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[Update] — Still a Sow’s Ear — Isthmus Montessori Academy Contract

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Pigbag — Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag (click to listen and watch).

Update #2:  I had read the recent documents as making 3K as well as 4K wrap around services provided by IMA Inc optional, and from that reading assumed that this meant that 3K students — like 4K students — could attend the morning, MMSD portion of the day without paying tuition.  Based on this understanding I asked some questions about admission to the morning, MMSD, 3K portion of the day.  The response from MMSD staff, indicated that neither of these may be true, that wrap around  and/or tuition may be required for 3K students to access an MMSD school, that at this time — 6 days from the vote — there is not clarity.  This means that the 3K portions of the Tuition section of the  initial post may not be moot.

I also received information from MMSD staff that Federal guidelines exempt preschool and childcare subsidies from the requirements which would exclude undocumented students (I had based my assertion on state guidelines).  I am confused by this apparent conflict, but accept that 3K and 4K IMA Inc students will not be excluded from obtaining subsidies based on immigration status.

 

 

Update: Yesterday evening the Board was provided with a number of new documents related to IMA. Among these is a different (or clarified) plan for 3K and 4K which renders moot much (or all) of the section below on Tuition.

I have not looked at all of the rest yet, but am posting them here, now: Memo, Budget, Cost Per Pupil, Enrollment Model, Attendance Area.

I will probably be posting on these — especially the attendance area transportation issues — within the next week.

Monday July 31, 2017, The Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education will consider and vote on a contact for an Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School (IMACS).  This will be the third time the Board has voted on a version of this proposal.  The previous two times the Board and the Administration agreed that the proposal did not meet the requirements of the MMSD Charter School policy (related concerns about state statutes were also expressed by some Board Members).  Each time, a majority of the Board voted to advance the proposal in order to provide opportunities to address the shortcomings (I voted no each time).  Among the questions before the Board on July 31 is whether this has been accomplished; whether a sow’s ear has been transformed into a silk purse.  I think it is still a sow’s ear.

In this post I detail how I reached that conclusion by looking at three big areas: charging tuition to place students in public school classrooms; a staffing plan that does not meet Association Montessori International standards (and perhaps violates state Administrative Rules; and most importantly, will not serve students well), and a budget that is not sustainable.   These overlap with, but are not identical to the areas where the Administration and the Board previously concluded that the proposal did not meet expectations.  It should also be noted that it is my understanding, and according to MMSD policy, all proposals must meet the terms of our policy and statutes. They are minimum requirements, and are not the basis for an automatic approval. There are other aspects of the proposal that I find wanting. But these are not the focus of this post.  Before proceeding, some background is in order.

Where We Are, and How We Got Here

The first time the Board voted on IMACS was on September 26, 2016 (minutes here, Initial Proposal here, memo here, reviewers’ rubric here, budget key factors here, video here;  related September 19, 2016 Operations Work Group minutes here, video here). Contrary to the Administrative recommendation, by a 5-2 vote (Anna Moffit and I voted no) the Board requested that IMA develop a “Detailed Proposal” to be submitted by November 1, 2016.  According to the MMSD policy, the detailed proposal is to be analyzed by a (staff) Charter Application Review Committee, and forwarded to the Board, along with a recommendation, for a January vote.  Many of the areas of concern identified in September — finances, staffing, attendance area,  transportation, inclusion of 3K and secondary students, services for students with special needs, services for English Language Learners, enrollment…  — remained areas of concern in January, and — for me — those concerns have yet to be satisfied.

IMA was given two opportunities on the detailed proposal, an initial version due at the deadline set by policy, and a revised or final version due three weeks later. There is nothing in the MMSD Policy either allowing for two detailed proposal submissions, nor explicitly disallowing. But this seems to be contrary to the intent of the policy (“Detailed Proposals must be filed in the Office of the Secretary to the BOARD by 3:00 pm on the due date set forth in Section II.A, above. No exceptions shall be made to the timeline. Late submissions will be returned unopened to the applicant”).   Memos on IMA refer and link to a “revised charter school process,” and that document does include an opportunity to revise, but it has not been approved by the Board.

A version was submitted on November 1 (at the time, my requests to district staff and IMA for a copy of this version were refused; it was only provided to the Board after I made an open records request).  This version was found to not meet expectations in 9 categories: Vision, Mission Goals; Values and Instructional Theory; Student Body/Demographics; Academic Achievement Data and Analysis; Student Access to Opportunities; Curriculum; Instructional Design;  Financial Operations; and Facility Plan (rubric here, letter here).  The subsequent version is the one the Board considered and voted on in January.

Confusingly, the subsequent and “final” version of the proposal also bears the date “November 1, 2017.”  This proposal also did not meet the established criteria ( (memo here, rubric here, rubric including both the November 1 and the “final” version here).  In 5 of the areas the reviewer found the changes made to be sufficient, in the areas of Student Body/Demographics, Academic Achievement Data and Analysis, Instructional Design, and Financial Operations, the rating remained “Fails to Meet Expectations.”  Based on this, the Administration memo from Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham stated that she “cannot recommend that the Board of Education approve the IMA application for school year 2017/18.”  However, the memo continued:

Should the Board choose to move forward with the IMA application, in concept, the Administration recommends that the Board of Education only consider approval for the school year 2018/19 contingent on the submission of an updated plan which addresses all areas of the rubric that do not meet expectations by May 31, 2017. Those areas of the application are:
●Student Body and Demographics
●School Data
●Curriculum Assessment & Instruction
●Financial Operations

This is the what a majority of the Board chose to do (see below, I was the lone no vote).  It should be noted that as with a second detailed proposal, the MMSD policy neither explicitly allows nor disallows contingent or delayed approvals, and this action took us into uncharted territory outside of our policy.  Because of this, it is essential to look closely at all the documents and records, and what actions the Board has taken so far.

There were two votes related to IMA on January 30, 2017.  Here is the wording for first (from the minutes):

[A]pprove(d) the proposal for the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School and that the District enter into a contract, consistent with applicable Board policy and state law, to establish the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School as an instrumentality charter school for a period of five (5) years from July 1, 2018 until June 30, 2023. Such approval shall be contingent on the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School supplementing their current proposal to address the following areas of concern by no later than May 31,2017:
● Student Body and Demographics
● School Data
● Curriculum, Assessment and Instruction
● Financial Operations

and the second:

It was moved by Ed Hughes and seconded by James Howard that, consistent with BOE Policy 10,000, the Board of Education approve the following actions:
1) upon the successful satisfaction of all outstanding contingencies, the
District will notify the State Superintendent of Public Instruction of its
intention to establish the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School
as an instrumentality charter school on or before March 1, 2018;
2) by no later than July 1, 2017, the Board will approve a contract with
Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School to operate the charter
school for a five-year period beginning with the 2018-2019 school
year;
3) the District will collaborate with Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter
School to minimize expenditure impacts on the District’ budget and to
maximize revenue-generating opportunities including grants, state
aids, and other sources resulting from the implementation and operation
of the charter school; and
4) the District will collaborate with Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter
School to assist the school with its planning and preparations in order
to ensure the successful implementation and operation of the school
consistent with the terms of the charter (contract).

At some point in the discussion, I (informally) proposed inserting a step in the process to allow the Board to review the staff determination on whether the contingencies had been met, and then based on this review decide whether to go forward with the contract negotiations (or not).  This received no apparent support, so I did not make a motion to amend, and I did vote against the second motion (which passed 6-1).

Part of the reason I floated this proposal was because the nature of the identified failures to meet expectations and the standards used were (and are) lacking in detail.  The Board and the public had been provided with only minimal information related to the staff analysis of the proposal (this is something I think we need to address in the looming policy revision).  In addition to the memo and rubric linked above, a three-page “Financial Analysis” and a one-page (financial) “Key Factors” document were distributed.  All total this comes to nine pages of analysis for a 121 page proposal (and given that the financials and rubric have much white space, that is a generous count).

This is a crucial issue.  If the contingencies aren’t clear, then it is extremely difficult to determine if they have been met  Since the Board vote only identified general areas, I don’t have any easy answer, but would suggest reviewing the relevant documents, and meetings to get a sense of what the concerns were.  In addition to the materials linked above, I would add the minutes from the January 23, 2017 Operations Work Group, the memo from that meeting, as well as the January 23 and 30th videos.  State statutes (especially Chapter 118), and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers Principles and Standards (which state law requires the Board to “adhere” to), are also relevant.

The supplemental materials submitted in response to the contingencies are a Special Education additionan ELL addition,  a revised Budget, a (confusing) Enrollment Model,  and a (achievement) Data Update. I will cover some of these materials below, but in sum the changes in relation to Special Education and English Language Learners mostly concern schedules and professional development; the revised budget and enrollment model call for a slightly smaller school, lower (lead) teacher/student ratios, higher special education teacher ratios (and lower special education assistant ratios), designates Bilingual Resource Teacher and Specialist allocations (these were folded into other categories in the January version), a slightly smaller school, and a 5 year budget shortfall that increases from $58,681.36 to $516,157.01; the Data Update does little but relabel unrealistic “Goals” as “Aspirations.”

The Administrative review of these documents concluded that the contingencies and expectations had been met.  I disagree (and will explain some of that disagreement below); you can draw your own conclusions.

At a Special Board Meeting on July 10, 2017 (video here), the Board was presented with a draft contract (memo here), and discussed the contract and supplementary materials.

As stated at the top, on July 31, 2017 the Board will vote on a (revised) contract.  That’s where we are.  Now to dig into three areas where I believe large problems remain: Tuition, Staffing and Finances.

Charging Tuition to Attend an MMSD School?

Much of this section is about legal issues, which are significant and complicated; some of it is about financial issues, which are also significant; but for me the most significant issue is one of principle, and that is whether we want to be a district that creates a situation that requires some students to pay tuition in order to be in a MMSD classroom.  I don’t.

The last two iterations of the IMA proposal have referenced 3K students paying tuition; the budget in the recent submissions includes a “3K Tuition /IMA Reimbursement payment (cover 3K classroom teacher %)” of $53,901.33 in the first year (it increases slightly each year).  Discussions have also included references to 4K students paying partial tuition, but at this point it isn’t clear what ,if any, plans there are for that.

Since state law and MMSD policy are clear that “A charter school governing board may not…1. Charge tuition, except as otherwise provided in s. 121.83(4)” (WI Statutes 118.40); and “A charter school shall not: …Charge tuition” (MMSD Policy 10000), IMA has proposed that the private school (IMA Inc) charge the tuition, and — in the latest version — turn some (but it doesn’t appear all) of that tuition over to MMSD via the “Reimbursement payment” referenced above.

There is much wrong with this arrangement; some that is legal, some of that financial, and some based on principle.

The MMSD Charter Policy only allows for “Instrumentality” charters, which means — among other things — that “the school board shall employ all personnel for the charter school.”  The classrooms that 3K and 4K students would attend, are the same classrooms 5K students would attend, taught by MMSD employees.  The supervision of these employees, and the other supports for these students would be provided by MMSD employees.  These classrooms would be sublet by IMACS and MMSD (see the contract), from IMA Inc.  (Almost) all the liability for these students would be MMSD’s (there may be a little that is IMACS), so far there has been no indication that IMA Inc. would take on liabilities, but we don’t — yet — have a contract with the organization (for this and other reasons — see below — I have requested that we review a draft contract with IMA Inc prior to voting on the IMACS contract).  In every way, these would be MMSD classrooms and MMSD students.

With that in mind, how can a private school charge these students tuition?  I don’t think they legally can, but since it isn’t 100% clear, it is worth looking at statutes and precedents.

First, there appears to be a distinction between 3K and 4K (there are also some differences for children with disabilities that I am not going to cover, except to say that I can’t find any circumstance where tuition may be charged for educational services provided to “Residents 3 to 20 years old” in these instances.  Chapter 121.77 states: “Every elementary school and high school shall be free to all pupils who reside in the school district.” 115.01 says “Where reference is made to “elementary grades”, the reference includes kindergarten, where applicable. Where reference is made to “kindergarten”, the reference includes both 4−year−old and 5−year−old kindergarten, except as otherwise specifically provided.”   Reading these together, I don’t think MMSD can collect or authorize the collection of tuition for 4K students in our classrooms.

However, in Chapter 120, the enumerated powers of school district governments include
(13) PREKINDERGARTEN CLASSES. Establish and maintain classes for children less than 4 years of age under such regulations as it prescribes. The school board may accept and receive federal funds for such purpose and expend such funds in conformity with the purposes and requirements thereof. The school board may charge a reasonable fee for attendance at such classes but may waive the fee or any portion thereof to any person who is unable to make payment.

and 120.14 has a similar provision for “Child Care Programs.” Districts may charge tuition for 3K or child care.

But the IMA proposal does not have MMSD charging tuition, it has IMA Inc. charging tuition for MMSD classrooms and services.  Nothing I can find gives the district the power to make that arrangement.  I don’t think the power exists, and I don’t think the power should exist.

This is probably as good a place as any to note that in my research I found one instance of a charter school in Wisconsin charging tuition for 3K.  The school is Downtown Montessori a 2r (non-intrumentality) charter authorized by the City of Milwaukee (you can look at the contract here ,and tuition page here).  This appears to be in violation of the following provision “charter school governing board may not…1. Charge tuition” provision quoted above, but as 2r charter Downtown Montessori is also a Local Education Agency (MMSD would be the LEA for IMACS), and this may allow them to take advantage of the provision that empowers the school district to charge tuition for 3K.  It may not.  It certainly doesn’t serve as a precedent for allowing IMA Inc. to charge tuition for district classrooms.

Some people have referenced community based 4K services as a precedent for what IMA is proposing, but there are key differences.  In those arrangements, MMSD staff come into private preschools and provide educational services for a few hours a day (I think, but I may be wrong).  These services are free to all.  Some, but not all, students who receive these services also pay tuition to the private provider for the remainder of the day, and other services.  This is different from the IMA model in two huge ways.  First, the private schools provide services and coverage, in the IMA model all of this is being done by MMSD.  Second, students may access the MMSD portion of the day without paying for the other portions.

I don’t think what is being proposed is legal, but for the purposes of looking at the finances of the arrangements, I am going to set that aside.

IMA proposes setting the “3K Tuition /IMA Reimbursement payment (cover 3K classroom teachers)” at 2/3 of the cost of a teacher, or $53,901.33 in the first year.  The thinking appears to be that 1/3 of the students in the 3K to 5K classrooms will be 3K students, there will be two of these classrooms, therefore 2/3.  This leaves out all the other costs associated with the school, or more accurately shifts them to other funding sources, by far the largest being local property taxes.  This is a bad deal for MMSD.

It may be even worse, if IMA intends to charge what they are charging now.  Current 3K tuition at IMA is $995/month.  20 students at $995/month, for 9 months = $179,100, which is $125,198.67 more than IMA wants to pay MMSD for these students.  $125,198.67 for processing 20 applications, cashing some checks, and pointing the students toward an MMSD classroom (IMA promises an annual, additional “Financial support payment from the parent organization IMA Inc.” to MMSD, but these do not appear to be linked to 3K or 4K and only in year one do these payments approach the projected tuition collection surplus).  Nice deal for IMA; not so nice for MMSD.  If they intend to charge partial tuition for 4K students, it gets even worse.

Tuition related concerns about accessibility and equity have also been raised.  IMA currently participates in the state Wisconsin Shares program, which provides some tuition assistance, based on qualifications and needs.  Although this does improve equitable access, eligibility is limited, payments may be partial depending on circumstances, and undocumented students are not eligible.  More importantly, I don’t think the arrangement IMA has proposed — collecting tuition to send children to public school classrooms — would allow them to qualify for the subsidies.  The program has extensive requirements for providers (and here).  Among other things, this process requires submissions on the qualifications of the teachers.  IMA Inc. will not be employing any 3K or 4K teachers (they will be MMSD employees), so I don’t see how they can claim MMSD employees as their teachers (and MMSD classrooms as their classrooms) in order to receive state funding.

Will the Staffing Plan Provide Quality Education?

Leaving everything else aside, I don’t think we should create a new school unless we believe that it will be successful for our students.  Staffing is a key part of this. The changes in the staffing plan since January are relatively extensive, but still — in my opinion — insufficient to create that confidence.

The January staffing plan was a bad joke.  By my estimation (see pages 12 & 48 of the Proposal) in year one they had 7 classrooms, 223 students (ranging from 27 to 35 students in each classroom), and 5.8 teachers, (including an unspecified number of Bilingual Resource Teachers, but not the 2.3 Special Education Teachers).  Apparently one or more classrooms would not have had a teacher.

The above referenced Association Montessori International standards require classes of 28-35 children, with one “AMI trained teacher,” and one “Non-teaching assistant” for each class.  The proposal voted on in January had for year one, a total of 1 “Educational Assistant, incl BRS,” and 0.8 Special Education Assistant (like Special Education Teachers, and Bilingual Resource Teachers, BRS, and SEAs have specific responsibilities and they can not be used as general “assistants”).  At best, this staffing plan was also short 6 assistants.

The new plan is in some ways an improvement.  For year one, there are now 6 classrooms, 190 students (ranging from 30 to 36 in each classroom), and 6 classroom teachers.  In addition, there are 1 BRT, 0.5 BRS, 1.5 Special Education Teachers, and 1.2 Special Education Assistants. There are no “Non-teaching assistants”in the plan.  The standards call for 6.  The estimated cost to add these would be about $300,000 in the first year, and over $1.5 million over five years.

The staffing is so inadequate, I am not clear how the could manage the required “duty-free lunch” periods. The Special Education Teacher to student ratio is worse (assuming 14% of the student population receive special education services in both versions), going from 13.57/1 to 17.73/1, while the SEA to student ratio improves from 39.03/1 to 22.16/1.  If the students are very low needs, this may be adequate.  If the students are higher needs and this is not adequate, MMSD is obligated to provide additional staffing and services, at additional costs.

There are no Arts, Music, World Language, Computer, or Physical Education teachers, nor a budget for these.  All of these are problematic, and the lack of certified physical education staff appears to be contrary to Wisconsin Administrative rules.

I have not done a systematic analysis of the staffing at public Montessori schools in Wisconsin, but among those I have looked at, many seem to employ Art and Physical Education teachers, most seem to have a classroom teacher to student ratios in the mid to low 20s, all seem to have sufficient classroom assistants (some data here if you are interested, but note that I have found that this file often does not match the information from school and district directories).
Despite the lack of adequate staffing, IMA continues to put forth delusional projections for student achievement; and these continue to use one 2010 excerpt from an annual report, from one 3d grade class, at one small 3K to 3d grade Texas school as the primary reference point (there is also a reference to another source, which in turn references a flawed 2006 study of one Milwaukee school...don’t get me started on the offensively bad use of citations and “research” in many parts of the IMA proposal, I started but never finished a long post on that…maybe next week).
[As an aside, and in light of the discussion above, I want to note that Texas school currently has a 19.35/1 student teacher ratio (IMA projects 22.35/1 when Special Education and Bilingual Teachers are included), and employs 9.83 Instructional Aides for 272 students (IMA projects 1.7 Aides– all either Bilingual or Special Education — for 190 students).]
IMA is correct to note that it is difficult to project student achievement data for a school that does not yet exist (state law actually requires that these projections be done and incorporated in charter contracts, see below).  However, it isn’t difficult to produce more realistic projections than those IMA offers.  Here is one section of their updated data projections.
IMA Map Data
I am not going to make projections myself, but I will offer some data for context and critique.
MPS MMSD IMA compare

All data is from WISEDash or DPI Report Cards (spreadsheet here).  The “Closing Gaps” measure compares value added scores between subgroups, using statewide data for the higher scoring subgroup and school data for the lower, relevant school subgroups are combined (more here).  The Milwaukee schools are all the public Montessori schools in that city; the Madison schools are from the IMA “transportation zone.”  As with any standardized test based data, it is important to keep in mind that these are very limited measures, and do not come close to providing a full picture of students or schools.  In this case, it is also worth noting that a number of schools had significant percentages of students who were not tested.  The projections from IMA are based on MAP and this data is from Forward, but the cut scores MMSD uses for MAP are relatively well aligned with the Forward cut scores.

Before going forward,  look at the chart — especially columns 3,4, and 6 — and take a minute or two to reflect on how bad (almost all of) our schools — Madison and Milwaukee — are doing with disadvantaged students.  We need to do so much better.

Just a couple of observations on this data.  First, there is no “Montessori Miracle” happening in Milwaukee; some schools are doing well, some are even doing well with disadvantaged students, but some are not doing so well, and only one — Fernwood — shows results that are similar to those IMA projects (and even that one is not “closing gaps”).  Second, the demographics of the Milwaukee Montessori schools — with very few exceptions — are much less challenging than Milwaukee as a whole, Madison as a whole, and the Madison schools in the transportation zone; lower poverty, fewer students with disabilities, almost no English Language Learners.
One last thing on student achievement data.  The Principles and Standards that state law requires the Board to “adhere” to, call for
…[C]harter contracts that plainly:
• Establish the performance standards under which schools will be evaluated, using objective and verifiable measures of student achievement as the primary measure of school quality;
• Define clear, measurable, and attainable academic, financial, and organizational performance standards and targets that the school must meet as a condition of renewal, including but not limited to state and federal measures;

The proposed contract does not do this.  Instead it lists many possible measures, and leaves target setting to the SIP process.

The SIP goals currently used by MMSD are subject to revision, and include inappropriate comparisons between grade cohorts that are very problematic for a small, non-attendance area school. They briefly measure goals such as “% proficient grades 6-8.” These can fluctuate greatly if there are significant differences between the outgoing 8th grade class and the incoming 6th grade class, even if there is no change in achievement with the advancing 6th to 7th grade, and 7th to 8th grade.  This is problematic for all schools, but much worse for small non-attendance area schools, and even more problematic with small subgroups.  We have seen this with Badger Rock as well.

Without clear targets and standards, the renewal process gets very, very messy.   I think the best way around this is to have cohort based growth goals (but not the MAP growth measures as used by MMSD, those essentially label students who are not falling behind their peers who started at the same RIT score as meeting targets, which in relation to our students who are struggling amounts to a pat on the back for continuing to be well behind).

Will IMA Be Financially Sustainable?

No.

Even with the insufficient staffing, problematic tuition reimbursement payments from IMA Inc, the other payments from IMA Inc., probably unrealistic fundraising promises, the budget does not balance in any of the five projected years, and there is no indication of how it would balance in subsequent years. As I noted above, the version voted on in January had a five-year deficit of $58,681.36 (and this budget was found to not meet expectations); the supplemental materials increase this to $516,157.01 (but apparently met someone’s expectations). At times people have asserted that the deficit is offset by adding “value” and/or attracting “new” students to the district.  This is worth examining.  There are three major categories of students who might attend IMACS: MMSD resident students currently enrolled (or who would enroll) in MMSD schools, non-MMSD resident students currently enrolled in other school districts or private/homeschooled, and MMSD resident students currently not enrolled in MMSD schools (private school students, homeschooled students…).  The financial implications for each are different.
For MMSD resident students currently enrolled in MMSD schools, there will be no offsetting increase in revenue limits or state aid.  Because IMA would be realitively small, and will draw students from many MMSD schools, offsetting savings elsewhere are likely to be very small, or nonexistent.  Taking 5 or even 55 students from a variety of grades at another school will only rarely change the staffing needs of that school, and will do nothing for the fixed costs.Non-resident, open enrolled students create a net loss for MMSD.  A balanced budget for IMA would have public funding equal to the open enrollment payment amount.  The IMA projected budget averages about $525/student/year more than this.  So MMSD would subsidize each student who open enrolls in MMSD by that amount.  There is no increase in the revenue limit for these students.

Resident students who are not currently attending MMSD are more complicated.  For simplicity’s sake I am going to use a figure of $7,500 per student, per year for the costs of IMA students to MMSD (I am also rounding other numbers).  For the 2017-18 budget a good estimate of equalization and per pupil state aid, per student,combined, for MMSD is $2,100.  One way to look at the cost of these students to the district is the difference between these, or $5,400 per student.  However, these students would also increase MMSD’s revenue limit by an amount greater than the $7,500, a difference of about $4,200.  This money, if MMSD taxed to the max, could be spent on other MMSD students, and in some senses represents a net gain to the district.

Before closing on the budget and finances, I want to say a few more things about the donations and fundraising.  I called the fundraising projections unrealistic based on tax documents filed by IMA, that show they have never raised over $10,549 a year, and are now promising $60,000 or more annually.  IMA has secured one pledge of $100,000 (see here, page 90), via an individual who opposed building apartments in Shorewood because “This project increases the voting rolls by 20 percent with people who have different values – I’m not saying bad values – but different values from what we have here.

Which brings up the issue of “Leverage Philanthropy,” whereby individuals and groups with money use (relatively) small donations to leverage (relatively) large amounts of public money for ends that are not aligned with and may be opposed to the public good.  It is not unheard of for charter schools to receive support from those who desire the end of school districts.  I am confident that the founders of IMA are sincere in their stated desire to expand accessibility to what they believe is a beneficial system of education, and to do so within a public school context.  I am not so sure about their potential donors, and am generally uncomfortable when people use the promise of funding to sway the decisions of governmental bodies.

The last thing on fundraising concerns the contract.  As currently drafted the contract only allows a good cause termination if payment and fundraising promises are not met two consecutive years.  I think it should be one year, or at very least two years without the consecutive.  The draft contract also reduces district support the following year when these promises are not met.  I don’t like that because it punishes the students.  I already think the staffing is much to small, any further reduction would only decrease the likelihood of students being served well.

Conclusion
Unless there are radical changes between now and July 31, I will be voting no on the IMACS contract.  I believe it is the Board’s role and responsibility to only move forward charter schools which at a minimum, we believe meet the standards and requirements of  our policy and state law, and that:
In making its decision, the BOARD shall, at a minimum, consider the information included in the detailed proposal, the information provided by the SUPERINTENDENT, whether or not the requirements of BOARD Policy have been met, the level of employee and parental support for the establishment of the charter school, and the fiscal impact of the establishment of the charter school on the DISTRICT. [from MMSD Policy 1000]
This is our job, and if we do not find the supplemental materials and the contract satisfactory (which I do not), our obligation is to vote against the approval of the contract.
TJ Mertz

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Filed under Accountability, AMPS, Budget, education, Equity, finance, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, MMSD, Uncategorized

Class Size Budget Amendment (Annotated)

vegan-meat-alternative-sausage-onion_1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Thoughts.

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

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

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

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Vote to be heard!

Chis Stamey and Yo la Tengo, “Vote” (click to listen or download)

Check the Wisconsin League of Woman Voters for all your voting information, including your rights, your polling place, the candidate answers, referendum information, and same day registration.

VOTE TO BE HEARD!

Thomas J. Mertz

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How Many Strikes? or Whither Accountability? #2

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

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

Who’s at bat?

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

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

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

Swinging for the Fence or “Small Ball”?

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

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

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

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

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

Strike One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strike Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the descriptions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Next Pitch

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

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

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

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

Thomas J. Mertz

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