Tuesday, December 17, 2013

What is the EAA? Part 2, management and finances

The Education Achievement Authority (EAA) is a state takeover district currently running 15 Detroit schools.  As we discussed, the EAA has been controversial, it's instructional methods focus on use of a one-size-fits-all computer program in place of teacher autonomy, and it's results have been difficult to measure at best.  What is the EAA? Part 1, methods and results, Okemos Parents for Schools, December 11, 2013. The EAA has also faced management and financial challenges despite having access to revenues not available to public schools.  While the state is dissolving public schools with financial difficulties, the EAA has been propped up with special deals. 

by Detroit Free Press
The Chancellor of the EAA, John Covington, came to the EAA after heading up a public school district in Kansas City. One Michigan blogger wrote that Covington "faked a conflict with his former employer to get out of his contract" in Kansas City and "could make as much as $1.4 million in four years" at the EAA.  New Education Achievement Authority leader’s former school district loses its accreditation, Eclectablog, September 21, 2011.  Covington's tenure in Kansas City was a rocky one.  Covington oversaw closure of nearly half the schools in the Kansas City district.  Board strips Kansas City schools' accreditation, MSNBCNews.com, September 20, 2011.  As he was leaving, the district he oversaw was flailing on almost all measures of performance, "the district met only three of the 14 standards in the state's annual performance report, down from four in 2010."  Id. Less than a month after Covington left, the Missouri state board of education voted to strip the schools of its accreditation.  Id.  Recently, the EAA board "voted to hire Interactive Learning Systems LLC of Columbia, S.C., as an 'executive coach' for" Covington.  EAA collapsing, The Michigan Citizen, December 12, 2013.

Over the past year our state government has been extremely strict with public schools which have financial difficulties.  After K-12 funding was slashed in the beginning of the Snyder administration, many districts felt the financial squeeze.  Saginaw Buena Vista had trouble making its payroll and was ultimately dissolved.  Buena Vista School District is no more; students to attend Saginaw, Bridgeport-Spaulding, Frankenmuth schools, MLive.com, July 31, 2013.  Next the Inkster Public School district was dissolved.  Inkster schools first to be dissolved; students split across 4 districts, MLive.com, July 26, 2013.  Pontiac Public Schools were on the verge of being dissolved, but ended up entering into a consent agreement with the state.  In all, 50 school districts ended the year with deficits, but haven't been given special funds by the state.  50 Michigan school districts ended 2012-2013 fiscal year in deficit, MLive.com, December 12, 2013.

Conversely, from its inception the EAA has had access to multiple unconventional revenue sources, most not available to public districts.  The EAA took over buildings paid for by the public school districts they were taken from.  The EAA funneled $12 million in loans from the state through the Detroit Public School district which is itself experiencing financial difficulties.  Snyder transformation manager defends financing, mission of Education Achievement Authority, Crains, May 22, 2013. The EAA Board did not approve this massive borrowing, and in fact was not even notified.  Id. The state also outright spent $10 million on improvements to EAA schools.  Id. The EAA also has a special charitable foundation soliciting funds to run the school.  Id. The EAA won't disclose who its private donors are, or how much they give.  The EAA also requested another $2 million loan from the state.  Education Achievement Authority requests $2M advance to fix online glitches, Detroit Free Press, January 11, 2013.  Initially, the EAA claimed this was for technology upgrades, but "Emails also reveal that when DPS called in part of the loan, the EAA couldn’t pay and had to ask for an advance on state aid, which it received."  FOIA documents reveal financial troubles, loans for Education Achievement Authority, Michigan Radio, April 26, 2013.  No public school in the state has been given aid of this kind.  The EAA also pays teachers lower wages and does not contribute to the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System for current employees, and does not have any legacy costs.

Nonetheless, the EAA has continued to struggle financially, and it's prospects are dim going forward.  The EAA, like public schools in Michigan, receives the core of its funding on a per pupil basis from the state.  However, students are fleeing the EAA in droves.

Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority has lost nearly a quarter of its students in the past year, a dramatic dip in its second year of operating 15 low-performing schools in Detroit.
The EAA, a statewide district formed by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2011 to take over failing schools, enrolled 7,589 students in K-12 at its 15 schools — 2,369 fewer than last fall, when it had 9,958 students across 12 direct-run schools and three charter schools. That’s a drop of 23.6 percent.
. . .
The state gives the EAA $7,246 for each student, which means the district is expected to get about $17 million less in state aid than it did a year ago.
In June, the district adopted a $92.3 million budget for 2013-14, based on a projected enrollment of 8,919 — 1,330 more students than it enrolled this fall, according to the state. The EAA said it had 9,521 students at the end of the past school year.
The loss of students raises questions about the EAA’s future. The district was designed to take over dozens of failing schools statewide but has not gone outside the buildings it took over from Detroit Public Schools. Several lawmakers have concerns about the EAA, how it educates children and what they call a lack of transparency with public tax dollars. [Michigan's EAA sees 24% drop in students, Detroit News, November 23, 2013.]
As students leave, revenue leaves as well.  Contrastingly, the Detroit Public School district is seeing students surging into the district.  DPS enrollment surges after years of decline, Detroit News, November 1, 2013.

Our next post will cover the statewide opposition to the EAA.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

What is the EAA? Part 1, methods and results

Of all the experiments being carried out on Michigan's public school system, the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) might be the most controversial.  The Legislature passed a bill today which will uncap and expand the EAA statewide.  Unfortunately we haven't devoted much space to the EAA.  This is a big topic, so we'll tackle it in multiple posts.  In light of today's development, it's worth taking a step back to explain exactly what the EAA is, and what goes on in an EAA school. This post will focus just on the creation of the EAA, what instruction is like in the EAA, and what the results have been.

The EAA was created in 2011 by an interlocal agreement between the Emergency Manager of the Detroit Public Schools, Roy Roberts, and Eastern Michigan University.  An "interlocal agreement" is one of the methods of creating a charter school.  See What are "charter schools?", Okemos Parents for Schools, June 28, 2013.  The EAA is essentially a charter district. Originally, the EAA was tasked with taking over 15 schools from the Detroit Public School district.  Before the EAA had even finished one year of operation its proponents were trying to expand it statewide with a measure which would allow the EAA to capture 5 percent of Michigan's public schools every year, with no mechanism to return them to local control.  Letters and Wish Lists, The Ann Arbor Chronicle, December 6, 2012

From its inception, the controversial methods employed in the EAA were criticized for providing poor quality education.  The EAA's tagline for it's method is "child-centered learning," which sounds pretty good.  But, it's not.

In reality, "child-centered learning" as implemented in the EAA means sitting kids down in front of a computer program called "Buzz" and letting them click through modules:
But the EAA is in love with digital child-centered learning. This seems to hinge on the “Buzz” software built on Agilix Lab’s BrainHoney platform. This is a commercial product from a private software company which doesn’t yet seem to have pulled together any case studies demonstrating the efficacy of their approach. My brief research using Archive.org indicates that they’ve been billing themselves as a “worldwide leader in distributed learning solutions” since at least 2007; you’d think they’d have collected some data over the course of half a decade . . .
Anyway, this testimony from Brooke Harris, an English teacher at Mumford High School in Detroit, describes Buzz-assisted EAA-style “child-centered” learning in action:
Buzz is composed of “one size fits all” purchased curriculum. Instead of differentiated activities and lessons being created by their teacher – a certified professional who lives and works in the city of the students, who has taken the time to get to know each of them on a personal level – the limited activities and lessons have already been mapped out without any knowledge or regard to the student’s background, culture, needs, strengths, or interests.
That doesn’t sound super “child-centered.” In fact, if you read the entire testimony – it’s just two pages, a transcript of Harris’s testimony before the House Education Committee on Nov 19, 2012 – Buzz sounds like yet another poorly designed, ill-tested, and likely overpriced software package dumped into the lucrative “education market.” [Letters and Wish Lists, The Ann Arbor Chronicle, December 6, 2012]
In one radio interview, Representative Ellen Cogen Lipton described her visit to an EAA school and her discussion with a student learning about John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." The student showed Rep. Lipton the Buzz module he was studying and how he would click through modules which would talk about the book, and video pop-ups would have talking heads discussing the book ... but the student was not actually going to read the book.  Lipton asked if he could check out the book from the school's library, and he said there were no books available through the library any more. Rep. Lipton describes another student in another interview:
"They said, 'Buzz is a joke, it's not challenging, it's demeaning.' I asked them if they liked their school better now or before and they said, 'Before.' When I asked why, one student said, 'Look around this room. Do you see any books? I really miss my books,'" Cogen Lipton said. [EAA progress report: how 15 failing Detroit schools fared this year, Michigan Radio, May 8, 2013.]
 Rep. Lipton's observations echoed the testimony of EAA teacher Brooke Harris, quoted in the Ann Arbor Chronicle story above, and further here:
Buzz is labeled  individualized, another misnomer,  least at the high school level. Buzz does not meet students Where they are; it is not tailored to their needs. All of my students are placed in 10th grade Online courses, despite that fact that many of them read far below the 10th grade reading level and the fact that the EAA’s full inclusion model places special education students in classrooms Without adequate support from an illegally overworked special education department*
Many, if not most, of my students cannot access the material on Buzz without significant scaffolding and accommodations. Scaffolding and accommodations that are not provided by “the professor” who narrates the informative Videos that predominate. the learning activities in Buzz. Instead of being taught by a real, live instructor who can gauge students’ reactions and be flexible and adaptive to their needs, students are being taught by videos on a computer screen. That is not student centered. Students are not being placed at the center of instruction, a curriculum is. [Brooke Harris testimony]
Unsurprisingly, the Buzz computer program has proved to be unsuccessful at replacing teachers.  Although conditions in the EAA have made measuring student learning difficult.  Chaotic conditions have resulted in what data there is skewed toward false indications of improvement.  When the EAA opened, the schools were universally in disarray.  Thomas Pedroni, an associate professor of curriculum studies at Wayne State University, explained in a piece in the Detroit Free Press:
First, hundreds of e-mails attest to significant disruptions during the baseline administration of the assessment, in the fall. Headsets needed for audio were not available; weak wireless signals could not accommodate the large online testing load; many students were unable to log in, and when they did log in, many were dumped from the system. [Thomas Pedroni: Education Achievement Authority has plenty of issues - transparency, trust among them, Detroit Free Press, May 2, 2013]
Because the assessments were delivered on computers, and the computers did not work, the baseline from which progress was measured was set artificially, and colossally, low.  The next time the assessment was administered, the technology had been fixed, so a score increase was built in without any learning actually occurring.  Nonetheless, as of May, "57% of students in math and 52% in reading are not on track to make expected gains."  Id.

There were more problems as well:
While 91% of students took a reading test in the fall, only 72% did so in the winter.
And while in the fall 14% of students in grades 2 through 9 took a modified reading foundations test, less than 1% did in the winter.
The modified test is intended for K-1 students and supplies non-readers with audio. Sue Newell, Scantron’s EAA consultant explained in a phone interview that the modified and regular test icons are side-by-side on the login screen. Many older students “took the foundations incorrectly” in the fall.
By the winter administration, they knew better.
Newell also explained a category of test-takers identified in the winter but not the fall — invalids. These were students whose test scores showed considerable decline since the baseline. Scantron assumes, probably correctly, that these students did not take the winter test seriously. [Id.]
There is plenty else to discuss about the EAA - lack of transparency, spike in student misconduct, student protests, protests from educators across the state - and we'll try and get all of it to you soon.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The bills to flunk third graders and change school rating system are slowing, but still moving

As we reported a month ago, a bill has been introduced in the state House which would require third graders to be held back, or flunked, if they fail to hit a benchmark on a standardized reading test. House bill would require schools to flunk third graders, Okemos Parents for Schools, November 9, 2013. We also discussed in a recent Action Alert a bill to change Michigan's school rating system to an A-F scheme. These bills have moved out of committee but their progress is apparently slowing in response to strong state-wide opposition.

HB 5111, the read or flunk bill, passed out of committee on a vote of 10-3 with Representatives David Knezek (D-Dearborn Heights), Ellen Cogen Lipton (D-Huntington Woods) and Theresa Abed (D-Grand Ledge) voting against. Provisions have been added to allow limited exceptions for third graders failing the test.  But despite adding components of the kind of decision making that now goes on a the local level, the core of the bill remains the same, removing this quintessential local decision away from those best situated to make it in favor of a state-wide law.

HB 5112, the school rating bill, passed out of committee on a vote of 11-4 with Representatives Tom McMillin (R-Rochester Hills)Tom Hooker (R-Byron Center) Ellen Cogen Lipton (D-Huntington Woods) and Theresa Abed (D-Grand Ledge) voting against. Sometime after our Action Alert we learned about a troubling new aspect of this bill - it also contains a provision to begin feeding schools into the Education Achievement Authority.
Lawmakers in the Michigan House are slowing down on plans to change the state's school accountability system and create a literacy requirement for third-grade students after opposition from teachers and administrators.  
"We listened to educators, and we have some more homework to do," House Speaker Jase Bolger (R-Marshall) said Thursday. "We want to make sure this is an 'A' grade when we're done, so we're going to continue to work on the issue."  
The House Education Committee approved revised versions of both proposals Wednesday after hearing extended testimony from teachers, parents and school administrators, some of whom expressed concerns about how the proposals would work. [3rd grade reading guarantee, school grading bills on pause in Michigan House, MLive.com, December 5, 2013.]
We brought you a Q and A with Deputy Superintendent Patricia Trelstad explaining why the read or flunk bill is quite simply terrible policy which demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of both how kids learn to read and how they are taught in Michigan schools today. Q and A: OPS Deputy Superintendent Patricia Trelstad, Okemos Parents for Schools, November 16, 2013. The strategy has been tried in other states and is failing:
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have instituted some form of read-or-flunk policy for third graders. “More and more of our governors are turning to this,” said Susan Neuman, a professor of educational studies at the University of Michigan and an expert on early literacy. “They like the get-tough policy. But it’s a terrible strategy. It’s blaming children when you should be blaming the system.”
Neuman agrees that third grade can be a turning point for students, but said that retaining kids can do more harm than good. Making children repeat third grade because of struggles with reading is treating the symptom rather than the cause, and is “an expensive intervention that leads to middle school malaise and high school dropout.” [Newly-proposed 'read-or-flunk' law for 3rd graders would have held back more than 39,000 students last year, MLive.com, December 5, 2013.]
Maybe even more troubling is the hidden provision in HB 5112 to feed schools into the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA).  As we discussed in our Action Alert, even without this provision HB 5112 was a problematic bill that ensures the majority of Michigan schools will be labeled as failing or mediocre.  A wide range of non-partisan groups which advocate for public education came out in opposition to the bill including the Michigan Department of Education, the Michigan Association of School Boards, Michigan Parents for Schools, the Michigan Association of School Administrators and the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.  Groups supporting the bill include Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school lobbying arm, the Michigan chapter of StudentsFirst, a corporate education advocacy group, and Americans for Prosperity, the anti-tax group affiliated with the Tea Party.  But, besides rating schools, the HB 5112 also contains a provision which funnels schools into the EAA:
The legislation mandates that schools with an “F” letter grade under the new system with low test scores twice in three years be placed under control of the state school reform office.
That office has the contractual power to place failing schools under the control of the EAA, a fledgling school system that operates 15 schools formerly part of Detroit Public Schools under an agreement with DPS and Eastern Michigan University.
Critics of the EAA say the letter grade legislation is a “Trojan horse” for expanding the EAA, which has seen its enrollment plummet by 24 percent after one year and faces questions about its long-term financial viability.  
The EAA’s operations have been heavily subsidized by private donations raised by supporters of Gov. Rick Snyder.
“This is a back-door way of getting schools into the EAA without passing the EAA legislation,” said state Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton, D-Huntington Woods. [Critics rip school grading bill, Detroit News, December 6, 2013.]
We will try to take a comprehensive look at the EAA soon, but suffice it to say the takeover district has been plagued with problems. So much so that faculty at Eastern Michigan University has petitioned the university to end its relationship with the EAA. Faculty wants EMU to drop out of Education Achievement Authority state reform district, The Detroit Free Press, November 18, 2013. The EAA, as a kind of charter district, uses EMU as a "authorizer" though, as the faculty has said, the faculty has no real role in the EAA.  Additionally, public schools are beginning to boycott education students from EMU in protest of the university's involvement with the EAA. Union calls for boycott of Eastern Michigan University student teachers, cites EAA partnership, MLive.com, October 23, 2013.

We'll keep you apprised of developments with this legislation.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

School Aid Fund takes another hit, boat/car/RV buyers get tax cut

Last month we wrote about how the School Aid Fund is being slashed on multiple fronts with targeted tax cuts sapping revenue from public schools.  Defunding of public schools happening on multiple fronts, Okemos Parents for Schools, October 12, 2013. The Legislature and Governor Snyder have signed into law one of these measures which will cost the School Aid Fund $200 million per year. 

The new law "will exempt the value of a trade-in from the taxable purchase price of a new car, boat or RV."  Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signs tax break for car, boat buyers with trade-in: 'They deserve it', MLive.com, November 6, 2013.   Gov. Snyder said tax payers "deserve" the tax cut, and Senate majority leader Randy Richardville (R - Monroe) said "This is one of those rare instances where we have a win, win, win," calling the bill good news for manufacturers, dealerships and customers. Id.  Okemos Parents for Schools has not independently reached Gov. Snyder or Sen. Richardville, to get their reaction on the impact of the legislation on the School Aid fund.  MLive reports the following:
The current budget includes a $20 million cushion for tax relief that will cover current-year costs, but the Senate Fiscal Agency has projected annual revenue losses could eventually top $200 million. [Id.]

Q and A: OPS Deputy Superintendent Patricia Trelstad

We're very pleased to bring you a discussion with Okemos Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Patricia Trelstad regarding HB 5111.  Deputy Superintendent Trelstad's responsibilities include curriculum, instruction and assessment.  She also oversees the administrators in the areas of special education, secondary education, technology and community education programming.  Her lengthy educational career in the mid-Michigan area has included opportunities as a resource teacher for K-12 students with disabilities, elementary reading consultant, elementary principal with the East Lansing Schools, and as a central office administrator since 2001 in both Charlotte and Okemos.

Deputy Superintendent Trelstad enjoys the extensive collaboration with other professionals, parents, and community leaders that her professional positions have afforded her.  Of particular interest is assisting teachers with curriculum consistency, integrating technology, utilizing data to assess each child’s response to instruction, and professional learning communities to improve instructional practice and student learning.   She is also deeply motivated by making certain that the uniqueness of all students is recognized and embraced so that each can reach his or her fullest potential.

We reached out to Superintendent Trelstad to get her opinion on HB 5111.  We summarized HB 5111 in a previous post:
Currently the decision of whether to promote a student is made at the local level by teachers, principles and other professionals that know a child and have an understanding of his/her abilities and the larger context his/her daily existence.  A bill under consideration in the Michigan Legislature would mandate that any student who doesn't pass a standardized reading test would fail third grade. [House Bill would require schools to flunk 3rd graders, Okemos Parents for Schools, November 9, 2013. ]
Deputy Superintendent Trelstad answered the following questions via email.

Q: What was your initial reaction when you learned about HB 5111?

A: I was surprised and then saddened that this legislation would be considered in our state given the extensive research that exists on the topic of grade retention.  It is also troubling that legislation is put forward without consulting with the educational experts that might better inform these decisions.

Q: There is some intuitive appeal to tying promotion from 3rd grade to an objective benchmark like a score on a standardized reading test.  Do you see problems with this approach?

A: Those of us who work with children on a daily basis know the limitations of utilizing one assessment measure to determine the full picture of a student’s academic skills.  Given the complexity of reading and the multiple skills that are involved in becoming a fluent reader, it is critical that we use multiple measures to assess a student’s on-going growth and development.

Q: Why would you promote a student from 3rd grade if they were not reading at a 3rd grade level?

A: As the research suggests, it is not grade retention or social promotion that make a difference for students who are lagging in reading development. The best approach to addressing the continued reading growth of students is through a multi-tiered system of support that provides targeted, consistent, and intensive interventions, specific to each child’s needs.  

Q: Strictly from the perspective of what's best for the student, what would be the ideal process for determining whether a student is promoted to fourth grade?

A: There are times when grade retention is appropriate for specific students.  This decision should be made after extensive collaboration between the student’s parents and the professional educators who know the child best and can consider all of the variables that contribute to on-going success.

Q: Do you think HB 5111 reflects an understanding of the current thinking about how children learn to read?

A: Absolutely not!  Decisions that affect the rest of a child’s life should not be based on one test, at one moment in time.  As I mentioned before, there are so many factors that go into learning to read.  

Q: Describe what Okemos Public Schools does now to monitor the progress of individual students as they learn to read?

A: We utilized a nationally-normed universal screening instrument to monitor the progress of all students in grades K-8 three times each year.  This screening instrument measure early literacy skills in K-1(phonemic awareness, alphabetic principle, letter and sound fluency), and oral fluency (grades 1-8), and reading comprehension (grades 3-8). These measures are used in conjunction with other common, district assessments to place students into flexible groupings to facilitate their on-going reading development.  The students with intense needs are provided with daily, targeted interventions in addition to the core reading instruction to accelerate their growth.  The progress of students with intense needs is assessed weekly and the interventions are adjusted as necessary to promote more growth.

Q: Describe what mechanisms OPS has in place to help students who are falling behind?

A: All students receive core instruction in their classrooms with age-appropriate peers.  In addition, students who have been identified with strategic or intensive needs in reading are provided with interventions that target skill areas where their performance is below the benchmark.  Our teachers meet regularly to look at student assessments, monitor student growth, adjust groupings of students, and plan instructional strategies that may yield positive outcomes for students.  We begin this process when students are in kindergarten and follow a student’s growth throughout their school career.  

Q: If a student is struggling to read as they complete third grade, does OPS have mechanisms in place to help them catch up through 4th grade?

A: We don’t wait until students are in third grade, but rather monitor student growth in reading throughout each year.  We have systems in place to address student reading needs whenever the established benchmarks are not met on universal screeners or common assessments that are given in all of our elementary schools.

Q: If HB 5111 becomes law, what positives/negatives will OPS students experience?

A: The biggest negative is that teachers and parents will be forced to retain students who might be negatively affected in the long-term by such a decision.  There are no positives that I can see.

Q: Proponents of HB 5111 might argue it doesn't make sense to promote a student out of third grade if they haven't learned all third grade has to offer, and might worry that without a measure like HB 5111, schools will simply pass a student along without anyone being accountable for the student's progress.  How would you answer?

A: I would express, yet again, that it is not grade retention or social promotion that makes a difference for students who are not “typically developing” as readers.  It is frequent assessments, targeted and intensive interventions, adjustments to instruction, and knowledgeable educators who work in tandem with parents that can make the difference.  

Q: What is the downside to retaining a student in 3rd grade?

A: Retaining students can have a number of negative consequences that aren’t realized until children are older. The one thing that we can’t possibly anticipate is a child’s physical, social, emotional, and cognitive growth into the future.  When children are retained at a young age it may yield positive, but short-term outcomes.  As that same child reaches adolescence, they may be significantly out-of-sync with their classmates…physically, socially, emotionally and/or academically.  This may place them at greater risk during a particularly tumultuous time of their lives.    

Q: Do you think there is one policy regarding retention that makes sense for all Michigan schools (big, medium, small; rural, suburban, urban)?

A: This “one size fits all” policy, dictated by Michigan law would be inappropriate and ineffective for grade retention.  As mentioned previously, the responsibility for making decisions about grade retention should held by the parents and educators of the individual students being considered.

Q: If the Legislature asked you what it could do to help kids read satisfactorily by the end of third grade, what would you say?

A: The legislature might consider providing more funding for the things that can truly make differences…instructional coaches, staff to deliver interventions, software to track and analyze student achievement data, intervention materials, and summer programming.  They could set the expectation that each district establish a multi-tiered system of support for all students and provide adequate funding to accomplish it.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Our policy makers are ignoring the poverty in our schools, and slashing funding

The narrative behind many of the plans to radically change K-12 public education is that public schools are failing.  This is a myth.  There is nothing wrong with American public education.  The problem with troubled schools is the poverty-stricken communities they serve. 

We recently posted some graphs which show that public school performance correlates directly with the number of students receiving free or reduced lunches.  Poverty is biggest obstacle for public schools, Okemos Parents for Schools, October 27, 2013.  A recent column sums up the situation:
As I’ve reported before, we know that American public school students from wealthy districts generate some of the best test scores in the world. This proves that the education system’s problems are not universal — the crisis is isolated primarily in the parts of the system that operate in high poverty areas. It also proves that while the structure of the traditional public school system is hardly perfect, it is not the big problem in America’s K-12 education system. If it was the problem, then traditional public schools in rich neighborhoods would not perform as well as they do.
So what is the problem? That brings us to the new study from the Southern Education Foundation. Cross-referencing education data, researchers found that a majority of all public school students in one-third of America’s states now come from low-income families.
How much does this have to do with educational outcomes? A lot. Social science research over the last few decades has shown that two-thirds of student achievement is a product of out-of-school factors — and among the most powerful of those is economic status. That’s hardly shocking: Kids who experience destitution and all the problems that come with it have enough trouble just surviving, much less succeeding in school. [We need a war on poverty, not teachers. Salon.com, November 7, 2013.]
The Annie E. Casey Foundation reports that Michigan has a staggering 50 percent of Michigan kids ages 0-8 live in low income families.  The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Lifetime Success, Annie E. Casey Foundation.  Besides the poverty that many schools in Michigan have to grapple with, they also have to deal with ever-increasing micromanagement from Lansing, but inadequate funding from Lansing.  Some schools receive as much as $12,000 per student from the state, which others receive as little as $7,000.  What kind of education do you get if you spend $12,000 per student?, State of Opportunity, November 6, 2013. Rather than addressing these problems, the current administration has imposed draconian cuts on K-12 education. And because of Proposal A, schools are prohibited from raising additional revenue fro operating expenses locally. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

House bill would require schools to flunk 3rd graders

Currently the decision of whether to promote a student is made at the local level by teachers, principles and other professionals that know a child and have an understanding of his/her abilities and the larger context his/her daily existence.  A bill under consideration in the Michigan Legislature would mandate that any student who doesn't pass a standardized reading test would fail third grade.

If this bill were in place this year, a staggering 30,000 third graders would have been failed.  Should state flunk 3rd graders who can't read?, MichiganRadio.org, November 4, 2013.
A state House panel could vote this week on a bill that would require schools to hold back 3rd graders who do not pass a state reading test.
Schools would have been required to hold back more than 30,000 third graders this school year if the measure was already in place.  As the bill is currently written, it would take effect next school year.
But opponents of the measure say the decision to hold a child back should not be based on one standardized test. They say it should be up to local schools.
“This would mandate. So no matter what the situation, no matter what was going on for this child, it was mandated. That’s what’s wrong,” said Rep. Theresa Abed (D-Grand Ledge).
“And I think we keep taking away any ability of our schools to function in an independent matter.” [Id.]
State Superintendent Mike Flanagan opposes the bill. The Michigan League for Public Policy testified in opposition to the bill noting this policy would cost millions of dollars and could end up failing as many as 7 out of 10 third-graders:
While we totally support the intent of the bill to increase the numbers of thirdgraders reading proficiently, we would contend the roughly $262 million that this proposal could cost could be better spent. (This amount is based on an extra year of K-12 foundation allowance of $7,500 x 35,000 students.) Furthermore, the cost could double when the state implements common core standards: Almost seven of every 10 Michigan fourth-graders do not demonstrate proficiency on reading skills on the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP). More could be incurred for students retained for more than one year—the mandate is silent on this issue. [Testimony to the House Education Committee on HB 5111  Mandating Retention for ThirdGraders Based on MEAP Reading Performance, Michigan League for Public Policy, November 5, 2013.]

The MLPP pointed out that students who are retained are more likely to drop out during high school.  Further, even in states which have mandatory retention, they have added other complementary programs such as "intensive summer reading camps, tutoring, smaller classes and reading specialists." The policy also sets an arbitrary cutoff line where one marginal student will fail where another marginal student will pass by virtue of getting one more answer correct.  The policy would also disproportionately impact low income students and students of color.  The MLPP also offered constructive alternatives:
If the Michigan Legislature seeks to improve reading proficiency among third-graders, it might  consider supporting intensive, evidencebased, well financed and guaranteed interventions that begin long before children reach the third grade. Unfortunately, funding for education has  been cut rather than expanded to address the need for supporting initiatives to promote better outcomes for students. Since 2008, Michigan has cut its education budget by 9%—deeper than  33 other states.  [Id.]
This is a troubling development we'll keep you advised of.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Poverty is the biggest obstacle for public schools

The myth at the core of the "corporate reform" movement is that there is a problem with public schools that can be solved by privatizing them.  This is false.  The reality is that American public schools are good.  The problem with public schools that are challenged is not what's going on in the schools, it's the poverty it the community they served.  Obviously, that is not changed by privatizing their schools.  These two graphs from the Atlantic illustrate the point.  You can read the full article at How Poverty Sinks Our Schools (in 2 Graphs), the Atlantic, October 24, 2013

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Study confirms public schools outperform cyberschools

A new study from Western Michigan University shows that cyberschools perform much worse than conventional public schools.  Some excerpts are below, but the 12-minute audio story on the Michigan Radio page provides additional commentary and statistics:
Gary Miron is a professor of education at Western Michigan University. He recently co-authored a major piece, along with Jessica L. Urschel, for the National Education Policy Center. Its title: Understanding and Improving Full-time Virtual Schools---A Study of Student Characteristics, School Finance, and School Performance in Schools Operated by K12 Inc.
Miron’s study found that only 29% of online charter schools are meeting state standards, they are behind in reading and math, and less than one third of the students are graduating on time.
“Across the board we haven’t seen any promising evidence, and yet we do have hope,” Miron said. “We think that this is a pretty exciting opportunity, an area for growth, but thus far the results are dismal.”
Miron believes that the for-profit companies running the schools are a part of the problem. The monetary incentives are based on how many students they serve, so they recruit anyone they can. Many of the students do not have the skills or resources to succeed in online classes.
Another part of the problem is that many virtual schools are not spending enough money on instruction. More attention is paid to advertising and recruitment than instructors.
“Looking at outcomes, we need to stop growing the full-time virtual schools. We need to figure out why they’re not performing well, we need to look at new accountability measures for them, and we need new funding mechanisms,” said Miron. “I think if the funding mechanisms were changed, the incentives would change and they would change their behavior.” [Should Michigan parents consider online charter schools?, Michigan Radio, October 23, 2013.]

Common Core on cusp of approval

The Senate voted to approve a measure allowing expenditure of funds to implement Common Core today.  Common Core approval sails through Michigan Senate on voice vote, MLive.com, October 24, 2013.  The House had already approved a similar measure, and Governor Snyder backs implementation of the Common Core. 

The Senate's passage of the measure allowed Senators to avoid what might have been a problematic vote for some:
All 38 members of the Michigan Senate gave their assent to allowing the Michigan Department of Education to spend money on the Common Core State Standards on Thursday, but in a way that guarantees that approval can't be used against them politically.
Via voice vote, the Senate adopted a substitute version of a resolution passed by the Michigan House last month. It grants the education department permission to spend money on implementing the standards.
The voice method allowed passage of the resolution without requiring senators to record their votes. [Id.]
State Superintendent Mike Flanagan ordered his department to begin work immediately. Work on Common Core resuming immediately, Michigan education superintendent says, MLive.com, October 24, 2013.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Research, reporting shows teachers need training and investment

Bridge Magazine put together an excellent package on teacher training and turnover in Michigan.  The takeaway is somewhat unsurprising: teachers get better with training and experience.  However, this intuitive principle, backed up by Bridge Magazine's research and reporting, is at odds with the direction of Michigan education policy which increasingly focuses on evaluating teachers based on standardized tests, and on funneling kids into charter and cyber schools which have the least experienced and least trained teachers.

The problem of teacher turnover is well documented.  Many teachers are leaving the profession before they have time to get good at their jobs:
An estimated 10 percent leave the profession in their first year; between 30 and 40 percent flee the classroom within four years, about the time it takes for teachers to attain a journeyman level of skill at their job. ... That data indicates that about one in eight teachers have less than five years’ experience in their school. There are almost as many teachers with one year or less experience in their current school as teachers with more than 20 years’ experience.
“There’s fairly substantial empirical evidence that you need to get teachers past those first five years for them to be as effective as they can be,” Ronfeldt said. “They leave before they get their feet under them. My sense is that teaching is less a lifetime career choice than it used to be.” [Michigan classrooms loaded with rookie teachers who soon wash out, Bridge Magazine, October 14, 2013.]
There are some obvious causes for this common to any job.  Teaching is not easy, and it can be stressful.  But, to some extent, this is a self-inflicted wound we are causing by our treatment of teachers.
Meanwhile, teachers are bombarded with negative stereotypes, from “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach,” to being the scapegoats for low student achievement, even though studies show that poverty and home life have a bigger impact.
“Even if you put a very prepared teacher in a classroom,” said Avner Segall, acting chair of teacher education at MSU, “if everything around them says that society does not value them, they will leave.” [Id.]
This point is very clearly illustrated by Bridge Magazine's profile of a pair of teachers who have taught in Michigan and in Ontario.
Eric and Kristen Wideen are among a small number of teachers who’ve led classrooms on both sides of the Ambassador Bridge, and the differences run far deeper than the Detroit River.
After one year, 17 percent of new teachers in the United States leave the profession; In Ontario, annual attrition is 2 percent.
“People (in the U.S.) would say to me, ‘Oh, you’re just a glorified babysitter,’ or “Oh, you just want summers off,’” Eric Wideen recalled.
It’s a sentiment that Eric and Kristen discovered stops at the Ambassador Bridge, even though teachers are just as unionized and more highly paid in Ontario.
“The reason we do so well, the key for all high-performing countries, is high regard for teachers,” said Howitt. “My impression is that it’s much more punitive in the U.S.” [Teaching in Windsor: A few miles away, a world apart, Bridge Magazine, October 19, 2013.]
But the differences are more than just cultural.  In Canada, like in other countries with successful K-12 education, teaching is treated as a top profession. 
“Teaching programs [in Canada] are hard to get in to,” Kennedy said, a contrast to Michigan, where students can enter some education programs with a high school GPA below 3.0.
Tucker is editor of a book comparing the world’s education systems, “Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems.”
“The countries we’ve studied are the top 10 performers in the PISA rankings,” Tucker said. “In many of these countries, by design, it is now as hard to get into teaching as it is to get into the high-status professions, making teaching high status.
“In virtually all of these countries, they’re recruiting teachers from the top quarter of their high school classes,” Tucker said. In Korea, it’s the top 5 percent; in Finland, 10 percent.”
And the United States?
“Most observers agree we recruit teachers from the bottom third of high school graduates,” Tucker said. [Id.]
This trend continues through teacher training where programs are more competitive and rigorous in Canada to professional development.  Other countries are simply putting more value on teachers, and they are getting better results. 

However, Michigan education policy is moving in the opposite direction of countries which have better systems.  Rather than placing more value on teachers and increasing investments and training, Michigan is moving to toward a punitive "merit pay" system against the advice of a blue ribbon panel appointed by the Governor and leaders of the House and Senate. Dissecting the idea of "merit pay" for teachers, Okemos Parents for Schools, October 11, 2013.  Michigan is also rapidly expanding charter and cyber schools as we have written about extensively, See Online schools rapidly expanding, spending tax dollars on marketing, Okemos Parents for Schools, July 26, 2013; What are "charter schools?", Okemos Parents for Schools, June 28, 2013. Consider how Okemos stacks up with a local charter school in terms of teacher experience:

The lesson from Bridge Magazine's reporting is clear: we need to stop blaming teachers, and start helping teachers.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Defunding of public schools happening on multiple fronts

We have written extensively about the inadequate funding of our public schools.  Now there is another threat to public school funding which is eroding the public school funding bit by bit.

The most obvious way public school defunding happens is inadequate funding of the per pupil allowance districts receive from the state each year.  This is critical because, as a result of Proposal A, while schools can raise money locally for technology and infrastructure, they can only pay operating expenses with the per pupil allowance from the state.  What is "Proposal A," and how does it effect my school?, Okemos Parents for Schools, June 10 2013. The per pupil allowance comes out of the state's School Aid Fund (SAF).  But the SAF is threatened on the front end when revenue going into it is taken away.

You might recall that this summer Governor Snyder floated a plan to change our state's gas tax from a sales tax to a wholesale tax.  Because a piece of funds collected from sales taxes go into the SAF fund, but wholesale taxes do not, this would have been a massive hit to public school funding.  Changing the Gas Tax Will Cost K-12 $500 Per Pupil, Okemos Parents for Schools, May 3, 2013.  What's going on now is similar.  But, instead of one big tax change, many, many tax changes are having the same effect.

Lately our Legislature has been exempting certain groups and individuals from paying certain taxes: 
“Many bills have been enacted that exempt various individuals, groups and businesses from paying certain taxes. Each one cuts funding for the School Aid Fund (SAF) — a little here and a little there. Our schools and children deserve adequate funding which can only be accomplished if the SAF receives the necessary revenue.
 Many of these tax exemptions may on the surface appear to serve a good purpose. Taken as a whole, however, we are slowly but surely cutting significant amounts of much-needed revenue from our kids’ schools.”
 To follow up on that memo, the organizations have turned in testimony on bills that negatively affect the SAF and urged opposition to the bill unless an amendment to hold the SAF harmless was adopted. MASB also has testified in Senate and House committees to this issue. At one hearing, it was noted that the bills would only affect 1/10th of 1% of the SAF. Which has been our point, this is only 1/10th, but so is the next bill and the next one after that.
 The most recent bill considered by the House Tax Policy Committee was House Bill 4831, which would exempt over-the-counter medications that are prescribed by a doctor from the sales tax. Included with our testimony was a list of all of the bills that had passed House committees since January that affected the SAF. In total, the bills considered in the House would cut a minimum of $238 million annually while only increasing revenues by a minimum of $55 million. This list caught the eye of some of the committee members, but when Rep. Jon Switalski (D-Warren) offered the amendment to hold the SAF harmless it was defeated along party lines. [Tax Policy and Its Effect on the School Aid Fund, Michigan Association of Schools Boards, October 1, 2013.]
A table below lists the bills which have been introduced to date which would impact
the SAF.  This is a troubling new trend which is worth following.

Bill Number IssueEffect on SAF
SB89-90, HB4234Eliminate the sales and use taxes of the difference between the value of a trade-in and a new vehicle$152 million loss
SB142-143Eliminate sales and use taxes on prewritten software$7-11 million loss
HB4121Allow a five-year tax abatement on the sale of school propertyLoss undetermined
HB4135Eliminate the requirement to pay school operating mills on foreclosed properties$38-42 million loss
HB4202-4203Create sales and use taxes on sales over the InternetIncrease undetermined
HB4540 (Public Act 85 of 2013)Clarify taxation of certain industrial facilities exemption certificatesLoss undetermined
HB4541 (Public Act 115 of 2013)Allow an application approval for the previous tax year under the obsolete property and rehabilitation lawLoss undetermined
HB4831Exempt over-the-counter prescription medications from the sales tax$6 million loss
HB4572Eliminate sales tax on aviation fuel$35-41 million loss
HB4677Earmark a portion of state tax revenue to transportation fundIncludes a $55 million earmark increase to SAF
SB51, 54, 55 & HB4244 (Public Acts 43-44, & 50 of 2013)Changes in the taxes on forestry industry and propertyLoss undetermined

Friday, October 11, 2013

Dissecting the idea of "merit pay" for teachers

Another hot-button topic in K-12 education is "merit pay" for teachers.  Like many "reforms" being experimented with in our public schools, this is an idea borrowed from the corporate world.  And like so many of the corporate reforms, it's ill-suited for public schools.

Traditionally teachers were paid largely based on experience and education.  But there is legislation pending our state House of Representatives which would shift the focus of teacher pay to "performance."  Ostensibly, this means how well their students perform on standardized tests.  The idea behind this idea is straightforward - it incentivizes teachers to produce high test scores.  The teachers most successful at producing high test scores get bonuses.  Teachers in the middle get nothing extra.  Teachers on the bottom get laid off.

Empirically we know this idea does not work in education.  Diane Ravitch, a public school advocate and education historian, summarizes:
Merit pay is a zombie idea. It fails and fails and fails again, but legislators just want more of it.
This teacher explains why he doesn’t want it.
There are many reasons to oppose merit pay.
1. It doesn’t work. It failed just in the past few years in Nashville, where the bonus for higher scores was $15,000. It failed in New York City, it failed in Chicago.
2. It has never worked. It has been tried and failed repeatedly for nearly 100 years.
3. Modern social science says that it will never work, that when you pay people a bonus to do what they want to do you actually decrease their motivation. [Teacher: why I oppose merit pay, Diane Ravitch's Blog, July 1, 2013.]
In Michigan, we have done more investigation into this idea.  In 2011 as part of Michigan's teacher tenure reforms, the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness was established. The MCEE was a temporary commission with five voting members.  Republican Gov. Rick Snyder appointed three, and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, and Speaker of the House Jase Bolger, R-Marshall each appointed one.  The group was tasked with judging how the state should evaluate teachers.  The MCEE emphatically rejected "merit pay":
... the report explicitly advises against using teacher evaluations as a basis for determining merit pay under a "pay for performance" system.
"Educator evaluations must not be used to determine merit pay," the report states. "There is insufficient evidence to support pay for performance programs at this time. Research in education and other fields suggests that performance-related pay and the monitoring systems that come with it can backfire, decreasing motivation and quality performance." ['Pay for performance' not recommended in Michigan teacher evaluation group's report, MLive.com, July 24, 2013.]
Just intuitively there are a lot of problems with this idea:
... What will the measurement be? Will this cause even more reliance on testing? Will more teachers teach to the test? What about elective teachers and classes where there simply is no standardized test? (Or will we simply continue to eliminate the arts and other electives from the curriculum?) Who will get to teach the honors classes, in which students will naturally score the highest on state tests? Who would be foolish enough to seek out struggling learners or high-poverty districts?
Perhaps most concerning of all, merit pay and performance-based layoffs will inadvertently create a competitive culture among teachers, quietly pitting them against one another. Why would a teacher want to share his phenomenal “highly effective” lessons with his colleague if he is now competing with her for a job? Under new Michigan legislation that creates performance-based layoffs, this is an obvious outcome. ... Teachers are not salespeople, competing with colleagues for who can sell the most of a commodity. ... [Why Merit Pay Doesn’t Work, Kristy Placido, July 15, 2013.]
This might be the key reason why the idea of teacher merit pay is so hopelessly flawed.  There are a lot of reasons to choose teaching as a career, but getting rich isn't one of them.  People might choose to be teachers because they love teaching, they love kids, they value public service, they value a reliable income and reasonable work schedule, or similar reasons.  But a person who is mainly motivated to accumulate money is unlikely to be teaching to begin with.  Most teachers need neither a carrot nor a stick to be motivated to do their job.  They just need the tools and the space to do it.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Deeper look at K12 Inc.

We have mentioned the for-profit cyberschool company K12 Inc. in passing before (at least here and here).  Although K12 Inc. had been operating in Michigan, it wasn't clear that it had a huge number of students or that it was marketing heavily here.  It's now clear that K12 Inc. is making a massive marketing push in Michigan, so we want to tell you more about this company.  In short, even if the concept of cyberschools was something worth consideration, K12 Inc. has a track record of shoddy instruction, poor oversight, and rampant misuse of public funds.

Cyberschool operated by K12 Inc. is exactly what it sounds like - instead of going to a school with other children and a teacher, the child works from a computer at home.  Because K12 Inc. operates as a charter school in Michigan, each child K12 Inc. signs up as a customer means it gets to charge the state that child's per pupil allowance.  So, instead of that public money - tax dollars - going into a public school in our communities, those tax dollars go to this for-profit company which was trading at 31.07 on the NYSE as of August 9, 2013. Yahoo Finance.

It is almost certainly true that there is a niche of students who might benefit from an alternative school setting.  But K12 Inc. isn't marketing to a niche of students.  It's marketing to every student.  We previously took K12 Inc.'s quiz to tell us whether K12 Inc. was a good fit for a hypothetical child.  We described a special needs child who is happy in school, and who needs structure but with parents unwilling to provide it.  The quiz told us "K12 is an excellent option for your and your child."  In fact, we couldn't come up with any combination of answers that produced any other response.  Online schools rapidly expanding, spending tax dollars on marketing. Okemos Parents for Schools, July 26, 2013.  But whether or not what K12 Inc. does could be a good idea in theory, we know that it is producing terrible results and has been plagued with scandal everywhere it has operated in the country. 

Last year a former K12 Inc. teacher, Melony Black, spoke about her experience working for K12 Inc. where her massive workload left her with less than 2 minutes for each student each day:
“I started the year with 287 students in my seven high school English classes,” Melony said. “I was teaching three sections of lower-level English students who struggled with reading and writing.” K12, Inc. advertises that they will meet the needs of struggling students, and that each student will receive individualized attention. Yet, 287 students is nearly triple the student load of a traditional high school teacher.
How is ONE teacher supposed to give adequate, individualized attention to 287 students? “I asked how I would manage that many students, especially in a school that advertises itself as providing individual support,” Melony said. COVA administrators told Melony that the hours a traditional teacher would spend creating lessons and attending meetings would be her time to grade student work.
K12’s lack of teacher meetings and their pre-packaged, canned lesson plans are supposed to allow teachers adequate time for students. How much time, exactly? A 40-hour week divided by 287 students gives each student less than ten minutes per week - not even TWO MINUTES PER DAY - of the teacher’s attention. That is, assuming there aren’t any other duties for K12’s teachers. [K12, Inc. online schools: a view from the inside, examiner.com, September 5, 2012.]
Black also described a massive dropout rate.  It was explained to her that K12 Inc. had a "planned dropout" rate of about a third.  Of course, so long as the students were logged in for "count day," K12 Inc. was paid in full.  Black also worked with a "credit recovery" program for kids who had failed a class.  But, kids slipped through the cracks even more quickly with this program. 
“Three-quarters of my credit recovery kids never logged in, never completed any work, never answered their emails or phone calls, yet they remained on my class rosters,” she said. “I began wondering about the state-mandated hours for students at the high school level. No one is monitoring this as far as I can see.” [Id.]
So how is all that working out for students? Not good.

In 2011 the New York Times spent several months investigating online schools generally, and K12 Inc. specifically.  Their conclusion: ". . . a portrait emerges of a company that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards."  Profits and questions at online charter schools, New York Times, December 12, 2011.

Since then some harder data has become available:
Using Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) state data, state performance rankings, and graduation rates, the researchers showed that full-time virtual schools lag significantly behind traditional brick-and-mortar schools. In particular, only 27.7 percent of K12 Inc. online schools met AYP in 2010-2011, compared to 52 percent of public schools. Of the 36 K12 Inc. schools that were assigned a school rating by state education authorities, only seven (19.4 percent) had ratings that clearly indicated satisfactory status. [From Junk Bonds to Junk Schools: Cyber Schools Fleece Taxpayers for Phantom Students and Failing Grades, PRWatch.org, Oct. 2, 2013.]
Given the roots of K12 Inc., it's practices and resultant student outcomes are unsurprising.  A public school operated by a locally elected school board only has one goal - educating students.  To be sure, schools differ from place to place, reflecting both the challenges and values of the community.  But in the end, a public school will always be about giving kids the best education - whatever that means to the local electorate.  But K12 Inc. has a much different history and set of incentives.
... Not surprising for an educational model kicked off with a $10 million investment from junk-bond king Michael Milken.
Milken was the Wall Street financier who virtually invented junk-bonds -- high-risk securities that were used to leverage hostile buyouts in the "go-go" 1980s. Milken came to symbolize Wall Street excess, serving as inspiration for the Michael Douglas character Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street. Milken spent almost two years in a federal penitentiary for securities fraud.
After he was released from prison, Milken set his sights on the $600 billion public education "market," forming new companies including Knowledge Universe and Knowledge Learning, parent company of the KinderCare child care chain. With his $10 million stake in K12 Inc., Milken aided one of his Vice Presidents and another junk dealer, Ron Packard, who specialized in mergers and acquisitions for Goldman Sachs back in the '80s. [Id.]
K12 Inc. is heavily incentivize to capture as much of the education "market" as possible. Normal folks call the education "market" our children.  So, here is what capturing them means:
An analysis by USA TODAY finds that online charter schools have spent millions in taxpayer dollars on advertising over the past five years, a trend that shows few signs of abating. The primary and high schools -- operated online by for-profit companies but with local taxpayer support -- are buying TV, radio, newspaper and Internet ads to attract students, even as brick-and-mortar public schools in the districts they serve face budget crunches.
The USA TODAY analysis finds that 10 of the largest for-profit operators have spent an estimated $94.4 million on ads since 2007. The largest, Virginia-based K12 Inc., has spent about $21.5 million in just the first eight months of 2012. [Online schools spend millions to attract students, USA Today, November 28, 2012.]
All of this is public money which would be spent educating children if it had gone to a public school.  There is a lot more information out there about K12 Inc., and we'll be back with more in the future.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What's behind the movement toward meaningless school ratings?

The state's new color-coded school rating system debuted with a resounding thud.  The mediocre to failing scores it assigned to districts and individual schools in Ann Arbor, Okemos, East Lansing and other high-performing schools was so patently absurd, many reacted with disinterest.  After all, who would pay any attention to a system which is so obviously getting it wrong?  However, systems like Michigan's with a bias to favor small charter schools have cropped up in other states as well, and in at least one case, the bias was proven to be by design.

The Associated Press uncovered emails which showed Indiana's chief education official rigged their system to protect a particular charter school:
INDIANAPOLIS — Former Indiana and current Florida schools chief Tony Bennett built his national star by promising to hold "failing" schools accountable. But when it appeared an Indianapolis charter school run by a prominent Republican donor might receive a poor grade, Bennett's education team frantically overhauled his signature "A-F" school grading system to improve the school's marks.
Emails obtained by The Associated Press show Bennett and his staff scrambled last fall to ensure influential donor Christel DeHaan's school received an "A," despite poor test scores in algebra that initially earned it a "C."
"They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work," Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12 email to then-chief of staff Heather Neal, who is now Gov. Mike Pence's chief lobbyist. [Tony Bennett, Former Indiana School Superintendent, Changed Top GOP Donor's School's Grade, Huffington Post, July 29, 2013.]
Like the Indiana system, Michigan's system has a heavy bias to small charter schools.  According to analysis by education blogger Martha Toth, Michigan's system scored more than 97 percent of districts and schools "yellow" or lower ... failing grades.  Report Cards that Offer Zero Useful Information, Education Matters, Sept. 3, 2013.  Of the very few "green" schools, many qualified merely by being a tiny charter school:
Of the 135 green schools, 41 (nearly one-third) got “zero of a possible zero points” — so how is it that they are rated green? Most are so designated on the basis of three-year participation rates (how many children actually took the tests) and “compliance factors” (planning and reporting requirements that earn no points). They have no student test scores because all their grade cohorts are under 30 pupils — a prime indicator that they are likely to be charter schools. Other “green” schools with very low point totals got them for such factors as student attendance. [Id.]
While Michigan's system may be peculiar, it's certainly not unique.  And although the results are clearly meaningless, this is an issue that warrants close scrutiny from public school advocates.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The online education model failing in higher ed

There is a troubling trend of converting K-12 education in Michigan into online education, and replacing teachers with computers.  There is now evidence this model is failing even for university students. 

Governor Snyder made national news with his secret group which was working to create a "value school" model for public education in Michigan, and cut thousands out of the investment in each child with a voucher program.  Secret "Skunk Works" program aims for "Voucher-like" program for Michigan Schools, Okemos Parents for Schools, April 19, 2013.  Last year's budget also included a provision which will force public schools to pay for two online courses per semester for any child in grades 5-12, with no meaningful oversight by public schools.  "Voucher for Vendors," what it is, and why you should speak out against it, Okemos Parents for Schools, April 14, 2013.  Although there was never any data or research to support these radical changes, there is now data to show these models are failing even with university age students. 
Millions have signed up for online courses sponsored by elite colleges, yet they report high dropout rates and disappointing student performance among those who stick it out. A quietly released report last week on a partnership between San Jose State University and major course provider Udacity found that disadvantaged kids performed particularly poorly and students found the courses confusing. Collective statistics aren’t available, but by one tracker’s account most “massive online open courses” — known as MOOCs — have completion rates of less than 10 percent.
“Quality, quality and quality,” [Adam Sitze, an assistant professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought at Amherst College] said. “The elephant in the room with online learning has been that these courses don’t equate with the quality in face-to-face courses.”  [Online courses don't live up to hype, Politico.com, September 18, 2013 (emphasis added).]
We recently wrote about the flood of cyberschool marketing all over the state.  Online schools rapidly expanding, spending tax dollars on marketing, Okemos Parents for Schools, July 26, 2013.  Online ads, TV commercials and direct mail have been targeting Okemos as described in our post.  Now road side signs are popping up in Okemos as well. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

As funding has decreased, schools have been plunged into deficit

Chart from Center on Budget and
Policy Priorities.
There are lots of claims out of Lansing about increasing funding to K-12 education.  They aren't true.  Funding to K-12 education has been devastated in recent years.  Because of Proposal A (see background information here), important operating expenses such as teacher salaries cannot be paid for with locally raised money.  The fallout is apparent in districts all over the state.

First, the false claims of increased funding to K-12 education.  They're not true:
Michigan has cut investment in K-12 schools by 9 percent since 2008, a deeper cut than 33 other states, according to a report released by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan policy research organization based in Washington, D.C. [Study: Michigan cut school funding more than 33 other states since '08, Detroit News, September 12, 2013]
Since 2008, Michigan has slashed an inflation adjusted $572 per student. Last year alone Michigan cut K-12 funding another half a percent.  Most States Funding Schools Less Than Before the Recession, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, September 12, 2013.  The modest cuts this year come after massive cuts at the beginning of the Snyder administration. 

Schools all over Michigan have built new buildings and are spending money on technology.  But these expenditures can be paid for with locally raised revenue.  Because of Proposal A, public schools cannot pay their operating expenses with locally raised revenue.  That money must come from the state's per pupil allowance.  Schools are feeling the sting of these cuts.

Ann Arbor has some of the state's best public schools.  But cuts are hitting Ann Arbor hard as they are laying off teachers and class sizes are pushing 40 students:
[James] Svensson, a clinical social worker at the University of Michigan, said his daughter came home from the first day of school "shocked" at how many students she was sharing class with.
In her accelerated geometry class, there are 38 students in her section, Svensson said. In another section, there are 41 students. History and German classes at Pioneer are also seeing class sizes larger than 38 students.
“There’s only so much time a teacher has,” Svensson said, stating he fears that the quality of education at AAPS will slip as a result of the staff cuts. [Ann Arbor schools coping with standing-room-only classes, smaller staff, The Ann Arbor News, Sept. 10, 2013.]
In all, 56 school districts are now operating with budget deficits.  There are urban schools included.  But there are also rural and suburban communities which have traditionally invested in their schools such as Brighton, Mason County Eastern, and Pinckney Community Schools. Pinckney, got 10 percent across the board pay reductions to make up the deficit, but the state rejected the plan, saying 10 percent pay reductions were not enough.
[Superintendent Rick Todd] said fixing the deficit is challenging because the district is losing students. The district has seen its enrollment decline by 1,000 in the past decade.
The other frustration came when the state cut its per-pupil funding by $470 per student two years ago. Pinckney took a roughly $1.8 million hit to its revenues with that reduction.
“That put the nail in the coffin,” Todd said. [Pinckney deficit plan denied, Livingston Daily.com, Sept. 7, 2013.]
All this after the state dissolved the Saginaw Buena Vista School district and the Inkster school districts. Snyder signs bill that spells end for Buena Vista and Inkster schools, MLive.com, July 2, 2013.  The state also effectively dissolved the Muskegon Height School District as it fired every employee in the district and handed over management to a charter company.