Sunday, December 26, 2010

Riding into the Perfect Storm of Reform

NOTE:  This post is part of the December 26-January 1 "Blog 4 Real Education Reform - The (Action) Sequel." Blog links are being posted at Paula White's Cooperative Catalyst

It's here. We're in the middle of it. And when it ends, the landscape will look very, very different.

Not much changes in your neighborhood over time. If you don't believe me, step outside your door and look around. What you see for the most part is the same thing you would have seen yesterday, last week, and most likely last year. I live in an older neighborhood and with the exception of a few cosmetic changes to some of the homes, along with a couple of new ones built in vacant lots, it still resembles what it looked like fifty years ago. And I dare suggest that it will look the same fifty years from now. Unless nature has something to say about it. In my town, as in many others across the mid-west, straight-line winds and the occasional tornado can alter a neighborhood with suddenness and finality. In other regions, it might be fires, twisters, hurricanes, floods and other catastrophes that do the same. Often, when it's over, what gets built in the wake of the destruction looks and feels very different from the past. A new vision takes its place.

Economic storms quite often produce similar results. One only needs to look back to the progressive era born out of the growing gap between the super wealthy and poor at the turn of the 20th century. Thirty years later, the Great Depression spawned a move towards liberal socialism and eventual rise of the middle class. There are many other examples from the post-Civil War economic collapse to the oil embargo and double-digit inflation of the 1970's.

Public education is in the middle of a perfect storm and its giving us the opportunity to finally – and belatedly - re-vision and reshape our teaching and learning systems to meet the needs of 21st century students. Not just talking about change, but doing it! The landscape of education is being buffeted like never before by a combination of growing political forces, flat-world economic pressures, expanding technologies, public discontent, and declining financial resources. Resistance is futile (sorry, but I've always wanted to use that line), change is imminent, denial is a complete waste of time. And, we don't have time. The question then is, “will you be the change, or will you be changed?

Our system of public education – our curricula, teaching methods, and the tests we require students to take – were created in a different century for the needs of another era. They are hopelessly outdated.” ~ Wagner (2008, p. 9)

Indeed, most educators labor in bureaucratic, rule-driven school systems that owe more credit to the practices of early 20th century factory management than to any notion of how to foster great teaching and learning in the 21st century.” ~ Hess (2010, p. 1)

As superintendent, I see my primary role in the areas of budgeting and reform as helping to develop and guide a leadership core that can move us through this storm and use the powerful forces created to substantially alter our outdated, over-regulated, teacher-centric, control-oriented form of K-12 education. We have the opportunity to achieve a whole new vision for adult and student learning that capitalizes on a lean budget and emerging new technologies. By the end of 2011, our goal should be to have taken the steps necessary to move through and beyond these creatively destructive forces, emerging on the other side with a whole new design for learning.

Alison Zmuda (2010) talks about moving to action starting with the following reflective question: “How committed are we to actually doing something to realize our hopes?”

We cannot wait for the day when the stars align, when budgets are flush, or when colleagues are willing. We must begin with being the change we wish to see in our classrooms and our schools. … The largest obstacle to this process can be the shackles we place on our own thinking.” (p. 82-83)

Working our way through what is collectively one of public education's most significant budget challenges in recent history will certainly not be easy, but it can provide all of us with the unprecedented opportunity to re-imagine and redesign our entire system of administration, teaching, learning and support. To begin this new year, I propose ten essential questions that can help frame our conversations which form the basis for ours action on a 2011-12 budget and beyond:
  • How should we redesign our district and building administrations to maximize efficiency and economy while providing sufficient leadership and support for a 21st century learning system? What new leadership structure based on a 21st century organizational model could effectively replace the costly industrial hierarchical structure employed in most school districts today?
  • From a point of view of each student, how should we redesign our teaching and learning environments to move away from19th and 20th century industrial models of education to one that goes beyond the basic accumulation of knowledge and skills, incorporating 21st century learning styles and goals? (One note here: putting lipstick on a pig doesn't change it from being a pig. Many schools that call themselves 21st century learning environments mainly have resorted to wearing lipstick. The basic out-dated model of schooling is still prevalent.)
  • What should a team of adult and student learners look like in a 21st century school house? How should the team strive to replicate the environmental, political, and economical changes currently being experienced world-wide while anticipating the unknown future?
  • How do we move away from a costly educational model “that prizes efficiency over development of learners' intelligence?” (Zmuda, p. 10)
  • What evidence can we produce or have we explored that supports the continuation of any instructional, administrative, and support programs we currently employ now in our district, in our schools, and in our individual classrooms? How does the evidence connect with our vision, mission and goals, and what might it suggest regarding the continuation, expansion, reduction or elimination of these programs?
  • What student supports (remedial and accelerated) are absolutely necessary given the goal for all students to graduate college- and career-ready despite the changing structures of the family and surrounding communities? How do we efficiently and economically incorporate those supports into a new 21st century learning system?
  • How do we redesign our personnel contracts, compensation, and instructional staffing models to move our educational profession out of the current industrial labor era based primarily on seniority and protectionism, into a 21st century model that values and rewards pre-teacher preparation, creativity, innovation, collaboration, leadership, life-long learning, results, and new ideas free from the constraints of current practice?
  • How do we convince our legislative leaders that less is more when it comes to the growing and costly administrative burden of state and federal regulations and statutes? What evidence will we need to produce to support our contention that we can be successful at significantly raising student achievement for every child if they acquiesce to our requests?
  • How can we utilize limited and declining resources most efficiently to redesign our traditional school houses into spaces that are more flexible and supportive of 21st century learning, as well as cost-efficient and economical to maintain?

Hess, Frederick M., Education Unbound: The Promise and Practice of Greenfield Schooling. ASCD, 2010
Wagner, Tony, The Global Achievement Gap. Basic Books, 2008
Zmuda, Allison, breaking free from myths about teaching and learning. ASCD, 2010

Friday, December 17, 2010

In Response to Mackinac Center's Lawsuit

A contract agreement negotiated for the current school year saved our district a minimum of $122,000 and kept teachers in the classroom instead of on the unemployment line. The agreement also kept class sizes from expanding in light of our continuing growth in student enrollment.

This landmark regional contract template broke the ice on teachers contributing to the cost of their health care, froze salaries during a difficult financial time for school districts, and preserved jobs for scores of teachers who may have been laid off.


"Our bargaining units worked with us to negotiate a contract that would save jobs and recognize the political reality that all employees should contribute to the cost of their health care," Superintendent David Britten said of the template, which is the target of a lawsuit filed by the Midland-based Mackinac Center. "Our county has had superintendents all across the state ask us how we were able to achieve such a groundbreaking contract, given the debate over employee-paid premiums that has been going on in Lansing for years."


The Mackinac Center filed suit against Godfrey-Lee, Kent ISD and eight other districts - Byron Center, Comstock Park, Godwin Heights, Grandville, Kenowa Hills, Lowell, Northview and Rockford - on December 15 because the template contained language indicating none of the districts would outsource non-instructional services during the duration of the one-year contract.


The regional template was totally voluntary. Each of the 20 districts within Kent ISD had the opportunity to participate if it met their needs. Those that were considering outsourcing services within the 2010-11 school year were advised against participating in the regional template.


"Achieving the goal of every employee contributing to the cost of their health care was a significant milestone," Britten said. "We bargained collaboratively and the savings alone from that clause helped us reduce our budget deficit making it unnecessary to consider any additional outsourcing of services during this school year." The district had already outsourced food service and custodial services, and participates in outsourced regional special education transportation. These additional savings based on the template roughly represent the salaries of two first year teachers. "This agreement allowed us to maintain appropriate class size for our students and maintain programs important to their success."


Despite knowing about the regional agreement since last spring, the Mackinac Center did not bother to contact anyone at Godfrey-Lee directly to discuss the agreement, their concerns about the language, or the process and results of the district's contract negotiations. Had they done so, they would have understood that the objectionable language in the regional template was not used by either side as a bargaining position. "Neither of the district's final agreements with our two labor associations contains any language specifically referring to the issue of privatization," explained Superintendent Britten. "Rather they refer only to the portions of the countywide template that pertain to salaries and insurance protection." The agreements, which amended the existing three-year contracts for the final year expiring next summer, were ratified by the associations and the Board of Education during April 2010 and are available for inspection in the district office.


According to Britten, "It is our position that the Mackinac Center suit is without merit and may falsely accuse the district of entering into a contract agreement containing prohibited language. We are calling on the Mackinac Center to withdraw this suit immediately, which I believe is designed to be just another attack on teachers and public education, and avoid wasting any additional taxpayer dollars."


The Godfrey-Lee administration and Board of Education is proud of the relationship we've developed with our professional and support staff associations, and will continue working alongside our teachers and support staff to identify ways to reduce costs while continually improving the quality of our educational programs for our students as well as our staff.


WOOD TV 8 Story

Grand Rapids Press Article

Saturday, December 11, 2010

How Does Finland See it's Educational Success?

Since the Finnish education system is all the rage these days, I thought I'd pass along some simple comparisons and truths as touted by the Finnish Ministry of Education itself. You can (should) read more in depth on your own at The Finnish Education System and PISA 2006.

Here's a quick comparison of western education systems versus the Finnish system:

Western Model of Education (a.k.a, the U.S.)

The Finnish System

Standardisation: Strict standards for schools, teachers and students to guarantee the quality of outcomes.

Flexibility and diversity: School-based curriculum development, steering by information and support.

Emphasis on literacy and numeracy: Basic skills in reading, writing, mathematics and science as prime targets of education reform.

Emphasis on broad knowledge: Equal value to all aspects of individual growth and learning: personality, morality, creativity, knowledge and skills.

Consequential accountability: Evaluation by inspection.

Trust through professionalism: A culture of trust on teachers’ and headmasters’ professionalism in judging what is best for students and in reporting of progress.

In pre-primary and basic education, pupils are entitled to any welfare services they might need for full engagement in their respective education programmes, including general health and dental care for all students.


Here's a simple comparison of the pre- and post-1990's Finnish education models.  You can most certainly see the resemblance of the 1970's and 80's model to the direction our U.S. model is heading.


Finnish situation in 1970s and 1980s

Finnish situation in 1990's/2000's

Centralised control and decision -making

Devolution of power

• Centralised curriculum

• Long-term plans

• Budgeting based on expenditures

• External evaluation: inspections

• Self-governance

• School-based curricula

• Distinctive educational profiles of schools

• Self-direction and self-regulation

• Learning organisation as a mode instutional structure

• Self-evaluation and own control

• Performance-based funding

Both classroom and subject teachers attain master’s degrees (300 ECTS); the former in education, the latter in their respective subject(s). Besides consolidating their professional qualifications as a teacher, this allows and prepares all teachers to continue academic studies to doctorate level. The academic status of classroom teacher education has undoubtedly contributed to the continuous popularity of teaching profession in Finland, as well as to the trust parents feel towards their children’s teachers and the school in general.

However, as in many other countries, the situation is not so bright concerning subject teachers, and in fi elds like science and mathematics the number of applicants does not allow for similar rigorousness in screening, even if also they go through a special process of selection including an interview.


So the essential question is this:  If we want to copy, and indeed exceed, the successes of the Finnish system, why are we heading in the direction that system already proved doesn't work?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Update on Accident

Many of you know that four of our elementary students were hit by a pickup with a snowplow blade while attempting to cross a busy intersection last week.  It was a significant shock to our entire community which has mobilized in a number of amazing ways to help the families involved.  All four live together with their mothers and other extended family members and had only arrived in Michigan from Texas this past October.

Last night, three of the children attended the 3rd and 4th grade holiday music and art celebration.  Two joined their classmates on the stage and in no time were smiling along with the others while the young boy involved sat with his mother and watched.  It was a heartwarming moment for all, including me.

Our little 6-year-old is recovering but still has many days and weeks ahead of her under the expert medical care of Spectrum Health. The broken bones and internal injuries are healing well due to her immobility.  The swelling in her head has gone down and the bleeding has stopped.  Her eyes are open and she is responding to her doctors by squeezing their hand.

This has all been overwhelming for everyone and we're certainly encouraged by our little one's progress.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Sham in Lansing

The Michigan House of Representatives joined the governor and senate in approving a "legal" sleight of hand, towards the end of a marathon legislative session that concluded in the early hours this morning. House Bill 5887 (S-1) was passed by a vote of 90-5 allowing for the flow-through of federal EduJobs funds to the districts.  Tucked away in the bill was a shell-game designed to "meet the intent" of the Michigan Supreme Court's ruling on July 10 (Adair v. State of Michigan) that continuing to required districts to provide an ever-growing pile of student data was an unfunded mandate that violated the state's constitution.  The legislature, desiring to neither pay districts for this unfunded mandate nor reduce the amount of data down to only that which is required by federal regulation or which is used by the state to determine school aid, chose instead to thumb their collective noses at the rule of law.  The bill in effect approved a per pupil reduction (Sec. 11d) of an addition $16 per pupil over the $154 per pupil already in the state budget, and then turned around and created a new line item (Sec. 152a) that gives the funds back to the districts as so-called compensation for the CEPI unfunded mandate.

In the end, districts still have the costly administrative burden of feeding CEPI's insatiable appetite for raw data.  And just when you thought confidence in our state legislature was as low as it could go.