Category Archives: Equity

MMSD Budget (Crunch) Time (Updated)

“Money Talks,” Alex Chilton (click to listen or download)

Update:

The materials for Monday’s meetings (Budget Input and Operations Work Group)have been posted on BoardDocs.  I’ll list and link here, but first there are some things that were not posted that need to be addressed.

A choice was made to exclude from the meeting materials all of the suggested cuts/funding sources that were part of the the Budget Amendments submitted by Board Members (at this time it is not clear who made that choice). The full Amendments are in the original post below.

This is unprecedented.  It is absolute and basic that proposed amendments submitted in advance be included in the materials distributed to the public and Board Members.  They must be part of the record, they will  be part of discussion, and the public has a right to know what is on the table (especially in advance of a “public input meeting). 

It should also be noted that those Board Amendments that are present in the meeting materials, are present only in summary form.  My Amendments did not include extensive rationales, but Anna Moffit’s did, and to not share these with the public is wrong.

Additionally, the full Title I chart included in this post (below) is not posted, with only an explanation of the process provided.  There is also no further information on Title III and tuition for Ell certification (listed in my Amendments as something I would “like to explore”).

An earlier Budget Presentation included the “Goal” of “Greater transparency in budget development.”  The choices that have been made to not include Board Member Amendments take us further from that goal.

Here is what is there:

Starting next week, there are a few important meetings for the Madison Metropolitan School District Preliminary Budget (much budget info at the link, a bit more below).  Here are the key meetings:

If you can’t make these, you can always write the Board: board@madison.k12.wi.us.

A couple explanatory things at this point.  First, detailed agendas and materials for these meetings will be posted on BoardDocs in advance, usually at some point on Friday for a Monday meeting.  Second, the final Budget is not passed until October, after many things — especially the state aid certification — are set.  Amendments and changes are possible up to that point, but the Preliminary Budget is what is in place when schools open in September, and for this and other reasons is important.

From my point of view there are three major places where there may be action: 1)Budget Amendments from Board Members (Anna Moffit and I both submitted amendments, more below); 2)Title I funding (Federal poverty aid, more below in the discussion of my amendments, with some linked documents and  information previously not posted by MMSD); 3)The structure of employee health insurance contributions (because my spouse is employed by the district, I recuse myself on this).  The latest on this is here (expect more before the meetings listed above).

May as well start with my Amendments.  Here is what I submitted for consideration (I may or may not make motions on individual items).

Initial Budget Amendments

TJ Mertz

May 23,2016

I understand that in the current budget situation any additional spending must come from reallocations, but believe that it is counterproductive to match each proposed addition to a cut. Instead I have listed cuts and additions separately, with a final item on Title I and Title III.

Items to Be Cut

  1. Eliminate Assistant Principals at Allis, Kennedy, Stephens and Cherokee.

Note: 4k at Allis may mean that numbers justify this position. [Note:  My understanding is that traditionally an Assistant Principal is added when school population is above 500; these are all below.  I asked about this at a meeting and did not get an answer.]

  1. Cut Tech Plan Spending by $300,000.

The Baird projections show an initial $8.74 Million gap for 2017-18, and this assumes the continued $250/student categorical aid, and an additional $100/student. Under these circumstances I do not believe that increasing Tech Plan spending by $625,000 is sustainable.

  1. Eliminate Special Assistant To the Superintendent for Special Projects.

  1. Cut Employee Travel Conferences (0344) from $468,803.63 to $300,000.

  1. Cut Space Rental Events/Meetings (0328) from $175,875.99 to $111,774.14.

The proposed budget includes an increase, this amendment returns the amount to that in the 2015-16 budget. The Badger Rock rental was moved to object 0329 and is not impacted.

Additions

I support Anna’s proposals on expanding Intensive Support Team staffing and targeting class size at “intensive touch” schools, (as well as the reallocations she proposes).

  1. Add Board Research and Data NUP, $70,000

This position would work for the Board of Education and assist in fulfilling data requests, researching policies, and preparing analyses and briefs independent of administrative structures.

Strategic Framework Priority Area – Accountability.

  1. Restore Middle School Staffing (to the extent possible)

According to the March OWG presentation, 12.000 FTE, budgeted at $1,181,679 will be cut from Middle Schools. Without the detailed information in the Equity Chart, it is impossible to know what these cuts might be, but I would like to explore restoring some or all. Many of our Middle Schools are struggling with a variety of issues, and I think we need to make sure they have the capacity to be successful.

Strategic Framework Priority Areas – Coherent Instruction, Thriving Workforce, (and perhaps Personalized Pathways and Family and Community Engagement).

Title I

I may be offering amendments addressing the Title I Reserved budget (funds not allocated to schools), the poverty measure(s) used to allocate Title I to schools, the formula used to determine the allocations to schools (my understanding is that we can allocate a higher dollar amount per student to schools at higher poverty levels, I don’t know if we are doing that, but would like to explore the possibility).

Title III

It is my understanding that that $300,000 three year budget for ELL certification tuition reimbursement appears to be much more than anticipated spending (Mike provided me with a summary). I believe this is Title III money, which means there are limits on how it might be reallocated. I would like to explore the possibilities, especially using some of this money to replace unrestricted funds, or to improve direct services for ELL students.

I would be glad to answer any questions about any of these, but am going to mostly forgo long explanations and justifications here (the bracketed note on the Assistant Principals was added as an explanation for this post).  The two exceptions are Middle School Staffing and Title I.

On Middle School Staffing, just a couple of things.  First, budget pressures and choices made in drafting the preliminary budget led to school-based cuts at all levels.  At the Elementary level, there were two big factors.  The first was decreased enrollments; the second was what might call a “relaxed” approach to class sizes in the early grades (Anna Moffit has an Amendment on this, below).  The Middle School cuts were pretty much straight out budget based.  At this point — less than a week before we have the penultimate meeting to discuss the Budget and less than a month before we vote — I don’t know how these cuts were decided (other than the phrase “Equity-based” has been used, whatever that means), nor what schools got what cuts.  We have some info (below, and it may be out dated), but not much.  This make it hard to do the job we were elected to do.   I believe school based staffing allocations are at or near the top of budget issues and have been asking for information on the processes and results since at least February.  I hope we get this in the “Equity Chart” this week, and if changes seem like a good idea, I hope it isn’t too late.

Here is a staffing chart, with Title I information as of late March (read the notes in the link, about what this chart represents).

Title I Staffing Enrollments

The “Equity Chart” should provide more detail and be more up-to-date.  In reference to Anna Moffit’s second Amendment below, it is also worth noting that some of the Elementary School cuts do not seem to align with (projected) enrollment changes, this may be due to the interactions of grade level projections and desired class sizes (I have not looked closely, but will try, and would appreciate it if anyone else would like to make the effort, and share their findings). Depending on what I learn (and what else happens), I may or may not go ahead with an Amendment on Middle School staffing.

We do have new information on Title I since I offered the Amendments and it is good news.  Some background, first.  You can find everything you would want to know and more about Title I at the Department of Education page.  Essentially, it Federal aid to schools serving students in poverty.   It is also the biggest source of Federal money in k-12 education, so from a policy perspective, it gets used as a carrot and a stick.  In fact there are all sorts of of controversies about how Title I will be distributed under the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act.   Local districts have a number of choices to make with Title I.  We decide (with some limits) how much is allocated to schools, and how much is “reserved” for district initiatives (see here for information on MMSD “Reservations”).  We decide what measure or measures of poverty will be used to distribute funds to schools.  We decide (with limits) what the poverty percentage cut-off will be for designating a school Title I.  We decide what levels — Elementary, Middle, High —  we will fund via Title I.  We decide how we will allocate to schools on a per qualifying student basis (do we give higher poverty schools more per student)?  All these decisions and more.  In Madison four things have brought Title I to the fore.  First, in 2014-15 MMSD expanded Title I to Middle Schools.  Second,  because some Madison schools are participating in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) which provides free meals to all students, the traditional Free/Reduced Lunch poverty measures have been impacted (see here for much much more on Title I and CEP, including analyses of some of the decisions listed above, worth a read).  In response, MMSD, like many districts is using what is called “Direct Certification,” a method that matches students to family enrollments in other government aid programs to arrive at student poverty numbers.  Third, for the first time since the 2008 referendum MMSD does not have unused revenue authority, this budget is especially tight.  Last — and this is the good news — recent reallocations show MMSD receiving $788,000 in additional Title I funding.  The initial Title I allocations (similar to the above chart) showed many schools with funding cuts (often on top of other staffing cuts).  With the $788,000 this has changed.  See here:Title I with 788000

You can see almost all schools received an increase, and that the schools are tiered, with higher poverty k-5 schools getting more per student, and Middle Schools getting a flat (and low) $750 per student.  More on the process MMSD used here.

But questions remain.  Is direct certification the best way to estimate poverty?  Are the tiers, the cut points, and the differences per student between them the right things to do? Is the Middle School/Elementary difference good policy (remember k-5 schools also have SAGE (now AGP) for the early grades)?  I am not committed to any changes from the proposed allocation, but I do want to think about these questions, hear from the community, and discuss the choices with other Board Members.

Here are Anna Moffit’s Amendments.  As stated above, I support them.  I am not going to say more at this time, Anna Moffit has already published a strong op ed on the first, and I am sure she will be equally eloquent on the other at the appropriate time.

#1 – Intensive Support Teams

Budget Amendment
Increase the Intensive Support Team staff by 3.5 FTE (1 FTE for the Autism /Significant Developmental Delay team/ 2 FTE for the behavioral health team and .50 for a clerical assistant).

Rationale:

Based on community feedback and staff input there is an increased need to support   our students with intensive behavioral and mental health needs. According to   anecdotal information and district data there are a small number of students that are currently receiving a disproportionate amount of behavioral referrals (about 1% of our students make up 95% of behavioral referrals). Many of these students have documented or undocumented diagnoses, learning difference or a trauma history that require an acute and elevated levels of support in order to be successful in our schools.

Rather than restrict eligibility criteria that create more barriers for students to accesss specialized services, we should be proactive and prevent escalating disciplinary measures that lead to exclusionary practices by increasing our capacity to serve more students in a timely matter. By investing in programs that prevent suspension and expulsion, hundreds of thousands of dollars can be saved for our district.

Building the capacity at the district level to provide immediate help and ongoing professional development to non-Student Services staff via our Intensive Support Team is more cost effective in comparison to paying for expensive, outside consulting services and trainings. Based on staff feedback, there is an increased need for professional development in the area of working with students that have intensive mental health and behavioral challenges in our district.
Currently, the Intensive Support Team doesn’t have the capacity to organize, schedule and provide professional development in an efficient and effective manner due to limited capacity. By providing additional team members and a clerical position, scheduling professional development during educators’ planning time would be more consistent across the district. This increase would also of-set some of the the cuts made in the previous year to Students Services staff (21 Student Services staff).

Possible funding streams:
BEP professional development:
Based on anecdotal data from one-on-ones with staff and Board presentations,
opportunities for professional development have been limited and difficult to attend due to other commitments, not due to lack of interest or need. There was no additional information provided to the Board that would support lack of interest or need as the basis for not utilizing professional development funding. In fact, Behavior Education Plan surveys continue to indicate their is a high interest in increased professional development in order to meet the diverse and dynamic needs of our student body.

Access to bilingual education:

The district will not be expanding the DLI program to all schools put forth in the ELL plan which should lead to a decrease in FTE by .50 for an additional DLI planner. This would provide about $43,755 dollars in additional funds. There are very few students and families (currently 4 families based on feedback from Principal) that have shown interest at Thoreau Elementary in the DLI program at a to-be-determined school, therefore $36,000 dollars appears to be an excessive amount of money set aside for transportation costs for busing. In total, there would be about $70,000 dollars in additional funds.

Other possible funding sources:

TID 25 loan

Reduce spending on Technology Plan

Reduce spending on Educational Resource Officers

Utilize funds saved from not filling the position of Special Assistant to the Superintendent ($125,000 dollars).

#2 Elementary School Staffing

Provide additional FTEs to all of our “intensive touch” elementary schools in order
to ensure that all K-2 classrooms can begin the year 16 students in each classroom. The funding source is undetermined at this time due to lack of information in regard to Employee Premium Compensation limits for district staff members, as well as resolution in regard to TIF 25.

Rationale:

Based on extensive research, class size has the most significant impact on student achievement in the early childhood years. Smaller class sizes have shown to have a greater impact on academic achievement than aligned curriculum, as well as instructional coaching. Smaller class sizes also ensure that students and teachers have the time to develop strong, positive and reciprocal relationships which lay the foundation in developing a child’s resiliency. Resiliency has been shown to counter-act the effects of Childhood Trauma that is a direct result from children experiencing toxic stress at home, school and community. Students that experience chronic toxic stress are more likely to develop learning disabilities, maladaptive behaviors, as well as an increased risk of substance abuse issues and mental health challenges.

Although Governor Walker has provided district a “tool” called AGR to increase class sizes for our most vulnerable students, I believe that it has a detrimental effect on student learning for our youngest learners. With large numbers of black students, students receiving Free and Reduced Lunch, English Language Learners and students with disabilities not reaching adequate reading and math outcomes, leading to huge disparities, it is critical to invest our resources in high leverage strategies that can close these gaps.

Lower class sizes has also been a priority identified within our budget feedback from schools and the community.

There may be other ideas that lead to late amendments, or revisions of these.  Please remember, these are our schools, our children, and the School Board Members are your representatives; be part of “the village” by participating, making your voice heard at (or prior to) the meetings listed at the top.  I’ll be listening, and others will too.

Thomas J. (TJ) Mertz

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New MMSD Tech Plan Funding Scheme (and Related Thoughts) — Updated

computer_money

Funkadelic — “No Compute” (click to listen or download).

The Firestones — “Buy Now, Pay Later” (click to listen or download)

Update 7:45 PM, 6/8/15: There was little or no support for this proposal expressed by Board Members and it is “off the table.”

 On the MMSD Board Operations Work Group agenda for Monday June 8, 2015 (5:00 PM), a proposal (pages 19 & 20 of the “2015-16 Budget Review and Input” here)  to delay $4,115,000 in debt payments till 2026 and 2027, and add $1,428,348 in debt service payments, all in order to “Make it Possible to Support Annual Increases in the Tech Plan thru 2019 without Drawing Away Funds from Other Areas of the Budget” (the latest version of the Tech Plan budget has full implementation in 2022). For many reasons (too many to go into here), this seems like a very bad idea. In general, I think we should begin again and create a Tech Plan that we can afford without these kind of shell games.

Here is the key page:

Tech Plan DebtThe right hand column has the ugly details.

Tech Plan Debt3This not an item up for a formal vote. I will be advising against pursuing this option in the strongest terms (there will be public testimony at the meeting where you can share your thoughts, and the Board can always be contacted via board@madison.k12.wi.us).

Leaving aside the dubious merits of tech purchases as a priority (at a time when we are cutting classroom staff, deferring building maintenance, and looking at more cuts next year and beyond), it is simply bad policy to push debt into the future at a cost of $1.4 million in order purchase or lease items that will not even still be in service when it comes time to pay the bill.  The Tech Plan originally had a three year replacement cycle on most items; more recently that has been changed to a four year cycle (page 126 here, and more here, except the most recent expenditure — voted in April to be placed on hold brought before the Board were for a three year lease on Chromebooks and Tablets, so it is hard to say what the current thinking is).  Whether a three year cycle or a four year cycle, items purchased or leased in 2015 through 2019 will be out-of-service by the time the $2 M+ payments are due in 2026 and 2027.

Even if this “buy now, pay later” scheme made sense, it would only cover the annual expenditure increases through the year 2019 for a plan that now is not supposed to be fully implemented until 2022 and has projected ongoing costs of $6 M or more each and every year thereafter.  It is a very expensive temporary band-aid.

What Next?

Given the reality of depressing prospects for school budgets in Wisconsin in the foreseeable future, it is hard not to conclude that the Tech Plan adopted by the MMSD Board of Education in 2014 is unaffordable (I was the lone vote against, joined by Luke Gangler, the student Rep).  Instead of tinkering with changing three year replacement cycles to four year replacement cycles, or five year implementation timelines to seven year implementation timelines, and trying desperately to make the existing plan “work” in this reality,  we need to start again.

It is past time to create a plan that we can afford. I have been pushing for this, and getting (almost) nowhere.

Continuing down the path of attempting to salvage an unaffordable plan wastes both staff (and Board) time, and has a high likelihood of creating new inequities among our schools. If we do one, or two, or three years of purchases under the existing plan, those schools will get the full treatment, the Cadillac version. The schools further back in the queue, after the schemes run out and the realities of having to cut staff to buy tablets hit again, will probably not be so fortunate.

I am not against increased tech spending. I was the one who pushed including tech infrastructure in the recent referendum (and when I pushed for other tech expenditures to be included via short term bonding, I was told that they did not want to borrow to pay for ongoing expenses. Presumably that position has changed.  I do believe that any Tech Plan must be affordable, in the sense that using conservative budget assumptions, proposed spending is weighed against the prospect of budget cuts in other areas (including cutting staff).  It also must be equitable, in that it provides a realistic way to provide equivalent access to technology in all of our schools in a reasonable time.

In my opinion,the best place to start on a new plan would be with a needs assessment.  I asked about this when the plan was being approved about a year ago, involving the budget for the assessment, and finally it appears to be in the works.  Let’s put everything on hold, do the assessment, combine it with budget projections, and then move forward.

There will almost certainly be more Tech Plan expenditures on the June 29th Board  agenda (probably the tablets and Chromebooks that were put on hold in April) and the ones that follow. In the absence of an affordable and equitable Tech Plan, I will be voting against these.

TJ Mertz

Note:  Prior to this post, I had not blogged since being elected to the Board of Education. I have started a few times, but never posted.  Recently I decided it was time to make a real effort to write and post blogs again.  I had hoped that my return entry would be something more positive, but a number of people have asked me for more information on the state of Tech Plan in general and this proposal in particular.  I am not sure how often I will be posting; watch this space and the Progressive Dane site.

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Song of the — Martin Luther King Jr — Day

Kings Marching in Selma Neighborhood

Solomon Burke — “Now Is The Time” (click to listen or download)

See also “Quotes of the  — Martin Luther King Jr. — Day.”

Thomas J. Mertz

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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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John Dewey on comparing students — Blast from the Past/Quote of the Day

Sly & the Family Stone, ” Everyday People” (click to listen or download).

How one person’s abilities compare in quantity with those of another is none of the teacher’s business. It is irrelevant to his work. What is required is that every individual shall have opportunities to employ his own powers in activities that have meaning.

John Dewey

Democracy and Education, 1916

The current “accountability” madness is almost all based on misusing metrics of questionable value to make comparisons among students, among teachers, among schools, among districts, among nations (see here and here for two recent manifestations).  If we are going to be “holding people accountable,” I’d prefer the metric be whether they are providing all students with the “opportunities to employ his [or her] own powers in activities that have meaning.”

Related:  National Opportunity to Learn Campaign and Opportunity to Learn Wisconsin.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Opt Out — Just Say No to the WKCE

The Zombies – “Tell Her No” (click to listen or download)

The WKCE testing and related assessments are scheduled for next week in the Madison Metropolitan School District schools (full schedule of MMSD assessments, here), but your child doesn’t have to be part of it.  You can opt out.  Families with students in grades 4,8, & 10 have a state statutory right to opt out of the WKCE; I have been told that it is district practice to allow families to opt out of any and all other, discretionary, tests.  We opted out this year.  In order to opt out, you must contact your school’s Principal (and do it ASAP, (contact info here).

The WKCE does your child no good.  Just about everyone agrees that even in comparison to other standardized tests, it is not a good assessment.  Because results are received so late in the year, it isn’t of much use to target student weaknesses or guide instruction.  There are no benefits for students.

There are also no benefits for schools and the district, and some potential for harm.  The WKCE is central to the new Wisconsin “Accountability” system (discussed here) and will be part of the new “Educator Effectiveness” system, being implemented.  Both of these are built on the — likely false (see: “Snookered by Bill Gates and the U. S. Department of Education“) — promise of  “SMARTER Balanced Assessments,” but because the Report Cards include a “growth measure” and the educator evaluations include a Value Added component, the WKCE will be part of the calculations for at least two more years (this will be accomplished by pretending that the WKCE is essentially the same as the new test, which in fact it likely is, in that it will no doubt measure scocio-economic status better than it measures anything else).

Way back in 2007, a DPI staffer wrote to a Monona Grove School Board Member that:

A large-scale, summative assessment such as the WKCE is not designed to provide diagnostic information about individual students. Those assessments are best done at the local level, where immediate results can be obtained. Schools should not rely on only WKCE data to gauge progress of individual students or to determine effectiveness of programs or curriculum (emphasis added).

But in the mania to compare and rate and evaluate that is the new Status Quo, this is almost exactly how the WKCE is being used.  Not the WKCE alone, but in the Report Cards the WKCE dominates and in the Educator Evaluation the WKCE test scores may be decisive (test scores only account for a small part of the evaluations, but if the other portions show little variance, the test score portion will be determinative).  No good can come from this and the mis-impressions created  —  about districts, schools, educators and students  —  are harmful, if only because they create confusion and make it more difficult to have productive policy deliberations.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that opting out can have consequences for schools and districts.  The new Wisconsin system takes away points based on low participation, so there will be an impact there.  If your child is likely to score in the higher ranges, their absence will lower the scores used to produce the “accountability” measures.   If the school consequently falls into one of the two lower tiers,  extended day programs and school improvement plans are required.  If it is in the lowest tier, then the plans must include out-sourcing to an approved “turnaround” vendor.  As I noted before, this is privatization of public services and turnaround specialists do not have records of success that inspire confidence.  A school or district that fails to “turnaround” is subject to further intervention by the State Superintendent.  A school or  that does not cooperate with these directives “will close.”

Although school administrators have criticized the system,  I doubt districts will choose the noncooperation option.  Too bad, that would be a fight that would shine a bright light on the this conception of “accountability.”

Opting out is a smaller version of noncooperation that is available to every family.  You don’t have to be part of the madness.

It can also become something larger. Without all of childrens’ test scores, the machine grinds to a halt.  There is a national Opt Out movement.    Here are some places to find out more (including opt out rights and procedures in other states and districts):

The “Opt Out” page from the National Center for Fair and Open Testing

The Opt Out of Standardized Tests Site

United Opt Out National

Parents & Kids Against Standardized Testing (Facebook)

OPT OUT OF THE STATE TEST: The National Movement (Facebook)

In closing, I want to point to an alternative to the over-use and abuse of standardized testing.  Thee are many;  this one — New York Performance Standards Consortium’s  performance-based assessments — was featured in a Washington Post post, “An alternative to standardized testing for student assessment,” by Monty Niel today.  Check it out.  We can do better.

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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