Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mitch to Tower , " Everything looks good from 30,000 ft".

At a candidates seminar for the "BIZPAC" endorsement (rigged for a predetermined outcome) incumbent Mitch Sheppard gave her philosophy for school board governance as "taking a view from 30,000 feet". If you had flown in an airplane over lower Manhattan in the summer of 2008, Wall Street would have looked great from 30,000 ft. If you had been sitting in the boardrooms of Lehman's, AIG, Merrill, Wachovia or any other financial firm about to crater, everything would have looked good from the top floors of their headquarters. If you're sitting on the board in the Grile Center everything looks as good as what Wendy tells you.

That situation will continue if the candidates endorsed by such "experts" as BIZPAC and the JG make up next board. The "experts" are only slightly less informed about the situation in our classrooms than our board members. The problem is in our classrooms. The solutions have to come from people who have been in the classrooms. No one who has been in the schools would believe that last spring's increase in 3-8 ISTEP+ passing rates showed a real improvement. But that's what our board believes because they have no first hand knowledge of the reality in our buildings. Maybe that's what the public believes as well, even after they eventually see the miserable results from the high school ECA's. We'll see Tuesday.

Friday, October 29, 2010

School Takeovers Imminent for NSHS and SSHS?

The JG editorial page reported this morning that the Indiana Department of Education may be ready to turn failing schools, including NSHS and SSHS over to charter operators after the election. The state will be formulating rules for the handover, which could presumably occur any time after that.

When the district did their LEAD school shuffle it seemed likely that the state would at least give them some time to see how they performed. On the other hand, last spring's high school End of Course Examination (ECA) results for SSHS and NSHS (which have been kept out of the papers and off TV prior to the election) are so bad that the IDE may feel, as I do, that improvement is unlikely without intervention, at least until elementary school improvements filter up.

Of course at the end the JG laments the loss of control by our locally elected board. Hey, if it happens, it happened on their watch. And the JG has endorsed all but one incumbent for reelection for the "progress" they district's made, like making AYP when the tests got easier. How much more evidence of the impotence of our board do we need to see?.

By the way, "Waiting for Superman" is playing at the RAVE. If it doesn't shake you up, go ahead and vote for the incumbents.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Link to High School ECA Test scores

At Monday's board meeting Wendy said they needed to "vet" the scores for the individual schools before making a public release. They are in fact already public in an EXCEL spreadsheet on the IDE web site given below:

Then click on the link above the summary table "Statewide ECA 2009-10 Summary"

Maybe after the election so incumbent board members don't have to explain them before that.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


So where are the endorsements and campaign contributions from the teachers' union this year? So far we haven't seen anything - no candidate interviews, no announcements, nothing. As those who primped and preened for their union money in the past have found out, the biggest obstacle to improving our schools, next to the demographics, is the teachers' union. If they were really expecting to make a difference in student achievement, they've since found that FWEA was not going to cooperate.

The union knows neither the current board nor the candidates most likely to be elected to the next board are going to pubicly talk about the situation in the classrooms. The teachers themselves won't even do that. The local board has no other stick over the teacher's union. The contract is set up so that it continues as is even if the board votes against it. The union is not willing to sacrifice to save the jobs of younger teachers in the face of budget cuts, nor are they willing to be flexible in reassignments to help in the struggling schools. The only thing that has motivated them to accept the "LEAD" school redesign so far is the threat of a state takeover and loss of Title I money. They don't want to hear about evaluations or pay based on student performance. And they won't cooperated in extending the "LEAD" concept to other schools. In other words the union is not "about the kids".

Our Democratic school board, even if they really want to do the right thing, will be stymied by the union whose money bought the support of our Democratic politicians. So the only hope for change will have to come from Indianapolis. It's possible that a Republican House and Senate would repeal the law that gave Indiana teachers the right to unionize. That would at least give give our board some degree of local control over the fate of our district. But for our Democratic board to actually support such an outcome is inconceivable.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

FWCS high schools achieve record decrease in scores

The Indiana Department of Education finally released the results of the End of Course Assessments (ECA's) given in the high schools last spring. These replaced the Graduation Qualifying Exams (GQE's) formerly given in Grade 10 in the Fall, as all testing including the 3-8 ISTEP+ was moved to spring. The FWCS results showed an 8% decrease in Algebra scores and a 5% decrease in English scores compared to the 2008 GQE's.

What the scores really mean, however, is only that the tests got harder. The statewide scores also decreased by about 5% in each category, so relative to the state FWCS can claim they stayed about even. I saw the algebra ECA last year and it was more rigorous than the GQE.

The problem is that when the ISTEP+ scores came out last spring FWCS claimed a record improvement in passing rates, even though their scores increased by the same amount as the state overall. In other words their improvement in the ISTEP+ was due to an easier test, like their decrease in the ECA was due to a more difficult test. That also means they made AYP because the ISTEP+ got easier, not because the kids got smarter or everybody worked harder.

The algebra passing rates at the "LEAD" high schools - 20% at Wayne, 19% at SSHS, 32% at NSHS - are pathetic. These are on a test taken right after completing the course. But that will make it easier to improve next year, right?

I'm looking forward to the explanations at the press conference and the JG editorial page.

Friday, October 22, 2010

LEAD school process can't be undone, Leo

News Sentinel editor Leo Morris has urged everyone to vote in the upcoming election. He's especially concerned about the school board since he thinks a new board might undo the changes the district made under the LEAD school process. But that's not an option. The process for every school is spelled out in a lengthy agreement between the Indiana Department of Education and FWCS. In effect it's a contract that would result in a state takeover if the terms are not met. The documents are available on the IDE web site if you want to slog through them. Maybe Mr. Morris got his false information from a lawyer, probably the same one who told him he had to stay on the board to make sure Wendy would succeed.

I slogged through the agreement for Wayne High School which analyzes the causes for their failure and prescribes all the corrective actions to be taken. Unfortunately it says NOTHING about the fact that more than half the students coming into Wayne are unprepared for high school, having been socially promoted through middle school. That's something else that won't be undone until the elementary and middle schools feeding Wayne get fixed, which will take a decade under the best of circumstances. That's fine as long as they're honest about it, which they're not. Which means Mr. Morris' lawyer will have something to keep him busy for a while.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

JG prints great school reform article - REALLY!

Today's Perspective section of the JG featured a "manifesto" for change written for the Washington Post by the chancellors and superintendents of some of the nations largest public school systems. One of them is Eugene White, Superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, who came from FWCS (how did we let him get away?).

Their biggest emphasis is on the importance of teacher quality and the obstacles that teachers unions place in the way of hiring, evaluating, retaining and rewarding the very best teachers for our public schools. They point out that no business, including the ones I worked in for thirty years could survive without the ability to make personnel decisions based on performance, a practice which is adamantly opposed by teachers' unions.

They call for having the courage to close or restructure low performing schools and to accept viable charter schools as an alternative to provide competition to government run public schools. In the case of FWCS that would mean having the courage to act without the threat of a state takeover and without the restraints of teacher seniority and the honesty to point out that "improvements" in test scores have to be relative to their competition. It would mean worrying about their own problems instead of fighting to keep charter schools out of the city.

It's all about how we stack up against the competition - locally, nationally and internationally. We must realize, no matter what school district we live in, that this country can't fix it's broader economic problems and economic inequities without facing up to the education gap within the US.

So, Tracy, thanks for publishing the article. The only thing better would have been if the JG had written it - like maybe about eight years ago. Maybe next time.

Monday, October 11, 2010

FWCS makes AYP - "Mission Accomplished"

In a competetive world what matters is how you compare to the next guy. For FWCS the comparisons are made against the state as a whole and against other competing districts in the county. So where do they stand now? After the spring ISTEP scores were released for grades 3-8 the District claimed a 6 point increase as a major victory. (I still haven't see the End of Course results for the high schools, so how they're being judged is a mystery). Then it turned out that the state average increased by about the same amount, so there was no real gain relative to the competition.

Passing rates are the main factor in determining AYP. True, the district has to meet the requirements in way more categories than most other districts. But since passing rates in the rest of the states increased by the same amount as ours, it looks like every other district in the state will also make AYP. So relative to the competition FWCS is in the same situation it was before. Well behind.

The test difficulty probably decreased this year after increasing last year when the tests were moved to spring. (Remember those kids who were crying and giving up last year because the test was just too hard?) It's like running the 100 meter dash with a 20 kph tailwind. Everybody runs a better time but the order of finish is the same. Like a tailwind, test difficulty and cut scores are always subject to variability so what counts is the space between the runners at the finish line. If the trailing runners are able to narrow the gap over time they will eventually be competetive and able to win.

As a measure of where the average student in FWCS stands with respect to one in SAC, AYP is totally irrelevant.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

JG posts answers to candidate questionnaires

Surprisingly, the JG is publishing the answers to all the questions asked of this fall's candidates verbatim. Overall I thought candidates for school board did a pretty good job representing their views. Not surprisingly the (like minded) incumbents had similar viewpoints. The two questions which I think need further elaboration concern school choice and improved achievement at the "LEAD" schools.

Giving parents a choice of schools outside their normal attendance area doesn't seem to bother anyone as long as schools have room. I think it weakens neighborhood schools but it's also possible some of these "neighborhood" schools wouldn't be viable without the kids who are bused there. I think that "choice" was just part of the original program resulting from the 1989 settlement of the lawsuit to narrow the minority achievment gap. That gap has not been reduced at all but the "choice" program has persisted.

The district hired extra teachers to improve minority achievement, using money (more than $100m over the years) diverted from the capital fund. That money would otherwise have gone into building upgrades and maintenance, which the district claimed needed to be made up by the $500m bond issue. A gross overstatement, only partly true. Where are those extra teachers, what are they teaching and what difference have they made? The other, probably bigger expense is the cost of "choice" busing contained in the $27m annual transportation fund. How much is being spent for busing kids to schools outside their normal attendance area? I'm guessing $10m a year but whatever it is, is it right to ask the taxpayers to pay for it?

The incumbent board members who are running all think that the balanced scorecard and shuffling of teachers and administrators as a result of failing to meet the requirements of PL221 are going to fix the achievement gap. They also believe the increased passing rate on the 2010 spring test was real. I couldn't disagree more on either point. The die is cast for these kids by the end of the third grade. The performance of the middle schools and the high schools depend almost entirely on having kids prepared coming out of elementary school. Until that happens NO REAL GAINS RELATIVE to the REST of the STATE will be realized. The biggest push first has to be in the elementary schools and it will take years for that to filter up through the higher grades. What happens to the "LEAD" middle and high schools in the meanwhile is anyone's guess, especially if Tony Bennett is gaming the tests. But after a decade of denial and procrastination, we shouldn't have much sympathy for the district if any of them are taken over by the state.