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,, 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,, 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,, 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,, 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,, 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.