Transferring my blog

Hello to all those who visit or stumble upon my “Views on Schools” website.

As some of my readers noticed, as part of my service on the school board in Grosse Pointe, Michigan  I had a successful re-election campaign in the fall of 2010.  Social media and blogging was a major component of my efforts.  I needed a new blog platform with a bit more flexibility than provided by this WordPress.com template site.

I built a new website/blog with the URL www.brendanwalsh.us to which www.prideandprogress.com (our campaign slogan) also linked.  I added a great deal of content to the new site over the course of 2010.

I want to maintain just a single site and the flexibility of the new platform is preferable.  I have transferred all of the entries from Views on School to www.brendanwalsh.us including all the comments.

If you are a Views on Schools regular or subscriber, I wanted  you to know this and hope that you will continue to visit the new site, if you have not done so already.  To be notified of new posts, I am still figuring out the subscribe capability of the new site, but an easy way to do so is to “Like” my Facebook page, accessible here.  I typically announce new posts via Twitter as well, my handle is @brendan_p_walsh .

Generating content on Views on Schools has been a wonderful experience for me.  I learned to use blogging tools and other technology as well as to develop as a writer.  When blogging on the new site, I decided I wanted to blog more frequently and, shall we say, in a more condense fashion.  I know my Views on Schools posts could get a little wordy ;-)

Some topics merit more in depth treatment.  The traffic patterns showed some of the more in depth topics got the most traffic.  What has been particularly enjoyable to see is that the articles, despite having been published many months ago are still read regularly by new readers.

So thanks to all of you who have been readers.  I hope you continue to visit the new site.  As always I welcome your feedback.

Brendan

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Reframing Disparity: Accountability meets the Achievement Gap

When I read the statistics, I could hardly believe it.  How could the Grosse Pointe Public School System have two high schools with identical curriculum, course offerings, hiring and pedagogical practices and yet have one perform so differently than the other?

How could the students at Grosse Pointe North outperform their peers at Grosse Pointe South by 15% in math proficiency and by an amazing 84% in reading proficiency?

No, that’s not a typo.

What’s that?  You say you read a report that seems to show the exact opposite?  We’ll get to that.  But let’s start with what has transpired in public education whereby standardized test results are as newsworthy as they’ve become.

Transparency, Testing and Tea Parties: The Accountability Era of Public Education in America

Public schools today are at the eye of the hurricane brought about by a confluence of some historically significant influences.  This is not a new pattern in our history. 

The United States has been traumatized by the Great Recession.  It has shaken our confidence.  Historical when this has happened, the nation turns to public schools – either for blame, salvation, or both. 

  • At the dawn of the 20th century, the massive influx of immigrant students alarmed America.  How will these children ever learn to speak English and get “Americanized”?  This was essentially the birth of public education in America.
  • Mirroring the effort to integrate a racially divided country, the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education put public schools literally on the front lines of integration and indeed to be the means to integrate the country.
  • The 1957 Sputnik launch was taken as evidence that the United States had fallen behind internationally in math and science education.  A renewed call for “back to basics” and increased rigor ensued – and has arguably never subsided.
  • In the last 1970’s and early 1980’s, scarred by the energy crisis, the Iran hostage event, combined with a perceived downward trend in SAT scores, a blue ribbon committee publishes a report titled “A Nation at Risk” that contains apocryphal language warning that our national educational deficiencies are in fact a threat to national security. The message reached fertile ground in these Cold War times.

“A Nation at Risk” was published in 1983.  Few documents have had as great an impact on public education.  Locally even consider the Grosse Pointe Public School System’s tag line is “Excellence in Education.”  I doubt it’s coincidence that the Reagan panel’s title was the National Commission on Excellence in Education.  This report launched the “Accountability and Testing Era” for public schools.

Previous to this, as a country, standardized tests had never been the primary emphasis of American public schools – and the trend has continued ever since in the form of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) and then again with Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” (RttT).  Standardized test results are the very foundation of these national laws. 

They have been codified to such an extent that performance on standardized tests can drive not only funding decisions, but dictate who can be hired, and whether a neighborhood school can even remain open.  NCLB was heavier on sticks while RttT has thrown in some carrots.  Strip off the party labels and they are nearly identical.  Amazingly at the peak of partisan acrimony, reliance on standardized tests has enjoyed almost unflinching bipartisan support.

The American public meanwhile has, by and large, accepted as gospel that better test scores mean better schools.  Drop in scores, or stagnancy, is rarely balanced against the concurrent American desire to educate every student and therefore test every student.  Following our core democratic principles, this is a uniquely American phenomenon.

Is such narrow emphasis on math and reading consistent with other American core values?   Many would consider “American Ingenuity” a key contributor to our rise as an economic power.  Standardized tests do little to measure this and many other character traits that we value as citizens and families.  As a practical matter, standardized test de-emphasize these as well as performing, practical and liberal arts.

The rise of  Tea Party movement and its call for smaller, less invasive government stands in stark contrast to NCLB and RttT which injects the federal government into local school system governance to an unprecedented degree.  Interest in accountability appears to trump interest in separation of powers and smaller government.

The bottom line of the Accountability Era is, well, the bottom line.  The sentiment seems to be, boil the output of the public schools down to a single number.  Stack all those numbers against each other and reward those at the top and penalize those at the bottom.  Not only is this the path we are on, we are well down it as well.

We’re Racing to the Top while trying to Leave No Child Behind – making a very difficult, unproven task a high stakes game of winners and losers

As the well crafted name would imply, No Child Left Behind and its progeny, RttT, would seem to have the best interests of our nation’s children in mind.  Some would charge the effort has been co-opted or even borne out of political interests – that public schools were sent on a fool’s errand to prove they could not deliver thereby paving the way for charter school and voucher expansion.  But one thing is undisputable. Never has a country made standardized testing such a high stakes game without knowing if the strategy will pay dividends – not knowing if the unintended consequences will actually hurt our children.

As NCLB’s 2014 deadline approaches, it’s pretty clear we have learned that the country cannot legislate its way to better academic results, regardless of whether the intentions were pure or not.  It’s just not happening.  Whether this is the fault of public schools or whether the public schools are a reflection of our society in general is a philosophical debate to which too little attention is paid.

On a less philosophical level, an enduring attribute of the Accountability Era is best summarized by the term “adequate yearly progress,” one that has been burned into the national vocabulary.  Its lofty goal was to ensure that every year results would improve.  If you cannot demonstrate improvement, you were graded down – or perhaps even shut down.

This remains the case today.  In a series of state issued reports, scoring systems have been introduced that put significant emphasis, formulaically, to capture year over year standardized test score trends.  Schools are stack ranked, weighted for trend, so that even those performing at statistically high levels and meeting the very conditions of NCLB might appear to be “worse schools” than others – a dubious practice with dubious benefits for everyone involved.

Are we really measuring student progress and is there any consideration of scale?

The measurement of a school’s standardized test score trend is ostensibly a measure of its progress. Philosophically this is a logical goal.  When put into practice, however, the state is not really measuring individual student progress at all. 

Comparing one year’s class to the ensuing year’s class would do no such thing anymore than if you or I were to compare the scores of two of our own children against one another on a test they each took their junior year. Intuitively we know our children are different. Top to bottom rankings aren’t as intuitive.

Statistically the data has more relevance with a larger samples.  Comparing two children this way would be ridiculous, but Michigan has over 1.6 million students.  Percentage changes on that scale have some merit.  But building level scale?  In a typical elementary school a tested class might have 50 to 70 students.  In a binary measure of proficiency, discussed below, a swing of 5 to 7 students either way represents a 10% movement.  In a high school, 30 students could do the same.

What implications might there be if the students tested had absolutely no concern for how they scored?  If they felt the outcome of the test would have no bearing on their grade or future opportunities?  Or if they felt they had no chance of pursuing an education beyond their current level?  Or even simpler, if a handful of students are just having a bad day?

Test scores have their place, but like any individual data point they have limitations and need context.  I believe history will view the current era launched by “A Nation at Risk” as incredibly over-leveraged on standardized test scores.  We need to find the balance across all the data points and indicators available to us.  Standardized tests are just one.

Proficiency, cut scores, and fraud in standardized test reporting gives us a glimpse of the politicization of public schools.

State level standardized test results are reported in terms of “proficiency,” a measure declaring whether a student has adequately mastered curricular content.  A “cutoff score,” commonly referred to as a “cut score,”  is established by the state to represent a percentage of questions answered correctly on a test. 

If a student scores above the cut score they are considered proficient.  Therefore scores are not presented in terms of their percentage of ovals filled in properly, but rather in a rather binary “proficient” or “not proficient” manner.  In this way higher scoring student tests are not raising the average of the lower scores – a binary process reflective of a digital world that wants to see everything in 1’s and 0’s.

The cut score used to determine proficiency is in itself already an arbitrary number and therefore another source of controversy.  Just this summer New York City public schools were found to have lowered (thereby making easier) their standardized test cut score passing level to give the appearance that their learning results were improving.  This is becoming exhibit A of the unintended consequences of high stakes testing.  (Read “When 81% Passing Becomes 18%” in this New York Times article.)  And we’re not even talking about teaching to the test.  This is simple institutional fraud.  What was intended to help children is now bringing about the worst in adults.

This story also present a lesson in the politicization of test scores and by extension of public schools themselves.  In the Big Apple, public schools are controlled by the mayor.  “School improvement” was a major plank in Mayor Bloomberg’s political platform.  Student scores were therefore manipulated for political benefit.  This is a bad combination, yet some people want to see more mayoral control.  Many would argue against school board based governance, but at least it is generally clear of party and election politics.

Since state standardized test results are represented as a percentage of test takers who demonstrated proficiency, another source of controversy is whether all students eligible do indeed take the test.  Are all schools as diligent as others in assuring students of all abilities take these tests, including special needs students?  Is it just possible that a principal whose job may be at risk might try to control the testing environment?  Something to contemplate.  Don’t think it’s not happening.

A recent and significant shift in the Economically Disadvantaged population is a massive change in a key variable.

But let’s stay in the present for now and get back to my astonishment for how Grosse Pointe North can so significantly outperform Grosse Pointe South.  In any scientific analysis variables are a consideration.  If we are going to place so much emphasis on standardized test scores and their year over year trend then key variables should be factored. 

Not all variables can be captured and indeed most are not measurable. One variable, however, that has been consistently recorded and generally accepted as a significant indicator of student performance on standardized tests is whether a student is Economically Disadvantaged (ED) or Non-Economically Disadvantaged (NED).

ED students have long been accounted for in terms of those who qualify for federal Free or Reduced Lunches.  Here is a link to the Federal Guidelines for Free and Reduced Lunch qualifications.  For quick reference, in 2009 a family of four would qualify for Free Lunches if their annual income level was $28,665 or less.  Reduced Lunch qualification in 2009 was $40,793 or less, also for a family of four.

True to pattern, since federal funds are involved, reporting on standardized tests for these students is required.  Below is the comparison of North’s ED student population versus South’s ED student population on standardized tests.  At long last, here is North’s advantage:

Economically Disadvantaged Student Proficiency on 2008 Standardized Test in Reading and Math

  G.P. North High School G.P. South High School North’s Performance Advantage
Reading 46% 25% 84%
Math 38% 33% 15%

 

Plainly stated among Economically Disadvantaged students, those who qualify for free and reduced lunches, North has outperformed South in terms of the percentage of those students who are judged by the state to be proficient in Reading and Math.  How many ED students attend each school? That’s coming.

So North must be the better school, right?  No?  Isn’t that the conclusion others have reached from other reports?  I wouldn’t conclude, based on the data  above, that North is better than South any more than I would look at South’s higher ranking in the state’s recent “Top to Bottom” report and conclude it was the better school than North. 

I propose a new bottom line maxim in the Bottom Line Era.  Overly narrow interpretations of standardized test results must be avoided and balanced with other means of evaluating the output of our programs. 

What has long been termed the Achievement Gap is not new to public education in the United States, but must now enter the consciousness of our community.

Disregard for the moment North’s performance advantage and consider the absolute nature of the results.  Grosse Pointe’s economically disadvantaged students are performing at a markedly lower level than their NED counterparts.  Is Grosse Pointe unique in this regard?  Sadly, absolutely not.  And to be fair, one of the stated objectives of NCLB was to shine a light on this issue.  Clearly it has. 

ED student performance relative to NED performance is colloquially called the Achievement Gap.  It is one of the most studied and reported issues in the history of public education in the United States borne out of our democratic principles that seek a free an equal education for all America’s children.  Recently Stanford University published a composite report on the issue than can be read here.

The Stanford report contains a very strong visual (reprinted below)demonstrating the correlation between ED classification and academic performance (in their case among the state of California’s elementary school population).

image

The correlation and trend line is undeniable.  Generally, the greater the concentration of ED students in a school the lower the composite score on standardized tests.  This poses one of the great questions of our time: Can public education be held exclusively accountable for the widening U.S. economic gap that itself has a clear affect on standardized tests by which public schools are now almost exclusively measured?  This is a circuitous and pretty heavy “chicken or egg” style question.  We’ll leave that for another day, but keep it in mind in the context of high stakes testing.

Back to the notion of ED status as a variable relative to “yearly performance.”  Shouldn’t we expect that the ranks of the economically disadvantaged have been growing as a result of the Great Recession?  Particularly here in the state of Michigan?  The statistics make clear that the ED population is growing nationally and at the state level. 

In 2001 the United States’ the 37% of students were classified as ED.  In the same year Michigan’s ED student population was 29.6%.  The most recent national statistics for 2008 showed the US ED student population had grown to 42.9%  By Michigan Department of Education figures for 2009-10 Michigan has climbed to an astonishing 45% reflecting a 50% increase in Free and Reduced Lunch enrollment from 2001.

Has Grosse Pointe been immune from this state and national trend?  Consider this data from each building in the Grosse Pointe Public School System showing the change of composition of our ED population pre-dating the Great Recession (from 1995) and then in the midst of it (from 2006 to 2009):

As a district, a full 10.5% of our student population qualifies for free and reduced lunches, the proxy for Economically Disadvantaged classification.  In aggregate, our composite percentage is obviously well below the state and national averages.

But the aggregate numbers don’t tell the full story and, taking a page from the state’s Top to Bottom rating methodology, trend should be an equal consideration.  But consider also the disparity in the ED population among North and South and their respective feeder schools.  Two-thirds of the ED population feeds into North and one-third into South.

Relative to recently reported test scores, look at what has happened to this population in just the last three years.  Poupard, already with the highest concentration of ED students in the district in 2006, has seen that population nearly double again in the last three years.  Little Poupard Elementary now has more ED students than all of Grosse Pointe South, which is five times larger in terms of student enrollment.  Nearly half of Poupard students are economically disadvantaged.  Allow that to sink in. 

15 years ago North and South had just 2% and 1% ED population respectively.  Those proportions have held steady – while both have been multiplied by a factor of 7.  In the last three years, corresponding with recent state “Top to Bottom” reports measuring yearly progress over this period of time, North’s ED population has almost doubled. 

Considering that the state reported numbers are of a binary nature (proficient or non-proficient) and that higher scores cannot mask lower scores, if North has twice the number of ED students as South, with a proficiency ratio of 38% and 45% in math and reading, the end result is obvious.  Despite, thankfully, North demonstrating greater ability to help ED students become proficient, the volume of students is a clear contributor of the proficiency measure disparity.

Consider this excerpt from the previously referenced Stanford study: “On average, a ten percent increase in the percentage of students eligible for the school lunch program is associated with a 23 point decrease in the Academic Performance Index.”  Now look at the ED population increases nationally, statewide and even locally and put two and two together.

What might North’s and Poupard’s scores and “ranking” look like if they had the same proportion of ED students as South and Kerby? Or if Kerby had the same as Poupard?  Or if North were only as successful as South in helping the ED population of students to demonstrate proficiency?  Legitimate questions all.

The people of Grosse Pointe were not immune to the Great Recession.

As a community, we need to come to grips with the fact that our economically disadvantaged population has grown significantly in the last three years and is now ten times greater than our 1995 levels.  Sadly so are many other communities across the state and the country.

If we are going to place the same emphasis on standardized tests as the federal government and Lansing, a question that we must contemplate very seriously, our ED population growth simply has to be part of our analysis and ultimately our response strategy.  In comparison to other high schools with whom it is are most commonly compared (including South), North’s proportion of ED students is notably higher.  Ignoring this reality would be folly.

Struggles with serving this population of students needs to become a greater part of the public consciousness of our community as it has been nationally.  The fact is, it has long been a part of most Michigan communities’ consciousness.  It just so happens now that we even have one school that even moderately reflects the economic diversity of the state.

Detroit Public Schools have been the poster child for school reform, and certainly they have not done themselves any favors, but to add to their growing misery index, DPS’ student population is comprised of a staggering 79% of economically disadvantaged students.  Harper Woods School, with whom we share a border, stands at 66% – more than six times the proportion among our schools.  As regional citizens we need to reflect upon that.

North’s achievements over the last three years, in light of all this data, should give us more reason to be proud of what Principal Tim Bearden and his staff have been able to achieve rather than to accuse them.  Consider the vaunted Newsweek rankings and how it indexes on proportion of Advanced Placement tests taken per pupil.

I reviewed the Newsweek data from the last five years.  Michigan has nearly 800 public high schools.  Newsweek ranks those by their AP/IB tests taken index.  Over the last five years in Michigan only 11 schools have been in the state’s top 20 every year.  Two of those are magnet/charter schools that pre-select their students.  I discount them significantly since, to me, that’s not a true public school.

Two of the remaining nine are Grosse Pointe North and Grosse Pointe South.  Clearly both of our high schools have created a culture of high achievement that encourages students to stretch their academic comfort zone.  And the statistics show North’s students have to make a greater stretch.  Good for North, I say.  This is a strength that we can uniquely leverage.

In the Accountability Era we must keep our perspective.  We can’t rationalize low performance and this is not a plea for us to do so.  But neither should we over-index on any one data point either –both good and bad.  High standardized test scores should not lull us into complacency not delude us into thinking we can’t improve.  The rising ED population is not a resignation to improvement.  The point here is that is must be factored in our strategy and programs.

The bigger questions is how do we wish to judge the output of our program.  Will we do so as Washington D.C. and Lansing wish us to with such massive indexing on standardized test scores?  Or do we take the opportunity now to make our own decisions.  Do we not stand better position to judge what is best for the Grosse Pointe Public School System?  I believe we are, we can, we must, and we will.

The strategy we have chosen, and which we must refine, must ensure we service equally the needs of students along every point along the intellectual and economic spectrum.  That is our mission and responsibility as a public school and as citizens of this community.

Cognizance of the Achievement Gap is not new to our district’s educators.  They are already in motion at all levels. It is an issue that must be attended to everywhere and the earlier the intervention the better. 

  • Our recently introduced no-fee All Day Kindergarten program will prove to be a valuable asset, particularly for the economically disadvantaged, by providing a better foundation at an earlier phase of development.
  • Reading specialists at each of the elementary schools are providing augmented or more individualized instruction.
  • The FAST Reading program, jump started in cooperation with the Grosse Pointe Foundation for Public Education, is a wonderful example of how we are responding as a community to help challenged learners.
  • Every year for the last four years our middle and high schools have introduced new course offerings to delivering growing remediation needs.  This is particularly important in serving the needs of students who enter our district well after elementary school. Last year 20% of North juniors entered the district within the previous three years.  They received none of the benefit of our high quality elementary or middle school programs.
  • North in particular has implemented innovative strategies to better connect students to the school with Challenge Day and additional extra-curricular programs as examples. 
  • The high school tutorial period has been formalized to augment traditional class period instruction. 
  • Mentoring programs and new student transition programs have also been in implemented. 

North’s leadership and initiative in taking the Achievement Gap head on while also maintaining their core strengths, as demonstrated by the Newsweek rankings, are an absolute point of pride for the district.

To solve any problem it first must be understood so it can be properly analyzed and solved.  The Economically Disadvantaged issue must be framed properly and constructively.

In the final analysis we must recognize the Economically Disadvantaged Achievement gap issue as a universal one.  This is not a “Poupard Issue” or a “North Issue” and is most certainly not a “North versus South Issue” despite the inclination of some to frame it as such.  This is not a constructive means of focusing on the challenge.

Finally, to “put the moose on the table” as the saying goes, this is not a race issue.  Clinically and educationally Grosse Pointe is dealing with a purely economic issue and we should, and must, speak freely and openly about it in those terms if we want to make progress on it.

Every single one of our schools has economically disadvantaged students, not just North and Poupard.  Every single one of our schools has seen this population grow exponentially since 1995.  We need to share best practicies and successes across the district to help all of these students reach their potential. 

In this context, this challenge is our greatest opportunity to distinguish ourselves further as a world class district.  Under certain circumstances, many districts should almost be expected to deliver outstanding results, by any variety of measures.  But what of those required to deal with a more significant challenge?  Are we collectively up to that task?  We have proven that we already are.

I look at what we were able to accomplish financially over the last couple of years.  I believe we solved some economic problems in a way that will prove to be the standard other districts will follow.  We can now leverage that newfound strength to address our next greatest challenge, finding a way to truly serve the needs of each and every student – particularly as those students and their needs change every year.

If any district has the means, wherewithal, and motivation to enable students to reach their full potential it is the Grosse Pointe Public School System.  As is our Mission, we have all the pieces in place to adapt to the requirements of each our students and their families to foster the development of “knowledgeable, responsible, and caring citizens who embrace life’s possibilities with a passion for continuous learning.”

Let us resolve to make these words come to life for each and every student each and every day.

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2010-11 GPPSS School Year Budget Approved

The 2010-11 Grosse Pointe Public School System budget approved last night consumed hour upon hour of work and analysis to enable us to continue to deliver the high quality programs we have come to expect.  While intensely difficult and painful at times, this budget and other financial achievements in 2009-10 will pay dividends for years to come.

Last night the Board of Education approved by a 5-2 margin the 2010-11 budget.  Having participated in or observed GPPSS budget developments for the last six years, I can say with certainty that this budget cycle was by far the most difficult – arguably in the history of the district.  Never before has the district had to cope with such mid-year cuts as we experienced in 2009-10 (an issue that needed to be permanently addressed in the 2010-11 budget) and never has the district needed to bridge a projected shortfall of over $7,000,000.

Such a difficult exercise required that we approach the budget like we have never done before.  We started in earnest nearly a year ago, in August, when we had a sense of the enormity of the challenge.  The data gathering and analysis started earlier and in greater detail than had ever been done before.  We utilized the zero-based budgeting model, which forced us to evaluate every investment we made. 

We published the initial draft of a complete budget in February, allowing residents and other stakeholders the earliest view it had ever had for an ensuing year’s budget.  The feedback we received, amidst a flurry of ever-changing variables, drove five complete revisions of the budget, published and discussed every month from February through June.

The 2010-11 Approved Budget Overview provides a healthy summary of what was approved last night.  The format of these overviews was also a new development for this year in an effort to translate the budget numbers into information meaningful to our residents – such as class size projections and program offerings.  It also cataloged the changes in the five iterations of the budget, reflecting the feedback we received throughout.

In order to put the 2010-11 budget into context, last night I also presented the next installment in the series I developed last summer the GPPSS Financial Transparency Series_2009-10 Year in Review.  It summarizes our financial accomplishments for the 2009-10 budget year and places into historical context the key financial metrics of the 2010-11 budget, such as enrollment, staffing levels, and tax revenues.  Here are some of the highlights from 2009-10:

  • Published the multi-part Financial Transparency Series (PowerPoint narrated videos).
  • Successfully integrated Budget Modeling Utility, Staff Utilization Utility, Financial Benchmark and Health Care reports for financial analysis, budget planning, transparency, and contract resolution.
  • Voters renewed Hold Harmless and Sinking Fund millages by wide margins.
  • Closed a $3MM mid-year structural revenue gap from Foundation Allowance and 20J reduction. Project only a $1.2MM reliance on Fund Equity against budgeted $2.6MM.
  • Completed the most transparent budget development process in history of the district.
  • Approved a district-wide no fee All Day Kindergarten program, an offering that is already proving to boost enrollment.
  • 2010-11 budget reduces taxes/fees by $785,000 for local taxpayers via all day kindergarten fee elimination and lower foundation allowance revenues.
  • 2010-11 final budget and contract settlement avoided projected layoffs that would have incurred a wasteful $700,000 in unemployment costs.
  • GPPSS has avoided school closings and other highly undesirable responses to budget challenges –unlike many well-respected districts across the state.
  • Reached agreement with teachers and administrators on 4 year contracts that substantially mitigates risk of unpredictable enrollment, per pupil revenue, salary, retirement and health care costs.

Between the budget accomplishments of 2009-10, the budget of 2010-11 and the contract settlements, the 2011-12 school year budget is already practically completed.  While never particularly enjoyable over the course of this year, what we accomplished financially in 2009-10 will deliver educational and financial benefits for years to come.

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The Elementary Class Size Conundrum

The combination of schedule inflexibility, high enrollment variability, and stressful economic times renders  elementary class size decisions a frustrating exercise for all parties.  Reasonable and rationale standards, consistently enforced, present the best means of navigating these rough waters.

I’ve written about class size before and as a primer I’d recommend interested parties read this blog entry again.  My summary view is that the quantifiable benefits of (economically reasonable) class sizes is questionable.  Nevertheless, smaller class sizes are preferred by all stakeholders. 

The class size challenge will vary from district to district.  A universal truth about class size is that the more flexibility available, the lesser the challenge.  Flexibility is enhanced by scheduling options combined with a higher concentration of students per building. 

Flexibility scales with both and has a smoothing impact on class size – eliminating over-reliance on extreme highs and lows.  This is one of the factors that encourages districts to close schools.  It increases student concentration allowing for the reduction of teaching staff by enhancing flexibility. 

When reading the frequent articles on school closings you will see that the grade levels are often reconfigured as well.  This further increases student density by grade and geography.

Our high school schedule of 7 period days at only two high schools is more flexible than three middle schools in a 6 period day schedule, and far more flexible than 9 geographically bound elementary schools with block schedules.

The focus here is elementary school.  In Grosse Pointe Public Schools, one of our greatest assets is the neighborhood school with no busing required and essentially closed enrollment.  (Parents can’t just send students wherever they want.)  Elementary classes are characterized by grades and sections.  Class size is a function of the number of sections per grade at each school.

Even small variations of student gain or loss can trigger significant shifts in staff, and therefore section, allocations.

Grade level enrollment in relation to section counts reaches different tipping points that can trigger a need for a new sections or the prospective loss of a section based on the gain or loss of just a few students. 

The table below looks at prospective class size per grade level at an individual school based on having 2, 3, 4, or 5 sections.  Each section would require a full time teacher. (Two sections requires two teachers and so on.)

Table 1: Class Size Projections Based on Various Levels of Enrollment per School for Varying Different Sections

Students Per Grade at a Single School 2 3 4 5
50 25.0 16.7 12.5 10.0
55 27.5 18.3 13.8 11.0
60 30.0 20.0 15.0 12.0
65 32.5 21.7 16.3 13.0
70 35.0 23.3 17.5 14.0
75 37.5 25.0 18.8 15.0
80 40.0 26.7 20.0 16.0
85 42.5 28.3 21.3 17.0
90 45.0 30.0 22.5 18.0
95 47.5 31.7 23.8 19.0
100 50.0 33.3 25.0 20.0

 

The projections at the extremes of the scale are not very realistic.  For example, we would not run 5 sections of 10 students per class nor two sections of 50 students per class.  But as you wade toward the center, you can how the decisions can get more difficult. 

For example, in a grade with 75 students, is three sections of 25 too high?  Is 4 sections of 18-20 students affordable across the district?  Remember, what is afforded to one school would be desired/expected by 8 others. Also remember that the table above examines increments of 5 students.  This is abnormal and the gray areas in between make the “cut off line” decisions even more difficult. 

So let’s look at some real world examples from our current school year.

Table 2: Largest GPPSS Elementary Class Sizes Currently: 2009-10 School Years

School Grade Class Size
Trombly K 26.0
Monteith 2nd 26.0
Monteith 3rd 25.3
Monteith 4th 26.3
Kerby 5th 25.0
Maire 3rd 25.5

 

Note that Trombly had only 1 kindergarten section.  Running two of 13 students was not affordable last year (nor would it be for most districts in any year.)

In 2009-10 we had a total of 68 student sections in grades K through 5.  These 6 sections therefore represented less than 9% of all sections in the district.  The average class size in 2009-10 in grades 1 through 5 was 21.5 students.  The point being, these higher sections were the exceptions rather than the norm.  Some people wrongly assume that what is happening in one grade level at one school is what’s happening everywhere.  This is not the case.

Now let’s look at the preliminary class size projections of the highest class sizes in elementary for 2010-11.  Note that the table also projects what the class size would be if we were to add a section to the grade level.

Table 3: Analysis of Class Size Projections and Options for 2010-11 School Year

School Grade Current Projected 2010-11 Class Size Class Size with Another Teacher Teachers Required
Ferry 4th 29.5 19.7 1
Ferry 5th 29.0 19.3 1
Defer 3rd 27.0 18.0 1
Monteith 2nd 26.7 20.0 1
Ferry 2nd 26.5 17.7 1
Poupard 2nd 26.5 17.7 1
Monteith 5th 26.3 21.0 1
Defer 1st 26.0 17.3 1
Monteith 3rd 25.8 20.6 1
Defer 2nd 25.5 17.0 1
Maire 4th 25.5 17.0 1
Monteith 4th 25.5 20.4 1
      Total 12

 

This is a constructive manner of analyzing the challenge.  Viewed through the lens of what is both desirable AND affordable, most reasonable people would identify with the challenge this presents. 

No decision has a greater impact on district finances than class size.  Class size standards decisions need to balance quantifiable benefit, intangible benefit, and hard costs. 

Next year our average total teacher compensation would have been about  $119,000.  The recent retirement incentive and new teacher contract will reduce this amount substantially.  But to keep the math simple, let’s just call it $100,000 per teacher.

To add a section at all of these grade levels it would incur approximately $1,200,000 of new expense to the district.  Unless you’ve been living in a cave you know that, like all school districts in the state, we’ve had to overcome reductions in revenue and other traditional cost escalations to bridge a $7,300,000 projected shortfall for the 2010-11 school year.

But let’s say, for sake of argument, that we DID have the wherewithal to add all twelve of the sections/teachers.  How might this decision be evaluated against the prospect of such other options as returning the middle school schedule to its previous 7 period day?  With some moderation in class size averages there, the staffing requirements are not that different.

Or how about the option to staff the high school schedule to an extent that would allow us to give more credit opportunities to students who today average 1 semester per year taking only 6 classes?  As the state graduation requirements ramp up more double blocking and like programs may be necessary.  We’d need more staff to accommodate that.

Perhaps we want to create new course offerings and create new capacity, not draw down enrollment in other classes, to enable that.  Most of these scenarios would require fewer than 12 teachers. 

These are heavy issues – and the prospect of even considering which path to take is not a place where we were before the new contracts and before the early retirement incentive and frankly not a place where most other districts are today.  Many, if not most, won’t be there anytime soon either.

Consider that we are debating whether we may have a half dozen class sections averaging 26 or 20 students while other districts debated this year which schools to close.  We need to keep things in perspective.

For our budget development this year, the standard measure recommended by the administration on class sizes have been that they were not to exceed 30 students per class in grades 4 and 5 and not to exceed 27 in grades 1 through 3.  The current projections has 100% of projected sections within those standards. 

The vast majority of our sections are well below those levels with an average class size of 22.1.  In all it is not accurate to say that we have a class size problem across the district.  We have isolated instances of higher class sizes that require careful consideration of alternatives.  That is where we are right now. 

Enrollment can fluctuate substantially over the summer – per school, per grade, both up and down.  This is particularly true now as Michigan residents often leave the area with little warning.  In all we project the majority of our enrollment reductions to come from the elementary level.  (Some silver lining: Our new policy on no fee All Day Kindergarten is already showing signs of counteracting some of these losses.)

Class size standards need to be clearly defined, realistic, and consistently enforced.

The smartest path to take is to establish and adhere to an absolute standard for class size.  The basis for the adoption of the standard should be fair, realistic, and consistently enforced. 

The Board may choose now, based on new developments, that the maximum of 30 students in grades 4-5  and 27 in grades 1 through 3  is too high.  But when looking to ratchet that number down, we need to measure the implication.  For example:

  • An adjustment down in grades 4 and 5 to the same 27 as grades 1 through 3 would require, at current projections, just 2 more teachers.
  • An adjustment down in grades 1 through 3 by just 1 student per class (from a maximum of 27 to 26 students) would require at least 5 more teachers or roughly $500,000.
  • Enrollment fluctuations after budget adoption may require us to add staff in places we least anticipated.

We have a very dynamic set of variables that influence all of our budget and staffing decisions.  This past week has brought many new developments.  What I expect to happen is for the administration to comb through enrollment projections yet again and evaluate class size maximums based on recent development. 

A revised budget should be presented to the Board for our consideration and a decision should be reached using a fair, equitable, and realistic standard that we are prepared to adhere to given inevitable variability over the summer.

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The Irony of Obama’s Kalamazoo Visit

First off, (graduation) hats off to the students and community of Kalamazoo Central High School.  What an incredible experience for them tonight to have the POTUS deliver their commencement address.

If you haven’t been following, President Obama promised to deliver a high school commencement address every year of his presidency.  It has become a contest of sorts, with students playing a lead role in developing promotional videos to make the case for their school.

1,000 schools applied and the President ultimately picked the winner.  Pretty cool – regardless of your politics.

The White House has already published excerpts from the President’s speech tonight.  Among the ultimate sound bites that caught my eye was this one:

“…meaningful achievement, lasting success – that doesn’t happen in an instant.  It’s not just about the twist of fate, or the lucky break, or the sudden stroke of genius.  Rather, it’s about the daily efforts, the choices large and small that add up over time.  It’s about the skills you build, the knowledge you accumulate, the energy you invest in every task, no matter how trivial or menial it may seem at the time.”

Said so many different ways and so many times in the history of man, the message is that there are no silver bullets.  “Meaningful achievement” is never easily achieved and never the results of gimmicks.

The irony is a little thick for me.  Look at Kalamazoo Central in context. 

They are being uniquely recognized by the President of the United States at arguably the height of the financial distress affecting Michigan public school districts.  Amidst Proposal A, charter school laws, NCLB and its equal time respondent, Race to the Top, Kalamzoo Central stuck to their vision statement: Every Child, Every Opportunity, Every Time. 

Sound familiar?  GPPSS’ vision statement is Each and Every Child, Each and Every Day.  Kalamazoo, Grosse Pointe, Anywhere, USA.  That’s the call to action for public schools.

The students and school community of Kalamazoo Central took responsibility for themselves to achieve what they have achieved – as will be the case for the scores of public school districts across the state with similar achievements – based on hard work, ingenuity, pride and determination.  If every school community did this, we’d hear a lot less about new state and national legislation promising salvation.

Amidst the veritable din of calls for the never-to-be-too-narrowly-defined “reform” Obama’s message is really “There is nothing new under the sun.”  Communities and students who dedicate themselves to excellence, however they choose to define that, will create that opportunity for themselves.

I agree.

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The University of Michigan Standard and the GPPSS

The Grosse Pointe Public School System serves a diverse range of students, but clearly most have a four year college degree as a goal.  The standards of the University of Michigan may provide a valuable guidepost as we build and maintain academic, extra-curricular, and marketing programs.

U of M Logo This spring I have attended various school system events that reminded me of a concept I have been contemplating for some time and introduce here in this blog.

The first event was the annual Grosse Pointe North / Grosse Pointe South Athletic Boosters golf outing fund raiser.  The second was the district-wide 5th grade and middle school band and orchestra performance.  Both were reminders of the outstanding extra-curricular offerings we make available to our students and the opportunities they in turn create for our students.

Let’s start with the full disclosure:  I am indeed one of those proud University of Michigan graduates.

I remember vividly beginning my research on where I wanted to go to college in the summer following my freshman year at Grosse Pointe South.  One college guide said something along these lines about the University of Michigan:

If you live in the state of Michigan and you can get accepted to the University of Michigan, go.  It’s the best deal in the country.

I took those words to heart, worked hard, applied to only one school, got accepted to and graduated from Michigan – with no regrets.

There are plenty of great schools, but to my admittedly biased view, Michigan is the gold standard for most students in the state of Michigan.

Why Michigan and not, say, the Ivy League schools?  Even a Michigan man tips his hat to a Harvard or Yale.  But those schools are elite based in part on their exclusivity.  Michigan is exclusive as well, but not nearly to the extent the Ivies are.  Let’s compare the acceptance rate of Michigan to the Ivy League schools.

School Acceptance Rate Students who were in the Top 10% of their High School Class # of Students Enrolled in Class of ’13
Michigan 50% 92% 6,079
Brown 11% 93% 1,353
Columbia 11% 93% 1,857
Cornell 21% 88% 3,221
Dartmouth 13% 90% 1,094
Harvard 8% 95% 1,665
Penn 17% 99% 2,477
Princeton 10% 97% 1,301
Yale 9% 97% 1,320

Let’s remember that typically the best of the best apply to the Ivy’s.  Their high standard possibly deters many applicants.  All that not witshstanding, based on the acceptance rate comparison alone, the odds of a student getting accepted to Michigan versus an Ivy League school are many time greater.  But even the acceptance rate does not tell the whole story.

Other statistics make the data more compelling- such as the percentage of students accepted from the state of Michigan.  As a state funded institutions, Michigan is required to accept a large proportion of state residents.   3,921 out of 6,079 students in Michigan’s class of 2013 hail from Michigan.  Compare that to Penn, where only 26 of their 2,477 students are Michiganders.  While I don’t know for a fact, I suspect the Ivies make efforts to attract students from as broad a geographic range as possible.  The point is, as a Michigan resident, your odds of being accepted to Michigan are greater than non-Michigan residents.

Affordability is another factor.  Just comparing Michigan to Cornell, Grosse Pointe Schools graduates (as Michigan residents) would pay about half of what Cornell students – roughly $25,000 versus about $50,000 factoring tuition, fees, and room and board.  Sure, $25,000 is not inexpensive, but doubling that cost further raises the Ivy League bar.

Acceptance to Michigan would be an outstanding goal for most of our students and a potential guiding objective for the district.

We want students to shoot for the Ivy League, but we need to be realistic about the odds of a large percentage reaching that goal.  Frankly we want every student to take aim on whatever goal each desires.  But would using the Michigan standard, would we not be aligning the trajectory of those many goals in the best possible manner?  Could one of our goals be to optimize the opportunity for as many GPPSS students as possible to gain acceptance to Michigan?

I touched on this concept in a blog entry I wrote back in August.   As a district if we want to commit to help each and every student reach their goal, each needs their own plan.  Since the majority of our students have 4 year degrees as goals, using the Michigan standard makes sense.  It is an aggressive, but realistic goal.

In my time on the Board I have referenced the “Good the Great” model and the “hedgehog principle” whereby great organizations leverage a defining concept that “unifies, guides, and organizes all decisions.”  What does the GPPSS want to be the best at?  What over-arching concept can help us become a truly great organization for years to come?

Positioning each and every student to achieve their individual objective is a logical candidate – and for many, if not most, acceptance to a great university is a logical goal.  This is something we can brand and promote around.  This makes for a  compelling value proposition.

Outstanding academic credentials are a given, but Michigan clearly values students who distinguish themselves in performing arts, athletics, community service and other extra-curricular activities.

The events I attended this week reminded me of this press release from the University of Michigan regarding their incoming class of 2013.  It really got me thinking about investment and service priorities.  Consider the following characteristics of this year’s University of Michigan freshman class:

  • 43 percent were elected to one or more student government offices
  • More than one-third received all-city, all-league, all-county, or all-state awards in athletics
  • More than half volunteered in hospitals, clinics, or home health care programs
  • 10 percent established a business while still in high school
  • 35 percent published poems, stories, essays and articles, or served as editors of their high school newspaper or yearbook
  • 65 percent play a musical instrument

I won’t dwell on the academic characteristics of a Michigan freshman because it is generally known and accepted that these students excel academically by anyone’s standards.  But this data, free and clear from GPA and standardized test score references, is very informative.  Clearly the most elite public university in the state values a well-rounded student – one who goes above and beyond the normal in academic, athletic, arts, and community service.

From a budget perspective it tells me we too must continue to create opportunities for students in these areas – and more than that, do everything we can to encourage their participation in these areas.  People will often ask me, how can we continue to invest in athletics or performing arts as the budgets tighten?  Behold the Michigan standard for your answer.  We simply have to find ways to deliver on all fronts.  When I see the time and energy invested by the athletic and performing arts communities, it further underscores the importance of these extra-curricular activties.

Not every student who is or could be accepted into Michigan will want to go, but the Michigan standard still serves as a logical baseline

Of course this concept needs some polishing, but there is something to it.

Michigan won’t be the best fit for many students.  Some will indeed be Ivy League material.  Some will want a smaller school.  For some students even graduating from high school can be a challenge let alone gaining acceptance to an elite university.  We must remain cognizant to the needs and goals of all. That is our obligation.

The point is not to railroad students to go to Michigan, but rather use the Michigan high standard as a baseline for programming, investment, services, and expectations.  As the idea evolves, data points and characteristics from other outstanding colleges and universities must be factored.

We must be doing everything we can to enhance the experience our families will have in planning and evaluating college options for our students.  With the collective experience of sending so many students to outstanding universities all across the country, the GPPSS stands positioned to help our families in ways they could never conceive.  For example, most families may go through the college planning and application process just once, or maybe two or three times more.  Collectively, the GPPSS has sent students to college thousands of times over.  Leveraging that experience into a value added service offering should entice more families to want to attend our schools.  Certainly we do this today, but should it not be our goal to be the best at it?

My maize and blue colors are showing, I know.  But the University of Michigan’s reputation is undeniably outstanding.  The high Michigan standard sets a high standard for our students and helps guide our investment decisions.  This concept could help us make the right decisions for the right reasons in a way that adds value to everyone involved.

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Retirement Reform Reality: Lansing Steps Up

Late last night, while most sane people slept, Lansing lawmakers took the step that really had to be taken to right the direction of the Michigan K-12 funding system.

Some have estimated this action, passed by the Democratic House and Republican Senate, could reduce costs by several hundred million dollars immediately and by as much as $3.1 billion over the next decade.  The non-partisan House and Senate Fiscal Agencies generally supported such estimates.

As I have written before, while these bills comes under the guise of a “retirement incentive” it is more aptly about retirement reform.  This was really the issue.  And that reform was not, and likely will not be, well-received by current school employees.

In short, the bill increases the retirement multiplier for those eligible to take advantage of it meaning the pension received will be greater than what would have been expected normally.  That’s the carrot.  There are some sticks – and some missing carrots.

Current employees who choose not to retire (or are not eligible) will be required to increase their personal contribution to the retirement system by 3% of their salary.  Recall that the retirement system, MPSERS, is predicated on a combination of employee and employer contributions that are a straight percentage of salary.  This year K-12 districts have been paying about 17% of employee salaries into MPSERS.  Next year it had been expected to go to 19.41%.  These are huge numbers when you recall salaries are our greatest expense.

So this bill will come at a price for employees who do not retire and this is where the spinning will begin.  The MEA has argued that the lawmakers are trying to fix the economic problems “off the backs of employees”.  This was essentially MEA President Iris Salters’ quote.  Others will argue that the incremental cost borne by teachers and other employees is for their own personal benefit given that this is their retirement fund.  Very few if any non-government employees receive a pension remotely resembling that of government employees.

The missing carrots, or what is noticeably absent from the bills, are any guarantees for public school employees regarding reirement health benefits.  This was the hangup over the late stages of this bill’s evolution.  The Michigan constitution guarantees the state employees’ pension benefits, but not their health benefits.  A recent House version of this bill took that action, which thereby increased the cost of retirement. 

As I have written before, when you break down why the MPSERS costs have increased as significantly as they have, rising retiree health care costs represent the greatest source of cost escalation.  So by taking this action, Lansing seems to be acknowledging this issue.  It is in this context that these bills are more aptly termed retirement reforms as opposed to an incentive.

And that’s the other very big news here.  The bill requires that new hires will be placed into a hybrid retirement system that is not exclusively a defined benefit plan, but more dependent on employee contributions – similar to 401k’s.

The net effect of all this on near and long-term school funding will remain to be seen.  There are lots of possibilities:

  • Our per pupil Foundation Allowance may still be reduced, but it is very unlikely that it would be anywhere near the $268 cut that has been often discussed.
  • The MPSERS rate may not got to 19.41%, but if it goes short of that I would predict a moderate Foundation Allowance cut.  Again, though, the net effect would not be NEARLY as harsh as the $268 cut AND the 19.41% MPSERS rate would have been.
  • This will undoubtedly spur many retirements not only of teachers but many other employees, including secretaries, custodians and others.  In the GPPSS this could mean that some of the people whose jobs were eliminated may be able to be hired back.

In the even bigger picture, this reform may well prove to be a catalyst for other Michigan budget reforms.  I don’t think Lansing lawmakers could even look cross-eyed at alternative revenue options without first addressing the MPSERS problem.  This was arguably the biggest puzzle piece.  One has to wonder for the House Democrats to have supported this whether there was some back room quid pro quo negotiated.  This action will go a long way toward addressing the School Aid Fund’s $400 million projected shortfall.  The state’s General Fund deficit is still $1.3 billion.  It will be interesting to see what’s next.

This action shows that Lansing lawmakers are finally getting serious about spending reform, which is welcome news for those who realize change had to come.

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