Monday, April 27, 2015

What makes school significant (It's not the M-STEP)

We are in the middle of M-STEP, Michigan's state mandated assessment for students in grades 3-8 and 11.

This assessment, while it is not intended to do so, will determine our worth.

After the assessment we will receive in weeks (or months) our scores. These scores will be reported in the newspaper. These scores will be used to rank school districts. Academic champions will be crowned based on these scores.

But in the end, the test scores don't matter.

I reached this epiphany while reading Atul Gawande's book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. The book is about the conversations doctors and the medical professionals have with patients whose because of age or life-threatening illnesses are facing the end of life.

The book is wonderfully difficult. It made me think about what is truly important in life.

But it also made me think about school. Gawande says the following when discussing the medical field: 

The problem with medicine and the institutions it has spawned for the care of the sick and the old is not that they have had an incorrect view of what makes life significant. The problem is that they have had almost no view at all. Medicine's focus is narrow. Medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul. Yet - and this is the painful paradox - we have decided that they should be the ones who largely define how we live in our waning days. For more than a half century now, we have treated the trials of sickness, aging, and mortality as medical concerns. It's been an experiment in social engineering, putting our fates in the hands of people valued more for their technical prowess than for their understanding of human needs.

As I read those words it made me think of schools and education. Schools should not be defined by test scores. Schools should not be defined by many of the various metrics that appear on state reports or in the paper.

The problem with education and the institutions it has spawned to care for students is not that they have had an incorrect view of what makes life significant. The problem is that they have had almost no view at all.

What makes school significant for students?

People, relationships, passion, discovering ideas, talking about ideas, learning who you are and what you care about.

State legislators and newspapers seem to think that the most important part of school are test scores and graduation rates and daily attendance. Those are important. But the schools that have high test scores and good graduation rates and high daily attendance are schools that don't focus on those things.

We can tell ourselves that high test scores are important. We can spend all of our time in school prepping students to take a test.

But in the end, those things do not matter.

I believe that schools that measure well on the new metrics of education do so because they focus on making school relevant and meaningful. Schools that focus on relationships and help students develop a passion for learning, those are the schools that understand what is truly important about education.

Medicine focuses on repairing health when the real discussion should be about what is significant in life.

Often the discussion in schools is about test scores when the real discussion should be about sustenance of the soul.

While I completely agree that schools need to ensure that students learn, that students have the skills they need to pursue their dreams, the more important discussions are about what students are passionate about. The more important discussions are how what we are learning applies to life outside of the school.  The more important discussions are about how school makes it possible for a student to follow their passion and make a difference.

We give the M-STEP because we have to.

What I want are for schools to find ways to sustain the souls of our students so that they can make powerful contributions to their family, their friends, and to society.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Measuring progress

First, I want to state that I believe in accountability.

Parents send their children to school because there is an expectation that students will learn.

A community supports schools because there is an expectation that schools will help students learn.

Part of my responsibility is to be able to demonstrate that children learn in the classrooms in my school district.

Today, in Michigan, we begin our M-STEP (Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress) testing window.

I understand the need for an external evaluation - an unbiased look at the performance of my students. 

But, is this really the way?

Last week I was baking cookies. Suddenly this ad showed up on my TV.


Pearson, a company whose mission is to "help people make more of their lives through learning", is recruiting college graduates to become temporary M-STEP test scorers. (Here is the job description listed on their website.)

I would receive a 10% pay differential for the evening shift!

As I said, I believe in accountability. Students, parents, and community members need to know if students are learning.

Those who teach and those of us responsible for schools need to know if what we are doing is making a difference.

But do I really want the effort of my teachers and the performance of my students to hinge on the ability of temp workers hired by a multinational educational conglomerate who have been trained for a few days to determine if my students demonstrate proficiency on the standard?

I would much rather trust the judgment of my teachers. I would much rather include in any assessment of the performance of my students a judgment rendered by someone who has spent time with these students, who has seen the growth in these students, who has evidence gathered over the course of the school year about the progress these students have made.

Instead, my state of Michigan following the direction of the federal Department of Education, has chosen to measure the progress of my students using only one measure - the M-STEP. My state and the federal government have also chosen to rank and evaluate my schools and my teachers based on this one measure.

I want to see the results of the M-STEP.

But I also want to be able to include for everyone to see the evidence my teachers have gathered over the course of the year about the progress of my students. This gives me a better picture of the growth of my students. It shows me how far each student has come over the course of the year.

But that requires that we trust a teacher's judgment.

It also requires that we understand the complex nature of performance.

I trust my teacher's judgment.

I also believe that my students and their parents deserve more than a score on a test to determine if schools are doing a good job.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The joke could be on us!

Today is April 1st.

April Fool's Day!

We celebrate pranks, jokes, and fun today.

Yet the story in the Detroit Free Press today about Proposal One is not a joke. If the vote were held today Proposal One would be defeated.

But the vote is not today. the vote will be on May 5th. My hope is that Michigan voters will recognize that this proposal will do two things:

  1. Dedicate money to fix Michigan roads
  2. Provide dedicated funds to Michigan K-12 education and community colleges
The proposal provides Michigan with an opportunity. Proposal One will:
  • Ensure that all state fuel taxes go to treansportation
  • Increase the state sales tax from 6% to 7% (except on food and prescription drugs)
    • $1.2 billion annually will go to roads and bridges
    • Additional sales tax dollars will go to:
      • School Aid fund ($300 million)
      • Local governments ($94 million)
      • Earned Income Tax Credit ($260 million)
      • Rail/Mass Transit ($112 million)
I would encourage Michigan voters to learn about Proposal One. I believe that it would benefit Michigan. I will vote yes on Proposal One.

Without a yes vote on Proposal One our Michigan roads will continue to crumble and Michigan schools will continue to suffer.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

How to kill a profession

So you want to kill a profession.

It's easy.

First you demonize the profession. To do this you will need a well-organized, broad-based public relations campaign that casts everyone associated with the profession as incompetent and doing harm.  As an example, a well-orchestrated public relations campaign could get the front cover of a historically influential magazine to invoke an image that those associated with the profession are "rotten apples."

Then you remove revenue control from the budget responsibilities of those at the local level. Then you tell the organization to run like a business which they clearly cannot do because they no longer have control of the revenue. As an example, you could create a system that places the control for revenue in the hands of the state legislature instead of with the local school board or local community.

Then you provide revenue that gives a local agency two choices: Give raises and go into deficit or don't give raises so that you can maintain a fund balance but in the process demoralize employees. As an example, in Michigan there are school districts that have little to no fund balance who have continued to give raises to employees and you have school districts that have relatively healthy fund balances that have not given employees raises for several years.

Then have the state tell the local agency that it must tighten its belt to balance revenue and expenses. The underlying, unspoken assumption being that the employees will take up the slack and pay for needed supplies out of their own pockets. 

Additionally , introduce "independent" charters so that "competition" and "market-forces" will "drive" the industry. However, many of these charters, when examined, give the illusion of a better environment but when examined show no improvement in service. The charters also offer no comprehensive benefits or significantly fewer benefits for employees. So the charters offer no better quality for "customers" and no security for employees but they ravage the local environment.

Then create a state-mandated evaluation system in an effort to improve quality. Require the system to use a value-added measure (or VAM) that may or may not be equipped to do what its advocates say it can do. The American Statistical Association states:

Under some conditions, VAM scores and rankings can change substantially when a different model or test is used, and a thorough analysis should be undertaken to evaluate the sensitivity of estimates to different models.

Then make high stakes employment decisions based on the VAM.

Then you create an accountability system that purports to evaluate the quality of organizations. Then, using this system, rate over 80% of organizations as average or below average, furthering diminishing the respect of the profession.

It's easy to kill a profession.

All of these things have happened to public schools in Michigan. While I don't want to believe it, the argument could be made that some people are trying to kill the profession of public school educator in Michigan.

Some might argue that what I should focus on is the students. Student needs are the most important.

I agree.

But unless you create a meaningful, respected profession - who will teach the students?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Do something!

Last week the Governor and the Michigan legislature officially took a stand. Schools, education, and the students in Michigan are not a priority.

How do I know? I watched what they did. 

Instead of using money that is dedicated to the students in Michigan - the Michigan State School Aid Fund - the Governor and the legislature used money from that fund to plug a general fund budget hole. 

Instead of using the State School Aid for its intended purpose, the Governor and the legislature made the point that the State School Aid Fund is a pot of money to be used as they see fit. 

Instead of saving the $167 million surplus in the State School Aid for the next fiscal year or instead of giving some of the State School Aid to schools for this school year, the Governor and the legislature spent the money to plug a hole in this year's state general fund budget.

So that is done. We can't go back and get that money for the State School Aid Fund.  

So now what do we do?

It’s easy to get depressed. It is easy to think that there is no use in trying to get the Governor and the legislature to do the right thing.

But I would encourage you not to give up.

Let the Governor and the legislature know that you don't believe that was the right thing to do.

Call them. (House. Senate. Governor.)

Write them.

Email them.

Be specific.

Let them know the State School Aid Fund should be for K-12 education. That is its purpose. That is why the State School Aid Fund exists.

The Governor’s proposed budget for next year has a planned reduction for the Novi Community School District and only a marginal increase for most school districts in Michigan.

Why? Because the State School Aid Fund does not have enough money to provide for a larger increase. Yet the governor and the legislature just gave away $167 million to the General Fund to plug a budget hole.

If we communicate clearly with our legislators that the State School Aid fund should be used for schools and schools alone, I believe that the legislature will do the right thing.

But they won’t do the right thing unless the hear from you.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Data is not the savior of education

Standardized tests will not save American education.

It's not that I don't need data to help me make decisions. It's just that the data I receive from standardized tests does not give me a complete picture of whether or not my students are learning.

Don't get me wrong. Data is important.

I need data to analyze how well the students who sit in my classrooms are learning. I need data to measure if students are mastering the standards.

I need data so that I can figure out how I can help a student learn what they need to know.

I need data to analyze if my teachers are doing a good job. How can I tell if a student is really benefiting from a teacher's instruction unless I can measure the impact that teacher is having on her students?

Without data I would not be able to tell if a student is learning and a teacher is doing their job.

But data alone is not what I need. In fact, if I rely only on the data from standardized tests I will have a distorted view of my students and my teachers.

Standardized data cannot capture what happens in a classroom. Learning is about engaging ideas. Learning is passion, following ideas, understanding the why.

I want students who are engaged, who care about what they are learning, who understand not just the information but why it is important.

I want students who will dig for answers. I want students who don't just memorize information but who wrestle with ideas. I want students who grow excited about what they are learning and lose themselves in learning. 

No standardized test can measure that.

Tests are also artificial. They measure a very narrow slice of learning and certainly do not capture the breadth and depth of all that students know and care about.

There has been a lot of conversation about the value of our American testing program. Many would argue that our current form of standardized testing is not very good.  (See this article.)  Some parents are going so far as to opt students out of testing. (Here - #myoptoutletter, here)

But I believe that parents deserve to know if a student is making progress. I believe that taxpayers deserve to know if the investment that they are making in schools is really making a difference.

Standardized tests give us one perspective.

But we have come to rely on them as the only arbitrator in learning. We have come to see standardized tests as the only true measure of whether or not a student has learned anything.

And that is just not the case.

The question is how can we balance our need to know if students are learning and teachers are making an impact with our understanding that standardized assessments are not completely or wholly accurate reflections of all that students know?

It is a delicate balance.

But we have to figure out. We have to get the answer right.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Diverting attention

School funding in Michigan is contentious.

There are some school districts in the state that receive more money than other school districts.

There are several ways to show what school districts receive.

There is the per pupil calcuation (shown by the Senate report). Most districts are in the $7,100 to $7,500 dollars per pupil. Some in the $8,000 range. And there are some in the $11,000 range.

The Bulletin 1014 report that is published by the Michigan Department of Education shows all the money that comes to a district. This report lags real-time a bit. The latest report is from the 2013-2014 school year. Here everything is calcuated and the range for each school shows more that what the per pupil range from the Senate report shows.

What is undenialable is that most schools are more or less at one level of funding, some schools are higher, and a few schools are very high.

While the conversation could be about why do schools receive different amounts of money (and that is a worthwhile conversation to have), the real conversation should be about what is the true cost of educating a student in Michigan.

Last year's legislature passed a bill that would complete an education adequacy study. The question that is more important to answer is not what each district currently gets per pupil. The real question is what does it really cost to educate students in Michigan?

Focusing on what each district currently receives diverts attention from the more critical question of what is the true cost of educating the students in Michigan.

I would encourage the legislature to fully fund this study. It is time for us to know the cost of educating the students in our state.