Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings supports Parent Expectations

This article by Clarence Page briefly discusses US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings:

Detroit News: Bush schools chief speaks up for parents (05/30/07)

It discusses a controversary brewing over the $1 billion per year "Reading First" program. There are allegations that some of the materials selected for use in the program (before Spellings took over) provided personal gain to those making the decisions.

I'm not familiar with those issues, but I was impressed with the outcomes as described by Page:

The irony of the Reading First controversy says a lot about other clashes in the Bush Education Department. Despite the allegations, reading scores for students in the program have dramatically improved.

The percentage of first-graders who met or exceeded proficiency standards on reading fluency grew from 43 per cent to 57 percent in a study of the years 2004 to 2006, and third-graders who improved grew from 35 percent to 43 percent. A scandalized program may actually have produced encouraging progress for students.

I was also impressed with these quotes attributed to Spellings:

But, as she showed in our interview and on "The Daily Show," she speaks up forcefully for a large group that too often feels shortchanged in school debates: the parents.

I laid on her my biggest complaint about standardized tests: Doesn't every child learn differently?

"Yes, but," she said, "I think sometimes that's used as an excuse for masking underachievement."

Then she got personal: "I'll tell you what, Clarence. ... I've yet to meet a parent who didn't want their kid to be reading at anything less than grade level -- this year! Not in 2014 (the goal year set by the administration for closing that academic achievement gaps). This year! And that's not an unreasonable expectation for parents to have of their schools and their kids."


Monday, May 28, 2007

A little business sense could redirect money to education

Great Editorial by Nolan Finley in Sunday's paper:

Detroit News: Business is essential to fixing schools (05/27/07)

He discusses a new survey by the Detroit Regional Chamber, which apparently shows that businesses are overwhelming unhappy with the output of schools today, and are reluctant to provide more funding until schools get their financial act together.

It's a shame businesses can't vote. If they could, perhaps they could help drive the election of school boards that would fix these rather obvious problems!

If schools were open to advice from business, I'm sure they could get lots of pointers on how improve business operations. But, they're generally not open to suggestions from business people and as a result maintain very poor business practices.

I see this as a huge problem.

My original motivation to get involved in education was driven by a desire to make public school more challenging and rigorous. But every attempt to suggest an improvement was met with "We don't have the money!"

So, I started trying to look at the business practices, hoping to find some savings that could then be utilized to improve education.

There are plenty of places to find savings.

For example,
Rochester Community Schools spends $1500 on basic desktop computers. Go try to configure a desktop PC on Dell's website, and see if you can even spend that much!

The district sends out plenty of mail. Report cards, bus schedules, and state required notices are all mailed, and usually paid for with first-class postage. Why not send this stuff via email, or post grades and bus schedules on a secure website, like most business do? Instead, the Board of Education just approved the purchase of a $45,000 postage meter!

In this year alone the board has approved nearly $200,000 in consulting contracts, each essentially designed to baby-sit or oversee other consultants or contractors.

The $65 million dollar bond issue from 2004 continues to be managed by a general contractor that has received the work on a no-bid basis. They are joined by financial advisors, healthcare consultants, lawyers, and technology consultants that continue to enjoy contracts awarded by the board on a no-bid basis.

The board has refused several requests I've made to look at whether there would be any savings in merging with neighboring districts.

And I can only assume that the union contracts are approved based on emotions, because they certainly don't make business sense. The most recent contracts are projected to increase at nearly $370 per pupil. That's a 6.4% annual increase. It is double what the best case scenario is out of Lansing for next year's funding increases.

These are just a few high-level observations. Imagine what might be found if the districts were to seek mentoring partnerships with local CEO's to come in and help mentor central office leaders and building principals.

==> Mike.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

Using Taxpayer-Funded Resources to Lobby, not Teach

A friend from Farmington, Eric Rosenberg, had a great op-ed published today:

Farmington Eccentric: It's time to hold the line -- no tax increases (05/27/07)

(My post here addresses a point about schools raised in Rosenberg's article. But it's important to note that Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, and all of the Senate Republicans, deserve a sincere "Thank You!" for devising SEVERAL plans to rescue the state budget without a unnecessary tax increase. You can click here to send a note to the Senator.)

In his article, Rosenberg points out:

"The Farmington school organization is using its computer facilities and personnel to push a program of people bothering (legislative) offices with calls actually scripting them on what to say."

It's not just Farmington that's guilty of misusing taxpayer resources; I've seen similar efforts from several districts.

Call your legislator now -- the sky is falling. We need more money. Do it now; it's for your children.

And it goes far beyond using computers. Taxpayer dollars are used to fund lobbyists at the ISD level, and taxpayer dollars flow to associations that employ lobbists, such as the Michigan Association of School Boards, the Michigan Association of School Business Officials, and the Michigan Association of Superintendents.

School boards also authorize taxpayer funds to be used to belong to similar associations at the county level, whose duties include lobbying and lobbying strategies.

Even if it's only $10,000 - $15,000 per year, it's still money that should be going towards teaching, or curriculum, or technology.

The public has elected school board members who are perfectly capable of contacting their legislators -- for free.

Here is the text of Eric's article:

An Open Letter to Sen. Majority Leader Mike Bishop and Sen. Nancy Cassis:

Please disregard the campaign of hysteria, doomsday, and perdition being foisted upon us by the Michigan Education Association leaders, Michigan Association of School Boards, superintendents' organizations, and other such organizations whose leadership exists and thrives by virtue of how much money it can extract from our pressed citizenry, and how much power it can utilize by scaring us into tax increases.

Enough is enough, continue to hold the line against any tax increase whatsoever.

Michigan's economy depends on lower taxes, not higher. We must make do with less. Companies, non-profits and every other non-governmental organization must make do in this tough economy with streamlined expenses and flat to falling revenues. Other places have made it through and recovered without raising taxes, such as California, etc. Those places that have raised taxes simply encourage the most productive of their workforce to leave the state. Michigan cannot afford any more out-migration.

Majority Leader Bishop and Senator Cassis, let me be perfectly direct. Representative Vagnozzi does not speak for me. While he is a pleasant and decent man and cordial persona, he simply is unable or unwilling to comprehend that his stories about his father's job and union standing and immigration to this country, while moving and positive, have nothing to do with our competitive and global world here in 2007 Farmington or Farmington Hills or indeed Michigan.

Senator Jacobs, while a well-intentioned individual, continues the support for expensive, nanny state government that is not only unaffordable, but also in violation of the idea that we are entitled to more freedom and less government. We cannot afford folks in power who act as partisan and personal advocates for MEA leaders and other such folks in power, and do not represent vast numbers of us here in middle America, right in Farmington and the Hills.

The Farmington school organization is using its computer facilities and personnel to push a program of people bothering your offices with calls actually scripting them on what to say.

It is of questionable legality at best as to whether the district may use resources, labor, equipment and software to politic on behalf of the tax increasing positions of Representative Vagnozzi and Senator Jacobs (notice the e-mail blames the legislature, not the governor -- sounds pretty partisan to me). But even if it is legal, it is reprehensible. If our schools have the labor power to prepare and send out blast e-mails such as the forwarded, obviously, we can afford staffing cuts.

I have no doubt, from talking to friends in other districts, that Farmington is not alone. However, I live in Farmington Hills, and wish to make sure that you remember that the silent majority opposes tax increases and wants you to hold the line.

This use of school personnel and computer resources exemplifies exactly what is wrong with our system. You two must hold the line and say no; the public, not the elites, but the mainstream public, parents, teachers (as opposed to their elitist and retrograde leadership in Lansing) and others will back doing the right thing by saying no to tax increases.

Editor's Note: A portion of this commentary refers to an "Urgent Call for Action" in a bulk e-mail distributed this week by the Farmington Public School District via its FPSListServ network, in conjunction with the Parent Legislative Advocacy Network. It urges people to contact their legislators about school funding.
Eric J. Rosenberg is a Farmington Hills resident.


Friday, May 25, 2007

Mackinac Center Looks at Consolidation

The Mackinac Center just released a report by Andrew Coulson on school district consolidation.

Mackinac Center: School District Consolidation, Size and Spending: an Evaluation (05/22/07)

The report looks at individual school district spending in Michigan during the 2003-04 school year, and attempts to adjust for a variety of factors using a complex set of mathematical formulas.

They conclude the "ideal" district size is 2911 students, and calculate that consolidating smaller districts up to that population would save $31 million, and breaking up the larger districts would save $363 million.

I just gave this a quick review. I usually like the findings of the Mackinac Center and Andrew Coulson, but after my first pass I'm afraid I just can't agree with them on this one.

I have no doubt that their formulas are correct, but see three flaws in their logic. First, they assume the educational standards a community sets for its schools can be measured by the average household income. Secondly, the study does not take academic achievement into account (although a subsequent revision that will somehow factor in achievement is planned). Third, the study does not consider educational opportunities.

With respect to concern number one, I cannot agree that all wealthier communities have higher standards than less affluent communities.

As far as concern number two, I do agree that money spent per pupil doesn't necessarily translate into higher achievement, but I believe that is not because money is entirely irrelevant. Poor or medicore results are often because of poor academic leadership and low community standards. A district with high standards, a strong leader, and more resources is going to do better than a district with high standards, a strong leader, and fewer resources.

And finally, speaking to concern three, the study does not address the opportunities -- or lack thereof -- in districts of differing size.

The Mackinac Center will present and discuss the results on June 7, and I hope to learn more then. Stay tuned.

==> Mike.


Sunday, May 20, 2007

Academic Achievement Deserves More Recognition, not Less!

This takes the award for the best article of the day!

Brittany Dixon, a junior at Lake Orion High School and editor of the Student Voices section in the Eccentric Newspapers, wrote this insightful piece regarding the way the honor of Valedictorian and Salutatorian have been watered-down.

Eccentric: Valedictorians vanish as schools honor several top scholars (05/20/07)

This, from a high school junior, shows the “culture of education” in Michigan:

"Schools provide top students with distinctive tassels to adorn their caps at graduation, but when it comes to the record-setting athlete, it's a completely different ball game. Extravagant banquets, impressive plaques and countless newspaper clippings acknowledge sports players' accomplishments, yet the title of valedictorian is forgotten in the midst of honoring every student who "did their best."

I have supported the idea of eliminating “Vals and Sals” at Rochester, but only because the Rochester School district refuses to weight the grades of academically challenging classes. This creates
two problems. First, an “A” in guitar class counts the same as an “A” in AP Calculus or AP Physics, and that hardly seems fair. Secondly, I’m told that some students in the running for “val or sal” shy away from the more academically challenging courses in their senior year because it might put that designation at risk.

I’ve also believed having 10 Valedictorians and 20 Salutatorians in a single graduating class signals a weak curriculum. How much challenge can there be if such a large number of students can achieve “perfect” or “near-perfect” scores?

This article today has caused me to rethink my position.

I have included below the full article:

Valedictorians vanish as schools honor several top scholars

The title of valedictorian, derived from the Latin equivalent meaning "to say farewell," is ironically doing just that. Recently, many high schools have done away with the tradition of choosing a single valedictorian in favor of recognizing a group of students graduating at the top of their class instead. This decision has resulted in opposing views from administration and students at several local high schools.

Kati Schmidt, a 2006 graduate of Oxford High School, would have been valedictorian of her class if it weren't for the "everyone's a winner" philosophy that has become increasingly more common. Rather than reserving the well-known honor for the highest-achieving individual, Oxford recognizes the top 10 students based on cumulative grade-point averages. Lake Orion High School does the same.

This new method leads many to ask, "What makes 10 better than one?" According to Todd Dunckley, principal of Lake Orion High School, "not choosing one valedictorian gives recognition to more students who deserve it."

Schmidt, however, disagrees: "If they were going to make a distinction between 10 of us and the rest of the class, then they might as well have said who was first, second and so on."

Competition between classmates for the coveted top spot may have also been a factor that ultimately led to the elimination of valedictorians. Schmidt remembers the rivalry among students leading up to commencement: "It wasn't openly cut-throat, but I think people were pretty concerned with [being the best], whether they admitted it or not."

Dunckley has noticed the same behavior as well and feels the "top 10" policy ensures that "nobody gets harmed." But others argue that not being one of several people honored makes ordinary students feel worse.

Aside from the personal emotions involved, the absence of valedictorians can also play a part in the college admissions process.

Katy Rice, a senior at Lake Orion High School and ranked first in her class, has experienced these negative affects firsthand. Rice, who plans to attend Alma College in the fall, will not be receiving the funding she has earned. "The school I am going to has a special, full-ride scholarship specifically for valedictorians. Although I am qualified, I'm not eligible because [Lake Orion] won't officially give me that title."

Schools provide top students with distinctive tassels to adorn their caps at graduation, but when it comes to the record-setting athlete, it's a completely different ball game. Extravagant banquets, impressive plaques and countless newspaper clippings acknowledge sports players' accomplishments, yet the title of valedictorian is forgotten in the midst of honoring every student who "did their best."

Perhaps the status of valedictorian was more imperative years ago, when a much smaller percentage of high school grads went on to pursue a higher education. Still, many find it sad to end a longtime tradition by withholding a highly sought-after title from deserving students. Said Schmidt: "I worked really hard in high school, and having the title of valedictorian would have been pretty cool."

Brittany Dixon is a junior at Lake Orion High School and editor of the Student Voices section in the Eccentric Newspapers.


More Gym, Less Academics?

Senator Deborah Cherry, D – District 26 (Oakland County, Waterford area) is proposing that the state mandate more gym class to help combat a 30-year tend in overweight children.

Oakland Press: Proposal would require more time in gym class (05/20/07)

I was a bit surprised to learn that the Rochester School District supports the idea, since the policy setting school board has not “weighed-in” on the topic.

Debbie Hartman, spokeswoman for Rochester Community Schools, said she supports the concept, but the state must allocate enough funding for it to be effective.

“Everyone agrees physical fitness is an important issue. But the primary limitation is resources. There’s only so much to go around,” Hartman said. “I would hope the state intends to give additional funding because if not, all of the expenses would fall on the schools.”

Physical fitness is certainly important to children – and adults. But this proposal assumes that the schools are somehow responsible for this problem, or are in a position to fix it. Where is the evidence to support either assumption?

And without knowing what the state expects, I really don’t see how this can be a money issue, unless they’re proposing to expand the school day to accommodate additional gym time.

What's likely to happen instead is any additional increase in phys-ed time would come at the expense of academics.

The article points out, “the prevalence of overweight children in the United States has just about tripled since the early 1970s.”

I doubt that trend is the result of any reduction in PE time at school. I think it’s more likely due to the fact that most kids spend their time out of school with their increasingly large rear-ends planted in front of the television, or in front of video games.


Saturday, May 19, 2007

Parents obstruct efforts to prevent teen drinking at dance

Alcohol and underage drinking at school dances has plagued school administrators for decades.

Many schools have wisely begun working with their police liaison officers to combat underage drinking, including the use of Breathalyzer tests at proms.

At a recent prom, Breathalyzer tests confirmed that several Waterford School students were legally drunk.

Now, in an outrageous response, the parents of these children are upset at the school because they weren't warned in advance that their Junior-aged students might be asked to take Breathalyzer tests. Of course, the ACLU is right there to "help".

Shouldn't these parents be upset with their kids?

Here's the article that covers the flap:

Oakland Press: Two students busted at prom; parents cry foul (05/16/07)

Our society is struggling to cope with teenage drinking that is nothing short of a crisis, and schools are at ground zero of the battle. But rather than helping the schools to help these children, we've got parents teaching their children how to play the legal system. They’re trying to teach valuable lessons about searching for legal loopholes rather than accepting responsibility for their actions.

There are an increasing number of cool, hip parents that draw a fine line, suggesting that teenage drinking is OK as long as these teens aren’t driving. They allow alcohol at “supervised” parties. Binge drinking on spring break trips is permissible. In fact, school officials are criticized for attempting to prevent it!

“Hey, we did it as kids and we survived.”

This is so backwards. Parents need to be part of the solution rather than being part of the problem.

The good news is that most of the follow-up comments in this
Oakland Press community “Sound-Off” section seem to suggest that the community is behind the school.


Saturday, May 12, 2007

Zarko Continues to Reveal MEA Tactics

Chet Zarko continues to post shocking emails found in his FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to Howell Schools.

Here is a link to his blog/website.

If you haven't been following this, Zarko is an investigative reporter and consultant that FOIA'ed emails of the Howell teacher's union president and others involved in the bargaining of the union contract. Instead of using the email available to them through the MEA -- or using their own Yahoo email accounts -- the union appears to be using the school's public email system to conduct union business. That is certainly permissible, but there is no guarantee of privacy because it is a public system. Employees are notified of that every time they log into their email.

Anyway, the email shows a few teachers who want to lobby parents when they are showing up for conferences, and use private address lists of students/parents for non-school matters.

It also reveals the pressure put on union members to capitulate to leadership demands, and shows how dissenting opinions are squashed and dissenters ridiculed.

I also found it interesting to read the union line on why they don't communicate with members during negotiations. I'd often heard that union leaders don't discuss the bargaining goals with members, and I never understood why members would tolerate such secrecy about their own compensation.

I've been told that the union claims it is illegal, which is absolutely false. However, nobody was ever able to cite the law used by the union leadership.

But the mystery is finally revealed in the emails. Union reps claim revealing details would be considered an Unfair Labor Practice. I have not seen any facts to support that claim. What bargainers are not allowed to do is make public their offers or counteroffers BEFORE they are seen by the other side.

Given the resources of the MEA, it's hard to believe that their local leadership is so unfamiliar with the law.

The Mackinac Center produced a fact-filled and informative book on collective bargaining.
The Collective Bargaining Primer can be found here. I think most people would be shocked if they knew the absurdity of the whole process, and how it has nothing to do with education or children.


Retirement's a ticking timebomb

The Detroit News -- and reporter Ron French -- did a splendid job of covering the problems with Michigan's educator retirement system. It's a three part series that ran May 10, 11, and 12:

Michigan's education time bomb: Costly, loophole-ridden retirement system threatens public schools

The $1,470-an-hour loophole: Retirees work for 13 days to earn lifetime health care

Politics stall school retiree reform

I've compiled them all in a single PDF which can be found by clicking here.

In brief, it shows how the existing system is a leading cause of the financial diaster in Michigan's schools. The second part shows how Michigan bureaucrats help some find loopholes to further bilk taxpayers. And finally, and perhaps most significantly, the third part paints a depressing picture of how unlikely we are to see change because of such weak leadership in Lansing.

In a related story, reporter Ron French discusses yet another problem, which is how the incentives districts offer to for early retirement help the local district, but further burden the state.

Buyouts: Short-term fix, long-term problems

WJR's Paul W. Smith interviewed Ron French, and the podcast can be heard by clicking here.

The Detroit News included a few audio podcasts of interviews with Ken Braun of the Mackinac Center (found here) and Doug Roberts, director of a public policy institute at MSU (found here).

This is not a new problem, and has been covered in reports and editorials for years.

It is amazing that legislators ignore it, but it is even more outrageous that taxpayers permit it. A quick email to your legislator might provide an incentive for them to look at this issue, and let them know you are watching.

You can find your Senator here, and find your Representative here.


Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Putting Negotiations ahead of Kids

A bit of breaking news this morning.

Chetly Zarko, an investigative columnist and consultant, has been looking into various education-related projects.

Last month he began making FOIA requests to take a look at email written by the President of the Howell teacher's union, and some of his lieutenants. The union is a unit of the MEA -- the Michigan Education Association -- the state's largest teacher's union.

Zarko did not try to look at any of their private email, or any email in their MEA accounts; he was only looking at email exchanged on the email system owned by the taxpayers -- the school district's email.

The district would be required by law to redact (black-out) any information about students or parents, and any privelaged communications between district attorneys.

You'd think there wouldn't be much left, other than perhaps coordinating professional development days, or exchanges on curriculum and new learning techniques.

It turns out the first copies he began receiving last week included some shocking and disappointing behavior by some of these teachers.

These emails encourage teachers to use the district's private address lists of student/parents in order to do mailings to lobby for their position in the ongoing negotiations. It also appears that there was a coordinated effort to distribute flyers and discuss negotiation issues with parents at parent/teacher conferences.

The Livingston Argus covered the story (found by clicking here) and quotes Zarko:

... this is "an extreme misuse of private information" teachers have through their employment.

"Using parents in an ongoing bargaining strategy, and using their time in parent-teacher conferences, is a long way from putting kids 'first,'" Zarko said. "Some might say it is putting them last."

I don't think this situation is unique to Howell, and it's not unique to negotiations. I believe this happens in school board elections as well, and it's a sad abuse of position and trust.

Now the MEA is suing the Howell School district -- and wasting precious education dollars -- to stop further releases. Read more here on Chet's blog,
found by clicking here.

I'm sure this will be a continuing story.


Thursday, May 3, 2007

All Day Kindergarten in Public Schools: It's about time -- Literally!

Despite the inflammatory title, this article shows that all-day kindergarten continues to grow.

Detroit News: Districts fear costs as state weighs requiring all-day kindergarten (05/02/07)

Preschools flourish because many parents recognize the value in early education. My own children went to a wonderful preschool,
Lyceum Academy in Rochester Hills, beginning at age three. We kept them there for several years, including a complete year of Kindergarten. The initial decision to choose Lyceum kindergarten over Rochester kindergarten was partially influenced by Lyceum's great program, but was primarily driven by the fact that Lyceum had all-day kindergarten, and Rochester does not.

Research clearly shows the value of beginning a child's education early. Over my six years of involvement with Lyceum, I've personally watched hundreds of kids aged 3-6 who not only "endure" a full day of school, but generally flourish! Some of the children need naps, which is fine, but they still benefit from a full day of learning. And many cease taking the naps very early in the school year.

What we didn't realize at the time, but clearly understand now is that the full day kindergarten program is key to a successful start of a child's education. It's time for full-day kindergarten to become a normal feature of public education.

Most non-public schools -- and many parents -- recognize that most children are ready to learn at early ages. This is not yet widely accepted in public schools, and the result is that our children lose a year. I believe the Kindergarten program at Lyceum was at least equal to -- and probably stronger than -- the first grade program at Rochester. This is not because of the teachers; both schools have outstanding teachers (although we like to think Lyceum's kindergarten lead teacher, "Miss Barbara", is extraordinary and unique! :-) . It's instead because public schools still don't seem to fully embrace a robust early learning program, and it's reflected in the curriculum.

Another consequence is that public schools are missing the boat on some additional revenue because their choice to only offer half-day kindergarten drives parents to find private solutions, and districts subsequently lose funding they would've received for those kindergarten students.

This is very clearly shown in the quote from the article:

"Southfield's classes cost $1.3 million more per year, doubling the cost of half-day programs, but it boosted kindergarten enrollment to 508 students this year from 392 in 2004, despite an overall loss of 403 students from the 9,350-student district."

Demographics and student enrollment estimates are tricky, but one analysis would suggests that a system-wide student loss of 4.3% would predict a kindergarten class of 375 students instead of the 508 actual count. At Southfield's funding levels, the additional revenue received for those additional 133 students would've covered the cost increase quoted in the article.

What was not covered in the article was the little known fact that school districts already receive the FULL per-pupil funding allowance for kindergarten students, even though they only offer half-day programs. A reasonable counter point to the "additional cost" argument might be that schools have been being paid for a full day of school, and parents should be able to expect to receive just that. In other words, moving to all-day kindergarten is not an additional cost, but is instead an obligation that schools have been neglecting and it's time to catch up!

==> Mike