reading, I have not been able to determine the basis for their good rating. (I am still awaiting a reply from the Bureau of Assessment and Accountability.) Just as this ranking system produces results so uniformly poor as to be pointless, low CCSS scores will be seen as invalid for the purpose of comparing schools. Let’s not waste any more energy or angst on fighting such things. Instead, we should focus on helping both our teachers and their charges to be the best that they can be. This stuff is a distraction from our real work.

It may be that the current “reform” effort, backed by corporations that stand to profit and by billionaire philanthropists who know little about education, has jumped the shark — gone too far and destroyed its own credibility and support. There are so many folks from so many quarters now complaining loudly about the over-reaching and conflicts of interest that the tide is turning.

We’ve experienced tremendous upheaval in public education, producing much less in terms of good results. We have the data to show that so-called accountability measures are really measuring socioeconomic status. They correlate almost perfectly with poverty levels. Instead of applying greater resources to the children who need them most, we have been systematically defunding, restructuring, and then closing their schools. Nowhere have these interventions proven to work better for children.

If we don’t call off this war on kids and teachers soon, it will be over — and both will have lost it. The most important way we can prevent that is to remember, in the voting booth, who has done what to whom.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Backdoor Vouchers

VOUCHERS ARE HERE. Some years ago, Michigan voters actually inserted a prohibition against school vouchers into our constitution. But Governor Snyder and the Michigan Legislature found a quick and easy way to override voter opinion: incorporate vouchers into the State School Aid bill for 2013–14. The enacted omnibus bill accepted the Governor's proposal to require school districts to pay for students from grades 5 to 12 to take two online courses per semester (more if they are successful with two). I cannot adequately express in polite language what a poorly thought out idea this is. Here are some of my objections:

• This new Sec. 21f “caps” the cost at one-twelfth of the Foundation Allowance per semester course. That is a ridiculous notion of a “cap.” That amount assumes that districts divvy up the Foundation Allowance evenly per course taken in a six-period day, but that is NOT how this money is spent. To begin with, some secondary schools offer 7 or 8 periods per day. But the real problem is that this funding is also used to pay for utilities, maintenance, transportation, administration, excess special education costs (since it is mandated but not fully funded), etc. — NOT just to pay for one period of a teacher's time and the cost of materials. Carving out voucher-like portions of the per-pupil allowance makes it much harder to cover these systemic costs.

• Among those systemic costs will be a new one: the requirement that districts act as unwilling fiscal and administrative agents for a potentially unlimited number of vendors. This is clearly another unfunded mandate.

• There is no guarantee of quality services and little recourse for students or school districts if services are sub-par. Districts are required to pay 80% up front and 20% upon completion, so a lot of profit can be made without successful course completion. On-line schools will rush to take advantage of this money spigot, with almost no requirement that they ensure or demonstrate the quality of the offerings. The existing track record for Michigan “cyber schools” is very poor. The state average ACT score for spring 2013 was 19.7 on a scale that goes up to 36. The average for the seven “virtual” or “cyber” academies was 17.5. For the one with the longest track record (5 years), it was 15.8. The extensive experience in Colorado, with large numbers of on-line schools over many years, was simply dismal. Why are we determined to replicate failure?

• All of the test-driven accountability measures (including the top-to-bottom rankings that trigger serious consequences) will apply to the district and its schools, despite their losing control of a third or more of the instructional day.

• The legislature held no hearings in which district administrators might have advised them that subcontracting a third of the school day will produce a supervision and transportation nightmare. Districts will not be able to offer classes to students during the periods for which funding has been diverted to vendors. Where are those students to go, and how will they get there? Perhaps the legislators assumed that all districts have free space in computer labs to accommodate these virtual students, but I know of no schools where these facilities are not fully booked. Perhaps the vendors will supply laptops to students, since they will certainly have plenty of revenue to do so, but that does not mean there is free space and qualified supervision available in the public schools. No, these students will have to do their virtual classwork elsewhere, and they cannot be allowed to range unsupervised in our schools when they do not have class. How will they get to and from school during the school day? Transportation is already a tremendous burden on traditional school budgets; there is no money available for extra bus runs during the day.

In what universe does any of this make sense?

Friday, June 14, 2013

Pay for Performance: the worst idea ever?

Our state and federal political leaders are invested in the idea of reforming education through accountability for results. There's nothing wrong there in theory, but the implementation is being distilled down to paying (and firing) teachers on the basis of test scores. Remember the axiom: you get what you measure. (Nor is every important result easy to measure.)

So, we’re in trouble in Michigan immediately. For three years, we have invested prodigious time and effort and millions of dollars in teacher training, curriculum writing, and hardware for the on-line Smarter Balanced Assessments set to replace the MEAP in the coming school year. All of this is based on the Common Core State Standards — for which implementation the legislature just denied funding.

So, will students be tested and teachers evaluated (as mandated by state law) on the basis of old tests that do not match the new curricula? What possible sense does that make?

And what is the point? Weren’t we trying to improve student learning?

We know from a robust and valid research base what works to improve teaching and learning: when teachers focus on analyzing, together, evidence of student learning, and when they hold one another collectively responsible for these outcomes, children achieve more. See ACSD’s “How Do Principals Really Improve Schools?” for numerous citations.

A collaborative culture of teaching professionals is the research-proven best practice that we should be encouraging. Instead, our ill-informed legislature keeps mandating practices proven not to work but to actually undermine that collaboration.

“Merit pay” or “pay for performance” does not work and puts teachers into competition with one another. There is NO research showing that it improves student performance or positively changes teacher behavior.

“Merit pay” makes things worse

But beyond absolutely not working, pay for performance makes thing worse. The “bigger stick” approach to improving instruction — by putting teachers’ pay and their very jobs in jeopardy — fosters fear and short-term thinking. Fear, competition, and short-term thinking prevent rather than encourage organizational improvement.

Daniel Pink: in the MIT incentives study, “the high reward produced the worst performance. It has been proven over and over again by psychologists, sociologists, and economists [that] incentives work for simple, if-then tasks; but when tasks require some conceptual, creative thinking, straightforward rewards like money do not work and often lead to poorer performance.”

W. Edwards Deming: merit pay “nourishes short-term performance, annihilates long-term planning, builds fear, demolishes teamwork, nourishes rivalry and politics.”

• Large corporations proved that the “bigger stick” is a bad idea by implementing it. Both IBM and Ford, some years ago, discovered that “forced ranking” employee evaluation systems destroyed the cooperation and collegiality necessary to efficient and effective operations.

When we set out to radically change the institution of public education, we should do so on the basis of valid research proving what actually works rather than our preconceived notions. We should carefully pilot and monitor changes so as not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. And we must always put the needs of our children over our ideology or the interests of those positioned to profit off them — such as testing and software corporations and for-profit school operators.

How about applying this to the legislature?

Regarding school districts in deficit, one of our legislators was recently quoted as insisting that “Someone must be held accountable!” Given that the legislature made unprecedented cuts in school funding and diverts $400 million a year from the School Aid Fund, I’d suggest that he look in the mirror.

Or, we could apply the same outcomes-based metrics to them. An editorial (“Teacher pay proposal flunks the test”) in The Livingston Daily recently suggested exactly that:

“Michigan lawmakers are among the highest paid in the nation, but the state doesn’t have the outcomes to justify those salaries…. Here’s a plan. Cut the pay of all lawmakers in half. Then, create a salary reward system based on quantitative improvements. A 10 percent pay hike, perhaps, if the Michigan unemployment rate dips below the national average. A similar sliding-scale reward when incomes rise. How about a bonus for lowering the number of residents living below the poverty level? Or improving the health status of Michigan residents?”

Or does such a suggestion insult and outrage them? Hmmm.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Uncomfortable Truths about Charter Schools

I was recently accused, at a public meeting, of having an “intense hatred” of charter schools. I do not. Life is too short to harbor such feelings about anything or anyone.

But I am annoyed and aggravated by the charter school movement in Michigan and by the misinformation spread by its proponents. I have these feelings because I believe deeply in the importance of public schools to the success of the American experiment in representative democracy. Free education is the key to opportunity and social mobility, and an educated citizenry is the best support for an effective elected government. Yet the charter school movement is undermining both financial and public support that public schools need to adapt to and to thrive in the 21st Century. It is also resegregating our schools by race, socioeconomic status, and disability.

Oh, sure, charter academies are classified as public schools, and they do receive public funding. But they do not serve the same students. When my state senator asserts that charters “do a better job for less money,” I strongly object. First, are they doing the same job? Second, do they really do a “better job”? Finally, do they have significantly less money to work with?

I will answer these questions in local terms, where I have rich data collected by the state. There are two* charter academies located within the Van Buren Public Schools boundaries: Keystone and Achieve.

Doing the same job? A different population

I assert that they are not doing the same job: (1) they do not serve students from pre-K through twelfth grade; (2) they serve a much lower percentage of economically disadvantaged children, and (3) they serve a vastly lower proportion of special-needs children.

Demographic data released [Feb 2013] on the Fall 2012 MEAP tests lets me demonstrate that. Of students in grades 3–8 in Van Buren Public Schools, 56% are economically disadvantaged and 10.6% have disabilities. Of students in grades 3–8 at Keystone Academy, 31% are economically disadvantaged and less than 3.9% have disabilities. Of students in grades 3–8 at Achieve Charter Academy, less than 13.3% are economically disadvantaged and less than 5.2% have disabilities. I use the qualifier “less than” because, for many grade levels, only “<10” was given (meaning that no statistically valid percentage could be calculated). In my calculations, I assumed the value of “9” for “<10,” although the actual numbers were certainly lower, based upon the numbers for other grade levels. The proportion of students served by charters who are economically disadvantaged and who have disabilities is, therefore, not just significantly lower than in VBPS, but those percentages are also inflated by the assumption that “<10” equals nine.

Why do differences in student population matter? Because all three categories of students under-served by charter schools are more expensive to educate.

Special education students, for example, typically cost much more to educate than per-pupil and special-education funding amounts to; the difference comes from all the other children’s per-pupil funding. They are also, by state law, educated through age 26, so the cost burden on districts will be greater than on K–8 charters.

Economically disadvantaged students, as a group, arrive at school less prepared, have less stability and support in their home lives, and are more likely to be distracted or handicapped by disruptions and traumas. Simply put, they need more intensive and individualized help than students who enjoy more advantages, and so they cost more to educate to their potential. As with special education students, there is additional funding available for “at risk” students, generally based upon poverty measures, but it does not cover the additional costs — which must come from the per-pupil funding for all other students.

Secondary students, with their science labs, career-tech classes, band and other electives, and extensive athletic programs, cost more to educate than elementary students; the difference comes from elementary per-pupil funding. This is why there are so few charter high schools — not as much profit to be made.

Doing a better job? How to evaluate results

It can be very difficult to fairly evaluate the results forming the basis of what we consider a “good job.” Should we use graduation rate or college attendance and completion rates as measures of success? No. These cannot be measured for K–8 charter schools. How about state achievement test (MEAP) scores? That is problematic, as special education students (over-represented in VBPS) cannot be expected to perform as well as students without disabilities. And there is no characteristic more highly correlated with such scores than socioeconomic status so, again, it is unfair to compare VBPS students as a group with charter school groups which have just one-quarter or half as many economically disadvantaged students.

How about growth from year to year for each cohort? That would make some sense, in that it does not penalize or reward based upon differences in starting place. By that, I mean that it would compare rates of progress, even if some student populations are still harder to educate than others. Student growth should also be our primary objective, which is why state law now ties teacher and administrator evaluation to it. The best measure of student growth would involve valid testing of the same students at the beginning and at the end of a school year, since the cohort does not change as much during the year as it does from one year to the next. We have only recently invested in such testing (using NWEA), but it will be interesting to follow the results as this year concludes.

The MEAP tests, given in the fall, presumably test what students learned the previous year. There is good research data showing, however, that advantaged children continue to learn during the summer, while disadvantaged children lose ground over that time. So, again, tests administered in the fall will show better results for charter schools with many fewer disadvantaged students. The real gold standard would be tests aligned with the Common Core Curriculum, as we phase that in, that will allow national as well as state and local comparisons of progress.

For the past two years, we have administered tests from ACT (EXPLORE in grades 8 and 9 and PLAN in grade 10) that are nationally normed and predictive of how well students will do on the actual ACT test as 11th graders. While such data do not exist for K–8 charters, they can show conclusively what kind of job VBPS is doing in fostering student learning. This year’s testing shows edifying growth for both cohorts.

Our students may have started behind the national average, but they are close to or over it now and — more importantly — their growth rate has far exceeded the national rate in every subject area. I believe this is strong evidence that VBPS is doing a good job. I would love to see similar valid data for the charter academies.

Doing it with less? How finances compare

What revenue do you compare? Different comparisons can be made, often depending upon the politics of those doing the comparison. But there is no single, apples-to-apples comparison we can all agree is fair, either.

Should we compare General Fund revenue, the “operating” budget for schools and districts? These contain year-to-year anomalies that can distort data. For example, VBPS must take a several-million-dollar loan every spring, since the per-pupil Foundation Allowance monies from the state are doled out to suit the state’s cash-flow needs, not ours. Thirty-three percent of those funds come to us after school is out for the summer, and 22 percent arrive after our fiscal year ends on June 30. So, more than ten percent of General Fund revenues may be borrowed funds with a liability, including interest, that is even greater. Similarly, we borrow to finance new bus fleets. In the year we take out such a loan, our General Fund will show a notably large increase that does not represent actual extra money for educational purposes. In both such cases, it looks as if we have more money to work with than we do; in fact, we will owe more than we have borrowed.

Some people want to compare just state and local revenue totals, but not a total containing federal revenue. This is because the bulk of federal revenue will be extra funding for English language–learning students, those with disabilities, and those considered at risk due to economic disadvantage. While those grants do constitute extra revenue related to extra educational challenges, they do not come close to covering the additional expenditures necessary to deal adequately with those challenges. Most charter schools have much lower percentages of students in those categories and so receive less federal funding — but they also have a correspondingly smaller burden on their expenditures.

Charter school proponents will be quick to note that they are not able to bond for facilities, which is true. This means that they must pay for their buildings out of their per-pupil operating funds. Most deal with this expense by leasing a building erected by a charter system operator, such as National Heritage Academies. This lease money is both a significant cost to the charter academies and a significant profit center for some operators. (Eighty percent of Michigan's charters are for-profit; the national rate is 35 percent. And just wait until all the newly authorized on-line schools get started next fall!)

Charters also pay a small percentage (3%) of their revenue to the organization that authorized their charter, which is intended to cover some costs of supervision and evaluation by that body.

But there are also large expenses that charters do NOT have:

• Retirement. How huge this is cannot be overstated! Traditional public school employees are, by law, participants in the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System (MPSERS). Charter employees are not required to participate in MPSERS, and almost none of them do. In a sense, charters have the same economic advantage as transplant auto manufacturers had over the Big Three: General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler had a legacy of retirees stretching back to the 1940s whose pensions and health care were supported by current operations. Similarly, traditional public schools pay about 25 percent of payroll (and rising every year) to support current retirees in the system; nearly all charter schools avoid this significant surcharge. For every employee who works enough hours to qualify for benefits — whether an administrator, teacher, custodian, secretary, bus driver, paraprofessional, or cook — traditional public school districts pay more than $25 for every $100 they earn into MPSERS. This surcharge consumed an average of $1305 per pupil in FY2012.

And the State Senate’s budget proposal for the 2013–14 school year would put increased funding into the per-pupil Foundation Allowance rather than the MPSERS contribution proposed by the Governor. That means charter schools would get a real revenue increase, but public schools would have that “increase” more than eaten up by a raised MPSERS contribution rate. Instead of ameliorating the “unlevel playing field” related to MPSERS, the Senate’s proposal would make it significantly worse.

• Transportation. This is a huge expense in for VBPS, the second largest district in Wayne County (only Detroit is larger); it comes from every child’s per-pupil funding. Charter schools are not required or expected to provide transportation, and districts are not legally allowed to charge for it.

• As noted above, traditional public schools have significantly higher percentages of high school, special education, English language–learning, and economically disadvantaged (including homeless) students than do charter academies. The extra, unreimbursed costs of educating these groups is taken from the per-pupil funding of all other students.

The bottom line is that I have seen no convincing data to show that charter schools have less money to spend in the classroom.

One other difference

While this does not have financial ramifications, I think it important to recognize that charters are resegregating our public schools by race. When I moved to Michigan in 1978, I was startled to discover how racially segregated its communities were. In looking for a place to settle, I deliberately chose the Belleville area because it was both racially and economically integrated, and I wanted that environment for my children. But the same MEAP demographic data cited above also shows racial disparities. I cannot get demographic data for the district’s population but have assembled it for the communities which comprise VBPS.

It is striking how much the percentages of Asian, black, and white students vary from one school system to another and compared to the overall community. These large variations should not exist, and I question whether they do not undermine the mission of public schooling to offer equal educational opportunity.


“Choice” is described as the panacea for whatever ails public education, when there is absolutely no evidence that choice alone guarantees or even fosters better results. Choice leads to demonizing of unionized teachers and denigration of traditional public schools — after all, choices are framed in terms of relative merits, so the new choice must portray itself as better than the old ones. Thus, traditional public schools that serve increasingly needy students and reach for ever higher performance bars are portrayed as failing, because that serves the narrative that we must have charter schools to rescue children from being trapped within them. Painting traditional public schools as “failing” and their teachers as incompetent weakens community pride and support while demoralizing staff.

This view of our schools and teachers is unwarranted. My children each spent 13 years in VBPS; they also attended college on merit scholarships, earned engineering graduate degrees, and are gainfully employed and contributing to society. Our schools and teachers did very well by them — and I believe those schools and teachers are both significantly better now. They are better despite the fact that state support for traditional public schools has been cut dramatically in recent years, with no relief in sight. So, yes, I get a little hot under the collar when it is alleged, despite evidence to the contrary, that “charter schools do a better job with less money.”

* This blog entry has been edited to remove references to a third charter school that is no longer located within VBPS boundaries.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Not the Schools You Attended

Terra Incognita exists in your neighborhood: in your local schools. Adults think they know what goes on in school, because, after all, they attended school when they were young. They tend to project their own experiences forward, assuming that these institutions operate much as when they last had real contact. But I believe they would find today’s classrooms almost unrecognizable. Even parents of current students can be unaware of how much things have changed.

Here is my own historical snapshot of schooling. As a baby boomer, I spent grade-school years in the 1950s in what most folks would consider wildly over-stuffed classrooms. Fifty or more students sat in crowded rows of desks, speaking only when called upon in order to minimize the chaos. Most instruction was via lecture or demonstration, and most assessment required rote recall of facts or problem-solving in exactly one “correct” way. Much classroom time was spent on practice such as penmanship exercises and recitation of multiplication tables. We did do a lot writing, which was a good thing, but I have vivid memories of discovering my teachers’ limitations when I was accused of cheating in fourth grade for using a word (“devise”) I should not know, and when my correct spelling of “badminton” in fifth grade was marked as wrong. Attempting colored-pencil imitations of great paintings passed for arts education. Both creativity and the asking of uncomfortable questions were actively discouraged.

Still, I did very well in school. I had the great good fortune of being raised by two well-educated parents who loved us and one another, in an era when my father’s income alone could support us adequately, leaving my mother available to nurture us physically, emotionally, and academically. Not all of my peers were so lucky as to be able to essentially learn on their own in a crowd, and drop-out rates reflected that.

When my own children attended school in the 1980s and 1990s, things had changed considerably. As the sum total of our knowledge has been increasing exponentially, the breadth of the curriculum has also expanded dramatically. Even back then, there was little time for practice exercises during the school day. If parents did not actively help their children, basic knowledge and skills such as knowing times tables were simply left unmastered — a fact obvious among today’s cashiers in fast-food restaurants.

But they were exposed to much more than I had been, and standards for their academic achievements were very much higher. As an illustration, my mother had a single science class in high school in the 1930s, and that was a choice, not a requirement. I had three: physical science, biology, and chemistry — all that my small school offered in the 1960s. My daughter, having had physical science already in middle school, added six more years’ of science courses in high school. And she was still underprepared for her engineering major. I doubt that the great majority of adults, who are so free to criticize our public schools as “failing,” could do very well on today’s Michigan Merit (high school achievement) Exams. The bar is much higher than it used to be, and we now expect that all of our children will graduate, which was certainly not the case when I did.

Since my children left school, change has only accelerated, and the demands upon students are even greater. Now, they are all expected not just to graduate, but to be “college ready” when they do. I have written before about just how high that bar has been set by, expecting all children to be equally prepared for all possible fields of college study. Again, this is a standard that most adults, even those gainfully employed and therefore obviously “career ready,” could not meet.

Schools and teachers are doing their best to help today’s students rise to these new expectations, though. We can no longer even pretend that everyone can absorb all the knowledge out there. It has expanded so much that no one can possibly be a Renaissance Man now — a master of all fields. And many of us already work in new fields for which our own schooling could not have explicitly prepared us, a phenomenon that will be more common than not for today’s children. So, our emphasis now must be on learning how to learn: how to pick up new knowledge and skills as needed with minimal help, as well as how to evaluate knowledge and opinion in the wide-open, uncurated domain of modern media. In the Internet age where every person can produce public output without expertise, authority, or editor, consumers must develop very keen judgment to distinguish truth from fiction, authoritative opinion from rant and cant. They must know where and how to find reliable information amid a blizzard of misinformation and half-truths.

New goals require new methods, and today’s teachers are reforming their practice accordingly. That is why classrooms today look so very different to older eyes. Children no longer sit quietly in neat rows; instead, they work in groups to try to figure things out. They will often be doing things, beyond just listening, reading, and writing. They build things and take them apart. They rearrange and experiment. They theorize and discuss. They test hypotheses and report their results. They spark one another’s curiosity and interest with tough questions and speculation.

Instead of learning a set of rules for division, for example, they will be trying to solve real-world problems that require division by manipulating objects. They help one another devise and experiment with methods, generally producing several approaches that work. In so doing, they grasp how and why things work, rather than applying memorized rules that may later be forgotten. They will still learn “math facts” like times tables, but do so via games and computer software that are engaging enough to encourage the amount of practice needed for mastery.

Writing is taught in a similarly cooperative “workshop” way, involving several drafts (with the drudgery of revision vastly reduced through technology), peer editing, and modeling of these skills using student work. Fluency of expression is not impeded by the need for perfection, as editing for spelling and grammar come later, after the crucial creative work has been done. As a classroom volunteer when my children were young, I saw how children would use a simple word instead of a better one, just because they knew how to spell it correctly. I watched as their laboriously handwritten second drafts were chopped, excising all the colorful parts, because it was too much trouble to rewrite it all. Those issues have disappeared. Perfection is prized only in final, “published” work, while small errors are not penalized in first drafts and in practice pieces focusing on other skills.

Science concepts are discovered and understood deeply through hands-on experimentation, rather than the memorization that allowed me to ace tests without truly understanding — or, years later, even remembering. My “book learning” was not nearly as effective as that achieved by methods that fully engage the senses and the brain. People who once memorized the difference between amperage and voltage, for example, are much less likely to hold onto that knowledge, if never put to use, than those who learn it by building and testing circuits.

Teaching has changed as much as learning, of course. To use a cliché, a teacher is more of a guide on the side than a sage on the stage. No attempt is made to pour knowledge into students; rather, they are encouraged to show initiative, to construct meaning, and to take responsibility for their learning. Just as the bar has been raised for students, teachers are working much harder to meet raised expectations. They must be constantly thinking about how and why they are doing things, while keeping close tabs on each child’s progress and designing custom interventions for those falling behind. And, just as students work in cooperative groups, teachers collaborate regularly to improve their practice by sharing research, methods, and results.

Most of these changes are not yet well established; many teachers are in the “newbie” stage of having to think explicitly about what they are doing. Even if they have many years of classroom experience, they are being stretched far out of their comfort zone to do things in new ways. But tremendous progress has already been made, and they will get to the “expert” stage where they no longer have to monitor every aspect of their practice. They will reach the point where new habits become ingrained and automatic, freeing them to be more effective with less effort.

In the meantime, thank the next teacher you run into for taking on such challenges. It is exhausting work, but no work could be more important to our society. They are presiding over a sea change in education, and our community’s children are the beneficiaries.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

When an “increase in school funding” is a decrease

I read with great interest the headline saying that Governor’s Snyder’s proposed budget includes “a two percent increase in funding for K–12 public schools.” If only that were true. Somehow, though, the details turn into a major decrease in funding for my local district. Allow me to explain this magic trick.

A little background

Since Proposal A reformed our school funding system in 1994, a per-pupil “foundation allowance” had comprised the major funding guarantee for both conventional and chartered public schools. This guarantee combined local revenue (from taxes on commercial and industrial property) and state revenue (from taxes on homestead properties, plus dedicated sources such as a percentage of sales taxes and lottery proceeds, as well as General Fund supplementation). As local revenue goes down, state revenue goes up to maintain the same guarantee — and vice versa. This made for a somewhat reliable amount that schools and districts could use for planning purposes — which is vital when we are required by law to adopt a budget by June 30 for the following year.

Under Gov. Snyder, an increasing amount of funding has been diverted from the foundation guarantee to various categorical or incentive-based grants. The foundation guarantee itself has been cut dramatically — and the budget proposal includes reduced appropriations for the required portion in each of the next two years, on top of significant previous reductions. Instead, slight increases in appropriations are planned for the “discretionary” portion — which is how the state chooses to describe any increase beyond the 1994–95 foundation allowance. Only some districts qualify for only some of this discretionary and non-foundation funding, and the amount changes significantly from year to year.

For the 2012–13 school year, for example, several kinds of non-guaranteed revenue were available:

• Best Practices Incentive: districts meeting six out of eight prescribed best practices criteria qualified for $52 per pupil. Next year, those meeting seven of eight criteria will get $16 per pupil; most of those criteria have added requirements, as well. So, if you qualified for this incentive this year, as we did, your funding will decrease next year, whether or not you can meet the higher bar. In 2014–15, this incentive funding is eliminated, which translates into yet another decrease.

• Another discretionary category provided partial reimbursement of transitional costs associated with consolidation of two or more districts, as is happening on our western border. That entire category is to be repealed.

• Another section gave districts grants to help pay for technology infrastructure, given that state achievement tests will be required to be administered via computer soon. No new such grants are allowed for in the proposed budget.

• “Performance grants” of $30 per elementary/middle school student and $40 per high school student were awarded for specified growth in achievement on state-mandated tests. While this funding is scheduled for continuation, the total amount will be the same, so there will be proration (that is, another decrease) in per-pupil awards if the number of districts qualifying increases.

• A section providing parent involvement (PIE) funding, which was capped and had its allowable uses limited this year, will be eliminated altogether.

• Categorical funding was provided for “class-size reduction,” but the appropriations covered only about one-third of the promised amount. Now this categorical is proposed to be reduced and, the following year, eliminated. Both of those translate into funding decreases.

Back to the Governor’s proposal

For the next school year, the governor is proposing an actual increase in per-pupil funding — a major source of the “two-percent increase” headlines. This increase, however, is only for the lowest-funded districts, raising it from $6,966 to $7,000. Alas, no local districts will benefit from this, since they already receive slightly more than $7,000 per pupil per year. For us, the “two percent increase” translates to zero increase.

But even for the districts that do qualify, this increase will not be added to the foundation allowance. Instead, it will be a one-time “equity payment” that will not be built into the funding base for 2014–15. That means their funding will decrease the following year. I am at a loss to explain how a small, one-year increase addresses the growing inequity in revenues available per child depending upon geography. If inequity is truly an issue — and it most assuredly is! — then why are such attempts to ameliorate it not made permanently?

Current Operating Expenditures Per Pupil (which includes federal funding and, in wealthier districts, “hold-harmless” millages) ranged in 2011 from $5,167 to $25,815, so YES, there is considerable spending disparity depending upon where a child lives. [I excluded a few very small, island districts, where spending ranges above $50,000 per child.] Can you conceive of any reason why some children are “worth” five times as much as others? Offering a few districts up to $36 more per pupil for a single year in the name of “equity,” given the unconscionable lack of parity, is almost insulting.

The Governor also wants to expand funding for the Great Start Readiness preschool program, which has never had enough appropriations to cover all the children who qualified for it. The eligibility requirements are tightened somewhat, but this is a terrific idea, since it helps at-risk preschoolers to catch up with their more advantaged peers before kindergarten. Excellent research shows long-term benefits from such interventions. Pardon me if I worry about how this will be funded, however. Program funding, which is scheduled for substantial increases in each of the next two years, comes from the State School Aid Fund — the source of foundation, discretionary, and categorical funding now. Will this translate into the same — or even less — money for schools overall? Robbing Peter to pay Paul does not really help districts that are already in dire financial straits.

The MPSERS Burden

The folks in Lansing have also tried to relieve the increasing, almost suffocating, burden of the MPSERS (Michigan Public School Employee Retirement System) program. While every employee of traditional districts (but not of charters) is required to participate in this program, its costs have become ever more difficult to bear. Given the variety of circumstances, as new and less generous retirement provisions are phased in, the MPSERS employer contribution rate ranged this year from $20.96% to 24.32%.

Let me give a simplified example of how this works. Suppose your district has a $50M General Fund budget. If 85% of that is employee costs (typical for a “service” industry), that amounts to $42.5M. Suppose that 40% (or $17M) of that expense is for benefit costs (also typical, or even a bit low). That means that the remaining $25.5M is “payroll.” If we assume an average MPSERS rate of 23%, the district must pay nearly $5.9M ($25.5M x 23%) to the retirement system. In other words, 11.6% of the General Fund budget goes to pay for employees who are already retired.

In an effort to cap the MPSERS rate increases, the proposed budget also appropriates more than $1B to the retirement system over the next two years. But more than $802M of that comes from the State School Aid Fund. Again, if the SAF is diverted to other purposes than foundation, discretionary, and categorical funding for school operations, how much will be left for those operations? The Governor and Legislature get to say that they are increasing K–12 funding, but the overall net translates into a decrease in revenue for our classrooms.

I realize that this can sound like ungrateful whining. It has been a very tough recession, after all, and most of us suffered significant losses in both income and net worth. We have all had to make do with less. That includes all of our public school employees, whose net pay is now significantly lower than it had been, while demands for accountability and better performance rise every year.

As a side note, the state budgets almost $9.5M a year for the operations of the Center for Educational Performance and Information (CEPI). This appropriation is to increase almost a quarter million dollars “to pay for economic adjustments.” One has to wonder exactly what that means, and why K–12 districts, which do the actual work that is monitored by CEPI, are not allowed any similar “economic adjustments.”

Michigan State University Professor David Arsen calculated the average total state and local revenue per pupil since 1994 for all local and intermediate school districts and charter schools in Michigan, adjusting for inflation and enrollment. His chart shows a steep decline in per-pupil revenue every year since 2002 — long before the Great Recession hit. The per-pupil figure is now significantly below what it was in 1994, just as the disparity between highest- and lowest-revenue districts has grown.

One can only conclude that Proposal A has been a failure on both equity and adequacy grounds. It is time to try again to enable a pubic school system that allows both our children and our state to thrive. We cannot continue to expect more and more of our schools and teachers (as our children deserve) while providing fewer and fewer resources to get the job done.

Monday, January 28, 2013

College and Career Ready — or Not?

Are most of Michigan’s high school graduates really not “college and career ready”? Discouraging statistics are bandied about, frequently by the Governor, but how many of us understand what lies behind them?

The first thing you should know is that these readiness standards have been developed by ACT (http:/// They are “detailed, research-based descriptions of the skills and knowledge associated with what students are likely to know and to be able to do based on their EXPLORE [grades 8 and 9], PLAN [grade 10], and/or ACT [grades 11 and 12] test scores. Certain benchmark scores (or cut scores) at each level of testing “represent the median test scores that are predictive of student success” — that is, “a 50% or higher probability of earning a B or higher in the corresponding college course or courses.” These definitions were adopted as part of the Common Core State Standards to which we have pledged to adhere. So, Michigan (and most other states’) public schools will now be judged on how well our students do in mastering the knowledge and skills defined and assessed by ACT.

Although it is commendable that all the states will now be trying to educate our children to the same standard, I have some problems with this universal system.

My number-one concern is that our high school graduates will now be labeled “not ready” for college or career unless they have achieved mastery in all four tested areas: English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science. How many successful adults are equally proficient in all domains of human knowledge? Let me give some examples of how I think these standards are too inflexible.

ACT predicts that you would need an ACT science score of 24 or better (out of 36) to have an even chance of getting a B on a college science course. But what if you have no intention of pursuing a scientific discipline or a career requiring such standards? Must everyone “understand the methods and tools used in a complex experiment,” no matter their career goal?

If you plan to be an electrician or a computer programmer, of course you will need decent reading and writing skills, but must you really be skilled at “revising expressions that deviate from the style of an essay,” as required to meet the readiness benchmark?

If you plan to be an artist or a preschool teacher, why should the standards dictate that you are “not ready” unless you can “evaluate quadratic functions, expressed in function notation, at integer values”?

If you intend to pursue a career in journalism, shouldn’t the standards for writing mastery (as measured by ACT English test) — and therefore for prediction of success in college courses —be higher than if your chosen field requires little or no writing? If you desire a career in science journalism, then your general and specific knowledge of scientific concepts and specialized jargon should also be higher than required for success in many other fields.

My objection, then, is that we have defined a single path toward success in college or career, when we know from observation and experience that there are multiple paths.

My larger concern, however, is that these are merely academic standards, while research, observation, and experience all tell us that certain personal characteristics are much more predictive of success, both in school and in life. My twenty years of involvement with mentoring programs has been based upon the belief that changing curriculum and instruction is not enough to guarantee student success — we must also change the student. Here are my personal benchmarks for college and career readiness:

• Does the person exhibit self-confidence, initiative, and responsibility?

• Is the person resilient and persistent in the face of difficulty and setbacks?

• Can the person handle constructive criticism and bear injustice without needing revenge?

• Is the person curious, receptive to new opinions, and eager to keep learning?

• Can the person listen, empathize, and collaborate with others who are unlike him/her?

• Does the person have a good grasp of what s/he doesn’t know and how s/he might learn what is required?

Good teachers have always striven to help their charges reach such developmental benchmarks, but a business axiom tells us that “you get what you measure.” I would add that, when both pay and ability to keep a job depend on what is measured, that may be all that you will get. Our over-emphasis on specific academic measures has explicitly devalued (and crowded out of our classrooms) the very skills that employers say they most want and that we all know to be predictive of success. We seem to have forgotten that character and personal development are also essential goals of education and life preparation.