Sunday, January 31, 2016

Reply to SavageStrong

An anonymous person or persons submitted a 26-page letter of questions to the Van Buren Board of Education in the name of “SavageStrong.” Presumably, these are the same people behind the SavageStrong Facebook page. While that page has not hesitated to publish any manner of wild speculation, it has yet — two days later — to publish the reply to their missive. I can only assume they did not really want the answers they clamor for so publicly. I am, without permission, publishing that reply here. I had planned to link to their letter, but the on-line link to it has expired. EDIT: extracts from their letter are in Comment below.

On Fri, Jan 29, 2016 at 5:40 PM, Martha Toth wrote:

To the SavageStrong site administrator(s):

Because he is busy at a work-related, out-of-town conference, Board President Mikulski asked me to respond to the 26-page letter we received from you. He has edited and approved this response on behalf of the board. Also, because we believe it is a comprehensive response, he has directed the Superintendent not to produce another response.

Before we attempt to answer your questions — while respecting employee rights to due process, professional legal advice, and our code of ethics — we must remark upon your tactics. Hiding behind anonymity while issuing unfounded criticisms, evoking unwarranted public unrest, and — of all things — accusing this board and our superintendent of a lack of transparency is, at best, duplicitous. None of us have forgotten the similar anonymous website and newspaper ads from a bogus “parent group” that illegally attempted to influence the 2011 school board and Belleville City Council races without filing as a ballot question committee. Nor have we forgotten who the state election authorities found to be behind it. It is difficult for us to respect those who foment disorder from behind a shield of anonymity, and we hope the larger community judges your credibility on the basis of your methods.

We will not attempt to respond point by point to your queries, as several are based on mistaken assumptions. Instead, we will give an overview of where we think we have basic misunderstandings.

First, we, too, noted the incredibly high M-STEP scores from certain classes at Savage School, and immediately knew we were in trouble. Should we have allowed a celebration of this remarkable achievement while knowing the rug would surely be pulled from under it later? You seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what a “forensic audit” by the state Office of Assessment and Standards entails. THEIR computer programs flag scores that are deemed statistically improbable or impossible, and one of the indications of possible illegal coaching is extended time spent on the testing. The test itself is not, as you noted, time limited. But extended average times coupled with improbably high scores raise a very red flag of suspicion. The details on timing came from the state, not from us, as part of their forensic audit.

In an attempt to get out in front of a scandal that could really hurt the district, our superintendent, as he stated, self-reported our suspicion that something was wrong and asked for direction. In many telephone interactions with OSA personnel, he was told exactly how we should investigate, which directions we followed to the letter. Later, he asked that those directions be reduced to writing, so that no one could question what we had done and why. Any real journalist could easily confirm this with OSA personnel — as opposed to irresponsibly speculating in print that we’d deliberately misled the state (behind the shameful cover of some anonymous “many believe....”) State officials were effusive in their praise of our model investigation and exemplary cooperation — which is the best outcome we could hope for, in a atmosphere so hostile to public educators that teachers and principals have been imprisoned for erasing and “fixing” test answers.

The next step is disciplinary hearings for teachers that the evidence shows may well have illegally coached students. First, they would be put on paid administrative leave. Since, by contract, they may leave the building as soon as students do, this had to be done near the end of the school day, allowing time for the two central office administrators tasked with this to reach all of them before dismissal time.

These teachers have not been tried or convicted of ANYTHING, which is why to this day we will not publicly confirm their identities. They have a right to due process, and simple courtesy demands they be given privacy during this process. YOU are the ones who have trumpeted names throughout the community.

The state is aware that performance averages can be thrown off by a concentration of high-performing students, as are we. Since you have identified the suspended teachers, you will note that none of them teach the gifted magnet classes. We could not point out that the problem lay elsewhere without revealing who the teachers suspected of wrongdoing were.

We are aware that the M-STEP is a new and different test that is not comparable to the old MEAP test. In fact, projections were that students could expect to do about 20 percent worse on it. Doing that much better on it, instead, is suspicious in itself. We were not comparing scores on the two tests. Rather, we were noting that, in three of four tested grades/areas, Savage was suddenly 29–39 percentage points higher than the state average, when it had been at or well below the average before. We have all been working hard to improve student achievement, but that kind of leap — across several non-GT classrooms at a single school — is both unprecedented and highly improbable. And, by the way, ALL our elementary schools have daily 90-minute math and literacy blocks, as prescribed by our superintendent in pursuit of our mission of achieving high levels of learning for all.

We are also aware that NWEA tests (given at any time of year) are not comparable to the M-STEP. Information from them was provided simply as corroborating data that something was “off” about the Savage scores — particularly about the very high percentages of “advanced” scores among non-GT students. Your analysis of NWEA scores for a few clearly advanced students is irrelevant to the anomalous scores for non-GT students. Student performance in other schools not flagged by OSA forensic audit is also irrelevant.

Collins and Blaha [the district’s attorneys who conducted the investigation] are “officers of the court” and bound by professional ethics, which we do not question. Student testimony is not — as you have repeatedly asserted — the only evidence of impropriety. We are unable to answer specific questions about the investigation at this point without compromising teachers’ rights to due process.

Finally, no one except you has suggested that the children themselves “cheated.” Benefiting from alleged coaching in no way fits that definition for third- and fourth-graders. Projecting that, because of these scores being invalidated, “all other scores have been opened up for questioning at any point in their lives” is nonsense, and typical of your exaggerated reaction to a serious problem that we have been trying to deal with as fairly and honestly as possible (consistent with employee rights and our code of ethics).

In your zeal to find or speculate on answers we cannot yet ethically provide, you have been heedless of the lasting damage you are doing to your school and its staff, to your district, and to your community. You have provoked, encouraged, and provided a platform for everyone with the smallest of grievances (and a few who seem unaware of the legal consequences of libel). Because of your irresponsible rush to judgment (and we are aware of the irony), what should have been a measured and sober self-examination by the district of problematic behavior has become a circus of speculation and Internet trolling. Did you think of anyone except your own children and the imagined insult to them? As elected representatives charged with statutory responsibilities and concern for the welfare of all of our children and our employees, we must take a broader view.

Our superintendent, whom we hired specifically to change the focus of our district to student achievement, and whom we have consistently evaluated as highly effective, is relentlessly targeted by a small faction of our community. He has made needed but uncomfortable changes to put us on a path toward serving ALL of our students well — something we have never done. We care deeply that too many of our children have been left behind, if not written off, and we think that is unacceptable. We realize that the parents of those children are not the loudest voices, but they are our constituents, also. Nor can staff concerns over their preferences trump these children’s rights to high-quality teaching, too. We did not run for office to serve the interests of our own children or of yours, but rather everyone’s children. We hope it will still be possible to attract civic-minded public servants to succeed us.

Note that we will not be responding further to any comments made in reaction to this letter on your site, as we have already said everything we can at this time.

-Martha Toth, writing in collaboration with Brent Mikulski