Thursday, August 29, 2013

Does school still mean something?

School starts Tuesday in my district.

As I look forward to Tuesday, I wonder does school really have a place anymore?

After all, students can learn online 24 hours a day.

I see billboards advertising the virtues of virtual schools as I drive to work.

Many districts in Michigan have opened their borders and accept students from different communities.

So is the local public school still something that is important?

There is a passage in Ivan Doig's book The Whistling Season that has fascinated me and stuck with me since the day I read it many years ago.

Out beyond the play area, there were round rims of shadow on the patch of prairie where the horses we rode to school had eaten the grass down in circles around their picket stake . . 
Forever and a day could go by and that feeling will never leave me. Of knowing, in that instant, the central power of that country school in our lives.
Everyone I could think of had something at stake in that school.
We all answered, with some part of our lives, to the pull of this small knoll of prospect, this isolated square of school ground.

Do schools still have that "central power?"

Do community schools still mean something in the year 2013?

I think they do.

As I sit on this Thursday afternoon in my office, the girls high school swim and dive team is competing in its first meet of the season.

The Novi HS football team plays its first game tonight.

Teachers have been in all week working with each other, talking about lesson plans and students.

The high school marching band had its camp over three weeks ago.

Parents visited our elementary schools last night to meet teachers and talk to principals.

Our cooks and bus drivers and maintenance staff have spent countless hours getting our schools ready for the start of another school year.

Even with all of this activity I still ask myself, do schools still mean something? Do schools still ask of people to give something? Do schools still pull communities forward?

Again, I answer yes!

Schools connect a community. Teachers connect with students. Students connect with adults outside of their family. A love of learning and a passion for learning are passed on from one generation to another. Students begin to see, through the lives of the people in their school, that there are things to be passionate about.

For a student, schools become places where they learn that they are important. The adults in a school communicate to the students who attend that they matter. Teachers who take an interest in a student help that student understand that they are important.

Schools create places where students learn to fit in. Some students fit in with the athletic teams, others in the band. Some students connect through Quiz Bowl or Student Council or Safety Patrol. In community schools places are created and opportunities are presented for students to learn life lessons by connecting in a club or school activity.

Oh schools can falter. Schools can be places where students are bored or where they feel bullied or ignored or left out.

But community schools work hard to be places where students understand that they have a place, they have an opportunity to learn, and that they have adults who care about them.

Schools do mean something.

As this school year starts in my community, my hope is that we can continue to make schools mean something to every student who attends and to every family who trusts us enough to send us their children.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

How do I explain?

The state of Michigan released their latest version of the school accountability scores today. It is color code!

  • Green
  • Lime green
  • Yellow
  • Orange
  • Red

My guess is that you know exactly which color is better than the other.

Here are scores from two middle schools in Michigan. One is orange (bad) and one is yellow (caution). Guess which school is which.

Group % Proficient
All 85%
Bottom 30% 50%
Asian 97%
African American 59%
White 83%
Economically Disadvantaged 56%
Students with Disabilities 55%
Group % Proficient
All 59%
Bottom 30% 10%
Asian 70%
African American 37%
White 62%
Economically Disadvantaged 48%
Students with Disabilities 39%

Can you guess which is which? Which school has a lower rating than the other?

That's right! The school with 85% proficient overall and which had 50% of its bottom 30% proficient was orange.

To make the point clear, the school with the higher test scores overall and higher scores within subgroups - some significantly - was rated as less effective than the school with the lower test scores.

Now the state would argue that the new "color coded" system is not designed to compare schools. The state would argue that it is based on goals met and goals not met.

But each school has different goals based on subgroups. If you have few subgroups you have few scores. Each school has different goals.

There is a nuance to the system that clearly will be lost in translation.

The colors evidently have very little to do with actual performance.

The state system expects you to stand on land that you cannot stand on. Each parent is now, as we speak, looking at the color of theirs school and comparing it to the color of other schools. Parents will assume incorrectly that schools with orange are worse that schools with yellow and that schools within yellow are all the same.

Here is another example.  Two yellow schools. According to Vanessa Kessler, a deputy superintendent at the Michigan Department of Education, yellow doesn’t mean a school is average. Yellow, she said, “is caution.”

Group % Proficient
All 81%
Bottom 30% 37%
Asian 96%
African American 54%
White 78%
Economically Disadvantaged 56%
Students with Disabilities 43%
Group % Proficient
All 66%
Bottom 30% 9%
Asian -
African American -
White 68%
Economically Disadvantaged 53%
Students with Disabilities 34%

One school has 81% of its students proficient; the other has 66% of its students proficient. One has 37% of the bottom 30% of its student proficient and the other school has 9% of its bottom 30% proficient. Yet both schools are rated the same. Both schools are yellow.

It is not true. These schools are different. One school I would suggest has higher achievement and is more successful than the other. Yet the state rates them both the same.

Now some may argue that I am biased. Some may argue that I disagree because the schools in my district are rated poorly.

The schools in my district can improve. The schools in my district can get better.

To have a system that so fundamentally miscommunicates to the public, to parents, to school staff suggests that the system is broken.

The system is fatally flawed.

Monday, August 12, 2013

My private heresy: I don't care about the state "scorecard"

Any day now my state (Michigan) will release its latest "school accountability" report. This year's version is called the "scorecard." Calling it a "scorecard" suggests that the state has the capacity to identify school winners and losers. After all, the only reason you keep score is to see who wins.

When the state reveals this year's scorecard, I will, as Superintendent of Schools, be asked how I interpret the results.

My answer, "I don't care."

That is probably not entirely true, but let me explain.

I don't care what the state "scorecard" reveals because the results cannot tell me anything that I do not already know.

We have great schools in my district. Students learn. Teachers and principals care.

We have National Merit Semi-Finalists and Finalists every year. We have Advanced Placement Scholars and International Baccalaureate graduates. We have Siemens Award winners.

We have state Quiz Bowl champions and state debate champions. We have students who do well on science fair projects and math league competitions.

We have an award winning theater troupe. Our bands and choirs earn the highest marks at solo and ensemble festivals.

Our athletic teams are competitive and, at times, the best in the state. We have coaches who challenge students to improve but more importantly care about each student.  

On the objective measures that the state seems to care inordinately about we do well. Results from the MEAP and the MME rank us among the highest performing districts in the state.

On the NWEA, which our district uses to measure growth and achievement, students perform remarkably well. They perform at a high level and they consistently hit their growth targets.

We have one of the highest graduation rates in the state. Our student attendance rate is exceptionally high.

We have wonderful diversity in our district. We have students from a wide range of backgrounds and countries. This diversity provides an opportunity for our students to experience the world that they will live and work in and gain experiences that will give them confidence as they go off to college and enter the world of work.

We have achievement gaps. Some of these gaps are quite large. We have put in place a variety of supports to address these gaps. We have created smaller classes for students who struggle in math and reading. We have math and literacy coaches. We have reading support teachers. We have created an Academic Advisory at the high school and an Academic 20 at the middle school to connect students in smaller groups with a teacher who cares and who can help focus them academically.

We have teachers who run a Math Boot Camp and who come in early and stay late to tutor. We have teachers who call parents and encourage students every day.

I know our schools. They are wonderful, rich, vibrant, and exciting places to learn. Our district goals challenge us to help each student make a year's growth in a year's time and perform at a high level. We accept that challenge and together we are working hard to ensure that each student is challenged to reach their potential.

We are creating a robust, internal accountability system. This will allow us to us to focus attention not only on the state measurements but also our own internal assessments to give parents a clearer and more accurate picture of their son's and daughter's achievement.

So do I care about the state "scorecard?" Not really. Because I know my schools. I know the teachers and the principals. I know that we are making progress and that a state "scorecard" cannot truly capture the good things that happen in my schools every day.

The only reason I care about the "scorecard" is that I have to answer questions about what the "scorecard" means. So when the state "scorecard" is finally revealed, I will let my community know that I believe in our schools. I believe that we are great and getting better.