Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Hit the Reset Button on K12 Schools!

Tom Watkins, Michigan’s former State Superintendent of Schools, has become a prolific opinion writer who offers insightful perspectives on how K-12 education and Michigan’s international business future – particularly in China – have somewhat symbiotic relationships.

He penned the following article:

The Oakland Press: Education needs radical reformation (07/19/09)

The opening paragraph sets the stage:

“Nothing short of radical change in our education system, from cradle to grave, is what will be required for America to regain its international competitiveness. This is a theme I have been championing for years and it was reinforced by a powerful panel presentation at the National Summit recently in Detroit. There is a need to hit the reset button when it comes to reforming our schools. We have yet to get it right.”

He goes on to say:

“Change is often the most talked about and least acted-upon concept in school reform today. Most of our schools believe they have changed. The panel’s assessment: You have not seen anything yet.”

Sadly, his article was buried in the opinion section on page F11, while in the same edition the front-page headline screamed:

The Oakland Press: Oakland students are tops (07/19/09)

The article regurgitates boasts from officials in Oakland County school districts about their test scores on the ACT. Rochester brags that, “We are in the top four or five districts in Oakland County and our per pupil money is right in middle,”

This is exactly the sort of “head in the sand” perspective that is preventing Michigan schools from reforming, and is precisely what Watkins is referring to when he says that schools believe that they have changed.

Consider the “top performance” of Oakland districts. Statistics in the article point out that Rochester saw 76 percent of it’s students pass the math section of the MME (Michigan Merit Exam), which is largely based on the ACT.

While that may be better than others, it doesn’t erase the fact that nearly one out of four children in Rochester could not pass the math minimums. And this is from one of the top districts!

The statistics are even worse if you parse the data and try to look at how many are ready to do college level calculus.

School boards are the root cause of the problem. They tolerate this narrow goal of being the local star, and completely ignore a national or international perspective.

For example, look at Rochester’s so-called “Strategic Plan” , which largely
aspires to keep Rochester MEAP/MME scores in the top 95th percentile of Michigan schools.

That would be a worthwhile goal if Rochester students would only be competing with other students from Michigan. But they’re not. They’re competing for college seats – and jobs – with students from around the nation, and around the world.

So, while Rochester is content to say, “… we are giving a big bang for your buck.”, Wayne State Unversity President Dr. Jay Noren more correctly observes, “High school for far too many of our students is not serious — we need high national educational standards, having 50 separate sets of state standards does not make sense in this global, knowledge economy. We need a longer school day and year, increased compensation for effective teachers and a minimum of 14 years of basic education.”

There is nothing wrong with recognizing success. But most schools, like Rochester, spend more time focusing on how to provide positive spin on whatever results are achieved, rather then establishing aggressive and meaningful goals.

While Rochester crows that, “We do well because we’ve got a great teaching staff and good support from parents and we work together as a team.”, Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan instead acknowledges “…we still are not where we need to be overall, in getting all students to be college-ready.”


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Kids First, or MEA First?

The Howell school board continues to be the “poster child” for Mark Twain’s quip:

“In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.”

The most recent attraction at the Howell circus was a surprise meeting in which the board majority fired the superintendent, despite the fact that he seemed to have community support and despite the data that shows he had made a positive impact on student achievement.

The firing could not have been done in a more unprofessional way.

The good news is that it may have awakened the community, and there is now an effort to recall three of the ringleaders.

I thought this was newsworthy because it is a crystal clear example of how much influence the MEA has over school boards. Not only did they publicly influence the board, but, as is often the case, there are other MEA-related conflicts of interest swirling around in the background.

The local paper makes a great case here about the direct MEA influence:

Press & Argus: Howell school board sends message with its capitulation to teachers' union (7/8/09)

The other interesting twist is the how the personal interests of board members are weaved into the story.

Ed Literski, the board president, apparently sees nothing wrong with serving on the board, despite the fact that his wife works for the district.

But consider the conflict of interest – or the appearance of a conflict – as shown in this
Livingston Daily Press & Argus article:

Furthermore, in a timeline of events written by Gardella according to Day (Wendy Day… a courageous reform-minded board member -- Mike), the superintendent claimed Literski threatened him April 30 because he "(expletive) with his family."

Literski's wife, Cathy Literski,
is a counselor at Highlander Way Middle School. Gardella, according to the timeline, shared with Parker (another board member) information about a grievance Cathy Literski made against the middle school's principal, Jason Feig.

The grievance had to do with Feig denying Cathy Literski a day off from work, according to documents the Daily Press & Argus received under the Freedom of Information Act.

Cathy Literski's request was apparently the seventh request submitted for time off on that day — the first six were approved, according to contract guidelines.

She sought reimbursement of $316 she spent on airline and concert tickets, which she purchased prior to getting approval for time off.

Wednesday, Literski said his wife had nothing to with "the position Mr. Gardella finds himself in."

Hmmm… the request was denied, and suddenly the superintendent finds himself in hot water with the board.

Purely coincidental, I’m sure.

And lastly, it’s unfortunate that the Livingston County Clerk’s office does not post campaign finance records online. I would not be surprised to find MEA PAC contributions to the board majority members. This is a very common practice, as shown on the Education Action Group’s website here: Follow the Money. There is also a detailed article from the Mackinac Center's Education Report.

The MEA influence over this board is so troubling because this whole matter appears to have nothing to do with kids, but is instead about adult issues. The district made AYP for the first time under this superintendent, and test scores appear to be improving. Their budgets appear to be under control. By most objective measures this superintendent seemed to be doing a good job.

His mistake?

There were union related staffing issues, and he annoyed the board president by "(expletive) with his family."

You can follow this drama at Wendy Day’s blog, http://forabetterday.blogspot.com/

I’ve pasted below the full text of the editorial in case the link doesn’t work:

Howell school board sends message with its capitulation to teachers' union

When the Howell Public Schools Board of Education conducted a hastily called special meeting on June 26, the biggest news was the unexpected firing of Superintendent Theodore Gardella, who was completing his first year on the job.

Questions still remain from the decision that Friday. One of the most important: How did such a vote occur when neither his status or his evaluation was on the special meeting agenda? Such action suggests that some board members had privately come to the meeting expecting to fire Gardella, or it suggests that this was an emotional, almost knee-jerk decision.

As important as these questions are, what has been lost in the uproar has been another item on the agenda. That item, in which the board sent a clear message that it will cave to the agenda of the teachers' union, could have much greater impact on the district than did Gardella's firing.

The issue began when the leadership of the Howell Education Association, which represents the district's more than 400 teachers, didn't like the way that staffing was progressing after a meeting on June 23. So the next day, union President Karen Lessnau e-mailed the board's president and vice president to request a special meeting to lodge what it called a formal complaint.

Some of its charges were startling, including an assertion that there had been a "deliberate attempt" by Gardella "to defy" a staffing directive given by the school board.

As it turns out, that assertion may have been overblown, or at least open to alternative interpretations. At the very least, the administration might have had its own version of this accusation of insubordination.

You would think, as employers, the board would have wanted to hear the facts before jumping through the union's hoops. You would be wrong.

There was an appropriate way to handle this, which is to refer the matter back to the administration, which is paid to handle labor issues. If the union doesn't believe the contract it being followed, it can file a grievance. If it wants to address the board, it can take its turn at a regular meeting.

Administrators are trained in labor issues. They know the complexities of the contract and the dynamics of staffing. They also know the tactics that unions use when they want to pressure school board members who, frankly, don't have that expertise.

What you don't do, if you want to run an effective school board, is send the union a message that it is acceptable to do an end-run around your paid administrative team.

But that is exactly what the Howell school board leadership did.

Lessnau's e-mail went out late on that Wednesday afternoon. By 9:30 a.m. the next day, board Vice President Jeannine Pratt had e-mailed the rest of the board with the message that she and President Edwin Literski wanted a special meeting at noon the next day.

The union said "jump," and the board leadership answered "when and how high?"

Perhaps the union complaint was just a pretense used by Pratt and Literski to add momentum to the movement to fire Gardella.

But the capitulation to the union will send a clear message to the next person who is persuaded to become Howell's next superintendent. If he doesn't want to become the third superintendent fired in three years, he will do well to make sure he doesn't cross the union. The board won't have his back.

That's good news for the Howell Education Association, which is maneuvering for bargaining power now that its current labor contract has expired. But it won't be good news for the district's taxpayers.