the glittery nose of the coming aristocracy

Dave Murray raises a pertinent point when discussing the differences in education and especially education outcomes between elite suburbs and some of our more challenged, urban districts.

the question should be why we are teaching students in Grand Blanc and Bloomfield Hills the same way we teach children in our urban areas, where the students have different needs?
That’s not a union problem or a teacher problem. It’s a system problem.

If we end up with different expectations or outcomes depending on where the student comes from then we are rather close to undoing the fundamental vision of public education as a tool for a free society. We educate all, and hold all to the same sorts of standards (and curricula) because we want a common, informed, educated community.

The great fear about the corporate-computer reformers is that their program finally ends up short-changing students, fitting them for employable “slots” but not addressing the more holistic goals of citizenship. A system that equips you for jobs alone, that makes of you an individualistic consumer is one that is a mere hop and a skip from disenfranchising you. No matter how much you put the glitter on, it is still the face of aristocracy. And that we can and must do without.

a further note

Perhaps the big difference between the urban and high-achieving suburban models is how such wider educational goals are achieved. Citizenship, with its exposure to the community’s goods, its arts and values, is actually rather expensive. Not surprisingly, with poverty-challenged learners schools find it easier to “focus on the basics.” And in pure fiscal terms it makes sense. This in fact is how we end up with de facto educational segregation we see now. In this case, it is the place of the community to step up and provide those other programs — the orchestras, the art programs, the debate societies and such — that the particular school district cannot provide. Indeed, with the shift to more distributed educational models, particularly those of the charters, such a move would seem to be a necessity.

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Breaking the zip code. Maybe

It sounds so innocent. In today’s editorial from the  Grand Rapids Press, Dave Murray writes

(Governor Rick Snyder) also believes that the quality of a child’s education shouldn’t be determined by his or her ZIP code.

Embracing an “any time, any place, any way and any pace” philosophy, the plan removes district “ownership” of a student, allowing them to take a course, some courses or all their courses from any districts. That includes the growing use of online courses.

While the Press has entered into the fray of  competing press releases perhaps it shouldn’t.  In a document of 300 pages there are bound to be some issues as well a host of potentially unintended consequences. The Press would better take its time fulfilling the duty of exploring what these issues and consequences might be.

First, there is the matter of online education. The emergence of MOOCs suggests the way that higher education and likely secondary education will be substantially transformed. But if this is the way, then the questions of accountability and outcomes necessarily follow. The real work will be in how such enterprises are structured, and that, I would suggest is the proper place for reporting and advocacy.

But that’s only a start. Just as critical would be the deal breakers.

For instance,  schools can opt out of the program. In fact with this option, zip code would still determine who gets what kind of education. Would non-participation and the resulting two-tier structure of Michigan education be a deal-breaker?

If education follows the student, this puts an emphasis on equal funding. Does this violate Prop A? Is this then a deal-breaker?

If local communities lose control of their school (see funding), then how do they escape being creatures of Lansing rather than local voters? Would local control be a deal breaker?

Lastly, with the expansion of educational services, what reporting mechanisms are to be installed, or should be installed? Without transparency we end up with self-dealing. Would lack of transparency be a deal breaker?

Finally, the question that should be aksed is how these efforts will produce the educated workforce Michigan needs in the next decade. The Press’s proper role is to ask such questions in order to clarify the legislation and to lay the proper foundation for reform and vibrant local schools.

Does school quality follow location?

Dave Murray considers the question of inequality between schools, that some are manifestly better than others. Does that really violate the compact we’ve made to the children in our state, this expectation of equity in education? Murray asks,

For one thing, there shouldn’t be “better” schools. Anybody walking into any Michigan public school should be assured they are getting the same quality education. Otherwise we are continuing a system of haves and have-nots.

The difficulty is that such a view ends up defining equality down. the only way that such a vision could be enacted would be to insist that all have the same minimum standard. And no more. Were there one proposal to destroy public education, this would be it.

The reality attested to over and over is that some districts care more about education than others. When we funded by millage, some were more willing — much more willing – to self levy taxes so their children had opportunities. Even now, through educational foundations and separate facility millages, districts are finding  alternate funding streams to support and sustain their programs. Moreover, even with roughly comparable schools, there will be some that excel in one area than another. If your student is a terrific math student, you want to be a in a program that has the terrific math teacher.

The entire principal of choice rests on the diversity of programs as much as it does on the variation in funding.

And to be fair,  I take what Murray meant as that students should have the same opportunity for quality education. It’s not the school, but what the school does that should be the standard. So if Fremont wants to spend one amount Forest Hills another (and they do) they may still both be adequate choices for a family — both will send out graduates able to compete and excel.

That’s another secret about a lot of our so-called “failing” schools: even there, students graduate and excel. What we want are more of them. Here, choice finally fails us. Choice cannot encourage the internal development, the growth in teachers and administrators. In that sense, choice is actually a lagging indicator of excellence, where parents choose based on past behavior. If we are going to make a difference in children’s lives we will need to create the excellence first.

The young teacher and choice

Over at MLive, Dave Murray highlights last night’s speech by Gov. Jeb Bush.

Appearing with a teacher and student, Bush said there is “a moral cost to our failing schools.”
“We say that every child in America has an equal opportunity. Tell that to a kid in whose classroom learning isn’t respected,” he said, according to a copy of the speech released by the party prior to its delivery.
“Tell that to a parent stuck in a school where there is no leadership. Tell that to a young, talented teacher who just got laid off because she didn’t have tenure. The sad truth is that equality of opportunity doesn’t exist in many of our schools. We give some kids a chance, but not all.
“That failure is the great moral and economic issue of our time. And it’s hurting all of America.”

the Governor is certainly right as to education’s significance, indeed he’s  better on education than most in the GOP. The real flaw in his speech was the disconnect between the real gains that were made in Florida and the cookie-cutter advocacy of choice. Choice did not raise up the scores for blacks, or for those children with disabilities. Yes, vouchers give a few a different alternative, but the reality — the real accomplishment — is that it improvement was widespread. No, the secret lies elsewhere, as quoted, in leadership and the ability to retain smart, well-qualified (young) teachers.

If anything, the idea of choice and the retention of young teachers work against each other. While choice in the form of charters does offer opportunity for the recent graduate, studies have found that these teachers are three times as likely to leave. This churn cuts the benefits of the young teacher who typically comes into full form somewhere around the fifth year of teaching. Meanwhile we have the shrinkage of classrooms in regular schools (and so of teachers), that itself makes it harder to retain the young teacher.

The methods that do seem to promise impact with disadvantaged populations are those of better teachers, stronger building leadership are methods that ask for more resources, not less. One of the unintended consequences of the turn to choice by the GOP is how other parts of the platform strip states and communities of these resources — as we’ve seen in Michigan. It becomes hard to anything other than maintain if you are also stripping out $400+ /pupil from the schools.

Toll Booths as sign of progress.

Dave Murray is on the case with this classic postcard:

As he happily plays with the image he wonders

 Where’s the bridge? It’s amazing that there’s no bridge in our bridge postcard, considering it’s really, really big.
Seriously, just about any photo taken in Colonial Michilimackinac includes the giant steel thing rising in the background, eliminating all pretense of slipping back into colonial times.
Were tollbooths such a novelty at the time that people would be so excited at the idea of passing through one that they wanted a souvenir? And what do you write on the back of a tollbooth postcard? “Wish you were here – because I’m out of quarters?”

Toll booths in the Upper Peninsula? That’s progress. Why the next thing you know they’ll be having grocery stores with doors that automatically open. That, and of course Kresge’s. Seriously, the UP was rather forgotten until the Bridge went in, and even then the real shopping was still an hour south in Petoskey. We forget how distant the land was, even if we could see it, right across the straits.

In making the connection the Bridge opens a door.

Strange as it sounds, the toll booth is a sign of progress — Murray is not too far gone on his “wish you were here….” Paying means you belong, that finally you can sort of join the civilization. It’s the matter of iconography of progress measured by infrastructure (and I do love the Futura typeface of the title). There’s also a hidden aspiration at work here with the bright cloudless sky (just like California, only with snow!), and the cars lined up. The world is opening up. We are at the dawn maybe of something big.

It’s not the Bridge as monument, but the more prosaic act of connection. Sure it’s highway plumbing, but sometimes indoor plumbing is actually a sign of progress. And think, can we take pleasure in the simple achievements as well as the proud bridge moments?

Shedding Light on Bad Legislation

ALEC is pretty clear that it has generated so-called “model” legislation. This legislation in turn has shown up in almost verbatim form in various legislatures, poor Dave Agema only being the latest example. Three problems emerge from such an approach.
ALEC is back in the news, as the headline states: Progressive groups question role of American Legislative Exchange Council in writing GOP-backed bills. Zack Pohl of Progress Michigan identifies 20 bills that come out of the ALEC mill, including HB 5221, introduced by state Rep. Dave Agema, R-Grandville, a measure requiring  voters to provide proof of citizenship when registering to vote. And if that sounded familiar, it should. The Agema bill was essentially a “cut and paste” of sample legislation generated by the conservative council.

But is there any harm to that? Don’t unions and other left-leaning groups do the same? Reporter Dave Murray is at least willing to look at the issue.

The way I interpret it, ALEC isn’t initiating the legislation, it’s more of a clearinghouse.
Say Lawmaker X, R-Mitten, wants to write a bill on, say, fudge sale restrictions. He wants to know what has been effective in other states. So he contacts ALEC or attends a conference or whatever, and sees what lawmakers with similar views in other states have passed regarding fudge sales in their states, takes one of those bills and introduces it.

ALEC is pretty clear that it has generated so-called “model” legislation. This legislation in turn has shown up in almost verbatim form in various legislatures, poor Dave Agema only being the latest example. Three problems emerge from such an approach.

First, the legislation itself is crafted often with an eye to special interests, corporate or advocacy-related. The context for such legislation then is tucked away in other ideological or even commercial concerns, hidden from any real legislative oversight at the state level.

A useful instance of such legislation out of the ALEC pot would be the Stand Your Ground gun legislation.

Second, the ALEC approach effectively nationalizes issues. Rather than consider the bills in the context of the states, the “model legislation” approach imposes a sort of national legislation with minimum fuss. So we don’t get a Michigan response to guns, we get the NRA response, smuggled in through ALEC.

Third, turning to the educational reform side, the ALEC approach presents the legislature with a “solution” that may or may not fit the state. So we get legislation in search of a problem. What is cut out of the discussion is the more important issue of testing ideas within the context of the State and its particular interests. Here, a bill clearly originating from the State Chamber is preferable to one slipping in the backdoor, one without clear fingerprints as to who is interested in it. In short, ALEC works against transparency in legislation (at the least).

That it also acts as a clearinghouse for a set of special interests, often with an ideological cast (see Agema legislation, again) — well, that is only another reason to ask for transparency and accountability. Then again, the fact that ALEC comes form the mind of John Engler ought to be warning enough.

The Principle of Principals

It’s hardly likely that only two percent of principals in Michigan are ineffective, as Dave Murray’s headline would have it.. Educational outcomes alone suggest the number is higher. Instead we are treated to what can best be described as a Lake Woebegone effect, where everyone is above average, or as Muskegon superintendent Jon Felske put it, “playing it safe.”

However, the numbers hide the real story here, namely that of the new role for principals generally. After all, principals have been the missing link when it comes to reform. We have gone off track in reform efforts in part because we keep looking at the year-to-year aspects without considering the larger picture. There are five areas where sound leadership can play an important role:

  1. Continuity. The educational product is multi-year in nature. The principal provides the visible continuity of effort from year to year.
  2. Team work.  Teaching itself is a team effort — one teacher passes along the class to another, the common success of teachers depends on everyone doing their jobs.  Each classroom may be a small kingdom, but each is linked. The principal coaches, helps facilitate the team.
  3. Environment.  We know that school environments themselves can play a crucial role in creating the safe places where students can thrive. Again, the principal is the one who leads the teaching staff, the support team and parents in creating and maintaining that environment.
  4. Connection. The principal is the face of the school with the parents. When Parents (single or intact) have a strong connection with the school, their children do better.
  5. Face Time. And finally, as a matter of gearing, the leadership team in a school can help the building deal with other institutional and community stakeholders; they’re the face.

Leadership is critical for all these tasks. The principal is not simply an administrator — in the best schools in fact, you may even have a split leadership: one for operations (academic leadership, team coaching and the like), and one for the executive functions (i.e. dealing with the community, the stakeholders, the district administration).

If we are to have strong principals, we will need to have better development programs, and at the least, some sort of standard judging template to help them fulfill their critical function. It also turns attention to the role of our graduate programs in educational leadership. This is perhaps an opportunity.