Thursday, March 26, 2015

How to kill a profession

So you want to kill a profession.

It's easy.

First you demonize the profession. To do this you will need a well-organized, broad-based public relations campaign that casts everyone associated with the profession as incompetent and doing harm.  As an example, a well-orchestrated public relations campaign could get the front cover of a historically influential magazine to invoke an image that those associated with the profession are "rotten apples."

Then you remove revenue control from the budget responsibilities of those at the local level. Then you tell the organization to run like a business which they clearly cannot do because they no longer have control of the revenue. As an example, you could create a system that places the control for revenue in the hands of the state legislature instead of with the local school board or local community.

Then you provide revenue that gives a local agency two choices: Give raises and go into deficit or don't give raises so that you can maintain a fund balance but in the process demoralize employees. As an example, in Michigan there are school districts that have little to no fund balance who have continued to give raises to employees and you have school districts that have relatively healthy fund balances that have not given employees raises for several years.

Then have the state tell the local agency that it must tighten its belt to balance revenue and expenses. The underlying, unspoken assumption being that the employees will take up the slack and pay for needed supplies out of their own pockets. 

Additionally , introduce "independent" charters so that "competition" and "market-forces" will "drive" the industry. However, many of these charters, when examined, give the illusion of a better environment but when examined show no improvement in service. The charters also offer no comprehensive benefits or significantly fewer benefits for employees. So the charters offer no better quality for "customers" and no security for employees but they ravage the local environment.

Then create a state-mandated evaluation system in an effort to improve quality. Require the system to use a value-added measure (or VAM) that may or may not be equipped to do what its advocates say it can do. The American Statistical Association states:

Under some conditions, VAM scores and rankings can change substantially when a different model or test is used, and a thorough analysis should be undertaken to evaluate the sensitivity of estimates to different models.

Then make high stakes employment decisions based on the VAM.

Then you create an accountability system that purports to evaluate the quality of organizations. Then, using this system, rate over 80% of organizations as average or below average, furthering diminishing the respect of the profession.

It's easy to kill a profession.

All of these things have happened to public schools in Michigan. While I don't want to believe it, the argument could be made that some people are trying to kill the profession of public school educator in Michigan.

Some might argue that what I should focus on is the students. Student needs are the most important.

I agree.

But unless you create a meaningful, respected profession - who will teach the students?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Do something!

Last week the Governor and the Michigan legislature officially took a stand. Schools, education, and the students in Michigan are not a priority.

How do I know? I watched what they did. 

Instead of using money that is dedicated to the students in Michigan - the Michigan State School Aid Fund - the Governor and the legislature used money from that fund to plug a general fund budget hole. 

Instead of using the State School Aid for its intended purpose, the Governor and the legislature made the point that the State School Aid Fund is a pot of money to be used as they see fit. 

Instead of saving the $167 million surplus in the State School Aid for the next fiscal year or instead of giving some of the State School Aid to schools for this school year, the Governor and the legislature spent the money to plug a hole in this year's state general fund budget.

So that is done. We can't go back and get that money for the State School Aid Fund.  

So now what do we do?

It’s easy to get depressed. It is easy to think that there is no use in trying to get the Governor and the legislature to do the right thing.

But I would encourage you not to give up.

Let the Governor and the legislature know that you don't believe that was the right thing to do.

Call them. (House. Senate. Governor.)

Write them.

Email them.

Be specific.

Let them know the State School Aid Fund should be for K-12 education. That is its purpose. That is why the State School Aid Fund exists.

The Governor’s proposed budget for next year has a planned reduction for the Novi Community School District and only a marginal increase for most school districts in Michigan.

Why? Because the State School Aid Fund does not have enough money to provide for a larger increase. Yet the governor and the legislature just gave away $167 million to the General Fund to plug a budget hole.

If we communicate clearly with our legislators that the State School Aid fund should be used for schools and schools alone, I believe that the legislature will do the right thing.

But they won’t do the right thing unless the hear from you.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Data is not the savior of education

Standardized tests will not save American education.

It's not that I don't need data to help me make decisions. It's just that the data I receive from standardized tests does not give me a complete picture of whether or not my students are learning.

Don't get me wrong. Data is important.

I need data to analyze how well the students who sit in my classrooms are learning. I need data to measure if students are mastering the standards.

I need data so that I can figure out how I can help a student learn what they need to know.

I need data to analyze if my teachers are doing a good job. How can I tell if a student is really benefiting from a teacher's instruction unless I can measure the impact that teacher is having on her students?

Without data I would not be able to tell if a student is learning and a teacher is doing their job.

But data alone is not what I need. In fact, if I rely only on the data from standardized tests I will have a distorted view of my students and my teachers.

Standardized data cannot capture what happens in a classroom. Learning is about engaging ideas. Learning is passion, following ideas, understanding the why.

I want students who are engaged, who care about what they are learning, who understand not just the information but why it is important.

I want students who will dig for answers. I want students who don't just memorize information but who wrestle with ideas. I want students who grow excited about what they are learning and lose themselves in learning. 

No standardized test can measure that.

Tests are also artificial. They measure a very narrow slice of learning and certainly do not capture the breadth and depth of all that students know and care about.

There has been a lot of conversation about the value of our American testing program. Many would argue that our current form of standardized testing is not very good.  (See this article.)  Some parents are going so far as to opt students out of testing. (Here - #myoptoutletter, here)

But I believe that parents deserve to know if a student is making progress. I believe that taxpayers deserve to know if the investment that they are making in schools is really making a difference.

Standardized tests give us one perspective.

But we have come to rely on them as the only arbitrator in learning. We have come to see standardized tests as the only true measure of whether or not a student has learned anything.

And that is just not the case.

The question is how can we balance our need to know if students are learning and teachers are making an impact with our understanding that standardized assessments are not completely or wholly accurate reflections of all that students know?

It is a delicate balance.

But we have to figure out. We have to get the answer right.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Diverting attention

School funding in Michigan is contentious.

There are some school districts in the state that receive more money than other school districts.

There are several ways to show what school districts receive.

There is the per pupil calcuation (shown by the Senate report). Most districts are in the $7,100 to $7,500 dollars per pupil. Some in the $8,000 range. And there are some in the $11,000 range.

The Bulletin 1014 report that is published by the Michigan Department of Education shows all the money that comes to a district. This report lags real-time a bit. The latest report is from the 2013-2014 school year. Here everything is calcuated and the range for each school shows more that what the per pupil range from the Senate report shows.

What is undenialable is that most schools are more or less at one level of funding, some schools are higher, and a few schools are very high.

While the conversation could be about why do schools receive different amounts of money (and that is a worthwhile conversation to have), the real conversation should be about what is the true cost of educating a student in Michigan.

Last year's legislature passed a bill that would complete an education adequacy study. The question that is more important to answer is not what each district currently gets per pupil. The real question is what does it really cost to educate students in Michigan?

Focusing on what each district currently receives diverts attention from the more critical question of what is the true cost of educating the students in Michigan.

I would encourage the legislature to fully fund this study. It is time for us to know the cost of educating the students in our state. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

When they're done with me, they're coming for you!

To my fellow Michigan Superintendents,

Most of you don't like me.

Not "me" as a person. I have been told I am quite like able.

You don't like the "Novi Superintendent" me. I represent a district that has many advantages. We have a sinking fund, a recreation millage, and a recently passed capital projects bond. We have a community that is adding housing stock so our enrollment is expected to grow.

But more importantly what you don't like is that my district receives $8,630 per student. Technically for the 2014-2015 school year I received $8,409. But we earned a performance funding bonus from the state because of our student test scores. That equaled $70 per pupil last year. Then we earned the best practice bonus from the state of $50 per pupil last year for meeting the state identified school district best practices. We also received 20f Hold Harmless funds of $16 per student.

All of us received a retirement offset from the state. In Novi, it amounted to $83 per student.

So you add it all up and there it is $8,630 per student:

Per pupil foundation  $       8,409.00
Performance funding  $            70.00
Best practices  $            50.00
20f - Hold Harmless  $            18.00
MPSERS offset  $            83.00
 $        8,630.00

I know many, in fact most, of you receive far less.

So when I speak out against the Governor's 15-16 school budget you will probably not be too sympathetic.

After all, who cares if one of the "fat cats," one of the "rich" school districts receives less state aid. If the district you represent receives more at the expense of one of the "well-funded" districts, so be it.

I would urge you to reconsider.

The Governor says my district will receive a $75 per pupil increase next year.

My district - like yours - spends the money it receives. We are not hoarding it, we are not saving it, we are not being frivolous with our revenue.

As Exhibit A: I give you this example.

Our step one, first-year starting teacher's salary is $39,581. Teachers hired in our district at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, have never received that salary.

The first year in my district there was an off-schedule (meaning it would not carry over to the next year) salary cut of 1.3%. The salary was reduced from $39,581 to $39,052.

The next year, that first-year teacher's salary reverted to the written step one contractual amount but through negotiations everyone received a 1/2% on-schedule pay cut. So that teacher now in their second year received a salary less than the step one salary listed in the contract. The salary was $39,383 instead of $39,581. The second-year teacher again did not receive what our contract stated was the first-year teacher's salary.

Finally, this year - for the teacher hired in 2012-13 who was in her third year in the district - surely that teacher would receive what was supposed to be the starting salary from three years ago. Alas, no. The salary was frozen at the $39,383 level except for an off-schedule one-time payment.

So this teacher who entered the profession eager and ready to help our students has not received a salary increase in three years and has in fact received less than the contractual step one amount all three years.

This is not how you attract young talent to the profession.

We have a fund balance that hovers just over 10%.

We have kept it there by making cuts in salaries, as noted above. We have also frozen and cut secretary and aide hourly wages. Administrators have also been frozen and cut over the last three years.

We are trying to be responsible but it is coming on the backs of our employees.

Our K-4 class size average is approximately 22. We have four specials at the elementary level - music, physical education, art, and media center. We have an orchestra, band, and choir starting in 5th grade. We have AP and IB at our high school. We teach five foreign languages.

Our tennis team won the Division I state tennis title. Our volleyball team was the Division I runner-up. Our marching band was fifth in the state. Our middle school orchestra was invited to play at the Michigan Music Conference. Our robotics team qualified for the world championship. Our cross-country team was academic all state.

We have a comprehensive community school district.

Yet, next year while the Governor says he will boost per pupil funding by $75 per student he has also proposed to take away performance based funding ($70 per pupil in my district) and reduce best practice funding (a reduction of $30 per pupil in my district). The end result is that my district will receive $25 less per student or a total reduction of $161,000 dollars.

While, in jest, I suggested that most of you don't like me, the truth is that if the Governor cannot balance his budget by cutting schools like mine he will start to cut schools like yours.

Public schools that provide a comprehensive education for the students in communities all across Michigan are threatened by Governor Snyder's budget proposal. It is not just my school district.

It is up to Michigan superintendents to communicate to their communities, to the legislator, and to the Governor that public education should be a priority. The students in our school districts deserve much better than this proposal from Governor Snyder.

Very sincerely yours,

(The like able) Steve

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Look behind the headline

Governor Snyder presented his proposed budget today.

He suggests that each school district will receive a $75 dollar per student increase. He is correct. My district will receive an additional $480,000.

However, he forget to mention that he is also decreasing funding in certain funding buckets. Those funding buckets account for a net loss to my district of $100 per student or a decrease in revenue of $640,000.

As a result of this funding increase my district will receive $160,000 less next year.

So in Novi, Governor Snyder's budget will result in at least a $25 dollar per student loss next year.

How do I know? Look at the details of Governor Snyder's budget.

Item Program 2013-14 Appropriations 2014-15 Appropriations 2015-16 Appropriations
Sec. 22f Best Practices $80,000,000 $80,000,000 $30,000,000
Sec. 22j Pupil Performance $46,400,000 $46,400,000 $0

Section 22f - down $50 million dollars.

Section 22j - down $46.4 million dollars.

The 22f funding was allocated to districts if they met "best practices." In 22f funding Novi received $50 per student last year. Next year - the best we can hope for is $20 per student. A net decrease of $30 dollars per student or $192,000.

The 22j pupil performance funding was allocated to districts whose students performed at a certain level on state assessments. In 22j funding Novi received $70 per pupil last year. Next year we will receive ZERO dollars per pupil from 22j or a loss of $448,000.

Our total revenue loss is $640,000.

So while the Governor's headline is that education revenue will increase $75 per pupil, or $480,000 to Novi, he fails to mention that Novi will have a decrease in revenue of $100 per pupil or  $640,000.

Novi will receive $160,000 less next year under the Governor's budget.

It is important to look behind the headline!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Groundhog Day: It really is a nightmare

Today is Groundhog Day.

I'm starting to think I'm Bill Murray and living his 1993 movie - Groundhog Day. The teaser for the movie states that Phil (Murray's character) is trapped in a personal time warp, living his worst day over and over.

On January 8, 2015, I kept the schools in my community of Novi open. Students were not happy. Students took to Twitter to express their unhappiness. Some were quite unhappy.

Today - Groundhog Day - I find myself in the same position. 

Yesterday Novi received over 13 inches of snow. We closed school today - Groundhog Day. But tomorrow - well let's just say the students are expressing their hopes and fears on Twitter.

@: everyone pray for @docsmatthews to make the right decision and give us one more day off������

@: @docsmatthews it's colder than my heart and more barren than my soul and I think that points to another snow day

@: @docsmatthews Farmington, Livonia, Troy, International Academy, Walled Lake, and Rochester all closed..isn't this enough?

@: @docsmatthews you're on the clock #BelieveInSteve 

You have to love the passion of high school students!

Even though my high school students, and some of their parents, may not believe it, I really am concerned about their safety. I don't want them to be put at risk. I monitor the roads and weather. My Assistant Superintendent of Business and Operations and I talk frequently about what we should do. We talk to the city of Novi's Department of Public Works.

Contrary to the opinion of our high school students - I really do care about their safety.

But I also happen to believe that being in school is important.

I know that our students could find information on the Internet. I know that one missed day of school - or in this case two missed days - would not be the end of the world.

But being in school makes a difference. I believe that the community of school provides context and texture for students that they cannot find in other places. 

I believe that the rhythm of school needs to be nurtured. Stopping and starting over and over again creates dissonance. The powerful symphony that can be created through the sharing of different voices within one space cannot be nurtured if we disrupt the rhythm of learning.

I believe that teachers help students every day. Trust is built between students and teachers when they are together. Teachers learn to see things, recognize moods, capitalize on learning opportunities. But those things cannot be developed without being together.

I know that it is possible to create a virtual community that can do some of these things. We are not yet there in Novi. 

Someday maybe, but not on this Groundhog Day.

So tonight at 9:00 PM, my Assistant Superintendent and several other area Superintendents will once again be on the phone having another conversation about what to do tomorrow.

Some will decide to close. Others will decide to stay open. 

All of us will make the best decision we can for the students and the parents in our community. 

And my Groundhog Day will continue.