Saturday, April 30, 2011

We Need More "Leadership Out Loud" Now!

Two months ago, Governor Rick Snyder outlined a budget that literally guts K-12 public education in Michigan by raiding the School Aid Fund to benefit college and universities.  Actually, that's not entirely true.  While nearly $900 million will be taken from K-12 children and transferred to community colleges and higher education, the Governor and his minions in the state legislature are manning their wheelbarrows so they can take money out the backdoor and use it for general fund expenses.  Primarily cuts in business taxes.  This was Governor Snyder's intent long before we elected him to Michigan's highest office, but he used the smokescreen of wanting to improve education for our kids to disguise his real intent until he got to sit in the big chair. (Tell the Truth about Michigan's Budget)

This past week, he presented a 13-page tome on what he sees as needed actions for improving our public schools.  While most of his ideas deserve a fair hearing and could be beneficial to our kids in the long run, they might once again be considered nothing more than additional smoke screens as he continues his efforts to defund (and destroy?) public education.  You can write all the vision statements and strategic plans you want, but the proof is in the pudding and the very fact Governor Snyder is intentionally handicapping school districts and forcing Superintendents and Boards of Education to cut sorely needed (and successful) programs while laying off a vast number of outstanding young teachers, lays out his real agenda.

Mike Rice, Superintendent for Kalamazoo Public Schools, and Julie Mack, reporter for the Kalamazoo Gazettesummarized the frustration we're all feeling, especially in districts like mine where a high percentage of kids live in poverty or low-income households where little English is spoken and basic readiness for school is lacking:

Since August 2007, Rice has implemented one reform after another — preschool overhaul, full-day kindergarten, new writing and math curriculum for the elementary, changes in the secondary schedule to provide more time in core subjects, new interventions for struggling students, major expansion of the Advanced Placement program, weighted grades, summer-school expansion, and on and on.

There have been major changes at every level in KPS. And Rice, to his credit, has done it without new funding. The Kalamazoo Promise, after all, goes to college scholarships; the district doesn't get a penny. By necessity, Rice has become very, very good at squeezing the most out of what he's got
And all these efforts are beginning to bear fruit. Tests scores are going up. There is a palpable sense of momentum in the district.

Enter Rick Snyder, lecturing Michigan educators on the need to improve outcomes among poor and minority youth, even as Snyder takes away schools' financial resources.

But the reality is that improving outcomes in a high-poverty district can be a Sisyphean challenge, and Rice needs every single resource that he has right now. Program and staffing cuts that are difficult in most districts — the elimination of counselors and social workers, an increase in class size —can be devastating in a high-poverty school, where students are depending on staff to provide the support structures they lack at home.

So I'm wondering where is the outrage?  Where are the rest of the 500-plus school superintendents? Why aren't every one of you online right now using blogging, social media, email and every technology advantage you can to stop the Governor and legislature from making this disastrous mistake? If social networking can fuel the long-overdue changes being made in oppressive regimes around the world, it can certainly drive the conversations necessary to force our elected officials to see their decisions in the real light of day.

We have to stand up to the incessant misinformation about public schools and funding coming out of Lansing and fueled by the likes of organizations such as the Mackinaw Center and their obvious desire to end public education. I'm challenging all of my fellow Michigan school administrators to put your students before self and energize your base in a public way, challenging Lansing's quest for defunding and ultimately crippling public education. Our message to Governor Snyder has to be loud and clear: We agree with your desire to improve college-and-career readiness for Michigan kids, but to get there, you have to STOP the raid on the School Aid Fund now and restore K-12 funding to at least it's 2010-11 levels.

Lead out loud!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Response to Governor Snyder's Special Message on Education Reform

Governor Rick Snyder today released his message on education reform nearly two months after he proposed a budget that forces draconian cuts that will negatively impact the classroom and Michigan's K-12 students. While there are many good ideas in his message, we are concerned about the cost of implementing a number of them and where that funding will come from.

A Special Message from Rick Snyder: Education Reform

The Governor's budget proposal is leading to significant layoffs and program cutbacks while at the same time he is calling for increased pay for teacher performance, additional dual enrollments to colleges, expanded use of technology and access to educational programs, more charter schools, and significantly more professional development for teachers and school administrators. While the educational policy implications make sense, his economic actions do not. The fact remains that schools are being cut by at least $470 per pupil this year under his budget proposal and many at-risk school districts, such as Godfrey-Lee, are planning for even deeper cuts exacerbated by reductions in federal funding and rising costs.


These reform proposals will have a greater chance of success for Michigan's kids if the Governor drops his insistence on transferring school aid fund dollars to higher education while cutting aid to K-12 students. If the Governor honored the intent of Michigan's voters when they approved Proposal A in 1994, schools would have as much as $200 per pupil in additional revenue that could be used to accomplish his ambitious goals. Instead, the Governor is virtually crippling our ability to conduct critical research and development, or "R & D" as its referred to in Governor Snyder's corporate world, leaving all of us wondering how we are going to operate even just the basic programs this coming school year, let alone his new proposals. Cutting schools back to 2005-06 funding levels makes it virtually impossible for districts to implement the 2011-12 technology and teaching methods he recommends.


The performance-based funding proposal in the Governor's plan is appealing on the surface but stands to penalize districts, particularly in urban areas, with high percentages of at-risk students. Reducing the amount of funding for students who may have limited English proficiency skills or come from low income urban households, based solely on their test scores and promotion from one grade to another, fails to recognize the obstacles to learning they face. Reducing funding to promote increased academic achievement is illogical especially since that funding decision will be made after a student has spent a year in the classroom. Schools cannot plan for staffing and support not knowing what it's per-pupil funding will be for that year. Previous studies and experience in our schools conclude that at-risk students require additional resources, services, mentoring and assistance to succeed. A performance-based system easily turns into a reverse-Robin Hood funding plan, taking school aid funds from the poor to reward the rich. Michigan's per-pupil funding system already rewards wealthy school districts on the east side of the state at the expense of schools in communities that are struggling economically. The Governor's plan will only add to that disparity.


Addressing school readiness issue is an admirable goal and long overdue in Michigan. One has to wonder how an understaffed Department of Education can take on the new responsibility inherent in the Governor's proposal and where the money will come form to fund this new agency. However, if his objectives can be accomplished without impairing or further reducing state revenues for public K-12 school districts, he will certainly have the support of the educational community.


In the coming years, school districts will already be facing the additional costs of implementing the new national Common Core Curriculum and a considerably different assessment program. The Governor and his staff should proceed cautiously with the bulk of these new reform proposals. Last year, our state legislature, with the urging of Governor Granholm, pushed through a pile of so-called reform bills in an ill-advised and failed attempt to secure Race to the Top federal funds without adequately considering the potential costs at the district level. We are only now seeing an effort by top Lansing officials to distance themselves from their roles in drafting and passing those bills, and even advocating undoing some of them such as the State Reform Office statute. Let's not add to the confusion and the implementation costs by forcing through more ill-planned reforms, especially while K-12 funding is being severely cut. Instead, the Governor's first job should be to restore state revenue for public education at least at the 2010-11 level so we can keep teachers in the classrooms and continue our extensive efforts to improve student learning for every child.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Yearning to Break Free


As I finish up another great tome by Dean Karnazes (Run! 26.2 Stories of Blisters and Bliss), I find myself holding back the urge to lace up my shoes, head out the door, and hit the open road once again. It's been 19 months since my last ultra, a 50K (31 mile) run along the Potomac in Washington, DC, part of the North Face Endurance Challenge.  Since then, I've struggled with persistent achilles pain that began long before DC but eventually getting to a point of having had to scale back significantly, even stopping my running for several months. A few physical therapists and a personal trainer later, coupled with an extensive gait analysis leading to orthotics and a change in shoes, I'm pain free and ready to ratchet it up once again.

I''ve set my sights on the Wisconsin 50K leg of the North Face Endurance Challenge this September. Between now and then I'll work through a 25K and a marathon (or two), while getting back into the swing of long weekend runs in early morning hours to outlying towns and other destinations.

Don't really know how it will all work out, but I recognized long ago that I'd rather run with pain then live life without running. Dean's extreme passion inspired me to run ultras the first time. Since then, I've accomplished more than a few marathons, 50K's and 50-milers, even taking on a 100K and a 100-miler. His latest writings convince me that it's time once again to hit the roads and trails. There's really no sense explaining why. I just need to break free.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

An "Imagineering" Team Approach


As we wrap up our first year of a five-year plan to implement 1:1 technology across our secondary and into our elementary grades, we find ourselves assessing the impact and looking to the future. As superintendent and originator of the 1:1 vision for our district, I'm excited about the future and what's in store for our kids.

Heading into this initiative, we revamped our tech support structure, merging the media staff to expand the scope and provide a broader range of technology integration support.  Primarily consisting of five staff, including the director, augmented with media assistants in each of the school buildings, the number one mission of our tech-media team is evolving into a Disney-style imagineering approach to expanding our 1:1 and use of technology tools for learning.

While each individual has a dedicated role, my intent for the team is to collaboratively use their respective and collective skill sets to stay out front of evolving technology. Simply put, I don't want a team that follows the latest fads, but one that leads in identifying new ways to creatively use tech tools to improve student achievement and ready them for college and career.  Put another way, I want a team that when they read the latest Horizon Report, they feel like they're reading a history of what they've already helped our district accomplish.

For any team like this within a school district to be successful, there must be support and leadership from the top. The superintendent must provide the team with the vision, resources, and freedom to strike out on their own and maximize their creativity. They must feel safe to take risks and have the public backing of the superintendent that enables them to support school administrators and teachers in adapting to new technology changes. The team cannot get bogged down in layers of management or administrative hierarchy that only serve to create paralysis. They must enjoy a close relationship with the superintendent and feel as if they are if not the most, one of the most important support structures in the district. And in the end, every member of the team must understand that they are expected to produce measurable results.

The horizontal, collaborative structure of the team requires that they hold each other accountable for contributing their fair share to the team's success. And it's important that each realizes that while he or she has a specific area of responsibility, such as network administration or instructional tech integration, by working together across the entire technology and media spectrum, the synergy they create will move the district further ahead than if each only paid attention to their respective areas. This is a "Google approach" to an un-departmentalized work team that places far greater emphasis on the ability of the group and its members to imagine the possible and employ creative solutions.

Insisting and allowing the district media-tech team to operate in this Disney-Google approach can potentially lead to similar structures within academic departments and grade-level teams, employing similar creative styles to analyzing results and imagining new solutions. In reality, this could be seen as the "early-childhood" method of exploration and learning - feeling the freedom to ask "why" and using that inquisitive nature to open new doors to discovery. Teachers, administrators, and even students using Disney-style imagineering and Google-style creative collaboration has the potential for removing schools completely beyond the bonds of the industrial model, and clearing a path to a true 21st century learning system.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Are We Comparing Apples and Oranges?

As I'm reading through Education Week's article on KIPP attrition rates (Vol. 30, No. 27, April 30, 2011) I can't help but ponder the simplistic methods we've latched onto for comparing school achievement. For the most part, schools in each state and across the nation are simply compared by reading and math scores (state, national and international tests) and graduation rates. Occasionally, science scores are thrown in for good measure but are not consistently used in the same manner as reading and math.

The article on KIPP reviews a recent study by researchers at Western Michigan University that concludes while the schools have a great reputation for high achieving minority students, they have an exceptionally high rate of attrition for black males in grades 6-8, over forty percent, than their neighboring schools in the same districts. Therefore, it's difficult to compare whether the KIPP schools are being any more successful overall than their neighbors.

While some folks would read this and cheer, because they merely want to see anything that's not a traditional public school fail, I look at it as more of an indicator of the inherent problems with simplistic approaches to comparing schools and school districts, something that NCLB – the current incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 – has turned into a cottage industry that has done more to enrich testing companies and so-called education reform activists, than it has to improve overall student achievement.

Here are a number of questions I have about the validity of comparing schools with each other:

  • Are comparisons valid between two or more schools that receive different levels of funding from either public or private sources? For instance, in the same Education Week article, the researchers found that KIPP schools receive far greater funding than surrounding districts, about $6,500 more per student than the average for the other districts. Even traditional public school districts will differ in their per-pupil revenues and shouldn't that be a factor?

  • What about schools that have differing numbers of students who are have validated limited English proficiency skills?

  • Can you compare schools in lower income urban settings with those in upper income suburban areas? Recent reports seem to indicate that achievement results on high-stakes tests do correlate well with urban versus suburban settings. And what about rural schools compared to urban or suburban?

  • How about schools that differ in the number of minority students. This can be looked at from two different perspectives: schools with higher percentages of students from minority groups that have traditionally struggled in school, and those with higher percentages of minorities from groups that have traditionally excelled in schools. Either way, would the comparisons be skewed?

  • And what about schools that are co-located in towns with major universities or multiple institutions of higher learning? Could it be expected that these schools might have a greater percentage of students with parents who have higher levels of post-secondary learning? Is that a factor?

  • What about schools in cities or towns with exceptionally low property values compared to more affluent districts or districts in vibrant business communities?

  • Would student transiency effect achievement comparisons between schools? What about schools with a higher percentage of students who are their by choice, not by circumstance?

  • And lastly (because I can't think of any more right now), what about the difference in demographics of the school staff? What if there are more males than females, or vice versa, on the staff? Or differences in what universities they earned their degrees? Or marital status and family statistics? Or even whether they lived within the school district or commute from many miles away?

My point is that comparing schools – traditional public, charters, or private – is often just an exercise in trying to make an apple look, feel and taste like an orange. If we only compare the two by their general shapes, than we can easily argue whether one is better than the other and we need to work harder to make the lesser one better. But when you peel back the outer surface of both, you'll see that there are many, many variables making valid comparisons difficult if not next to impossible.

But if the real motives for comparing schools are political, it's not likely the question of validity will stop us.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Don't Stand in the Way of Personalizing Learning

Ronald A. Wolk, founder and former editor of Education Week, hits a homerun in his new book, Wasting Minds: Why our education system is failing and what we can do about it (ASCD, 2011). Of particular note is Chapter 11, titled One Student at a Time, where he describes in the opening paragraph what personalized education should look like -- not standardized systems bent primarily on higher "abstract test scores," but real work demonstrated in a variety of real-world applications. He goes on to prescribe in simple terms how to create personalized learning schools:

Today's students come from different socioeconomic situations and cultural backgrounds, learn in different ways and at different speeds, and have different talents, problems, and aspirations. To accommodate this enormous student diversity, the strategy should encourage the creation of new schools that are different from conventional schools and from each other, and they should offer a variety of educational opportunities. - pages 101-2

I contend that we once had this system of education, until the "great industrialization" and subsequent grading of schools came along, only to be followed later by the "great high-stakes testing era" we find ourselves in currently. Once upon a time, the classroom teacher was master of his or her domain and the students were of all ages where personalization of learning was the only successful avenue. Now, teachers are expected to spend all their time conforming to a one-size-fits-all curriculum, using the same strategies from classroom to classroom, and working in lock-step to prepare students for state and national tests. Failing to do so dooms the teacher by saddling her with the label of "ineffective."  For learning is no longer the true measure, just progress of her charges towards proficiency on some abstract multiple-choice test.

Wolk suggests that new schools for personalized learning be created alongside so-called conventional schools, but why would we want to keep the latter? Why not unbridle all of our public schools -- traditional as well as charter -- and allow for the complete personalization of learning from top to bottom? Eliminate unreasonable laws and regulations that only serve to corral public schools in yesteryear methods and restrict their ability to readily transform into the personalized schools of tomorrow. Provide for a stable funding base (not asking for more money, just stable funding) that allows schools to plan long-term the improvement strategies necessary to support this transformation. Take public education out of the political arena and allow local communities to push for the types of schools they feel serve their kids best. 

NCLB-ESEA in its current incarnation based on standardization of public education stands in the way of true educational reform and personalizing learning.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

When the Journey was as Important as the Destination

I faced up to it long ago. I'm just not the GPS-type. I'm too argumentative and one more voice in the car telling me to “turn left” or “continue on ramp for one-quarter mile” is too much for me to handle. I'm sure other drivers have found it amusing to see the appearance of me arguing with some invisible person as we motor down the highway, but needless to say I don't take orders well, especially from some anonymous computer voice.

It's not that I don't appreciate the help, its just that I'd rather not take the shortest, fastest route from here to there. I've avoided becoming a conditioned consumer of fast food and I feel the same way about travel. I'm a throwback to the days when the journey itself was just as important as the destination. The GPS voice has no clue what I'm talking about.

Tucked away in the glove box of my car is a worn, somewhat tattered Michigan map printed sometime in the 1930's. I know that because the list of populations for towns and cities is based on the 1930 U.S. Census. It's one of those old full-service gas station maps from an era where men in uniforms and caps came out to meet you, fill your tank, check your oil, air up your tires, and even clean your windshield. And if you needed a map, they gave you one. Free. The one I have is from Cities Service. Their motto: “For people going places!” Wow, that says it all! We know this company today by the more familiar name of CITGO.


Other editions of Michigan highway maps I own include a 1940's from Sovereign Service, a 1936 from Conoco, a Sinclair 1940's map, and an early 1930's Sunoco version that includes a really cool map of Michigan historical sites. Navigating with these old maps is an adventure in itself. Road designations have changed and often the road itself has been relocated or plowed under by so-called progress from Eisenhower's Interstate highway system. Believe me, it takes a bit of imagination and determination to follow routes once traversed by the Dodge Roadster Coupe, a DeSoto Airflow Ride, or a Hudson Terraplane Sedan, but you won't find those routes on today's modern GPS. Today, most travelers want to simply “git 'er done!” and will go to great lengths (and sometimes expense) to find the fastest, shortest route to their final destination. They are all about the outcome, not the journey and the world they pass by is nothing but a blur.


Travel by yesteryear requires an investment in time as you venture from one city or small town to another and invariably make a few more stops along the way than you might have anticipated. After all, who can pass up real home-style cooking in a small town mom-and-pop restaurant? Or the two or three antique stores that occupy what once was a vibrant downtown until the bypass went in? Or perhaps checking out an old school house or stopping to read one of many Michigan historical markers telling the story of a ghost town. Sometimes I like to simply stop, look and listen; to imagine what it might have been like when the map that brought me here was new; when the only way you could get from starting point to destination was through this town. There was no high-speed bypass around it.


We've lost sight of the journey in many of our endeavors, becoming more interested in speed and results. Education is no different. We've moved our schools off the old country roads to an expressway system of pushing kids from grade to grade and measuring their success merely by high-stakes test results. Never mind taking time to enjoy the childhood journey and learn along the way. Our new focus is getting to college and career readiness as quickly, efficiently, and cheaply as we can. In fact, we're in such a hurry that we continue to move learning standards down to earlier grades, even turning kindergarten and pre-school into years of intense academic pressure. There's no time for curious, innovative exploration either on the Interstate highways or in our schools. Our days are packed with high speed activity, pepping for the next round of testing. Even recess, like the occasional travel break in a small town, has gone by the wayside, and lunch periods resemble more a hectic fast food joint at an expressway interchange than a restful stop at Joe & Emma's Family Diner. It's all become a process of speeding up the pace, packing more miles into the same time, and focusing only on the end. Like McTravel we're creating McEducation.


We have simply forgotten the joy and pleasure of the journey. Is it time to put the GPS away and dust off your old road maps?