Garbage In, Garbage Out: MMSD Reports

Harlem Hamfats – “My Garbage Man” (click to listen or download).

On the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education agenda this week are a plethora of reports and updates on Literacy Program Evaluation, the Strategic Plan,  the Achievement Gap Plan (an aside, one of the good things about the initial introduction was the use of the plural — Gaps — that seems to have disappeared), the Fine Arts Plan, the Math Plan, the Talented and Gifted Plan, and the Equity Report (meetings commence at 5:15 PM, Monday July 23, after a closed session, first up in open session is a discussion of “Merit Pay” for some unnamed MMSD staff, with the exception of Literacy, all the reports mentioned are bundled in a single pdf, here).

First, it needs to be said that this is way too much for the Board or the public to meaningfully engage in a single meeting.  I assume that some of this will be continued at subsequent meetings, but it is still a bad idea to put this all out at once.  TMI. (Update: I’ve just been told that only the Literacy Report will be discussed this evening).

Or maybe not, because the three pieces I’ve looked at in some detail —  The Strategic Plan material, the Talented and Gifted Plan material and the Equity Report material — are of little worth in guiding the Board.  There is too much information (pages and pages of action plan flow charts), but way to little information that is of use for decision-making (the Literacy Report does have more useful evaluation information than these and I really haven’t looked at the others, so nothing I say is intended to apply to the Math or Fine Arts materials, the Achievement Gap material is integrated with the Strategic Plan material) .  It is clear from the reports that everyone is very busy, what isn’t clear is whether this business is having any impact on the quality of education.

We can’t expect good governance without knowing how our programs and initiatives are impacting students, and despite Board dictated “Core Measures” for the Strategic Plan, that doesn’t seem to be part of the reporting agenda..  We also can’t expect equitable decision-making without knowing the “the distribution of staff, financial, and programmatic resources across all schools” and despite a Board Policy that requires these be provided annually, they have never been part of the Equity Reports.  The first step toward improving decision-making would be for the Board to refuse to accept these reports and updates.   There is  a precedent for this, the initial 2010 Equity Report was sent back for a do-over.  Good information doesn’t guarantee good decision-making (see the recent expansion of Mondo Literacy despite an evaluation that produced no meaningful evidence of an impact, and here); but without good information there is no hope of good decision-making.

Two  more asides and then on to a little detail on each of the three reports.  One is that I am not passing any judgment here on the plans or initiatives themselves only the way are they are reported.  The other is that it is possible that I’ve misunderstood the purpose and nature of these reports and that the plan is to provide  actual useful information to the Board and the public at a subsequent date.  Given past ;performance, I doubt that is the case, but if it is I’d still have to question why time and money has been spent on these reports and updates, except to demonstrate that people are busy.

Strategic Plan:

The big thing missing here is an update on the Core Measures.  It would also be nice to have included something about the “Report to Board of Education” that was on the agenda of the May 30, 2012 “3rd Annual Review of MMSD Strategic Plan” meeting.  A presentation on the Core Measures was also part of that agenda, but this presentation is not linked to that agenda (only more Action Plan flow-charts), does not appear on the district Strategic Planning page,  and has not appeared on any Board agenda.  For the record, these are the Core Measures, All of which are required to be “disaggregated by the following groups: Gender, race-ethnicity, income status, special education status, English language earner (ELL) status.

  • WKCE reading proficiency percentage, grades 4 and 8
  • WKCE math proficiency percentage, grades 4 and 8
  • WKCE reading percent above 90th state percentile, grades 4 and 8
  • WKCE math percent above 90th state percentile, grades 4 and 8
  • Percentage of students on track for credit attainment required for graduation in four years, Grade 9/year 1
  • Advanced course participation rate
  • ACT composite score, percent scoring above 90th national percentile
  • Percentage of students above 90 percent attendance rate, kindergarten, grades 6 and 9
  • DPI graduation and completion rate
  • Percentage of students suspended (in and out of school), all grades

Note that the Reading data (disaggregated)  is in the Literacy EvaluationLast year’s Strategic Plan update has the aggregate data on these measures, but not disaggregated (page 69 of the pdf).

There are also “nearly 200” other performance measures in the Strategic Plan that are supposed to be reported annually, disaggregated.

It makes sense to link what is being done to how students are doing.  What doesn’t make sense is to call initiatives going forward “progress,” without much or any accompanying information about the impact of these initiatives on students.

Talented and Gifted

The TAG info is more of the same, all about what staff are doing and nothing about the results for students.  In the last years (and again in pending 2012-13 budget) there have been significant increases in the staff and resources devoted to TAG.  I support improved programs and services for Talented and Gifted and I support more equitable identification and delivery of these programs and services.   However,  I want to know what the results of efforts at improvement are and that information is (almost) completely lacking.  You can read the update and you will find no information about how many students are being screened or served, the demographics of those students, what services which students are receiving what the outcomes are for the students being served, whether there is mobility among the hierarchical labels given to students  based on perceived ability for cluster grouping, whether there is mobility in and out of the honors sequences instituted over the protests of West High students and parents (if there is little or no mobility, it is tracking, not flexible “ability” grouping), what are the demographic breakdowns of those labeled for the purposes cluster grouping and the effects of these labels on classroom segregation, have the honors sequences  and other changes increased segregation in classes…So many questions and (almost) no answers at all.   The TAG Plan and update include calls for evaluation, but the only concrete assessment of progress listed in the update is a parent survey.

I believe that the last times any of these questions were answered in a public presentations was in 2010, and even those only addressed  “TAG Participation”  (in this February 11, 2010 TAG Plan Update) and “Participation in Advanced Courses” (in the August 2010 Equity Report  see below and note that no definition is given for “Advanced Courses,” more on the problems with another presentation of this data here).  The numbers in 2010 weren’t good; I’d like to know what they are now and think that the Board needs to know.

Equity

I’ve been pushing for quality equity reporting (and more equitable policies and practices) for more years than I like to think about.   The two most detailed versions of my hopes and wishes for the Equity Report can be found here and here (please check them out, because I’m not going into that much detail in this post)..This is what the Board Policy calls for:

Reporting

Administration will report on an annual basis to the Board of Education the extent of progress on specific measures in eliminating gaps in access, opportunities and achievement.

Administration will develop an annual report that will provide data on the distribution of staff, financial, and programmatic resources across all schools.

The best of the past Reports is the second iteration in 2010 (done after the rejection of the initial version).  This one did a reasonable job with the “specific measures in eliminating gaps in access, opportunities and achievement” part, but was lacking in documenting “the distribution of staff, financial, and programmatic resources across all schools.”  The 2011 version was a step backwards.  It also lacked documentation on “the distribution of staff, financial, and programmatic resources across all schools,” and returned to the factoids instead of data practices of the initial, rejected 2010 Report.  Here is what the rejected 2010 version had to say about the racial and ethnic breakdown for”Advance Course Participation”

From the final 2010 version

Numbers as well as percents would be good, some information on the distribution across schools is missing, but there is some actual data and the information is linked to the strategies that are intended to address this issue.

This what was reported in 2011

Yep, the exact language from the rejected 2010 report, and utterly useless for benchmarking and gauging progress.

Here’s the kicker, the “Report” being offered this week doesn’t even include that much information, on the current state of the district in this or almost an other area.  It is not responsive to the first requirement of the policy.

It isn’t responsive to the second requirement– “Administration will develop an annual report that will provide data on the distribution of staff, financial, and programmatic resources across all schools” —  either.  None of the reports to date has satisfactorily met this requirement.  At best, they have provided district-level information about programmatic resources and with some work it would be possible to use the reports (in conjunction with other reports, like those on the agenda this week)  to piece together a partial picture of the distribution of programs  “across all schools.”  It would take a lot of work.  There is next to nothing here that documents the distribution of staff or financial resources.

This requirement is based on other parts of the policy, I’ve bolded the key statements here:

Assumptions

  1. Schools will be excellent only when students of all economic and demographic groups are achieving at high levels.
  2. Schools should reflect fairness and high expectations for all learners.
  3. Achieving equity often requires an unequal distribution of resources and services in response to the unequal distribution of needs and educational barriers.
  4. Strong district and building leaders with a focus on equity are critical factors to achieving district goals.
  5. Every Madison school will be equally desirable and of the highest quality.

Goals

  1. The district will eliminate gaps in access, opportunities, and achievement by recognizing and addressing historic and contemporary inequalities.
  2. The district will recognize and eliminate inequitable policies and practices at the district level.
  3. The district will recognize and eliminate inequity in and among schools.

You can’t “eliminate inequity” if you don’t first delineate it and that means knowing what resources are going to what schools, how and why.

Two recent discussions revealed how in the dark the Board of Education is on the distribution of resources.

The first was  an October 3, 2011 discussion of class size, cut short in order to waste more time on Madison Prep, that featured a confusing and incomplete presentation of data.  Despite promises made, in the intervening 10 months  the better data has not come before the Board, nor has the Board returned to the topic.  For what they are worth and those interested, the Middle School info is here (not too bad, but no trend info) and the Elementary info is here  (really useless).  There is nothing worth mentioning on High Schools.  For the hardcore, there was also what looks to be an outdated practices document given to the LaFollette Area study committee (it still has SAGE classes at 15/1, over a year after MMSD went to 18/1).

The second occurred around a defeated budget amendment offered by Maya Cole, aimed at making sure all schools had adequate LMC staffing.   The administration recommended against this amendment in part because the lack of librarians had resulted from discretionary reallocations made by principals.  As was revealed in the discussion with limited resources Response to Intervention and other mandated and discretionary initiatives have forced principals to make difficult decisions, decisions that impact equity.

It is fitting that the latter discussion occurred in the context of the budget.  The “distribution of staff, financial, and programmatic resources across all schools” should be central to entire budget process, but it never has been and it never will be unless the Board first demands that the administration fulfill that portion of the equity reporting requirement.   You can see an old (2008)  and partial version of what this reporting might look like here.

In the receding past, in order to enhance equity by targeting resources based on needs, MMSD provided supplemental, discretionary allocations based on The Equity Needs Index (ENI) and the Equity Resource Formula (ERF).  Years of budget cuts have eroded this to near irrelevance  (see this from and the aforementioned mandated initiatives have further undercut this approach to equity.   It is telling that the brief description of the ENI in the Equity Report on this week’s agenda is attributed to Pam Nash, who hasn’t worked for MMSD in over a year.    In the absence of the ENI/ERF, the woefully inadequate SAGE (class size, early grades only) and Title I (in MMSD only elementary schools),  ELL and Special Ed allocations are just about the only means for targeting resources to higher needs students.

This concept of Equity allocations needs reviving, but that need won’t be apparent until the Board and the public are made privy to how programmatic, staff and financial resources are currently distributed.  Some trend data, going back a few years and some linkage to access and achievement data would help too.  That’s exactly what the Board envisioned when they created the Equity Policy, but it hasn’t happened.

As I said above, a first step to improved education is improved reporting.  I’m not asking for full evaluations of everything, just basic data and analysis.  There are changes underway in the Equity and Family Involvement (sub) department and the new budget includes some minimal new funding for data work so there is some slim hope that good things may be forthcoming.  It is up the Board to make sure that that hope becomes a reality and the one way they can do that is demand better of those in our employ.

Thomas J. Mertz

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