Windmillin'

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Where politics and faith dance in the shadow of the windmill.

It was 20 years ago today…

Republished from Written and Noted

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Amnesia can be wonderful thing, especially in politics. To listen to  John Kennedy, one may think that of course, the teacher pension problem is about poor planning. Then again, that may not be a flaw but a feature. He writes for the West Michigan Policy Forum:

It’s simple math. Today’s vastly underfunded teacher pension systems are not good for our teachers or students. Twenty years ago our state teacher retirement plan was fully funded, but due to poor financial planning assumptions and not meeting the annual funding requirement, there is now a shortfall of least $29 billion.

Here’s where amnesia takes over: twenty years ago the Engler administration raided the teacher pension fund as part of Prop A. Under that same plan, the Engler administration also shifted responsibility for increases in pensions to the local districts. The raid destabilized the funds and the cost shift meant that districts came into fiscal risk while simultaneously losing money to effectively teach their children.

And to spell this out completely: John Engler enjoyed some of his most significant support from the Republican party of W Michigan. This crisis is almost entirely one of their own making.

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Filed under: Education Policy, Michigan, , , , ,

Lisa, Lisa, Lisa

During the debate on HB 4813, a measure to provide for the dissolving of the Buena Vista and Inkster school districts,  Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons uttered the famous words, heard round the state.

“Pigs get fat, and hogs get slaughtered. I am done now talking about political parties and adult interests. I want to focus on the problem that these adults created.”

Not surprisingly, many took the words as referring to teachers. The representative has been on the defensive ever since. In today’s Grand Rapids Press she tries to explain herself. It wasn’t teachers she was referring to , but

“special interest union leaders who were playing political games with amendments and the bills.”

This packs an  unusual amount of irony, given the legislative history of the measure. In her column Lyons summarizes the bill

After much negotiation, Democrat and Republican lawmakers agreed to an amendment in the bill that would have provided for displaced teachers from the dissolved districts to be the first hired in the receiving districts.

Exactly. The only difficulty was that wasn’t the bill that came before the chamber. The substitute measure (H-4) stripped those very protections from the bill. The “special interests” standing in the way of children? That was the proposed amendments from the Democrats, seeking to restore the teacher protection.

The legislative history is abundantly clear on this, it wasn’t the unions or Democrats who brought forward the measure, but the Republican caucus. Trying to blame it on the unions then, is misplaced, and instead only shows the pique of the GOP leadership. The tragedy here s that a real bipartisan bill had been crafted, but the animus of some to teachers apparently was such that  “just to show them” they made the bill more onerous and destroyed the bipartisan cooperation.

Oh, there certainly were political pigs in the room.

Likewise, Rep. Lyons displays a remarkable lack of understanding about the structural problems that have been driving Michigan schools into crisis. It’s all the fault of the school districts:

Funding isn’t the problem; mismanagement and administrative negligence led to this crisis.

That might be true were it not for the fact that over the Recession most school districts (GRPS being one of the few exceptions) actually had their fiscal problems worsen. The challenges schools face are structural. Schools have seen a decrease in enrollment from the Recession coupled with the rising role of schools of choice (Bridge  reports Pontiac lost roughly $14 million because of transfers). Add to this the Legislature’s shifting of money away from the schools that only compounded the economic impact of the loss from enrollment. This was the storm that has hit not only Buena Vista and Inkster, but Muskegon Heights  and others.

The fact is, if we really believe that opportunity should not be restricted to Zip Codes (oh, like 49331), then we had better be passing appropriations and legislation that actually back that up. And if that won’t work, how about this: quit blaming the unions for the failure of your own party. Deal?

Filed under: Education Policy, Republican Folly, , , , , , , ,

Whitmer was right

Sunday’s editorial in The Press began well enough, unpacking the proposed structural changes to the States public schools. Even from the cursory comments, it is clear these will be substantive. Then in something of a Parthian shot, the editorial turned to the Democratic response, noting

Democrats already are attacking the plan, with Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, calling it a “voucher plan that would end public schools as we know them.”

But for too many Michigan students, the public schools they know are failing them.

The difficulty is that the last and righteous statement, that we are failing our students now, does not negate Whitmer’s substantive point.

If this reform is about traditional public school districts, how they are funded, which students they should accept, then how is Sen Whitmer wrong saying that it “will end public schools as we know them?”  Substantively, her concern is correct: the Governor is looking at a plan that will in fact alter the public schools substantially. With the opt-out provisions, it becomes a program of a two tier system. Forest Hills and Rockford get one kind of (traditional) plan, Kentwood and Northview something quite different.

As the recent discussions around the closing of Creston revealed, the schools can not simply be disaggregated into a collection of individuals or families (the anytime anyplace fallacy), but also function as important pieces of our social and economic fabric, linchpins for neighborhoods and communities.

The consideration of this social dimension will be one if not the central battleground on this so-called school reform proposal. The underlying question is to whom do the schools belong: are they merely to be considered as a instrument of the State, a deliverer of (social) services? or as expressions of particular communities and so accountable to those communities? This is the heart of the conflict.

Filed under: Education Policy, , , , ,

The Principle of Principals

It’s hardly likely that only two percent of principals in Michigan are ineffective, as Dave Murray’s headline would have it.. Educational outcomes alone suggest the number is higher. Instead we are treated to what can best be described as a Lake Woebegone effect, where everyone is above average, or as Muskegon superintendent Jon Felske put it, “playing it safe.”

However, the numbers hide the real story here, namely that of the new role for principals generally. After all, principals have been the missing link when it comes to reform. We have gone off track in reform efforts in part because we keep looking at the year-to-year aspects without considering the larger picture. There are five areas where sound leadership can play an important role:

  1. Continuity. The educational product is multi-year in nature. The principal provides the visible continuity of effort from year to year.
  2. Team work.  Teaching itself is a team effort — one teacher passes along the class to another, the common success of teachers depends on everyone doing their jobs.  Each classroom may be a small kingdom, but each is linked. The principal coaches, helps facilitate the team.
  3. Environment.  We know that school environments themselves can play a crucial role in creating the safe places where students can thrive. Again, the principal is the one who leads the teaching staff, the support team and parents in creating and maintaining that environment.
  4. Connection. The principal is the face of the school with the parents. When Parents (single or intact) have a strong connection with the school, their children do better.
  5. Face Time. And finally, as a matter of gearing, the leadership team in a school can help the building deal with other institutional and community stakeholders; they’re the face.

Leadership is critical for all these tasks. The principal is not simply an administrator — in the best schools in fact, you may even have a split leadership: one for operations (academic leadership, team coaching and the like), and one for the executive functions (i.e. dealing with the community, the stakeholders, the district administration).

If we are to have strong principals, we will need to have better development programs, and at the least, some sort of standard judging template to help them fulfill their critical function. It also turns attention to the role of our graduate programs in educational leadership. This is perhaps an opportunity.

 

Cross posted at Written and Noted.

Filed under: Education Policy, Horace Mann, Michigan, , , , ,

Timing is Everything

Michigan’s Rick Snyder has his sites set on Michigan’s ramshackle educational system. Goodness, there is enough work to be done, much of it the legacy of Prop A.

The big news how ever is the timing:

“I’d say in the next year or two I’d actually like to say ‘Let’s step back, let’s look at the broad picture, the formula,'” he said.

Now there is a practical reason to taking this step — the system is certainly complex enough to warrant such a step. Then again, for an unusually active administration, one that has radically overhauled Michigan’s tax code, this appeal to “modesty” seems a touch less persuasive. This is not a modest administration.

By his proposed timing, the Governor admits that an incoming Legislature will be better suited for the task. The current legislative team cannot handle this task — something that Democrats have long held. Snyder’s timing for reform is not only an implicit rejection of the present austerity-minded, Tea Party madness of Lansing, he practically asks that it be the core issue of the coming election.

For education advocates this is a gift. The question that can now be asked of every candidate, D or R, is whether they support the Governor’s upcoming reforms. By making education reform the big project for the next legislature, Snyder opens the door for a significant conversation.

Of course there is political risk here. After all, those in safe districts may still be elected on the old Tea Party ways and so have no stake in the Reform outcome (see the DRIC mess). More subtly, by advocating reform but not specifying it, the educational community may have an opportunity to lay down markers to further restrict his options. A more education-focused Legislature is not any more likely to take the Governor’s lead on reform; they will bring ideas of their own.

For now, let’s call the Governor’s appeal for what it is: Michigan needs a new Legislature if it is to reform its schools.

Filed under: Education Policy, Michigan, , ,

Virtually Political

The story today is the campaign by little tykes to expand the Virtual Charter Schools. I’m all for political theatre, but this seems a bit odd. Supporters of expanded access brought along  current students to read the names — 5,000 — of those who wanted to get in.

The staging is bit unusual. Were  a teacher at a general school to bring a bunch of middle school students to lobby for expanded teacher pay the howls of outrage would mount up, at least if the Mackinac Center’s howl a few years ago is any indication. So far on this? Virtual crickets.

What’s going on? Unintentionally or not, the image (and the protest) reveal more about our Virtual Charter. First the mobilization of the students to expand the school program is ethically questionable, particularly in the context of for-profit management systems. the students may think they are doing civic duty or politics, but they are actually in the business of sales. The questions about profit motive of the management of these schools, let alone the oversight of their curriculum — these all gain added currency because of this stunt.

But the second issue is perhaps the more interesting. Look at the picture: the image of students, younger sibs and moms in the background at the very least speak in the visual language of home school, if not the substance. This aspect of the program has been played down in Michigan discussions on the west side. When the measure went through the State Senate, MLive led with this human interest story:

LANSING – Critics of “cyber” charter schools said Wednesday there’s not enough information to determine whether the schools are successful, but Steve Slisko pointed to his grandson.
The boy has cognitive impairments that prohibit him from speaking, but he can work a keyboard – and attend the Michigan Virtual Charter Academy, one of two virtual charter schools in the state.

Yet the home school subtext tends to be right there, as  the MVCA site states,

Michigan Virtual Charter Academy is redefining traditional home schooling, but not within the home school network.

A Fox-17 report this past November further bears this out.

Michigan joins a number of other states with similar programs and impacts, including Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

However, one would be mistaken to think that such State support is necessarily a welcome move on the part of home schoolers. After all, the heart of the home school approach is a philosophic commitment about the appropriate locale for the education of one’s children. From within the movement, this development threatens to undo three decades of legal wrangling for recognition.

(The Home School Legal Defense Association) believes that a distinction between virtual charter schools and homeschooling is vital. While charter schools provide parents with another choice, we emphasize that they are still public schools in every sense of the word.
HSLDA also strongly cautions homeschoolers against enrolling in virtual charter schools. Many homeschoolers are seduced by attractive marketing and forget that virtual charter schools are actually controlled by the public school system. HSLDA does not represent students enrolled in full-time charter school programs.
HSLDA is also concerned that virtual charter schools will negatively impact the public and American lawmakers’ understanding of what it means to homeschool.

Agree or not, home schoolers have pushed their cause, and in their own way expanded both public speech and options in our education. The irony now, is that Republicans will subvert the home school movement with the virtual charter, much the same way that a decade ago the physical charter gutted the parochial schools. While the left believes that such charters will weaken the efforts of general schools, the likelihood is that the expanded virtual charter will instead weaken the home school movement generally, all for one obvious reason. It’s free.

Filed under: Education Policy, Michigan, Politics, , , , , ,

Private Setback

On the southeast side private education plays a significant role.  And its no secret that the same schools have been taking a hit lately, whether its the consolidation of the Christian schools at the Iroquois campus, or the shrinking Catholic enrollments. If its any comfort, they’re not alone. Today Education Week released new statistics from the National Center for Educational Statistics, revealing that private school enrollment has plunged by 500,000 — 60 percent coming from the Catholic and conservative protestant schools.

Two things appear to be driving the shift. First would be economics. To the extent that the schools were serving poorer families, those families are more vulnerable to economic downturns. The recent escalation in food and fuel only further strains the budget. The second reason has been the persistent growth of charter schools. A recent study of Michigan charters from Rajashri Chakrabarti (Federal Reserve NY)and Joydeep Roy (Columbia) suggests the schools account for slightly more than 1 percent erosion in nearby private school enrollment.

Within the context of Grand Rapids, the decline of private schools parallels that of the shrinking public school sector as well — both are products of the declining prospects in the city, a decline driving parents to the burbs or as we’ve seen, out of state.

Of longer range interest, is how the report highlights the difficulties for all those who advance private schools as the preferable option to under-performing schools. That private schools have a cost growth of inflation + two percent means that the pool of attending families in the economically-at-risk category increases.  As with the state universities, a state subsidy (voucher) would only match part of this and still come up increasingly short, losing  its purchasing power over time. So again, we do not have a tool that especially works.

While some choose the school for its perspective or perhaps for its sense of elitism, the continuing drive for the at-risk family is that these are schools they choose, schools where they hope their child will be safe. This is powerful, and certainly seems to be the driver for the growth in charter schools, a growth that has seen enrollment nearly triple from 571,000 in 2001-02, to more than 1.4 million in 2008-09.  This growth can again be seen in the area, a growth that can be unnerving for some Dems. However, when seen as a defensive move and not as an ideological one (open book/Bible on the Heritage Academy logo to the contrary), the charter school becomes a seedbed for political action that would build strong neighborhoods.

Filed under: Education Policy, Horace Mann, ,

More School Please?

Just a note here on length of school days. We often hear about the advantage of longer days, so the question naturally is whether such a policy would work. And the answer is? Sort of.

Data from the Hechinger Report reveals a mixed performance when time in seat is compared with educational accomplishment. Of course, this points us back to the other reality, that it is not the day per se, but what fills the day that counts. There is an interesting intersection here with the question of class size, another favorite of reformers. Again, as Julie Mack at the Kalamazoo Gazette remarked,

If, as a high school parent, I had the choice between putting my kid in a class of 17 with a mediocre teacher or 34 with a great teacher, I’d choose the latter, hands down.

So our reform efforts keep coming back to the reality of what happens inside those four walls, and what we can do to improve that interaction. It’s the teacher. And that makes the continual sniping at teachers rather frustrating. There is a political point here, after all the teachers are typically in the Dem camp, although it escapes how the sniping and destructive language particularly helps toward better schools. The danger has been that the partisans latch on to nostrums — structural fixes — while assaulting the soft part of the equation; we actively lop off the very branches we stand on, the platform we need for success.

Filed under: Education Policy,

The Cuts Come or Borrowing from our Future

As expected, the State House passed the budget slicing $430 per pupil from the schools. There is a continuing point of mystification here, namely how the economic gains from education are to be realized at the same time resources are being stripped from the schools. This has been a persistent problem for the Governor from at least the National Governor’s Conference and Michael Porter’s presentation.

It’s spelled out there: for a highly productive economy, budget cuts are part, but so too is education. Much of the difficulty has been the conviction that a streamlined system for doing business in the state, the support of entrepreneurs and the like must come at the expense of budget. At the very least this has been a ham-handed approach that renders all problems fiscal. Perhaps. But the real trick is that as a state we must do both: create the business-friendly environment but also develop a workforce prepared for the future. Porter summarizes it this slide:

Seven Issues for improving productivity

But if education is so important, what’s going on?

One part bluntly, is the renegotiation of the salary/benefit package in education. However, given that talent can move, to other states or out of the profession, there is a limited capacity here for significant costs savings. So the result is a degrading of the schools and their offering, a move more tolerated by poorer less powerful districts, than there better-off, high expectation neighbors.

While some legislators are perhaps willing to consideration of such long-term degradation, Snyder clearly is not.

Thus, at its base, the Snyder proposal is less a budget than an elaborate borrowing from our future. The quality education that will make a difference will require additional resources, especially as we begin to think in terms of a p-20 process. Although the measure looks like a cut, in the mid-term it is better understood as a cost shifting. The risk is that as a state we go so long that we do damage to the state’s reputation (and so its economic competitiveness), along with putting ourselves in an even greater educational deficit, particularly in our urban areas.

The improved state of the auto economy certainly seems to promise that this slashing need not be long-lasting. And frankly, there is considerable political gains to be had here, slashing the budget now, and then becoming the hero of education in another year or two, just before re-election.

Filed under: Education Policy, Michigan, , ,

Barely Passing

The Grand Rapids Press opens with an interesting account of Michigan’s standing relative to other states when it comes to educational testing (and ranks).  The news is especially grim for Michigan’s minority and economically disadvantaged communities.

Becoming a Leader in Education is the first report from The Education Trust -Midwest. Clearly they bring a passion for supporting the educational opportunities for minority youth, and Michigan certainly needs that.  However, even more we need to be clear headed about the educational situation facing our State.

Room for doubt

So is Becoming a Leader on the up and up?  Perhaps.  To generate a sense of urgency Education Trust-Midwest compares and contrasts MEAP and NAEP scores.  So scandals errupt about Michigan’s underperformance, most notoriously in their report,

Though 84 percent of parents of Michigan fourth-graders are told by the state their children are proficient in reading, only 30 percent of those same students scored proficient on the national reading exam.

Surely troubling.  Then again when Michigan is compared to national NAEP data for reading, the state’s performance is, well, average.  The problem may be more to do with our own testing, as other reports have born out. For instance, this spring we had another report saying perhaps the MEAP was too easy.  This malleability of MEAP scores makes them less than useful for comparison from year to year — one of their great disadvantages compared to the NAEP.

As to unreliability, there is also the sure temptation to “teach to the test.”  The top performing school district for the eight grade math test among African Americans was …. Inkster?  Seriously, if that were true, then shouldn’t the case study be from that district?  The fact that the report picks on North Godwin as much as admits the data cooking.  (Secondarily, one might ask how representative a small district like Godwin can be.)

Third, it should be pointed out that the state-level NAEP tests are done through a sampling of students in a given state.  The data generated are  not robust enough to bring down to a district level, let alone individual schools — the location where parental choice would have the most impact.

Such doubts, however should not blind us to the real dangers.  We need to be especially clear sighted here.

The real dangers

The one danger in the report that should stand out is Michigan’s competitive position relative to the other states in the region.  Whether the ranks of NAEP performance is statistically significant, the nominal ranking nonetheless provides a quick snapshot or the state’s challenge.  While Michigan scores for Grade 8 Math for higher income students compares well with Florida, our state is far behind all the other Great Lakes states.  That is not a good sign at all.

An even more worrisome problem shows up Education Week’s Quality Counts report.   Although Michigan is not portrayed as the complete basket case that Education Trust-Midwest would have it, the various data sets point to the challenges.  Among them, Michigan lags in AP programs.  Where nationally, 20 percent of 11th and 12th graders will get a 3 or better on (at least one) AP test, in Michigan the number is 15 percent.  This is not especially surprising for observers in Michigan, particularly with the large number of rural districts and the hammered urban districts, nonetheless, such under performance places a huge roadblock before any community seeking to make itself attractive nationally.

Perhaps the most troubling data provided by Becoming a Leader is the lagging performance for Kalamazoo Public and Grand Rapids Public Schools on the fourth grade reading tests.  At the very least, we will need to see more data here.  A failure to raise these scores only puts added pressure on the current administration.  So what can be done? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Education Policy, Horace Mann, , , , , , ,

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