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

Singing from the populist songbook

This week Michigan Senator Patrick Colbeck (R-Canton) introduced a set of bills to in part,  prevent “censorship of our founding documents” (SB 120). Typical stuff . While that can be dismissed as the usual hot air of  political posturing, one of the other bills is  more substantive, one (SB 423)

establishes requirements for schools to incorporate teaching provisions of the U.S. Constitution, the Michigan state constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and would require the Michigan Department of Education to incorporate those subjects into standardized testing of students.

Left unsaid in  MLive, was that our Senator Mark Jansen stepped up as a co-sponsor.

It is a measure, in short, right out of the concerns (and playbook) of social conservatives. At its heart it wants to create an educational space for God, anti-Federalism, and free enterprise. It’s the standard issue stuff of old time southern populism, and not surprisingly, it can be found in ALEC’s book of model legislation. We’ve seen this before.

There is a healthy irony here, where otherwise education-skeptical, limited government conservatives stand up and mandate educational requirements. Then again, it perhaps unintentionally reveals a view of education in the conservative heart. Schools are seen as singularly powerful, absent the cultural considerations (poverty, race, etc.), so what is taught or not taught can then become the determiner of our social life. Education is not only ideological, but presently teaching the wrong ideology, the ideology of the elites rather than the presumed normative stance of the non-ideological, neutral stance of the average citizen.

So it is, that the recipe for fixing what is wrong in American education must turn about changing its ideological heart by teaching

America’s founding documents, including documents that contributed to the foundation or maintenance of America’s representative form of limited government, the Bill of Rights, our free-market economic system, and patriotism. (SB 120)

Yet even a cursory review reveals what’s missing: the total absence of any of the great national documents regarding African Americans. Well, yes, in politeness, they did leave off the bit about slaves being worth only 3/5 a vote in the original Constitution (that was white of them), but where is the insistence that children of this state learn about the Emancipation Proclamation? Or the Lincoln’s great Second Inaugural. Or for that matter, the Gettysburg Address? For a party that once championed, bled and died for these great truths, this is a peculiar omission.

And this provides the other head-scratching item: it would have been so simple, so obvious, such an easy play for shoring up Republican image before minorities. But that omission is not a flaw, but a feature of the underlying ideology. The southern populist view of education is forged in the Jim Crow era with the educational disenfranchisement of blacks, America and its schools were self-evidently for whites. In contrast, the educational vision of Michigan rooted in the Northwest Ordinance was always broader, bigger, bolder. Although Michigan residents could be every bit as prejudiced as the southern populists, the schools were shaped by the Federalist (not the anti-Federalist) vision of republican virtue and equality.

Filed under: Horace Mann, Republican Folly, Uncategorized, , , , , , ,

Code Breaking?

It sounds so innocent. Even noble. In today’s editorial from the  Grand Rapids Press, Dave Murray writes

(Governor Rick Snyder) also believes that the quality of a child’s education shouldn’t be determined by his or her ZIP code.

Embracing an “any time, any place, any way and any pace” philosophy, the plan removes district “ownership” of a student, allowing them to take a course, some courses or all their courses from any districts. That includes the growing use of online courses.

With a bill of 300 pages there are bound to be some issues as well a host of potentially unintended consequences, with none bigger, perhaps than the illusion that this is somehow going to crack the zip code.

Still, one does not dismiss the matter of online education. The emergence of MOOCs suggests the way that higher education and likely secondary education will be substantially transformed. But if this is the way, then the questions of accountability and outcomes necessarily follow.

But that’s only a start. Just as critical would be the deal breakers.

Deal breaker 1. Zip Code.  Schools can opt out of the program. In fact with this option, zip code would still determine who gets what kind of education. A set of elite suburban districts would keep their programs while everyone else is in the other pool. Non-participation and presumably continued funding allows such districts to effectively to go their separate way. Zip code becomes destiny. And an unhappy one at that.

Deal breaker 2. Funding. If education follows the student, this puts an emphasis on equal funding. Leave aside whether such a measure violates Prop A, in the context of the present Legislature, equal funding almost certainly means less funding.

Deal breaker 3. Local Control. If funding flows with the student, local communities surrender most effective control of their school, how then do they escape being creatures of Lansing rather than of  local voters? Where local voters and communities lose the ability to meaningfully supervise their schools, local democracy of the right and left loses out.

Deal breaker 4. (Non) Transparency. Lastly,  the proposed expansion of educational services, raises the question of what reporting mechanisms are to be installed. This is both a matter of fiscal control, but also of educational priorities, too. Without transparency we end up with self-dealing. Or the too-easy settling for low expectations. Both would set our State back.

The deep irony of this bill (at least for conservatives) is how it would impose the very sort of educational structures they so often rail against: control from Lansing, funding from Lansing, and the local community shut out. Before they get too giddy with their electoral powerWould lack of transparency be a deal breaker?

Finally, the question that should be asked is how these efforts will produce the educated workforce Michigan needs in the next decade. The Press’s proper role is to ask such questions in order to clarify the legislation and to lay the proper foundation for reform and vibrant local schools.

Filed under: Horace Mann, Michigan, , , ,

Education on the Cheap

The saga continues at what was once Muskegon Heights Public Schools.

Last year the school district ran into a rather nasty fiscal storm and collapsed. Several factors were at work. First its industrial base — the original rationale for the district in the first place — had disappeared. Without a strong industrial base, the non-homestead tax simply lagged. Then came the recession, with its slashing of state budgets, and the disappearance or roughly a third of the total school population. Without an economic cushion, with cutbacks from Lansing and a shrunken population it’s no wonder the district went into fiscal shock.

Perhaps some sort of smart management could have rescued it in time, but the pull of pride and tradition often push us away from making the tough choices that would otherwise save us. In a larger context, the problem MHPS  is simply that it was too small. Its size left it without the flexibility needed to navigate the difficult waters. MHPS is not alone. There are plenty of school districts throughout the region structured the same way: built on a single piece of heavy industry, they began as an offshoot from the larger school districts in the area. Or they were rural districts that decided to keep their ways. In either case, they are exposed to significant economic risk. Their small boats not suited for the larger storms.

The decision to turn to a charter system, to in effect declare bankruptcy, is perhaps the only answer available. And as with bankruptcies everywhere, the workers take the hit.

As MLive reports,   the new financial plan provides an average teacher salary of $35,000. Possible incentive pay may raise that to roughly $40,000, depending on how the money is delivered. Some minimal provision is made for healthcare, as well. The technology budget is another shock: $10,000 for four buildings. Even if one tosses out the young el building, that still leaves little more than $3000 per building. What exactly gets purchased with that?

Two comments seem important: low wages can be overcome with a high sense of mission. This has been the secret heart of many urban schools as it is, at MHPS the mission-offset will get a full test. The second obvious impact will be the higher turnover. Under-resourced schools and low pay do count. There’s every reason to expect significant turnover with its attendant costs to students and educational continuity.

And lastly, it cannot be stressed enough: this is what poverty means for our students. Muskegon Heights desperately needs the economic recovery in region. Desperately. It cannot do this on its own. Even now, merger may be the end game

Filed under: Horace Mann, Michigan, , , ,

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, , , , ,

Urban School Hope from Philadelphia

Dave Murray writes about the Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia. An urban education program driven by high standards and backed by civic leaders. He concludes, asking

Sometimes I wonder of a solution to urban education’s woes came before us, would we reject it if we didn’t like where it came from? Or, are we so invested in the excuses for failure that we attack anyone who challenges them?

The questions about such an experiment abound. At the most practical, Murray notes this is a question of scalability. Grant the success, to what extent is it the property of the culture of the organization itself, and can it then multiply, scale-up? This is the recognized problem of charters: their accomplishments may be too site specific. What are the lessons that we are to learn from such institutions, such successes? Is it only a form of academic tough love? If other comparable programs are any indication, it is a question of resources, both the hard and the soft. Of course, given the success of a program like Mastery, there will be the temptation of civic leaders to adopt a comparable model as the silver bullet, another cookie cutter solution. There’s stuff to be learned here definitely, we should also know that one size is always a bad fit.

A second question lurking is for the charter school community. While we often contrast such successes with the public schools out of which the programs emerge, the other question to ask is about the  charters themselves. After all, with 50 percent of school-age children in Detroit already in a charter, why then don’t they show the same achievement? Their “no excuses” style may be the key, but I would bet we could find a host of other programs that try to emulate the same with not so stellar success. No one has ever denied that some charters will succeed very well (case in point: Black River), the question is why don’t other charters succeed, as well.

And lastly there is simply the issue of our own hopes. These stand out schools seem to validate our own ideals for education, that we can overcome the great barriers in our lives. That a few can do it then becomes a validation of our ideals and ironically spurs us on to do… nothing. The real lesson in Mastery and other such models is that we can do something, that these efforts take a great deal of resources, far outstripping those in the surrounding community and often in the political culture. It can be done. But that some do it turns to become the opposite, that those who succeed must obviously point to the moral failure of the others.

Mastery tells us that there is a legitimate hope for urban schools; we are not mistaken. However, we cannot learn the lesson without doing our own homework. And of course, making sure that the schools have the resources.

Filed under: Horace Mann, National, , , , ,

The City Gets Schooled

The City will have a new charter school in the heart of an urban neighborhood. So reports Matt Vande Bunte.

GRAND RAPIDS – An out-of-town developer’s about-face has angered city officials who feel they were lied to about plans for three former school buildings.
Grand Rapids for months has vetted Ojibway Development’s proposal to turn the schools into low-income apartments. After getting city approvals and finalizing a $1.6 million purchase of the schools, the Berkley, Mi., developer now has sold one of the buildings to National Heritage Academies for a charter school that presumably would compete with Grand Rapids Public Schools for students.

Playing fast and loose with the city is probably not the best business practice; from a city side, it would also be of use to know who the supervising institution is, and in particular what sort of partner will they be. Locally, the National Heritage Academy schools benefit from the connection with Grand Valley, allowing for a much more integrated approach in the city; will Bay Mills Community from the UP be another such partner? Well, let’s just say that they got off on the wrong foot.

As to the school itself, the consolidation of GRPS has left a number of neighborhoods without a school. With the closure of Alexander and of Oakdale Christian, the nearest school to Oakdale is Dickinson, a good half mile away. Add to this the efforts families already make to get out to Ridge Park, there is a certain business sense for the school. For the school itself, it will be interesting to see how it competes for students against the other Charters.

A look at the Census data suggests why this may be a solid move for the charters: there are more than 2700 school age children in the neighborhood. The difficulty will be that these come from rather different neighborhoods. Particularly in the neighborhoods immediately to the east (Census tract 35 for those who are counting) the children there are already lean toward the non-general schools (charter, parochial). Are there more students there  for the school to enroll? the likely guess is that such a school will be highly appealing to those neighborhoods immediately to the north, neighborhoods that are distinctly poorer. John Helmholdt is right, that this cannot be about competing schools so much as a common effort to meet real educational needs  in the community.

“We recognize that a school is a more desirable option than apartments and would certainly welcome the opportunity to partner with National Heritage Academy in their endeavor.”
Helmholdt said the school leaders are hopeful that National Heritage Academies will join them as part of an effort the district is organizing with Mayor George Heartwell to convene traditional, charter, and private schools to look at best shared practices and how we can all collectively work together for the betterment of our community’s children.

Filed under: Horace Mann, , , , , ,

The not so Smart ALEC

I confess, I’m going to miss him, but the other day our most conservative representative in our State House was out carrying water for the corporate Right. As the Press reported:

State Rep. Dave Agema, R-Grandville, says kids are graduating from high school without a sound education in our constitutional underpinnings.
He and 22 Republican co-sponsors have introduced a bill mandating the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the Anti-Federalist Papers, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights are taught in public schools.
His bill also calls for a daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

I had earlier snarked that “there’s nothing I like saying more than liberty and justice for all,” but that misses the other mischief that’s underway.

For of course, Rep. Agema has no intention of promoting the actual study of the Bill of Rights or of the Declaration, let alone the Constitution. This is, shall we say, something of a rigged curriculum that he advocates. His bill (HB 5240) not only specifies that the documents should be taught, but the correct interpretation, as well. My personal favorite principle is

and the principles of a strong defense capability

Though I confess that rivaling it were the advocacy of both the Federalist and the Anti-Federalist papers. As the song goes, “first you say you do, and then you don’t.” For a measure that intends to push for recovery of foundational principles this borders on the incoherent. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Horace Mann, Republican Folly, , ,

New Year’s Catch Up

This is a holding post, if only to highlight some of the adventure that makes up our politics.

First, we have the Secretary of State working diligently to make our ballots “SAFE.” This will require more attention, but for now, let’s be clear that the problems at hand are those of book-keeping, or perhaps a fear of Zombie voting. More on this in a bit.

Second, there was the report Friday from the New York Times on the role high quality teachers make in educational outcomes. This only highlights the contradictions within the Republicans in Michigan, do they go for cheap or quality? Then again, considering this is the home of K-Mart, as well as  the first hypermarket (that’s you, Meijer), we probably already know the answer.

Then there is the “who, me dysfunctional?” act of Rep. Justin Amash. This too needs explication. While the forty percent defection rate from conventional GOP stances merits some recognition, it is one driven more by ideology, the difference is not that his party is too conservative, but not conservative enough.

Last on the local note, there is the departure of GRPS Superintendent Bernard Taylor. There was one story for the media but inside the stories are more that he was handed his hat. Meantime, there is a noticeable sigh of relief arising from the schools.

Filed under: Horace Mann, Uncategorized, Washington, , , , , ,

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, ,

Exit, Voice, and Expectations

Dave Murray raises an important question: are we expecting the same from our inner city schools as from our elite suburban schools such as East Grand Rapids? The answer he provides is no. The bottom line, as Murray, explains is that

writing off a third-grader because of his parents, his home or his lack of abilities should be unacceptable.

Few would actually argue with that. Indeed, this is the core philosophy of public education — what distinguishes it from its private peers, a belief ingrained in our culture and our civic ideals. But the painful reality is that Detroit is not East Grand Rapids. Whether it’s pictures of Detroit classrooms abandoned with computers and books still inside, or simply the horrific test scores of so many urban schools, the necessity of reform bubbles up. While teacher unions in Michigan and elsewhere protest political attacks on their work conditions, who stands up for kids? Where’s the protest, the outrage asks Murray:

I’ve yet to hear about a protest in front of the district headquarters in Detroit – or any of our cities – demanding that educators find a way to improve those schools.

But that protest has been underway for some time. As A. O Hirschman pointed out years ago in Exit, Voice and Loyalty, the disgruntled have two options for bringing reform: voice, the giving of protest; and exit, the leaving of the system.  When it comes to the urban school and especially those of Detroit, the eople have registered their protest by walking. Enrollment in Detroit is projected to fall to 50,000 students by 2016; in 2000 it had 168,000 enrolled; meanwhile enrollment in charters tops 50,000. Clearly, parents have voted their feet. That the schools persist despite this decline suggests that the easy turn to exit strategies the Governor advances is simply mistaken. It’s not that people won’t vote with their feet, but rather that such exit does not function efficiently in the market-disciplining manner free marketers imagine. (This also was Hirschman’s point, as well).

Murray asks why failure on such a huge scale is accepted, suggesting that the fault lies with our expectations: we have simply not asked enough of the schools. It is a failure to adopt sufficiently rigorous standards with respect to the urban schools.

In a Michigan context this seems misplaced. One of the well-understood consequences of Michigan’s over-dependence on the auto industry was the notion that one did not need a strong education to get a good job. It is a persistent theme on the comment boards at MLive whenever the question of curriculum is raised.  It also lies at the hesitancy of communities and their legislators to support their schools. Instead of tackling this issue, we settle for the narratives that focus on the actions of administrators, a teaching community, of when all else fails, the presumed failing of the urban (a racial code word) c0mmunity.

If one is to ask for greater voice for high expectations in education — and you will get no objection here — then it is only appropriate that money meet mouth. Otherwise, the exit option will continue, of students from schools, graduates from the State, and of course, our long-term opportunity.

Filed under: Horace Mann, Michigan, , , , , ,


March 2020