Monday, April 30, 2012

The State's Teacher Evaluation Plans

A few months ago, the state legislature decreed that there should be a statewide teacher evaluation system. They asked Deborah Ball, Dean of the UM School of Education, to head a committee with a proposal for how to evaluate teachers.

And now the committee has come up with a proposal. According to the April 27th, 2012 Detroit Free Press,
A council tasked with developing an evaluation system for Michigan educators is recommending the state start with a pilot program that will be tested in 12 school districts during the 2012-13 school year.
The Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness issued an interim report late today, with a recommendation the state spend $6 million for the pilot.
Some Republican lawmakers had hoped to have a full system in place statewide within the next year.
But the council has concluded a pilot is imperative, saying rushing to develop a system "would be reckless, both fiscally and technically."
Reading this, I had much more confidence in the committee. Yes, a pilot. In fact, several pilots. They would test different models for using student assessments to assess teachers, and different models for teacher observation.

It sounds pretty good to me. It appears that the committee, at least, is really interested in improving teaching.

I'll bet that much of the legislature won't like it. Why do a pilot and test your ideas when you could jump both feet first into an unproven plan? And if I'm right, that they don't like it? That will just prove that they're not interested in teacher evaluation or in improving teaching. That will prove they're just interested in union busting.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

"You showed me my first wildflower"

Bill Browning in action
At tonight's AAPS board meeting, Dave Szczygiel and Nancy Stone presented an award and thank you to Bill Browning. For many years Bill was the Ann Arbor Public Schools environmental education coordinator. He also was a member of the school board for several years. Dave is the current environmental education coordinator and Nancy Stone works for the City of Ann Arbor, but her background is also in environmental education.

Most recently, Bill Browning made a $30,000 donation to the environmental education endowment fund. The environmental education endowment fund helps support the field trips that our kids love and learn so much from. I thought it was worth saying that you, too, can make a donation to the environmental education endowment fund. They take my (not very large, but devoted) donation every year. Find out more information about the AAPS Science and Environmental Education Endowment Fund. It is easy to make a donation.

Dave Szczygiel gave Bill Browning a puddingstone, and Bill gave an explanation of puddingstones to the Board of Education. Bill also thanked "those who had gone before him." Perhaps he was talking about Bill Stapp, the founder of the district's environmental education program and a huge leader in national environmental education.

Bill Stapp
He made particular mention of people taking students up north in a "stake truck" to an AAPS-owned property. I think he might have been talking about trips that Tappan ran every year for many years. I only know about them because there is a very cool book in the Ann Arbor District Library--a history of Tappan School--and a description of the trips is in there.

My favorite thank you came from trustee Susan Baskett.  (I am slightly paraphrasing here, despite the quote marks.) "I remember those trips very well. I am a master gardener now, but you showed me my first wildflower. Trillium. Marsh marigold. And mayapple. For a little city girl, that was a big deal."

Thank you, Bill Browning!
Thank you also to Dave Szczygiel and Nancy Stone for their hard work on behalf of this program.

Read more! Here is a history of environmental education in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Title IX at 40!

I have written fairly extensively about Title IX and women's athletics, so I was very excited to see this come into my email inbox:

The Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy (SHARP) Center for Women and Girls is hosting the premier national conference commemorating the 40th birthday of Title IX, May 9-May 11 in Ann Arbor.  Renowned athletes, policymakers and researchers are presenting at Title IX at 40. The goal of Title IX at 40 to take stock of the progress that has been made since Title IX and determine what gaps still exist as well as how to close them. The SHARP Center is a new strategic partnership between the University of Michigan (UM) and the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF: a non-profit started by Billie Jean King in 1974 to advance sport and physical activity for women and girls). Our mission is to advance research and policymaking to enhance the lives of women and girls through sport, play, and movement.
You can review the program at (There is a minimal conference fee.) There will be famous speakers, like Laila Ali (boxing champion), Donna de Varona (Olympic Swimmer) but also interesting sessions reviewing the progress Title IX has made and to identify key priorities for the future. People can also get CEUs for attending the conference.

Policy Perspective: Share the Data

A2Politico (Pat Lesko's blog) has an article up, AAPS Documents Reveal Middle and High School Classes Have 40+ Students. (Right now it's not behind a paywall, but it probably will be soon.)

Lesko writes,   "[AAPS] Class size targets for 2011 were 23-25 students in grades K-2, 26-30 students in grades 3-5, and an average of 30 students in grades 6-12."

I don't think it's a surprise to anybody with students in the district that some of the classes are smaller, and some of them are larger, than the targets. A few years ago, my son (who was at Community at the time) had a physics class with 38 or 39 kids--and my main concern was that there weren't quite enough seats in the room. On the other hand, my kids have also had classes that were much, much smaller. That's how it is with averages--some classes are bigger, some are smaller. I understand the idea of a class size "target" to be an average. After all, if your average goal for a Spanish class is 30 students, at what point do you decide this class should be split in two? When you enroll 34 kids? 38 kids?

I don't want to downplay anybody's concerns with large class sizes. For instance, Lesko highlights the size of the Clague band classes. Indeed, at a recent all-city band event (I can't remember what it was called--Battle of the Bands?) I was astonished at the size of the Clague band compared to the other middle school bands. Where the other middle schools that day had an "Advanced" (grade 7/8) Band, Clague had a Grade 8 band. Yet it was still larger than the other schools' Advanced Bands. So should class sizes for those bands be examined? Probably.

And yet, of far greater to concern for me was the lengths to which Lesko had to go to learn the details about class sizes in the district. It's obvious that individual class sizes are something the district has to track. Class sizes are regulated by the teacher contract. And yet at first, Lesko was told that the district didn't have these numbers. It was only after she FOIA'd emails between administrators about parent complaints regarding class size, that she got proof that the district did have these numbers and forced the district to release them.

That, in my opinion, is the real story. Everybody is aware that class sizes have increased, and if we can't shake more money out of Lansing, or end Proposal A, that is not likely to change. On the other hand, can we expect that the district should share this information? Yes.

One more thing: Many states have laws limiting class sizes for general education classrooms. Michigan is not one of them. But I have heard from someone who wants to make class size limits the law in Michigan as well. What do you think?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Budget Tales (of Woe)

It's not the most scintillating reading, but as Christine Stead notes, Michigan's Children has a decent overview of the budget proposals for education coming from the governor, the state House, and the Senate. None of it is good news. The only "slightly good" news is that the school districts are likely to know the final details before the school fiscal years begin, rather than after they start (which was the pattern for many years).

Find the Michigan Children's summary here. Christine says, "You may have to get past a pop-up blocker, but it is worth downloading the file for a good comparison."

Christine also notes two other things. The first is applicable to all public schools:
  • Funds from the lottery are being proposed to fund improvements to roads and infrastructure.  Recall that this was part of the ‘deal’ in moving to Proposal A; that these funds would support the SAF.  There could be more reductions yet to come in K12 education when we see a final state budget in May.
THAT is clearly not good news, and it also infuriates me.

The other is applicable only to Ann Arbor:
  • In AAPS, there were incremental expenses of $1.2 M that need to be added to our target general operating budget reductions; we are now looking at reductions of $17.8 M for next year.
Holy Smokes! And that is even with the "found" Medicaid money included. I wonder if that has been true most years--that we ended up spending more than budgeted? I believe it was true last year as well. The purported savings--from the transportation consolidation, for example--end up not yielding as much, or any, savings; while the expenses continue, or increase.

Meanwhile, Michigan Parents for Schools has a nice analysis of the Governor's budget proposal--when Steve Norton adds the legislative analyses I will update this post. Steve has some good links in here, but perhaps the most salient point is that the Governor purports to be providing modest increases, when in fact he is proposing reductions. (Of course the reason for that is somewhat complicated, so do read the article.)

There is a big piece of the budget puzzle that is retirement-related, so you might be interested in this Detroit Free Press editorial which discusses retirement. The bulk of the article is spent describing the problem of why retirement costs have gone up so much, and there is a nice graph that captures the essence of the problem. The key points are that:

1. After 1994's Proposal A, retirement funding was shifted to the districts, and was no longer paid for with a state appropriation.
2. Retiree costs rising while foundation grants stay flat or decline.
3. Charter schools that don't participate in the retirement program, and school districts outsourcing employees in food service and transportation (for instance), and/or laying off teachers and other staff, mean there is a smaller "base" to draw on for funding.

In sum:

These are budget tales of woe
They are clearly things
We've got to know!

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Choosing, Looping, and Making of Teachers

My friend's daughter co-writes a blog about Jewish texts. (You can find it here.) In a recent post, Maya writes:
Our learning for this week was focused around the teaching from Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers, a collection of ethics and advice]: “aseh lecha rav, u’kneh lecha chaver, v’hevey dan et kol ha’adam l’chaf zchut. Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person with the scales tipped in his favor.”
When we learned this text over the summer, one of its aspects that I particularly liked was the use of the verb aseh (make) rather than kneh (acquire) in reference to finding teachers. A teacher, implies the text, is not discovered but cultivated. More so, anyone can be made into a teacher, as it is a process of relationship building rather than a swift act of obtaining. Avot d’Rabbi Natan [A commentary on Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers] reads this text a bit more literally. “Melamed she’ya’aseh lo rav kavua. This teaches us that a person should have a fixed teacher.” From this teacher, a student should learn [many different Jewish texts] Torah, Mishna, midrash, halachah, and aggadah. In this way, if a teacher forgets a detail when teaching Torah, for example, this detail will still ultimately be imparted to the student when the teacher teaches Mishna.
I know very few people who have a rav kavua, a fixed teacher. In my personal experience, I have not only had different teachers for Tanach, Mishnah, and the rest of my Jewish learning, but I also have a whole other set of teachers from whom I have learned English literature, calculus, physics, and history. . . . In speaking about students like me, Avot d’Rabbi Natan asserts that “nimtza adam ha’hu…b’lo tov u’vracha. A man like this will be found…to have neither goodness nor blessing.” Great…

I thought this was very thought-provoking because, in fact, in our public schools not only do we generally take the approach that it's best to have subject-specific teachers, but also, we don't even generally tell students who will be teaching their classes. I've always imagined this was because schools were afraid to share that information because people would "vote with their feet." One of the very popular aspects of Community High School in Ann Arbor is that students generally do know who will be teaching a class you might choose to take. Yet in college, many students are persuaded to take a class in a subject they didn't think they would be interested in [be it political science, philosophy, or physics] because of the caliber of the professor.

At the elementary school level, if you (and here I am referring, generally, to parents) have any choice at all, you are generally asked to "describe the characteristics you want" rather than the teacher you want. And even if you do have some control over who you get as a teacher, you will probably not have that teacher for year after year.

One exception would be the Rudolph Steiner schools, where the idea is that you "loop" with the teacher, so the teacher moves up the grades with the student. Even in the Steiner schools, though, I don't think you get to "choose" your teachers.

As an aside, when I student taught, I taught in a middle school classroom where the students looped for seventh and eighth grade. At the beginning of the year, I was astonished by how quickly the eighth grade students--who knew the teacher from the year before--settled into a comfortable routine.

Obviously there are some down sides to looping as well--if you have a weak teacher, or a teacher who is weak in one area, that could lead to problems down the road.

There are a few aspects of the text Maya discusses that I found interesting:
1. The idea that you can, and should, choose your teacher.
2. The idea that the teacher can, and should, teach multiple subjects. [Later on in the post, Maya points out that this would allow teachers to make connections between subjects.]
3. And last, but not least, the idea that you can, and should, "make" your teacher, and not just "acquire" your teacher. That, of course, implies that the teacher is also learning from the student.

So--that is food for thought. Have you had experiences where you got to choose your teacher? Where you stuck with a teacher for several years? Where you "made" your teacher? How did it work out for you?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

This Week: Lots Going On!

The 99% Spring: April 9-15th

Bob King--president of the UAW--has a really nice opinion piece in the Detroit News: You Only Get What You Are Willing to Accept.  He is writing about the importance of funding and supporting education. He starts out with this:

We must not be willing to accept relentless and unconscionable cuts in funding for K-12 education. For our children, these budget cuts have resulted in crumbling schools, skyrocketing class sizes and teachers being denied the support they need to do their best.

I've been thinking lately about why it is that in Wisconsin, when the Governor moved against unions and teachers, the teachers were a key part of the resistance; and here, I don't see that happening as much. But maybe that is about to change.

Bob King invites us all "to train ourselves in non-violent action and join together in the work of reclaiming our country."

The web site says,
We will organize trainings to:
  1. Tell the story of our economy: how we got here, who’s responsible, what a different future could look like, and what we can do about it
  2. Learn the history of non-violent direct action, and
  3. Get into action on our own campaigns to win change.
 Get more details about April 9-15 at

Interesting Movie This Week

August to June: Bringing Life to School

Ann Arbor Open Auditorium
6:45 p.m., Thursday, April 12
AUGUST TO JUNE is an 88 minute documentary celebrating values we are on the brink of losing in the single-minded pursuit of higher test scores!
Come inside a public school happily and purposefully going against current trends and join 26 8-10 year olds, their teacher, and their parents for a year bursting with opportunities for curiosity, creativity and compassion. 

The teacher who is part of the film will be at this screening!

See the trailer here

Also, the Ann Arbor Open Conference is this coming weekend, April 13-14. 

The theme: Occupy Open Classroom. Find out more here.


Teacher Retirement being discussed by the legislature.

What is most interesting about this is that it is happening during a holiday session break. If they wanted this to be a public process, they would wait until they were in session. . . 

The Retirement Appropriations Sub-Committee is holding a hearing at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Wednesday April 11 in the Boji Tower, 124 West Allegan St. in Lansing on Senate Bill 1040 that will reform the school employee retirement system (MSPERS). It’s unusual that a committee hearing is scheduled during a holiday session break, but this is apparently on the fast track.