Friday, December 14, 2012

Embrace life

As the sun rises outside my office I watched a video of Steve Jobs talk about life. Steve Jobs was a complex man, who like all of us, was not perfect. But this video made me reflect on my life, what I am doing, and where I am going. What do I want out of life?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Who's college ready?

What does it mean to be college ready?

Here's a quiz that uses profiles of real students. Can you tell which one is college ready? (To read the chart: Amy’s ACT English score was 32; her math score was 19; her reading score was 35; her science score was 28; and her ACT Composite was 29.)

So which one was college ready?

ACT explains the college ready score in the following manner:
Empirically derived, ACT’s College Readiness Benchmarks are the minimum scores needed on the ACT subject area tests to indicate a 50% chance of obtaining a B or higher or about a 75% chance of obtaining a C or higher in corresponding credit-bearing first-year college courses. 

Most of us understand the composite score on the ACT.

As you can see these nine students have a variety of composite scores:

ACT Composite
Amy  29
Bob 30
Cal 22
Deb 22
Eve 30
Fay 29
Gus  24
Hal  26
Jan 29

One might guess that those who are college ready are the students with highest composite score.

That guess would be wrong!

There are two students who are college ready in this list. They are Call and Deb. The students with the lowest overall ranking are the two students that ACT would say are "college ready."

Bob and Eve with composite scores of 30 are not considered "college ready" in all four subjects because they did not score at one of the ACT cut scores. Bob did not meet the cut score in math and Eve did not meet the score in science.

The students with the lowest ACT composite scores are, according to ACT, the most "college ready" of the group.


Because they hit the magic thresholds.

  ACT English   ACT Math   ACT Reading   ACT Science   ACT Composite
ACT Scale Score Cut Score to be considered college ready 18   22   21   24   Not used
National Percentile Rank 37   63   53   80    
Michigan Average 18.3   19.3   19.4   19.7   19.3
Class of 2010 National Average 20.5   21   21.3   20.9   21
Class of 2010 MI Average 18.9   19.7   19.7   19.9   19.7

This chart shows the magic numbers according to ACT. On the English sub-test of ACT in order to have a 50% chance of earning a "B" or better or a 75% chance of earning a "C" or better in the freshmen level English class, ACT's research says you need a minimum score of 18. That score of 18 is at the 37th percentile. Said another way, 73% of the students who take the ACT hit the college ready score in English.

You can also see that in science a student needs to earn a 24. That score of 24 is at the 80th percentile. Only 20 percent of the students in the United States who take the ACT hit the college ready score in science.

This all leads to another question: Does a student have to be college ready in all four subjects to be successful in college?

The answer is no.

We could use this data to hammer our teachers and say that they are not preparing our students to be successful in college. But that would be wrong!

Or we could look at this data and use it for its intended purpose - continued dialogue about what our teachers are doing right and what our teachers can do to get better.

Data-driven or using data to drive a story: Look at the evidence

Data is important. However, in my mind, there is a difference between being data-driven and using data to drive a particular story line.

When you are data-driven you look at the data and then identify what is says.

When you are using data to drive a story line, you identify the story that you want to tell and then you look at the data.

At times I feel like our state politicians are not data-driven.

Instead, it feels like they have made up their minds about what they want to say and then they find data that will support their story.

It is unfortunate that they do this - to be charitable.

In some ways it is deceptive and disingenuous.

Recently I wrote about how I think Governor Snyder of Michigan has identified a story he wants to tell and then found numbers to support him. Let me explain.

How many Michigan high school graduates go to college? And, more importantly, how many of those students are successful? The state of Michigan's Mi School Data website gives us the numbers.

Under the post secondary outcomes link on this website, you will see that of the 2010 Michigan high school graduates 75% had enrolled in college and 56% had earned 24 credit hours in two years. Districts across the state varied in the percentage of their graduates who enrolled in college, the percentage who earned college credit, and the percentage who enrolled in remedial classes.

In my school district, this website reveals that 90% of the class of 2010 enrolled in college and 75% of those students in two years had earned 24 college credits.

One could parse the data and argue that the Michigan numbers should be higher and that more students should be entering and succeeding in college. But overall, the numbers do suggest that three-quarters of the graduating class of 2010 went off to college and in two years over half earned 24 credit hours or two years of college credit. Again, in any specific district, the numbers could be higher or lower.

Recently, I pointed out that Governor Snyder does not use this data to communicate that Michigan high school graduates are prepared for and doing well in college.

Instead, Governor Snyder often references ACT's numbers that indicate that in Michigan less than 25% of graduating high school students meet the ACT defined benchmarks for college success in all four subject areas tested.

And technically Governor Snyder is right.

ACT gives tests in English, reading, math, and science. Depending on the student, he or she may meet the college readiness benchmark in all subject area or in just one, two, or three subjects.

According to ACT, the Michigan high school graduating class of 2010 looked like this:

College Ready
All Four Subjects19%

In Michigan, here are the numbers for the graduating class of 2012:

College Ready
All Four Subjects21%

But in my mind he is using the data deceptively because he could just as easily have used data from his own state website - MI School Data: Michigan's Official Website - to point out that 75% of the Michigan graduating class of 2010 went to college and over 56% were successful in earning 24 credit hours.

He could have used the data from these two sources together. Governor Snyder could have said that ACT's data gives us pause that we need to do more. He could have then continued and said that the evidence we have from our colleges is that our students are enrolling in college and they are being successful. He could have continued and said more needs to be done but clearly we are producing students who understand the importance of college and are working hard to be successful.

But he did not do that?


Here is my guess. He has a story he wants to tell. The story Governor Snyder wants to tell focuses on how our public schools are not preparing students and that we need to bring in other forms of schools to help them be more successful. We need online, charter, and out-of-state educational entrepreneurs to come to Michigan to show us how to do education better and cheaper.

Governor Snyder said he is data-driven.

I do not agree. I think he has a story to tell and he wants to use data to make it look real.

I am not fooled.

Friday, December 7, 2012

If we "redeem" assessment will we create another "crisis" of faith in public education

In an article in the December 3rd US News, David Coleman, President of the College Board, says the following:

"We have a need in this country to redeem assessment in the hearts and minds of teachers and parents; otherwise the accountability systems we are building will never have the depth of support they need."

The same article indicates that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that only 23 percent of high school teachers believe that state-required tests accurately portray student achievement and only 36 percent of students take the exams seriously

How will we "redeem" assessment and get teachers and students to have faith in and take the tests seriously?

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

The Common Core State Standards are a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practice and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Forty-five states and three territories have formally adopted the standards. The new standards will, we are told, prepare students more effectively for college and the workplace.

Along with the new standards will come new assessments tied to the standards. The new assessments, which will replace the MEAP and the MME, will be given in Michigan in the spring of 2015.

The new standards and the new assessments they tell us reassuringly will give us a more accurate picture of student achievement.

The logic of the need for the CCSS and new assessments is built upon the foundation that parents and students are not now getting an accurate assessment of student achievement. Thus new standards and new assessments are needed that will, in Coleman's view, "redeem" assessment, once again making it a valuable source of information for parents.

But the initial result will be lower test scores.

How will parents react when test scores drop and schools that were once thought to be "good" schools are shown not to be?

Rick Hess suggests the those advocates of the Common Core hope to "scare" (his word) suburban voters into accepting a reform agenda.

But the question "reformers" have yet to answer is whether there really is a crisis in the majority of suburban districts? Much of the evidence that we have indicates that suburban district students are not overpopulating remedial classes. Take Novi High School for instance. The evidence from the state of Michigan's own data shows that 56 students or only 16% of the students form the graduating class of 2010 took remedial courses in college.

Hardly a crisis.

Yet, the evidence is mounting that the Common core may be an attempt to create the next education crisis.

Instead of "redeeming" assessment, this may again be an effort to create a "crisis" of faith in public education.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Does knowing what our students learn justify the cost?

There is a report out from the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings that analyzes what states' spend on K-12 assessment. The author states:

"We estimate that states nationwide spend upwards of roughly $1.7 billion on assessments each year. . ."

That is a lot of money.

Yet, in the big picture, the reports author says:

"This seemingly large number amounts to only one-quarter of one percent of annual K-12 education spending."

In Michigan, the author concludes that we spend just over $19 million dollars or about $23 a student.

In my district, if we received $23 a student more we would receive an extra $145,000. That would pay for the salary and benefits of just under four additional teachers.

So the question we must consider is whether the cost of assessment is justified by what we learn about our students?

We pay for buses, athletic teams, choirs, bands, and a host of other things in our district. Many of these things cost much more than what assessment costs us.

But assessment elicits an emotional reaction. The cost is too much! The information is not good! It takes time away from instruction.

My counter would be - how will we give parents and students the confidence they need to believe that their children are learning what they need to know if we do not have any external assessments?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Is there a campaign to discredit public education?

On April 27, 2011, Governor Snyder said that "only 16% of all students statewide are college-ready based on the ACT taken in spring 2010 as a part of the MME."

So I did some research.

I looked at the state of Michigan's MI-School Data website. Under the post-secondary options link I found the high school in my district - Novi High School - and looked at the data available for the graduates of 2010.

I ask the database to show me how many of the graduates of 2010 had earned 24 college credits in two years.

According to Governor Snyder, only 16% of my graduates were college ready.

Yet the data shows something different.

Of the 2010 graduates from Novi High School, within 24 months, 89.9% enrolled in college and 75.3% had earned 24 college credits.

Let me repeat that. Within 24 months (2 years) of graduation, 89.9% of the 2010 graduates of Novi High School had enrolled in college and 75.3% of them had earned 24 college credits.

Why would Governor Snyder say that on "16% of all students statewide are college ready.?"

You might defend the Governor and say that he was not talking about Novi. After all Novi is a great school district and it has students who are prepared for college.

But look at the state numbers. Using this same state of Michigan database, the numbers tell a different story than the Governor tells.

In Michigan, of the 2010 high school graduates, within 24 months 75.5% of the students had enrolled in college and 56.4% of the students in the state had earned 24 college credits.

Why is the Governor telling anyone who will listen that only 16% of students statewide are ready for college when the real numbers tell a completely different story?

I would think that the governor would want to promote that our public schools are preparing students to be successful. I would think that our Governor, who professes to be a "nerd", a numbers guy, a data-geek, would use the data to promote the good job that public schools are doing to help our state's economy. I would think that the Governor would want to attract businesses to a state where students leave high school with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in college.

Yet it does not appear that the Governor wants to do that at all.

In fact, it looks like the Governor is looking to discredit education, to embarrass public schools, to get the public to believe that we are not doing our job.

Why would the Governor want to do that?

One possible explanation is that the Governor wants to discredit public education so that he can force through educational reforms that have no track record of success. It appears that the Governor has a political agenda that he is focused on instead of focusing on the facts.

I would hope that the Governor is not trying to discredit public education to foster a political agenda but it is hard to argue against that.


Because the Governor is promoting educational reforms like the Educational Achievement Authority (Senate Bill 1358 and House Bill 6004) that would create a statewide school district that would take control of public education away from communities and put it in the hands of political appointees. The rationale used to justify this power grab is that public schools are failing.

This is the same Educational Achievement Authority that started this fall with a small group of failing schools. This reform effort has no track record of success at this point. It is only three months old. Yet the Governor is confident that this reform effort is of such quality that it should be expanded across the state. How can that be justified?

But public schools are not failing. The state's own data clearly makes that point.

I know that there are schools and districts that are not meeting the needs of the students in their care. Yet the Governor is not using a surgical approach that looks for solutions to very specific and isolated cases. He is making the case that all schools in Michigan are failing and that the majority of students are not prepared upon graduating from high school.

The only excuse for this gross misuse of data is that the governor has a political agenda.

I would urge the citizens of Michigan to pay attention to the changes that are being proposed for public education. Contact state representatives and senators and let them know that we will not stand for the Governor or for others to politicize the education of our children.

Friday, November 30, 2012

A good day

In the midst of struggle it is sometimes difficult to find happiness. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be in education, to work with children every day sometimes get caught up in what is left undone.

Students could learn more.

Politicians could try and understand schools more.

We could find better strategies that would help us reach more children.

But every now and then we need to pause and reflect on what we do have.

This video captures what I am trying to say better than I can say it.

Enjoy and find happiness today.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Even blind dogs can lead: That doesn't mean they know where they are going!

I have a dog. Her name is Kaya. She is wonderful. Here she is waiting for me to fill up the gas tank so we can go for a walk.

I walk Kaya every chance I get. In November we have walked almost 52 miles. In October we walked almost 65 miles.

The interesting thing about Kaya is that she is blind. Earlier this year we discovered she had glaucoma. We had to remove her right eye. The left eye needs drops everyday to keep the swelling down. She cannot see out of that eye either. We are hopeful that she can keep the eye but we are not sure.

When we walk Kaya is on her leash. She is very confident and often takes the lead as we move down the sidewalk. Most people would not be able to tell that she was blind.

However, if I took her off the leash she would not be able to navigate at all. In our house, while she manages quite well, she will run into walls and misses doorways with regularity.

As I walked with Kaya last night I thought of the changes our state legislature and Governor are proposing. The legislature and Governor remind me of Kaya. They are like blind dogs. They can look like they know where they are going but the truth is they really don't. They have no evidence that the changes they are proposing will work. In fact, many of the changes will fundamentally change the landscape of public education in Michigan.


These bills will create a state Educational Achievement Authority that would be responsible for the lowest performing schools in the state, but that would also be able to operate "new forms" of schools. The EAA would be a state run school district.

The EAA schools would be exempt from state testing. Public schools are forced to give state tests but somehow and for some unknown reason these EAA schools would not have to test.

School districts would be forced to sell unused school buildings to the EAA. The EAA could then use those buildings to bring "new forms" of schools to a community.

The EAA operates outside the Michigan Department of Education and answers to the Governor. Are we confident that the Governor is the one who should be managing schools?

The legislative process is a process that depends on citizen input. I would urge citizens to learn what they can about HB 6004 and SB 1358. Then contact your state representative and state senator to voice your opinion.

Don't let blind dogs lead us.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Can you love students and hate the schools they attend?

The Michigan legislature and Governor Snyder are pushing education reforms. Their latest proposals (HB 6004 and SB 1358) would create a state-wide school district - the Educational Achievement Authority - that would have no local oversight. These bills would allow state takeover of local unused school buildings. These bills would politicize the process of educational reform and create additional government bureaucracy. The Michigan Department of Education would have no authority in this process. Local school districts would have no voice in trying to help students in their own district.

In addition the EAA would be exempt from state testing that every other public school in Michigan is required to participate in.

Governor Snyder and certain legislators argue that this has to be because they care about students more than "government" schools, bureaucracy, and teacher unions. The Governor and certain legislators would argue that they are truly for the students while public schools care only about the institution and protecting their self-interests.

That is hogwash! 

The Governor was not on a bus two weeks ago that was returning from an 8th grade trip to Washington DC. Students had contracted the flu and were sick. Yet who was there caring for those students. Teachers! Without complaint and without an expectation that anyone would notice these teachers took care of students.

The Governor is not at any high school in the state before dawn to see teachers coming in early to work with students. 

The Governor does not see teachers give up their time on weekends to grade papers, plan lessons, and spend time preparing classroom experiences that will shape and change students lives.

I know that public education can improve. The state legislature has passed and the Governor has signed many new laws in the past year designed to improve public education. Yet the Governor and legislators refuse to allow these efforts to bear fruit.

The Governor and legislators would counter that there is no time to wait.

I would argue that knee-jerk, untried, unproven, and ill-conceived reform efforts are worse than allowing time to implement changes correctly.

Why does our Governor and certain legislators insist that untried, unproven reform efforts will work? Why does our Governor and certain legislators insist that a new state bureaucracy is needed?  

I do not have the answer. What I do know is that the Governor is trying to suggest that he loves students but hates their schools. What the Governor should be doing is loving both the students and the schools they attend.

I also know that the citizens of Michigan should not let the Governor and the certain legislators ram legislation down our throats because they claim they know best.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Why do Governor Snyder and certain legislators hate public schools

The legislature, following the lead of Governor Snyder, has introduced two bills - one in the House (HB 6004) and one in the Sentate (SB 1358) - that would codify into state law and expand greatly the powers of the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA).

The original intent of the EAA was to allow the Michigan Department of Education through its State School Reform Officer to take control of schools that had been on the persistently low achieving schools list for three straight years. The persistently low achieving schools are those schools that are ranked in the bottom 5% of all schools in Michigan based on the Top-to-Bottom rankings. These persistently low achieving schools had demonstrated that they needed a change in focus because what they were doing was obviously not working.

While some of us considered this an intrusion into the responsibility of local school districts it was hard not to argue that something new needed to be done. These schools that were designated were failing and had shown no ability to move ahead. 

So although many of us were not sure this was the best remedy we could support it because it was under the control of the State Department of Education. 

But now these new bills expand the EAA to operate "new forms" of schools outside the "persistently low achieving" school category. It would create a de facto state school district controlled by a person appointed by the governor and not by the State Superintendent of Instruction. 

Additionally, this legislation would allow the state to take control of local school buildings that were paid for by local tax dollars. The legislation would require that all school districts notify the Michigan Department of Education if a school building is closed, unused, or unoccupied. The MDE would compile a list of unused school buildings. The local district could not dispose of the building for four years and would have to maintain the building at a "classroom ready" status. 

The EAA would be able to allow an eligible school (EAA or charter) to occupy the unused building and the local school district would be required to sell or lease the school building to the eligible school for fair market value. Who would occupy the building? Probably a for-profit educational company!

Another sticking point is that the EAA would be given additional flexibility by providing an exemption from statewide testing requirements and excused from some certified teacher requirements.

Read the House and the Senate bills. There is much more in them that will make you wonder about the Governor's and certain legislator's commitment to public education.

These bills, which the Governor supports, give me the impression that the Governor is willing to undermine local school districts. The question is why?

The Governor talks about "best practice" but there is nothing in these bills that has been tried at this scale anywhere in the United States. He and the legislators that support these bills cannot point to an example of how this will improve education in Michigan. 

I would agree that in certain schools something new needs to be done. I would even agree that more can be done in every district. But what is proposed in these two bills goes way beyond any rational remedy.

What is proposed in HB 6004 and SB 1358 is outrageous!

Public education in Michigan is successful. Can we do more? Certainly!

But these proposals are not the answer. They point to a different agenda. They point to politicians who want public money to go to private hands and private companies. 

These bills are not the answer and the citizens of Michigan need to let their State Representatives and State Senators know of their opposition to these bills. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

School funding: When politics intrudes needlessly

The state of Michigan is about to enter into a predictably unnecessary debate about how to fund K-12 education.

In the end it is all about politics and power. The debate will have little to do with student learning.

Take Richard McLellan's memo of November 5, 2012, that provides an update on the public education finance project. In this memo he states,

"Given the Governor’s focus on performance and choice, we want the education financing
law to focus on funding things that work (and stopping things that don’t work) rather than
the present focus on funding schools regardless of performance."

Yet what McLellan is proposing has never been tried any where in the United States. There is no evidence that what he is proposing will work at all.

Yet, if you listen to McLellan, you would think that his proposal is guaranteed to succeed. The only problem is that he cannot make that guarantee at all.

It leads one to wonder why McLellan would be proposing such a radical shift in the way we fund public schools. While those who wish to redefine how we finance public education will state that it is about ensuring that all students have access to "anytime, any place, and any pace" educational options, what they are really interested in is transferring public funds to private corporations without any evidence that this will work.

Cabrera - MVP; Students - More than numbers

Detroit Tiger fans rejoiced last week when Miguel Cabrera won the American League MVP. In the end, the vote was not even close.

What is remarkable is that there were some who argued that another player, Mike Trout of Anaheim, should have won the award.

After all, Trout was a stat lovers dream. Mitch Albom summarizes the debate well when he says:

"We need to slow down the shoveling of raw data into the "what can we come up with next?" machine. It is actually creating a divide between those who like to watch the game of baseball and those who want to reduce it to binary code."

This conversation made me think of what we are doing in schools today. We are developing more and more stats to determine if students are learning and if teachers are teaching and if schools are efficient and if administrators are focused and on and on.

I admit I am a proponent of measuring our impact. If a student is in my school then I should be able to demonstrate that what we are doing is making a difference.

But we cannot focus on stats alone. All the stats in the world cannot tell me if a student is developing a love for learning.

We have to find a way to look at the intangibles.

Are we developing students who like to read?

Are we helping students who can think?

Are the students in our care learning how to reflect on their learning?

Cabrera is the American League MVP because he had the numbers. But with Cabrera you could also see things that cannot be measured by a statistician's spreadsheet.

When we think of schools we need to make sure that our schools have the numbers, but we also need to make sure that we can see things that cannot be measured by numbers.

Students are more than numbers. We need to remember that as we work to make schools good places for kids.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Does the knuckleball give perspective to 21st century learning

RA Dickey of the New York Mets won the National League Cy Young Award yesterday. The award yearly recognizes the best pitcher in baseball.

Dickey winning the award is a triumph for the knuckleball. For you see never before has a pitcher who relies extensively on the knuckleball as his primary pitch won the Cy Young Award.

Dickey acknowledged this in his comments after winning the award. He said,

We live in a culture now that's got a very progressive mentality, which is fantastic as far as the association of the knuckleball goes. And that's a compliment to the vision and the imagination of the writers who voted. They didn't see the knuckleball as a trick pitch. They didn't see it as some kind of illegitimate weapon that you can use that isn't worthy. They saw it as a legitimate weapon. 

So how does Dickey winning the Cy Young Award influence my perception of education?

Perhaps, and this is just a hunch on my part, we are turning a corner. Perhaps, we are beginning to see that it is the outcome that is most important and not the means.

The outcome in education is student achievement. Learning! We should use any means available to us to help students learn.

In the past we have viewed learning as "legitimate" only if it was teacher directed. But that is not how students learn anymore.

Students are more independent. Student have access to information through the internet that they did not have access to before. Students create learning communities through Facebook Twitter, and other social media sites where they control learning.

Now we cannot say that the only legitimate learning that occurs is in the classroom between the hours of 8:00 and 4:00.

Learning occurs throughout the day, throughout the night, throughout the year.

The definition of legitimate learning has to expand. Students have access to too much information.

The question is do we as teachers realize and accept this?

The baseball writers accept that the knuckleball is now a "legitimate" pitch.

Can we as educators accept that student learning is different now than it has been in the past? And if we can accept that, how does it change how we do business? 

Friday, November 9, 2012

School districts - good or bad for students?

The Oxford Foundation has been charged by Governor Snyder to examine school funding inn Michigan. They present an interesting point of view in a piece entitled "Who is entitled to a free public education." This paper lays the foundation for the Oxford Foundation, and possibly Governor Snyder, to argue that the Michigan Constitutional requirement that the "legislature shall maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools as defined by law" means that a student should be able to attend any school anywhere in the state. 

Read this paper. It presents a fascinating glimpse into what may be proposed for school funding in the very near future.

However, while I am certainly not a constitutional expert, the Michigan Constitution also says "Every school district shall provide for the education of its pupils."

While the Oxford Foundation can make its case that the Michigan Constitution does state that a system of "free public elementary and secondary schools" should be created and supported, it appears to me that the state has for many years abdicated this responsibility to school districts. As a result school districts have provided the leadership and the stability for providing this system.

What has resulted is a system of widely disparate school funding. The state has allowed this difference in funding for many years without concern.

Why would the state now begin to suggest that school districts are almost obsolete? Is it because they have suddenly developed a deep concern for students? Or is it because they have a political agenda to send public funds to private schools and educational entrepreneurs?

I would urge anyone interested in educational funding in Michigan to read information from the Oxford Foundation. I would also urge people to talk to their state legislators about school funding.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Will math ever be a sport?

In this intriguing video, people reflect on what the future of education may look like.

My job is to make sure that the students in my district are prepared for the future. Every generation faces battles. My job is to make sure that my students are prepared to fight the battles that they will face. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Can we accurately evaluate the quality of a teacher?

I believe that teachers make a difference for students. I believe that an effective teacher can have a tremendously positive impact on student achievement in general and the achievement of individual students in particular.

Part of this is born from my own experience. I can reflect on the teachers that I had in my life and, anecdotally at least, identify the teachers who made a difference.

Part of this conviction that teachers make a difference is born out of the research. John Hattie in his book Visible Learning gives a nuanced and credible explanation of the potential contributions that teachers can have on student learning and achievement.

Having said that I am also aware that a student is only in a classroom for approximately 1098 hours a year. That is not a lot of time over the course of a year.

On any given day - in the approximately 180 days of a school calendar - a student may be in a classroom and in front of  teachers for approximately seven of their twenty-four hour day.

Yet even in the course of that day a student is in front of multiple teachers. At the elementary level a student in the course of one day may see their homeroom teacher and a PE, music, art, or media specialist during the day. At the middle and high school a student may see five to seven teachers during the course of their seven hour school day.

In addition, a student's day is cut up with lunch, recess, passing time, and the like.

Additionally, some, but not all, students have access to additional resources outside of school. The most important of those additional resources is a stable, compassionate, and loving home that encourages creative thinking, values independence, and is language rich. Those resources may also include trips to libraries and museums, access to computers, access to magazines and newspapers, and meaningful conversations with  interested adults. Clearly, access to those and other additional resources will influence how much and how easily a student learns.

So how can I determine the value added by a teacher to a classroom of students and to an individual student when a teacher's interaction is limited to no more than seven hours a day for 180 school days?

Yet I am responsible for evaluating teachers. I feel a great deal of responsibility to create a system that is fair and just to teachers. I also feel a great deal of responsibility to create a system that is fair to the students, and also to their parents, to ensure that the time students' spend in school is not wasted.

The question is how do I create a system that accurately evaluates the impact a teacher while recognizing the complexity of the task?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Can we see the future of education?

Frederick Hess recently was part of a panel discussion at The Aspen Institute. (Hess' part of the program starts at about 1:12:00.) He begins by stating that many people who talk about improving schools or fixing schools start with the premise that schools and teachers are a given. The stated goal of many is to improve education by fixing schools. That includes, among other things, improving teacher quality, holding people accountable, taking the institution as we have come to know it and making it better.

Hess' continues and suggests that institutions established to address one set of purposes at one point in time may not be equipped to address a new set of purposes in a new time.

Does this describe our schools? Were our schools created for one purpose to address one set of circumstances and now that purpose and those circumstances have changed? Are schools as we know them outdated?

In a world where the students in my schools have access to information at times and in ways that I do not control are schools as they are currently structured appropriate?

There are websites - - that help me solve equations.

There are phone and tablet apps that teach me how to spell - Little Speller First Words (

We have online virtual schools for students in grades K-12. Harvard and MIT have collaborated to create online open courses (

Schools with teachers in buildings have been around a long time. But perhaps we are at a tipping point. Perhaps those of us invested in schools need to be invested more in ensuring that we create environments where our students will learn.

Maybe schools with teachers that have students arrive by bus at 8:30 AM (or 7:15 AM or 9:00 AM) and sit in desks in classrooms are the past of education and not the future.

The question is can we see the future?

Monday, October 29, 2012

What should we teach?

We have the Michigan Grade Level Content Expectations.

We have the High School Content Expectations.

We have the new Common Core.

And then there is this - The Sporting Journal. This sports website was created by a 14 year old who had an interest in sports. In the "About" tab one reads this:

Currently all our reporters are currently aged between 13 – 25 and are all very keen to learn and grow their skills. Our founder himself is a mere 14-year-old.

Those reporters will learn the skills they need to communicate, to write, to analyze by creating their website. As we think of those young reporters, the question is not what school is for but how can school engage these young people by connecting what goes on in school with what goes on in their life?

How do we - those who say that we are educators - take the power that is available in technology and social media and create an educational system that taps into the interests, skills, and enthusiasm of those we teach?

(I learned about The Sporting Journal" in Will Richardson's book Why School? I would recommend it.)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Giants Win the World Series!

I was driving between meetings today and happened to tune into sports radio. I was surprised by what I heard.

It appears that after one game in this year's World Series we can call the whole thing off. As I understood the conversation, the Giants have won.

Now, technically, they still have to win three more games but the callers were convinced that after one disastrous game by my Detroit Tigers that the Tigers had no hope.

I was somewhat stunned.

I must tell you I was stunned last night as well when the Giants hit rocket after rocket against Justin Verlander. My belief, as well as the belief of many in Detroit, was that Verlander would win the game. He had given up just two runs in this year's playoffs. At one point he had not allowed a run in 84 at-bats.

But last night! Oh boy - he was not very good. Or the Giants were very good.

Regardless, the callers to sports radio today were united in their belief that the Series was over.

Again, I was somewhat stunned.

Granted things look bad right now. But, my fellow Tiger fans, don't give up.

Tiger fans, let's us unite to remain optimistic. In a Business Week article about the economy and optimism, the author suggested that "practical people should open their minds to the opportunities to be seized just as much as to the dangers to be dodged."

Michiganders - we are practical people. We can see possibilities as well as dangers. Let us focus on the positive.

Another website suggests that the "anticipation of difficult events is almost far worse than the events are. Your mind can often be your own worst enemy."

As this conversation rattled around in my head today I thought about the business of schools. At times there is a lot to look at pessimistically. The new Common Core. Waivers for NCLB. Increased expectations from the state. Reduced funding. Tighter budgets.

The list of potentially negative news can be long. At times it can seem a bit overwhelming.

Yet, I have reason for hope. There are opportunities to be seized. The future can look bright. The sun is still rising.

So let us commit to seeing the possibilities!

(Now if Doug Fister pitches the way Justin Verlander did, I may rewrite this!)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Comparing bottoms (and tops)

Too much time has been spent by the state in trying to defend its new system of classifying schools and by districts trying to argue that the state's new system is fatally flawed. This is particularly true in Oakland County where a number of school districts have landed in the state's new "Focus Schools" classification.

Focus Schools are defined by the state as those schools with the largest achievement gaps in the state. That is not in dispute. What is disputed is whether these schools deserve what they perceive to be a scarlet letter.

The state Superintendent has stated that this methodology "looks solely at achievement and unmasks students who were hidden in previous accountability systems." Looked at from one perspective that may be true. This new methodology does identify schools that have large achievement gaps.

However, many of the schools in Oakland County would argue that the system may identify the schools with large achievement gaps but it then hides the schools with overall low achievement. And, these schools would argue, what is worse - an achievement gap or low overall achievement?

There are two fundamental questions in this debate that deserve an analysis:
1. Are the gaps bad?
2. Does focusing on the bottom 30% continue to mask differences in achievement?

Let's look at the answers to these questions. On the first question - are the gaps bad? - the answer is more complex than the state would lead you to believe.

First, let me state that I believe our responsibility is to ensure that every student is proficient. Our district goal states that all students will achieve at a high level. We have defined that as every student being proficient.

Having said that I would argue that gaps are inevitable. There is no possible way to ensure that all students perform at the same level. Even if every student was proficient there would still be a range - and the range could be quite large. If the bottom of the range is proficient what is the top of the range? In any group there will be some students who significantly outperform their peers.

The appropriate goal is not to eliminate gaps. A more appropriate goal is to ensure that every student moves forward every year. Our district's number one goal is to ensure that every student makes at least one year's growth in one year's time. In our district we have institutionalized a gap because we understand that the school's responsibility is to take a student where they are and move them forward. If everyone from the barely proficient to the highly proficient move forward then you will continue to have a gap.

As long as everyone is proficient the achievement gap loses its significance as an important marker.

Every district in the state has a range of performance. In my district the schools with the gap happen to be high achieving schools. We are not arguing that there is not a gap. What we would argue is that while we have a gap other schools have a more serious and systemic problem - low achievement.

Look at this chart. It compares the percent of students' proficient in math who are in the bottom 30% of students in each school in Novi with the percent of students' proficient in math who are in the bottom 30% of students in other schools in Michigan.
  In the bottom 30% how many students are proficient in math
Novi School 71.95%
Novi School 64.63%
Novi School 38.15%
Novi School 68.75%
Novi School 41.33%
Novi School 50.92%
Novi School 29.22%
Novi School 19.04%
District X School 0.72%
District X School 1.56%
District X School 0.98%
District X School 5.08%

The interesting part of this chart is that only one of the schools in the comparison district (District X) is classified as a Focus Schools while all but one of the Novi schools are classified as Focus Schools. To be clear, of the four schools in District X one is a Focus School. Of the eight schools from Novi seven are Focus Schools. Yet, even though Novi schools are classified as Focus Schools, Novi schools have significantly more students proficient. 

Remember, this chart takes the bottom 30% at each school and shows how many are proficient. Every school will always have a bottom 30%. The clear and obvious point is that many of the schools not identified as Focus Schools have much lower achievement than many of the Focus Schools.

The state can argue all it wants that Focus Schools have gaps and I would not disagree. What I do disagree with is that the state then argues that our gaps are worse than schools with overall low achievement. If I was a parent I would much rather my child go to a school that has high achievement and a gap than go to a school with lower achievement and no gap.  

Yet when the state Superintendent talks about Focus Schools he uses phrases like the following: "In our efforts to identify Focus Schools, we feel that it is important to bring up data-driven results that need to be addressed if we are going to close the alarming achievement gaps in Michigan schools, so that we are truly serving ALL of Michigan’s students – especially those who are not yet proficient."

What is alarming to me is that there are schools in Michigan that have proficiency rates of less than 1% or 2% or just over 5% that the state does not single out in an achievement classification and that can hide under the radar without having anyone draw notice to them. The data is clear to me. These schools are not serving all students and have significant numbers of students who are not proficient yet they are not publicly called out and labeled.

Here is a "data-driven result" - the schools that have a problem with students "not yet proficient" are not always the Focus Schools. The schools that have a problem with students "not yet proficient" are those schools that have embarrassingly low proficiency rates. Yet, in the state's classification system, many of these schools are not labeled as Focus Schools because they do not have an achievement gap.

The state Superintendent also uses phrases like, "The Focus School methodology looks solely at achievement and unmasks students who were hidden in previous accountability systems."

Yet, if we are looking "solely at achievement" and trying to "unmask" students hidden in accountability systems, it appears that schools that have proficiency rates in the 1%, 2%, and 5% range have a more significant achievement problem than schools that have proficiency rates significantly higher than that.

So are achievement gaps bad? I would suggest that achievement gaps are one factor that must be examined. But achievement of all students is also a critical factor. Many schools labeled Focus Schools have high achievement and a gap. Many schools not labeled have no gap but low achievement.

That leads to the second question. Does the Focus Schools metric really reveal achievement? I would argue that it does not. The state tries to argue that gaps are bad. In my mind gaps are less problematic than overall low achievement. In the schools in my district the majority of the students are proficient. In many districts in the state that is not the case.

The label Focus Schools indicates that a school has a wide gap between the highest achievers in the school and the lowest achievers. It does not reveal anything about achievement. In fact, as noted in the numbers above, many Focus Schools outperform non-Focus Schools, have fewer students who are not proficient, and have more students who are proficient.

The state Superintendent in correspondence with the media points out that Focus Schools have 0% of students in their bottom 30% proficient in social studies, science, and math.

Yet that statement is true of almost every school in the state of Michigan. Most of the students in the bottom 30% of any school in the state are not proficient. The schools in my district are not unique.

Look at another chart that summarizes performance in the state.

SubjectPercent of Michigan Schools with 0% proficient in the bottom 30% of their student test scores
Social Studies99.80%

The bottom 30% in any school are by definition the lowest achievers in the school. Yet the performance of the lowest 30% varies widely. Additionally, just because students are in the bottom 30% in one school does not mean that they are not proficient.

In one of the schools in my district there are 27 students in the bottom 30% at 3rd grade reading. Of those 27 students 8 are considered proficient and 11 are considered provisionally proficient. So of the 27 students 19 are actually calculated as proficient.

In one non-Focus School there is no one in the bottom 30% labeled as proficient. Yet that school's low achievement is masked because it is not identified as a Focus School. How is that not having a system that hides proficiency and achievement?

The state also calculates a top 30% in each school. In one school in my district the average of the scale scores of the top 30% in math was 378.05. In this school the average of the scale scores of the bottom 30% was 317.26. Of the 80 students represented in this group of students in this school 57 were calculated as proficient by the state - that's 71.25%. Of the students not calculated as proficient 16.25% fall into achievement level 4 - the lowest performing category.

In a non-Focus school the average of the scale scores of the top 30% in math was 346.19. That is 31.86 points lower than the Focus School. The average of the scale scores of the bottom 30% was 309.03. Of the 105 students represented in this group of students in this school 53 were calculated as proficient by the state - that's 50.47%. Of the students not calculated as proficient 40.00% fall into achievement level 4 - the lowest performing category.

These two schools represent a difficult truth for the state. The school labeled a Focus School has higher average scores in the top 30% and the bottom 30% than the non-focus school. The school labeled the Focus School has more students who are proficient than the non-focus school. The Focus School has fewer students in the lowest achieving category than the non-focus school. The Focus School is a higher achieving school than the non-focus school on every measure except the achievement gap measure.

If I am a parent I want my child attending the school that has higher achievement even though it has a larger achievement gap. 

The state has created an achievement classification system that points a finger at Focus Schools and says improve. Yet, there are many non-focus schools who have lower overall achievement, have fewer proficient students, and have more students performing at a lower level that receive no state sanction or classification.

This reflection is not to suggest that the state create another way to rank schools. But when the state Superintendent says that Focus Schools "leave 30% of their students behind" and that the "students in the lowest 30% subgroup deserve more" he is suggesting that those students are failing. The evidence from my district does not support such wide, general statements.

Certainly in my district there are students who are not proficient. But the evidence - the data - suggests that the number of students who are not proficient in my district is less than the number of students who are not proficient in other districts. Yet my district is saddled with the Focus School label.

There appears to be no "reward" for having high achieving students in this new system. In fact, it appears that high achieving students create a disadvantage because their high achievement makes the lower achievement of other students a negative. Even when that lower achievement is still higher than the achievement of other students throughout the state.

I do not claim to have an answer for the state as we seek to create a system for evaluating teacher/administrator/school/district performance. I know that the state received feedback from my district and from others that we had significant concerns with this new system.  

Any system creates winner and losers - those that meet the standard and those that do not. It just seems to me that this system does not give a true measure of achievement no matter how loudly the state says that it does.

Maybe what the state should do is just publish the data in a way that is accessible to everyone in Michigan. Here's a sample table that the state could use for 3rd grade reading:

Number of students tested in reading
Number and percent of students proficient in reading
Average of the scale scores of the highest 30%
Average of the scale scores of the lowest 30%
Number and percent of students in the lowest achievement category

So what is the outcome of all of this brouhaha about Focus Schools?

I would argue that it is much ado about nothing except for the fact that it gives the impression that a school not labeled a Focus School is actually a better school than a school that is labeled a Focus School. That is simply and unequivocally not true.  

Friday, October 19, 2012

Let's look at the data

Mike Flanagan, Michigan's State Superintendent of Public Education, has decided to defend a system that is indefensible. His technique is a classic propaganda technique - provide part but not all of the data.

Today, Mr. Flanagan sent an email to educators throughout the state of Michigan. In this email he talks about the state's new achievement classification system. Quoting from his correspondence he says, "The Focus School methodology identifies schools with the largest achievement gaps."

He is correct about that. But he makes that seem like a bad thing. In some instances I am sure that it is but in my schools it is not.

The Focus School calculation measures the difference in performance between the highest 30% and bottom 30% in a school. Those with the largest difference in the state are labeled Focus Schools.

Mr. Flanagan argues that "some schools have been going along thinking they are doing well, when in fact, large numbers of students are struggling."

I am here to disagree! There are not large numbers of students struggling in my schools. There is a range in ability. Our goal is to help every student move forward every year. If I do that there will always be a gap because those at the high end are moving just as those at the low end are moving. The vast majority of students in my district are proficient. The data is clear on that.

In my district we have seven schools labeled as Focus Schools. Here is the data on the "bottom 30%" from two of our Focus Schools.

School One
  % Proficient Reading % Proficient Math % Proficient Writing % Proficient Science

Bottom 30% 86.58% 71.95% 25.92% 0.00%
African American 100.00% 42.85% 0.00% 0.00%
American Indian     . 0.00%
Asian American 75.00% 80.95% 25.00% 0.00%
Hispanic 100.00% 100.00% 0.00% 0.00%
White 91.66% 71.15% . 0.00%
Multi-racial     . 0.00%
LEP 64.28% 57.14% 0.00% 0.00%
Stdts. w/ Disabilities 61.11% 33.33% 0.00% 0.00%
ED 100.00% 50.00% 0.00% 0.00%

School Two

  % Proficient Reading % Proficient Math % Proficient Writing % Proficient Science

Bottom 30% 87.08% 64.63% 48.14% 0.00%
African American 71.42% 44.44% 100.00% 0.00%
American Indian        
Asian American 87.09% 80.00% 44.44% 0.00%
Hispanic 50.00% 60.00%   0.00%
White 92.68% 54.00%   0.00%
Multi-racial 100.00% 0.00%   0.00%
LEP 76.92% 42.85% 20.00% 0.00%
Stdts. w/ Disabilities 72.00% 17.39% 28.57% 0.00%
ED 33.33% 40.00% 100.00% 0.00%

Look at the percent proficient. In "School One" over 86% of the students in the bottom 30% are proficient in reading and almost 72% of the bottom 30% are proficient in math. That's right - in the bottom 30% of performers in this school over 86% are proficient in reading and 72% are proficient in math.

"But look," you say, "only 33% of the students with disabilities are proficient in math." That's right only 6 of 18 special education students are proficient in math. Remember those are students with a diagnosed disability and 6 of them are proficient.

Mr. Flanagan's propaganda would have you believe that this is a school that is struggling. Yet look at the numbers. When he calls it a Focus School and says it has a large achievement gap a person immediately thinks that large amounts of students are failing. But that is not the case!

There are schools in the state that do not have as many students proficient as this school does in its bottom 30%.

You might also say no one is proficient in science. Here is another dose of Mr. Flanagan's propaganda. Ask Mr. Flanagan how many school districts in the state of Michigan when you look at the bottom 30% of students have 0% proficient in science? The answer - 99.6%.

That's right - in almost 100% of Michigan school districts no one in the bottom 30% is proficient in science. Mr. Flanagan fails to point that out when he suggests that Focus Schools are doing a lousy job because no one is proficient in science. It appears that not one district in the entire state is doing well teaching science.

Or could it be that the measure of proficiency is unrealistic.

Mr. Flanagan would have you believe that Focus Schools are doing a poor job. But look at this data from another school in the state. This is not a Focus School.

School Three

  % Proficient Reading % Proficient Math % Proficient Writing % Proficient Science

Bottom 30% 59.84% 1.56% 0.00% 0.00%
African American 64.70% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
American Indian 100.00% 0.00% 0.00%  
Asian American 50.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
Hispanic 25.00% 10.00% 0.00% 0.00%
White 63.04% 1.11% 0.00% 0.00%
Multi-racial 0.00%   0.00% 0.00%
LEP 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%  
Stdts. w/ Disabilities 37.50% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
ED 56.81% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%

In reading 60% of their bottom 30% are proficient in reading but only 1.5% of their bottom 30% are proficient in math.  That's right - less than 2% of their bottom 30% are proficient in math. Yet the state suggests that they need no intervention because they do not have a large achievement gap.

They have no gap because all of their students are clustered around a much lower percentage of proficient than the students in my schools.

The bottom 30% in my school outperform the vast majority of students in this school. Yet my school is labeled a Focus School.

I am outraged that the State Superintendent would try and defend a system that clearly punishes schools that have high achievers. Does Mr. Flanagan want me to get off the Focus List by becoming like this school?

I refuse to do that. I will continue to help every student be successful. As a result we will continue to have gaps in my school.

Our goals in Novi are to ensure that all students will make a year's growth in a year's time and that all students achieve at a high level. What is a "high level?" It starts with proficiency. I want all students to be proficient. We are close to achieving that goal. Then we need to make sure that every student makes progress every year. That's our focus! I think it is the appropriate focus.

Mr. Flanagan I respectfully request that you come visit my district to see what we are doing to ensure that all students - every single student - has the opportunity to succeed.