Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Portage School Board seems un-American

The Portage Board of Education is the new poster child for board audacity.

They’re attempting to squelch board member Wendy Mazer, who dared vote against the majority’s “Groupthink”. They now want to limit her right to speak her mind; a practice that they don’t even enforce in the Kremlin anymore.

The ridiculous actions of school boards are legendary. Even Mark Twain once quipped, “God made the idiot for practice. Then He made the school board.”

But the stunt in Portage moved beyond ridiculous, and is offensive.

According to a recent Kalamazoo Gazette story, they’re attempting to a enforce a board rule that says, “Even if a member voted against the majority, the member should voice support for the board's decision when speaking with the public.”

How exactly should the dissenting member phrase that support? “The board wisely ignored my opinion, and I’m glad they did!”

What response does the Portage board believe would be appropriate when a dissenter is asked why they voted no? Perhaps “Uh, I dunno”, or maybe “None of your business!”

While board actions may indicate members relinquish their brain when elected, I have yet to see where it’s specifically required. Until now, that is.

An individual board member cannot speak for the board. And a board member has a responsibility to accurately convey a board’s decision, and perhaps in fairness should present the reasons supporting the decision. But in the end the majority is perfectly capable of defending their decisions, and shouldn’t demand that a dissenting member do it for them.

In fact, a board member should feel an obligation and responsibility to explain their actions to the public on a regular basis, which is something else that boards don’t seem to like to do.

Can you imagine the outcry in any other governmental body that expected those in the minority to stay silent! In some cases it would be a blessing, but it’s un-American nevertheless.

Consider that most forms of government have a two-party system, which inherently contains a set of checks and balances. But school boards are generally a one-party system, with little or no meaningful debate, discussion, or historical record of why decisions were made.

Boards get away with this silliness because nobody is watching.

They waste precious education dollars to hold poorly attended elections in May, where it’s quite typical to have ten percent or less of the registered voters participate.

Meanwhile, our state legislature puts one-third of the state budget into the hands of these school boards, and expects very little in return.

School boards have lived up to those expectations, and have returned very little.

An Anderson Economic Group report shows per-pupil funding has increased 59.6 percent since the passage of Proposal A, versus an inflation rate of 24.9 percent. Yet, every district claims to be broke.

Test scores, both statewide and nationally, are unimpressive at best.

The credit – or blame – for this falls squarely on the shoulders of local school boards.

Unless we are happy with what we have, it would appear school boards need more vocal dissenters. Thank you Wendy Mazer


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

May Elections are about keeping control

John Roach of Bloomfield Hills deserves to be recognized.

He had two editorials published today regarding May vs. November elections:

Detroit News: Save taxpayers' money and coordinate school elections (01/16/07)
Oakland Press: Vote on twin high schools should be moved from May to November (01/16/07)

Bloomfield Hills is looking to build two new high schools for $140 million, and appears ready to place the issue on a May ballot. John advocates moving the vote to a November election.

He makes so many strong points that it's hard to choose a quote! But perhaps the most powerful is his rebuttal to the weak argument that May elections provide more attention to school issues:

"Adding school candidates and questions to the end of the (November) ballot would lead to less attention being paid to school issues, critics fear. But less attention cannot be paid than having the electorate fail to show up at all. The real issue appears to be fear of losing control."

A typical turnout for a May election is roughly 8% - 10%. If things are heated, or if there is "money on the ballot" (like a bond issue), a district might see 15% - 20% in May election.

Ruth Johnson, Oakland County Clerk (and former Michigan House Legislator) was one of the sponsors of the legislation that offered November elections to schools at little or no cost. She estimates that Oakland Districts spent approximately $1 million in 2005, and another million in 2006 to hold these private school elections. This is money that should've been spent in the classrooms.

But John's point speaks more to turnout. Clerk Johnson has release figures that show 8.9% of registered voters turned out for school elections in May, while 59.8% voted in November 2006 and 73.9% in November 2004.

Perhaps the most outrageous abuse of these "off-season" elections can be seen in the Romeo school district (Macomb County). They are holding a special election in February 2007 to try to pass a $91 million bond, and will then vote again 10-12 weeks later in May 2007 to elect two school board trustees. I'd bet the total cost to the district will be $70,000.

==> Mike.


Monday, January 15, 2007

Teacher Bonus Plan is an unwarranted attack?

Well isn't this just great.

Florida came up with a plan to reward the top 25% of the teachers in it's state. (View the plan here).

But, instead of embracing a chance to reward and recognize those teachers that are most effective, the teacher's union in Florida want's to drag them down.

School boards have until March 1, 2007, to submit their plans, or lose out on the money.

The Palm Beach County School District created a plan, and announced it with this motivating comment from teacher leader Theo Harris:

"There's no way we can place our stamp of approval on this process," said union President Theo Harris. "It was something we were forced to do. We did what was required."

Sun-Sentinel: Palm Beach County teachers, district agree on bonus pay (12/20/06)

The plan "proposes 5 percent bonuses based on student learning gains on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, other tests and annual job evaluations."

"In October, Hillsborough County became the first to have a merit pay plan approved by the state Board of Education."

Broward School Board apparently approved a plan, but "agreed that the (state's) performance plan was flawed but did not want to risk losing the district's $15 million share."

This is nearly $150 million in additional money for teachers, and these guys are all huffing and puffing! Why? Because it's not equal for all. They seem to feel everyone should get more, whether you're good, bad, or just average.

In December 2006 the Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit to challenge the bonus program, and on January 12, 2007, the Miami-Dade teacher's union, filed a lawsuit to halt the plan.

CNN / AP: Teachers union challenges Florida's pioneering bonus-pay plan (01/15/07)

Their press release is here.

The most absurd statement to come from the union was this comment about the STAR bonus plan, which they say is "forced upon the Miami-Dade School officials by the State Department of Education":

"It is just another example of the continuing unwarranted attack on dedicated teachers and on public education."

Offering a bonus is now an "unwarranted attack"?

They also described it as a "misguided attempt", "this latest gimmick hatched by some Tallahassee politicians", and an "ill conceived tactic".

I don't think any of this does much to serve their self-described goal of "fostering... professional status for teachers".

The union had one legitimate concern, which is that some teachers are not eligable for the bonus, such as special education teachers. The union should've celebrated the opportunity to reward outstanding teachers now, but kept lobbying for change to the law to make it more inclusive.

But no, it seems they just want more money, no strings, expectations, or other "meddling" allowed.

I wonder if we'll see picketing soon, with "No Bonus for Me!" placards.

==> Mike.


Sunday, January 14, 2007

Why can't districts evaluate the Schools of Choice program?

Dave Groves of the Oakland Press wrote an article that provided an interesting look at movement of student populations that result from the Michigan Schools of Choice Program.

Oakland Press: Schools of Choice (12/24/06)

The second sentence concludes, “Administrators said it is difficult to judge whether the policy has helped raise academic achievement levels, but note that it is not difficult to see how struggling districts have been devastated by the loss of state funding that follows their students to districts they choose to attend.”

The money argument is loaded with hypocrisy, but I’ll address that another time. For now, let’s look at the more important student achievement piece, and how schools fail to track student achievement.

I have no doubt that many administrators would indeed find it difficult to conclude whether a child is having more academic success in one school versus another.

Isn’t that sad?

One would think the first thing that a school would do when a child transfers into the district is assess where they are. Are they below grade level, on par, or above? Where is the student academically after one year in the district? Shouldn’t there be some comprehensive data collection, reporting, and analysis?

This type of analysis should be going on with ALL students!

What if there is a large influx of School of Choice students that are entering the district below grade level, and the district incurs substantial cost to bring them up to level. Wouldn’t the district want to know the financial impact?

Wouldn’t a district want to share their success of helping those children?

Another scenario might be that a student enters achieving at grade level, and basically maintains that status. But, districts can’t even determine if that is what is happening!

And, regardless of individual student performance, administrators should at least be able to judge whether the student has more educational opportunities at one school or another by examining the curriculum.

It seems to me that it’s not that judging is difficult, but rather whether schools are that interested in measuring student achievement and opportunity.

==> Mike


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Absurd Art Teacher gets canned...

There is a story that started last December about a high school art teacher that paints using his butt.

AOL/AP: Virginia School Fires Butt-Print Art Teacher (01/10/07)
USA Today: School district fires 'butt-printing artist' (01/10/07)

There is a video clip on YouTube where he is interviewed, and demonstrates his "talent":

Unscrewed with Martin Sargent, Episode #164

Be advised that it's as stupid as it sounds.

Well, let me take that back... it was amusing, but not for a professional teacher.

Artists -- at least the interesting ones -- are unique and creative. But this person is more than an artist; he is a teacher, and therefore a role model.

Being a teacher doesn't mean he gives up all of his individual rights, but it does mean that he carries a huge responsibility.

This is about respect for the profession.

He showed poor judgment, and a lack of respect for his employer. It is unbelievable to me that he had no idea how this would impact a high school and the students.

The argument that he was doing it on his "free time" is true, but completely ignores the disruption it caused the school. This would be no different than a group of female teachers choosing to pose nude for a calendar... on their own time.

The distraction to the school -- and the learning environment -- matters. That type of behavior, while certainly allowed in our society, has no place in public education.

==> Mike.


Monday, January 8, 2007

$1600 Per Pupil that doesn't lead to student achievement?

Jay Mathews, the highly-respected education reporter for the Washington Post, covered a new report called "Frozen Assets: Rethinking Teacher Contracts Could Free Billions for School Reform" from the Education Sector.

The Washington Post: Cutting Provisions In Union Contracts Could Free Funds (01/08/07)

(You may need to register -- for free -- in order to read the article. I would encourage you to sign up; you should be reading Jay's "Class Struggle" column every week anyway!)

Just so everyone is clear, the report is not advocating a reduction in education spending. They specifically say, "This is not excess money that could be withdrawn from the public education system with no impact on student learning, but rather money that might be spent differently and with greater effect. "

The report considers 8 common provisions of teacher contracts:

  • Increases in teacher salaries based on years of experience;
  • Increases in teacher salaries based on educational credentials and experiences;
  • Professional development days;
  • Number of paid sick and personal days;
  • Class-size limitations;
  • Use of teachers’ aides;
  • Generous health and insurance benefits; and
  • Generous retirement benefits.
The point of the report is that these particular provisions don't necessarily do anything to improve student achievement, and that their inclusion in teacher contracts effectively locks up $77 billion that could be devoted to programs that demonstrably improve student performance. If there are roughly 48.4 million K-12 students nationwide (per the NCES), that $77 billion figure could represent nearly $1600 per pupil.

Of course, the union leaders quoted in Jay's article attempt to defend the contract provisions cited, and then promptly ask for more money.

The report really addresses an ongoing battle in school districts around the country, where district officials are trying to strike a balance between what is best for students vs. what is best for teachers. While those choices are frequently in sync, they are not always in sync. Union contracts are perhaps the best example.

Unions tend to approach the subject from an emotional standpoint, and paint any discussions as "an attack" on teachers. Until that changes, it's going to be tough to have reasonable discussions that lead to fair agreements for teachers, that also help to improve our education system.

An important point from this report that is likely to get missed by many is:

"Teachers also pay a price for the rigidity of the provisions, at least indirectly. Restricting resources that could be better used elsewhere diminishes the quality of schools and, as such, the professional lives of teachers. Conversely, teachers as well as students would benefit if resources were used more effectively."

==> Mike.


Sunday, January 7, 2007

Gifted Programs in Middle School

A friend in Grosse Pointe sent this link:

Middle School Honors Classes Come to Grosse Pointe

It addresses a move in Grosse Pointe to increase rigor in Middle School, which is a largely ignored area. It has brought out some of the tired old rhetoric against "ability grouping", but this time it appears that the desire to help children won out over the fear mongering.

I started trying to pull a few quotes from author Laura Vanderkam, but there are too many that are important, and to the point. Go read the short blog!

==> Mike.


Friday, January 5, 2007

Grosse Pointe Schools - Feeling the Pinch?

The article below by Daniel Howes provides an interesting view into one of the better funded districts:

Detroit News: Pointes expose school fund woes (01/05/07).

The point implied by the district administrators is that a lack of increased funding is going to erode their education system.

Even though Grosse Pointe is one of the highest funded districts in the state, they -- like most school districts -- claim whatever they get, it's not enough.

I believe that schools in Michigan are now starting to feel a budget pinch due to their own self-inflicted financial mismanagement. These money problems are not solely caused by demons in Lansing.

But more than that is the question of "bang for the buck".

How is it that Forest Hills and East Grand Rapids on the west side of the state, or East Lansing and Okemos in the center, can all do a splendid job of educating their children when they receive $2000 - $3000 less PER PUPIL than Grosse Pointe?

Yes, Grosse Pointe is clearly at the top by almost any measure. (The measurements, by the way, which we now have thanks to No Child Left Behind!)

But with 20% more money, are they 20% better? I'm not knocking Grosse Pointe, and consider them to be one of the finest districts in the state. But I think the question merits discussion.

And, more significantly, is it the extra money per pupil that does it?

I'm sure it doesn't hurt, but I'd bet that their impressive results -- and the results in the other districts I mentioned -- are really driven by an education culture pushed by the teachers, and more importantly by the parents!

==> Mike.


Thursday, January 4, 2007

Call the board to order with new priorities

Rochelle Riley wrote a great article on Wednesday:

Detroit Free Press: Call the board to order with new priorities (01/03/07)

I thought it was right on the money!

Sadly, I don't think the problem is limited to Detroit Public Schools, and is evident in many of the suburban districts I've watched.

School boards seem to be populated with followers, who wait for the district administrators to lead the way.

Board are "trained" by the Michigan Association of School Boards to understand the board's role is "policy", not day-to-day management. While that is certainly a good guiding principal, what they fail to discuss is reasonable oversight. In practice, a board member that attempts to address or discuss meaningful objectives or concepts is accused of "micromanaging."

Even if you have board members with the capacity to lead, it's easy to get buried with the complexity and volume of data. The board itself has no staff that can provide any research, or write policy drafts, so it is limited to reviewing whatever details the district administration decides to share, and ends up debating policies written by the administration.

Sure, there might be some discussion, but it's usually not very substantive. Most matters brought before a board were only submitted to board members a few days prior, and a board member frequently does not have adequate resources to be able to effectively analyze or challenge the plan.

That in and of itself is not necessarily a problem if the district has a good, strong, candid administration that keeps the board well informed, solicits input, and seeks direction.

But not all superintendents are like that, and boards seem unable to differentiate.

It's frightening to think how education - arguably the future of our state - is dependent on such a weak governing institution. It's even worse when you consider the enormous sums of money controlled by these groups. Most school budgets exceed that of the cities in which they reside!

==> Mike.


An idea on school funding...

I floated the idea of splitting up the way the state funds school districts.

Detroit Free Press: A smarter way to budget schools (11/20/06)

Instead of looking at the idea, most of the (negative) public feedback printed in the Free Press "letters" suggested that many in education viewed it as an attack, rather than as a way to try to manage costs, and keep our public education system solvent.

==> Mike.


Prop 5 should be a beginning, not an end

The defeat of Prop 5 does not mean that voters don't care about education.

It simply means there are limits to what taxpayers are willing to spend, and that they do consider what their money is being spent on.

The whole campaign on Prop 5 did a good job of educating the public, and hopefully we won't lose the momentum the debate generated.

I expand on those thoughts here:

Detroit News: Listen to voters and reform school benefits (11/09/06)

==> Mike.


Guaranteed Funding Increases Won't Solve the Problem

Schools are "non-profit" institutions and should devote every dollar they can to student achievement.

But, they should not spend MORE than they get.

This should all be controllable through prudent budgeting, but in practice it's not.

Managing a school budget is much easier than managing a business budget, but you won't hear that from any educators. To begin with, your revenue is very predictable, and can be estimated with 98% or so. A full 85% -- or more -- of expenses are comprised of salaries and benefits, which can be predicted.

The rest of the items, such as maintanance, supplies, etc, can be budgeted.

There are some things which may be tough to predict, such as energy costs, but managers need to do their best and come up with contigency plans.

The problem is that schools try to do things backwards. Instead of looking at what they are likely to receive, and then working backwards from that, they instead calculate increases in their expenses and determine how much they need.

If they don't have enough, then they complain there is a funding problem, and look to start cutting student programs, or increasing class size.

The flaw in this process is that the calculcated increases are figured using variables that the school can control!

Managing benefits is a prime example, as I expand on here:

Detroit News: Prop 5 doesn't remedy school costs (09/27/06)

==> Mike.


Do Schools Deserve Guaranteed Funding Increases?

If a state legislator advocates for lower taxes, to be paid for with improved efficiency, they are not treated as a pariah.

But, voicing a similar thought -- that schools should get their financial house in order before demanding more money -- creates quite a stir when it comes from a school board trustee.

I believe there are additional things schools could do that would benefit students, but those things cost money. I would advocate for additional funding if I felt schools were being better stewards of taxpayer funds, but they are not.

This opinion piece elaborates on those thoughts:

Detroit News: State schools don't deserve guaranteed funding increase (12/01/05)

==> Mike.


Schools must show they can handle their funds.

As a school trustee, I feel my first responsibility to the students -- and their parents -- to make sure they are getting the best education possible. But I also feel I have an equally important responsibility to the taxpayers to make sure they are getting the best value possible.

I'm sure all in the education community would agree with my first statement. Sadly, though, many -- including many school board members -- do not feel the second responsbility is as important. To them, money is the only answer.

I expand on these thoughts in this opinion piece:

Lansing State Journal: Schools must show they can handle their funds (07/10/05)

This was the beginning of battle over Proposal 5, which appeared on the November 2006 ballot.

==> Mike.


Local Educators Talk AP

Dave Groves of the Oakland Press wrote a great piece on Advanced Placement in Oakland County.

Oakland Press: Local educators tout AP courses (08/26/06)

There were some encouraging signs in the article, but only time will tell whether Michigan's education culture can play catch-up, or will instead remain behind the times.

==> Mike.


Jay Mathews and the School Rating Scoundrels Club

Jay Mathews of the Washington Post is a highly respected education reporter that has been covering Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs for several decades.

Every year he produces the "Challenge Index" (published by Newsweek), which ranks public high schools based on their particiaption in the rigorous AP courses.

I felt quite honored when he recongized my report in his weekly column "Class Struggle".

Washington Post: School Rating Scoundrels Club (08/01/06)

==> Mike.

P.S. Jay has several great books for those interested in understanding what drives great schools. Here is a link to Amazon to find books by Jay Mathews.


Advanced Placement Participation in Michigan

Advanced Placement is considered by many to be the "gold standard" in helping to prepare our high school students for the challenges they await at college.

I began trying to research the topic in order to benchmark the performance of Rochester Community Schools, but quickly found that data was not available. In early 2005 I asked if the district administrators would try to collect data from neighboring districts, but was told it was too much work.

So, using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), I collected data from approximately 100 school districts across Michigan.

As I had suspected, Rochester did have room for improvement.

But more than that, I learned that Michigan as a state was sadly lacking.

A PDF copy of my report can be found on my website:

Advanced Placement Participation in Michigan (2005)

==> Mike.


Oakland Press Explores District Consolidations

Dave Groves of the Oakland Press did a splendid article on the subject of school district consolidation.

Oakland Press: Is consolidation a dirty word? (06/18/06)

Sadly, it was all but ignored by school officials, who must've been too busy lobbying the state legislature for more money.

==> Mike.


Merging Rochester and Avondale School Districts

I have been a proponent of district consolidations (mergers) for some time. It's crazy that Michigan has 530+ districts.

I had brought up the topic at board meetings as early as 2005, and received a big collective yawn from everyone.

In Feburary 2006 the superintendent of Avondale, Dr. Byrd, announced his retirement. What a perfect opportunity for Rochester and neighboring Avondale to at least discuss the subject!

The idea was floated in this opinion piece:

Oakland Press: Oppportunity now exists for district consolidation (02/18/06)

Shortly thereafter, the Avondale Board responded:

Oakland Press: Consolidating school districts is not a simple solution (04/15/06)

Their response seemed to be an effort to "circle the wagons" rather than give it thoughtful consideration. That is certainly their perogative, but I offered my thoughts in a follow-up piece:

Detroit News: Protecting school fiefdoms hurts students, taxpayers (05/18/06)

Sadly, both districts moved on without giving it any serious consideration.

==> Mike.


Merge School Districts

It is unbelievable to me that school district consolidation is not at least discussed by districts.

This was the first article I wrote on consolidation:

Oakland Press: Consolidating districts could mean big bucks for schools (06/25/05)

There are examples all around the country of high-performing districts that are large. I see consolidation having very little impact on schools themselves. The real impact would be on central office staff. Right now you have well-paid administrators that fill similar positions in each district; they essentially do the same thing. By consolidating districts, you reduce the number of administrators.

Yes, the implementation is more complex than presented here, but I have yet to hear any compelling counter-argument.

==> Mike.