Category Archives: Budget

It’s — Mertz for — Madison Time, or I’m Running for School Board

TJ.logo-268It’s Madison Time Part 1 & 2 Ray Bryant Combo

In December I announced my candidacy for the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education, Seat #5 (announcement below).   There will be a primary election February 19, 2013 and the general is April 2, 2013.  I hope I have earned  the support of the readers of this blog.  You can find out more about my campaign, endorse, volunteer and donate at MertzforMadison.com.  I am not sure if I will be doing any blogging during the campaign, but if I do things directly related to the Madison schools will be posted at MertzforMadison.com, and anything posted here at AMPS will be more about state and national matters.

Prepared, Progressive, Passionate

I am excited to announce my candidacy for the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education, Seat #5.

Our public schools are the backbone of our community, the wellspring of our democracy, and the best means we have of providing a better future to all our children. As a parent, scholar, advocate, activist and organizer, I have worked with parents, professors, students, school boards, administrators, legislators, educators, and their unions to better understand and strengthen public schools. I don’t think there has ever been a time when the challenges to our schools have been greater. I want to help Madison meet these challenges by serving on the Board of Education.

I have stood against the pressures of privatization, worked against the expansion and misuse of standardized testing, and have fought for adequate and equitable funding based on the idea that all of our students deserve broad and rich opportunities.

These struggles will continue and expand. As Madison prepares to welcome a new Superintendent, I see opportunities to do more than react. Madison is a community and district where we have the means and the will to show that diverse public education can live up to its promises. To do this we must honestly assess those failings illustrated by the achievement gaps, but also listen to voices of our classrooms and community to understand what is working and build from our strengths.

None of this will be quick and none of this will be easy. I ask for your help and support. Visit www.mertzformadison.com to endorse, donate, or volunteer; and “like” the TJ Mertz, Madison School Board, Seat #5 Facebook page to keep updated.

Thomas J. Mertz

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What to Keep an Eye on in Tony Evers’ Budget (updated)

Eyeball sculpture by artist Tony Tasset from the Eye Si(gh)t blog.

Mavis Staples, “Eyes On The Prize” (click to listen or download).

Update: Still haven’t seen the details, but according to the Press Release, the answer to question number three is a partial yes, with calls for “full funding” of SAGE (it isn’t really “full funding,” see here on the complexities of SAGE funding), increased sparsity aid, increased Bilingual/BiCultural aid in the second year, increased special education aid in the second year, new grant programs around STEM and vocational education, “educator effectiveness, ” and more).  No poverty aid.  For overall state funding  the combined  “categorical and general school aid”  Evers calls for would be  “a 2.4 percent increase in the first year of the budget, the same as the Consumer Price Index, and 5.5 percent in 2014-15.”  I don’t see anything on Revenue Limits.  More later.

Update #2: From a second Press Release, on Revenue Limits: “The plan restores revenue limit authority to all districts. It calls for an increase in the per pupil revenue limit to $225 per student in the first year of the budget and $230 per student in 2014-15.” More details on Fair Funding and other matters in this Press Release also.  A district by district tally may be found here.

Wisconsin State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers will reveal the remainder of his 2013-15 budget proposal on Monday (the first portion was released in September, but it lacks full school finance information;  WisconsinEye will be covering the event).  Evers has also announced he is seeking re-election next April (campaign website here; see here for thoughts on elections and holding Evers and others accountable for their actions and inaction).

We know that Evers budget will be based on the Fair Funding For Our Future framework.  We know that in outsourcing how our state defines what it means to be educated to  American College Testing (the ACT) it will call for an increase in spending of time and money on standardized testing and the processing of standardized test based data (for a horror story outsourcing testing related things in Florida, see “The outsourcing of almost everything in state departments of education,” from Sherman Dorn.  We know that it will in most ways be better than what Governor Scott Walker proposes, especially if the rumors that the Walker proposal will include Tim Sullivan’s “Performance Based Funding” are true ( by design this would direct resources away from those students and schools that are struggling and toward those that are thriving, an incredibly bad idea and the essence of the Republican philosophy).  But there are some essential things we don’t know.  Here are three things I’ll be keeping an eye on.

1. How much of an increase in State Aid will Evers call for?

Wisconsin school have endured huge cuts in state aid in both the last budgets.  Depending on how you count the combined dollar total is close to $2 Billion.  According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities,  the per pupil cuts in Wisconsin have been the fourth largest in the nation.  Here is their chart:

The vast majority of districts have experienced cuts in state aid (the most recent figures from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, here).  How much of this lost ground will Evers try to make up?

2. What increases in Revenue Limits will Evers call for?

The FitzWalker gang essentially froze cut Revenue limits for 2011-12 and provided a $50/student increase for most districts for 2012-13.  Revenue Limits matter.  Higher Revenue Limits give local district the power to make up for lost state aid and more.  To what extent will the DPI budget restore this local control?  As the bar in expected achievement keeps getting raised, through a combination of state and local resources, we need to give the schools the resources they need to meet their challenges.

3. Will the DPI budget direct resources to those students and schools with higher needs?

In particular, will it call for increases in aid for English Language Learners,  for Special Education, for SAGE reimbursements, for Sparsity (see this column for Kathleen Vinehout on school budgets in general and sparsity in particular)?  Will it direct real aid to those schools identified as needing improvement by the new “Accountability” system (see here for a discussion of that system, including this issue).

One thing the new State Report Cards confirmed is that poverty is a great predictor of which students and schools are struggling.  Will the Evers budget address this in a real way by providing additional resources instead of the property tax cuts to based on student poverty that have been in every other iteration of the Fair Funding plan?  Property tax cuts don’t help students; students need help.  For more on school funding “fairness,” see this report from the Eduction Law Center (Wisconsin doesn’t rank very well).

Last Thoughts.

Those are the big three.  I’ll also be looking at the size of the guaranteed state funding per pupil (which in essence replaces the levy credits in Fair Funding), what kind of “hold harmless” provisions Evers includes, and like all of us I’ll be looking at the impact of the package on my school district (along with a variety of other districts I’ve been informally tracking for years).

This is step one; the next steps involve key players like WEAC and WMC, advocates in general, the Governor and the Legislature.  Much of what will happen with these is predictable.  I can say with great confidence that I will consider whatever Tony Evers proposes to be better than what comes out of the Republican controlled budget process.

One thing I don’t know is how advocates and Democratic Legislators will react.   If past actions and the recent press release from Senator Chris Larson  are indications, they will follow Tony Evers lead and take up Fair Funding as their own.  Depending on the answers to the questions offered here, I hope that people who care about our students, inside and outside the Legislature, keep an open mind to advocating for something better than Fair Funding, something that does make up the ground lost over four years of cuts, something that does give real local control, and most of all something that does a better job directing resources to the schools and students who most need the opportunities of quality public education.  Penny for Kids would be a start, perhaps in conjunction with Fair Funding.

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How Many Strikes? or Whither Accountability? #2

The Isotopes – “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” (click to listen or download)

A recent post  —  Who cuts the barber’s hair? or Whither “accountability”?  — centered on some of the failings of the new Wisconsin “Accountability” system designed by team led by  Scott Walker and Tony Evers and adopted in order to gain an NCLB waiver from Arne Duncan and what we as citizens can do to hold them accountable for the bad choices they have made.  With the second iteration of the “Accountability Requirements for Achievement Gap Plan“(online version ahs been updated on pages 58-9 ,see here) on the agenda of the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education Student Achievement and Performance Monitoring Committee this Monday (11/5, 5:30 PM, rm 103, Doyle Blg) I thought it would be a good idea to do something similar on the “Accountability” work being done by MMSD.  This time via an extended and at times strained baseball metaphor.

Who’s at bat?

Or who should be held accountable for the accountability design work being done by MMSD? These aren’t easy questions.  Accountability is confusing, maybe not as confusing as the Abbott and Costello routine, but confusing (who should or should not be held accountable for the results of accountability measures is even more confusing….add teachers, families, the economy, inequality, …. to the list below).   The chain of accountability goes from the voters who elect Board Members, to the Superintendent who the Board hires, fires and evaluates, to the administrators the Superintendent hires (with the consent of the Board, but for better or worse this has been a rubber stamp consent), supervises and evaluates.  It also loops back to the Board, because they are responsible for making sure administrators have the resources they need to do good work, but this chain continues back to the Superintendent and the administrators who prepare draft budgets and should communicate their needs and capacities to the Board.  The Superintendent is the bottleneck in this chain each time it loops around because the the MMSD Board has almost entirely limited their action in evaluation, hiring and firing to the Superintendent.  Right now MMSD has an Interim Superintendent, so evaluation, hiring and firing  is moot and the key link in the chain is broken.  Like I said, confused.

What is clear is that the only lever of accountability community members hold is their vote in school elections.  Three seats are up in April (Board President James Howard has announced his intent to run for re-election; Maya Cole and Beth Moss have not publicly stated their plans).

The impetus for creating the “Accountability Requirements” was a budget amendment from Board Member Mary Burke.  I believe it passed unanimously.   For the purposes here, I’m saying “The Administration” is at bat and the Board of Education is the manager sending signals from the dugout.  I didn’t count, but there are at least a half dozen administrator names listed on the “Accountability Requirements for Achievement Gap Plan,” if you want to get more personal with who should be accountable, feel free.

Swinging for the Fence or “Small Ball”?

The public loves power hitters; the long ball is a crowd pleaser.   Baseball insiders and aficionados understand that swinging for the fence increases the likelihood of striking out and that often the situation calls for “small ball,” like trying to draw a walk, attempting a sacrifice bunt, hitting behind the runner, or lining a single in the gap. the key to small ball is that you do many little things and they combine to produce runs.

With educational “accountability” I would argue that setting “goals” (any goals at all, but especially unrealistic ones like the NCLB 100% proficiency, or the “goals” listed in the draft MMSD”Accountability Requirements,” more on the latter below) is the equivalent of swinging for the fence.  This is part of the “data driven” mentality.  I think the situation calls for an educational version of small ball, something not as crowd-pleasing, demanding a higher level of engagement by all involved, and more likely to produce a productive unerstanding.  What I have in mind is monitoring multiple measures, or “data guided” decision making.

Although the reporting has not been good, MMSD tried something like this with the Strategic Plan “Core Performance Measures.”  Unfortunately there seemed to be collective agreement among Board Members and administrators at a recent meeting that these measures would be set aside in favor of the “Accountability Requirements” now under consideration and by implication that all the Strategic Plan work would be left to gather dust.  There were targets associated with “Core Measures”  but the main idea was that the Board and the Administration pay regular attention to multiple measures and their movement, individually and collectively.   This is far different than stating as a goal that 90% of students will score in the proficient range by year 3.  The first thing  policy makers need to know is whether things are getting better or worse and at what pace.  The use of standardized test score goals  (and goals for many other measures)  in “accountability” doesn’t help with that and creates difficulties.

What is the “accountable” action if some measures go up and some go down?  What if demographics or the tests themselves change along the way?  And then there are the uncomfortable questions of who will be held accountable and how  if none of the goals are met. We should have learned from NCLB that this approach is not what the situation calls for, but apparently MMSD administrators did not.

At a previous meeting on the   “Accountability Requirements” Board Member Ed Hughes moved closer to the small ball position by suggesting that instead of absolute goals, the goals be presented in terms of change or growth.  Better, but the problems identified remain.    The whole goal oriented approach could be called “Strike One,” but I’m not going to do that.

Strike One

The first draft of the “Accountability Requirements”  was presented to the Student Achievement and Performance Monitoring Committee on September 30th and appeared essentially unchanged on the full Board October 29th agenda as part of a Committee Report.  In baseball parlance it was a unbalanced, badly mistimed swing for the fences at a ball well outside the strike zone.  It isn’t pretty.  Strike one.

Some managers would have been tempted to pull the batter and send up a pinch hitter, but instead Board Members  sent some signals from the dugout, pointing out some of the mistakes and offering tips for improvement.

Mary Burke noted that the left hand and the right hand didn’t appear to be coordinating.  To be more specific, she pointed out that on page 15 (of the pdf) there is a chart with the stated goal “95% of all 11th graders will take the ACT in 2012-13,”  but chart itself  shows  annual incremental increases, culminating at 95% for all groups in 2016-17.   It was long ago decided that all students would take the ACT in 2012-13, whoever prepared the left part of the chart knew this, but whoever did the increments on the right did not (and apparently didn’t read the left part).  Here it is:

Other problems with the swing are more subtle.  There is also another section where ACT goals are expressed in terms average scale scores.  This appears to be another case of lack of coordination between the two hands.  As discussed below, the sections related to students reaching the ACT “College Readiness” benchmarks are left mostly blank in recognition of the fact that increased participation due to the test-taking mandate will almost certainly lower the starting point.  The people doing the average scale score section don’t seem to have understood that.   Their chart shows steady and unrealistic growth (except a 0.1 drop for white students in the final year), with all reaching 24 after five years.  Here it is:

This is absurd.   At Hersey High School in Arlington Heights IL, a much less diverse school with much lower poverty  than MMSD (14% low income) that since 2001 has become the Mecca for those who worship at the alter of the ACT/EXPLORE/PLANN system of placing ACT prep at the center of school activities, no doubt starting above the MMSD full participation benchmark, it took six years to get the composite average  to 24.0 (the current is 25.2).  Closer to home, the temple for ACT worshipers is (much less diverse, at 15.8% Free/Reduced Lunch, much less impoverished) Monona Grove.   They joined the ACT religion in 2008-9.  That year their ACT composite was 21.7; it is now 22.3Nationally, only 26% of (mostly self-selected) test-takers achieve a 24 composite.  Absurd and incompetent.

You may think this is nitpicking, but these are highly paid professionals who didn’t do their homework to arrive at realistic goals and have made the kind of stupid errors that would cost students serious points on the standardized tests that these same highly paid professionals are employing in the name of “accountability.”  Shouldn’t they be accountable?

Despite some coaching from the Board that resulted in fixing the above issues, problems related problems remain the second version.  Those are covered in the “Strike Two” section.

Strike Two

The second swing  — the version of the “Accountability Requirements for Achievement Gap Plan” on the 11/5/12 agenda —  is much expanded (61 pages in comparison to 31), but not much improved.  Another wild, unbalanced and mistimed lunge at an almost unhittable pitch.  Like the first (and so many of the things produced by MMSD administration) much space is devoted to documenting that staff are very busy (of course repeatedly documenting this helps keep people busy) and very little to what is going on with students (I’m not sure why this is “accountability’).  Like the first, the actual “accountability” focus is on “goals.” Like the first, many of these goals (and many of the benchmark starting points) are left blank or labeled “TBD.” Like the first, where there are numbers attached to the goals, they are wildly unrealistic.

As the play-by-play announcer, I’m going to limit detailing how this swing misses to two places where numbers are attached to standardized test based goals.  The first involves the ACT; the second the state achievement tests (now WKCE, soon to be  “SMARTER Balanced Assessments”).

As explained above,  I  don’t like “goals” in standardized test based “accountability systems” (I’m not very fond of standardized test based “accountability systems” in general, but no room for all that here), but if you are going to have goals, they should be realistic, they should be based on in-depth knowledge of the tests, the performance of comparable students on these tests, and the improvements achieved elsewhere using similar programs.  As one Board Member pointed out at a recent meeting, this is exactly the kind of expertise that the Board expects from their highly paid professional administrators.  They ain’t getting what they paid for (in baseball terms, we are approaching  Alex Rodriguez in the last post-season).

The error Mary Burke pointed out with ACT participation has been corrected..  At the previous meeting there was a discussion of how expanded ACT participation will yield new baseline starting scores, and this was (in the first version) and is (in the second version) reflected by leaving blank most those portions  covering percents of students scoring at or above the college ready benchmarks set by the ACT.  For the same reasons,  the ACT “Average Composite Score” section discussed above is now blank.  All this is good,  but in the left hand column of the benchmark charts in both versions ,for each subject area there is a 40% goal (page 32).  I’m going to leave aside important criticisms of the ACT Benchmarks, to address why the 40% goal is problematic.   Nationally last year, only 25% of the mostly self-selected test-takers met the benchmark in all four subjects.  The percents varied greatly, from 67% in English to 31% in science.   At Hersey High (with their test friendly demographics and over ten years of emphasizing the ACT) only 39.2% of test-takers made all four benchmarks.   The goals for MMSD should reflect this reality, (and similar evidence on subgroups;i it should be noted that you can reach the 40% goal in each individual subject and still not have 40% meeting all four benchmarks, but my point is that the data we have shows that 40% is easier or harder for different subjects , and that 40% in any may be  out of reach in some subjects).

There are similar, but more pronounced and complex problems with the section that sets goals of 90% “proficiency” on state tests in Mathematics and Literacy at the end of five years (page 17).  Here is the chart for literacy (sorry for the bad reproduction):

Although the WKCE is referred to, the numbers in the far right column reflect the very problematic “WKCE as mapped to NAEP cut scores” (see “The news from Lake Gonetowoe” for some of the problems with these cut scores) and the WKCE is on the way out to be replaced by “SMARTER Balanced Assessments,”   Some confusion here that I’m going to avoid by simply saying “state tests.”  Since the NAEP derived cut scores are the order of the day, I guess MMSD has to use them, but they have a choice about which levels to concentrate on and “Proficient” is the wrong level.

My preference would be to do the multiple measures, small ball thing and track movement among scale scores, or failing that movement among the various cut score defined levels (which is what the “Growth”  calculation in the new Report Cards does).    If you are only going to use one level and are going to set goals, “Basic” is the level you want.  It is where you will see the most movement and get the most useful information.

Eventually I hope to do a few more posts about the meaning of NAEP cut score levels and how they compare to the old WKCE levels and many related things.   For now I’m going just repost my new favorite quote from National Academy of Sciences publication, “Grading the Nation’s Report Card: Evaluating NAEP and Transforming the Assessment of Educational Progress,”

and add the general NAEP level descriptions (there are more detailed ones for the grades NAEP tests, 4, 8, and 12).  Here is the quote (again):

Although standards-based reporting offers much of potential value, there are also possible negative consequences as well. The public may be misled if they infer a different meaning from the achievement-level descriptions than is intended.  (For example, for performance at the advanced level, the public and policy makers could infer a meaning based on other uses of the label “advanced,” such as advanced placement, that implies a different standard. That is, reporting that 10 percent of grade 12 students are performing at an “advanced” level on NAEP does not bear any relation to the percentage of students performing successfully in advanced placement courses, although we have noted instances in which this inference has been drawn.) In addition, the public may misread the degree of consensus that actually exists about the performance standards and thus have undue confidence in the meaning of the results. Similarly, audiences for NAEP reports may not understand the judgmental basis underlying the standards. All of these false impressions could lead the public and policy makers to erroneous conclusions about the status and progress of education in this country. (Emphasis added)

Here are the descriptions:

Achievement Level Policy Definitions
Basic This level denotes partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade.
Proficient This level represents solid academic performance for each grade assessed. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.
Advanced This level signifies superior performance.

I think that at this time the “Achievement Gaps” work in MMSD should concentrate on getting students to the “Basic” level, as defined by NAEP.

This belief is reinforced by national data on student NAEP performance.  This first chart shows the 8th grade NAEP level distribution for all students (NAEP tests a sample of students and adjusts reporting to reflect the entire population, charts from here):

In 2011 42% were in the “Basic” level.  This is where the median and mean are.  If we are most concerned with the students who aren’t reading and can’t do simple math, that means moving them from “Below Basic” to “Basic.”  I have no problem with also monitoring “Proficient” and “Advanced,” but the heart of this is in the basic category.

Two more graphs to show a little more of this and transition to the goals being set.  This one shows the distribution of scores for those students not eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch:

The next is for Free Lunch students (NAEP reporting here does not combine Free and Reduced):

I’m not going to deny that the “proficiency” gap between these two groups of 28 points isn’t worthy of attention, but I will argue that the gap in “Basic” or above of 26 points and the gap of 22% in those reaching “Basic” are more important and more likely to be narrowed by the programs in in the Achievement Gaps Plan.  This is where the action should be and what we should be watching (if we are only going to watch one level).

If it isn’t already obvious from these charts, the 90% “Proficiency” in five years set as a goal in versions  1 and 2 is a pipe dream, like the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series.  No competent education professional familiar with NAEP cut scores and performance levels and MMSD would put this before the Board of Education for consideration, yet some combination of MMSD administrators signed off on it, twice.  Strike two.

The Next Pitch

I wanted to get this finished and posted before the 11/5 meeting, but I didn’t.  I also wanted to attend the meeting, but it is/was my son’s birthday.  I hope that some of these issues and some others were raised at the meeting (I’ll watch the video and find out).

There are many other issues, like the fact that the AVID section doesn’t appear to recognize that if the other “goals” are reached, the comparison group will be an upwardly moving target; that “Stakeholders” is most often defined as district staff and not students, parents or community members; that the Cultural Responsiveness work has no academic results attached to it; that in Madison — a Union Town — the Career Academy section has no role for organized labor in planning or implementation, but business interests have the best seats at the table (and some will be paid for being there, this is what you expect from Scott Walker, not MMSD);  and to repeat what was said above that much of this is documenting staff being busy and in many key places where measurement of one sort or another is called for the lines are blank or say ‘TBD.”   On this last (with the exception of the ACT where the mandated participation warrants holding off) , the idea of attaching a requirement to have an accountability plan was to have a plan, not a promise to come up with one at some future date.  I could go on (and on), but I think I’ve made the point that the quality of  thought and work that has gone into this by the administration thus far has been lacking in many areas.

It looks like another draft (the third pitch)  will be coming back to the Board on November 26th.   I very much hope that draft is much better than the work we have seen to this point.  I hope it isn’t strike three.  The administrators have demonstrated that they can make corrections when problems are pointed out to them (like the inecusable errors with ACT participation in the first draft), when they get good coaching from the Board.  That is a good thing, but expectations should be higher.  It isn’t the Board’s job to know the distribution of NAEP scores, and it certainly isn’t their job to educate the administration on this (it goes without saying that there is something very wrong when it falls to me — an interested community member  —  to point out their apparent ignorance in the very areas they are being paid to be experts in).   There needs to be some accountability here,  the Board and the community have a right to expect better work.  If we aren’t getting it from those now responsible, we need to find people who can provide it.   The Board is not going to make good decisions without good information. The improvements our students and community need and deserve are not going to happen without competent people at the top.  There needs to be some accountability.  The Board needs to hold the administration accountable , and we need to hold the Board accountable for doing that.

Three Board seats on the ballot in April 2013.  Could be a whole new ballgame.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Who cuts the barber’s hair? or Whither “accountability”?

Professor Longhair, “Bald Head” (click to listen or download).

Educational “accountability” is in the news and on the agenda again this week.  It seems it is always in the news and on the agenda these days.  I have many problems with most conceptions of educational “accountability,” especially those that are based largely on standardized tests (a visit to the National Center for Fair  and Open Testing is in order if you don’t agree, or even if you do) and are proudly dubbed “data driven,” (the link takes you to old AMPS posts, Esther Quintero has an important post up on the topic this week at the Shanker Blog: “The Data-Driven Education Movement,” read it).  I’m not going to take on the big concepts here and now, but instead say a few things about the new Wisconsin Report Cards and offer some thoughts about imposing some accountability on those concocting and implementing educational “Accountability” systems, about cutting the barbers’ hair.

The new Wisconsin Report Cards are the product of the “School and District Accountability Design Team” led by Governor Scott Walker, State Superintendent Tony Evers, Senator Luther Olsen, and Rep. Steve Kestell and featuring a decided over-representation of privatizers and deformers (those friends of education at Wisconsin Manufactures and Commerce had a seat), and an under-representation of educators (one teacher, no union reps).  The final version is a centerpiece of  Wisconsin’s successful effort to garner a waiver of  NCLB strictures from Arne Duncan.

A school rating system like this should do three things.  First it should with some accuracy and transparency  rate school quality.  Second, it should honestly and effectively communicate what the rating means and doesn’t mean to policy-makers, educators, parents, and citizens.  Last — and assuming that the ratings are accurate — it should direct appropriate resources to those schools that need improvement.  The Wisconsin system does none of these well.   In fact, because of the complexities of assessing school quality, I don’t think it is possible to do all of these well and know that it is very difficult to do any of them well.  The whole enterprise is in many ways a fool’s errand.

 A recent must-read post by Gene V. Glass for the Washington Post captures some, but not all, of the problems (I’ve touched on the use of NAEP cut scores previously, will be saying more about some other things below and will be writing more on the waiver, the abuse of NAEP cut scores, “accountability,” and “educator effectiveness” issues in the future;  as I was writing this another fine critique came my way, this one from Steve Strieker, called “Another Distractor: School Report Cards,” it is a must read also).

In the introduction to Glass’s piece Valerie Strauss calls the Report Cards “another cockamamie way to grade schools for “accountability” purposes.”  Glass refers to the Report Cards as  “a dog’s breakfast of numbers,” and writes:

The report card for Wisconsin K-12 schools currently making the rounds is a particularly opaque attempt to grade the quality of education that Wisconsin’s children are receiving at the hands of their teachers and administrators. It is as though the Department of Public Instruction has decided to weigh cattle by placing them on a scale to get their weight in pounds then combining that with the wealth of the farmer who raised them, the number of acres of the farm, and the make of car the farmer drives.

The Report Cards combine multiple and often complicated measures in complicated ways.  It takes 62 pages to explain how it is all done.  If in order to understand the choices made you want to dig deeper into the nature of standardized test construction (hint, they are designed to sort students, not measure skills, knowledge or ability), or the controversies over graduation rate calculations, or the limitations of the Student Growth Percentiles ( the link takes you to Bruce Baker posts on SGP and related things) used in the “growth” calculations, or any of the other concepts and tools employed , you are probably looking at  at least the equivalent of a graduate school seminar’s worth of work.   The system fails the transparency test.

All this information is interesting, but what it means for any particular school or district is far from clear, even after the graduate seminar and that’s how it should be, that’s reality…all the test score data, and graduation rate data, and attendance data in the world isn’t going give you a full and true picture of schools and districts.  That’s the first way it fails the accuracy test, a little more below.

With “accountability”  the order of the day, the “accountability” mavens know that people want something easily swallowed (if not digested), so the Wisconsin team has given each school a score, based on those calculations that take 62 pages to introduce.   That score is what everyone looks at, everyone remembers and everyone seems to think has some profound meaning.  What you really have is a Rube Goldberg machine of black boxes inside black boxes that spits out a number.  That number hides all the questionable choices in the measures and manipulations, as well as all unmeasured and unmeasurable things that contribute to or detract from school quality.  Some in Wisconsin were proud that we didn’t assign letter grades like Florida has, but the number is just as bad, or even worse because superficially something like 66.7% seems to have more scientific accuracy., an a B-.  It doesn’t.   Superintendent Tony Evers and others have said many of the appropriate things about over-interpreting the scores given schools, but they put the score there and because of the inclusion of the score, the system fails the communication test.

This failure reminds me of the misuse of NAEP cut scores that is central to the accountability system, used for sorting individual students and in the growth scores sores that only recognize movement between NAEP based levels, not within them.  This is what the National Academy of Sciences publication, “Grading the Nation’s Report Card: Evaluating NAEP and Transforming the Assessment of Educational Progress,” says about these cut score in chapter 5, “Setting Reasonable and Useful Performance Standards (I’ve quoted this before here, “The news from Lake Gonetowoe“):

Although standards-based reporting offers much of potential value, there are also possible negative consequences as well. The public may be misled if they infer a different meaning from the achievement-level descriptions than is intended.  (For example, for performance at the advanced level, the public and policy makers could infer a meaning based on other uses of the label “advanced,” such as advanced placement, that implies a different standard. That is, reporting that 10 percent of grade 12 students are performing at an “advanced” level on NAEP does not bear any relation to the percentage of students performing successfully in advanced placement courses, although we have noted instances in which this inference has been drawn.) In addition, the public may misread the degree of consensus that actually exists about the performance standards and thus have undue confidence in the meaning of the results. Similarly, audiences for NAEP reports may not understand the judgmental basis underlying the standards. All of these false impressions could lead the public and policy makers to erroneous conclusions about the status and progress of education in this country. (Emphasis added)

The NAE-based cuts scores (WKCE scores “mapped” to NAEP are also being used with the results of individual students.  Here’s what the people at NAEP say about that:

Does this mapping method allow us to link student scores received on state test to the NAEP scale? If not, why not?

No, student scores cannot be linked to the NAEP scale because the NAEP does not generate reliable scores at the individual student level, only average scores for groups of students (e.g. males, females).

I would hope that at least the DPI staff working on the “Accountability” system knew this.   If they didn’t, that’s a problem; if they did and went ahead anyway, that’s a bigger problem.

In terms of accuracy, the Report Cards do one thing well, they sort schools by their relative poverty.  Here is what Gene V. Glass wrote on this:

What emerges from this dog’s breakfast of numbers? A measure of the wealth of the community in which the school is located. The correlation between the OAI and the “% Economically Disadvantaged” in the school is nearly -.70. That means that the poorer the children in the school, the lower is the school’s number on the Overall Accountability Index; and the relationship is close. In fact, a correlation of .70 is even tighter than the relationship of adults’ height to their weight, and both measure a person’s size. So what the DPI has created is a handy measure of a community’s wealth (SES, Socio-Economic Status) without ever having to ask anyone their income.

Steve Strieker observes that this isn’t news to many of us:

DPI’s own school report card data proves what Social Context Reformers have been trying to highlight for years: Poverty is the eight ball for public education.

Even an amateur’s analysis of the state’s school report card data is telling.

  • A supermajority of Wisconsin’s public schools with over 70% economically disadvantaged students were graded “Failed to Meet Expectations.”
  • Almost all below-standard schools had at least 45% economically disadvantaged students.
  • In contrast, almost all graded schools with less than 10% economically disadvantaged students were considered by DPI’s measurement to surpassed expectations.
Social Context Reformers must not be shouted down by the “no excuses” reformers who will surely shame Wisconsin schools graded below expectation by showcasing the few schools with high poverty rates and high-test scores.

Given this pattern and what we know from 1,000 sources, the remedy should be to provide additional, appropriate help to high poverty schools.  We didn’t need the Report Cards to tell us that.

Unfortunately the new system fails this test too.  Most of “help”  under the new system is directed to Title I schools.  In theory, Title I schools are high poverty schools, but not all high poverty schools are Title I.  In Madison and some other districts, for reasons I’ve never understood, only pre-K-5 schools are Title I, which means that no matter how high poverty (or low scoring) middle and high schools are left out.

In this case, that is probably for the best, because the “help” being offered appears to be more of a diversion of resources than an addition.  No extra resources will be provided and some of the scarce resources available must be reallocated to questionable purposes.

The “Schools Below Expectations, and Significantly Below Expectations”  will be required “to submit a plan detailing the extended learning opportunities for eligible students.”  And:

[S]chools must participate in an online district-directed diagnostic review of the current core reading and math curriculum including interventions for struggling students. The school must develop an improvement plan based on the diagnostic review, and implement RtI, working closely with the Wisconsin RtI Center. Specific interventions in the plan must address identified problem areas. The plan must be approved by DPI…o DPI will conduct electronic reviews of each school’s progress and monitor throughout the year.

So extended learning, an online review, with an online plan, and online monitoring.

For “Schools Persistently Failing to Meet Expectations” extended learning is also mandated, the diagnostic review will be onsite,  and also must result in an approved plan.  But there is a kicker, and the name of that kicker is privatization: “Schools must contract with a state-approved turnaround expert/vendor to implement reform plans aligned to the diagnostic review.”  In other words, schools have to take money from the classrooms and give it to the likes of Paul Vallas and hope for the  best (here is a selection of posts on “turnarounds” from Diane Ravitch, read them to understand my skepticism).  And when the turnaround fails, as they almost always do, here is what happens:

o For public schools that do not participate in the diagnostic review, improvement planning and interventions with turnaround experts, they will close.
o For schools that do participate but fail to show demonstrable improvement after three years, the State Superintendent will intervene. Pending legislation, in the case of schools participating in the Parental Choice Program, the state will remove the school from the program. In the case of charter schools, the authorizer must revoke the charter.

Arne Duncan has always liked school closings.  I think it is safe to say that the system fails the “direct appropriate resources to those schools that need improvement” test also.

Superintendent Tony Evers also has some school finance proposals that he has been touting.  Unfortunately, his Fair Funding for Our Future plan does not include directing any extra resources to high poverty schools or even those identified as in need by this accountability system.  The Fair Funding plan does some good things, but addressing poverty is not one of them.  For years the only state program directing resources to classrooms  based on poverty is the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education or SAGE), which only targets the early grades and in budget cutting moves over the last few years, done under the rhetoric of “flexibility” has been eroded by larger allowed classes and new allowances concerning the grades covered.  There does not seem to be any desire to change that, either from DPI or the legislature.

Fair Funding claims that it “Accounts for family income and poverty.”  In sense it does, but via tax relief for property owners, not by giving schools serving students in poverty the resources they need to meet their challenges.  Under Fair Funding student poverty levels will be factored into calculations of state aid,  but revenue limits will not have a poverty bump and there is no new categorical aid for students in poverty.  So property taxpayers in districts with higher poverty will have lower taxes and the schools will not have an extra penny (btw –the Penny for Kids proposal from the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools/ Opportunity to Learn Wisconsin includes a poverty based categorical aid).  So the Widow Hendricks of “divide and conquer” fame who owns property in multiple high poverty districts gets a tax break and the students of Beloit and Janesville get nothing.

Back to the titular questions,  who cuts the barber’s hair?; who holds the people behind this mess created in the name of “accountability” accountable?  We all need to.

Start at the top.  For Arne Duncan, join the thousands who have signed the “Dump Duncan”  petition.  There is also an election on November 6th and Duncan’s boss Barack Obama is up for re-election.  Diane Ravitch has made a case that “as bad as the Obama education policies are, they are tolerable in comparison to what Mitt Romney plans.”  Others concerned with education, especially those not in swing states, should take a good look at Jill Stein.

In Wisconsin, for Senate and the House, more-or-less the same situation exists.  Some version of NCLB/ESEA will certainly be before Congress, and for that all of the Democrats on the ballot are better than the Republicans, but none have distinguished themselves on Education issues the way Russ Fiengold did.  Still, I’ll be voting for Tammy Baldwin and Mark Pocan and urge you to do the same.  I’ve already warned Mark that I’ll be contacting him regularly on Education and other issues and calling on him be more of a progressive champion on this blog, just as I have when he was my State Rep.

That’s another version of accountability.  It starts at the ballot box, but it doesn’t end there.  Our elected officials need to here from us, all the time.  They need to know — as we sing at the Solidarity Sing Along   — “We’re not going away.”

At the state level, we don’t get another crack at Scott Walker this year,  but there are State Senate and Assembly races.  Again, the rule is Democrats better than Republicans, but there are also some Democrats who are not only better than Republicans, but are real supporters of education.    The two I’d like to point to are Melissa Sargent (who is a good friend) and Mandela Barnes (who I have admired from afar).   By all accounts the Senate is the key this time around.   The key races where your support ($$$ and time) may make difference appear to be Susan Sommer, Jessica King,and Dave Hansen.  Keeping the Senate is the best way to keep Walker in check.  With all this, it is important to remember that the “Accountability” system has been presented as a work in progress and there is some legislative power to dictate changes in some areas (the Report Card portion did not require legislative action, but other parts of the waiver did), and that any changes to school funding — good or bad — have to go through the legislature.  With the State Legislature, this time around accountability means at minimum limiting the power of the Walker allies who aided in the creation of the “Accountability” system.

I’ve saved Superintendent Tony Evers for last.  He is up for re-election in April 2013 and as with all elected officials, the best place to assert accountability is at the ballot box.   It is also likely that come April, Evers will be the better choice (I supported Todd Price in the Primary last time and Evers in the General Election against Rose Fernandez).  Also as with all elected officials,  imposing accountability includes making sure Evers hears from the voters throughout his term, both positive and negative, and I hold some hope he may listen and adjust his course.

There is much I like and admire about Evers, but as the above indicates there are many things he has pushed that I think are bad, wrong or at very least should be better.  I understand that most of this was done in the context of a state in the control of the Fitzwalker gang and a federal policies set by Arne Duncan.  Given the circumstances, it is impossible to tell which things he truly believes are good for our state and our students and which are pragmatic choices made in order to keep a seat at the table and maybe deflect even worse policies (one example where I believe he did this was the mandated grade retention that Walker initially wanted in the Read to Lead legislation).  This situation keeps bringing to mind something Anthony Cody wrote recently about teacher leaders:

How can we make sure that we are not being used as tokens? For this, we have to look at why we are being asked to join the conversation. What are the power dynamics at play? Do we have a vote when decisions are to be made? Will we find allies around the table to help us have some influence? Do we have any real cards to play? This gets us closer to defining what real leadership is all about. Real leadership is not just the ability to speak with clarity and authority based on our experience in the classroom. It also involves a relationship to other teachers, and to some level of political power in these situations.
And Cody concludes:
The bottom line is that we do not have the money to buy influence. We have to get it the old-fashioned way. We have to organize for positive change at our school sites. We have to join with others at our union meetings, and as our colleagues in Chicago showed, we may need to go on strike. We have to build strong relationships with our colleagues, with parents, with allies in other unions and social movements, and with reporters, and use this strength as the basis for our ability to speak for ourselves. We have to organize and build our strength from the ground up, because the strength that comes from the top down is like the strings on a marionette.
As I said, I don’t know what parts of the Waiver or Fair Funding or other things Tony Evers truly believes in, but I have a feeling that he has misgivings about some of these.  For those I urge him to give up the seat at Scott Walker’s and Arne Duncan’s  table (he is after all a State Constitutional officer, with his own table) and take Cody’s advice to “to build strong relationships with our colleagues, with parents, with allies in other unions and social movements, and with reporters, and use this strength as the basis for our ability to speak.”  Till that happens he shares in the accountability for the “accountability” system.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Expeditionary Learning Charter for Toki?

The Replacements – “I Don’t Know” (click to listen or download).

The biggest item on the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education committee agendas this week is  the “Expeditionary Learning Model at Toki Middle School and Timeline” before the Planning and Development Committee (Monday, October 15, 2012, 6:30 p.m. Doyle Administration Building, Room 103, there are Public Appearances on the agenda).  The proposal is to convert Toki Middle School from a district  school to a district instrumentality charter school.

This is the start of a long process of weighing the pros and cons of the proposal, with various decision points along the way.  If the proposal gets that far, the final decision by the Board would be in early 2014 and if the vote is for approval the conversion would happen in September of that year.

Having first seen the proposal only a couple of days ago, I have many questions, concerns and observations, but am nowhere near having decided whether to oppose this.  For the record, that’s exactly where I was at at this point with both Badger Rock (which I did not oppose) and Madison Prep (which I did).  Also for the record, I can’t see myself actively supporting any charter school proposal (it could happen, but it is doubtful).  Mostly I see charters as a distraction from improving the district schools that will for the conceivable future continue to serve the vast majority of students (see this recent post from Deb Meir for some related thoughts).

So on to the “questions, concerns and observations.”

A desire for Federal money appears to be driving the decision to seek a charter.

I’ve written about this before (worth rereading, really), but have never seen such a transparent example.  Some excerpts from the documents, first from the introduction by the district administration (the pdf doesn’t cut-and-paste as text, you can click on the images to enlarge):

Note the “do more with less,” and the “need to look beyond the District allocation process” and remember that in the recent past MMSD has not used the full levy authority available and that the administrative recommendations to not use the full levy authority have been accompanied by assurances that the quality of education was not suffering due to the lack of resources.  If that was true, then the statements here aren’t.

From the proposal itself:

More references to “budget constraints” past and anticipated in the future.  A distinction should probably be made here that there are two related parts to the proposal.  One is the proposal to continue and expand Expeditionary Learning at Toki (more on this below) and the other is to do this as a Charter School.  It is clear that the desire to do the Expeditionary Learning is strong among some, and that chartering is primarily a financially driven means to that end.  Here is what I wrote previously about these aspects of chartering:

The “we can’t do it without a Charter” attitude seems lazy.  First I’d like to know in some detail why it supposedly can’t be done without a Charter.  If that proves to be the case,  than in most instances wouldn’t the best policy be to figure out why and change things so that the benefits of innovation could be achieved through district programs?  It is sad that so many have given up on the reforms that would benefit all students in order to pursue those that will only touch very few (even the staunchest Charter advocates understand that for the foreseeable future the vast majority of American children will attend district schools).

I’ll offer one answer to the titular question: Money!  Unfortunately Federal policy-makers, foundations and many others are all acting on the unexamined assumption that innovation or even diversity of educational programing requires Charters.   I have a friend who is a Superintendent of a small district.  He is justly proud of an environmental Charter school he helped create.  We’ve never talked about it much, but a  couple of months ago he started describing how the only reason to have it be a Charter was the money.   This is pragmatic, but it only shifts the question to “Why is money available for Charters and not district-based creative programs?”

In the bigger picture, with Race to the Top (and the NCLB waivers), we have seen how chasing Federal money has led to less than stellar education policy-making.  Much less than stellar.

The budget numbers assume maximum Federal Grants.

I don’t know if this is realistic.  In order to qualify for the maximum, the Charter must have at least 50% free/reduced lunch enrollment.  That has been the case with Toki only one of the last 11 years (2010-11).  Beyond that, I’m not clear if the maximum grants have changed recently or if DPI awards grants below the maximums, but I do know that no grants given in 2012 were this large.

The dollar amounts cited in the proposal are over three times as large as those cited in a previous request.

On January 31, 2011 the Board was presented with a funding appeal (apparently directed at private donors) for Expeditionary Learning exploration and implementation at Toki, with a 4 year budget that totaled $310,000.  In the pending 2012-13 budget MMSD will provide $60,000 for planning.  It would be good to know why the numbers have changed.  The proposers are probably correct that MMSD can not fund $975,000 for their purposes, but another $250,000 ($310,000 minus $60,000) over 2-3 years is possible.

At this point there is no indication of what the ongoing costs will be.

That’s fine, that information is required at later points in the process, but being aware that there may be extra costs that continue after the Federal money goes away seems wise.

They appear to be proposing a school that is both a charter and and an attendance area school.

On page 13, the proposal says the Charter School students will be “reflective of the current neighborhood,” that “all students within the Toki attendance area will attend,” but also includes references to a lottery to meet numbers.   I would assume that some arrangements would be made for attendance area students who do not want to attend the Charter School, who would prefer to have the policies of their school set and implemented by an elected Board of Education instead of a self-selected Governing Board.

The research cited on Expeditionary Learning is less than convincing.

The proposal (in a very sloppy manner) cites three  studies and one meta analysis in support of Expeditionary Learning as a means of addressing persistent gaps in achievement.  I’m reproducing this entire section below in order to emphasize the centrality of achievement gaps  to the proposal and what the research claims are:

The research citations here seem to come straight from the Expeditionary Learning organization that would be in line to receive most of the $975,000 being requested, so it seems worth looking a bit closer (it is also worth noting that the three studies all appear to have been commissioned by that organization, although I am not 100% sure of that).

Another important caveats is that these are all based on standardized tests and those offer very limited insight into school quality.

Two of the studies  — “Expeditionary Learning: Analysis of impact on achievement gaps,” and “Impact of the Expeditionary Learning model on student academic performance in Rochester, NY” — were done by the Donahue Institute at UMass.  I can’t find the first online, but both were submitted to the What Works Clearinghouse and found not to meet their standards for review.  More on the Rochester study below.    The third study — “The relationship between Expeditionary Learning participation and academic growth” — was done by Mountain Measurement (analysts for hire) and includes few — if any — schools comparable to Toki 9more on this study below, also).  The meta analysis is from 2002, focused on whole school reform models (not achievement gaps  or Expeditionary Learning) and categorized Expeditionary Learning among the programs that were “Highly Promising…but did not have research bases that were as broad and generalizable as those of the models that met the highest standard.”

The Rochester study includes two Expeditionary Learning schools.  The Genesee Community Charter School, serving grades K-6, with a Free/Reduced Lunch rate of 17%, and 0% student mobility,  18% African American, 9% Hispanic, 2% ELL (can’t find Special Ed numbers).  For all these reasons, I don’t see it as comparable to Toki (grades 6-8, not a charter, 48.9% Free/Reduced, most recent mobility factor of 15.8, 28.1% African American, 13.8% Hispanic, 11.5% ELL, 16.4% Special Ed).  the other is the World of Inquiry School.  This is not a Charter, but it may be a magnet or choice school (there is an “Admissions” page on the website, but the click through ends up at a page that isn’t working).  World of Inquiry is a K-8 school, and appears to face similar challenges as Toki, some more pronounced (63% Free/Reduced, 76% African American, 9% Hispanic, 3% ELL).  I’ll be returning to World of Inquiry.

The first part of the report on the Rochester schools cited in support of Expeditionary Learning seems legitimate, as far as it goes (I’d like more details on some of the steps and choices). It is a “quasi-experimental design, involving matching students in Expeditionary Schools with students in other schools by various characteristics (poverty, race, ELL, gender, grade, special education status).  There is some manipulation around the score distributions, involving a regression analysis of the various characteristics, but the regression coefficients aren’t given.   The found statistically significant, positive effect sizes for reading across the board, and in math only for elementary school.  Here’s the table:

Statistically significant doesn’t always translate into significance for policy.

The next step in the attempts to address this by converting the effect sizes into “implied shifts” in proficiency percentages.   The shifts in some of the categories (the same ones as the above chart) are large — about a 30% gain in proficient students for middle school reading in 2007-9, for example and bigger gains with elementary (along with losses for middle school math — so large that they make me doubt the whole analysis. remember that it did not meet the Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse standards.   I’ll look closer later and consult with people who know more about quantitative work than I do (as I said at the top, this is going to be a long process), for now I want to keep this in mind and shift to looking directly how middle school students at World of Inquiry have been doing.

The short answer is, not very well, worse than Toki.  No doubt at some point in the future I’ll produce nice charts and graphs on this, but here’s the quick and dirty numbers, only one year (2010-11), one grade (8th), and only Reading, percentages proficient or better (Toki data from WINNS, World of Inquiry data from here):

Reading Toki Reading WoI
All Students 77.50% 46.00%
African American 64.70% 39.00%
Hispanic 72.20% 63.00%
ELL 42.90%
Special Ed 40.00% 0.00%
Free/Reduced 64.20% 43.00%

Note that state proficiency measures vary greatly, according to the NAEP mapping project, Wisconsin’s are lower than New York’s.

In every category, World of Inquiry is doing worse than Toki, far worse.   This raises many questions about all the promises made in the proposal.

Even quicker and dirtier on the “The relationship between Expeditionary Learning participation and academic growth” report.  It is a similar quasi-experimental design, but includes many more schools and students.  Some are rural, some are suburban, some are charters, some are private, some are k-5, some include 6-8…only two seem to be comparable at all to Toki.  MAP testing is at the center of this study, for what that’s worth.  The results are all over the place (as they probably should be).  I haven’t had time to dig into it too much, here’s the summary table:

Again, much here that doesn’t support the confidence of the citations or tone of the proposal.

King Middle School  in Portland,ME seems to be one of the more comparable schools in this study, and one that many supporting the proposal seem to be pointing to as an example of success.  It isn’t exactly comparable, having similar poverty numbers, but much different racial and ethnic percentages (more on that at another time)  With that in mind, here is another chart comparing Toki and King (same years, grades…as above, King data from here):

Reading Toki Reading King
All Students 77.50% 78.00%
African American 64.70% 46.00%
Hispanic 72.20%
ELL 42.90% 47.00%
Special Ed 40.00% 38.00%
Free/Reduced 64.20% 64.00%

Note that state proficiency measures vary greatly, according to the NAEP mapping project, Wisconsin’s are lower than Maine’s.

Students at King seem to be doing roughly the same as students at Toki, with African American students doing substantially worse.

These initial forays into the research and data find little or nothing to support the implementation of Expeditionary Learning (with a charter or otherwise) as the solution to the challenges and struggles Toki has been facing.  There is much more to be done before a firm conclusion either way is arrived at.  I hope that unlike with Madison Prep, the MMSD administration does their duty to thoroughly analyze the educational aspects of this proposal, so that the Board and the community have something more than my explorations to go by.

Closing

There are many other concerns and questions I have at this point, these include the present and future roles and thinking of those Toki staff members who don’t support the initiative, the way this all interacts with the recently approved Urban League program, how people at Toki came to champion Expeditionary Learning (and how much independent research have they done or looked at), why the “Equity” section of the administrative portion is blank …many, many questions and concerns.  Plenty of time to air them; this is a long process.

I want to close by saying that I admire those behind this proposal for working to improve their school, for not accepting the frustrations of seeing students struggle and fail, for taking the initiative to find a way to try to make things better.   I may not end up agreeing that the way they have chosen is a good way, a way worth trying, but that doesn’t change my admiration.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Thoughts on the late MMSD budget recommendations

The Dolly Mixture — “Spend Your Wishes” (click to listen or download).

With all the appropriate attention given this weekend to the opportunity to re-engage in collective bargaining  (if you haven’t weighed in the Board, there is still time:  board@madison.k12.wi.us) another and very important item on the Madison Metropolitan Board of Education’s agendas for Monday, September 24 2012 has slipped somewhat under the radar.  I’m talking about the Administrative Recommendations related to the unanticipated state aid, involving $8.1 M in taxing/spending.    Matt DeFour has a story up at the State Journal, but I haven’t heard much from anyone else on this (except some chatter that I solicited on my Facebook page).

First some general observations then to the specifics of the recommendations.

General Observations

The timeline is too tight.

The district has till the end of October to finalize their 2012-13 budget; the recommendations were made public Friday (9/21)  and the Board is being asked to give “preliminary approval” to these recommendations  on Monday.  An earlier document said the recommendations would be presented to a committee on September 17.  They were not (see about the 90 minute mark and note Ed Hughes asks if they will be asked to act on 9/24 and is told “no,” but never-the-less they are being asked to act…hmm).  I understand that these are somewhat special circumstances, but think the spirit of the statutorily mandated open budget process with required timely public disclosures and formal opportunities for public comment should be honored as much as possible.  A preliminary approval on Monday would be about as far from that as you could get.  Use the time available to give careful consideration and to allow the public to give consideration also.

The Board Member Amendments and other things considered during the regular budget process — including unfunded portions of the Achievement Gaps Plans — do not seem to have been given special consideration.

You could argue that these have been considered and rejected (back in July Ed Hughes made a related case here and here more recently), but I would counter that those rejections were based in part on tax levy considerations that have changed.  I would further argue that revisiting things is more respectful of the spirit of an open budget process than is bringing in “new” items this late in the game.  They also probably could be dealt with relatively fast.  I have a particular fondness for the amendment Maya Cole put forth on Library staffing and think it should come back; others may want to reconsider parts of the Gaps Plans or other things.  I think these should be the starting point.

Five votes are needed to do anything.

Once the Preliminary Budget is passed, changes need a super majority.

The pie hasn’t grown any larger, only the mix of where the ingredients are coming from has changed.

The Revenue Limit for MMSD  — what I’m calling “the pie” —  is the same as it had been in June, but more state aid means less local property taxes.  All the potential revenues contemplated in the Recommendations have been there since the start of the budget process.  It was a choice not to use them.   Many factors — including “efficiencies” (good and bad), significant cuts in state aid,  and the 2008 referendum have made the levy limits almost irrelevant in Madison budget talks recently.  This is not the case in most districts, may not be the case in MMSD in the future, and in terms of state policy Rev Caps remain a big problem.

The calculations around minimizing tax levies seem to be changing, but I’m not sure how.

As noted above and (indirectly in the documents from the district), the Preliminary Budget for 2012-13 (like the 2010-11 and the 2011-12 budgets) was arrived at by giving great weight to the size of the tax levy, and (as I’ve argued here and elsewhere) perhaps not enough weight to the needs of the students (and no consideration of the way the levy credits shape the impact of the  levy on taxpayers).  The administrative recommendations return to the days of “taxing to the max.”  This doesn’t seem to be a change in the principles used, but rather a one time move, based on the fact that a levy higher than anything possible at this point has already been found acceptable.  It should also be noted that the administration isn’t presenting options for taxing to the max, the default for saying no to the recommended expenditures is to reduce taxes (as a general thing, not just budgets, I really think the role of the administration is to present a range of options and their analyses of these options).   What is clear from the recommendations (contingency allocations, IRTs, Assistant Principals  — and other things like the hiring of a Chief of Staff and the reorganization of the Equity/Parent Involvement Department — is that some of the efficiencies enacted in pursuit of lower taxes during the Nerad years have not been good for the district.  There is a lesson here.

Budgets are about choices; Choosing the items recommended by the administration means not choosing other things.

Basic, but a reminder is is always good.  The Rev Caps do limit the size of the pie and you can only get so many slices out of it.   If you are funding iPads, you aren’t funding Librarians with that money (or raises, or repairs, or software, or social workers, or smaller classes, paying off loans, or tax relief….).  Current choices also shape or limit future choices, money committed to an ongoing expense this year won’t be there next year for anything, including the staff raises that almost all Board Members seem interested in exploring.  $8.1 million in choices to be made.

The Recommendations (mostly in order with comments and initial — mostly tentative — opinions)

Requirements (headings from the Recommendations)

Property Tax Relief (state revenue limits), $3,700,000

This is  required by the Rev Caps.  As noted above, the default to more tax relief is problematic.  It should also be noted that this is listed as being the same for the following year, when we really have no idea at all what the Rev Caps or the state aid will be.

WRS Increase, $1,200,000

Not really required, but seems like a good idea.

Short Term for Long Term Good/Closing Gaps

Second Year of Achievement Gap Plan, $3,700,000 (in 2013-14)

If I read this correctly, this recommendation is to hold off taxing this amount this year, in order to fund Achievement Gap(s) Plan (AGP)  initiatives next year.  Again, this assumes some things about what the state will do with the next budget.  It also kind of assumes that after a year the initial results or other considerations  will warrant continuing or expanding initiatives.  Last it sort of commits the Board to this.  I say “sort of” because the there really isn’t a separate pot of money (or revenue authority) being created and come 2013-14 Budget the Board (in office at that time…three seats up in April 2013) can do whatever they want with a majority vote.

My feeling has always been that if there are things that there are good reason to believe will have a significant positive impact on a significant number of students,  and we have the revenue authority to fund these, we should, now, not later (I know the “significants” raise other questions).   This late in the game, finding good ways to spend $3.7oo,000 may be hard, but I think it is worth a try.  If ideas are lacking at this time, the levy could be approved and a process could be put in place to generate and vet initiatives for the Spring semester (or the Summer).   This of course could create lots of confusion and uncertainty, so maybe the best thing to do would be to pay off some loans early and/or fund maintenance/capital improvements this year with the authority.  Those would free up money in future budgets.

4K from DPI Grant, $624,186 (in 2013-14)

This is another set aside for the next budget.  Some related things here.  Similar comments as above, except that the “need” for the funded items in 2013-14 is more certain.

Technology – iPads, $1,580,000 and (under “Closing Gaps“) iPad Coach, $74,927 (and $77,924 2013-14 and what looks like an ongoing expenditure)

Side note — this looks like an assumption of the generic teacher FTE allocation cost increasing by $2997 or 4% next year).

I don’t like these recommendations.

Larry Cuban (who has written extensively and insightful on technology and education) has asked “”What is the pressing or important problem to which an iPad is the solution?”   I don’t think the answer from the administration justifies the expenditure:

Provide one to one use of iPads for teachers. Using iPads can make the work of teaching more effective, more efficient, and more rewarding. Our teachers will have one of the best tools to improve instruction, communicate with students and colleagues, develop or adopt digital learning tools and manage their classroom. If we recognize the teaching staff can benefit in these ways using this technology we make a bold statement to our staff and our community. (emphasis added)

I tend to be skeptical of both “bold statements” and handheld technologies in education.  A couple of teacher friends saw some good in this, the one that was more convincing to me was a gym teacher who saw a means to do attendance and assessments while still engaged with students.

That seems like a good use, but the question remains are there enough “pressing or important problems” to justify buying this many more iPads?  I was told the district has 1,500 now; all I could find was this purchase of 586 in January 2012 and the  Technology Acquisition Plan to purchase 900 in 2011 (this document is the fullest explanation of the vision for iPads in the district there is also an iPad page for the District, and the MMSD 2009-2013 Information (Library Media) & Technology Plan: Draft).

I’m not 100% sure how many the District has now or who has them.  At $500 per,  the recommended purchase would bring the total to at least  3,500 and maybe to 4,500.  There are about 2,700 teachers (including social workers, counselors, psychologists).   So while I have come to see a place for iPads, I don’t see a place for that many and think the allocation procedure described in plan to purchase 900 should work to get the iPads in the hands of those who will make good use.

Some other people have weighed in with me on the iPads, bringing up issues of support 9that go beyond coaching), choice of hardware (iPads are not the only or necessarily the best tablets, only the ones that make the boldest statement), obsolescence,  the top-down nature of this initiative, and pulling teachers away from active engagement during class time.  All good points that reinforce my inclination to urge a “not now” vote.

Interim Chief of Staff Funding, $100,000

The recommendation says the money is currently coming from Title I.  That isn’t what was said at the time it was approved.  I think Steve Hartley brings many good things to the position and is an asset, but I still don’t like the way this went down and the funding confusion only adds to this.  Back on the levy, fine.  I’ll add that as the Superintendent search and hire goes forward, in the light of this and the whole rereorganization of the Nerad reorganization, there should be an attempt at clarity of Doyle organization, expenses and positions, especially at the “Cabinet Level.”

Technology – Wireless $650,000

All reports are that the current wi fi is overloaded.  This seems like a good capital expenditure.

Closing Gaps

2.0 Teacher Leaders,  $149,854 (for 2013-14, $155,848)

Here’s the explanation:

The AGP recommended 1 Elementary Teacher Leader for on-going support of Elementary Instructional Resource Teachers (supporting the implementation of Mondo) and 1 Secondary Teacher Leader as a member of the School Support Team for high schools to increase fidelity of literacy across the content areas/disciplinary literacy and English. We are recommending the restoration of these positions as critical to the literacy focus for our students.

You want to give initiatives a good shot at working and I mostly support this.  My only problem is with the designation for Mondo.  Last year Mondo was piloted and the results weren’t good (and here) yet the Board voted to expand. Now it looks like additional funding and a two-year commitment is being asked for.   This looks like doubling down on doubling down.  There should be a do-or-die moment for Mondo as part of the next budget cycle.

Assistant Principal and Clerical,  $156,940 (and $163,218 in 2013-14).

More leftovers from Nerad’s penny wise and pound foolish reorganizations.  This looks OK.  One note, the explanation indicates hat 550 pupils is now the tipping point for adding Assistant Principals.  I believe it used to be 500.  When did this change?  Was the Board aware?  This is like class size, a creeping erosion of quality done quietly.   It also should be noted that these expenditures were never part of the AGP and should be assumed to be ongoing expenditures.

Math Teachers .93, $69,682 (and $72,469 for 2013-14)

This seems to be to support Sch0ols of Hope (btw — when are we going to see a real evaluation and cost out of Schools of Hope?).   The job description is strange, especially the last line:

.93 FTE Teacher Allocation: The HS math interventionist will work with math staff to identify appropriate students, provide PD and assistance to the tutor coordinator and tutors, analyze assessments via Renaissance Learning (we already are using this but not to its full potential) and communicate with math teachers. A big plus is that the Math Interventionist will be able to generate a roster of students in IC, this has been a huge barrier for the community partners.

Generating a roster hasn’t been possible and we need a highly skilled interventionist to do this?  Still, I support (but I do want that cost out and evaluation, if student and staff time are being spent with Schools of Hope and it isn’t helping much, that is important to know).  Assumed to be ongoing.

Security Assistant (3), $132,731 ($138,187 for 2013-14)

There were no additional allocations for Security Assistants in any of the iterations of the AGP, so how this ended up being listed as part of Closing Gaps is a mystery.  It is also indicative of something I’ve observed before with MMSD and (in the world at large) and that is treating social problems as policing problems.  In fact, if you read the explanation it comes out something like, “Our Principals are too busy doing educational work to deal with discipline issues, so let’s throw some paraprofessional security assistants into the mix.”  I’d be much happier if the recommendation was to throw more social workers and psychologists into the mix.  I fairness, there are some references to size of schools and mix of programs as a justification, but I’d like to know more in detail  about what the needs are and how the security assistants are expected to help.  Without that, I say spend some of the set asides and get the social workers.  Assume to be ongoing.

High School REAL Grant Coordinators (nothing in 2012-13, $155,848 in 20114).

These have been grant funded and the grants are going away.  I don’t object to the allocations at this time, but do think that this presents an opportunity to reassess the work and job descriptions before extending via other funding.  Assumed to be ongoing.

Secondary Unallocated 5.0, $374,635 (and $389,620 in 2013-14)

I strongly support this and perhaps an increase in Elementary Unallocated (the recommendation isn’t clear on the needs there, but lacking any good data from the district anecdotal reports of bigger class sizes in the last few years incline me to believe there may be a need) .  The cuts to these have limited the flexibility, created closed sections and larger classes.  They should not have been cut as deeply as they were and restoring is a good idea.  Assumed to be ongoing.

PBS Coaches, (nothing in 2012-13 and $498,714 in 2013-14)

Positive Behavior Support is a very good idea and a good program.  It should be funded for every school. Assumed to be ongoing.

Seed to Table $74,927 (and $77,924 in 2013-14)

This was presented at a Committee meeting recently.  It seems like a good program.  Assumed to be ongoing.

Final Thoughts

As I said, most of these opinions on the individual items are tentative.  There simply has not been time for anyone to reach firm, grounded conclusions.

The process is another matter.  I’m firm and grounded in my opinion that both the Board and the public should be given more time before decisions are requested.  I’m firm and grounded in my opinion that more options should be presented, including things suggested but not funded during the Preliminary Budget work.  Last, I’m firm and grounded in my opinion that leaving levy authority unused under these circumstances is a mistake and at very least ask that Board consider early loan payments. maintenance needs and capital improvements as possible one-time expenditures, rather than under-levying.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Seats at the Table

David Hockney, Walking Past Two Chairs 1984-6

Jimmy Cliff , “Sitting In Limbo” (click to listen or download).

The big item at the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education meeting/retreat/workshop last night was the process for replacing the collective bargaining agreement with an employee hand book (thanks Scott Walker).  Being a retreat/workshop, nothing was decided.  In my view, at this point the most important issues are who will have seats at the table for the drafting of the handbook and what roles will the Board of Education play.

Matt Defour has a story on this portion of the meeting and Karen Vieth has a great write-up, so I’m mostly just going to offer comments, observations and opinions.

As of now, the default process, as put in place by departed Superintendent Dan Nerad (apparently without consulting the Board), is that the handbook process and drafting the handbook will be in the charge of a 15 member “Work Group” made up entirely of Administrators.  If the Board does not act, this is what we get, no seats at the table for teachers and other non-administrative staff.  The Board needs to act.

Recently I posted a cartoon of workers being locked out of discussions of labor; I never thought this would be the case in Madison.  This is insane.  An all administrative committee should not have even been among the options considered.   Our community supported our teachers when they walked out to protest the collective bargaining being decimated, Dane County voted 68% in favor Collective Bargaining, we are a community that recognizes the importance of workers and teachers having a voice and having their voices heard, we are a district where the successful school board candidate NOT endorsed by the unions saw “teachers and staff…playing a central role” in the handbook process.  This is the kind of thing you’d expect in Waukesha, not Madison.  Scott Walker and his supporters must be very pleased.

As described at the meeting, the default Madison process would allow for staff input via surveys and other means, but this is far different than having people at the table as part of the drafting team.    That’s not collaborative or a partnership.

Around the state, other communities have found ways to bring diverse staff to the table as partners.  I don’t have a complete list, but Middleton is doing it, La Crosse did it, Monona Grove did it,  Watertown did itSomerset did it, Hartland-Lakeside did itEau Claire did it .  Madison needs to do it.

They didn’t do it simply because it is fair and right, they did it because it makes sense.    La Crosse knew that the best decisions would not be made in “an administration in a vacuum.”  And the result was positive.

“I think the final product is a good product,” [Superintendent Randy] Nelson said. “It represents a balance that I think maintains the respect and dignity of our staff.”

Respect and dignity were part of the product because respect and dignity were part of the process.

The other issue in this is the role of the Board.  Arlene Silveira suggested that rather than have a Board member be part of the committee, Board Members sit in on the meetings on a rotating basis and keep the rest of the Board informed.  This seemed to have general support from the rest of the Board.   These is a good idea.

Maya Cole (and others) expressed concerns about the handbook process going forward with little input or guidance from the Board, both in terms of general philosophy and specifics.  Her fear was that in the end, with the clock ticking, the Board would be given only less-than-satisfactory choices.

There was some Pollyannaish talk that the “Guiding Principles” in the process document  — especially the first two “1. Improve student learning. As in everything we do, the first question and the top priority is student learning. How does what we are considering impact students? 2. Empower staff to do their best work. How does this impact teachers and staff? Does it help or hinder them in doing their jobs effectively?” — would be sufficient (a little more below on this), but there seemed to be a consensus that at very least the committee should present some options to the Board.  That’s another reason to have an inclusive committee; to get better options.

A quick aside on the “Guiding Principals” and related thoughts and then back to the Board’s role.  It is all well and good to say that student learning is or should be primary in just about everything, but it is also false and serves to marginalize staff.  I’ve long said that the interests of teachers align with the interests of students and the district by about 95% and yes “student learning” is the prime interest.  But staff are adults, with mortgages, families to support, loans to pay, relationships to cultivate and maintain, …They are not and should not be people who put student learning above the their own well being.  To  even contemplate that they should be is disrespectful.  That’s why we hear the “All about the students” meme  from the anti-teacher/anti-union reform crowd.  It sound good, but it is wrong.  Think about it, did the people negotiating a contract on behalf of Interim Superintendent Belmore put “student learning at the top of their list?  Of course not, and they shouldn’t have.

The only people who really have a claim to this position are the Board Members, and as the later discussion of taxes and budget at the meeting demonstrated (along with the years of under-levy), even the Board seeks to balance what is best for students with what is best for taxpayers (btw — good to hear Interim Sup. Belmore and some Board Members acknowledge how budget -driven cuts from contingency funds have limited flexibility in harmful ways, and talk about restoring some of these).   Let’s drop the false, feel good rhetoric.  [Some related things on the "All about the kids" rhetoric in relation to Madison Prep, here and here.]

Glad I got that off my chest.  The Board’s role is tricky.  They have the final say and responsibility, but almost certainly should not be intimately involved every step of the way (involved, but not intimately).  Beyond whatever “Guiding Principals” they endorse or don’t  (and this is the job of the Board, not the administration), I’d suggest the give the committee two lists.  The first list should be of things they do not want changed; the second of things where they would like to have some options for changes.  I’d put “just cause” for dismissals at the top of the first list.  On the second, the committee should provide both options and analyses of the options.

I’m not sure if this is the kind of thing Maya Cole was talking about.  She seemed to be thinking of something less detailed.   One thing Ms Cole did say very clearly was that in regard to the process the Board should make motions and take votes, and the sooner the better.  We are in agreement on that.

Right now, as the song says, this is in limbo.  There is a process, the administration is in complete control of it, there are “Guiding Principles,” things are going forward, but the Board seems poised to act to redirect and remake.  Till they do act (or announce in some manner a decision not to act), we are in limbo.  As always, write the Board to tell them what you think they should do (or not do):  board@madison.k12.wi.us.

Thomas J. Mertz

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