Saturday, February 27, 2016

What I Actually Said

I take responsibility for what I say and write, but not for how I am misquoted on line and in print. This is the statement I actually read at the Feb. 22, 2016, school board meeting:

I would like to explain why I made this motion and why I am voting to end our superintendent’s contract, after this board voted unanimously every year to rate him as “highly effective,” and despite my belief that he has done more for the underserved children of our community than anyone, ever.

I am taking this step solely because a group of people has told us, in person and in writing, that they will never stop until we get rid of him, and — finally — I believe them. There is no chance he can continue to be our educational leader while under siege like this. Those of you who feel so strongly that he must go have demonstrated that you will pursue this end AT ANY COST.

And — by all that is holy — LOOK at the cost! I am not referring to the monetary cost of buying out his legal contract because we want to sever it. No, just look around you. Friends, neighbors, and relatives divided and distraught. A school district’s and a community’s reputation in tatters. Anonymous writers and commenters putting the ugly side of human nature on full display. News media which, as a parent pointed out at our last meeting, “don’t care about us” but that are willing to hype and amplify controversy because it SELLS.

Well, it doesn’t sell our schools or our community. It will take a decade to recover from this, if we ever do. We WILL lose students over the perception created of our schools, which WILL lead to budget difficulties and to staff layoffs. How has that “supported” teachers or students?

The school at the center of the current controversy is suffering. Children do not understand why picketers and police and television trucks are at their school. Teachers are in turmoil, as former employees nag them to choose sides. How can the intensely personal and collaborative profession of teaching work when the staff is divided like that?

We WILL have great difficulty retaining the talented teachers and administrators we already have, because they don’t want to work in such an atmosphere. Who would? We WILL have a hard time attracting high-quality candidates for teaching jobs, for administrative jobs, and for the superintendency, BECAUSE of the rancor and dysfunction here.

The only possible silver lining I can foresee from this utter debacle would be if the quiet, calm servant-leaders of our community step up. We need people to run for this board who can put the needs of our children first, who can commit to improving our practice so that we stop failing so many of them, and who can bring us together to work furiously and with great urgency to do better at what is a society’s MOST important job: raising our young to successfully take over from us one day. Please look into your hearts and see if YOU can advance the schools’ part in this vital work better than this board has been able to do.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

When Good Media Go Bad

Lately, I have been using this platform as a means to get school board communications before the public. I did not ask permission to do so (although I did notify my colleagues when I did it), so that any repercussions would fall on me alone. Two recent posts (on Jan. 31 and Feb. 7) were reprints of replies to letters from the public. The original letters had been published elsewhere, so I believed the replies should also be made public.

Other posts, like this one, are all my opinions, speaking for no one but myself. These are the kinds of extended meditations that have no place at a public meeting where we do the district’s business. But I think they can address the quite apparent desire for more extensive communication about what our board does and why.

Today’s post springs from, but is certainly not confined to, how the crude and unrestrained shock-news and Internet free-for-all of this era can distort and undermine public enterprises.

In these times, everyone has more power to publicize their views than the editor of the largest newspaper once had. They have public platforms to say anything they want, with no fact-checking, and can even do so anonymously. They have great power to do harm, as we have seen in our own community.

People who run with every grievance to televised ambulance chasers masquerading as news media have sullied the reputation of our schools and our community for years to come. When an account ends with “Boom!” or (drops mic), you can be pretty sure that its point was to get revenge or to “show” someone. There have been a lot of accounts like this, sharing more heat than light, and the collateral damage has been substantial. We will likely lose students over this debacle, which means we will have to lay off staff.

We will have difficulty getting and keeping great administrators or public-spirited candidates for the school board. Prepare yourselves for a barrage of candidates motivated by anger and personal grievances, rather than a desire to work hard for the benefit of everyone’s children. As with our state legislature and our Congress, we have made the job of school board trustee so distasteful that intelligent people will avoid it. How does this serve our community?

The job of superintendent — if we expect someone committed to the changes necessary to improve children’s life prospects — has become impossible. A small group determined to drive out a superintendent at any cost can succeed. The tremendous good we have done over the past several years for ALL children in our schools has been overshadowed by the perception created by unleashing Internet trolls. And once they are involved, NO ONE WINS. It will take a decade to recover from this damage — if we even survive that long.

Our governor has specifically arrogated to himself all power over and responsibility for schools that federal and state metrics deem to be “failing.” These metrics prioritize “achievement gaps” (defined solely on the basis of annual state tests), including the gap between the top and bottom 30 percents of student scores in a building. In schools with homogeneous student populations, such gaps will rarely exist. In schools with a diverse population — where students vary by socioeconomic status, by English language–proficiency, by disability — such gaps are common. In a gifted magnet school, such a gap is almost inevitable.

Yet we decided, as a district, to beat the odds by changing curriculum, instructional practice, professional development, resources, and support services to apply research-proven techniques to meet every child’s needs. We had never done that before.

One criticism repeatedly leveled at our superintendent and board is that we must be doing something wrong if we keep losing good people. Let me share a couple of stories….

Several years ago, a recent retiree came to a board meeting to scream at us about a personal grievance he had. He was a large and tall man with a threatening demeanor and obscene language. He then slammed his retirement plaque down on the table in front of the board president and stormed out. I had no idea who he was.

The next day, I happened to be speaking to another retiree from the same middle school. She related that he was like that with his colleagues and even with his students. I had had children at that school for six years and wondered how it was that I had never heard of him. “Because we did our best to keep him away from children like yours!” was the reply.

I was horrified by this. My own children had been protected from educational malpractice but other kids were subjected to it for decades?! I’m not blaming the administrators, who did the best they could, but this is unacceptable. Some people do not belong in a classroom. That’s true for abusive people like this man, but it is also true for sweet but ineffectual people who can neither control a classroom nor teach well. Not every staff departure is a loss of a “great educator.”

Decades ago, we became aware that we had what could only be termed a predator in one of our schools. He was put on administrative leave at once and tenure charges were filed. It took several years and more than $600,000 to fire him. We are no longer so constrained.

I was not in favor of the string of union-busting laws foisted upon Michigan public schools in recent years. I believe in collective bargaining rights, and I believe that the give-and-take of bargaining can protect the interests not only of staff but of students. However, when we have had to lay off teachers due to reduced enrollment, being able to consider teacher qualification and skills, and not just time on the job, has been good for kids.

Of course, most of the people laid off, or who have chosen to leave us, or who have retired early in recent years have NOT been poor employees — but a few of them were. We should be relieved that they left rather than mourning their departure. We would never want to heave that sigh of relief publicly or hurt them personally, but can we not agree that it is more important for us to have the best possible teachers for our children than to provide reliable lifelong jobs? We are a school district, not an employment agency.

All of this is not to discount the importance of employee morale. I believe that most teachers — and probably all of the great ones — were attracted to the profession because of the lives they could change. Giving them the techniques and the support to “save them all” (at least in theory) is the best thing we can do for morale. The work itself — not certificates of appreciation or catered lunches — is the reward. They deserve respect, professional support and compensation, and our gratitude, but what they want most is to be saving lives, every day.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Local update: Board response to Mr. Rytman

Parent Richard Rytman wrote to the Board of Education with a number of questions on Feb. 2. At the request of President Mikulski, I replied for the Board on Feb. 3. Later on Feb. 3, he responded to me: “I heard that my letter to the board was posted somewhere or will be in the next paper, not sure if that is true but if so, it was not my intent when I sent it.” On Feb. 4, his letter was printed in The Independent. In order to respond as directly, transparently, and quickly as possible to all who read that letter and share his concerns, I am reprinting the original reply here (with some bold formatting and one word in [brackets] added for clarity). I do not think it appropriate to use Facebook, which limits access to members, as an outlet for such communications.

From: Martha Toth
To: rrytman
Cc: VB Board; Michael Van Tassel
Sent: Wed, Feb 3, 2016 12:27 pm
Subject: Re: Cancellation of Board Meeting/Climate Survey

Mr. Rytman:

As I am retired and President Mikulski is trying to perform his CEO job while dealing with pressing district business, he has asked me to reply on behalf of the board.

Thank you for your letter. One thing we absolutely agree with you on is that this board has done a poor job of communicating, leaving a vacuum to be filled by inaccurate speculation and worse. A serious mistake we made was assuming that the people behind the SavageStrong site, who seem to have a large following, were actually interested in the answers we provided to their 26-page list of detailed questions. Since they have chosen not to share those answers (and in fact keep posting the already answered questions on their site), we will share them with those who write to us. I may not hit every point you have raised, but I will sincerely try to be responsive to your concerns (those raised by you both in this letter and previously).

• Our reluctance to name names or to get into the details of the investigation into the M-STEP irregularities stems from our desire to both protect the due process rights of teachers and shield the district from liability. We believe they also had a right to privacy (abrogated by self-appointed defenders) until the disciplinary process plays out.

• Staff were notified as close to the end of the school day as possible of their administrative leave with pay because they are contractually allowed to leave the premises the minute the children are dismissed. Do you think it would have been preferable to notify them by letter or email, instead of in person? Escorting them out is legally required once they are on leave. Substitute teachers were arranged for their classes beforehand, so there would be no break in continuity of instruction.

• We were unable to note that the problem with statistically impossible or highly improbable jumps in student scores was not a problem with the gifted classes at Savage, without thereby identifying the (now identified by members of the public) other teachers who were under suspicion of improper coaching.

• We still cannot get into the details of the investigative report with you or other members of the public without compromising the disciplinary hearings (or possible future court proceedings) for these teachers. It is also possible that additional interviews or other investigation may be called for, which is why we do not consider the investigation “closed.”

• We do not consider the competence or the professional ethics of our attorneys, who have specific responsibilities as “officers of the court,” to be at issue, and would caution others from doing so in public, as an attorney’s reputation is vital to his profession and will no doubt be defended vigorously.

• As with most sensitive legal documents, the investigative report was not “given” to board members, but rather was available for their inspection at the board office. Not every trustee has made such an inspection, so some are less familiar with the details than others, but in no way was this document kept from the board.

Moving on to Climate Survey….

• This is not the first time we have done such surveys. This is a function of central administration that is not micromanaged by the board and participation in this nationally used version was, indeed, planned as early as last spring. Typically, the board is briefed on the results of such surveys, but we do not involve ourselves in their planning. This is why board members may not have been aware of the plans at earlier meetings. Similarly, we do not micromanage student participation in various anonymous surveys, which are done using guidelines compliant with state and federal law, for such purposes as tracking student use of illegal drugs and other substance abuse or their risky sexual behavior. Such information is never traceable back to individuals and comes to the board only as a report afterwards.

• The board would normally have had a more extended and productive discussion of the survey results at a work-study, but such careful consideration was really not possible in the charged environment of our last meeting.

You wrote: If there is “a positive environment, then how do you explain the exodus of teachers, pending law suits and mounting number of lawyers being obtained?” We respectfully reject all of those premises.

Regarding teacher retention (much of which was already communicated to you previously):

• This is a national problem, after decades of teacher scapegoating and increasingly onerous micromanaging of the profession, coupled with reduced and/or flat compensation. There are 53% fewer people enrolling in teacher training programs (ASCD), an average of 18% of teachers leave the profession within their first five years (U.S. Dept. of Ed.), and 7.6% of teachers move annually between districts (U.S. Dept. of Ed.).

• This is a statewide problem: Legislative changes to teacher evaluation (now to be largely based on student test scores); to employee rights (re layoff, placement, recall, discipline, and discharge — all now prohibited subjects of collective bargaining); to tenure rights (change from “just cause” to “arbitrary and capricious” standard); to health insurance (20% mandatory copay and 3% of salary toward retiree health care); to retirement (reduction of contribution percentage [multiplier] from 1.5% to 1.25%); to establish a so-called Right to Work (meaning that fewer members carry the load of union dues); and to school funding (resulting in reduced total compensation nearly everywhere) have all contributed to a hostile climate and prompted many to leave or to retire earlier than they had planned.

• This is a VBPS problem, mostly due to state-induced financial constraints, but also due to our efforts to achieve high levels of learning for all (including our at-risk population):

⁃ Grade reconfiguration and the closure of a third of our elementary buildings led to layoffs, as we downsized operations to suit our lower student population.
⁃ Some teachers also chose to leave then rather than change buildings or grade levels.
⁃ Starting pay for most teachers is about $34,000, and we can no longer afford regular step increases.
⁃ Reduced funding also forced strict compliance with federal special education rules, leading to increased class sizes.
⁃ As student population continues to decline (largely due to children not being born five or more years ago), so will our staffing levels.
⁃ Staff assignments were changed in summer 2014 to better meet the needs of at-risk children at Rawsonville School; some staff chose to leave rather than be transferred.
⁃ We do expect continuous change and adjustment to new curricula and teaching practices in order to raise student achievement.

• These realities our district faces may certainly lead to teachers looking for work elsewhere, or in another profession entirely, which is a situation we find frustrating, since we want the very best teachers here in our schools and educating our kids. Unfortunately, given our situation as a district and working with the resources we are given, that trend is likely to continue here, as it will in districts across the state, until changes are made at the state and federal level.

Moving to the ongoing issue of “exit interviews”:

We do not see the value in doing the kind of exit interviews apparently desired by some of the public, as the professional literature (Educ. Leadership & Org. Behavior; Socy. for Human Resource Mgt.) recommends against it. In the field of education, staff depend upon good references and are rarely completely open about why they leave. Instead, we do have our own ways of soliciting feedback and have taken steps already to deal with problems uncovered by this feedback. We also offer many opportunities for feedback before a staff member might choose to leave, including weekly staff meetings and the well-established central office lunch tour (where administrators regularly eat with teachers to offer informal opportunities for communication).

• Our exit information process:

⁃ Building Principal speaks with staff members upon their notice of resignation. Discussion is held regarding reasons why and if there was anything the District could have done differently. This information is relayed to Human Resources.
⁃ Human Resource Director speaks with every Administrator to determine reason for leaving the District.
⁃ Human Resources Director discusses with Superintendent the resignation/reason for leaving. Discussion also includes ways to proactively work on issues raised.
⁃ Human Resources/Superintendent’s office send letter to staff accepting resignation and conveying our good wishes.
⁃ Resignation is placed on Board Consent Agenda along with the reason for leaving the District cited by the employee.

• A New Hire Orientation was instituted to better inculcate new employees into our culture; our mentor-teacher program for new hires was improved; and teachers were given specific, research-based training in classroom management.

• A New Hiring Process was developed after we had an unusual number of new teachers who did not meet our expectations for renewal of their contracts. Better screening, a trained interview team, demonstration of model lessons, and in-service for principals on hiring were all instituted and have resulted in stronger new hires.

Finally, we are not supposed to discuss employee departures in any way, or to speculate on the reasons for them beyond that given by the employee and noted in the Consent Agenda — despite one trustee’s persistence in doing so, against board bylaws and procedures that she made the motion to approve some years ago. Under the Open Meetings Act, an employee has the right to be present if there will be discussion related to them at a Board meeting. The employee must be informed of this in advance and be given the opportunity to request that the discussion take place in closed session. The Act strictly prohibits this discussion without employee’s consent and/or knowledge. We break the law if we discuss an employee without this notice and consent.

Returning to your premises above, we do not have any unusual number of lawsuits in progress against the district, and we have not been “obtaining mounting numbers of attorneys.”

I hope this has addressed most, if not all, of your concerns. I am sorry that a board meeting with a large crowd is not a good venue for going into such detail when such issues are not on the agenda. Nearly everything I have written above has been part of an agenda item at a work-study within the past year.

-Martha Toth

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Our Intractable Conflict

I imagine I am far from the only one who has been losing sleep over the way our community has been torn apart. My view: people who have wanted for a long time to get rid of our superintendent seized on the M-STEP scandal as “the last straw” in their litany of complaints. I think it is reprehensible to defend what certainly appears to be cheating in order to discredit the person who moved quickly to restore our integrity. Good grief, what message does THAT teach our children?

But let’s put that aside for a moment. Obviously, he is a polarizing figure, with very loyal supporters and very adamant detractors. How is it possible for one person to be viewed so differently? I suggest that it is simply a result of the lenses through which he is viewed. We all filter the information we receive, based on our perception of the accuracy and credibility of its sources. But, most importantly, we filter based on our subconscious emotional judgments. Fascinating, credible, and replicated research has demonstrated that we make up our minds about political candidates almost instantly, and that we rarely change our opinions based upon any subsequent factual information we come across. Thus, for example, people will say of both Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz that they “simply cannot be trusted.” If pressed, they can often come up with rationalizing evidence for their opinions, but — in reality — the opinions came first and are later bolstered and justified with “facts” (put in parentheses because they are often factually wrong).

The same phenomenon operates in this case: both sides made snap judgments, have their opinions, and are mightily resistant to changing them.

Those who see him as The Problem in our district will cite the way they believe certain individual employees or others have been treated by him as the main reason they think he is “wrong” for our community. They may have the facts wrong about some or all of these cases, but that does not matter: they “know” he is a “bully.” Any good that they grudgingly admit he has accomplished is outweighed by the harm they believe he has inflicted. Except for some decades-old personal affront about their treatment as teens (historically not the most reliably detached observers), the harm is generally described in terms of poor treatment of adult employees.

Those who see him as The Change Agent tend to focus more on children — not their OWN children but children who struggle, fail, give up, are lost. They see him as the relentless but passionate nag who reminds us every day that our work literally saves lives — or not — and that nothing could be more urgent than getting better at it, so that fewer children are left behind and lost. If feelings are hurt or people leave because they don’t share in either the urgency or the belief that we can and must do more, then that is a mere side effect, outweighed by the good that is done in aspiring to reach the ideal.

Clearly, from my presentation, my bias is toward the kid-centered rather than the adult-centered point of view. I believe my responsibilities as an elected trustee are (1) to provide the best possible education to our community’s children, (2) to be a good steward of public monies, and (3) to be a humane employer —IN THAT ORDER. When there are conflicts in those goals, earlier ones take precedence over later ones. Thus, when the state legislature adopted an unprecedented cut in per-pupil funding (in order to sustain the $1.7-billion cut in businesses taxes) just before we were legally required to adopt a budget for the following year, I voted for a deficit budget. I knew it would have to be fixed later, but I could not justify the wholesale and precipitous cuts in educational services it would take to balance that budget immediately. It took time and a transparent process (including building closures, redistricting, and negotiation of contracts in conflict with priority 3) to accomplish that.

I would ask everyone in our community to think about their own priorities for our schools, and about how they would resolve conflicts in those priorities. Because that is precisely what I think is at issue here and now.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Tragedy in Belleville

Our community is divided. Personal interactions are ugly and mean. I am so heartsick and upset about this that I do not know where to begin or how to end it. Part of me wants to run away, to literally pull up stakes and leave the community, to abandon the school system I have poured my heart and soul into since I first volunteered for a millage campaign in 1981, shortly after I moved here.

When the realtor who sold us our house the year before told us that the school district was “by no means the worst” in the area, I worried a bit. When a preschool teacher told me my daughter was already reading and advised us to think about sending her elsewhere, I bristled. “No! You don’t run away, you fight to make things better!”

And that’s what I did, for decades, in millage and bond campaigns, in parent and advocacy groups, in thousands of hours as a classroom volunteer, in 25 years as a trustee. For much of that time, it felt like a hopeless crusade. Elections were lost, plunging us repeatedly into five-hour days and endless rounds of layoffs. The most sincere efforts often got no traction in raising student achievement. State micromanaging left us with less and less local control.

But just four years into Supt. Van Tassel’s tenure, I see

• the development and adoption of a comprehensive, research-based curriculum almost completed — for the first time

• the provision of proper resources and training for that curriculum, in nearly all subjects and at all grade levels — for the first time

• the adoption — finally! — of definitions of what, exactly, constitutes high-quality instruction in every curricular area that are so rich and inspiring as to make a parent weep with joy

• attention to balancing building, subject, and grade-level teams by skill set, because no one could be expected to have mastered all the complex skills that constitute true high-quality teaching

• the separation of teacher evaluation (which I believe has been prescribed by the state in misguided ways) from professional development: in-classroom modeling and coaching by the best teachers we know, to help teachers reach every child

• a regular program of inculcation and development of principals into true educational leaders, rather than just cheerleaders and building managers; we now have some of the best administrators anywhere

• an Information Technology Plan that has brought us fully into the 21st Century and provides ongoing updates

• a physical plant that was downsized to adapt to lower student population — including building closures and redistricting — without the acrimony and financially dangerous delay experienced by districts all around us

• the implementation of a long-range facility upgrade program to protect and enhance what previous generations built

• a fund balance that moved from a 10% deficit to an amount that allows us to meet current expenses without short-term borrowing — for the first time in many years

• constantly updated policies, procedures, and handbooks that allow employees to know what is expected of them despite the hundreds of laws passed annually that affect our operations

• clear discipline and anti-bullying policies and procedures, which produced a significant reduction in disciplinary incidents and suspensions

• specialized schools within our comprehensive high school and at the best career technical education center in SE Michigan that offer real choices and opportunities to students; many graduate with transferable college credits from dual enrollment and with job-ready certifications

• a useful assessment program (not the state-mandated one, obviously) that gives teachers timely feedback and demonstrates that achievement growth for our students now regularly bests state averages

• a new system to guide us in using the data from those assessments to truly individualize instruction and short-circuit learning failures before they become ingrained

• thoughtful planning well under way for a student support network to deal with non-academic problems that interfere with academic performance

These are a LOT of balls to juggle at one time! But, in addition, there were extraordinary challenges such as managing the multiyear high school construction project (completed under budget and a year ahead of schedule); dealing with the sudden departure of a finance director; implementing the detailed requirements of the Affordable Care Act; and coping with a fire that destroyed our bus garage, vehicles and equipment — yet none of the balls were dropped.

I hope you can see why I am so impressed with the abilities of our superintendent. In all my decades of paying very close attention, I have never seen anyone achieve so much so well and so fast in our district.

Somehow, this is the same man being portrayed by a segment of our community as the AntiChrist. It both baffles and saddens me. I’m not saying he’s never made a mistake or made someone angry, but this is performance any other community would die for. We have clearly done a poor job communicating all of this, which I regret. We have not supported our leader when he was unfairly attacked — which has happened many times, yet I have never heard an apology from anyone who accused him of things that were later proven to be untrue. And I recognize that I will never be able to change the minds of those who obviously hate him. I wish that those in the community who know and appreciate him had stepped up in his defense before things got to this point — where the damage to our schools and community seems irrevocable.

I can only say, with Joni Mitchell, that “You [won’t] know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

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

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

EdTrust-Midwest: The Sky Is Falling!

I have read “Michigan Achieves: Becoming a Top-Ten Education State,” the 2015 Michigan Education Report from the Education Trust-Midwest. (How odd that none of the news articles based on the press release that I have read actually linked to it. Find it at I find the headlines (example: “Michigan May Drop to Bottom in 4th Grade Reading”) unduly alarmist, as the dire predictions are about where they project we may be in 15 years. I do not, however, deny that there is a problem. National Assessment of Educational Progress assessments have shown our students to be, I some cases, losing ground, while those in other states make good progress. The trend is not good.

I am distressed at the selective reporting on both the problems and the potential solutions in this report. It appears that those summarizing it for news outlets have done a cursory skimming, picking out just the most alarming tidbits and the proposals that align with what they already assume to be true. Some important things have been largely ignored, such as “the percentage of Michigan low-income students has climbed steadily, jumping from 36% in 2006 to 47% in 2014,” and “our state currently ranks 42nd of 47 for funding equity, [with] some of the biggest gaps in resources between high-poverty and low-poverty districts,” and “we see similar gaps in how well we pay our teachers in high-poverty schools.” Michigan fell sooner, faster, and farther than most states during the Great Recession. Our public schools suffered with every other sector, we have yet to recover, and that long-standing disinvestment did not allow us to cope properly with our now-needier student population.

In the 1980s, I volunteered for thousands of hours in elementary classrooms. There, I saw a skilled teacher with a master’s degree in reading instruction diagnose and remediate specific problems children were having with reading. It almost looked like magic — but was, of course, expertise. Today, we assume that at-risk children are better off in charter schools, often taught by uncertified Teach for America instructors with just a few weeks of training. It makes no sense to think they would be better at this than someone with expertise borne of training and experience — as, indeed, results show they have not been. Investment in training and supporting professional teachers to continually improve their practice is the obvious solution we have yet to really try here.

The popular reporting on lessons from more successful schools, districts, and states tended to focus on more testing and accountability. The actual report also notes that Michigan has failed to invest in implementation of systemic reforms — we want to punish schools and teachers for not reaching new standards, without investing in training and support to help them do so. The cited states that have had more success have actually invested in implementation; we have not.

There were other under-reported lessons from the Michigan schools cited as successful despite the statewide climate for public education. For example, Brimley Elementary’s teachers are working “to inspire a new generation to love reading.” In fact, “the big reward for good behavior is getting to read for an hour.” Imagine that! Instead of the scripted instruction, rigid “close reading,” and the inflexible ideal of writing pushed by reformers — which threaten to turn off an entire generation to the joys of reading and self-expression — these teachers have produced proficient readers by encouraging and allowing them to love reading. At similarly successful North Godwin Elementary, teachers collaborate, share best practices, and reflect constantly on their own teaching. In other words, they don’t obsess over test scores; rather, they work together as professionals to refine their teaching practices.

We actually know, from research and from experience elsewhere, what works to help students learn better and faster. Most of us agree that teachers are the key — the one aspect of a complex process that we might significantly improve within a reasonable time frame. How to do so, however, is usually seen through a lens of preconceptions. Decades of demanding results, not enabling real change, and punishing perceived failure have NOT succeeded. Education Trust-Midwest documents the ongoing failure of this approach. Respecting and encouraging professional expertise, enabling meaningful professional collaboration, providing adequate resources — and, yes, paying professional wages to those who work in our most challenging communities — are approaches that have worked elsewhere and have yet to be tried here in Michigan.