Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Read-Comment Cycle & School Finance

Steve Norton of Michigan Parents for Schools has done a sort of "meta-analysis" (a.k.a. "take a step back and describe what you see") of the comments on education stories found on local news sites and blogs. I often find that I have trouble reading the comments, and then every now and then someone like Steve Norton (no, he's not the only one) will have a really thoughtful comment. I would like to encourage you to read this entire post.

Here's a part I really liked:
And while we are on the theme of choice, let’s tackle a related strand of thought. In these difficult times, many citizens express anger about attempts to protect our schools from cuts. They say, in effect, “I’ve had to take big cuts and the schools should have to also.” It is a very emotionally compelling argument, but it does not stand up to close scrutiny. If your family’s income falls 20%, say, do you cut all your expenditures equally by 20%? Twenty percent from the entertainment budget, 20% from the food budget, 20% from the medicine budget, and so on? No family I know does this. Instead, we prioritize: we cut back on the things we can do without in order to make sure we protect the things most important to us – the well-being of our family.
Norton then goes on to tackle what he calls "planted assumptions."  Planted assumptions are
arguments that aren’t really arguments. People who use this method simply assume certain things are true on their way to making a separate argument. These planted assumptions come in a wide variety of flavors... [for example] If school officials can’t live within their budget, we should find new ones who can. (Assumes that the budget problems are the fault of school leaders.)
One point where I think I disagree with him--
Our schools haven’t even tried to fix X by doing Y. (Assumes that just because someone does not know the details of a district’s efforts to solve some problem, those efforts must therefore not exist. Schools have been singularly ineffective at communicating what it is they do, largely because educators are trained to do it rather than talk about it.) (Emphasis added.)
 I do agree that this is a planted assumption. I don't believe, however, that schools have been ineffective at communicating because educators are trained to educate rather than talk about educating. First--it's not teachers, it's administrators, who are responsible for communication. I believe that schools have been ineffective at communicating because (choose any or all of these):
a) Administrators don't really want to share the decision-making with the public--they would rather operate privately. Who has the locus of control?
b) Administrators haven't asked people what the public wants to know, and when they are told they often don't take time to listen, so the administrators consistently communicate the wrong information.
c) Administrators think the information is too complicated to explain to many people.
d) Administrators don't want to take the time.
e) Administrators and school boards haven't made changes they should have made years ago, so when questions (inevitably) get asked, they are put on the hot seat.
f) Administrators don't know what to tell people without blaming someone else, even if the blame truly belongs elsewhere. [This is ticklish, even though sometimes the blame clearly belongs on someone else--for instance, it is no school administrator's fault that the state budget wasn't set until well into the school year.]
f) Administrators are defensive.

Bottom line: Good administrators DO communicate. So let's not give those who don't a pass.

None of this takes away from Steve Norton's main point, which is:
We as a community need to be honest about our expectations for our schools, and then we need to be honest about what resources are required to provide the services we expect rather than engage in wishful thinking.
Bottom line: (This is me editorializing here) Education is expensive. Human services are expensive. Anything where people require time and attention is going to be expensive. But aren't our kids worth it?


  1. Thank you for the write-up, Ruth, and I'm glad that an intelligent observer such as you believes I was on the right track.

    I completely agree with your conclusion, but I acknowledge that not all of our fellow citizens would. But the first important step is to base our expectations and options on reality rather than wishful thinking or clever rhetoric.

    I agree that good administers do communicate, but communicating with the public at large is a particular skill. I have been impressed at how many long-time administrators nonetheless started as classroom teachers and climbed the administrative ladder. Most of the educators I've had the pleasure of knowing are very voluble about what they do, but their focus is internal and practical: using what they know to benefit their students, and working with colleagues to improve their practice. I think this emphasis stays with educators even as they assume top-level public positions.

    Moreover, I think the Board of Education had suffered from a similar inward focus. It was more like a non-profit board, where individuals served in order to bring skills to the organization. The board as a whole did not seem attentive to their role as elected representatives with a constituency to report back to. I think that tendency is undergoing a rapid, and most welcome, change.

    Communication is like anything else - it takes resources (not least, time). School districts that have been under budget stress for years can't be blamed for downplaying community relations efforts in order to preserve resources for teaching. But there is a long term cost for that. One of our strategic planning group's recommendations was for a concerted community relations effort. Not PR, but a real effort to engage the public and remind everyone what public schools do for our community. I think that has begun, but it will take time to change the public discourse. That's where citizen activists can help!

  2. Steve Norton does a good job beating the drum of paying attention to school's problems. For those efforts he is truly doing a service to the educational system.
    I still believe, though that education is subject to market forces, clearly and through that we must adjust.
    I have seen families lose income and have to decide between food and medicine, or mortgage and food and medicine, and generally the more pressing need wins out, as the severity of what needs to prioritize declares itself. Right now there is a scramble for resource partitioning, and everyone wants in, for their own very self involved reasons, however and whatever those reasons are and manifest themselves.
    Is education expensive? Not intrinsically,but it is labor intensive.
    Those are not the same factors.

  3. Well, perhaps it would be better phrased as "A good education is expensive." Which doesn't mean that our schools have to be gold plated, but it does mean that the quality of our schools is related to the resources we put into them.

    So there are really two key questions that underlie much of this debate: can you cut teacher pay and still get the same level of quality in education; and does education make a difference for economic prosperity?

    My answer to the first would be no. You can make anything cheaper, but there is a cost. Expecting the same level of quality and commitment from current and future employees while cutting their earnings potential substantially seems like a real stretch to me. Especially when these changes will not be temporary.

    My answer to the second would be yes. It doesn't make sense to stop investing in the things that will set the stage for recovery and prosperity. Lots of people think that everything would be great if we simply cut all business taxes. Taxes, in this line of thought, are the only really important factor in the business environment. Good schools, by this argument, are a luxury available only to communities which are already wealthy. But who will move to a community when the schools are poor or constantly under threat? Will an employer invest in a community where schools are not adequately preparing young people for the modern economy?

    Schools are the key to economic recovery now and growth in the future. Isn't that worth sacrificing for?

  4. I don't agree that if you cut pay you get worse as a direct correlation. I give you in particular the example of Catholic schools. I went to Catholic schools when it was still nuns still taught or otherwise low paid teachers, and yet it was a good education.
    So it's the motivation of the educators that matter, and money in particular is ome good motivator.
    That being said, if you have a leaky roof over the classroom, not enough books and pencils, not enough toilet paper in the bathrooms, yes, that's pretty demoralizing. There are floors to expectations. But AAPS is not in that situation though DPS, a major school district in our state is.
    Many years ago, I worked a summer job in a factory where everyone was very well paid, and an kerfuffle erupted between some of the workers because some got paid fifty cents more than others, some kind of discrepancy occurred. I remember thinking how well paid all of them were, and what was the difference? But it did matter, and management had to resolve it. So if someone's expectation are violated, those feelings, are what is driving their demands. And feelings matter.
    So it has become a matter of expectation over outcome. Of course we want wonderful motivated staff, fully engaged and doing their best. We should do what we can to make it a good working environment for them. Right now, there's a horrendous shortage of resources, twenty million to be exact, and it might be for a while before that comes back and then some. So delivering their expectation may not happen, and yet we want, we need, for our children to thrive, for our community to thrive are good motivated engaged teachers and staff. We seem to not be able to deliver full expectation right now. And that is pretty much where we stand.
    In life, there are good times and bad times, and you have got roll with the punches and believe better days are ahead.

  5. Well, as far as comparing public school boards to nonprofits: generally the only people who donate to nonprofits are people who believe in the mission, and public schools are a result of taxing everyone. There is a belief that is for the public good. And well-run nonprofits, just like well-run schools, do a good job communicating what they are doing with their donors.
    As far as comparing public schools to Catholic schools--nuns and other members of religious orders take vows of poverty and obedience, and in return their own basic needs are taken care of. They are not trying to figure out if they can buy a house for their family of five.

  6. What I am talking about is motivation, not the particulars of the what the motivating thing is.
    When I was growing up teachers didn't get paid a lot,there's more than a few in my family, they worked a lot of second jobs, but I heard more than a few of them say how they liked their job. So they got paid enough, I guess, at that time.