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,, 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, 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,, 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.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Okemos, East Lansing, Haslett have all been at the top of state, national rankings

In light of the state's new color-coded rankings which scored Okemos and other high-performing schools with average to failing rankings, Okemos scores second to bottom on state's new scale, Okemos Parents for Schools, September 3, 2013, I thought we would emphasize some of the recent good news for area schools.

Okemos got a lot of great news this year about how its high school was performing.  U.S. News and World Report ranked Okemos as the 7th best high school in Michigan.  The other nine schools in the top 10 are public schools like Okemos, not charter schools.  East Lansing, Okemos high schools among top ten in state, according to U.S. News & World Report rankings,, April 24, 2013.  Okemos was also ranked the 7th on U.S. News and World Report's NATIONAL ranking of  science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) schools.  U.S, News and World Report explains these rankings:
To determine the top science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) schools, U.S. News looked at the top 500 public schools from our latest Best High Schools rankings, and then evaluated their students' participation and success in Advanced Placement (AP®) science and math tests. [U.S. News and World Report]
Yes, only six schools in the entire country performed better on AP STEM tests than Okemos High School.  Overall, Okemos got rated with a "Gold Medal" by U.S. News and World Report.

Of course, every district is different, and some districts face greater challenges than others.  So, simply comparing standardized test scores may not be a fair indicator of how well a school is performing its core function of education.  In January of this year, Bridge Magazine released a ranking system to account for that discrepancy, a "value-added" index:
Unlike traditional rankings that focus solely on student achievement, often on standardized tests, the Bridge rankings include an adjustment for student family income, which is often a predictor of academic achievement, according to Bridge.
The new ranking system is essentially designed to test overachievement – or the expectation of each school's performance against the actual performance. [Okemos schools earn top honors under new rankings released by Bridge Magazine,, January 10, 2013]
Okemos ranked 9th in the state by this measure as well.  Bridge Magazine

East Lansing High School also received a "Gold Medal" rating from U.S. News and World Report.  U.S. News and World Report - East Lansing.  East Lansing also ranked one higher than Okemos in the state high school rankings, 6th, and ranked 65th NATIONALLY in AP scoring in STEM classes.

Haslett also ranked near the top of the state in Bridge Magazine's "value-added" index, coming in at 24th. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Okemos scores second lowest rating on state's new scale

In mid-August the state rolled out a new color-coded rating system for public schools and charters.  Under the new system, public schools will be held accountable for student performance in cyber school taught subjects while the public schools have no oversight capability. 

Under the new model, every school receives a color on a scale of green, lime-green, yellow, orange, or red - in descending order:
A school earns a color based on the number of points it amasses — two points for each goal met, , one point for each goal met by demonstrating improvement, and zero points if the goal isn’t met at all. Schools that earn 85% or more of the points possible are assigned a green color. To get lime green, they have to earn 70% to 84% of their points; yellow, 60% to 69%; orange, 50% to 59%; and red, below 50%. Michigan to debut color-coded system for measuring school performance, Detroit Free Press, Aug. 19, 2013.
You can see how Okemos scored on the state's Accountability scorecard. As a district, Okemos scored "Orange," the second to lowest rating.  However, every building scored "Yellow," one step higher.  Yet, in every category, every building scored "Green."  How can that be?

We think education blogger Martha Toth has it right.  She says "The short answer is that the system is rigged to produce failure. And that is exactly what it did."  Report Cards that Offer Zero Useful Information, Education Matters, Sept. 3, 2013.

Ms. Toth has an extremely detailed breakdown of the system.  She explains it tracks performance in categories such as test participation rate, attendance rate, graduation rate, and compliance with school improvement, educator effectiveness, among groups such as students with disabilities, English Language–learners, economically disadvantaged students, the bottom 30% and ethnic groups. The article is worth the read, but here are some highlights:
  • 97 percent of Michigan districts/schools received "Yellow" or lower, or a "failing" score.
  • Of the 135 schools with "Green" ratings, 41 received "zero out of zero" points because they are so small as to escape being scored.
  • "Other “green” schools with very low point totals got them for such factors as student attendance. You will note that student attendance, test participation rates, school improvement planning and teacher evaluation reporting are ALL FACTORS THAT HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT"
  • The system requires demonstration of yearly progress, when students are only tested only three years.  "Students who were not proficient in science in fifth grade will be unable to show improvement until the eighth grade test. For three years they WILL fail to achieve the required incremental progress."
Importantly, Ms. Toth points out:
Another wrinkle — or perhaps “monkey wrench” is more evocative here — in the system is that cyber schools can now provide one-third or more of educational classes for grades five through 12, but the home school district will be held accountable for student achievement results. Let me repeat: traditional school districts will be punished for the failures of on-line schools over which they have zero control.  Id.
You might recall that public schools will now be forced to pay for cyber school classes for students with public money, and be forced to accept whatever grade the cyber school gives.  We wrote about this here, here, and here.  Under this new color coded scheme, even if a student takes every math class in grades 5-12 from a cyber school, the student's public school will be held accountable for their performance.