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. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

When they're done with me, they're coming for you!

To my fellow Michigan Superintendents,

Most of you don't like me.

Not "me" as a person. I have been told I am quite like able.

You don't like the "Novi Superintendent" me. I represent a district that has many advantages. We have a sinking fund, a recreation millage, and a recently passed capital projects bond. We have a community that is adding housing stock so our enrollment is expected to grow.

But more importantly what you don't like is that my district receives $8,630 per student. Technically for the 2014-2015 school year I received $8,409. But we earned a performance funding bonus from the state because of our student test scores. That equaled $70 per pupil last year. Then we earned the best practice bonus from the state of $50 per pupil last year for meeting the state identified school district best practices. We also received 20f Hold Harmless funds of $16 per student.

All of us received a retirement offset from the state. In Novi, it amounted to $83 per student.

So you add it all up and there it is $8,630 per student:

Per pupil foundation  $       8,409.00
Performance funding  $            70.00
Best practices  $            50.00
20f - Hold Harmless  $            18.00
MPSERS offset  $            83.00
 $        8,630.00

I know many, in fact most, of you receive far less.

So when I speak out against the Governor's 15-16 school budget you will probably not be too sympathetic.

After all, who cares if one of the "fat cats," one of the "rich" school districts receives less state aid. If the district you represent receives more at the expense of one of the "well-funded" districts, so be it.

I would urge you to reconsider.

The Governor says my district will receive a $75 per pupil increase next year.

My district - like yours - spends the money it receives. We are not hoarding it, we are not saving it, we are not being frivolous with our revenue.

As Exhibit A: I give you this example.

Our step one, first-year starting teacher's salary is $39,581. Teachers hired in our district at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, have never received that salary.

The first year in my district there was an off-schedule (meaning it would not carry over to the next year) salary cut of 1.3%. The salary was reduced from $39,581 to $39,052.

The next year, that first-year teacher's salary reverted to the written step one contractual amount but through negotiations everyone received a 1/2% on-schedule pay cut. So that teacher now in their second year received a salary less than the step one salary listed in the contract. The salary was $39,383 instead of $39,581. The second-year teacher again did not receive what our contract stated was the first-year teacher's salary.

Finally, this year - for the teacher hired in 2012-13 who was in her third year in the district - surely that teacher would receive what was supposed to be the starting salary from three years ago. Alas, no. The salary was frozen at the $39,383 level except for an off-schedule one-time payment.

So this teacher who entered the profession eager and ready to help our students has not received a salary increase in three years and has in fact received less than the contractual step one amount all three years.

This is not how you attract young talent to the profession.

We have a fund balance that hovers just over 10%.

We have kept it there by making cuts in salaries, as noted above. We have also frozen and cut secretary and aide hourly wages. Administrators have also been frozen and cut over the last three years.

We are trying to be responsible but it is coming on the backs of our employees.

Our K-4 class size average is approximately 22. We have four specials at the elementary level - music, physical education, art, and media center. We have an orchestra, band, and choir starting in 5th grade. We have AP and IB at our high school. We teach five foreign languages.

Our tennis team won the Division I state tennis title. Our volleyball team was the Division I runner-up. Our marching band was fifth in the state. Our middle school orchestra was invited to play at the Michigan Music Conference. Our robotics team qualified for the world championship. Our cross-country team was academic all state.

We have a comprehensive community school district.

Yet, next year while the Governor says he will boost per pupil funding by $75 per student he has also proposed to take away performance based funding ($70 per pupil in my district) and reduce best practice funding (a reduction of $30 per pupil in my district). The end result is that my district will receive $25 less per student or a total reduction of $161,000 dollars.

While, in jest, I suggested that most of you don't like me, the truth is that if the Governor cannot balance his budget by cutting schools like mine he will start to cut schools like yours.

Public schools that provide a comprehensive education for the students in communities all across Michigan are threatened by Governor Snyder's budget proposal. It is not just my school district.

It is up to Michigan superintendents to communicate to their communities, to the legislator, and to the Governor that public education should be a priority. The students in our school districts deserve much better than this proposal from Governor Snyder.

Very sincerely yours,

(The like able) Steve

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Look behind the headline

Governor Snyder presented his proposed budget today.

He suggests that each school district will receive a $75 dollar per student increase. He is correct. My district will receive an additional $480,000.

However, he forget to mention that he is also decreasing funding in certain funding buckets. Those funding buckets account for a net loss to my district of $100 per student or a decrease in revenue of $640,000.

As a result of this funding increase my district will receive $160,000 less next year.

So in Novi, Governor Snyder's budget will result in at least a $25 dollar per student loss next year.

How do I know? Look at the details of Governor Snyder's budget.

Item Program 2013-14 Appropriations 2014-15 Appropriations 2015-16 Appropriations
Sec. 22f Best Practices $80,000,000 $80,000,000 $30,000,000
Sec. 22j Pupil Performance $46,400,000 $46,400,000 $0

Section 22f - down $50 million dollars.

Section 22j - down $46.4 million dollars.

The 22f funding was allocated to districts if they met "best practices." In 22f funding Novi received $50 per student last year. Next year - the best we can hope for is $20 per student. A net decrease of $30 dollars per student or $192,000.

The 22j pupil performance funding was allocated to districts whose students performed at a certain level on state assessments. In 22j funding Novi received $70 per pupil last year. Next year we will receive ZERO dollars per pupil from 22j or a loss of $448,000.

Our total revenue loss is $640,000.

So while the Governor's headline is that education revenue will increase $75 per pupil, or $480,000 to Novi, he fails to mention that Novi will have a decrease in revenue of $100 per pupil or  $640,000.

Novi will receive $160,000 less next year under the Governor's budget.

It is important to look behind the headline!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Groundhog Day: It really is a nightmare

Today is Groundhog Day.

I'm starting to think I'm Bill Murray and living his 1993 movie - Groundhog Day. The teaser for the movie states that Phil (Murray's character) is trapped in a personal time warp, living his worst day over and over.

On January 8, 2015, I kept the schools in my community of Novi open. Students were not happy. Students took to Twitter to express their unhappiness. Some were quite unhappy.

Today - Groundhog Day - I find myself in the same position. 

Yesterday Novi received over 13 inches of snow. We closed school today - Groundhog Day. But tomorrow - well let's just say the students are expressing their hopes and fears on Twitter.

@: everyone pray for @docsmatthews to make the right decision and give us one more day off������

@: @docsmatthews it's colder than my heart and more barren than my soul and I think that points to another snow day

@: @docsmatthews Farmington, Livonia, Troy, International Academy, Walled Lake, and Rochester all closed..isn't this enough?

@: @docsmatthews you're on the clock #BelieveInSteve 

You have to love the passion of high school students!

Even though my high school students, and some of their parents, may not believe it, I really am concerned about their safety. I don't want them to be put at risk. I monitor the roads and weather. My Assistant Superintendent of Business and Operations and I talk frequently about what we should do. We talk to the city of Novi's Department of Public Works.

Contrary to the opinion of our high school students - I really do care about their safety.

But I also happen to believe that being in school is important.

I know that our students could find information on the Internet. I know that one missed day of school - or in this case two missed days - would not be the end of the world.

But being in school makes a difference. I believe that the community of school provides context and texture for students that they cannot find in other places. 

I believe that the rhythm of school needs to be nurtured. Stopping and starting over and over again creates dissonance. The powerful symphony that can be created through the sharing of different voices within one space cannot be nurtured if we disrupt the rhythm of learning.

I believe that teachers help students every day. Trust is built between students and teachers when they are together. Teachers learn to see things, recognize moods, capitalize on learning opportunities. But those things cannot be developed without being together.

I know that it is possible to create a virtual community that can do some of these things. We are not yet there in Novi. 

Someday maybe, but not on this Groundhog Day.

So tonight at 9:00 PM, my Assistant Superintendent and several other area Superintendents will once again be on the phone having another conversation about what to do tomorrow.

Some will decide to close. Others will decide to stay open. 

All of us will make the best decision we can for the students and the parents in our community. 

And my Groundhog Day will continue.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The world waits for teachers

It was 1986.

It was an ordinary Tuesday.

And then it wasn't.

I was student teaching in Lubbock, Texas, at Monterey High School. I was nervous. I had been in this classroom for exactly two weeks.

The day before, Monday, January 27th, I had been given the reins to the class. I was now responsible (more or less) for the education of 123 students.

I was 29 years old. I had come to teaching after working for the Texas Department of Human Resources as a social worker responsible for placing children in foster care. I had seen more than my fair share of dysfunctional families. I had seen parents unable and unwilling to care for their children. I had seen children who loved their parents even though those parents did not seem to love those children back.

Finally, I'd had enough. I decided I wanted to work with children on the front end of their problems, to help give them a fighting chance.

I returned to college to earn my teaching certification and now I was almost finished.

I spent hours planning lessons, thinking about how to engage my students, help them see that what we did in the classroom was relevant to their lives.

On my second day of being the teacher, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded.

In this Jan. 28, 1986 file photo, the space shuttle

A teacher - Christa McAuliffe - was on board. Watching her lift off was preparation for a writing assignment: What impact will a teacher have on the space program?

Suddenly, 27 faces looked at me.

What happened?


Will they be OK?

How could this happen?

Why do bad things happen?

My students needed me. Not necessarily as their teacher. Not necessarily as their friend.

My English class and my English curriculum suddenly were not very important. Instead, what was important was being there for the students in that classroom.

I learned a valuable lesson that day. Teachers do more than teach the curriculum. To make a difference teachers must serve as guides and mentors and as a steady voice. Teachers help students make sense of the world.

Making sense of the world means that I will give my students the tools they need to be successful. If I am supposed to help them learn English I have a responsibility to help them learn English.

But I can't teach them English and forget about the world that they live in. English, math, chemistry, history - every subject must find a connection to the world that my students experience beyond the walls of my classroom.

Sometimes that world explodes into the classroom - like it did on January 28, 1986. At those times the world is hard to ignore.

Most of the time though the world waits for teachers to make connections, to help our students understand why and how school matters.

And teachers do. Every single day!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Dangerous myths and distortions: D's get degrees

When my oldest son went off to college a Senior in his fraternity, who was majoring in engineering, relayed this bit of wisdom: D's get degrees.

While technically true, I was not comforted by the thought of driving over a bridge or riding in an elevator or flying in a plane that had been designed, constructed, and built by an engineer who earned D's throughout her/his college career. I would rather trust my life to the engineer who really knew and understood the concepts.

A wise man (Doug Reeves) once said: A "D" is a coward's "F." The student failed but you didn't have enough guts to tell him/her.

Grades, while they seem so clear, really don't tell us very much. I could earn an "A" in biology and still have failed a section or a unit over the course of a semester. Was that section or unit important? The grade of "A" would suggest that it was not.

But what if it was?

Students need to know what they know and what they don't know. Traditional grades are averages. And averages distort. 

As educators we have an obligation to accurately report what our students know and don't know.

Traditional grades don't do that.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

On the importance of grades

Do grades reflect your actual ability or knowledge?

I earned a 2.4 grade in my Organic Chemistry class at the University of Washington. (The UW did not give letter grades while I was there - only numerical equivalents. Don't ask me why.) That, in truth, probably overstated my actual knowledge in the course.

Grades, of course, signify your ability and knowledge. In a manner of speaking, they represent how smart you are.

But do they?

I would humbly suggest that the grade I earned in Organic Chemistry in 1977 probably was a poor reflection of my actual knowledge.

A recent article in The Atlantic suggests grades reveal little about achievement. The article focuses on grade inflation and notes that while grades and GPAs have increased over time measures of actual achievement and knowledge have remained relatively static.

Which leads to the question of why we pursue grades with such vigor.

Next week students at Novi High School will have their midterm exams. Study sessions are and will be organized to prep students for these exams. Teachers will engage in class reviews. Students will gather at coffee shops and in the library to help each other prepare.

I am not here to suggest that these efforts are not important.

I am here to ask another question: Of what importance are grades?

We must be able to help students, and by extension parents, community members, colleges, employers, and others with an interest in knowing exactly how smart our students are, know where they stand. Do they know the material is a relatively important question.

But my question is: Do grades actually help us answer that question?