Category Archives: Class Size

Special Education Budget Amendment: Helping Hands

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Owen Gray — Give a Helping Hand (click to listen/watch).

On Monday, October 30, 2017 (6:00 PM, Doyle Bldg. Auditorium), the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education will finalize our 2017-18 budget.  Late information received from the state shows that based on the expenditures from the Preliminary budget passed in June, our district will have about $3.7 Million in unused revenue authority, and significantly lower property tax increases than anticipated (2.96% vs 3.97%).  At the October 23, 2017 Operations Work Group meeting, this information was discussed, and there is interest among some of the Board in using some of this authority to increase Special Education expenditures, specifically to add Special Education Assistants, or SEAs  (video here).  I intend to support (or propose) a budget amendment to do this.

It is probably worth noting that prior to passing the June budget, the Board passed an amendment devoting up to an extra $1 million to class size reduction, but because the terms of that amendment, the delay in passing a state budget meant that this money was not spent.

At the October 23 meeting I said I was comfortable using about half of the authority, or about $1.8 Million total (there was also some support for collecting and “banking” some of the revenue for future use, and for applying to physical plant maintenance).  We are still waiting for some more information on current special education staffing and recent trends; based on the information I have now, I am thinking in the $750,000 to $1,000,000 range for special education staffing, which would mean about 15 to 20 FTE SEAs.

In posting a news story related to this on Facebook, I wrote that I “have been hearing from both staff and families that the unmet needs are greater than they have been in the past.,” since that posting I have heard much more.

I am not under the illusion that this increase will allow all needs to be met (we are far from that), but I do think it will help in multiple ways.

I also fully understand that these kind of last minute budget fixes are not a good practice, and that real help (and good budgeting) involves deliberate analysis, redesign, and implementation.  This is in the works, with a Special Education Delivery redesign process (including money for those — often correctly — dreaded consultants) in the budget.  I hope that process brings improvement, but right now we know there are needs, and have the means to address some of those needs.  I think we would be remiss if we did not do this.  What follows is some background and more detail on why I believe this, why I support using some of this revenue authority for special education staffing.

Staffing Trends

Fiscal Year Special Education Assistants (SEA) Special Education Teachers (District and School) Special Education Teachers (School Based) Special Education Students
2014 318.06 337.66 3,936 (January)
2015 333.05 331.76 3,965 (January)
2016 341.65 326.04 281.3 3,891 (January)
2017 292.53 351.50 287.4 3,935 (January)
2018 (proposed) 289.24 356.46 293.6 (?) 3,973 (September)

Data taken from October Budget UpdateApril Budget Book, and MMSD (internal) DataDashboard.  The school based teacher staffing is an estimate, no data is readily available for 2014, and 2015.

The most obvious trend is a shift from SEAs to teachers, resulting in fewer total school based staff, despite generally increasing numbers of special education students (FY 2017 to 2018 doesn’t fully fit this trend, if my estimate is correct, with a total staffing increase of 1.37, for an increase of students of 38).  This appears to be deliberate, and also appears to be based on (among other things) a misapplication of the work of Special Education Scholar Michael Ginagreco (more on that below).

The April Budget included an increase of 7.7 EAs, the June budget had a net cut of 13 EAs (this includes all categories of EAs, not just SEAs), this is a reduction of 57 from 2015-16.  As of the 2017-18 third Friday count there were 82 more special education students than there had been in January of 2016,  and 38 more than in January of 2017. 

This, from a 2011 Wisconsin State Journal article (discussed in this AMPS post) provides some longer term context:

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Graph from the Wisconsin State Journal, click image for accompanying story.

Why SEAs Matter and Why this Can Help

Probably best to start here with a disclosure: my spouse is a SEA in MMSD.  Chris Rickert and others of his ilk may think that because of this I should not involve myself in this area as a Board Member.  I disagree.  If this amendment passes, the odds are it will have little or no direct impact on my spouse’s working conditions (the program she works with is extremely unlikely to see any staffing changes), and even if it does have a small direct or indirect impact, it would not be anything that could be considered special treatment based on our relationship.  There would be no monetary impact for our family.

The staff in our schools and the families of students in special education can do a much better job explaining why this matters than I can (please do let the Board hear your stories); their direct experiences are much more powerful than my observations and interpretations.  That said, I would like to try.

Safety: All students; all staff.  Whether it is students who “run” from classes, buildings and playgrounds, or students who express their frustrations in physical ways,  experienced SEAs who know their students can be a key factor in keeping students and staff safe.

Well-being: All students; all staff.  With students, some of this comes down to having basic needs (feeding, toileting….) consistently attended to.  This is not happening with some students now.  With all — students and staff — the stress factors related to understaffing are huge.  It is no accident that we had an approximately 20% turnover of CC teachers last year.  I don’t have a figure on SEA turnover, but I know more than a handful of good, experienced SEAs who burned out and left.  Additionally, about 40% of Cross Categorical (CC, Special Education) teachers hired last year lacked full certification (they were working on emergency permits), and over 25% of those hired did not have general education certification either (emergency licenses). The presence of unqualified and inexperienced CC teachers increases the workload and stress of our experienced staff, making other supports more necessary.  SEAs can help.

Student learning. Unless safety and well-being are taken care of, learning is going to be minimal.  One of the criticisms of SEA staffing is that they end up doing teaching work that should be done by highly trained and qualified teachers; I know in some of our classrooms we have highly qualified teachers doing support work that should be done by support staff.  This is not a good use of our resources, either human or fiscal, and it is not good for our students’ progress.

Relationships:  Relationships are a point of emphasis this year in MMSD, and this could be a good thing.  Common sense and solid research shows that strong relationships between staff and students, and among staff can contribute student and staff well-being, staff retention, and most important student academic progress.  I anticipate hearing from our administration that there is already enough staffing/money in the budget, and the current system of plugging in emergency and short term staff to address crises is working.  Even if by deploying in this manner we do have enough staff, it goes against everything we know about the importance of relationships.  It isn’t a good idea to move staff in and out of schools and classroom, and this is especially true in relation to students with complex needs, that often include great unease with change.   Adding staff will allow more of the late allocations to be permanent, and subject fewer students and staff teams to instability.

The Misuse of Research

It is no secret that much of the consulting class and the professoriate  are hostile to Educational Assistants (what they tend to call paraprofessionals).  Bottom line minded budget-cutting hacks, find Special Education in general, and EAs in particular easy targets.  Others appear to be out of touch with the realities in our schools, and/or over reacting to past or isolated mis and overuse of Educational Assistants.  Michael Giangreco, who was one of the keynotes for the MMSD Summer Teaching & Learning Institute, appears to be very well-intentioned, but somewhat out of touch and in the over reaction mode.  Unfortunately, it also appears that MMSD staff have not realized the aspects of his work that make it problematic when applied to our district and have been using it to justify cuts to SEAs (accompanied by reallocations to Cross Categorical teachers).

I have been digging into his work, and there is much to like.  Generously he links to many of his articles and materials on his website (see the link with his name); I have also explored some things that are behind firewalls.

One of the big lessons from his work is that staffing for inclusion should be done with a whole school approach (General Education and Special Education), and that it should be done by design, not through piecemeal tweaks.  I know that the special education budget amendment will be a tweak, but I also believe the shifts that contributed to the need for this amendment were done piecemeal.

For what follows I am going to (mostly) rely on the article that was linked in the Summer Learning Institute materials, “Precarious or Purposeful? Proactively Building Inclusive Special Education Service Delivery on Solid Ground” by Michael F. Giangreco and Jesse C. Suter.

Here and elsewhere, Giangreco does a fine job identifying (what I would call) preconditions for successful inclusion models; delineating the interactions of various factors tied to creating positive school cultures and successful student learning; offering multiple measures useful in assessing staffing allocations, and much more; in this article he includes these measures for what he calls “the exemplar model.”  I am confident that a school that both met his preconditions and followed his model would be a wonderful school for both students and staff.  Unfortunately, MMSD is very different than the exemplars.

At the October 23 meeting (and previously in private conversation) Anna Moffit alerted me to one issue, that of class size.  Giangreco’s exemplar (K-8) has class sizes of 17-21.  MMSD has some very small classes, but many, many well over 21.  Elsewhere — in an article titled “Constructively Responding to Requests for Paraprofessionals: We Keep Asking the Wrong Questions” (behind a firewall) Giangreco and his co-authors write about Middle and High School teaching loads:

Research in middle and high schools suggests understanding total student load (TSL, i.e., the total number of students with whom a teacher interacts) is a service delivery variable of importance related to teacher–student interactions and achievement (Ouchi, 2009). TSL levels about 80 allow teachers opportunities to know their students, respond to student work, and have sufficient time out of the classroom to make themselves available to students for individual assistance. This allows students to know their teachers understand and care about them—a key foundation of the learning process and ultimately to student achievement. Exploring general and special education service delivery variables allows schools to establish a baseline and provides a wealth of information in considering how they might contribute to school system health.

All good and true.  I believe MMSD High School TSLs are generally over 120, or half again as large as Giangreco recommends.

Also of note are the demographics for his Exemplar.  Here is a comparison with MMSD (September 2017,  third Friday count):

Exemplar MMSD
Minority 10.97% 57.3%
Free/Reduced Lunch 35% 45.9%
English Language Learners 6% 28.3%
Special Education 14% 14.5%

MMSD is significantly higher in all but one measure.

Leaving aside these other factors, the kicker is that the exemplar model calls for huge increases in SEA, Cross Categorical, and General Education Assistants.  Huge.

Exemplar MMSD Current MMSD with Model MMSD Increase
Total Students 433 27231
SPED Students 60.62 3931
CC Teacher FTE 7 293.6 561.57 267.97
CC Teacher Caseload 8.7 13.39
CC Teacher Density 1:63 1:93
SEA FTE 10 289.24 648.68 359.44
SPED Student to SEA 6.06 13.6
SEA Density 1:43 1:94.15
CC to SEA 1:1.4 1:1.02
EA total 15 439.7 943.34 503.64
EA to Student Density 1:28.87 1:61.93

Date Notes: MMSD date from (internal) Datadashboard (I used current instead of third Friday here), October Budget Update, June Budget, CC = “Cross Categorical.” MMSD school based CC estimated, and this estimate was used for caseloads, ratios, and density.  Caveat, the Exemplar model should be compared at the school level, it was done here at the district level because time and data access limitations did not allow for a school by school analysis.

So to meet the exemplar model, MMSD should add 267.97 school based Cross Categorical teachers, and 359.64 SEAs (along with 144.2 other EAs).  OK, let’s do it!

The one thing MMSD should not do based on this model is to cut small numbers of SEAs to allocate even smaller numbers of Cross Categorical teachers, but that is exactly what has been done.   We are and were relatively more understaffed with SEAs and EAs than we are and were with Cross categorical teachers (according to this model).  Adding some SEAs for the short term seems like a reasonable correction.

Conclusion

The Board has an opportunity to make investments NOW that will improve the experiences, safety and well being of or students and staff.  The scholarship that has been used as one of the justifications for decreases in SEA staffing was misapplied.  Allowing things to continue to deteriorate will only make implementing systematic changes more difficult.  For these (and other) reasons, I will by supporting a special education staffing budget amendment.  When you can give a helping hand, you should.

Thomas J. (TJ) Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Best Practices, Budget, Class Size, education, Equity, finance, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, MMSD, School Finance, Take Action, Uncategorized

Class Size Budget Amendment (Annotated)

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I had joked that the previous post should have been illustrated with a picture of sausage being made, but that I didn’t want to alienate vegans and vegetarians. The amendment is now finished, and the sausage pictured here is vegan.

“Step by Step” — The Boyer Brothers (click to listen/watch)

Yesterday afternoon I submitted the final version of an amendment on class sizes to the Madison Metropolitan School District 2017-18 Preliminary Budget.  The Board of Education will consider and vote on this (and other amendments), as well as the Budget at our meeting on June 26, 2017 (6:00 PM, Doyle Building Auditorium).  In my previous post I presented my then current thinking about the amendment and asked for feedback.  This post is a brief walk-through of the final version, highlighting (and to some extent explaining) changes.

In general, the legislative process requires compromise, and tempering idealism with realism.  I have tried to keep that in mind throughout the budget work, but at this penultimate step compromise and realism become more prominent.

From top to bottom, excerpts followed by comments.

Amend the 2017-18 MMSD Preliminary Budget by immediately allocating an additional $500,000 to expand the number of budgeted unallocated classroom teacher positions, and

Dependent on the per pupil categorical aid provisions of the biennial Wisconsin State budget allocating up to an additional $1,000,000 to expand the number of budgeted unallocated classroom positions proportionately with no additional allocation if the categorical aid increase is $100 or less, up to $1,000,000 if it is $200 or more, and

Both compromise and realism are present here.  Reviewing the Budget, previous and pending actions; talking and listening to budget staff, Board Members, community members, I have concluded that the present Budget can support targeted class size allocations of $500,000, and that a favorable State Budget would justify an increase to that amount of $1,000,000.  I am sure we will hear more on this from all parties prior to and at the June 26 meeting.

I try to be forthcoming and transparent, so I want to acknowledge that the best projections indicate that spending the $1,000,000 which is dependent on the State Budget will push the property tax levy increase beyond the 3.97% projected in relation to the November 2016 referendum, to approximately 4.3% (there won’t be final numbers till October).  I should also note that my proposed increase in levy is only one half of the projected $2,000,000 that would be available.

One other thing of importance here is the shift from talking about the number of positions to talking about dollars.  Being a budget amendment, that is necessary.  Translating dollars to FTE is an inexact calculation.  MMSD makes wide use of a figure of about $80,000 to budget full time teachers, inclusive of benefits, payroll taxes and everything else.  However, teachers hired late tend to be less experienced, have lower levels of post-graduate education, and are less likely to enroll in “family” insurance plans, making them somewhat cheaper.  If I had to guess, I would say that the probable cost per FTE hired under this amendment would be about $60,000, so $1,500,000 would yield 25 FTE, but it could be higher and the yield could be fewer than 20.

Establishing the following guidelines for the prioritizing the allocation of these new positions to schools: setting standards, but allowing for flexibility based on unique circumstances, local knowledge, and professional judgment, with primary consideration to be given to allocating positions to meet the standards in the order listed below:

  1. High Poverty, K-3 not to exceed 18 students.
  2. High Poverty, 4-5, not to exceed 23 students.
  3. Other Schools, K, not to exceed 20 students.
  4. Other Schools, 1-3, not to exceed 22 students.
  5. Other Schools, 4-5, not to exceed 25 students.
  6. High Poverty, 6th Grade, Core Academic Classes (Reading, Math, Science, Social Studies), not to exceed 25 students.
  7. Other Schools 6th Grade, Core Academic Classes (Reading, Math, Science, Social Studies), not to exceed 27 students.
  8. High Poverty, 7-8, Core Academic Classes (Reading, Math, Science, Social Studies), not to exceed 27 students.
  9. Other Schools, 7-8, Core Academic Classes (Reading, Math, Science, Social Studies), not to exceed 29 students.
  10. 9th Grade Core Academic Classes (Reading/English, Math, Science, Social Studies), not to exceed 28 students.
  11. 10-12 Grade Core Academic Classes (Reading/English, Math, Science, Social Studies), not to exceed 30 students.

For the purposes of this amendment designating the following schools as High Poverty:

K-5 (non-AGR schools marked with *; non-Title I schools marked with #)

Allis Elementary
Emerson Elementary
Falk Elementary
Glendale Elementary
Gompers Elementary
Hawthorne Elementary
Huegel Elementary#
Kennedy Elementary*
Lake View Elementary
Lapham Elementary*#
Leopold Elementary
Lincoln Elementary*
Lindbergh Elementary
Lowell Elementary
Mendota Elementary
Midvale Elementary
Muir Elementary#
Nuestro Mundo Elementary
Orchard Ridge Elementary
Sandburg Elementary
Schenk Elementary
Stephens Elementary*#
Thoreau Elementary#

6-8 (non-Title I schools marked with #)

Badger Rock Middle
Black Hawk Middle
Cherokee Middle
Jefferson Middle#
O’Keeffe Middle
Sennett Middle
Sherman Middle
Toki Middle#
Whitehorse Middle#
Wright Middle

There are two significant changes here.  The first is in the composition and ordering of the priorities. The second is moving from “hard caps” to “guidelines” or “standards.”

On the presentation of the priorities, the feedback I received was crucial.  Overwhelmingly, people were most concerned about the early grades in high poverty schools, and advocated a “the smaller the better” policy for these grades.  My personal preference for something more nuanced (read complicated) and giving more attention to (what I consider) extremely large classes in some of our lower poverty schools remains, but these are compromises I can endorse.

Budgeting hard caps is difficult, amending a budget that wasn’t built on hard caps is even more difficult (especially when proposed hard caps are smaller than the numbers used to make initial allocations).  Going forward, revising the current (weak) MMSD Class Size Policy, and giving more attention to class size at every stage of the budget process may create a more favorable environment for hard caps in future budgets, but not this one.

While understanding that (almost) any absolute rule will on occasion lead to less than optimal choices, I am wary of calls for flexibility.  Some years ago I wrote about the introduction of “flexibility” in SAGE and other policies:

Remember warnings about your face getting stuck in some ugly expression? I think the champions of “flexibility” in Wisconsin and elsewhere need loud and repeated warnings that their “flexibility” in educational policy (along with privatization, cuts in funding, destruction of local control…) in fact constitutes a possibly permanent acceptance of declining educational quality and is an ugly betrayal of our traditions and our responsibility to our children. They are bending our schools out of shape and our children will be stuck with it.

The events of the last six years have only reinforced my wariness.

My ideal method for balancing mandates and flexibility is to mandate default choices, but simultaneously create a process by which deviations from the default are justified and approved.  Although the amendment doesn’t go that far, I do think the reporting requirements (below) embody some of this concept and will create opportunities for accountability.

Requiring that public reports be made to the Board of Education, which include the amount of funds remaining from this allocation, the number of sections or classrooms added to date from this allocation for each of the listed priorities, the number of sections or classrooms remaining that exceed the guidelines for each listed priority based on then current enrollments.

At minimum three public reports be made,

  1. A Baseline Report to be issued as soon as possible after the passage of the Preliminary 2017-18 Budget, but no later than July 14, 2017.
  2. A Start of School Report, to be issued no earlier than the completion of registrations (August 21, 2017) and no later than the end of the second week of school (September 15, 2017).
  3. A Report, to be issued with the October/November Enrollment Reports.

I hope these reports accomplish two additional things.  First is increased transparency in school and classroom staffing.  I think these are the most important part of our Budget, and MMSD has been more translucent than transparent with them.  Second, I think the reports will contribute to the ongoing discussion of the costs and impacts of spending on class size reduction.

Before closing I want to note that I left out any mandate tying the allocation of the new positions to specific dates.  The main purpose of that was to give greater weight to the highest priorities, but the process was awkward, and the reconfiguration of the priorities accomplished some of this.

In closing I am going to cut-and-paste the closing of my previous post, once again urging participation in this process:

If you think I did more right than wrong, please let the Board (and the world) know about your support for the amendment.  As usual, you can email us [board@madison.k12.wi.us], or testify at the June 26th meeting where we will be voting on this and the entire preliminary budget.  Talk to your neighbors, co-workers, and friends, write a letter to the editor, post on Facebook. Instagram, or tweet something, draw something, dance…be creative.

Thanks in advance for the feedback and support.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Notes for Final Class Size Amendment

Betty Everett — “Getting Mighty Crowded” (watch and listen).

On Monday June 12, the Operations Work Group of the Madison Metropolitan School District received an update on the 2017-18 budget, and discussed amendments submitted by Board Members (video here, meeting materials may be found at BoardDocs, here; it appears a second cost analysis on class size prepared by the district has not been posted on BoardDocs, it may be found here, a cost analysis prepared by community members is somewhat lower).

An amendment I submitted establishing “hard caps” on class sizes, and differentiating among classes and schools by grade span and a different poverty calculation than participation in the state Achievement Gap Reduction program (AGR, formally SAGE) has garnered much attention and more than a little support.  My amendment, with an explanation of poverty measure may be found here (a little more below).  The next step is preparing a “final” amendment for submission and vote (with the understanding that the amendment may be amended at the June 26, 2017 meeting, prior to a vote).  That process is the topic of this post.

The intent of my initial amendment was three-fold.  First, I wanted to get some sense of the costs involved.  Second, I wanted to shift thinking away from average class size to maximums, and away from AGR as the only means to differentiate between high and low poverty schools in this context.  Last, I wanted to give people opportunities to think, and talk, and write about class size in our district.  The numbers I used were not my ideal class sizes, and not intended to be final.

I have learned a little more about costs; made some impacts in how class size is being considered; and learned much about all aspects of class size impacts from the many staff, parents, and teachers who have opined in public and private.  Thank you all.

I want this discussion to continue, but soon the focus must shift to making concrete progress in addressing the most important class size issues in our district.  To do this I have to draft a budget amendment, and try to get it passed.

This involves prioritizing among the many issues and actions that have been discussed, and finding mechanisms to budget according to those priorities.  In an effort to be transparent, and as a plea for one more round of feedback and ideas from our community, I am presenting here what I see as the choices involved, and much of my current thinking.

Big Picture — Class Size Matters (in a Multitude of Ways)

No single education policy or practice will fix every area of concern with our schools, but research and experience have consistently demonstrated that small class sizes can help bring improvement in many of the most important areas, including student achievement, opportunity gaps, behavior, school climate, inclusion and differentiation, staff morale and retention, and family engagement.  This isn’t the place to work through the research, but I do want to point people to the Class Size Matters web site; recent local op eds from Cris Carusi, Andy Waity, and Jennifer Wang; and offer one excerpt from a recent evaluation of the SAGE program by the Value Added Research Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (if any of the people who have written the Board or testified — or others –would like to share your communications wider, I encourage you to use the comments on this post):

When comparing characteristics of students in SAGE versus non-SAGE schools, the Value-Added Research Center (VARC) observed large differences in their respective demographic profiles. The selection process into the program explains these differences and precludes simple comparisons across the two groups. Thus, VARC used statistical methods to control for these differences with the goal of estimating the impact of the SAGE program on student growth in mathematics and reading. Results from the statistical analyses of growth yield:

• An estimated positive effect of the SAGE program on reading academic growth in kindergarten as compared to students in non-SAGE schools, and

• An estimated positive effect of the SAGE program on mathematics and reading academic growth from kindergarten through third grade as compared to students in non-SAGE schools.

New to this year’s evaluation is an analysis of the effect of SAGE on students’ high school completion outcomes and on their choice of dropping out of high school. The results show:
• A positive effect of the SAGE program on students choosing to stay in high school in both ninth and tenth grade, and

• A positive effect of the SAGE program on students completing high school and not dropping out for students from African-American and economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Finally, this year’s SAGE evaluation also included results from the SAGE End-of-Year Report survey to examine non-academic outcomes. The results from the survey show increased flexibility with classroom design, benefits for students unrelated to standardized testing such as having more individual time to work with students, and benefits for teachers in recruitment and retention.

Choice # 1 — How Many Positions (FTE — Full Time Equivalent)?

It is clear that at this point in the budget process it would be impossible to reallocate or find enough money to achieve what I would consider reasonable class sizes throughout the district.  The best option seems to be to offer an amendment budgeting an increase in the number of unallocated classroom positions and setting rules for how they are to be allocated.  I need to do some more digging and thinking, and have some more conversations with budgeting staff and other Board Members before arriving at the number for the final amendment.

What happens with the state budget — especially the “per pupil categorical aid,” but also equalization aid — will make a huge difference.  For that reason, I am leaning to linking the number of unallocated positions in the amendment to state budget provisions.

Choice # 2 — Where Are Class Size Limits Most Needed and What Should They Be?

This is where the feedback I have heard has been most valuable in opening my eyes to the myriad of experiences, viewpoints, and ideas.  It is also where I most want further feedback.  If we can’t do everything, what should we do first (and second, and third…)?

Everything here begins with the assumption that previous allocations remain in place (hold harmless), and that existing guidelines or standards are not preempted in order to achieve the new priorities.   I am not proposing that already allocated positions be moved, but that new allocations be used in this manner.

Below is my current list of priorities, in order.  Whatever the number of unallocated positions added, or the mechanism used to allocate them, it is highly unlikely that any will end up being allocated for any of the priorities after #5 or #6 (maybe not even these), but I do think it is essential to be comprehensive, to make a statement about (almost) every class in every school. All are for maximum limits, or “hard caps.” As before, it isn’t my ideal, and it isn’t final (but it does need to be final soon):

  1. High Poverty, K, 18 students.
  2. High Poverty 1-3, 19 students.
  3. Other Schools, K, 20 students.
  4. Other Schools, 1-3, 22 students.
  5. High Poverty, 4-5, 23 students.
  6. Other Schools, 4-5, 25 students.
  7. High Poverty, 6th Grade, Core Academic Classes (Reading, Math, Science, Social Studies), 25.
  8. Other Schools 6th Grade, Core Academic Classes (Reading, Math, Science, Social Studies),  27.
  9. High Poverty, 7-8, Core Academic Classes (Reading, Math, Science, Social Studies), 27
  10. Other Schools, 7-8, Core Academic Classes (Reading, Math, Science, Social Studies), 29.
  11. 9th Grade Core Academic Classes (Reading/English, Math, Science, Social Studies), 28.
  12. 10-12 Grade Core Academic Classes (Reading/English, Math, Science, Social Studies), 30.

These priorities recognize the research that has found differential impacts of class size reduction, with greater impacts for students in poverty and African American students, and in the early grades; as well as the general equity principal that resources should be directed toward higher need schools and students.  As mentioned above, I want the district to use a more expansive definition of “high poverty” than currently employed.  Here is the explanation from my initial amendment:

Defining “High Poverty”

The AGR designation does not reflect current demographics of our K-5 schools, and other than via Title I MMSD has not designated Middle Schools as “High Poverty.” MMSD currently uses both self identification (traditional) and Direct Certification to designate students as “Low Income.” These methods produce very different results (see spreadsheets here for K-5 and here for 6-8). It is impossible to say if one is a “better” measure than the other. I would suggest using an average of the two to rank our schools, and 35% (rounded up) as the “High Poverty” cut point for K-8.  By this method the following schools are designated ‘High Poverty”

K-5 (non-AGR schools marked with *; non-Title I schools marked with #)

Allis Elementary
Emerson Elementary
Falk Elementary
Glendale Elementary
Gompers Elementary
Hawthorne Elementary
Huegel Elementary#
Kennedy Elementary*
Lake View Elementary
Lapham Elementary*#
Leopold Elementary
Lincoln Elementary*
Lindbergh Elementary
Lowell Elementary
Mendota Elementary
Midvale Elementary
Muir Elementary#
Nuestro Mundo Elementary
Orchard Ridge Elementary
Sandburg Elementary
Schenk Elementary
Stephens Elementary*#
Thoreau Elementary#

6-8 (non-Title I schools marked with #)

Badger Rock Middle
Black Hawk Middle
Cherokee Middle
Jefferson Middle#
O’Keeffe Middle
Sennett Middle
Sherman Middle
Toki Middle#
Whitehorse Middle#
Wright Middle

Looking closer at the K-5 spreadsheet brings to light some of the issues involved.

K-5 Poverty AGR Title

First is that Lincoln — a high poverty school by any calculation — and Lapham, Stephens, and Kennedy — relatively high poverty schools — are left out of the AGR/Not AGR scheme, but included here.  Depending on how you count, these schools educated either 848 or 533 low income students last year.  This points to another observation, which is that there are a substantial number of low income students in our non-low income schools — by one method 180 at Chavez alone — and that these schools and students cannot be completely left out of our equity efforts.  It should also be acknowledged that one current AGR school — Crestwood — doesn’t make the cut.  I would be open to retaining that school.

Choice #3 — How To Allocate the New FTE?

If you want to make sure that the maximum number of the new sections go to the highest priority grades and schools, and maximize the likelihood that none of the classes in the highest priority categories exceed the designated limits, all allocations to lower priority categories would have to be delayed until after the Third Friday Count, and the end of allocations.  I am open to that idea (if you support it, let me know), but it isn’t my first choice (at this time).

In order to hire the best teachers, have the least disruption in class assignments, deal with physical and other logistics, best integrate faculty into school communities, and many other reasons, allocating earlier is better than allocating later.

What I am proposing for consideration here (and may end up proposing in the final amendment, depending on the feedback I receive), is an allocation process that seeks to balance the competing desires of maximizing addressing the highest priorities, and timing the additions in the way that makes the most sense.  Here goes version #1 (dates, details, and percentages, as well as the whole concept open for discussion and change).

  1. Beginning July 1, 2017 allocations of the new FTE will be made on a weekly basis, in order of and according to the priorities listed above, using then current enrollment or roster data.
  2. No more than 50% of the new FTE may be allocated prior to August 1, 2017.
  3. No more than 80% of new FTE may be allocated prior to the Third Friday Count.
  4. Middle and High Schools may address large sections via partial FTE and overload authorizations.
  5. The Board of Education will be provided bi-weekly updates on allocations made under this amendment, and any and all grades or courses at any school that exceed the limits above where there has not been an allocation made.  These reports shall be public.

I was tempted to make it even more complicated by having X% at this date, and Y% at the next date, and Z%, and on and on, with a new percent (almost) every week, but I decided not too.  I am still tempted to try to adjust the dates around the enrollment/registration week (August 14-18), or the opening of school (September 5 & 6).  As I said above, I am open to adjusting any part of this, or abandoning the attempt to balance.  I like it, but I don’t love it.

What Next?

To be fair to my fellow Board Members and our hardworking staff, I should finalize and submit this early next week (end of the day Monday 6/19 or mid day Tuesday 6/20 at the latest).

Between now and then, I hope to hear more from our well-informed and creative community (that means you!).  You can comment on this post, send an email directly to me — tjmertz@madison.k12.wi.us, or the entire Board — board@madison.k12.wi.us, I promise to read them all, but may not be able to respond individually.  You can even call me (the number is on the Board page).

Once I finalize this amendment, I will post it here, at AMPS.  Then you can weigh in and tell me what I did wrong.

If you think I did more right than wrong, please let the Board (and the world) know about your support for the amendment.  As usual, you can email us, or testify at the June 26th meeting where we will be voting on this and the entire preliminary budget.  Talk to your neighbors, co-workers, and friends, write a letter to the editor, post on Facebook. Instagram, or tweet something, draw something, dance…be creative.

Thanks in advance for the feedback and support.

Thomas J. Mertz

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2017-18 MMSD Budget Questions and Notes

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Chuck Berry — “Thirteen Question Method” (click to listen/watch)

At 5:45 on Monday, May 8, 2017 the Madison Metropolitan School District Operations Work Group will hold our first extended discussion of the the 2017-18 Budget since receiving the draft Budget Book.  Also on the agenda is the first of two scheduled discussions of possible changes to the Behavior Education Plan (summary here, many other related files attached to the agenda on BoardDocs, linked above).  It will be a busy evening.

In anticipation of these meeting, and this phase of the budget work, I sent two communications to the rest of the Board, and the Administration (here and here).  The first concentrates on some of the areas where I am thinking about offering amendments (there may be other areas, but I wanted to start with these); because the it appears the meeting will focus on the administrative “Priority Actions,” the second is on these.

In the interest of transparency and public awareness, I am posting these here, annotated with some extra commentary, notes, and links.  First up are the “Questions Related to Possible Budget Amendments.”

Wright Uniforms

  • What would be the cost to provide all Wright staff with 3 shirts/tops, 2 pair of pants or skirts, and one sweater or fleece in compliance with the uniform policy and the Handbook requirement that “In the event that any employee shall be required as a condition of his/her employment to wear any particular kind of uniform or other special clothing…clothing….shall be furnished by the District”?
  • What would be the cost to provide all Wright students with 3 shirts/tops, 2 pair of pants or skirts, and one sweater or fleece in compliance with the uniform policy?

I was one of two votes against this policy, but believe that if this is the will of the Board the burden should not fall on the staff and students.  As far as staff goes, I am not inclined to revise the Handbook to exempt Wright.  With students, despite the claims of the uniform industry, the best academic research I could find indicates that school uniforms do not save families money through decreased clothing purchases.   Wright is our highest poverty school, imposing added costs on the school’s families renders a bad idea even worse.

Class Size

  • What would be the costs and the additional FTE required to achieve each of the following class size caps:
    • AGR (formerly SAGE) schools, K-2, leave as is (soft cap at 20, hard cap at 22).
    • Non-AGR schools, K-2, soft cap at 22, hard cap at 23.
    • AGR schools 3-5, soft cap at 23, hard cap at 24.
    • Non-AGR schools, 3-5, hard cap at 25.
    • MS, English and Math, soft cap at 27, hard cap at 29.
    • HS, English and Math soft cap at 30, hard cap at 32.
  • Note: My understanding is that initial allocations are done based on the soft cap and projected enrollments, but that additional staff allocations are not done unless the hard cap number is exceeded. This may not be exactly how it works, and any corrections would be appreciated.

Class size matters; it matters for academics, it matters for behavior, it matters for family involvement, it matters for climate, it matters for working conditions and retention…class size matters.  There is a growing recognition in Madison (thanks Cris Carusi), that too many classes are too large.  These questions are intended as the beginning of a conversation about class sizes, not an end point.  I would like smaller classes across the board (all subjects, all grades),  and even smaller classes in high poverty and/or struggling schools, but you have to start somewhere.

Here are some links that provide important local context for these questions:

  • January and February Operations Work Group Presentations with discussions of staffing process.
  • Equity Charts” showing current (2016-17, not projected for the 2017-18 Budget…updated staff projections have been requested) staffing, as well as which schools  receive state Achievement Gap Reduction program and federal Title I funding, as well as other information.
  • Tableau interactive presentation showing Fall 2016 class sizes with filters for schools, subjects, and more.  The questions I asked concern the maximums allowed, but the distributions are of interest too.

The other items on this list are less concrete and don’t contain questions.  They were shared with the Board and the administration in order to alert them to possibilities that may develop into proposals/amendments.  They also are not exhaustive; the “Line Items” could lead many places and there are things like the “Special Assistant for Equity and Innovation” position, that I am not sure what to try to do about (I heard interviews were done last week, but no hire is final till the Board approves).

  • BEP Staffing and Implementation (including PBIS, Social Emotional Learning, Security…)
    • The May discussions of the BEP and answers to some of the questions on Priority Actions may lead to a proposed amendment. I continue to see a need to have more consistent professional supports and educational services available for students who have been removed from classes (suspensions, and less lengthy removals).

Not much to add to this, except I would love to hear ideas for how we could better deploy the millions of dollars we are spending on BEP implementation and related things.

  • Title I
    • The current Title I school Budget Allocations use Direct Certification and shift about $120,000 from K-5 to Middle Schools. Some of my Priority Action questions address district level Title I spending. Upon receipt of answers to those questions, I may want to work with staff to develop an alternate plan.

I have a lot to say here, but I am going to try to keep it brief.

Title I is a federal program that provides funding to improve the education for children in poverty.  Within the Title I regulations, districts have some choices on how this funding is used.  These choices include which schools are designated Title I (and receive funds), how those funds are allocated among the schools, and what measure of poverty is used in these processes (other choices include some of the “Reservations” and district level expenditures, some of which are related to the questions in the “Priority Actions” section).

These choices became more complicated when MMSD was able to enroll some schools in the “Community Eligibility” program that provides free lunch funding for entire schools that are high poverty.  One result is that the numbers and percentages of families at those schools filling out the Free/Reduced lunch paperwork decreased compared to other district schools.  Upon the recommendation of DPI, MMSD began using what is called “Direct Certification” for the Title I poverty counts (MMSD still uses “traditional” poverty counts for things like achievement data, adding to the confusion).  Direct Certification involves cross checking enrollments in other state and federal programs and using the result to estimate poverty counts.  Among other things, this produces much lower counts (when Milwaukee went to Direct Certification the percentage of students in poverty dropped from 82.7 to 67.3).  It also changes the distribution among schools  It isn’t clear what accounts for these changes.  I looked at the possibility that Direct Certification results in an undercount of undocumented students, but the results were inconclusive and indicated that although that may be part of the answer, there are other things going on. More on Community Eligibility, Title I, and Direct Certification, here and here, plus a post by me from last year covering some of this.

Here is the most recent information given to the Board on the proposed Title I allocations.

Title I allocationsHere is some information I sent to the Board and administration earlier this year, highlighting the impacts of the choices made on borderline schools (and the possibilities of using a different poverty measure):

Title I tjm

Note that any changes would involve altering the “dollars per Title I student” numbers and levels, and unless there are reallocations from the district level Title I spending, “cuts” to some schools.  I am not committed to making changes, but I would like to explore the possibilities.

The “Possible Budget Amendments” note ended with this:

  • Line Item Issues
    • I will be setting up an appointment to meet with [Assistant Superintendent for Business Services] Mike [Barry] on some line item questions (like the shift of Salary Savings budgeting between Fund 10 and Fund 27, the budgeting for Substitutes…I don’t have the whole list yet). My guess is Mike’s explanations will satisfy my curiosity and concerns, but if they don’t, I may make some requests or amendments.

Nothing to add at this time.

That leaves the questions on “Priority Actions.”  Before sharing the questions, I’d like to offer some context.  The Board consideration of “Priority Actions” began in November 2016 (minutes here).  In part because of the inclinations of Board Members, in part because of the Budget process, and in part because the way Health Insurance issues have dominated meeting after meeting, the “Priority Actions” have thus far received little sustained attention from the Board.  That should change at the May 8th meeting.

The discussion of “Priority Actions” begins on page 24 of the Budget Book. Here is a chart from the Budget Book:

Priority Chart

Here are the questions I submitted (some items  — including big ones like $625,000 for the Tech Plan — I had no questions for), with some links inserted (and dollar amounts added where appropriate).

Priority Actions

  • Intensive Support for Reading Intervention (LEXIA) – $190,000.
    • Can we get an update on current implementation (which schools, which students, how often…) and results?
    • Which schools (specific names)/students would this expand to if funded?
    • [Related] – Can we get a detailed accounting for the use of Title I Reserved Funds, highlighting any changes from the 2016-17 Budget?
    • In the past we have been told that MMSD does not use or classify LEXIA as an “Intervention” as defined by Response to Intervention mandates, has this changed?
  • Race and Equity Professional Development — $200,000, $80,000 new.
  • Principal Leadership Coaching
    • It isn’t clear how much of this is for “online module” development and deployment, and how much is for “face-to-face coaching,” nor who will be doing the work. A budget or a more detailed description which addresses these is requested.
  • New Teacher Mentoring and Forward Madison Sustainability Plan — $350,000 total.
    • What 2016-17 Title II activities/programs/personnel will be re-purposed or cut in order move $200,000 to this?
    • Is the March/April summary evaluation report referenced here available?
  • Bilingual Education and ESL Support — $349,000 total.
    • If the 2 OMGE Teacher Leaders are approved, would they only be working with Title I DLI schools?
    • See note above about changes in Title I Reserved Funds budgeting.
    • The deadline for DLI and the Lakeview Hmong program applications was 4/28. Can we get an updated estimate for transportation costs and numbers of students, including home school and school they applied to attend?
  • Middle School Report Card Redesign and Infinite Campus Customization — $40,000 total.
  • AVID Expansion — $40,000.
    • What are the projected class sizes for AVID sections with and without this increase?
  • School Based Support for Implementation of Personal Pathways — $460,000 total.
    • Are the Learning Coordinator Learning Liaison positions 0.2 at each high school, or single district positions?
    • Will the ACP Coordinators serve all students, or only Pathways?
    • Is the Lead Counselor position 0.0825 at each school, or a single district position?
    • Is there a projection for how these positions will increase as Pathways expands (can we expect to add the equivalent each year in proportion to new students entering Pathways)?
    • What are the current FTE’s devoted to Pathways for the people listed here (some appear to have partial Pathways assignments and partial assignments in other roles): https://pathways.madison.k12.wi.us/contact-us
  • Pathways Professional Development — $200,000 total.
    • Can we get a breakdown for how much of this is release time/extra time (Summer?)/subs, how much is contracted services, how much is other?
    • Is any of this covered by the Joyce Grant?
  • Experiential Learning Coordination and ACP Support  — $90,000 total.
    • Can we get a budget that breaks down student transportation, release time, and other?
    • Is there any evidence that the GMCC [Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce] Foundation has improved their work on behalf of our students since the November 2016 update?
  • Developing Future Teachers — $18,000 total
    • Approximately how many students are expected to be enrolled in TEEM in 2017-18?
    • Who is doing this work now?
    • Who is expected to fill these Coordinator roles (current positions if MMSD employees)?
    • As TEEM takes on new cohorts is it expected that the stipends will increase?
  • Expansion of Grow Our Own— $100,000 total
    • What are the 2016-17 allotted and expended budgets for each of our “Grow Our Own” programs (I know there is one for staff wishing to become teachers, and at least one for teachers seeking Special Ed, ESL, or Bilingual certification; I don’t know if there are others)?
    • What are the numbers and demographics of 2016-17 participants in each?
    • I know there was a problem and the Fall cohort for one program were told they had to wait. Can we get an update on that (is this budget line related to that issue)?

The Budget Book designates some of the “Priority Actions” as “Accelerated.” Here are my questions related to those:

Accelerated Priority Actions

  • Quarterly Grade Level Release for Teachers — $100,000 total.
    • Is this in addition to the $135,000 for Intensive Support Schools Quarterly K-2 release days approved as a Priority Action in the 2015-16 budget?
    • Can you confirm that the $400,000 increase under Required Allowances is separate from this and other Priority Action Substitute budgets?
    • Are this and other Priority Action Substitute expenditures reflected in lines 3 and 122 of The Fund 10 Expenditures?
  • Reading Software to Supplement Core Instruction for Students — $60,000 total.
    • See the question above under Intensive Support for Reading Intervention, requesting updates on LEXIA use and results.
  • Student Led Conferencing  — $116,000 total.
    • I think projections are for 305 non-Pathways 9th Graders at East, and 479 Pathways 9th Graders district-wide, yet the Funding for East non-Pathways is more than double the district-wide Pathways funding. Is there a difference in design that accounts for this?

And last comes “Innovative Priority Actions.”

Innovative Priority Actions and TID #25

  • Reservation for Innovation Opportunities
    • Note: Here and elsewhere a $800,000 multi-year reservation for “innovation opportunities” is mentioned. This concept was presented at the 10/17/16 OWG meeting, but neither my memory nor the minutes reflect a consensus in favor of this.
    • If we are going to set aside a reserve sum for Innovation Opportunities to be funded this year, there should be a process for proposals and decision-making.
  • TID #25 Budget (p 152)
    • Can we get an update on expenditures to date for the items listed for 2016-17?

Here is the TID #25 Budget from the Budget Book:

TID 25

A few words on the TID #25 funds and “Innovation.”  First, the rule of thumb with one-time funds like the TID #25 money is that you don’t spend them for ongoing operating expenses.  In general, that makes sense, except it fails to account for the uncertainty around all school funding.  This week possible cuts to Medicaid reimbursements are in the news; a couple of weeks ago it was Community Learning Center funding, nobody is confident the proposed $200 per student categorical aid increase will survive intact till the end of the state Budget process.  Uncertainty everywhere, yet because we know it will eventually run out, TID #25 money is in some ways treated as more uncertain than money we may never see.  The other side of the picture is that what is an ongoing expense is also uncertain.  Yesterday’s “Strategic Priority Action” may become tomorrow’s ongoing expense, or it may end up a one-time experiment.  With all that in mind, I believe we should be cautious when using one-time funds for what we believe to be ongoing expenses, but not categorically eliminate this from consideration.

Generally, due largely to my training as a historian, I am an “Innovation” skeptic and a firm believer in “The Conservationist Ethic” in education reform.  As David Tyack wrote:

In reform circles enamored of change and inclined toward Utopian solutions to improve schooling, a belief in progress can obscure the task of conserving the good along with inventing the new. In mitigating one set of problems, innovations may give rise to new discontents.

This skepticism is reinforced when the attraction of “Innovation” leads to a lack of critical thinking and careful vetting.

More specifically, I am not clear how the notion of dedicated “Innovation” funding (and the whole TID #25 budget) came to be included in the Budget.  Hence, my question.

On to next steps.

After Monday’s discussion, and receiving answers to my questions, I will start working on any Budget Amendments I would like to have considered.

Feel free to contact me (tjmertz@madison.k12.wi.us) or comment here with any questions or thoughts.

As with any matters before the Board, there are opportunities to make your voice heard.  Take advantage of them.

These our your schools; make your voice heard!

Thomas J. Mertz

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Class Size: “Getting Mighty Crowded”

Video from the 2006 MMSD school referendum campaign.

Below is a slightly edited version of an email that I sent last night to the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education.

Subject: Class Size
To: board@madison.k12.wi.us
Date: Thursday, August 30, 2012, 7:58 PM

I’m just back from the open house and thought you should know that 5th grade class sizes at Randall are at 28 this year.  Maybe other grades also, the last few years 2nd, 3d, & 4th [at Franklin and Randall] have mostly been at 26 & 27.

The best teachers in the world are better in classrooms with 22,23,24…not 26, 27, 28…  This is no secret.

If you are tempted to say that Randall is a low needs/low poverty school, so this is OK, I’ll remind you of that there were 86 low income and 30+ Ell last year and like Johnny Winston said “it isn’t easy being a poor kid at a rich school.”  I’ll also say that all kids deserve better than 28 per class.

Here is what I think is the most recent public info on class size in MMSD (from this post):
…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 La Follette Area study committee, note that it says that the non-Sage grades 3-5 limit is 27 (it also still has SAGE classes at 15/1, over a year after MMSD went to 18/1).

As some of you know, I believe that the Board should be more informed and pro-active on class size, and that given the financial implications, this should be part of the budget process.

TJM

No responses yet, but it hasn’t been very long since I sent it.  If I get any responses, I will ask for permission to post the here.

For more on class size, see ClassSizeMatters.org.

Thomas J.  Mertz

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