5.3.2015 Questionable Reform

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In the musical My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins, frustrated by the emotional outburst of his protégé Eliza Doolittle, laments in song to Colonel Pickering, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Today, there is a reform movement in education that is singing a similar tune: “Why can’t a school be more like a business?”

This reform movement is known as market-based or market-oriented education. The Douglas County school board, despite a contentious relationship with many teachers and citizens, has embarked on a crusade to bring this business-oriented reform to the Denver area. Jefferson County, having elected three board members who favor market-based education, is poised to follow in Douglas County’s footsteps.

The Jeffco School Board majority — John Newkirk, Julie Williams and Ken Witt — have clearly demonstrated their voting power as they continue to ignore both the voices and questions put forward by not only fellow board members Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman, but teachers, parents, and community members as well. Their actions make it imperative that the community critically exam the nature of market-based education as these reforms are imposed on Jefferson County Public Schools.

Market-based education is a business model that turns school districts into enterprises, and superintendents into CEOs who manage an array of public and charter schools. A school’s existence and staff hiring is based on market needs and student achievement. Touted as new and innovative for Colorado, MBE is not new to the United States.

While it is too early to see the results of reform in Douglas County Schools, there is a great deal of current research available for citizens to answer the question: “Why can’t a school be more like a business?” Current research shows that the market-centered business model in many schools nationally is not working and is actually detrimental to the education of the students.

An April 2013 report by the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, investigates the use of market-oriented education in Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C. Citing information provided by the National Assessments of Educational Progress, scores in reform schools have actually “stagnated for low-income and minority students and/or achievements gaps widened.”

These findings were in contrast to “non-reform” urban schools within the same city that actually increased scores and shrank the achievement gap. The findings also demonstrate that those with disabilities lost ground academically under the business model. The NAEP research concludes that improving education for these marginal students has not materialized through a business model. The report suggests that low achievement may be based on inadequate staffing.

Market-based education argues that effective teachers can be secured through market-need hiring, yearly evaluations, and merit pay. The report, however, states that teacher evaluation, relying heavily on test scores, “thinned the ranks of experienced teachers, but not necessarily the bad teachers.” [emphasis ours]

Furthermore, these districts documented a significant loss of experienced teachers to other districts and other careers. Teachers in those districts averaged only six years of experience. Despite the reformers argument that merit pay rewards good, experienced teachers (or dare we say perhaps because of it?), teachers are leaving the business.

Another major component of MBE is a belief that competition between schools will result in better schools. Parents have the ability to leave public schools and take their tax dollars to a choice of charter schools. The Center for Reinvention of Public Education reports that the effectiveness of charter schools remains inconclusive. CRPD states, “they vary widely and are on the whole, no more or less effective than comparable regular public schools.”

What is problematic however, is the revolving nature of charter schools. Following a business model, if the charter is not effective or financially solvent, the school is closed. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers reported in 2012 that the rate of charter school closures has “ballooned by over 255%.”

For example Kingston Charter Academy in North Carolina and the Solomon Charter School in Philadelphia each closed within the first month of the school year. Parents at both schools had two questions: “What happened to the voucher money?” and “Where do we send our kids now?” Jeff Bryant, Director of the Education Opportunity Network in Chapel Hill, NC asks how this “business churning” of charter schools can be called effective education.

Despite all of these known issues, the merits of market-based education are not being debated openly with the Jefferson County School Board majority. They are being imposed.

 Keep fighting, JeffCo!


 

 

A Matter of Leadership Style: The Jeffco Conflict

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In the December 2013 issue of WIRED magazine, Paul Farmer, the founding director of Partners in Health, an international nonprofit organization that delivers health services to the rural and urban poor throughout the world, talks about the importance of the “human element” in designing global health systems.

In order to not waste money, time, and energy, one needs to address the important questions to those who are directly involved, he explains. Ask, “What do you need? What obstacles are in the way for achieving that need?“ Then his job is to work directly with these same people to help them design and plan to meet their goals and to help them obtain the resources they will need for that accomplishment.

What he does not do is come in and say is, “I think you need this and this is how we are going to do it.” Why? Because he is not the one who is being directly affected. He does not know the issues first hand. What he is good at though is asking the right questions and helping the group look at what resources they have, what they need, and supporting them in developing workable, realistic solutions. What resources they can’t get themselves, he gets for them.

The kind of leadership Paul Farmer provides is what many had hoped for from Jeffco School Board members John Newkirk, Julie Williams, and Ken Witt. Their campaign pamphlets and websites implied that was the kind of leadership they were bringing to Jeffco Schools. However, that intent was almost immediately called into question with the hiring of a school board lawyer without the knowledge of the minority board members.

When the results of a community budget survey on school needs were ignored by the board majority in favor of WNW’s own set of priorities, an additional red flag was raised. When the negotiation process between the BOE and the teachers’ union yielded a mediator’s report that the board majority dismissed, there was more concern. The AP History content issue, not on any goal list, pushed community members even further to question the style of leadership provided by WNW.

The conflict in Jefferson County Schools is not about teacher pay. It is not even about the AP history. It is about leadership that believes that it has the answers without needing to ask the questions. That approach strips staff, students, and other community members of true engagement in the process of meeting the goals of the district.

Board members are not elected to be rulers of a kingdom. Board members serve as one part of a greater school district community that includes its employees, students, parents, and other community members. That is why both Jeffco employee associations worked with former Superintendent Cindy Stevenson, the BOE, and community members to navigate the financial crisis in a manner to lose as little staff as possible when the district was in financial difficulties.

The collaborative answer was for the staff to take both a pay cut and a pay freeze. This is an example of the kind of leadership that considers the “human element” Farmer discusses.   Newkirk, Williams, and Witt need to take a look at the leadership style of Paul Farmer and compare it to their own.

Then they should ask themselves the question, “How can I work effectively and in partnership with the Jefferson County school community so that we can reach our common goals for the school district without this turmoil? What do these groups need and how can we help them?” Board majority members can then bring to the table each member’s background and expertise, and like Paul Farmer, work as a facilitator of solutions.

To do otherwise is to call into question the intent and motives of the board majority to further their own personal agenda, one that does not seem to serve the greater Jefferson Schools community.

Don’t let WNW forget that the Jeffco community is paying attention. Keep fighting, JeffCo!


 

2.25.15 – BOE Feb. 19 meeting notes

UpdateAs noted in the pre-meeting agenda commentary, there was a lot going on at this board meeting. Some of these topics will be addressed again at the March 5 regular board meeting, though it’s not clear what direction the board will take on any of them.

Agenda Item 2:01 Jefferson Articulation Area Plan
This was the first of three times where Superintendent Dan McMinimee praised the presentation group. His opening accolades of the work by the six principals on the team sent a clear message that the Board should seriously consider approving this plan.

The discussion was lengthy, outlining the plans that will impact Jefferson High School, Wheat Ridge 5-8, Edgewater Elementary, Lumberg Elementary, Stevens Elementary, Molholm Elementary, and Everitt MS. If approved, Stevens Elementary will move to the Wheat Ridge 5-8 campus, and the district is proposing moving Sobesky Academy out of its aging building to the Stevens campus. The presentation team, consisting of the principals from each of the schools, fielded the board’s questions with welcomed exuberance. They even surveyed students about the plan, using a statistical rating system for students, parents and teachers that rated their degree of acceptance of these impacts. The mantra became “I’m very excited!”

A key concern about adding 7th and 8th graders to Jefferson High School deals with their safety. These fears were addressed with diagrams of the school layout that essentially creates a school within a school, separating the younger students from the older ones most of the day.

Following the presentation, Jill Fellman asked what Wheat Ridge 5-8 Principal Warren Blair meant when he said they might need to request “Innovation Status.” Blair said while it would not be likely, they didn’t want to shut that door and wanted to be completely transparent with the community. A request for that status requires collaboration with the school community, JCEA and the BOE. Examples of items they might consider, for example, include waiver that might allow them to expand the school day or add teaching training time beyond the contract. Blair also pointed out any principal can start the Innovation Status process at any time, but it is a collaborative process that must take place with staff, community and BOE input.

John Newkirk questioned a plan that was put forward in 2006 of a similar nature and wanted to know why that did not work and how this plan was different? It was explained that former plan was for a K-8 school and not relevant to this situation.

Another major area of concern was the impact on moving Sobesky Academy, a special school that serves Jeffco students with severe emotional disabilities. Currently, Sobesky is in a building from the 1940s that is too small to accommodate the entire district population, and which also has safety code issues. Board members praised the program but expressed concern that these students may have a longer bus ride to the proposed new location on the current Stevens Elementary campus.

Lesley Dahlkemper urged more community input and the team outlined plans to incorporate parents in both summer and beginning of the year orientations. The principals were very honest in saying there is still much work to do but they cannot move forward without Board approval at the March meeting. The unified principal team was a major selling point for board members.

Agenda Item 2.01: Interest Based Bargaining Overview
This was an overview of the bargaining system that the district has used for a number of years. Dennis Dougherty, facilitator, Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services, explained the process step by step to the board:

1) Define the Issue
2) Share Interests
3) Generate Options
4) Evaluate Options
5) Craft Solutions

He continually reiterated that if either side comes to the table with a solution rather than a proposal, the IBB process would not work. He also described in detail the pre-preparation that involves team training and even the room arrangement for the discussion of the topics. The bottom line is that in order for this to work, the following needs to happen:

1) Trust between parties
2) Buy-in by everyone
3) Commitment by all members
4) Openness to options and alternatives.

Members of JCEA offered their view of the process and why they think IBB best bargaining method. At the end of the discussion, Ken Witt said he trusted his negotiating team to figure out the best method. He refused to allow questions or comments from other board members, stating that it was merely a training session. Dahlkemper in turn, insisted on her right to speak and added her own favorable impression of the process from when Jeffco Schools and JCEA have used IBB in the past.

Agenda Item 2.03: Teacher Licensure Process: Alternative Programs
Currently, there are nine teachers in the district — seven in charter schools — that have an alternative license. Basically this means the individual has a bachelor’s degree and has passed a content area test.

It was hard to gauge exactly where this conversation was headed except for this question by Newkirk, “Are we using Teach for America?” Jeffco does not use TFA, in part because TFA was originally organized to fill teacher shortages in inner cities. Jeffco Chief Human Resources Director Amy Weber also pointed out that historically, Jeffco has had a rich pool from which to hire teachers. Hmmm.

Julie Williams asked about Warren Tech. It was explained that Warren Tech falls into a different category and does not require an alternative license. Some of the Warren Tech instructors qualify for vocational certification, which allows them to teach using their area of expertise.

Williams also wanted to draw a comparison of highly effective teachers in our public schools compared to those in our charter schools. Weber very pointedly explained that we can’t compare highly effective teachers to charter schools because the charter schools are waved from a form of evaluation that would rate them. Cha Ching! Witt wants more information on this issue.

Agenda Item 2.04 Student Based Budgeting Update
There are plenty of questions to ask on this subject. This was a very detailed presentation explaining the formula for determining the amount of money a school receives to follow-through on their own budget planning.

This presentation team began by explaining the old-central office approach of allocation vs. local school control of academic funds. There point was the “once size fits all” did not’ work. During the presentation, sometimes it was confusing to know which funds belonged to the individual school and which monetary role still belonged to central office.

Fellman raised concerns that Jeffco’s sense of community could be undermined as each school has autonomy, and that the district might miss out on efficiencies of scale if schools are making individual purchases of supplies, textbooks and other programs. Dahlkemper brought up the concern that some schools will choose to drop their kindergarten program if they do not have enough kids. There were also concerns about whether the system could be “gamed.”

For example, could a school that wanted to expand its art classes cut back on music classes to do so? The answer is that no, each school has a strict set of guidelines they have to follow cutting back on any of the three elementary-mandated “specials” would not be allowed.

Many of the rules are linked to the current JCEA contract, and the big money question is what could happen regarding those restrictions should the contract not be renewed.

When Williams asked how this was going to impact the at risk or special needs students, the presenters pointed out that under this system, because of Federal funds to those groups, they may actually have more money to spend on services.

It’s also having an impact on full-day kindergarten in Jeffco. This deserves a much longer post. For now, suffice it to say that the number of schools offering free FDK is dropping from 40 Jeffco Schools to 26/31. Why the split number? Of the 31, 5 are schools that anticipate their entire kindergarten population will qualify for free FDK as free- and reduced-lunch children. The other 26 are using SBB dollars to provide free FDK. The rest will charge the $300/month number that has been set by the district as the kindergarten fee. This deserves a separate post and we will address it again in the following weeks.

Another big question: Will schools opt to get rid of an expensive teacher to hire two less expensive teachers? The current answer is no, an average salary is assumed for all teachers. What that seems to mean is that staffing for teachers is not being done by real dollar amounts, at least this year. It was a question that surfaced repeatedly.

Our best understanding is that, for example, a K-6 school with two classrooms per grade would state they needed 14 full-time teachers, and that in the current SBB system, the district would translate that as a standard money amount, regardless of whether that school’s specific teachers are more or less experienced. Any “shortage” would be made up by the fact that at other schools, some teachers are less experienced and lower on the pay scale, so it all works out at the district level—hence the “average salary.” McMinimee said he didn’t want schools to be in a position of choosing quality over quantity. It should be interesting to see how it plays out this year.

What quietly was pointed out near the end of this discussion is that under SBB, $2 million is being transferred from high schools to elementary schools to help balance out larger elementary class sizes. Chief School Effectiveness Officer Terry Elliot explained that most high school teachers were not at the high end of their daily student count whereas a lot of elementary schools are seeing classes of 28-33 students. (There was speculation on Twitter that this was only happening in areas of new development, but that’s not the case. Many of us know multiple elementary schools that are seeing extremely large class sizes even at the K-2 levels all over the district.)

What it will mean is staff cuts at the high school. This process is a radical change and it may still be too early to measure the positive and/or negative outcomes. We need to hear from the impacted staff.

Agenda Item 2.05: Classroom Dashboard Update
Four million dollars later…and? When the presenters themselves infer that this is its own “story”, it is not surprising that some of the Board questions were digging at the past history and the money trail. Superintendent McMinimee was smart to meet Witt’s question head on when Witt, the self-proclaimed “tech guy” began to question the character of the vender, LoudCloud. McMinimee flatly stated that Witt was correct and the vendor was essentially not doing his job. He made it very clear that Jeffco and vendor are back on track.

The Board members seemed to be expecting an immediate roll out of the program (Aren’t we all?) but Dashboard is still in the design stage with bits and pieces coming together. The first pilot started in January and includes 15 schools, but many of the components of Dashboard are not up and running …yet. With so much money already invested, this seems to be a wait and see. What the Board did request is an outline of security measures for this program.

Agenda Item 2:06 Alameda Facilities Plan Update
“Are you not as excited about this as Jefferson High School or are you just tired because it is so late?” Williams asked presenters about the Alameda Plan during the presentation. The reply from Alameda Principal Susie Van Scoyk was, “It’s late.”

Yet, this plan to move Stein Elementary students to O’Connell and grades 7 & 8 to Alameda High School was not presented with nearly the same enthusiasm as the Jefferson group with their plan. It was clear in the presentation that this Alameda High School change is a tougher sell to the community, students and staff than the Jefferson Articulation plan was to their community.

Elliot provided a detailed plan that showed that the planners are trying to allay the concerns of parents with the middle school/high school merge. Alameda will use staggered schedules and lunch times as just two example of keeping the middle school students away from the upper classmen. The key here for the change is about Stein Elementary. It was presented as the best option to help this elementary school.

Also of note: an expansion to Stein Elementary was part of the failed 2008 bond package. Expanding the school now is out of the question because there are too many temporary buildings and because there’s no place to otherwise put the children while expansion might take place. Is there a lesson worth noting here?

Don’t let them forget we’re watching, and keep fighting, JeffCo!