Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Come to Rochester --- Our A's are Easier!

Rochester is considering a change in their grading policy for Advanced Placement courses. The idea is to lower the grading scale needed to earn an “A”, with the hope that more students will be more willing to take AP classes.

The highly respected Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews took the Rochester ideas to his national audience:

Washington Post: Should we inflate Advanced Placement grades? (11/27/09)

I am quite certain that the idea is proposed with the best of intentions. But I just don't think lowering the bar is the right approach.

Be sure to read the comments posted by teachers and students… very insightful.

==> Mike.

I pasted the article below in case the link doesn't work.


Should we inflate Advanced Placement grades?

The Rochester Community public schools in Michigan do a fine job. Their leaders often have great ideas. But according to school board member Mike Reno, they are talking about doing something to their Advanced Placement courses that could be troublesome, even though I once thought it was a good idea. (Some people who know me say that is the very definition of a bad idea.)

Here is what Reno revealed in an email to me:

"Our district, in an effort to increase AP participation, is proposing to lower the grading scale for AP classes. The idea is based on the notion that kids in Rochester don’t want to take AP classes because they are afraid that the tougher work will lead to a lower grade, and they don’t want to damage their GPA for fear it will harm their college entrance chances. The district’s logic suggests by that lowering the grading scale, students will have a better chance of getting a better grade, and therefore be more willing to take the class.

"This is not their brainchild. They claim other districts are doing it. They are calling it internal weighting. They believe this is a better approach than grade weighting, where an A in an AP class would be worth, say, 5.0 instead of 4.0. The district argues that colleges strip off weighted grades, whereas an internal weight benefits the student during college entrance. (I believe grade weighting has value when calculating class ranking, vals, sals, top scholars, etc, but think colleges are free to recalculate anything they’d like). Am a crazy to think this is a bunch of nonsense?"

When I first began writing about AP in the 1980s, I saw some sense in AP teachers being somewhat easy on report card grades. You wanted kids to stick with the course. Since they would take an AP exam written and graded by outside experts, they would know eventually how close they were to a college standard. If the student got an A in the course but a 3 (the equivalent of a college C-plus) on the AP exam, that would be a useful wakeup call. I recalled that the AP teacher who inspired me to be an education writer, Jaime Escalante, was livid when another AP teacher gave Fs to a lot of students, leading them to drop the course.

But I later realized I had misunderstood what Escalante was doing. He graded his students pretty tough. He wouldn't flunk them because that would be too much of a turn-off, but if they were doing the kind of work that would get them a 3 on the exam, he came them a C, not an A, on their classwork. He understood that they needed to know BEFORE the exam what they were likely to get, so they would be motivated to work harder if they needed to catch up.

That is precisely what many AP and International Baccalaureate (the other popular college-level program in U.S. high schools) experts told me when I asked them about the Rochester idea. Roy Sunada, for many years a leading AP teacher and administrator at Marshall Fundamental High School in Pasadena, Calif., said none of his first reactions to undermining AP course grades were printable. "I will stand firm in my belief that artificial measures or grand-sweeping programs are not productive in encouraging students to seek academic rigor," he said.

Reno himself had good arguments against the Rochester proposal. "If AP in high school is not the time to introduce the real-life challenges to our youngsters, then when is the right time? Do we allow them to leave our community with high hopes and aspirations--and perhaps a false sense of their skills--only to get crushed in college when they are not prepared?" He also put in a good word for "the kids that really bust their humps and get real A grades and stay on top of the game. Don't they deserve the reward and distinction?"

On the other side was Trevor Packer, the College Board vice president
who directs the AP program. He thought the Rochester idea had merit. He called it "another, viable way to weight AP grades in ways that more fairly represent the level of achievement." He and other veteran educators also supported the extra grade point weighting system for AP and IB found in many districts. In Fairfax County, Va., for instance, a student who gets a C in her AP course will see that letter on her report card, but she will get an extra grade point for it, a 3.0 instead of the usual 2.0. That bonus, several teachers say, is important to students who know they are going to struggle in the course.

Erin McVadon Albright, the IB coordinator at Annandale High School in Fairfax County, said that was a powerful inducement for one of her most intriguing students. He came from a low-income family that did not even have an Internet connection at home. He wanted to play football, which meant he had to take a government class online over the summer to have time for IB. He was using the computer at the office where his mother was a receptionist, but she was afraid someone would complain. He almost dropped the course until Albright managed to lend him a school laptop which he could take the public library to do his work.

Jon Gubera, AP director for the Indiana education department, said "grades are the single most relevant academic currency for students. In my experience, the best way we were able to incent marginal students to take a leap of faith and join an AP course was through providing a weighted grade so as to reassure them that their overall GPAs would not be ruined by earning a C in an AP course."

Gubera had little problem with the Rochester idea. It reminded him of what happens on many college campuses--"a 70 percent on a final exam, for example, translates into an A in the course." He also thinks some AP teachers do similar internal weighting on their own, without any guidance from their districts. They will give the student working at the 3 level a representative C in course work leading up to the exam. But when they mark the final report card--weeks after the student has taken the AP exam--they will award extra credit and bump them up to a B.

Does that make sense? Grading in American high schools is like cage fighting. There aren't many rules. If there are AP or IB teachers out there with their own special tricks, post a comment here to educate the rest of us.


Monday, November 16, 2009

The MEA is a problem, but your local school board is worse

Year after year, report after report, Michigan’s education system gets pounded.

Detroit News: Researchers from political left and right give Michigan schools mediocre grades (11/16/09)

Yet despite this sort of report card, people fail to hold school boards accountable for their failures.

This is a great quote from the article: Upon the report's release, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted the country's education system is as important an indicator of economic health as the "stock market, the unemployment rate, or the size of the GDP."

Our schools have smart kids, some great teachers, and wonderful buildings. The state devotes one third of its budget to K-12 education.

Yet school boards have allowed expenses to grow in an undisciplined and out-of-control way, they set no meaningful and/or measurable goals, and have no clear or inspiring vision for the future.

So, while the editorial is accurate when it points out that the MEA bears some responsibility, I think the lion’s share of blame rests squarely on the shoulders of your local school board.

Hold’em accountable!

==> Mike.


November 16, 2009 http://detnews.com/article/20091116/OPINION01/911160304

Editorial: Researchers from political left and right give Michigan schools mediocre grades

Michigan's education system is lagging in data collection and accountability, hiring and evaluating teachers and school management, says a new report co-sponsored by researchers on both the nation's left and right, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The "Laggards and Leaders" report, sponsored by the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the liberal Center for American Progress think tanks, reflects the growing realization on both sides of the political aisle of how stagnant and ineffective the U.S. educational system has become.

Nationally the report's authors found less than two-thirds of American schools provide access to college-level coursework. Given schools' weak support for rigorous academic preparation, it's no wonder America is lagging behind other industrial countries for college-going and completion.

State finance systems are inefficient and undermine innovation, the researchers also found.

Other widespread problems include teacher evaluations that are not based on teacher effectiveness. Only four states require evidence of student learning to be a major factor in teacher evaluations.

"Without the ability to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom, school leaders cannot build a cohesive school culture, create an environment of accountability, and ensure that all students will learn," the report said.

In Michigan, the teachers unions surely have been one of the state's greatest obstacles to recent reforms. The Michigan Education Association has been lobbying fiercely against changes in school data collection and alternative certification pathways for teachers, among other ideas, stalling the state's application to win $600 million in competitive federal Race to the Top funding.

The state's higher education system also has been hurting Michigan's Race to the Top chances by resisting the development and use of a long-term data collection system to track Michigan children's growth and progress from pre-kindergarten through college.

The report's researchers noticed and gave Michigan a grade "D" for data collection. The state received "C" grades for school management; technology; staff hiring and firing; and removing ineffective teachers.

Seventy-five percent of Michigan principals studied said teacher unions or associations are a barrier to the removal of bad teachers, 14 points higher than the national average of 61 percent. Eighty percent of principals also reported tenure is a barrier to removing low-performing educators.

Overall Michigan received a mediocre grade. Just two areas, finance and its student pipeline to postsecondary learning, received a "B" grade.

Upon the report's release, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted the country's education system is as important an indicator of economic health as the "stock market, the unemployment rate, or the size of the GDP."

Michigan, failing in economic growth and job creation, must get its schools in order to educate its citizens out of the Great Recession and get them successfully working in the global economy.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

Michigan Schools & MEA prefer tax hikes over $600 million in Federal Money.

Michigan parents are being bombarded with “call your legislator” messages from school boards and superintendents, asking them to pressure the state for more money.

Yet for all of the whining about funding, I haven’t seen a single message from any school asking that parents rally behind the federal "Race to the Top" initiative that would allow Michigan schools to potentially receive up to $600 million in federal funds.

I haven't seen any "Action Alerts" from the MIchigan Association of School Boards -- the MASB -- suggesting that school boards lobby legislators to advocate for this money.

Is it that schools need money, but only want it if there are no strings attached?

Here are a few recent articles on the issue:

Detroit News: Embracing promising reforms would leverage federal money to help students (11/4/09)

Detroit News: School sabotage (11/8/09)

Also note that this is not some new issue. I wrote about his back on August 2, 2009, in a blog entry found here.

Here’s an interesting test… next time you see a school board member from your district, ask them if they know ANYTHING about this legislation. My guess is that they can drone on about the need to raise taxes in Michigan, but can't talk with any depth about this Obama/Duncan "Race to the Top" initiative.

==> Mike.

I have posted the articles below, in case the links don't work.


State ignores $600M for schools

Embracing promising reforms would leverage federal money to help students


Michigan's school funding debate has been cast as a choice between two ideas: Budget cuts or tax hikes. Yet there is a $600 million alternative that has been ignored by key players in the debate.

Taxpayers should take note because the failure to explore this option suggests any tax increase for education will be wasted.

In the next few months, the U.S. Department of Education will dish out $4.35 billion in "Race to the Top" money to the states. Michigan would be more likely to receive $600 million of this money if it adopted four reforms: Expand the number of charter schools, create a stronger alternative teacher certification program, link student performance data to individual teachers and systematize reform procedures for failing schools.

There are good reasons to be skeptical of federal money, which often bureaucratizes the schools and advances a questionable agenda. But such concerns are typically overlooked by the governor and many in the Legislature, who desperately seek a school spending fix. In this case,
the proposed reforms show promise.

Consider charter schools. A growing body of evidence indicates that charter schools improve student achievement, and a recent study demonstrates that New York City charter schools have closed achievement gaps at an unprecedented rate.

But charter school expansion in Michigan is effectively blocked by a legislative cap on the number of charter schools that can be authorized by state universities, which approve most of the charter schools in Michigan. School employee unions traditionally have fought raising this cap, arguing that there is insufficient evidence that charter schools improve student improvement.

As for alternative teacher certification, Michigan law theoretically permits it. But every teacher is still forced to obtain a degree specifically in education -- no other specialty will do.

This approach discourages many talented individuals from becoming teachers. Yet research shows teacher quality is key to student performance, and Race to the Top's multiple certification routes would permit accomplished professionals to enter teaching without needing to obtain a new degree.

Michigan's student performance measurements, the Michigan Educational Assessment Program and the Michigan Merit Examination are reported school by school. But the results are not linked to teachers to allow teachers' successes to be more easily analyzed. Of course, such an analysis is complex -- many factors go into student achievement -- but the analysis is prohibitively difficult if the raw data is hard to obtain, a point that Race to the Top recognizes.

As for the fourth reform, the Legislature is advancing bills to more aggressively reconstitute perennially failing schools. The bill most likely to pass, however, would make it harder to privatize noninstructional services, robbing districts of a major cost-saving tool.

So why hasn't Michigan adopted these reforms, especially when the state could land an extra $600 million for schools?

The school employee unions view them as threats. They fear more charter schools because the schools are not typically unionized, and reconstituted schools may follow their example. Tracking individual teachers' progress could lead to performance pay and threaten the union's rigid compensation system.

Yet such concerns are primarily about union power, not better educational outcomes for kids.

If the governor and Legislature refuse to consider constructive change, taxpayers should reject any proposed tax hikes. There's no reason to feed more money into a system that refuses the most moderate reforms.

Michael Van Beek is the education policy director of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland. E-mail comments to letters@detnews.com">letters@detnews.com.

Additional Facts:

Among the policies states should adopt for "Race to the Top" grants:

Developing and implementing common, high-quality assessments of student performance

Using state data to improve instruction

Differentiating teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance

Increasing the supply of high-quality charter schools

Turning around struggling schools

Source: U.S. Department of Education


School sabotage

With Michigan schools facing an enormous funding gap, the Michigan Education Association is attempting to sabotage an effort that could bring in more than $600 million in federal education money.

State policymakers are working to put together one of the essential pieces of legislation required to win federal "Race to the Top" grant money. President Barack Obama is using the money to give states an incentive to enact long-overdue education reforms.

Next month state school Superintendent Mike Flanagan must turn in the application for the competition, now being watched by U.S. foundations for signals about which states are serious about education reform and merit even more funding.

But the prospects for Michigan aren't good. The MEA, the state's largest teacher union, is pressuring cowardly lawmakers to block the Race to the Top legislation, which includes provisions making it easier for nonteachers to secure classroom positions, if they have critical skills.

This seemingly innocuous change has stirred up intense political fighting, pitting teacher unions against Gov. Jennifer Granholm and others, such as the United Way of Southeastern Michigan, who want the Race to the Top funds for Michigan.

Teach for America -- the heralded non-profit that prepares and places highly talented educators in struggling schools -- says it must have an alternative certification pathway for its members to become full-time teachers in Michigan.

MEA leaders say they oppose alternative teacher certification because they believe teacher training is essential to properly instruct students.

"This is not an union issue," MEA spokesman Doug Pratt says. "This is a fundamental belief ... that teachers who go through a traditional teacher prep process are going to be better for students in the long run."

But urban districts are having trouble finding highly qualified math and science teachers, in no small part because of the failure of traditional teacher training programs in the state.

That was one of the driving forces behind a Friday announcement by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that it is investing $16.7 million to establish a new statewide fellowship program to provide 240 teachers for hard-to-staff schools.

If the MEA is allowed to sabotage Michigan's Race to the Top effort, it will mean the loss of about $600 million in federal money at a time when every classroom is facing an unprecedented budget cut. Ultimately, that will mean fewer jobs for teachers, hurting the union's own members.

It is absolutely essential that Michigan gets this money, and the education reforms that come with it.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Why do we ignore school spending?

Everyone seems to have an opinion on government spending at the federal, state, county, and even city level. I don't understand why parents will get involved in the school FUNDING debate, but ignore school SPENDING.

Michigan's Governor just announced a shortfall in tax revenue, and the subsequent reduction in school funding. The predictable outcry from schools drove me to write this article:

Detroit News – Schools often don’t budget wisely – (10/27/09)

It ran the day after Governor Granholm used the Rochester Schools Administration Center for one of the stops on her PR Tour to raise taxes in Michigan. I was told that the by-invitation-only event included superintendents, board presidents, union presidents, and PTA presidents. You really couldn’t tell for sure because most of them snuck in the back door of the building.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop and House Representative Tom McMillen were also invited. They walked in the front door.

You can imagine the conversations that took place… all designed to pressure Bishop and McMillen to raise taxes. Schools pleading poverty, claiming that they have already cut everything that could be cut, threatening that further cuts to schools will directly impact the classroom.

That was Monday afternoon.

Monday evening, Rochester had a school board meeting.

There was not any mention of the Governor’s visit, nor did the board discuss the additional $1.9 million reduction in state funding that had been announced since the last board meeting.

What the board did do was approve a $45,000 expenditure for wireless microphones “to be used throughout the district in the three auditoriums for events such as Plays, Musicals and Summer Music Theater.”

I’m a “theatre parent”, and agree that wireless microphones certainly enhance the performance. I’d be happy to personally contribute to a fundraising event designed to fund the purchase of these sorts of theatre enhancements.

But I don’t think this purchase can be considered a critical and necessary district expenditure after the board approved a deficit budget of $2.5 million. It seem especially excessive after the additional state funding reductions, which will presumably push the deficit to $5 million.

It was approved on a 6-1 vote.

Its one small example that shows how school boards are oblivious to the situation they’re in.

==> Mike.

I’ve based the article below in case the link doesn’t work.


Schools often don't budget wisely


When Gov. Jennifer Granholm cut $54 million in "hold harmless" education funds, some critics suggested she did so for political reasons. Michigan Republicans should have accepted at face value that Granholm was following the GOP lead in trying to balance the budget without tax increases. But they didn't.

And schools are playing on that fact by turning up the heat and hyperbolically suggesting the government is cherry-picking whom they want to punish. Superintendents are bemoaning the cuts, using taxpayer resources to lobby parents and direct them to flood legislator phone lines and e-mail boxes with demands that education remain a priority.

No superintendent has acknowledged the fact that the state does value education and already spends one third of its budget -- about $16 billion -- on K-12 education.

The missing counterbalance to this outcry is spending oversight. There is an assumption that schools spend prudently, and their budgets can't absorb cuts. Just ask them, and they'll quickly offer meaningless sound bites like "We've already cut muscle, and are now cutting into the bone."

Somehow school boards get a free ride on spending accountability. Where is the critical eye on local school spending? School board meetings are sparsely attended with a handful of regulars in the audience and few from the media. School budgets are published in a way that even seasoned certified public accountants can't scrutinize.

Yet many parents jump -- without question -- when schools issue a call to action. Schools shamelessly threaten that our child's future will be harmed if we as parents don't jump.

This reflexive parental response is perplexing given that whenever the specific warts in a school budget are revealed, taxpayers are appalled. Gold-plated insurance benefits and a generous pension plan are among the best known. Superintendents make more than the governor. School boards approve multiyear contracts with guaranteed increases despite knowing future revenue is at risk. It's irresponsible, yet nobody holds school boards accountable.

Even school claims that "we've already cut" go unexamined. They will typically call a reduced spending increase "a cut." And when true cuts are made, they are typically made to preserve other poorly managed programs or contracts.

In the most recent round of state reductions, the per-pupil funding is decreased $165 per pupil. Schools are upset because it's coming mid-year after budgets have been established.

This is a bogus argument.

Schools have known for a year or more of the state's distressed financial condition. Groups like the Michigan School Business Officials monitor state revenues and provide guidance. In January, the School Business Officials group predicted cuts in the range of $100 to $150 per pupil. In Rochester, the school board chose to budget for a revenue cut of $110 per pupil.

Any school board that did not budget some sort of cut has no excuse for not doing so.

The $54 million line-item veto by Granholm is a different story. But even though it came as a surprise, it still merits examination.

The so-called 20j or affluent districts levy additional taxes on their residents and receive a $54 million supplemental payment from the state because they were spending more per-pupil in 1994 than the then-new Proposal A formula allowed. It's this supplement that was vetoed.

It's certainly a painful cut, but will it be fatal? Nearly $20 million of the cuts will come from Oakland County districts. Collectively, the 12 districts affected are sitting on nearly $140 million in "rainy day funds."

The question of whether it's fair for them to shoulder another $20 million in cuts is as subjective as the question of whether it's fair that they've continued to receive an extra $20 million for 10 years.

There is no clear right or wrong answer. But it's reasonable to ask -- especially in tough economic times -- whether affluent districts could bring spending more in line with other successful districts. At a minimum, taxpayers should be entitled to understand specifically what would be lost should the cuts be made.

But if few are questioning anything, schools are free to continue with business as usual, using our children as funding shields, accountable to no one.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Do school officials reside in charmed neighborhoods?

Check out this Sunday column by Brian Dickerson:

Detroit Free Press: Schools finally know where they stand: At ground zero (10/25/09)

I started reading it, thinking it was just another “schools need more money” rant.

But this well-written piece baited me… lured me in… and then WHAM:

Still, you have to wonder where some of the public educators expressing shock at last week's developments spent their summer. Have they really been living in the same state as the rest of us?

Do school officials reside in charmed neighborhoods where jobs have begun to reappear, foreclosures are on the wane, and home prices are picking up? Are their neighbors getting pay raises, replacing large kitchen appliances and eating out more?

Oh, how I wish the Michigan Association of School Boards – the MASB – would switch to using this sort of material as part of their training program.

It takes a twist to the left towards the end, but that's OK because it tempts readers to think about the reality of the situation, and ponder outcomes.

==> Mike.

I've posted the text of the article below, in case the link doesn't work.

October 25, 2009
Schools finally know where they stand: At ground zero


Superintendents of Michigan's richest school districts are apoplectic -- and who can blame them?

Just a week ago, their districts were the closest thing our battered state had to sacred cows; now they've been tossed into the meat grinder with everyone else.

What happened? Haven't voters identified K-12 education as a top priority in every public opinion poll since the beginning of time? Hasn't there been a bipartisan understanding that, in the event of a biblical flood that covered the Capitol dome, the school aid budget would be the one thing lawmakers snatched up before fleeing for higher ground?

School superintendents aren't stupid, you understand. They knew a real flood
was coming, and they say they were prepared for, or at least resigned to, the $165-per-pupil hit that everyone had decided was their fair share of Lansing's end times slash-a-thon.

But then $165 per pupil became $292. And for the wealthiest districts -- the ones that weren't already advertising for emergency financial managers and holding bake sales to pay for their music teachers -- that was just the beginning.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, the governor who's been the darling of public educators for seven years was coming at them with a flamethrower, vetoing the money the richest school districts had long relied on to keep themselves at the head of the pack.

School leaders say they knew that Granholm was frustrated with Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, and with his Republican Senate's refusal to consider any revenue adjustment that might be construed as a tax increase. But why was she suddenly taking it out on them?

And why was the governor insisting the state couldn't afford the per-pupil expenditures legislators had approved, when the school aid budget on her desk reflected revenue estimates that the state's most trusted bean counters had made just last May?

A parallel state?

It's easy, as I said, to understand the top-tier superintendents' dismay. Here they are, nearly four months into the fiscal year, and just learning that millions of dollars they've already committed to spend won't be materializing. It's like planning Thanksgiving dinner for 20 people and learning, as you're preheating the oven, that there's no turkey or stuffing available.

Still, you have to wonder where some of the public educators expressing shock at last week's developments spent their summer. Have they really been living in the same state as the rest of us?

Do school officials reside in charmed neighborhoods where jobs have begun to reappear, foreclosures are on the wane, and home prices are picking up? Are their neighbors getting pay raises, replacing large kitchen appliances and eating out more?
And if none of these things is true, as I suspect, why is anyone the least bit surprised that the tax revenues Michigan relies on to support its schools have continued to plummet since May, or that they are likely to keep falling?

A sense of where they've been

For the record, I don't imagine for a minute that public school administrators are any more impervious to economic reality than the rest of us. Even the most affluent school districts have witnessed dwindling enrollments, increased demand for free or subsidized lunches, and burgeoning mental health problems. No one has to tell educators theirs is a state in crisis.

Still, many educators have remained certain that, especially in communities that have historically prided themselves on superior schools, tradition would somehow trump economic reality.

Suburban legislators might look the other way while poor people lost medical care or nursing homes were shuttered, and they might express sympathy for college students who lost tuition grants they'd been promised, even if most young people were too busy to vote.

But surely suburbanites would not sit still for massive cuts to their own children's' educational resources. Surely, if forced to choose between funding primary schools and keeping chewing tobacco or bottled water a few pennies cheaper, even the most tax-averse Republicans would choose pragmatism over ideological purity -- wouldn't they?

We'll know soon enough.

In the meantime, Michigan's richest school districts have belatedly achieved what airline pilots call "situational awareness."

Now teachers and school superintendants know what nursing home operators and police dispatchers do: In Michigan, we are all living at ground zero.

Contact BRIAN DICKERSON: 313-222-6584 or bdickerson@freepress.com


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Make student performance -- not teacher protectionism -- the top priority

Amber Arellano is an insightful education columnist for the Detroit News. It's purely conincidental that I'm writing two consecutive posts about her work; this post is actually about a rebuttal written to one of her articles.

She wrote a great article in early September:

Detroit News: Unionism needs to get rid of the stupid and get more the smart (09/08/09)

Arellano writes about ongoing teacher contract negotiations between Robert Bobb (the State Appointed Emergency Financial Manager assigned to sort out the Detroit Public Schools mess) and the Detroit Federation of Teachers (a unit of the AFT – American Federation of Teachers).

Arellano begins by discussing why she believe unions have been – and remain – an important element, and stresses the premise that “together we are stronger than we are individually”.

She then goes on to say, “The Bobb administration must get a contract that makes student performance -- not teacher protectionism -- its top priority. Bobb's team needs flexibility to staff classrooms with the best educators available. Poor children who have already fallen behind in school need better or just as good teachers as Birmingham and Ann Arbor have yet so often, research shows, they get the worst.

Can anyone, really, defend that morally unacceptable status quo?”

Keith Johnson, President of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, can and does.

Detroit News: Rebuttal: Don't eliminate teacher seniority (09/22/09)

I wanted to include this exchange because it shows the tremendous challenges facing anyone who attempts improve schools. I don’t share Arellano’s perspective on unions and their role, but I absolutely believe her piece was respectful and professional, and it covered a topic that merits reasonable discussion.

A defensive and bitter Keith Johnson stands in stark contrast.

If he is comfortable launching such a virulent public response towards someone offering an opinion, can you imagine what it must be like at negotiating sessions?

In his response, Johnson takes aim at the Arellano, jumping from point to point, sniping, without offering a rebuttal of the issues.

He appears to acknowledge that “poor proficiency of our students on standardized tests, the exaggerated dropout rate, the less-than-stellar graduation rate and other factors that plague Detroit schools” is a problem. Yet it’s a problem he attributes entirely to parents and the students themselves, with the schools sharing none of the blame.

He is disturbed by the comment, “Poor children who have already fallen behind in school need better or just as good teachers as Birmingham and Ann Arbor have yet so often, research shows, they get the worst.”

Yet Johnson doesn’t question the research on which Arellano based her comment. He doesn’t cite statistics – or any information for that matter – which refutes her statements.

Regarding teacher quality, he doesn’t even offer the traditional, dismissive brush-off that “there might be a few bad apples”.

And therein lies the problem. I’ve heard the arguments supporting seniority and tenure plenty of times, and they’re generally based on the premise that every teacher is equally great, and every administrator/principal is an idiot.

None are better teachers than others, and certainly none are worse.

Union supporters argue that they too believe bad teachers should be dismissed, but if they aren’t, then it’s the lazy principal’s fault. Perhaps.

But in their effort to ensure “due process”, union contracts and tenure laws go too far. Don’t believe me?
Check out the blog post I made last year about a teacher that gave students test answers – BEFORE THE TEST – and the subsequent hoops that district had to jump through, in order to remove the teacher from the classroom.

Arellano was not trying to attack teachers in any way whatsoever. Her point is that Detroit – like every school district for that matter – requires greater flexibility in order to assign, hire, and yes even dismiss teachers based on proven skills, in order to best meet children’s instructional needs.

Sadly, this is a non-starter for teacher unions, who believe that the number of times a teacher has punched the time clock
is a better criterion for classroom assignments, and is a perfectly acceptable measurement of quality.

Johnson adds that seniority is necessary because teachers need protection from racist principals who cannot make competent decisions, nor tolerate reasonable and constructive criticism.

Even playing the race-card doesn’t bolster his arguments. Johnson fails to consider the likelihood that Arrellano would probably agree that incompetent, egomaniacal, racist principals should also be weeded-out.

Johnson could’ve used this opportunity to make a stronger point about the need to make parents a partner in education. He could’ve found a better way to support the notion that principals must also be held accountable. But by completely dodging the discussion about teacher quality, he shows that he is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

==> Mike.

I've pasted the articles below, in case the links don't work.

Unionism needs to get rid of the stupid and get more of the smart


I grew up in an union town where good people understood that they were stronger together than they were as individuals when it came to affecting change in the American political arena and elsewhere.

The United Auto Workers gave many in my family, mostly first-generation Mexican-Americans who worked in Pontiac's auto plants, a stake in America, a sense of belonging and a movement through which their aspirations and experiences could be struggled for and heard as a collective voice in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

Those roots, of which I am proud, make me incredibly grateful for unionism and the progress it's made for so many Americans.

But I cannot take any more stupid unionism.

When I say stupid, I mean unionism led by fear and selfish interests living in the past.

This fall some of Michigan's most powerful unionists have the opportunity to stop practicing stupid unionism.

I refer to the Detroit Federation of Teachers union, which is in heated negotiations with the Detroit Public Schools' Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb over the future of thousands of underserved Detroit students.

Detroit children are some of the poorest, most vulnerable children in North America. It is gut-wrenching to watch as the school district squanders their lives by providing them substandard schools.

To be sure, teachers are not the heart of this district's problems. Just take a look at the dysfunctional school board and its predatory practices, and that is clear.

However, the teachers are the heart of the district's way forward. Teacher quality is the No. 1 predictor of student achievement. Southeastern Michigan's future is partly tied to Detroit's educational success -- and teachers will lead it or take us down with them and their failing district.

That's why no one should underestimate this teacher contract's importance. The Bobb administration must get a contract that makes student performance -- not teacher protectionism -- its top priority.

Bobb's team needs flexibility to staff classrooms with the best educators available. Poor children who have already fallen behind in school need better or just as good teachers as Birmingham and Ann Arbor have yet so often, research shows, they get the worst.

Can anyone, really, defend that morally unacceptable status quo?

Smart unionism

Now some will defend all unions. More will attack unions, arguing that the U.S. should kill them off.

An America without unions is a scary idea. Just ask anyone whose company is hemorrhaging jobs and whose child is sick and needs health care. The only reason why many Americans still have things such as health insurance, eight-hour work days and unemployment is because of unions. And globalization challenges us to consider these issues anew.

Consider a new report, released appropriately on Labor Day, by the Michigan League for Human Services. It found that one in every five Michigan jobs do not pay enough to keep a family of four out of poverty -- about $22,000 a year.

Four of the six occupations with the most jobs fall into that category. Those are retail sales, cashiers, waiters and waitresses, and fast food or food prep workers.

"We know that many of these jobs are held by breadwinners -- not just students or teen-agers. A parent working full-time, year-round should be able to meet basic needs, but these very common jobs do not allow that," said Sharon Parks, the league's president and CEO.

The standard argument -- with which I agree -- is that in a new era of globalization, such lower-wage service workers have to retrain and retool for higher-skilled jobs.

There is another, darker side to the globalization story, however: The U.S. isn't creating enough good jobs to replace its faltering middle class. And many of the jobs we do create have lousy wages.

For that reason, we need a smart unionism that will help our country enact public policies that rebuild the middle class and people who want to be in it -- and kill off the old unionism that is dragging down so many good workers and school children with it.

Amber Arellano is a Detroit News editorial writer who writes a weekly online column. Contact her at aarellano@detnews.com">aarellano@detnews.com

Rebuttal: Don't eliminate teacher seniority

Just as sure as schoolchildren return to class the day after Labor Day, The Detroit News can be counted on to launch an unwarranted attack upon Detroit's teachers and their union, the Detroit Federation of Teachers. In her Sept. 8 column ("Unionism needs to get rid of the stupid and get more of the smart"), Amber Arellano wrote that "Detroit's children should get the best teachers like Ann Arbor and Birmingham, yet research shows they get the worst."

It is fashionable to attack the ability and competency of teachers in Detroit because of the poor proficiency of our students on standardized tests, the exaggerated dropout rate, the less-than-stellar graduation rate and other factors that plague Detroit schools.

However, it seems to be taboo to hold students responsible for coming to school and parents accountable for getting them there. Why don't people like Arellano speak out against the violence rendered by students against their peers and their teachers? Why isn't there an outcry about the high level of student transiency and truancy and their adverse effect upon student achievement?

Instead, Arellano calls Detroit's teachers the worst and criticizes the DFT for protecting the rights (not the jobs) of teachers. She attacks the DFT for protecting the seniority rights of teachers, not knowing or caring why seniority is such a sensitive issue.

Perhaps she is not aware that if seniority were eliminated, some teachers would be released because they have the audacity to stand up for children and themselves. They will criticize a principal who does not support the staff on matters of discipline, who plays favorites and misuses valuable district funds, or is never in the building.

Teachers who serve as building representatives or who are active with the union are often vilified by administrators as being obstructionists because they won't do a principal's bidding and be subservient.

Without seniority protection, some teachers would be eliminated, not because they are not doing the job, but because they are white. Yes, in 2009 we have some black administrators who do not believe white teachers should teach black children. Imagine the uproar if a white principal in Howell didn't believe white students should be taught by black teachers.

For Arellano's information, 87 percent of Detroit's teachers have a master's degree or above. Seventy-two percent (more than any other district in the state) have national board certification, and the vast majority of our teachers do more with less and make endless sacrifices on behalf of their students.

The DFT has made a commitment to embrace and implement innovative reform initiatives to drive student achievement. We will not, however, lie down and die so our members can be run over and run out.

Keith Johnson ,
President, Detroit Federation of Teachers


Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Myths of a Stubborn Culture are Debunked

Amber Arellano writes a insightful article about the stubbornness of Michigan’s entrenched educational bureaucrats, and the change-resistant culture that permeates Michigan’s K-12 education

Detroit News: Myths undercut efforts to boost Michigan's high school standards (09/10/09)

It goes on everywhere. I see it in Rochester.

For example, I know that the Rochester Board of Education shows no interest in understanding how many of it’s graduates must take remedial courses – at their own expense – in college, despite the fact that the district receives matriculation reports from some colleges. Individually, I’ve seen the reports that Michigan State University provides to each high school, and have suggested that the board review them, to no avail. This data is notably absent from the district’s so-called strategic plan.

The district could also do more to allow advance the concept of allowing more academically rigorous Personal Curriculums, yet submissively yields to needlessly restrictive interpretations, such as expecting kids to investigate summer school before they allow a modification. Rather that challenge the status quo, the board fell right in line.

I could go on, but I don’t want to distract from Amber’s excellent article.

All of this points to the fundamental flaw in the culture of Michigan educators, which is the myth that our children are simply not up to the challenge.

And it leads to perhaps a fifth myth, which is that there is nothing parents can do to take on the system. I wrote about Rochester parents who last year stood up to the culture of mediocrity and low-expectations by protesting the decision to “round down” students in the advanced math track in middle school. It was a small victory for a small number of children, but it shows that there is hope.

==> Mike.

I’ve pasted below the article in case the link does not work.

September 10, 2009

Myths undercut efforts to boost Michigan's high school standards


This fall at Michigan's colleges, thousands of students are arriving with great expectations -- only to find themselves relegated to paying for high school courses without even receiving college credit. Those courses are called remedial classes, which students have to take because they were so poorly prepared in their K-12 schools.

At Michigan State University, the proportion of incoming freshmen who need remedial classes jumped to 28 percent today from 25 percent last year. At Delta College north of Saginaw, 81 percent of incoming students need remedial classes. That number has grown 3 percent in recent years.

The growth is a sign, some experts say, that Michigan school districts are not taking seriously the implementation of the new high school curriculum that state leaders adopted in 2006 to better prepare students to succeed in the knowledge economy. And it comes as Gov. Jennifer Granholm and state lawmakers fight over whether the tougher curriculum standards should be lowered to accommodate vocational education students and others.

With so much rhetoric, it can be difficult to figure out what is based on proven research and experience, and what isn't. Here are some common myths -- and the real story behind them -- about the high school curriculum.

MYTH No. 1: Only Michigan's lowest-performing school districts, such as Detroit and Pontiac, need to upgrade their high school courses.

FACT: Well-to-do and middle-class districts are under-preparing their children, too.

Take Rockford, the upscale suburban city outside of Grand Rapids
, where most families send their children to four-year universities. What most parents in Rockford don't know: The district's latest state test scores show only 24 percent of its kids are college-ready in all subjects based on ACT indicators, which colleges use for admissions.

That suggests most of those students will have to take remedial classes, a predictor of college failure. A majority of students who need remedial classes do not earn either a bachelor's or an associate's degree, according to Education Policy Center experts at Michigan State University.

Mike Flanagan, state superintendent for schools, saw the same problem when he was in charge of Farmington Schools, a well-heeled suburban Oakland County district.

"People thought our students were doing so well because we sent 90 percent to college," Flanagan says.

Then he learned about half of those graduated from college. The knowledge spurred the district to make major changes.

"If you're sending students to college needing remedial classes, it means you're setting them up for failure not only in college but in the workplace," Flanagan says.

MYTH No. 2: All students have to take the same classes, including Algebra II and other high-level math and science classes, no matter what.

FACT: Vocational teachers and the Michigan Education Association union often call the curriculum a "one size fits all" approach. But state law does not require all students take the same specific courses. Rather, high school credits can be packaged into any course. The law allows flexibility for students who focus on the arts or, say, a trade.

Many parents don't know they can request a personal curriculum in which courses are specially designed for their teens.

Why does this seem to be a secret? Many schools and districts have dragged their feet on implementing the curriculum. Many schools also do not publicize these options.

MYTH No. 3: Michigan's dropout rate will go up under the new curriculum.

FACT: There's no evidence of that. The opposite has been found true in some states.

Arkansas, Arizona, Maryland and Massachusetts are among 25 states that now require Algebra II or equivalent skills learned to graduate, as Michigan does. None of their dropout rates has risen.

That fear arose in Michigan after Derrick Fries, an Eastern Michigan University assistant education professor, told reporters that he anticipated a rise in the dropout rate. However, more academic rigor has been found to raise graduation rates, according to the Education Trust and other researchers.

How could that be? Because boredom is one of the leading causes of dropping out. By making school more challenging, many students stay longer.

MYTH No. 4: Michigan's high school curriculum is one of the nation's toughest.

FACT: Other states are leading in school standards and quality. Indiana, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia and Massachusetts are just some of the states that have higher standards and more demanding high school curriculums than Michigan.

Indiana requires students take chemistry, physics and trigonometry, and more writing and foreign language than Michigan students do.

In Ohio, high-schoolers have to pass a competency test to graduate.

"There would be many high school students in Michigan who could not pass it," says Sharif Shakrani, co-director of Michigan State University's Education Policy Center.

In Maryland, the new high school standards are far tougher than Michigan's. They are modeled after the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the only nationally representative test that compares American students with one another by state.

The Obama administration is calling on states to adopt a common core of standards to make sure the United States better competes in the global economy. It is pushing states to ramp up their schools' curriculums to be modeled after the NAEP.

Already the Detroit Public Schools' new leadership team is adopting a curriculum modeled after the NAEP.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, its academic chief and a respected national educational leader, says those who think Michigan's state curriculum is too tough are fooling themselves and shortchanging students.

Look at Michigan students' test scores for proof. Only about 30 percent of students are considered proficient under NAEP.

MYTH No. 5: The curriculum was designed for college-bound students -- not kids who aim to go into a trade or directly to the workplace.

FACT: Young people who attend community colleges, technical schools and other universities are actually more likely to be underprepared to succeed in life -- and need higher-skilled classes to make sure they do.

"A lot of people think if your kid is not going to the University of Michigan or Michigan State, then there are no negative consequences for not taking higher-level math and science classes," says Jim Ballard, executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.

"This fight about the curriculum is about the students who go to Delta, to Grand Valley, to community colleges," Ballard adds. "They are the ones who need remedial courses, who are dropping out, who are not finding good jobs."

Even students going directly to entry-level jobs or entering technical schools need higher-level thinking and math skills, researchers have found across the country.

The more math Americans learn, research shows, the more money they earn. Students who take challenging high school courses, especially in math and science, will earn $1 million more than students who do not.

Algebra II, in particular, is a predictor of success in college and in getting a good job in the knowledge economy -- more than race, socioeconomic status or family income.

The Wacker Chemical plant in Adrian is a case in point. Factory leaders found local high school graduates woefully lacking skills to work there a few years ago. They teamed up with school leaders to change that.

"My question to the legislators who want to undermine the math requirements in the state curriculum is: 'What kind of jobs do you want in Michigan? Do you want your children to get good jobs or any job at all? Look at Ohio and see what they're doing,' " MSU's Shakrani says.

"Because that's who we're competing with: Ohio and Indiana. And they are out-competing us in school preparation."

E-mail Amber Arellano at aarellano@detnews.com">aarellano@detnews.com or send letters to the editor to letters@detnews.com">letters@detnews.com or mail to Letters, Editorial Page, The Detroit News, 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226.

Additional Facts
Importance of education
Why Michigan's high school curriculum standards are considered critical:

Nine of 10 jobs will require education beyond high school, according to the Michigan Department of Education.

An estimated 80,000 jobs go unfilled in Michigan and an additional 30,940 jobs could go unfilled in the near future, according to a 2007 EPIC/MRA future business study. This indicates Michigan's high rate of unemployment has more to do with a lack of necessary education and training among residents than a lack of employment opportunities.

The state Department of Education finds that 84 percent of those who hold highly paid professional jobs had taken Algebra II or higher as their last high school math course.

The more math you learn, the more money you earn. Students who take challenging high school courses, especially in math and science, will earn more than $1 million more than students receiving a general education, according to the Michigan Department of Education.

Studies indicate there is a strong correlation between increases in average test scores and national economic growth. In country after country, a boost in test performance was linked to a distinct rise in annual per capita gross domestic product growth, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

A study by the Michigan League for Human Services and the Economic Policy Institute forecasts a decline in U.S. per-capita personal income if America doesn't educate "all of our students well."


Sunday, September 6, 2009

Obama's Back-to-School Speech... Government Required Viewing?

The Rochester Community Schools district decided not to run President Obama's back-to-school "live", but will instead run it during the high school lunches the next day.

The decision aims to minimize school distruption, and was driven out of respect for parental choice. It was not made based on the anticipated content of the speech, nor was it made on the questionable study guides issued by the White House.

Now that the decision has been made, it should not cause a round of “high-fives” for conservatives, nor should it drive indignant and angry name-calling by liberals. Both camps, quite frankly, need to put ideology aside and try to think of what’s best for children.

And while some argue that the positive message planned for the speech will be lost… that’s simply not true. The address will be widely available, and can still be discussed, even if it’s not viewed “live”. Actually, the fact that it’s not being aired “live” can serve as a teachable moment too, driving discussions about parental rights, civil discourse, protest, and government intervention.

I fully intend to watch it with my children, and encourage other parents to do so as well. But I cannot support the notion that children should be forced to watch it.


The school board was informed of the district’s decision and the underlying rationale. A significant number of parents had expressed concern… enough that showing the address would could potentially disrupt the first day of school. Because it was the first day, there was no effective way to create an “opt-in” or “opt-out” process.

The district had been put in the unenviable position of either disappointing parents by showing it, or disappointing parents by not showing it.

The district – ultimately believing that respect for parental choice trumps everything else – crafted a compromise. The president's address will not interrupt the first day of school, but will be recorded and shown during high school lunch the following day for those students who would like to watch it. And, a link to the address will be posted on the district website.

This reasonable compromise does not mandate that children watch the broadcast, yet it provides an option for doing so.

The only change I see is that children will not see the address live, but will instead watch it with their families (which is better, in my opinion), or they’ll view it the next day.

And for the record… this had nothing to do with political ideology, but was instead based on respect for parents. Let’s be honest here… if it were about ideology alone then it’s most likely that a speech from a liberal president would be shown, regardless of the consequences. Educators and school boards are generally far more liberal than they are conservative, and Rochester is no exception.


TIME magazine offered an interesting view of the underlying dynamics driving this controversy:

TIME: Schools to Big Brother Barack: Stay Out! (09/04/09)

The heart of the battle -- at least in my mind -- is that the administration arguably erred when they started to make this about the President, and not soley about the value of education. (And it's really a shame, because their "study guides" distracted from a good speech. You can read it here.)

From the TIME article:

Thanks in large part to the Administration's ham-handed advance work, the strident conservative anger that erupted this summer over health-care reform has shifted from town halls to school halls. On the surface, Obama's intentions for Tuesday seem nothing more threatening than a presidential pep talk about taking education seriously. But some ill-advised prep material from the Education Department — like suggestions that teachers have students write letters on "how to help the President" and recommendations that those pupils read his books — has left the door ajar (and that's all it seems to take these days) for Republican charges that Obama "wants to indoctrinate our kids," as Clara Dean, GOP chairwoman of Florida's Collier County, puts it.

But if there is one conservative criticism that even liberals can relate to, it's that the speech seems part of this President's overexposure. "Every time you turn around, there he is, there he is, there he is," Dean groused. And lately at least, every time Obama turns around, he seems to give conservatives an opening to pounce on him.

Commentator Mark Steyn drew stronger parallels by comparing it to Iraq. Certainly hyperbolic, but I'm including it because it helps to clearly punctuate the concern.

Investors.com: Obama 'Outreach' To School Kids Feels More Like Personality Cult (09/04/09)

In 2003, motoring around western Iraq a few weeks after the regime's fall, when the schoolhouses were hastily taking down the huge portraits of Saddam that had hung on every classroom wall, I visited an elementary-school principal with a huge stack of suddenly empty picture frames piled up on his desk, and nothing to put in them.

The education system's standard first-grade reader featured a couple of kids called Hassan and Amal — a kind of Iraqi Dick and Jane — proudly holding up their portraits of the great man and explaining the benefits of an Iraqi education:

"O come, Hassan," says Amal. "Let us chant for the homeland and use our pens to write, 'Our beloved Saddam.'"

"I come, Amal," says Hassan. "I come in a hurry to chant, 'O, Saddam, our courageous president, we are all soldiers defending the borders for you, carrying weapons and marching to success.'"

Pathetic, right?

On Friday, Aug. 28, the principal of Eagle Bay Elementary School in Farmington, Utah — in the name of "education" — showed her young charges the "Obama Pledge" video released at the time of the inauguration, in which Ashton Kutcher and various other big-time celebrities, two or three of whom you might even recognize, "pledge to be a servant to our president and to all mankind because together we can, together we are, and together we will be the change that we seek."

Altogether now! Let us chant for mankind and use our pens to write, "O beloved Obama, our courageous president, we are all servants defending the hope for you and marching to change."

To accompany President Obama's classroom speech this week, the White House and America's "educators" drafted some accompanying study materials. Children would be invited to write letters to themselves saying what they could do to "help the President."

Certainly everyone does not agree with these perspectives, but enough parents are concerned, and took the time to express those concerns to the district.

And it’s not that those expressing concerns have “hijacked” the district. Schools have a responsibility and obligation to try to honor the reasonable wishes of the communities they serve. When conflicts arise, the district must do what it can to craft compromises.

I don’t believe it’s the school’s job to get itself embroiled in a effort to unconditionally defend the President. Nor do I believe this decision is designed to rebuff or embarrass the President, or “protect” the children from the President. I see this is a non-political attempt to respect diversity and parental choice, and to focus on effectively running schools without disruption.


As is the case with almost anything involving schools, compromise is hard to achieve. I thought I’d share some of arguments I’ve heard on both sides.

INDOCTRINATION: Had the district shown the address live, it would’ve been accused of attempting to indoctrinate children. Really? President Obama can be persuasive, and children may not have fully developed critical thinking skills, but I don’t think a 20-minute speech to the nations youth is going to change our form of government.

RACISM: According to some, the only possible reason that the district decided to “censor” the speech is because of hysterical, right-wing, gun-toting bigotry and racism. If the President were white, the address would have been delivered. This is so incredibly unfounded that I’m not sure how to respond. Is this argument going to be dragged out every time someone questions this President?

HITLER: Both sides are dragging out Hitler/fascism accusations. Hitler brainwashed and controlled the German youth, and this address is Obama’s attempt to do the same. Ironically, the opposite is apparently true as well: by not broadcasting the address live, the district is embracing the book-burning, thought-controlling fascism of Nazi Germany.

HISTORICAL LOSS: Rochester is being accused of denying students a chance to participate in an incredible moment in history. I think the erupting controversy has greatly exaggerated the significance of the address. The President's address to a joint session of Congress the next night is historically significant, but this is not. And while I fully support the ideas and values of hard work and disipline that will reportedly be covered in Obama's back-to-school address, I think the historical significance of this speech is being blown way out of proportion.

DISRESPECT: President Obama is OUR President, and regardless of political beliefs he should be shown respect. By “censoring” or "banning" the speech, the district is being disrespectful. One parent seriously suggested that the district not only mandate the viewing, but the the district "command silence" as it was aired. Opponents counter with the “slippery slope’ argument, which suggests that a precedent is being established for unlimited presidential access to the nations children, thus inviting other politicians -- governors, county executives, or even local mayors -- to expect similar “opportunities” to reach American's youth.

INSPIRATIONAL & UPLIFTING: Why is the district afraid of an uplifting, motivational speech about working hard and staying in school? Let’s set aside the question of how people know exactly what the President will say, and the presumption that he will indeed be inspirational. The premise of this accusation is that the decision about airing the address live was content-based. It simply wasn’t.

UNPRECEDENTED: In 1988, President Ronald Reagan gave an interactive interview to schoolchildren. In 1991, President Bush (41) made a speech at Alice Deal Junior High School, broadcast live on radio and television, urging students to study hard, focus on math and science, avoid drugs and turn in troublemakers. It's asserted that both did so with out objection, so clearly President Obama is a victim of partisan politics. Again, it was respect for parental choice, and not content or party affiliation that drove the decision. But beyond that, Presidents Reagan and Bush most certainly faced plenty of objections from Democrats. Notably, former Democrat House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) was quoted as saying, "The Department of Education should not be producing paid political advertising for the president, it should be helping us to produce smarter students, and the president should be doing more about education than saying, 'Lights, camera, action.' "

INTELLECTUAL COWARDS: By “censoring” the President, Rochester is showing how it is afraid to expose children to different views. Yet, if the district does broadcast the address live, then it is buying into the President’s “infomercial” that is really designed to increase his popularity. Both are quite a stretch, in my opinion. And again, the decision had nothing to do with the content.

In the end, the RCS School Board did not make this decision, but I am comfortable defending the compromise. Children can still watch the address.

Were the district to have made the opposite choice – to air the address live – I would instead need to be defending what could be a substantial disruption of school, as well as the notion that the school was all but forcing children to listen to their president -- perhaps in "commanded silence". I just can’t go there.

==> Mike.


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Keep Parents Empowered!

Read this article:

The Detroit News: Parents, not teachers, should make lifetime decisions on their kids' future (09/01/09)

find your Senator, and send them an email telling them to you want higher standards for your children, and do not want your local school district to water down your child’s education. Tell them the Geiss bill should not be adopted without modification.

When it comes to providing children with the college-prep skills they need to succeed in college, and ultimately our knowledge-based economy, local school boards were simply not getting the job done.

The state legislature created new high school graduation requirements that fill that void.

One of the provisions of the new requirements was an “escape clause”. It recognizes that a presumably small number of students might not be able to fulfill the requirements. Students with severe learning disabilities, for example, might struggle.

As written, the “Personal Curriculum Modification” allows a parent to approach the school and requires a personal curriculum, essentially opting out of the state requirements. It was intended to be a deliberative process, involving the parent, teachers, counselors, and administrators.

While there are good compromise aspects in the legislation, this new Geiss bill would ultimately move the decision making from the parents to the teachers, and that is wrong.

It’s not a question of an individual teacher’s ability to evaluate a child. It’s instead about the institutional power. There are undoubtedly teachers who would make a careful and thoughtful decision, but there are also teachers who would not.

I’ve personally witnessed too many incidents of educators trying to lower the bar for children. Empowering them to unilaterally establish lower expectations is a lifetime sentence, and is a step backwards.

==> Mike.

I’ve pasted below the article in case the link doesn’t work.

Editorial: Parents, not teachers, should make lifetime decisions on their kids' future
The Detroit News

Michigan teachers and lawmakers have debated for more than two years about the state's new high school curriculum. Now Lansing may have developed a sensible compromise bill, but it goes too far by gutting the rights of parents to make life-altering decisions about their children's futures.

The state House passed Rep. Douglas Geiss' bill 4511 last week. It is designed to make it easier for students to obtain permission to take a personal curriculum to graduate from high school. The authors of the original curriculum allowed for any Michigan student to request a personal curriculum out of respect to the diversity of students and their interests.

Current law rightly allows only parents or a legal guardian to request a personal curriculum. Policymakers worried, with good reason, that if teachers had the power to determine a student's high school coursework without a parent's consent, some would abuse it. Teachers who did not want to upgrade their skills and adapt to the new curriculum instead could lobby students to take easier classes -- even though that could be at the student's expense.

Those concerns have proven to be valid. A small but vocal minority of teachers have remained resistant to adopting the state curriculum. Instead many have fought it, arguing they shouldn't have to change despite the fact that more and more Michigan students are poorly prepared to compete for Knowledge Economy jobs.

The Geiss bill, a political compromise, contains some reasonable ideas, including the option of allowing a teacher to help parents develop a personal curriculum for their child.

But the bill goes far too far by allowing teachers to make life-altering decisions for students. No one but parents should determine their child's high school curriculum. The consequences are too far-reaching. What coursework a student takes in high school is a predictor for their success in college, most trades classes and their livelihoods later.

The Senate should make sure this bill does not gut parents' rights. Any compromise should not compromise the future of Michigan's children.


Saturday, August 29, 2009

A History of Ignoring Smart Kids

Take the time to read this. Authors Loveless and Petrilli have contributed so much to the effort of improving schools, and they knock it out of the park with this New York Times piece:

The New York Times: Smart Child Left Behind (08/27/09)

It is this very topic that motivated me to become involved in education: I don't believe my public school adequately challenges all children.

I have been attempting to fight this shortcoming my entire time on the school board, beginning four years ago with my
nationally recognized study on Advanced Placement in Michigan, up to the recent post on “Academically Waterboarding Middle School Math Students.” There are numerous examples of this deficiency chronicled on this blog under the heading RIGOR on the right.

As of the time of this writing, Rochester Community Schools still has no district initiatives whatsoever to insure that all children are adequately challenged. I have pushed at every opportunity to spotlight this fact, but unfortunately the best that I’ve been able to achieve is some weakly worded generic language in a list of un-measurable district goals.

While the school board is to blame, the ultimate root cause is that parents have not communicated any expectations to their school board, and do not hold them accountable when examples are provided of school board failures.

Until parents and other stakeholders take the time to let the school board know that they have high expectations for their children – and refuse to accept generic board answers – we can only expect more of the same.

==> Mike

Here is the article in case the link does not work:

New York Times
Op-Ed Contributors
Smart Child Left Behind
AS American children head back to school, the parents of the most academically gifted students may feel a new optimism: according to a recent study, the federal No Child Left Behind law is acting like a miracle drug. Not only is it having its intended effect — bettering the performance of low-achieving students — it is raising test scores for top students too.

This comes as quite a surprise, as ever since the law was enacted in 2002, analysts and educators have worried that gifted pupils would be the ones left behind. While the law puts extraordinary pressure on schools to lift the performance of low-achieving students, it includes no incentives to accelerate the progress of high achievers.

Yet the new study, by the independent Center on Education Policy, showed that more students are reaching the “advanced” level on state tests now than in 2002. This led the authors to conclude that there is little evidence that high-achieving students have been shortchanged.

If only that were so. But like many miracle-drug claims, this conclusion is deeply flawed, for several reasons.

First, under the federal law, state tests are supposed to measure whether students are meeting grade-level expectations — whether the average third grader knows the mathematics taught through third grade. But high achievers usually work above grade level, so the state tests are very poor instruments for measuring how well top students are learning.

Second, the way the study’s analysts depicted state trends creates a misleading national picture. They calculated “trend lines”
in each state — for example, whether more fourth graders in Georgia reached the “advanced” level in math, whether they made gains in reading and so on for each grade and subject.

For their conclusions, they added together all the up, down and sideways trends to give a national snapshot, saying that 83 percent of trend lines showed gains, while 15 percent showed declines. The problem with this system is that it treats all states equally, regardless of size. So a gain among high-performing students in North Dakota has the same weight as one in California, which has more than 60 times as many students.

Third, the analysis does not compare today’s students with those of earlier eras. High-achieving students might be making incremental progress — but is this new? If they were making similar gains before 2002, then might recent progress have nothing to do with No Child Left Behind? And how did their progress compare with trends for lower-achieving students?

Thankfully, there is a more suitable tool to help answer such questions: the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tracks achievement changes in 4th, 8th and 12th graders across the country. It found relatively little progress among our highest-achieving students (those in the top 10 percent) from 2000 to 2007, while the bottom 10 percent made phenomenal gains. For example, in eighth-grade math, the lowest-achieving students made 13 points of progress on the national-assessment scale from 2000 to 2007 — roughly the equivalent of a whole grade. Top students, however, gained just five points.

We also learned something from the data from the 1990s. For the most part, both high- and low-achievers made tepid annual gains. But there was one exception: In the states that already had accountability systems similar to those that would eventually be required by No Child Left Behind, there were much larger gains at the bottom than at the top.

So what does all of this mean? It is clear that No Child Left Behind is helping low-achieving students. But it is also obvious that high-achieving students — who suffer from benign neglect under the law — have been making smaller gains, much as they did before it was enacted. Alas, this drug is producing no miracles.

No doubt, some will claim victory: We are closing the achievement gap between our top and bottom students! But is that our only national goal in education? What might happen if federal law encouraged educators to improve the performance of all students? Our analysis of the federal data identified tens of thousands of high achievers who are black, Hispanic or poor. They are excelling at their studies, often against great odds. Shouldn’t we be addressing their educational needs?

As we look for ways to improve No Child Left Behind, we must recognize that our top students still have much to learn.

Tom Loveless is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a member of the task force on K-12 education at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Michael J. Petrilli is the vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

State of Denial

Oftentimes it's a sad truth that someone on a self-destructive path never really hits bottom until they experience that one defining moment that makes them wake up to the reality that they alone are the cause of their own problems.

School boards live in that state of denial.

In Rochester, for example, the school board has not passed a balanced budget in any one of the five years I served on the board. Each year a majority of board members were OK with approving a budget with deficit spending. The board made some cuts this year – half of which came from cutting the pay of bus drivers and custodians by 25% -- but the board was still unable to balance the budget. The district is pondering a $12 million dollar deficit next year.

Yet somehow the board is receptive to the idea of paying $10,000 to hang a historical mural in the boardroom.

Granted, the $10K isn’t going to materially change the budget picture. But the message it sends is very clear.

And it leaves one wondering what other types of non-essential or non-productive spending is going on.

Perhaps State Superintendent Mike Flanagan offers a glimmer of hope, now that he finally put his foot down on school board budgeting nonsense. I wonder how the lesson learned here might be able to be applied on a broader basis.

The Madison School District in Madison Heights Michigan has apparently been working on a deficit reduction plan since 1994, yet cannot produce a balanced budget.

Let’s ignore the fact that it’s a 1500 pupil district, and one of two small districts in this suburban community, and could undoubtedly save money through consolidation (of district operations, not schools).

The more illustrative point is that they’ve been unable to solve this problem for 15 years!

And amazingly, when the state superintendent finally threatens to hold them accountable, they are able to come up with a plan.

But of course, the school board lives in denial, blaming others for their problems.

Perhaps the silliest comment came from the district’s attorney, who said, “Lansing doesn’t understand the fallout those (budget cutting) options can have for generations to come. The board is looking a more methodical change over time.”

How much time? Since this deficit problem first started, there have now been two or three classes of kids who started out in kindergarten and have since graduated!

And talk about “generations”… the education of the children in the district NOW will be impacted because of the failure of the board to address the deficit over the past 15 years.

Given the legislative bumbling that goes on at the state level, I’m not convinced that Lansing is the ideal answer. But the current status quo – your local school board – clearly demonstrates time and time again that local control is out of control.

Here are a couple of links on the Madison situation:

Detroit Free Press: Deficits have Madison Heights board members facing jail time (8/18/09)

Oakland Press: Madison District Avoids Payless Paydays (8/25/09)

Deficits have Madison Heights board members facing jail time


Faced with an unprecedented threat of jail and fines by the state's top educator, school board members of the Madison School District in Madison Heights passed a plan Monday night aimed at averting the penalties.

The plan, to offset a $1.35-million deficit, rests on tentative agreements with the district's unions and other workers to accept a 5% overall cut in human resources for the next three years. The savings would come from a combination of pay and benefits cuts, job reassignments and lower head count achieved through retirements and resignation -- without layoffs, board attorney George Butler said.

"This will be sent to the Michigan Department of Education," on Tuesday "and will await the response," said district Superintendent Gary Vettori.

The district has been operating under a state-approved deficit elimination plan since 1994.

Last month, Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Flanagan sent the board a letter indicating that if the district didn't submit a revised budget by Thursday, "it will be prudent for me to invoke one or more of the penalties" that include jail and fines.

If the penalties were imposed, it would have been the first time a school board endured jail and criminal fines allowed under a state law on fiscal responsibility, said state Department of Education spokeswoman Jan Ellis.

The state has withheld more than $800,000 in aid from the total of $9 million allocated to the district for 2008-09, Ellis said.

Board members, who recently gave up their $30-per-meeting pay, said they were stunned by the threats and doing all they could to keep afloat the district of fewer than 1,500 students.

Workers have made repeated concessions and Vettori took a 5% cut to $114,000.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Refocusing Energy!

Five years on a local school board has delivered a lifetime's worth of lessons on what is best & worst about 'local control'.

By helping to shape the dialog and direction, I believe I’ve had a positive impact on our schools. My focus at the board table, my personal advocacy efforts with the public, and my voting record clearly demonstrates my commitment to the merits of increased rigor, fiscal responsibility, safety, and transparency.

I’m proud of my efforts to make schools accountable to parents, students, and taxpayers, but have concluded that the opportunities to achieve these goals are limited on this local school board.

The forces attempting to preserve the status quo are powerful, committed, and far superior in numbers. Actually, school boards mirror the polarizing political climate at the state and national level, where a dominating majority controls the agenda and offers no room for compromise.

On Tuesday, I entered my name as a candidate for re-election, hoping that one or more new candidates might emerge that could stand with me in my efforts to reform and improve our schools, and prepare for the challenges ahead.

But at this point, with the candidate field now defined, I’ve decided to withdraw my name and refocus my energy. Armed with my knowledge of the system, and freed from the petty politics, I believe I can be more effective in my efforts to increase public awareness of the issues facing schools, while continuing to attempt to introduce ideas to school leaders.


Saturday, August 8, 2009

To Rubberstamp or Compromise, that is the question!

I had received enough FACEBOOK invitations requests that I finally decided to setup an account. If you haven’t done so, you should! It’s very active, although it can be very distracting. Mine's here.

Anyway, in the process of searching for friends I stumbled across a few fairly recent articles about my friend Melanie Kurdys, a Board Trustee in Portage Michigan.

Mlive: Portage school board: Same song, new verse (06/01/09)

Mlive: Tensions linked to trustee aired during Portage school board retreat (07/15/09)

Melanie is an outstanding trustee, one who works tirelessly to reform an education system that is simply not very effective by any measure. I wrote about her efforts to address the fact that many high school graduates must take remedial math in college. The article can be found here.

She’s being exposed to the same complaints many reformers face, which is that she should simply sit at the table and vote “AYE”.

I posted these two articles because they provide great insight into the ugly world of school politics.

The articles are sad because they show a clear divide in the district. You can read the comments posted on the newspaper site, and see there are those who root for the majority, and those who root for the underdog. It should not be a contest, at least not like this.

Unless that board majority can learn to compromise, then the community will stay divided and ultimately the children will lose.

The articles focus on the tired old debate about whether a trustee should actively understand an issue before voting, or whether they should instead simply rubber stamp whatever is put in front of them.

This is exactly the problem we have in Washington right now, where the Obama Administration wants Congress to pass bills without reading them.

I fail to understand the logic in the rubber-stamp approach. If the administration’s proposals cannot withstand a little scrutiny, then maybe they shouldn’t advance them.

And if a majority of board members don’t want to understand what they are approving, then they are free to change policy so that the administration has more leeway and the board has less oversight. Or, they can conduct offline study sessions or sub-committee meetings, where the administration can make its case to those board members who are interested in understanding the issues before they approve it.

But instead, this Portage board whines about Melanie asking reasonable questions. They call it “micromanaging”. They hope to bully Melanie into capitulation.

Furthermore, they offer the absurd claim that, “You're holding almost the whole school district hostage." How is that possible if they have a 6 to 1 majority? They are free to ignore Melanie, as is done when the autocratic board President Shirley Johnson says, "We're moving on." (That's happened to me several times, where board members have been OK with "Calling the Question", which according to Robert's Rule ends discussion.)

So why exactly is this an issue for the Portage board?

Because Melanie goes against the cultural grain of their "social club", which expects members to not only go along, but go along happily and quietly.

Melanie is doing neither. She asks intelligent questions – questions the board cannot ignore – and they resent her for that.

But it's more than just petty resentment. The heart of the problem – and I see this whenever you have a reform-minded trustee on a school board – is that the status quo majority doesn’t compromise. Either they don’t know how, or don’t want to.

If they don’t want to, well, then that’s the end of the story.

But I often wonder whether school board troubles are caused by the fact that trustees don’t know how to compromise.

So here are some suggestions for Portage:

1) Believe that compromise is important. Board trustees like those in Portage offer an interesting logical conflict. They have the majority, and can do whatever they want. But that is not enough for them. They not only want to have it their way, but they don’t want anyone to complain about it. If they truly want to eliminate the complaints, then they need to forge solutions in which everyone has some skin in the game.

2) Stop viewing issues in isolation. If a particular item only has an “either/or” option, then try to couple a few items together. This might allow for a little “give and take”, which is the fundamental ingredient in compromise. You might never get all trustees to support everything, but if each trustee is satisfied that the compromise is in some way advancing an objective they find important, then you are likely to see a substantial reduction in the volume and frequency of objections.

3) If it’s clear that there is substantial disagreement on an issue, then consider tabling it for a meeting, in an effort to find some common ground (see suggestion 1 & 2 above!).

Many school issues have no “right or wrong” answers, but are instead more a matter of perspective or philosophy. This leads to messy school politics, and that is not likely to change. However, the present practice of the majority exerting absolute rule without regard to compromise is a proven loser.

I've pasted below the articles in case the links don't work.

==> Mike.

Portage school board: Same song, new verse
Posted by jmack June 01, 2009 23:04PM
Are we surprised that things got a bit tense during Monday's Portage school board meeting?


Are we surprised the squabbling was sparked by whether Melanie Kurdys, in the opinion of her fellow board members, was trying to micromanage?

No again.

It's a familiar pattern. And, incidentally, another interpretation of the tussle is that Kurdys was asking questions in the interest of accountability and transparency, only to be slapped down by her colleagues.

I report. You decide.

First, Kurdys asked about the proposed traffic pattern for the new Central High School, which has been repeatedly criticized as unsafe by Portage resident Bob Schafer. Superintendent Marsha Wells and others told Kurdys that state and city officials had signed off on the traffic plan, but Kurdys said she wanted to see the paperwork herself, saying it was possible that state officials had approved the plan while expressing reservations. When Trustee Dale Posthumus suggested, in effect, that Kurdys overstepping her bounds, she said she was willing to file a Freedom of Information Act request if need be.

Then came a discussion about the brickwork for the new Central High School. One of the bidders was upset his bid had gotten rejected, and the construction managers said it was because the project called for extra-large bricks and they wanted to go with a firm experienced with making that particular size. Kurdys suggested that perhaps the real problem was the design of the school, and questioned the use of the extra-large bricks, saying her research found those kind of bricks can lead to leakage around windows.

The other board members seemed openly exasperated, saying they weren't going to second-guess the administration and the building contractors about the school design at this point. "This is not a board-level decision," Vice President Jennifer Whistler said. "If we get into this, we're opening a can of worms."

Then came Round Three, when the board was briefed on a proposal for technology for the new Twelfth Street Elementary. Kurdys said that perhaps installing new technology for teachers at the new school is a big mistake, considering that the staff already will be adjusting to a new building, a new student body and a new districtwide math curriculum. Plus, Kurdys questioned if the new technology would actually improve student outcomes, and how the district would collect data to establish that fact.

At that point, the other board members didn't even pretend to hide their annoyance. "To say, 'Why are we doing this?' is to revisit a decision made a year and a half ago," board President Shirley Johnson said. "We're moving on."

Tensions linked to trustee aired during Portage school board retreat
Posted by Julie Mack Kalamazoo Gazette July 15, 2009 22:47PM

KALAMAZOO -- A Portage school-board retreat on Wednesday resembled "Survivor" crossed with C-Span.

In the midst of a day spent talking about policy governance, the seven trustees on the Portage Public Schools Board of Education and Superintendent Marsha Wells engaged in a frank airing of grievances and a candid discussion about board tensions.
Six trustees, including two who have been on the board for less than eight months, suggested the board was being paralyzed by the actions of the seventh trustee, Melanie Kurdys.

"I have to say, in my 36 years of professional life, I've never seen one person so totally dominate an organization," said Trustee John Whyte, who joined the board in December. "This is a nonfunctioning board, and we don't get things done, Melanie, because all of us are too busy trying to satisfy your wants and your needs. ... You're holding almost the whole school district hostage."

Kurdys, who was elected in 2007 on a platform of transparency and accountability, considers herself the board watchdog, making frequent requests for information and seeking public input on school-district matters large and small.

During the two board meetings in June, for instance, Kurdys questioned the traffic-safety plan and choice of bricks for the new Portage Central High School, the installation of state-of-the art technology in 12th Street Elementary, which is to open next month, and various budget issues.

Other trustees said Wednesday that they appreciate her perspective but not her approach. They criticized Kurdys for micromanaging administration; monopolizing board discussions, leaving little time for others to talk; launching surprise attacks at board meetings; and making public comments that undermined fellow trustees and administrators. They also said she often resurrects old disputes, preventing the board from moving forward.

For her part, Kurdys said the board has a history of trying to silence dissent. "Individuals who see things differently than the majority either end up quitting or leaving bitter," she said. "It seems like this board spends a lot of time trying to control me."

Trustee Randy Borden, who was elected in May, said he ran for office without taking sides but that he already sees why other trustees are displeased with Kurdys.
He said he was startled, for instance, that during last month's vote on the district's budget, that Kurdys turned to the audience and said, "No one is accountable for this budget." Borden said the comment left the impression that the administration and board are not to be trusted.

"The grandstanding that goes on at meetings is continuous," Vice President Dale Posthumus said to Kurdys. "It seems at every turn you're taking some opportunity to make the school district look bad."

Kurdys said she is raising important issues. "Do you really think I'm intentionally trying to find things wrong in the district?" she said. "Why would I do that?"
She said, however, that she appreciated the honesty of her fellow board members in addressing the "elephant in the room."

"I see the pieces I need to do to be more effective in getting my ideas into the room," she said at the end of the retreat.

Prodded by facilitator Mike Washburn, a retired superintendent from Forest Hills, Kurdys and other trustees agreed to several procedures to help ensure board meetings stay focused and respectful. For instance, when a board member brings up issues that others feel are not board-level matters, they agreed they will decide as a group whether to discuss them or move on.

At the end of the seven-and-a-half-hour retreat, trustees agreed the meeting was helpful and offered optimism.

"I see the change in the atmosphere already," Secretary Deb Polderman said. Then she added, "but we've said that before."