Sunday, November 29, 2015

"Read or Flunk" is back

In 2013 we wrote quite a lot about a package of bills which proponents called "third grade reading retention" bills and critics called "read or flunk."  The gist of the legislation is that third graders would have to pass a standardized reading test or they would be held back.  The bills fizzled in 2013 but are back and rolling through the legislature.

To catch you up, here are our previous stories:

The bill, now HB 4822, has only two exceptions: "special education students who aren't able to take the state exam, a special education student who has already received intensive intervention in reading but is still struggling, and a student who has had less than three years of instruction in a program for students who have limited English speaking skills.", October 15, 2015. All others are subject to the mandate that they pass a standardized test or repeat third grade.  Michigan has moved on to a new standardized test, the M-STEP, so it's unclear how many children would be impacted.  However, under any existing test a great number would be impacted:
During the 2013-14 school year, 30% of the fourth-graders who took the now-defunct MEAP exam failed it. The fourth-grade exam tests third-grade material. Meanwhile, on a more rigorous national exam — the National Assessment of Educational Progress — nearly 70% of Michigan's fourth-graders were not proficient. [Id.]
HB 4822 passed the House in a mostly party-line vote, 57-48.  Among the most stunning no votes was original co-sponsor Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor.  Rep. Zemke asked his name be removed from the bill:
"This bill, without that amendment, then tells Johnny none of that (work) matters," Zemke said. "We're going to hold you back regardless. I am not going to remove the hope of a 9-year-old, period." [, October 15, 2015.]
We contacted Deputy Superintend Trelstad to see if her opinion of HB 4822 differs from her opinion of previous bills.  She said her opinion is the same and encouraged us to refer folks to the excellent Q and A she did in 2013.  
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: If HB [4822] 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: 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. [Okemos Parents for Schools, November 16, 2013.]
Okemos Parents for Schools opposes HB 4822.  We encourage you to reread the entire Q and A with Deputy Superintendent Trelstad.  We will try to alert you if HB 4822 moves in the Senate. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Guns in schools

A recent push to change gun laws in Michigan is being presented as a compromise, but has also been characterized as a manufactured crisis meant to leverage a pro-gun position.

The current state of the law in Michigan is that holders of a concealed carry license may carry hidden firearms in most places, but are prohibited from doing so in some gun free zones including schools.  However, those same license holders may openly carry firearms in schools.  MLive, Oct. 13, 2015.  Those without a license are prohibited from carrying in schools whether openly or concealed.  

This ability of concealed carry license holders to openly carry firearms into schools has created controversy in districts including Ann Arbor and Clio.  In both instances, people tried to carry firearms openly onto school grounds citing state law.  Both districts tried to denied entry, and both wound up in court.  In the Ann Arbor case, a Circuit Court upheld the school's ban while in the Clio case a different Circuit Court said the school's ban conflicted with state law., Sept. 23, 2015; MLive, Aug. 10, 2015. The matter is likely headed to the Michigan Court of Appeals which dealt with a similar matter in 2012.

In 2010 and 2011, gun rights activists staged events where they openly carried weapons into Capitol Area District Libraries.  Michigan Open Carry.  CADL's policy prohibited the firearms, but Michigan Open Carry pressed the matter in court.  A Circuit Court threw out MOC's case, but the Court of Appeals reversed in a 2 to 1 decision.  Capital Area Dist. Library v Michigan Open Carry, Inc., 298 Mich App 220 (2012).  The Court of Appeals reasoned that MCL 123.1102, which prohibits local units of government from restricting the use and possession of firearms, applied to CADL.  The controlling question for Ann Arbor and Clio may be whether they are "local units of government" under the statute.  

However, proposed legislation might render that debate moot.  "Senate Bills 442 and 561 would essentially swap those existing rules, prohibiting open carry but allowing permit holders to seek an exemption to carry concealed weapons in schools, college dorms, sports stadiums and other regulated venues."  MLive, Oct. 13, 2015.

Proponents of the legislation offer it as a compromise:  
"We're actually trying to do (schools) a favor," sponsoring Sen. Mike Green, R-Mayville, said after the GOP-led Senate Judiciary Committee advanced his bill in a 4-1 vote that fell along party lines.
"We, as gun owners, have every right in the world to carry in gun-free zones, most of them, and so are we going to give that up? We're taking a step back and saying we'll cover them up if you guys are willing to do it, and they don't even want that." [Id.]
Opponents of the legislation criticize it as a manufactured crisis meant to force the issue.  

Okemos Parents for Schools is not currently taking any position on these bills. While they undoubtedly impact schools, the arguments for and against these bills are likely to be the same arguments for and against any legislation involving guns.  While these do impact schools, the policies behind them are not really about education.  As always, this position is subject to input from members of Okemos Parents for Schools, which is defined very broadly.  Please let us know if you have questions or comments. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

M-STEP and opting out

Michigan has a new standardized test this year--the M-STEP.  There is a lot to be said about standardized testing and the high-stakes associated with it.  We hope to talk to you more about that in the future.  For now, since M-STEP testing is nearly upon us in Okemos, we thought we would share the option of opting out.

Your children are not required to take the M-STEP test if you opt them out of it.  In theory, the federal No Child Left Behind Law threatens consequences for schools where less than 95 percent of kids take a standardized test.  However, changes to the law have essentially made that requirement irrelevant., Sept. 15, 2014.

Across the country, parents are increasingly opting their kids out of the test in numbers far greater than five percent.  In New York, last year more than 60,000 kids opted out of the test, and that number is expected to grow this year. The Buffalo News, April 14, 2015.  In West Seneca near Buffalo, 2,074 of 2,976 eligible students refused testing.  Id.  In another district, 1,534 of 2,740 eligible students opted out., April 11, 2015.  Here in Michigan, some parents are opting out in Grand Ledge., April 14, 2015.  Further, some parents are opting out here in Okemos.  In particular, Michigan State University Professor Mitchell Robinson, who has written on this blog before, and his wife opted their children out.  He wrote on his blog about the ease of opting out and the painless response from the district:

Having read and heard about much more hostile responses from schools around the country to similar requests, we were both relieved and encouraged by our school's reply. Not only was our request for our child to opt out greeted with respect, but provisions for our son's attendance on those days when the test was scheduled were provided without argument or hassle. The approach was understanding, positive and student-centered--everything we have come to expect from our school district.
I also believe that this response is an indication of a tipping point of sorts when it comes to the issue of opting out and school testing. More and more, teachers and administrators are understanding the negative impact of these tests on students, teachers and schools, and are joining the fight with parents and other groups advocating for a reduction in the number and uses of these tests. [, March 25, 2015.]

It's worth noting that the M-STEP is considerably different from the MEAP you took as a child.  The test is taken on computers, and the questions are of a very different format and content.  You can see sample questions here: Michigan Department of Education.

If you choose to opt out, you should be able to accomplish it with a phone call or letter to your school.  Sample letters can be found  at United Opt Out Michigan.

Mitchell Robinson - Pull the plug on standardized testing.

By Mitchell Robinson

As a parent, I sit down and talk to my children's teachers at least twice per year at parent-teacher conferences about their work in school, and receive regular updates about their academic, social and musical development.
Mitchell Robinson

I check their homework, help them with projects and talk to them about their studies every day.

I can check their grades online any time of the day or night.

I attend their soccer games, band concerts, piano recitals, and school events, so that I know not just what they are doing, but have the chance to meet their friends and their friends' parents--many of whom have become good friends.

As a teacher, I engage in continuous formative assessment, tracking my students' progress as learners, and using the information gathered to improve my practice as a teacher.

I provide formal and informal updates on my students' development, and offer mentoring and guidance whenever asked--and often when not asked.

I know my students as persons--their strengths and challenges, their goals, their aspirations--and am fully committed to helping them achieve their dreams.

Why would I need standardized tests to tell me anything about my children, or my students when I already know so much about them?

The only purpose for these tests is to evaluate teachers and schools--even though we know that these tests are neither valid or reliable for those specific purposes--and to make millions of dollars in profits for the corporations that develop them.

Stop the madness. Let kids learn. Let teachers teach.

Pull the plug on standardized testing.

Mitchell Robinson is associate professor and chair of music education at Michigan State University. Prior to his current position, Dr. Robinson taught music for 10 years in the Fulton (NY) City School District, and held collegiate appointments at the University of Connecticut and the Eastman School of Music. Dr. Robinson recently concluded a term as Academic Editor of the Music Educators Journal, and has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Music Teacher Education, Arts Education Policy Review, the Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, the International Journal of Education and the Arts, and Research Issues in Music Education. His research is focused on education policy and the mentoring and induction of new music teachers.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Governor Snyder removes School Reform Office from Department of Education

Quickly after the idea was floated to political insider publications, Governor Snyder signed an executive order which will remove Michigan's School Reform Office from the Department of Education.  The constitutionality of the order has been publicly debated with the State Board of Education calling the move unconstitutional.  The timing of the order with the State Board of Education's search for a superintendent has also been discussed.  Let's unpack some of this.

The School Reform Office is charged with overseeing the state's most troubled schools.  Once the order takes effect, the office will move from the Department of Education to the Department of Technology Management and Budget.  Michigan Radio, March 12, 2015.

As an initial matter, it's worth noting this executive order differs somewhat from the President's power in the federal scheme.  While federal executive orders are self-executing, may have immediate effect, and are reviewable only by the judicial branch through the regular adversarial process, Michigan's constitution allows for the Legislature to disapprove of the order by a majority of both houses within 60 days of its enactment.  See Mich Const 1963 Art V, § 2.  The political reality of this situation is that neither house will disapprove of the order.  It will take effect.

There are plausible arguments for and against the constitutionality of the order.  In support of the order, the Governor can point to his authority under Article V, Section 2 of the Michigan Constitution to oversee and reorganize departments in the executive branch:
Subsequent to the initial allocation, the governor may make changes in the organization of the executive branch or in the assignment of functions among its units which he considers necessary for efficient administration. [Mich Const 1963 Art V, § 2]
The Governor might argue that the Department of Education is merely an arm of the executive branch like any other, and he can reorganize it as he sees fit.  If this is true, he could even dissolve the Department and spread its functions throughout the executive branch.  Wayne State Law Professor Robert Sedler recently expressed this view in an article on, March 17, 2015. However, the State Board of Education likely has the stronger position.

Unlike the federal system which has just three co-equal constitutional branches of government, Michigan has more.  Most relevant here is the State Board of Education.  Just as Articles IV, V, and VI of our state constitution establishes our Legislature, Executive and Judiciary and define the contours of the authority of each of these branches, so does Article VIII define our State Board of Education:
§ 3 State board of education; duties. 
Leadership and general supervision over all public education, including adult education and instructional programs in state institutions, except as to institutions of higher education granting baccalaureate degrees, is vested in a state board of education. It shall serve as the general planning and coordinating body for all public education, including higher education, and shall advise the legislature as to the financial requirements in connection therewith. [Mich Const 1963, Art VIII, § 3.]
If this were the end of what the constitution had to say on the matter, it would seem somewhat ambiguous. Yes, the State Board is supposed to be a co-equal branch, but the text would seem to allow for reorginization which would allow the Governor to remove its authority to actually do anything.  But the constitution says more:
Superintendent of public instruction; appointment, powers, duties. 
The state board of education shall appoint a superintendent of public instruction whose term of office shall be determined by the board. He shall be the chairman of the board without the right to vote, and shall be responsible for the execution of its policies. He shall be the principal executive officer of a state department of education which shall have powers and duties provided by law.  [Mich Const 1963, Art VIII, § 3.]
The key here is that the Department of Education is not simply an executive agency like any other, subject to the Article V powers of the Governor.  Rather the Department of Education is specifically provided for in Article VIII and under the control of the state superintendent, the department's "principal executive officer."  Further, the department's powers and duties are to be "provided by law," rather than determined by the Governor.

The Governor's spokeswoman said his motivation for the move was that he "feels like there needs to be a more proactive approach to addressing these most struggling schools, to benefit the kids that are in them."  Detroit Free Press, March 13, 2015.  Critics however noted the move came as the State Board of Education was selecting a new superintendent.  The Board is controlled 6-2 by Democrats, and one of the three finalists was Oakland Schools Superintendent Vicki Markavitch who has been an outspoken critic of the Governor's educations policies.

State Board of Education members John Austin and Cassandra Ulbrich were immediately critical of the move, questioning its constitutionality.  The board unanimously approved a statement which read in part "The State Board of Education opposes any effort to diminish the constitutional authority of either the State Board of Education or the State Superintendent,"  The Detroit News, March 17, 2015.
Mr. Austin has said the board is exploring a court challenge to the constitutionality of the order.  WKAR, March 18, 2015.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

Prop 1 - We Recommend You Vote "Yes"

On May 5 Michigan voters will make a decision on whether to increase education, municipal and road funding with a 1 percent increase in the state's sales tax.  Okemos Parents for Schools recommend you vote "yes."

Finding new funding for road repair has been a priority of the Snyder administration for years.  However, the tax-averse Republican Legislature has refused to raise the revenue needed to for additional spending on roads.  In last December's Lame Duck legislative session a compromise was struck to fund road repair with a 1 percent increase in the state's sales tax.  To gain support of House and Senate Democrats the proposal also included additional funding for schools and municipalities:
The proposal, along with the other laws that it would trigger, is projected to eventually generate $1.25 billion a year for roads and bridges, according to the non-partisan House Fiscal Agency. It would also raise $200 million for the School Aid Fund and $111 million for local governments, when fully implemented. [, March 3, 2015.]
However, because increasing the state's sales tax requires an amendment to the Michigan Constitution, the Legislature does not have the ability to implement the plan alone.  Rather, it will require a statewide vote.  This is the question which will be put to voters May 5.  Read more about Proposal 1 here

Critics of the proposal make two arguments.  First, some critics argue against any tax increases.  This position is typically associated with the right end of the political spectrum and is advanced by groups which supported the 2013 federal government shutdown.  Second, some critics argue that while additional revenue is necessary to fund road repair, municipalities and schools, the sales tax is a regressive tax which is disproportionately bore by working class Americans.  

The position of Okemos Parents for Schools is that additional revenue is needed for K-12 education.  This view is shared by Michigan residents who pegged K-12 education as a top priority in recent statewide survey.  
From the Center for Michigan Citizens Agenda for Public Money.
While we are sympathetic to both arguments offered by Proposal 1 critics, we feel the need for additional K-12 funding outweighs both.  

Additionally, an alternative to Proposal 1 has surfaced which would be devastating to K-12 education.

During the December debate over Proposal 1, former Speaker of the House Jase Bolger floated a plan to raise the $1.2 billion for roads without increasing any taxes.  Of course, this meant the money had to come out of existing state spending.  That plan is now back and being floated as an alternative if Proposal 1 fails.
The legislation would phase out sales tax collections on motor fuel over several years but increase fuel taxes by a similar amount. Doing so would mean more money for crumbling roads but reduce potential growth in sales tax revenue for the School Aid Fund and local governments. [, March 11, 2015.]
We would have recommended a "yes" vote on Proposal 1 without this destructive alternative, but with the reemergence of this plan, passing Proposal 1 becomes critical for public education in Michigan.