Saturday, February 26, 2011

Here we go again! Another list...

Apparently, the Michigan Department of Education has an unlimited amount of money to collect data and create lists ("Website measures how well Michigan schools are preparing students for college").  This comes despite the fact I know of no research that concludes publishing lists of best and worst schools every improved student achievement.

I'm not making excuses (nor am I "whining," Mr. State Superintendent) but the state and feds do pressure high schools to graduate all students within four years, regardless of college-readiness. It's damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don't. 

The Godfrey-Lee Public Schools area is a transient high-poverty community and many of our students come to us during or after middle school two to five years behind in academic skills. If you remove the artificial barrier that says all students must graduate in four years, then those who are behind could continue their education until they are deemed college or career ready. It makes sense in light of the fact that most college students these days are taking more than four years to graduate. Why not high schools for students who need it? Allow schools to assess students at intake and develop an individualized plan for getting to college-and-career ready levels that may include more time. This is especially important for schools that are trying to teach the vast majority of their students the English language at the very same time they are learning academic content along with their English-speaking peers (another ridiculous short-sighted federal requirement of NCLB and Title III).

The state loves to publish lists but it does very little to lift a hand and help. In fact, our new governor's solution seems to be cut the per-pupil foundation allowance by $470 for next year. Why do we continue to spend diminishing taxpayer dollars on a state agency that does little to nothing to help improve student achievement? In fact, why isn't their a list that evaluates the 50 state education departments on their effectiveness to support local education agencies?

By the way, the Michigan Department of Education accumulated and published this data by violating the Michigan Constitutional prohibition against unfunded mandates.  And they continue to do so without repercussion.  These are funds wasted that could help local districts improve student achievement.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Tough Week for Schools

This has been a difficult week for Michigan's public schools.  It began with the State Superintendent's highly unprofessional remark about Kent County public school superintendents and the subsequent news articles by The Grand Rapids Press that clearly took my remarks out of context. But I've come to expect that from the dying print media.
Worse is Governor Snyder's proposal to radically slash K-12 per pupil funding, even moving some of the dedicated school aid funds to support community colleges and universities.
All I can say is, wow! This is going to force some very difficult decisions resulting in deep program cuts and layoffs. In the end, will it continue to hurt Michigan's comeback?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Scritch, scritch, scritch...

Shut it down; move out administrators, faculty, students and curricula; allow an accomplished new leadership team to come in, free from contract provisions and able to accept or reject district services; and make the school serve the students and families who want to be there. Success will require new schools to seek and sift talent, bend routines to the strengths of the faculty and the needs of the kids, exploit technology and new tools in smarter ways, and create cultures that will transform the attitudes of new staff and students.” ~ Frederick Hess, Shut Down, Don't Turn Around

I readily recall the days when we listened to record albums. If you were born after 1970 this might not make sense to you. We couldn't afford one of those multi-album stereos where the needle arm would lift automatically when the album finished, move out of the way, wait for a new album to drop, and then position itself at the start of the first recording. I was always amazed when I saw one of these, but was resigned to our single record player in which I would have to manually change an album.

If I didn't catch the end of the album, it would continue to revolve on the platter with the needle “grinding” against the end of the recording. An ugly, repeating static accompanied it. Perhaps you have heard it on an old movie. Over and over and over until finally the needle arm was lifted and set on its perch. Scritch, scritch, scritch.... It was so annoying, you had to stop it.

That's kind of the way I feel about much of the vocal criticism regarding educational reform as with Rick Hess's latest diatribe from which the above excerpt is taken. They scratch out their repetitive critiques and calls for change but offer very little in terms of real solutions that will make a difference for every child.

Take Rick's recommendations, above, and look at them point by point:

Shut it down...”

When? The plane is airborne, students are on board, the flight trajectory is established, and there is no opportunity to shut it down. How do you take an entire school and simply shut it down? Where do the kids go? Do they simply get an extended summer break for however long it takes to re-staff and re-build the curriculum? If school have that flexibility to simply shut down until repairs are made, why don't we just do that now? Send the kids home for six months, a year, or for however long it takes. After all, what's the rush? They could use some quality, extended bonding time with their parents. Neat idea (if you're a kid)! Scritch, scritch, scritch...

...allow an accomplished new leadership team to come in...”

Ok, so where do we find all these accomplished new teams? Is there some kind of store out there where accomplished teams are sitting on the shelf waiting to serve? Wouldn't the fact that they are accomplished imply that they are already in use, somewhere else? So, if I move one accomplished team from one building to another, don't I need to start looking for another accomplished team to replace it? What if there are not accomplished leadership teams available? What if the accomplished leadership team is fresh out right now? Does that mean the kids get a little bit more of that shut it down extended vacation time? Scritch, scritch, scritch... from contract provisions and able to accept or reject district services...”

We hear a lot about union contracts prohibiting reform but we see very little real effort to either reform or end collective bargaining in public education. Instead, a few hundred charter schools are created and allowed to operate in some states without collective bargaining. Instead of fighting the real fight, Rick Hess and his reformers would rather duck and cover. Don't stand in and do the difficult work. Scrap it and start over, which by the way does nothing to guarantee that the new schools created won't be part of a collective bargaining effort down the road. Scritch, scritch, scritch...

and make the school serve the students and families who want to be there.”

If the reformers think they can simply make the school serve by commanding it, as Rick Hess does, then why not make the existing schools serve? And what happens to the students (and families) who don't want to be there? In fact, maybe the students don't want to be anywhere, in any school. Where do they go? If the only schools that exist in Rick Hess's new world are those where students want to be there, we're going to have an awful lot of kids roaming the streets during the day. I hate to tell you this, Rick, but not every kid wants to be in school – even the best school. And what do we do with the leftover kids when the newly reconstituted schools are full? You know, the one's who don't win the lottery? What's your plan for them? Scritch, scritch, scritch...

Success will require new schools to seek and sift talent, bend routines to the strengths of the faculty and the needs of the kids, exploit technology and new tools in smarter ways, and create cultures that will transform the attitudes of new staff and students.”

None of these actions require that we shut down schools, replace leadership teams and teachers, or cater only to students and parents who want to be there. And anyway, if the staff and students are new, why do we need to transform them? Just how would you exploit technology and new tools in smarter ways than is already being done in thousands of districts across the country? And what specifically are the new tools you refer to? This is an incredibly weak conclusion to your paragraph, Rick, because there's nothing in this that can't already be done in existing schools. It defeats your very argument and it sounds a lot like scritch, scritch, scritch.


Frederick Hess is Resident Scholar and Director of Education Policy Initiatives at the American Enterprise Institute and executive editor of Education Next. He recently authored The same thing over and over: How school reformers get stuck in yesterday's ideas published by Harvard University Press. Despite my differences with Rick's methods for advocating reform, I enjoy reading his material.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Effectively Responding to a "Sobering Assessment"

The Grand Rapids Press calls it “a sobering assessment of Michigan's budget woes,” and this rings true through every public school district in Michigan, Godfrey-Lee included. This year, with the end of the Obama-bucks era that merely staved off the inevitable for the past couple of years, we face great uncertainty and difficult decisions in the coming months. A number of districts that area able will eat into their fund equity to minimize program cuts, especially those that directly effect students. But that may only buy another year's delay.

Right now is the time to consider a number of economical choices that will ensure the health of our districts while continuing educational reform measures that improve student achievement. I've spoke out previously in several posts on this site concerning the Perfect Storm. Here I provide a more specific list of what has to occur THIS YEAR to keep us solvent and moving forward:

  • We must restructure our salary and wage system to align it with the practical reality that we have exceeded the taxpayers' ability to pay under the Twentieth Century industrial model. However, coming up with a completely new model will take considerable time and negotiations, so for this year I propose the following:

    • One-year freeze on salaries and wages for all union and non-union employees.

    • Two-year moratorium on salary and wage step increases, including Schedule B compensation.

    • One-year delay on any “lane changes” for attainment of higher education levels (BA+15, MA, MA+15).

    • Immediate establishment of a joint district-union committee to develop a revised compensation model consistent with new state reform laws on inclusion of growth in student achievement.

  • We must realize that the health benefits we have been providing have priced themselves out of any reality that we can continue to afford the same level of benefits without significant cost sharing and competitive pricing. To ensure that our employees and their families continue to have access to quality health care, I propose the following:

    • A three-year implementation of limits on district cost-sharing for all health care benefits (medical, dental, vision, etc):

      • Year 1 – 90%

      • Year 2 – 82%

      • Year 3 – 75%

    • A formation of a joint district-union committee to re-evaluate health care benefits annually and search for new providers that provide a similar level of benefits for less cost.

  • We have to continue to assess the need for staffing in a number of areas including administrative, operational support, and instructional support, reducing wherever possible to preserve teaching positions where they are most needed. Of course, this requires that our teachers continue to step up to leadership responsibilities and the realization that support outside their respective classrooms has been and will continue to diminish as long as funds are tight. Teachers will also need to help their building principals engage more parents and other members of the community in volunteer roles to make up for less staff support.

While these reforms are being hammered out, we have to continue to focus on improving our instructional model to meet the 21st century learning needs for our students. Some of the specific academic reforms or steps necessary to put effective reforms in place RIGHT NOW include:

  • Lengthening the school day and year to provide expanded learning time for both students and teachers. I have developed a model that could easily be adopted for this coming school year that provides 10.2% more time for student learning over 179 student days, and 27.5% more time for teacher collaboration, but will require a 9.8% increase in teacher contract hours. Our high percentage of low-income, limited English speaking students necessitates these increases but it will have to be put in place without an equal increase in compensation.

  • Greater commitment on the part of staff to engage in self-learning and utilization of instructional technology in the classroom. Time and financial resources limit the district's ability to provide formal training however we plan to continue on our path of expanding 1:1 technology for staff and students over the next 4-5 years.

  • A greater willingness to explore new, less costly models for teaching and learning including multi-modal systems that pair fewer adult staff with larger student base groups while employing the use of technology to support small group and individual learning.

As you can gather, we are going to need many more discussions centered around these proposals as well as a number of others being offered by members of our district family, but the simple outcome must be this: Continue building a world-class educational system and do it better with less.  Let's get to the table and get this done.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Consolidation Debunked (Again)

A new study was released this past week from the National Education Policy Center titled, Consolidation of Schools and Districts: What the Research Says and What it Means. Authored by Craig Howley, Jerry Johnson and Jennifer Petrie, Ohio University, the study cites nearly ten pages of previous research findings and extensive publications concluding emphatically “that a century of consolidation has already produced most of the efficiencies obtainable...and in the largest jurisdictions, (those enrolling 15,000 or more students) efficiencies have likely been exceeded.”

The study does a very nice job of summarizing the history of consolidation, particularly since 1920, highlighting the difference between improving educational inputs versus outcomes. The authors argue that much of the early consolidation efforts, which benefitted by the necessity of reforms such as graded schools, specialized teachers, greater teacher training, and more professional supervision saw thousands of single-school districts merge into what was commonly being referred to as union school districts.

They go on to note that once this was accomplished and additional adjustments were made up through 1970, further consolidation has generally exceeded any additional benefits that could be derived from it, especially large-scale, state-mandated consolidations. A body of contemporary research cited in the study illustrates that greater centralization and consolidation leads to expanded middle-management, additional costs associated with closing schools (often the only way to immediately realize any short-term financial benefit from consolidation), and undermining of teaching and learning. In short, the authors rightly conclude that the abundance of evidence argues against consolidation for economy or quality. On the other side of the argument, there is very little evidential support for consolidating districts or schools to reduce administrative costs.

Backers of consolidation have not yet produced any evidence that correlates a reduction in education costs with the significant school consolidations that occurred since 1930. As the authors note, “The size of the average district has increased ten-fold, and the size of the average school increased five-fold” while the number of districts shrank from nearly 120,000 in the early 1900's to a mere 13,879, currently. But the most amazing fact presented in the study is that 43% of public school students attend school in just 500 districts, and one could easily argue from the research that none of those districts are considered economically efficient. Therefore, it makes little sense to continue along this earlier path and try to produce additional efficiencies not supported by evidence.

This particular study expands on the concept of consolidation beyond the economic arguments. Here is a quick list of conclusions offered by the authors:

  • Consolidation leads to a number of problems for students and families including longer bus rides, fewer participation opportunities, and increased barriers to parent-school informal communications.

  • There are mixed impacts on the educational staff but these are usually mitigated by a well-planned and executed process.

  • Larger schools and districts undermine teaching and learning. As stated, the originators of consolidation warned that it was not intended to save money, but rather improve schools at the time through more efficient inputs (versus outputs).

  • Any increased fiscal efficiency would be very small, and there's no guarantee any savings would be returned to the taxpayer pockets or used to improve teaching and learning.

  • On average, contemporary consolidations have resulted in increased costs.

  • There is a strong correlation between larger schools (often the product of past consolidations) with negative learning effects.

  • Consolidations can lead to future economic costs as a direct results of lowered student achievement.

  • The most dramatic results of consolidation come from the negative impact on the “vitality and well-being of communities.”

  • Deconsolidation of large inefficient school districts promises the greatest economical benefits but this is conveniently ignored.

  • Consolidation of school districts almost always include or result in school closures and creation of larger schools.

  • Evidence continues to grow demonstrating that low-income and minority students benefit academically from small districts and schools.

  • Even early 20th century researchers concluded that, for academic outcome reasons, schools should be half the size of those recommended by the pro-consolidation forces.

The push for school consolidation will likely not disappear with the publication of this new study, nor will the political and media forces give in so easy when in reality it's centralized power they are advocating. While intuitively one can reason that combining two or more districts into one would reduce costs, this cannot be used as a blanket rationale for creating large, unwieldy districts that in the end hurt students while producing little to no economic efficiency. One would think that the conservative, market-economy backers would understand this since large school districts are an affront to competitiveness which they adore. In fact, the current charter school movement has created an “interest in smaller schools and districts” which disputes any claim that bigger is better.

Wouldn't it be nice, finally, if we could put this red herring to bed and focus our collective attention on what could contribute to real efficiency and effectiveness?

I encourage you to read the full study if you haven't.


Howley, C., Johnson, J., & Petrie, J. (2011). Consolidation of Schools and Districts: What the Research Says and What It Means. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved 2/1/11 from

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Early Random Reflection on Snowmaggedon 2011

Here's a random thought at the start of what will certainly be remembered as the Great Groundhog Day Blizzard of 2011.

Paul Keep and his editorial board at The Grand Rapids Press couldn't wait for this.  They wrote their diatribe before the new snow even settled on West Michigan.

Why snow days for schools should become obsolete

The delight of children everywhere — and the bane of working parents — snow days are a rite of winter in Michigan and every other frigid state.... School districts will have to continue to search for creative, high-tech ways to educate students — including on snow days. Sorry, kids.

While the idea of increasing the use of technology in schools and expanding learning to 24/7 possibilities is, in general, a good thing, the Press board is misguided in its attempt to tie this concept to a simple snow day. How about instead of worrying whether kids are missing out on a few hours of "learning" today, we encourage them to get out the door with shovels in hand and help their families and neighbors a bit. It's called "service learning," Paul, something that is sorely missed in today's aggressive, fast-paced society.  It doesn't require a teacher, only parents or older siblings willing to set a positive example for their kids, or at the least force them out the door to explore a day of adventure.

I grew up through the snow-age of the 60's and 70's which seemed to culminate in the Great Blizzard of '78.  As I see it, the main difference between now and then is that I'd have been out the door already this morning with shovel, sled, skates & hockey stick in hand, not to return until I got hungry (and maybe had a little cash in my hand from shoveling a few driveways or digging out a stuck car).  I would not be sitting inside in front of computers, video games, or television, consuming vast quantities of junk food and soda.

And I definitely would not still in bed! That would have been a waste of a perfect snow storm and a perfect day.

Now some will be critical of me in advocating that kids get outside in this type of weather, but I contend that they are the very reason this younger generation is soft, unable to solve their own problems, and unwilling to organize their own exciting adventures.

Or, perhaps this editorial is just another "disguised" attack on public education, Paul?  Guess the disguise didn't work.