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

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, , , , ,

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, , , ,

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, , , , ,

Governor Roundheels

What else do we call the Governor who for the best of positive reasons, still refuses to say “No?”

Well, perhaps “weak” is another word.

As Dave Murray notes in today’s Press

It appears Gov. Rick Snyder doesn’t like to say “no,” at least when it comes to bills crossing his desk.

Staffers say it’s a different approach to the job, the result of a relentlessly positive approach. Fine. But the role call of failures begins to make one wonder.

First, there was the DRIC and with it the failure to off-set the lobbying efforts of the Mouron family. This was not simply a political failure, a defeat, but a failure of the economic vision for a more vibrant Michigan. As has been clear, the new Michigan is seen as a logistics center, facilitating the border traffic with Ontario manufacturing, the auto industry, and much of the industrial heartland. Moreover, logistics offer the possibility of large-scale, post-auto employment — exactly the sort of work that Detroit and Michigan could use. So the failure is significant.

What this relentless positive spirit has brought has been a refusal to stand up to his own presumably pragmatic roots. As Murray notes, first there was the anti-labor measure, stopping the MEA from deducting dues from pay checks — a bill beloved by the radical Right, but expressly against Snyder’s wishes. Then there was the motorcycle helmet law, a measure that puts the State on the hook for increased medical bills. A life style bill made all the more inexplicable by the large number of voters against the measure. Another minority position.

These three alone, suggest that relentless optimism is little more than another word for a certain moral weakness.

What he misses here is that the easy going nature then creates the doubt elsewhere. If he will not be able to say yes to common good ideas (through the veto), can his advocacy for such agenda items as better schools mean anything? Will he be able to protect these causes?

Of course Republicans believe that all this is better understood as the fruit of good communication? But if the Governor gives it away on the first date, what sort of political virtue is there in this communication? Michigan needs better.

Filed under: Michigan, , , ,

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, , , , , ,


August 2020