Thursday, October 30, 2014

Is it Time for Lame Duck Sessions to Be a Thing of the Past?

Hang on to your hats...and most anything else in life you cherish as the Michigan legislature once again holds another big lame-duck-session party following the election on November 4. For those unenlightened citizens out there, a lame-duck session is when legislators thrown out of office by either term limits or voters wreak as much havoc as possible on us regular citizens by passing "big government" bills that tend to take more control of our lives. And the irony is that this will be done for the second session in a row by a Republican-led gang who ran on a smaller government, less regulation, lower taxes platform in 2010 with a little “jobsjobsjobs” thrown in for good measure.  Lame duck makes them look just the opposite.

It matters not who we elect on Tuesday to the House, Senate or Governor's chair since the lame-duck festivities will occur during the dead space period before the new folks we vote in take office after January 1. In 2012, in a very short period of time, the legislature passed 282 bills mostly without committee hearings, public input and proper vetting to analyze unintended consequences and problems down the road. They also did it without regards to the needs and desires of the Michigan people who elected them. Then, likes rats from a sinking ship, they scampered out of town leaving a pile of paper for the Governor to review and sign (or veto as in the case of a small handful of bills).

Using lame duck to push through pet projects or policies is no way to bring Michigan back from the abyss of the Great Recession and post-industrial era. We need thoughtful statesmanship, not one-upmanship from elected officials succumbing to pressure from in-state groups such as the Mackinac Center and out-of-state groups like ALEC and billionaire pseudo-reformers. Bills pushed through, supported and passed by a substantial number of outgoing legislators who no longer are accountable to Michigan's citizens is just plain wrong.

We'll be watching this coming lame duck session closely and if it's anything like the debacle of 2012, it may just be time for a voter initiative to outlaw lame duck legislative sessions for anything but a declared state of emergency between the election and January 1 start of the new session.

Additional reading:

Highlight of bills passed by Michigan's lame duck legislature

Michigan Lawmakers Are Trying To Sneak Through Extreme Abortion Restrictions In Lame Duck Session

It’s a Mad, Mad Michigan

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Where do our public education dollars go? A comparison of Michigan's traditional and charter public schools.

The table below provides a comparison of revenues and expenditures for Michigan traditional, community-based public school districts and charter schools. The data is available to the public taken from the annual MI Bulletin 1014 for 2012-13, the latest data available on the Michigan Department of Education website.

As readers can see, traditional public school districts put more of their total expenditures (65.51%) into basic and added needs instruction as compared to charter schools (45.36%). This is largely due to the reality that charter schools spend more of their public money on costs such as administration as well as operations and maintenance. Because public dollars that flow to for-profit charter operators is not required to be transparent by current state law, there's little the public can do to determine what exactly those funds are being spent on. This includes salaries for teachers, administrators and other corporate employees.

In an Epic-MRA poll taken this past summer and reported on by The Detroit Free Press, eighty-two percent of respondents felt charter operators "should be required to fully and publicly explain how they spend all tax dollars received." And eighty-eight percent "favor legislation to require such disclosure."

Time will tell if our legislators are listening.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Social Lives of Networked Teens: Obsession? Addiction? Or simply a way to get past growing parental restrictions?

I'm reading a very interesting book by danah boyd about teenagers' use of technology for social purposes. I just completed a fascinating chapter on so-called social-networking addiction and teens' obsession with social media. boyd concludes that much of what we (the adults) perceive as addiction and obsession is not with the technology itself, but rather with the need for teenagers to socialize with their peers. Technology is helping teens fill the void created by a world where parents are convinced (wrongly) that their children are not safe away from home or structured environments.
"Today’s teenagers have less freedom to wander than any previous generation. Many middle-class teenagers once grew up with the option to “do whatever you please, but be home by dark.” While race, socioeconomic class, and urban and suburban localities shaped particular dynamics of childhood, walking or bicycling to school was ordinary, and gathering with friends in public or commercial places— parks, malls, diners, parking lots, and so on— was commonplace. Until fears about “latchkey kids” emerged in the 1980s, it was normal for children, tweens, and teenagers to be alone. It was also common for youth in their preteen and early teenage years to take care of younger siblings and to earn their own money through paper routes, babysitting, and odd jobs before they could find work in more formal settings . Sneaking out of the house at night was not sanctioned, but it wasn’t rare either." (Kindle locations 1425-1432)

Adults increasingly have become obsessed with controlling the lives of their teens and limiting their time away from home to do what they feel is either dangerous or nothing but a waste of time. Teens see social-networking through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, texting and now Snapchat as a way to connect and "hang out" with their friends.
"Teens’ engagement with social media—and the hanging out it often entails— can take up a great deal of time. To many adults, these activities can look obsessive and worthless. Media narratives often propagate the notion that engagement with social media is destructive, even as educational environments increasingly assume that teens are networked. Many adults put pressure on teens to devote more time toward adult-prioritized practices and less time socializing, failing to recognize the important types of learning that take place when teens do connect. When teens orient themselves away from adults and toward their peers, parents often grow anxious and worried about their children’s future. The answer to the disconnect between parent goals and teen desires is not rhetoric that pathologizes teen practices, nor is it panicked restrictions on teen sociality. Rather, adults must recognize what teens are trying to achieve and work with them to find balance and to help them think about what they are encountering." (Kindle locations 1635-1642)
For anyone who has been fascinated or exasperated by the teenage obsession with technology, reading It's Complicated is well worth the investment of time.

boyd, danah (2014-02-25). It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Debunking the Assumption that Improving Educational Outcomes will end Poverty

Peter Greene, both teacher and writer, has written a testy and though-provoking post entitled, 7 Bogus Assumptions of Education Reform.  The one that caught my attention the most, because I work in this reality every day, is the following:
Better Educational Outcomes Will End Poverty
The promise of reformsters (including prominent gummint reformsters) is that once every young American is emerging from high school College and Career Ready, every adult American will be employed at an above-minimum-wage job that is personally and economically rewarding. Education reform has been presented as a means to end poverty. This is a bizarre assertion. When the day of 100 percent CACR graduates arrives, will U.S. employers declare, "Well, now that these guys are so well-educated, we will start paying them more." Did well-paying US jobs move overseas because Indian and Chinese workers are so better educated, or because they are willing to work for American peanuts? Will being a burger flipper become a lucrative position, or will it disappear as a job entirely because the burgers are flipping themselves? Exactly how will having better-educated citizens make more jobs appear? If you want to see the falseness of this promise debunked with charts and numbers, read this and this.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Michigan can learn from leading states how to work together to improve schools

Bridge • The Center for Michigan : Smartest kids: What Michigan schools can learn from leading states

“'The way this stuff gets done is two or three or four or five governors in a row keep plugging away at stuff,' former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen told The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis.
"That hasn’t happened yet in Michigan, where education reform vision often dissolves into political polarization, from fights over charter school authorization to name-calling about teacher unions.
“'What worries me about what I read is going on in Michigan is that (education reform) strategies have become tools of political battle rather than instruments for improvement,' said Paul Reville, a former Secretary of Education in Massachusetts who now teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
"Don Wotruba, director of government relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said Michigan lacks leadership when it comes to fixing schools.
“'I would say there is no attempt to create a plan between the policy makers in Lansing and the school people who carry out changes,' Wotruba said. 'So what we have is new legislation or edicts handed down on how schools should do things and often with conflicting directions.
“'Some real discussion on what is mutually agreeable and some time to actually implement would really help our schools,' Wotruba said, 'but few in Lansing have the patience to allow reforms to happen.'”

Additional resource: Ed Trust Midwest fact sheet on Massachusetts

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Breaking the Bonds of the Past to Envision a New Future through Human Centered Design

Everyday we hear someone lamenting the alleged poor quality and outcomes of our public schools, particularly those serving low-income areas often with high concentrations of minorities, immigrant families and English language learners. Then in the next breath, one hears someone else touting a public school – traditional, community-based or charter – they deem is the absolute model of perfection kicking out high concentrations of college-and/or-career ready students.

The puzzling part of all this is there really is no set of perfect performance standards to which one can measure either type of school. It’s just assumed that schools in more affluent suburban areas produce better results while those in urban poor areas are lacking.  But no one can point to a definitive waypoint to which we can draw valid comparisons. It’s as if we’re simply supposed to accept that the schools on the top of the top-to-bottom lists are what every school should aspire to.

But I say that’s not good enough. What if the school that produces the best results and sits atop the list of all other schools still isn’t as good – or great – as it can be? What if it’s only an illusion that the top schools are performing at their best? And what if the one thing that’s holding ALL schools back – low or high performing – is the very structure of K-12 school itself?

To put it another way, what if we were to completely re-invent our traditional, industrial assembly-line model of education and remove the constraining shackles of clocks, calendars, and age-based grade-levels? Now some parents, community members, politicians, education reformers and even teachers will ask why since they feel there are many districts and schools that are “successful” under that model. But how do they know if those schools are performing as high as they possibly can since they don’t have anything but our antiquated structure of schooling to measure it by? What they are really thinking even if they are not saying it is that our schools are “good enough.” They were good enough for me, and they’re still good enough for our kids.

And that shortchanges the potential possibilities our students of today will never get to experience. It also means that for schools on the bottom of the list to get better, they have to do more of what is working for schools on the top, independent of the factors outside of school that create barriers to learning and regardless of the fact they have the same number of days and hours, and the same constraining grade-based promotion system as those schools achieving at higher levels. Logically speaking, this means the same thing as saying if a school with a preponderance of students achieving at one, two or more grade levels behind should be expected within the same structure of schooling to be achieving at high levels and graduating all students college-and-career ready, then schools already achieving at high levels each year should be able to graduate their students by age twelve! In other words, if a low-achieving student is expected to learn two or three years of content in one year to get caught up, then a high-achieving student can also be expected to learn two or three years of content in that same year and graduate early. My, what an efficient and economical system!

But we know that little of what I just said is practical in real world terms and my point isn’t about contracting the K-12 system, it’s about completely changing it. Not just throwing out politically-driven ideas such as charters or cyber schools which are structurally not any different than our current public school system and generally produce the same or worse results, but literally inventing a new idea that breaks through the artificial barriers of our outmoded factory model.

To begin with, this would have to be a model that is constructed around the needs and desires of children, not simply the wishes and hopes of adults. Today’s schools continue to be adult-driven enterprises that incorporate a variety of features and processes designed to mold and shape the child into the student we want, with efficiencies and economies-of-scale that meet our adult needs. Nothing about schools today provides personalization so that no matter where a five year-old (or older) is at on the day he or she walks through the door, and no matter how fast or slow that child develops and learns over time, in the end success will be measured based chiefly on how effectively the school and its teachers helped that child achieve his or her dreams regardless of how long the journey took.

What would this school look like? How will all of this work and still keep our educational system as the core process of preparing children to be contributors to society both socially and economically? I have no idea and that’s what excites me the most. The very fact I can’t envision this type of learning institution means that I’m not falling into the trap of simply reinventing or transforming the current system with the same or at least similar existing constraints. The system that worked when we needed it to simply pump out a massive number of industrial workers speaking fluent English and becoming the core of the consumer class, which following World War II became known as the middle class, no longer works for a 21st century world. That’s why any real attempt to fix our K-12 educational system will only be successful once we virtually abandon the model that holds us back.

Our district is developing a core team of dreamers and thinkers who are learning how to use human centered design as a vehicle for completely reimagining a whole knew structure for our school system. We are a relatively small school district with the highest concentration of children living in low-income households within the surrounding area. Coupled with the second highest percentage of limited English-speaking students, we are severely limited by the current structure to meet their needs and provide each with the same educational outcomes as other schools in more affluent areas. To think we can keep doing what we’ve always done – even if it were “better sameness” – and produce substantially higher results is foolhardy and gambling with the lives and future fortunes of our children. Using an HCD model to identify, test, and produce a better system through inspiration, ideation and implementation is the least we owe our kids regardless of how long the process takes, how many roadblocks we run into, and how tedious it might be as we learn through a system of test-fail-reflect-learn-change.

Looking back over the past several decades, we have to wonder why much of the change that’s occurred throughout the world has been more of a system of replacing an existing mode with a completely different one, while education has stuck to a process of refining the existing structure and relying on better-sameness?  I think it was Henry Ford that said something to the tune of, “If I had listened to the people, they’d want faster horses.” Can you imagine what life would be like right now if instead of the computer, we’d have been satisfied with a more souped up version of the slide rule? Or abacus? What if the Bissell company had decided we didn’t need a newfangled sweeper or vacuum cleaner, just better brooms? And our varied types of transportation systems were not always designed based on existing methods at the time. If that were the case, instead of flying to cross an ocean we'd simply have invented a way of building a long floating version of existing road bridges and driven there. Flying is not a better-sameness method of transportation than automobiles. It's completely different.

These are just a few of examples of how often we’ve invented a new model rather than refine an existing one because it became clear the new was far better than the old and ultimately better served the needs of the user. Isn’t it time we did the same with education?

In our district, that's precisely the direction we're headed.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Factchecking K-12 Education Funding in Michigan

"As the following chart from the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget shows, the per-pupil spending for basic operations dropped a bit in Snyder’s first year. It has only recently, and just barely, exceeded the pre-2012 level — even as the state’s contributions to the school employees’ retirement system and total per-pupil spending has increased every year.

"Whether retirement system contributions ought to count as education funding is a political argument, and we take no position on it. We simply note that it is credible for Snyder to claim that the state’s share of education funding has increased under his leadership, while it’s also credible for his opponents to criticize claims about $1 billion in extra school funding, when a larger share of those dollars is going to the retirement system rather than the classroom."


Do Governor Snyder's cuts to K-12 classroom funding help widen the wealth gap?

While our governor and state legislature continue to keep most of the deep cuts to public school classrooms from 2010-11 in place, a report by the Associated Press contends that school spending by affluent families similar to Governor Snyder have helped widen the wealth gap between the top 10 percent of earners and the rest of us.
Wealthier parents have been stepping up education spending so aggressively that they're widening the nation's wealth gap. When the Great Recession struck in late 2007 and squeezed most family budgets, the top 10 percent of earners — with incomes averaging $253,146 — went in a different direction: They doubled down on their kids' futures. 
Their average education spending per child jumped 35 percent to $5,210 a year during the recession compared with the two preceding years — and they sustained that faster pace through the recovery. For the remaining 90 percent of households, such spending averaged around a flat $1,000, according to research by Emory University sociologist Sabino Kornrich. 
"People at the top just have so much income now that they're easily able to spend more on their kids," Kornrich said. 
The sums being spent by wealthier parents amount to a kind of calculated investment in their children. Research has linked the additional dollars to increased SAT scores, a greater likelihood of graduating from college and the prospect of future job security and high salaries. 
The trend emerged gradually over the past three decades but accelerated during the worst economic slump since the 1930s. Now, enrollments at pricier private schools are climbing. Parents are bidding up home prices in top public school districts. Pay is surging for SAT tutors, who now average twice the median U.S. hourly wage of $24.45. The patterns suggest that the wealth gap could widen in coming years, analysts say. 
"If you're at the bottom and the top keeps pulling away, you're just further behind," said Melissa Kearney, a senior economics fellow at the Brookings Institution.
This is from Josh Boak, Associated Press: School spending by affluent is widening wealth gap. I encourage you to click on the link and read the entire article before proceeding.

Michigan's public education system is sorely underfunded and continues to be hurt by wrong-headed policies that are designed to pick winners and losers, with urban school districts servicing poor, minority, and limited English-proficient students squarely in the losers category. Some of these politically-motivated policies include expansion of an unproven (and under-fire) charter school movement, reducing payers to the state teacher retirement system which as a result is collapsing under its own weight, and spending far too much time, energy and money attacking schools and teachers when poverty and reduced K-12 funding for classrooms and basic operations are the real problems.

Remember when you vote on November 4, Governor Snyder was fine with the idea of spending $20,000 per year for his own daughter's education at the Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, despite the fact the rest of us (the 90-percenters) are expected to continue getting by with less. The governor has recognized the problem with the gap between higher and lower-spending districts and here's his response as reported from an interview with MLive's Dave Murray, now the governor's deputy press secretary:
“At some point I would like to start addressing that. But right now I want to look at the bigger picture of school aid and the funding formulas. But not this year.”
Well, he's done little since this comment thirty months ago to solve the problem and there's no indication funding for kids and classrooms will be any better in the next four years sans a change in leadership.

Anyway, the title of this posts posits a question and I'll let you answer it for yourself.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Just why are Finland's schools top notch?

"Some aspects of the American school system are not helpful in improving education quality and equity. First, education in the United States is too much defined by testing and data. If getting the data using frequent standardized tests occupies up to one-third of all available time to teach, that will alone prevent students from making the marks they should.

"Second, American education places too much faith in marketplace choice, which parents have because of expanded access to charter schools. This weakens the public school structure that is fundamental to many successful education systems elsewhere.

"Finally, more students in America have novice or nonprofessional teachers in their classrooms today than ever. Frequent turnover of teachers in thousands of American schools undermines the entire education system."

Pasi Sahlberg