Thursday, March 26, 2015

Michigan Once Again Called Out Nationally for Inequitable Funding of Schools

Michigan continues to miss the mark badly when it comes to closing funding gaps, especially to provide equitable educational opportunities for students in poverty (as well as with limited English proficiency). That's according to a new study by The Education Trust just recently released.

The table below from the report shows just how badly Michigan is performing in this critical benchmark.  Our state ranks in the bottom third.

Interestingly, Amber Arellano, executive director, and Sunil Joy, policy and data analyst for The Education Trust-Midwest just wrote a guest commentary for The Center for Michigan's Bridge calling out the state for its achievement gaps and the need to continue to hold schools accountable. In the article, they place Massachusetts on a pedestal for what they've been able to accomplish holding fast over the past couple decades.

Of course, what Ms. Arellano and Mr. Joy continue to ignore is the disparity in equitable funding between Michigan and Massachusetts. The chart above, coupled with the evidence cited by both in their commentary, clearly demonstrates that equitably (not equally) distributed funding based on student needs is key to higher achievement levels.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Learning from Leaders: My Takeaways

By invitation, I had the opportunity the past two days to meet up with a variety of educational leaders from around the country at Education Week's Leaders to Learn From forum in Washington, DC. As part of the event, sixteen leaders were profiled by Education Week and each provided us with snippets of innovative, yet practical, strategies deployed within their own districts that have led or are leading to higher student achievement.

While we were provided advance information on each of the sixteen, as well as the other leaders who would be attending, the format of the forum limited any in-depth contact to just a few. This post provides a cursory summary of what I learned as well as my thoughts on each point.

School districts like mine have to work hard to overcome the obstacles that surround students growing up in poverty or with limited English proficiency. While we would all like our elected leaders and communities to do more about these two significant problems, including providing much-needed funding for programming and staffing that mitigates these circumstances, the fact remains that the knight on the white horse is not coming. We can't use that as an excuse and have to immerse ourselves in helping kids learn despite the inequities.

An extended learning day for all students, but in particular elementary students, is needed to overcome the effects of poverty and limited English proficiency. Our students attend school for 6.5 hours per day but data from a number of schools demonstrates that an 8-hour school day can elevate learning. The additional time should be devoted to subjects that turn kids on to school, raise their level of engagement, and make them feel good about what they are doing. These can be music, art, physical education or other elective subjects. It should be for all students within the school and complement the core academic learning during the regular hours of the day.

Superintendents and principals must engage in transparent leadership, working hard to develop strong, collaborative relationships with teacher and staff labor associations. This has to go beyond the traditional meetings where problems are simply talked about to actual strategic planning and collaboration on what will work to turn a school or district around, create a learning culture, and elevate academic achievement.

Teacher leaders have to be drawn out of their respective classrooms and help take ownership of the schools and district. That leadership has to be horizontal in nature working in collaboration with the principal to raise all boats so that every student benefits from quality teaching and learning, not just the ones in a handful of classrooms where the doors are always closed. It is clear from the evidence that until teachers are engaged and take ownership for school-wide results, substantive improvement cannot be realized.

In the same way, we are not going to move public education forward in general unless more principals and superintendents take greater responsibility for helping schools and districts improve across the state. There are two benefits from this. First, cross-pollination of what works and accountability for what is not working can only help our public education system serve the needs of all kids, not just the ones sharing the same zip code as your school. And second, doing so invariably exposes the principal or superintendent to new ideas and greater evidence to support what works. In a sense, then, school leaders involved in county or state-wide improvement efforts are actually engaged in valuable professional learning. This will pay dividends for the employing district and school.

The last point is one I personally feel is most valuable -- and least practiced in my district: student voice. Students who are listened to and involved in school-wide problem-solving, strategic planning and decision-making are going to have a greater feeling of ownership and engagement in their respective schools -- and the district as well. At a minimum, every school should have a viable student council involved in helping leaders create a positive school climate and culture, and lend student voice to the change process. The superintendent should meet periodically with each student council and possibly even create a district-level council including representatives from each grade level. Members of the student council should be welcomed from time to time into meetings with teachers to give their responses to prompts such as:

  • "What do you think makes a great teacher?"
  • "How do you like to use technology?"
Teachers should also be allowed (encouraged) to ask the students questions, and students should feel comfortable asking the teachers questions, as well. Other ways of providing student voice include surveys and focus groups. The culture of the school should support this type of dialogue by giving value to input from students.

I look forward to expanding on each of these points and having conversations with staff, students and parents as to how we can incorporate these ideas to provide even better learning opportunities for our kids.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

More testing, less testing or the right kind of testing?

"But Rep. Ken Yonker, R-Caledonia, said he thinks the state has to do an evaluation at thekindergarten entry level. He said he does not support excessive testing, and once the state gets its standardized testing finalized, districts should be able to eliminate some of the testing at various grade levels to determine progress." ~ The Grand Rapids Press, 3.10.15
This illustrates one of the problems with non-educators making decisions and running the K-12 system from within the state capitol. Rep. Yonkers for instance proposes that schools eliminate some of the most valuable kind of classroom assessments that provide teachers timely feedback on how individually and collectively, their students are doing. Why? So he and other elected officials can simply add more state-wide, high-stakes testing to the mix.
This nation already spends nearly $2 billion per year on annual testing according to Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institute. That's similar to the cost of providing a year's worth of education to more than 200,000 students based on Michigan's average per-pupil cost. Is it really worth it?

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Fact-Based Arguments over School Funding in Michigan

There will be many online and media-based arguments in the coming weeks regarding funding for K-12 public education in Michigan. I thought it timely to post a few facts that may help clarify positions on both sides of these arguments.

  • While the Governor may claim that total education funding is up under his "leadership," most of that has gone to the state retirement system that was devastated by a declining number of payers into the system due to state policies on charters and emphasis on privatizing more services. In addition, the ill-advised early-retirement incentive in 2010, a declining school-age population, and the Great Recession had their impacts as well. Note that none of these conditions were created by districts, schools or teachers.
  • A growing share of the state's School Aid Fund (SAF), that was intended only for K-12 schools when Proposal A passed more than twenty years ago, is being diverted for use by community and four-year colleges as well as through a shell-game to move general fund dollars away from the colleges for other uses. Like our federal representatives in Washington, DC who find the social security trust fund a nice piggy bank to use for other purposes, our state legislators can no longer resist taking SAF funds away from public school kids to fund their own initiatives. It's a slippery slope that's likely to get steeper.
  • While the state and NCLB have mandated the curriculum standards that must be tested every year in grades 3-8 and 11, the minimum graduation requirements (Michigan Merit Curriculum), college-readiness indicators (ACT now but SAT starting in 2016), and the gold standard of every child graduating from high school within four years of entering the door, they do nothing to fund schools equitably so that every child regardless of their zip code has an equitable chance of achieving those results.
  • Michigan's Constitution has no standard of "adequacy" let alone equity prescribed for funding public education. Therefore, no studies have been done to determine the level of funding needed to achieve the state and federal mandates I indicated in the previous bullet-point. As a result, while the state has taken historically extraordinary steps to mandate the programs and standards for school districts, it has no idea how much funding is needed for each child, regardless of their circumstances, or each school district regardless of it's circumstances, to achieve those results. Thus, any argument against at least funding the current structures consistent with the rate of inflation and growing number of mandates is a moot point. At a minimum, a standard should be studied and developed that stipulates what a "constitutionally adequate education" costs for each child ensuring that district size and location, concentrations of economically disadvantaged and limited English speaking children, and variations in regional labor costs be taken into consideration.