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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Waiver to NCLB Disappointing for Children

MBOE President John Austin
Superintendent Michael Flanagan
Trustee Eileen Lappin Weiser
Michigan Department of Education

Dear Michigan Education Leaders,

I am writing regarding a recent article I read in the Kalamazoo Gazette,, reporting that the Michigan Board of Education sent a letter seeking a waiver from the Federal Government to the goals of No Child Left Behind from 100% proficient in 2014 to 80% in 2014 and 100% in ten years. The article contained a caveat that perhaps 100% will never be attainable, though I realize this is not necessarily the opinion of your Board.

As the highest level of educational leaders in our state, you hold the key to balancing the need to improve educational outcomes for all of Michigan’s children with the institutional resistance to change and accountability. Overall, I believe the Michigan BOE and MDOE have been doing an excellent job with this incredibly challenging task. Your commitment to creating high expectation state exams, useful online reporting, regular assessment and continuous improvement is notable. Some have complained about the “tests constantly changing” or “the cut scores constantly changing”, but I see these changes as a reflection of your commitment to continuously raise the bar for yourselves and for the education community in Michigan. Unfortunately, I do not believe most of the K-12 educational institutions in Michigan have demonstrated a similar commitment.

Let’s review a little history. NCLB became law January 8, 2002. The original goal was that all children would pass their state proficiency exams by 2014. This meant every child beginning school in first grade in 2002 and every year after would need to be proficient. It is true that at the time, not all states had robust exams, so the definition of “proficient” was debatable. However, it seems absolutely logical that educators would assume that minimally this would mean that every child should be able to read at grade level by the end of third grade and until graduation. (You know the old saying, up until the end of third grade, we learn to read. After third grade, we read to learn.)

I have been active with Portage Public Schools since 2001. When NCLB became law, PPS did not establish district goals to achieve 100% of students proficient in reading. As a matter of fact, PPS has never set a 100% proficient goal for reading. Just this last year, PPS discovered that 25% of the freshman class was reading below grade level. This is the class of children who were in fact first graders in 2002! The sad truth is that finding any school district in Michigan truly committed to 100% proficiency is very difficult.

So it seems, after 10 years of a 12 year target, to ask for another 10 years is to let our children down. School districts and the adults who run them must be held accountable now. If a significant number of our schools fail NCLB, it is because we are failing our children, perhaps not all children, but too many children. This visibility of failure, though at first will be defended with excuses, can create a motivation for real change that has yet to permeate a public school system whose leaders believe they will never actually be held accountable.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to meet and hear Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone. If you have the chance to hear him speak, it is well worth the time. His message is clear, we must respond to the urgent need to be accountable to teach all children now. He refers to a 2009 Military Readiness research report to make the urgency and magnitude visible. The future of our country depends on it.

An Assessment of the Parent Empowerment Reform Package

Analysis for Consideration September 2011
From Melanie Kurdys
Assessment of the Parent Empowerment Education Reform Package

This legislative package is very powerful in that it does not prescribe a solution to achieving the important goal of “All children learning at high levels and ready for college”. It offers a range of opportunities and choices and puts those choices in the hands of parents and students.
The assessment documented here includes discussion regarding:
1. The need for something different than the status quo
2. Evidence indicating this approach would work
3. Potential issues remaining unresolved
4. Hurdles you might encounter as the legislation moves forward

1. The Need (Items in parenthesis offers additional areas of research for background if needed.)

Currently, students are required by law to attend school from age 6 to 18. Most attend a school determined for them based on where they live. If parents and students are unhappy with their defined school, some alternatives do exist:
- They can enroll in a local charter school at no additional cost if there is one accessible and if that school has openings. (Assessment of # of communities served and enrollment versus demand.)
- They can enroll in a private school at additional cost (enrollment & average cost to parents)
- They can seek “school of choice” reassignment with permission of their home school superintendent assuming a neighboring school participates in choice. (Number of districts opting out, number of students taking advantage of the option)
- They can move to a different community (Could do a recap of the difficulties in Michigan in selling homes and losing home value)
- They can homeschool. (Report participation levels, student achievement, hurdles to implementation.)
A brief review of the MEAP, MME and ACT scores in Michigan clearly show that 10 years into the No Child Left Behind effort to teach all children to high levels, the results are nowhere near 100%. This is true in the best and worst school districts. This is true even with the noted choices that are available.
Some will argue the goal is too hard. Some will argue some children just cannot be expected to achieve at high levels. Ask them, “Which children will you look in the eye and tell them they are the ones we will not teach?”
Some will argue the tests are an unfair or inaccurate assessment. Challenge these people to give an alternative. In the 10 years of NCLB, no viable alternative to assessing achievement has been offered. And then ask them, “Suppose a better measure was in fact available today, would that measure indicate that all children are achieving at their highest potential?” I would be seriously surprised if anyone said yes.
Ask “If we surveyed Michigan parents of school age children, would 100% of them say that their children are receiving a high quality education that allows them to be ready for college and life?” If so, then perhaps there truly is no need to offer something else. (Find research reporting parent satisfaction with current schooling in Michigan).
Are we satisfied with the educational outcomes return on our educational investment? Governor Snyder does a good job clarifying that this is in fact not acceptable when we benchmark ourselves nationally.
So if we are committed to providing an environment in the State of Michigan where all children are truly provided an opportunity to achieve, if we are committed to leaving no child behind, at a investment level that our state can spend, then something other than the status quo must be available.
2. Evidence
Stay away from the specific debate about any one of the alternatives being offered. The list includes a wide variety of strategies. None of these alternatives has developed a track record of un-debatable success (although there are research studies I have found showing trends and improvements over time). But none of them are untested in some regard and all have shown some level of success and all have a constituency of believers. In addition, the list includes mechanisms for both the private sector and existing public schools to enter this new arena and innovate. What this package is doing is reducing the monopoly public schools have by one more big step.
The most powerful research I found in support of this strategy is from the Urban Institute Research of Record:
Public School Choice and Student Achievement in the District of Columbia by Austin Nichols and Umut Ozek
Publication Date: December 15, 2010
Permanent Link:
This study examines the multi-faceted public school choice environment in the District of Columbia and the effects of alternative public schools on the achievement levels of students who exercise this type of school choice. The results indicate that students who attend out-of-boundary public schools and charter schools significantly outperform similar students who attend in-boundary public schools in both reading and math tests. We rely on instrumental variables framework to disentangle the underlying reasons behind this achievement gap and find that the observed differences are likely due to the positive effects of alternative public schools.
The bottom line of this research is that it does not matter very much what parents choose, choice itself increases the performance of students. It takes into consideration the likelihood that parents who choose are more engaged in their children’s education, which is a supporting factor in student achievement. 3. Potential Unresolved Issues
There will likely be significant push-back from superintendents and even school boards. Reently the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB) reported the results of a survey of their members. They were asking if the members wanted to roll into the membership scope Charter School Boards. The results were mixed, but the majority said NO!! (A sad commentary on the MASB membership in my opinion, since it clearly shows a bias to protecting schools over children…editorial comment, sorry.) But the legislation contains opportunities for public schools toexpand these choice options to their parent/student market!
School districts may begin to spend precious funds on advertising and marketing. I have seen it already in some communities where they pay to post on billboards in neighboring districts. I suppose one could argue that this use of money should be permitted and the natural consequences of not spending the money in the class room for better teachers or smaller class sizes will ultimately impact the school’s performance in student accountability. But this line of discussion assumes you can hold a tight line on dollars allocated and accountability measures and consequences. Neither of these assumptions exists right now, so I am concerned about this potential “mis-use of funds”.
There is a legitimate concern among public schools as to “who is stuck with the most difficult to teach students?” Currently, it is the neighborhood school. Let’s assume these are the very students whose parents will not even try to choose an alternative and are highly disengaged. This really does pose a problem for these schools. I cannot offer a solution to this yet but I am thinking about it and raising the thought to others in an effort to find some workable ideas. (Like schools can reject a student if…). Nonetheless, a response to this argument might be…”The resistance of some parents to be good parents should not prevent those who want to be good parents from having the resources they need to be successful”.
Public schools may be left with empty buildings or an insufficient supply of children to be cost effective. First, I would argue that if that many parents are choosing something else, this school should close. Schools are not meant to be employment agencies for teachers and administrators. Perhaps then the legislation may benefit from some supporting legislation allowing charters or others to buy or rent school buildings or space within buildings. This option may already exist, but I am not certain.
4. Hurdles
I think it is safe to assume most parents not employed by a school district or supporting organization will support this legislation. I have found this in my informal discussions with people. I was surprised to find that a fair number of early childhood people reacted negatively, even though they strongly advocate for parent choice in early childhood programs. To be honest I was quite baffled by this reaction. Not only that, but the emotion in the reaction made coherent, logical discussions difficult first time around.
It appears there issome amount of support in the sitting school boards (maybe as much as 40%) around the state and a faction within the administration of MASB and MASA.
I was not sure where I stood, although philosophically I support the concept of a competitive market for education. I have been incredibly disappointed with public education “powers that be” and their unwillingness to commit to the goal of educating all children. It is certainly not possible to achieve a goal you are not even trying to achieve! The research I found really makes me believe this is a worthwhile effort in the right direction, though probably very politically challenging.