Thursday, December 13, 2012

Response to Governor Snyder's "Oxford Plan" Draft

To be introduced next session of the Michigan legislature, the Oxford Plan (drafted primarily by Richard McLellan, Mary Kay Shields, and Peter Ruddell of the Oxford Foundation at the request of Governor Rick Snyder) would totally rewrite the current School Aid language to allow students and their parents to “spend” their foundation grant for classes from any education provider (with or without certificated teachers).

The “enrollment district” would be mandated to serve as a clearinghouse, receiving an undesignated fee per student for the task of managing and administering their students’ “vouchers” for the education choices they make. These choices can be either to attend full time in the “enrollment district” or concoct a number of ala-carte choices for taking classes including online, early college (if accepted), dual enrollment, or taking a class in a high school across town (or multiple classes in multiple high schools scattered throughout the area). No counseling is required for students or parents to assist in making programming choices that are appropriate to their abilities, fit their graduation needs, and support their college and career choices.

The following provides a skeletal outline of the 300-plus-page framework:

1.     Removes district “ownership” of a student
2.     Provides online learning options with “performance funding”
3.     Funding follows the student
4.     Provides for performance-based funding for all courses (not clear on details)
5.     Grants early graduation scholarships (up to 2 years early)
6.     Promotes concept of year-round schools for economically-challenged students

While on the surface, these may sound enticing, there are a number of shortcomings within the Oxford Plan which I attempt to address through the points that follow. At the end, I make some recommendations on which Michigan’s public education reform movement should be built.

The Minnesota Experience 

This is in no way criticism of Minnesota’s education system, but the Oxford Plan’s authors have contended that Minnesota served as a model for their plan. If that’s true, it would be important to know whether the group considered a recent comprehensive study titled, False Choices: The Economic Argument Against Market-Driven Education Reform, conducted by Michael Diedrich, Minnesota 2020 Policy Associate, and released in January 2012.

Here are key findings from this study:

·       Home to the oldest charter school law, Minnesota’s experience does not conclude that increased competition improves educational outcomes.
o   Math national test scores increased by less than 7% over 20 years since charters introduced
o   Reading scores increased by less than 1% during same period
·       The market approach to education doesn’t produce the gains needed to raise achievement levels for ALL students.
·       Public education cannot replicate the five necessary conditions for pure competition between traditional public schools and charters.
·       A Michigan study shows for-profit charters have a lower performance outcome than traditional public schools (Hill and Welsch White Paper).

…there is significant evidence that for-profit schools are less likely to have students scoring at a level that meets Michigan standards…even when adjusting for numerous school and district characteristics…” (Hill, Cynthia D. and Welsch, David M. Is there a Difference Between For-Profit Versus Not-for-Profit Charter Schools? University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Working Paper 08-02)

·       Market-driven approaches incentivize schools to increase public relations (advertising), sales pitches, and teaching-to-the-test that do little to improve real learning and achievement.
·       Minnesota’s (and Michigan’s) large rural makeup lacks the concentrated populations necessary to support a truly open market and choice throughout much of the state.
·       Voucher programs in states or cities where they have been approved have not demonstrated the ability to improve student achievement; students who change schools through school choice programs do not succeed at any higher rate than students who applied but were denied based on a random lottery.
·       Instead of being about innovation, charter schools have become about competition; this grows with the increase in for-profit charters.
·       The economic rationale that open enrollment policies foster competition between traditional public schools is flawed; they only serve to redistribute students based on individual or familial motivation and will not prepare ALL students for post-secondary success.
·       The fallacy that competition will drive all schools to produce universal college and career readiness assumes that teachers and administrators aren’t already driven to that goal and assume a self-interest that impugns the motivations and professionalism of school staff, further alienating those responsible for improving learning and student achievement; this naturally leads to resistance towards “carrot and stick” approaches that are based on flawed economics-centric thinking (versus student-centric).

Additionally, the Oxford Plan leaves out a very important fact about Minnesota which is how the state far exceeded Michigan on a national ranking earlier this year regarding the overall level of K-12 funding and equity of funding across school districts. I refer more about this important relationship in later points. The data comes from Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card Second Edition: June 2012 (http://www.schoolfundingfairness.org/).

Quality, Choice, Funding and Accountability

The Oxford Plan leaves serious doubts about its ability to reform the Michigan K-12 systems in such a way so that it guarantees ALL students will be better served through higher levels of achievement as well as college and career readiness. Specifically, there are three main areas of concern:

Quality:

·       Opens the door to for-profit entrepreneurs without establishing sound quality assurances to protect families exercising choice.
·       More choices that are based on a market-driven philosophy already shown in Minnesota to be deficient will not guarantee quality choices.
·       As in Minnesota, the creation of more choices has not made any significant improvements in Michigan education; the only recent reforms that can be linked to improved student achievement is increased graduation standards (MMC) and ACT testing for all students.

Choice:

·       Virtually all of the choices in the Oxford Plan are already available to families and students.
·       Districts already work collaboratively with other districts for sharing of courses one or the other cannot afford.
·       Expanded dual enrollment options and a growing number of K-16 partnerships are already in place.
·       The illusion of increased choice by opening up ala-carte options to students across multiple school buildings and districts is not well thought out and presents a number of problems for the student and the districts involved:
o   Students deciding to skip the offerings of their “enrollment district” (Oxford’s term) and enroll in an online or nearby district class will end up costing the enrollment district significantly since the course still has to be offered to a smaller number of students; additionally, the course may need to be cancelled due to insufficient numbers of students enrolled creating havoc for student schedules and meeting graduation requirements.
o   Students travelling between districts for classes will lose the opportunity to carry a full load since the travel time will eat into the school day; this causes the student to be less than an FTE between the “sharing” districts and more funding is lost as a result; this is already a problem for students in dual enrollment or attending the Kent ISD CTE programs.
o   School schedules, term calendars, and credit designations are not standardized across Michigan schools; transfer students during the year often experience difficulties with this that the individual schools try to mitigate as much as possible; expanding the ability of students to take courses from multiple districts creates an undue burden on the districts involved and potentially hurts more than helps a student complete graduation requirements on time.

Funding:

·       The Oxford Plan will further erode an already sorry state of affairs for local and state K-12 funding in Michigan.
·       Michigan already has one of the worst school funding systems in the nation for fairness and equity; districts with large concentrations of students living in poverty, struggling with the English language, and other societal and demographic characteristics that impede their educational progress are already underfunded substantially based on the needs of students to have equitable learning opportunities.
·       Recent budget reductions have left Michigan districts with less funding than received in 2005-06.
·       The slow economic recovery, threat of another recession, and a shrinking population base and birth rate already impact Michigan’s public school districts.
·       The Oxford Plan will make it difficult for districts to project student revenues; furthermore, the competitiveness of the plan will force districts to utilize diminishing resources to advertise and promote their schools.
·       Further economic instability for schools will simply erode programming choices for the vast majority of students who will not have the support system in place to move about the public education arena.
·       As has been pointed out in a number of studies, simply creating a market-place competitive education system does not lower costs; in fact, it leads to duplication of services and administration; the state’s own data shows the schools with the highest administrative expenses in the state as a percentage of per-pupil revenues are charter schools and the DPS district.
·       The Oxford Plan does not provide a method for ensuring that federal revenues are not lost by virtue of qualified students choosing to attend non-qualified districts or schools; with declining state revenues for K-12 education, Michigan can ill-afford to lose federal dollars.

It’s worth repeating that the Oxford Plan does nothing to improve equity of opportunity for students who because of family, societal, mobile or demographic obstacles find themselves behind in school with little hope of catching up to their more affluent peers. In fact, it can be easily argued that the Oxford Plan’s basic foundation of ala-carte choice will serve to create a greater divide between upper and lower income students, and this in turn will lead to more segregation and inequity of opportunity.

The Alliance for Education released a report in November 2012 (Inseparable Imperatives: Equity in Education and the Future of the American Economy retrieved from www.all4ed.org) that starts out by stating:

"Today, this moral imperative – to equitably provide all students with a quality education – is now a critical factor in maintaining the United State’s national economic strength." (p. 1)

Pedro Noguera points out that:

"A big part of what is wrong with the current debate about reform is that it is dominated by what I think of as naïve optimists and radical pessimists. The naïve optimists are the ones promoting simplistic solutions like: “fire bad teachers,” “lengthen the school day,” “close failing schools,” or radically expand the number of charter schools without any real public accountability. What these so-called reformers have in common is that they seize upon a single idea or set of ideas to promote change and then assume that if we just follow this narrow prescription schools will improve. The record shows that they never do, especially not in the communities that suffer from the greatest economic and social challenges." (Moving Beyond the Polarized Debate, post by Pedro Noguera in Education Week’s Bridging Differences blog, Nov 27, 2012)

Accountability:

The Oxford Plan in its current iteration creates conflicts in accountability measures and procedures between Federal NCLB requirements (with state waiver) and proposed changes to State requirements.

  1. Graduation on time: The bedrock foundation of the Oxford Plan calls on Governor Snyder’s vision of an “Any Time, Any Place, Any Way and Any Pace” public education system (emphasis added). However, current federal law labels a school as failing when students do not graduate on time, within four school years of entering their freshmen year. Thus “any pace” does not square with federal law even though this district agrees with the concept and does not feel any school should be labeled as failing if students in that school – especially those attending urban, poor, high ELL school districts – need a year or two more to master the Michigan Merit Curriculum standards and achieve college and career readiness. However, until the State of Michigan thumbs its nose at the 4-year mandate set by NCLB, this is not a reality. This district supports flexible, personalized learning for all students but regulations prohibit any real effort to provide such for students who want or need it.
  2. Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP): There are many accountability problems associated with the ala-carte system of public education. It is simply not fair or equitable to expect that an “enrollment district” will be saddled with high-stakes achievement scores, graduation rates, and the potential for falling into the 5% PLA group when a student may be taking some core academic courses online, at a school in a nearby district, or at a local college. The enrollment district will have no impact on learning outside of its own jurisdiction and should not be penalized to support the ala-carte options. If the ala-carte plan is adopted, schools and districts should be exempt from including any scores of students not attending the enrollment district in a full-time capacity.

Reform Recommendations

While public education reform of the magnitude envisioned by Governor Snyder requires more than a handful of people sitting around the table tossing narrow ideas back and forth, I offer the following starting point recommendations.

Funding Equity:

Any successful reform effort has to begin by first recognizing that Michigan’s school funding is both inadequate and lends itself to creating inequity between students based on their demographics and zip code. The Oxford Plan, as I previously mentioned, fails not only to address inequity but also may contribute to lower revenues for struggling districts based on the ala-carte concept. A student with limited English communications skills, growing up in poverty, coming to school sick on a regular basis, or residing in a violent neighborhood is going to need more costly interventions that go beyond the classroom. Even within the classroom, this student is going to need a higher qualified teacher trained extensively to provide a learning environment designed to achieve high standards. The state’s base foundation allowance is insufficient in the current system and would only be worsened under components of the Oxford Plan.

Several legislators recently introduced Michigan House Bill 6086 calling for the State to conduct a comprehensive statewide cost student to determine the basic cost per pupil that is necessary to provide a public education that enables every pupil to successfully complete all of the MMC credit requirements, demonstrate proficiency in all subject areas of the MME, and that meets the standards for adequacy and equity, defining equity to mean:

…whether public resources being committed to public education are distributed in a way that all children, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, disability, socioeconomic status, and geography, have an equal opportunity to succeed in school.

It is likely that without the strong support of the Governor, this bill will not see the light of day in the current super-charged state of political conflict evident in our state legislature. Any effective, real education reforms hinge on this foundation of equity.

Four Pillars for Education Reform:

The NAACP recently released a research-based comprehensive reform plan for public education titled, Finding Our Way Back to First: Reclaiming World Leadership by Educating All America’s Children, 2012 (http://www.naacp.org/blog/entry/naacp-2012-education-report). The report provides an eye-opening comparison of some of the top achievement countries in the world versus the United States and notes the percentage of variance in student performance due to socioeconomic status differences.

Governor Snyder should organize a broad coalition to undertake a critical analysis of this plan and how it could make a positive impact on Michigan.

The four pillars are:

·       Prekindergarten prep for achievement“One of the most important steps we can take to improve the life opportunities for children is to ensure that they have language- and literacy-rich early care environments.” (p. 6) This is particularly true in Michigan’s urban, impoverished communities, especially those with a growing percentage of limited English proficiency.

·       Effective teaching – more support should be put in place to ensure a high quality teacher entry program, ongoing job-embedded professional learning including instructional coaching, and an effective teacher/principal/superintendent evaluation program that is designed to support professional learning as it’s primary goal. In addition, Michigan has a tendency to only fund learning time when students are in front of a certificated teacher. Like Finland and other high-achieving countries, we need to place a higher value and financially support time during the day when teachers can gather to plan, collaborate, learn, analyze student learning, develop curriculum and assessments, etc. Squeezing more state and local revenues from district budgets makes this reasonably impossible and the constant anti-teacher rhetoric makes it difficult to gain public support for using time during the day for these critical improvement functions.

·       More time for learning – while the Oxford Plan mentions a longer school year for low achieving students, it fails to provide any insights into how this is to be funded and does not take into account how students can literally “escape” a year-round school system with the Oxford recommendation of an “ala-carte” education system. Most urban poor school districts have facilities that are inadequate for summer learning (spend a summer in our high school and you’ll agree) and lack the property values and bonding support make the facilities year-round. Beyond that, declining state and local revenues make it difficult to operate a facility over four Michigan seasons. However, if Governor Snyder can provide resources to make schools conducive to learning in any climate, we welcome the discussion of what elements comprise quality extended year programs. Until that discussion occurs with resulting financial resources made available for planning, training staff, and transitioning to a year-round calendar, this should not be forced upon schools that are not ready to provide a high-quality program.

·       Target spending for widespread success – basically, Michigan underinvests in its most neediest students through the inequitable funding process I’ve already identified. The state also underinvests in preschool, leadership development, and whole-community supports for urban, poor, and ELL students necessary to compete with their more affluent suburban counterparts. Michigan has got to restructure its public education financing system to target more program, equipment, and structural resources to poor districts, aligning funding with student needs and investing in on-going teacher development. Programs like the Kent Schools Services Network (KSSN) have proven their worth in providing health and social services supports, but are stymied by limited financial resources to impact all students and their families needing help. Michigan should address this as a holistic approach to providing equitable financing and resources so that every K-12 student has a solid platform for achieving success.

Reform begins with Elimination of the Graded-School Structure:
Any true reform, including equitable financial support for K-12 public schools, should begin with a statewide adoption of a policy that eliminates the outdated graded-school structure. Research has demonstrated overwhelmingly that grading schools as kindergarten through 12th, compartmentalizing curriculum by single-year slices, and measuring success by whether or not a student moves through the system one calendar year at a time was wrong in the 1800’s, continued to be wrong throughout the 1900’s, and is a costly impediment to personalizing learning efficiently, economically, and effectively. Michigan’s education system should be anchored solely on a competency-based system of advancement which takes into account individual student and family needs. The graded-school structure was designed for efficient command and control, not to improve learning. It is the root of overall rising costs for public education due to a continuing need for remediation, special education, extended school days, summer school, tutoring, repeating grades and courses, etc. The Oxford Plan and Governor Snyder have an opportunity to revolutionize public education and once put Michigan at the forefront of real reform and improved student achievement.

This is just a start. Building stronger K-16 ties and encouraging collaboration between all school districts – public, charter, for-profit, and private – are also critical enhancements. All Michigan school districts should have equitable access to instructional technology and the infrastructure necessary to support high-speed internet access. The burden of transportation should also be reduced through a funding scheme that provides resources based on the proximity between a student’s home and the school she attends. A better, more equitable system of financing facility construction and upgrades along with equipping state-of-the-art science and technology labs is also crucial to ensuring success for every child in achieving college and career readiness.

Working collaboratively with the entire public education community would be a step towards achieving our goals.