Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Troubling Results -- please ignore them.

A very provocative headline:

Oakland Press: Oakland High Schools: Are they lagging? (12/05/07)

The article begins with:

“Several of Oakland County’s top-achieving high schools got good grades on the state’s report card but failed to achieve the adequate yearly progress required under the No Child Left Behind mandate.

Only 11 of Oakland County’s 28 school districts received an overall adequate yearly progress (AYP) rating for high schools on the state’s report card — the same number as last year. At the building level, 23 county high schools failed to achieve the required AYP and 13 were successful.”

Those are disturbing statistics that deserve attention.

But, just as parents and taxpayers might begin to show a momentary interest in what Michigan school are – and aren’t – doing, we are quickly directed to ignore the results.

“… Ernie Bauer, director of testing and evaluation at the Oakland Intermediate School District, questions the value of using AYP to rank the quality of a high school. “Let’s look at some of the schools that did not make AYP: both high schools in Bloomfield Hills, Birmingham and Troy — six of the highest-achieving buildings in the state. It gives you an idea of how much value you should place in the system,” Bauer said.”

You can almost feel the relief in parents. “Phew! I’m not sure what that means, but I’m glad to hear there are no problems with our Michigan schools.”

Of course, the article dutifully misses the really boring details, like the fact that even our best performing schools still have anywhere from 10% - 20% of their high school students who are not proficient in English, Math, or Science.

I don't mean in any way whatsoever to single out any specific districts or schools; those particular schools cited by Dr. Bauer truly are -- relatively speaking -- among the best in the state. The point is that educators are so quick to dismiss anything that paints them in a unfavorable light, and reporters repeat it without hesitation and oftentimes fail miserably when it comes to making any effort to put the "education spin" in perspective. (Here's another example from the Livonia Eccentric, which completely dodges the discussion on the "Grade", and instead zeros in on this "unfair" goal of making sure that all children are tested.)

Those who are interested can read more about the report cards here:

You can begin by reading the 27 page “Guide to Reading School Report Cards”. Or, if you prefer lighter reading, you can read the IRS Tax code.


The Michigan Department of Education also provides handy links on their website so that you can examine your school’s scores. Of course they are semi-secure links, which means someone like me cannot make it easy for people by providing direct links to them. You must instead navigate through the state’s website.

Here is my (sarcasticly) easy navigation guide:

First click on Michigan School Report Cards. Then, on the bottom left, find “Browse School”. Choose the letter of the alphabet, and find your school in the list. Then click on the “View Details” link under the “Status Score 2006-07”. On the next screen, click on the “View Details” link under the “Change Adjustment” heading. This will let you see the proficiency levels.

I am really surprised more people don’t want to learn more about their schools, especially given the easy to access and easy to understand data.


I’ve pasted below the “objective” Oakland Press article below in case the link doesn’t work.


Oakland high schools: Are they lagging?

Several of Oakland County’s top-achieving high schools got good grades on the state’s report card but failed to achieve the adequate yearly progress required under the No Child Left Behind mandate.

Only 11 of Oakland County’s 28 school districts received an overall adequate yearly progress (AYP) rating for high schools on the state’s report card — the same number as last year. At the building level, 23 county high schools failed to achieve the required AYP and 13 were successful. But Ernie Bauer, director of testing and evaluation at the Oakland Intermediate School District, questions the value of using AYP to rank the quality of a high school. “Let’s look at some of the schools that did not make AYP: both high schools in Bloomfield Hills, Birmingham and Troy — six of the highest-achieving buildings in the state. It gives you an idea of how much value you should place in the system,” Bauer said.

The federal No Child Left Behind mandates the AYP evaluation, which is based on several criteria, including performance and participation in the Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests, graduation rate for high schools and student attendance for elementary and middle schools.

In addition, Michigan’s Education Yes! program also evaluates schools and gives a letter grade, such as A, B or C, to determine state accreditation. Only one Oakland County high school received an A under the Education Yes! side of the report card — Bloomfield International Academy, which serves several districts.

Both rankings are part of the state Department of Education’s 2006-2007 report card. The majority of the county’s school districts fared better when it came to progress in middle and elementary schools.

All but one Oakland County district, Madison, achieved the overall AYP grade for its elementary schools, and all but two districts, Pontiac and Oak Park, achieved AYP on the middle schools’ column of their report card.

Among those high schools achieving AYP in 2006-07 and receiving a grade of B were Brandon, Clarkston, Clawson, North Farmington, Novi, Rochester Adams and Stoney Creek, Walled Lake Northern and West Bloomfield high schools.

It is possible for a school to receive a high grade under Education Yes! but not make the AYP requirements.

Included among the high schools receiving a grade of B but not achieving AYP were Lake Orion, Troy High and Troy Athens, Rochester, Huron Valley’s Milford and Lakeland, Farmington High and Farmington Harrison, Birmingham Seaholm and Groves, and Bloomfield Hills Andover and Lahser.

Tim McAvoy, spokesman for Troy school district, said it is not students’ performance but requirements to test results for each subgroup of students that keeps some high schools from achieving AYP. Ninety-five percent of the entire student body, as well as 95 percent of students in each subgroup of 30 or more, must take and pass the exam.

“Athens and Troy high schools are among two of best-performing high schools in the nation,” McAvoy said. “At our school, it was not performance, it was the participation rate of subgroups,” he said. The subgroups include the major racial and ethnic groups, students with disabilities, students that are economically disadvantaged and students limited in English proficiency.

At Athens, for example, one of the subgroups included 32 students with disabilities. But only 28 students completed the testing, thereby not counting toward AYP.

“It is an issue we are going to have to take a look at,” McAvoy said.

West Bloomfield Superintendent Gary Faber said he is pleased the achievement gap between subgroups is closing.

“The efforts we are making throughout the district are paying off,” Faber said.

Each year, the states sets proficiency standards for students to achieve. And each year, the required percentage correct on the exams is moved up, challenging schools to help students reach higher achievement.

For the 2006-2007 school year, on which the report card is based, the state objective was to see 56 percent of elementary students demonstrate proficiency in mathematics and 48 percent in English language arts; 43 percent of middle school students proficient in math and 43 percent in English language arts; and 44 percent of high school students proficient in math and 52 percent in English.

The goal is to reach 100 percent in both math and English at all grade levels by 2013-2014.

The percentage of high schools not making adequate yearly progress this past year increased by more than 9 percent across the state, according to the Michigan Department of Education.

The state reports that for the 2006-07 school year, 489 high schools did not make AYP, which is required by the federal No Child Left Behind law, compared to 399 high schools that did not make AYP the previous year. Of the 489 schools not making AYP last year, 15 have been closed by their local school districts, according to the state Web site.

“This isn’t unexpected,” said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan. “We changed our high school graduation requirements because we knew we needed higher standards to prepare our kids for the demands of college and the work world. These results just remind us how critical that change was.”

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires that adequate yearly progress be calculated for all elementary, middle and high schools as well as each school district. The school district must attain the target achievement goal in reading and mathematics — or reduce the percentage of students in the non-proficient category.

While Oakland Schools’ Bauer may be a big critic of the process, he also is among those who sees good coming from the intense focus ensuring no child is left behind.

“There are many of us who believe some very good things have happened because of paying attention to every student. The old mentality of scoring and selection doesn’t work. Now you need to look at the unique need of this group and that group.

“We ought to look at the individual kid and where he is now and how he has moved forward,” Bauer said.

“Many schools have responded and have seen the need for better systems for knowing who is learning and who is not. We have ways of making sure those kids that don’t get it the first time, get it.”

Bauer said he and some educators have lobbied for more explanation of the other factors that can keep a school from getting AYP.

“If there are 50 ways to not make it, it would be nice to know why you did not make it,” Bauer said.

Contact staff writer Diana Dillaber Murray at (248) 745-4638 or diana.


Saturday, December 1, 2007

I agree with the MEA

Iris Salters, MEA President, offered this article for her monthly contribution to the Detroit News “Labor Voices” series:

Detroit News: Schools get conned on privatization (11/30/07)

Her article contained a point that I absolutely agree with:

“The duping of school board members around the state is common.”

Let me say that again: I agree with the MEA.

Contractors and consultants dupe school boards. Superintendents and other administrators dupe them. And the union dupes them.

It’s a shame that the public – and the media – doesn’t pay more attention to the absurd practices of school boards.

The balance of her article is a clever mix of unrelated facts designed to spin the issue. It’s interesting to read the MEA’s perspective on Hartland’s decision to outsource, and save nearly $14,000 per custodian.

It’s even more interesting to see the MEA use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain district emails when it suits their purpose, but then file a lawsuit to block a similar FOIA when it might embarrass them. You may recall
a blog entry from May of this year highlighting a FOIA for emails from Chetly Zarko, and the efforts of the MEA to block it.

I thought it might be interesting to look at Ms. Salter’s article point-by-point, so I’ve dissected it below.


Friday, November 30, 2007
Iris Salters: Labor Voices
Schools get conned on privatization
Private firms don't deliver better services than public support employees

The U.S. military outsourced parts of its role in the Iraqi war. Now, Blackwater contractors are under investigation in the deaths of Iraqi civilians.

Let’s start by setting the tone with irrelevant references to an unpopular war, and mention an incident associated with an outside contractor. Is this potential problem meant to serve as an indictment of the whole concept of outsourcing? And, didn’t we have similarly unfortunate incidents with a few rogue U.S. soldiers, who are NOT outsourced?

And what does this have to do with outsourced noninstructional services?

Manufacturing jobs were sent to China -- and we've seen millions of toys shipped here recalled because of safety concerns.

You can look here for toy recalls:

Not every recalled toy is from China. And not every toy “outsourced” to China has been recalled.

I’m sure many of the teaching tools used in the classroom today are manufactured in China too, whether it’s supplies, like pens and globes, or high tech gadgets like smart whiteboards. This has been going on for years.

What does this have to do with outsourcing noninstructional services?

As Americans, we should be gravely concerned whenever politicians and corporate chief executives fail to put safety first. We should be especially vigilant about outsourcing of public-sector jobs because taxpayer dollars are at stake -- and so, too, are some of our most vulnerable citizens, our children.

Nothing that anyone can disagree with here.

More and more public schools and other public agencies are hiring private contractors that promise to do the same work for less money. In education, private contractors are allowed to perform noninstructional jobs -- from driving buses to cleaning classrooms to coaching sports. Because they interact with children, we must make sure that those who work in the education setting meet the highest standards.

Again, nothing that anyone can disagree with here.

And yet, outsourcing of public school support personnel is accepted in many districts. Why? Because it may cost less without sacrificing quality -- or so school boards are promised. School boards are conned into believing a private company can provide the same service for a lower price. And school board members, so focused on the bottom line, ignore reasonable concerns about student safety.

Whoa… we just made a huge jump. The article sets the stage by painting the concept of outsourcing as evil and unsafe using unrelated anecdotal examples, and then reaches the conclusion here – or at least implies – that those performing outsourced noninstructional educational services are providing lower quality, and doing so in an unsafe way.

In other words, the article is trying to suggest if China makes unsafe toys, then outsourcing custodial services must be unsafe too. And therefore, any school board that outsources has been “conned”, and is “ignoring reasonable concerns”.

Sadly, some of our most cash-starve schools don't have the financial resources to pay for books, paper, qualified teachers, expert bus drivers and conscientious custodians, so privatizationi can appear to be a good idea.

Yes, union-backed school boards, agreeing to unaffordable labor contracts, have left most schools cash-starved.

The duping of school board members around the state is common. Privatization proponents tell them that private companies must perform well, or the district can fire the company. Sounds reasonable, right? Well, we've seen plenty of situations where privatization hasn't panned out, and school boards refuse to do anything, often because the cost to terminate the contract early is prohibitive.

Yes, it does sound reasonable to fire a company if it’s not doing well, just as it would be reasonable to fire an employee if they are not doing well. But it’s a bit ironic that the MEA would advocate the dismissal of a contractor when they won’t allow any of their members to be dismissed without some big legal battle. Doesn’t the contractor deserve the same chance (or 20) to remedy the problem?

Ms. Salters is probably right that some school boards are dumb enough to sign a contract without some sort of escape clause, or allow themselves to get painted into a corner with no cost-effective way to terminate. But that is a problem with incompetent school boards and their poor negotiating/management skills, and has nothing to do with the concept of outsourcing.

Consider Hartland Consolidated Schools.

The Hartland school board voted in 2006 to lay off the district's custodians and hire a private company to do their work. Despite public claims that the switch has gone well, public records obtained by the Michigan Education Association detail scores of complaints from school employees about the company's poor service.

Costly contracts with companies

The complaints, documented in e-mails requested under the Freedom of Information Act, show a range of concerns. From dirty classrooms and bathrooms to unlocked and unsecured school buildings, the e-mails illustrate the pitfalls of privatization in public education.

I have no clue whether Hartland is effectively managing its contractor.

What I instead thought was interesting was the MEA’s use of the FOIA laws to obtain emails. You may recall that when a private citizen tried to FOIA emails from Howell schools, the MEA sued to block that (I wrote about there here). I cannot imagine anything more hypocritical!

Claims that privatization would save an estimated $500,000 in the first year without sacrificing quality haven't materialized.

Strange how the MEA is patient when it comes to academic achievement, but is not patient when it comes to cleaning toilets. Whenever student achievement drops, such as the scores on the new Michigan Merit Exam (MME), the common line calls for patience, saying, “This is the first year we’ve taken this test. Give us some time.”

It's also worth taking note of employee turnover in Hartland: After the first six months, 15 of the 36 custodians placed by the private company in the district were no longer working there (six additional employees didn't make it past the probationary period).

What were the reasons for the turnover? Many of these privatization transitions include provisions in which existing employees are transferred to the private contractor. Could they have left out of resentment? Could they have been responsible for the poor work outlined a few paragraphs earlier, perhaps sabotaging the transition effort, and been dismissed?

Simply knowing the turnover rate does not provide us with enough information to reasonably reach a conclusion.

Despite these problems, a local newspaper quoted a top district official as saying privatization is working.

School officials are reluctant to admit when privatization doesn't work. Sometimes, it's a pride issue. Or, it may be the penalties built into contracts with privateers. In Hartland, firing the private firm in the first year would have cost $180,000 in addition to the fees for work completed, according to the contract between the district and the company.

Well again, who knows what kind of dopey contract was rubber-stamped by the board. But even ignoring that and just looking at the numbers, it would appear that the district was going to save $500,000 per year, so even paying the $180,000 would leave them substantially ahead.

In our cash-strapped state, districts are doing everything they can to pinch pennies. School employees, too, have accepted lower wages and switched health plans to help districts balance their budgets.

First of all, schools boards may be pinching pennies, but they are stepping over dollars to do so. They ignore opportunities for consolidation, most won't consider privatization, and the cost increases for health benefits continue to rob dollars from the classroom. They award contracts on a no-bid basis, and squander millions each year holding private May elections.

But that aside, consider the numbers presented in the article. The 36 staff custodians were costing the district $500,000 more than the 36 outsourced custodians. That means each custodian employee was costing the district approximately $13,900 more PER YEAR. As high as that number seems, it’s quite realistic when you look at the cost of the union health insurance and retirement benefits.

But opting to hand public money to private companies while firing the dedicated school support personnel who care deeply about students should not be a path districts follow. At the end of the day, these employees are your neighbors -- they support local businesses and pay taxes. They care about the success of their communities' children. No bottom line is worth harming a community that deeply.

Any sort of layoff is tragic. But I’m curious why it’s assumed that the employees working for the contractor are NOT our neighbors, and why we’re lead to believe that they don’t pay taxes or care about children.

We all know the adage that you get what you pay for. Privatization is proof that it's true. When districts try to do things on the cheap, students, taxpayers and the entire community pay.