Monday, June 4, 2012

High-Stakes Testing; Wisconsin; Muskegon Heights

(Update: I changed the headline to something that actually describes what is in this blog post, rather than "things you might want to read this week.")

High Stakes Testing Protests are Escalating. The Schools Matter blog has an interesting article with lots of links, including a national petition. Those of you who are interested in opting out of testing for the MEAP, NWEA, and other tests (and I have heard from several of you!) should not only read this article, but be sure to explore the links as well.

There is a fierce political battle going on in Wisconsin. Tomorrow is the day for Wisconsites to choose between the current governor, Scott Walker--who has been recalled over his anti-public worker and union-busting tactics and more--and Tom Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor. You may recall that I wrote about the Wisconsin protests when I was there over a year ago--read my blog post here. Read about the current election here courtesy of the Progressive/Isthmus partnership (two Wisconsin publications), and please--tell your Wisconsin friends to get out and vote against Walker.

The Schools Matter blog is also reporting on the reporting around the privatization scheme for Philadelphia schools. You might want to read this article and visit some of the links. I know, you're wondering--well who cares what is happening in Philadelphia. . . or New Orleans. . . or New York? Well you should, because it is all part of a national movement to take a public good--PUBLIC schools--and try and squeeze money out of them for private companies to make money.

What's more, this scenario is coming soon to a school district near you--to wit, Muskegon Heights.

Muskegon Heights is a small, urban school district that is surrounded by other cities. By all "hard" measures (graduation rates, test scores, enrollment numbers) it has been a (very) poorly-performing district for a long, long time. Most recently,  its school board requested--requested!--an emergency manager. And the emergency manager, Don Weatherspoon, came in and found: failing schools; very poor prior financial management for years and years; a boatload of debt; and enrollment that has been dropping for years. You might remember that Emergency Managers have powers that the rest of us mortals (local school boards) don't have, and he said, in essence, "We're going to close this district down and re-open it under charter school management." As far as I can tell, this is not a choice that a local school district could make if they wanted to.

He also told the school district parents that he can guarantee that there will be school in the fall, but he can't guarantee there will be any extras, like band or sports. Would you want to send your child there? You can read the Michigan Education Association press release here. Not surprisingly, the MEA is incensed. Teachers lose their jobs. Union contracts are ended. Will the company that comes in as a charter school operator be a for-profit? That remains to be seen but since the majority of charter schools are run by for-profit companies, my guess would be that it will be a for-profit. As if all of that was not outrageous enough, here is the kicker (as a taxpayer)--taken from the MEA press release:

Under the plan, the district would no longer be in the practice of educating children. However, the district would keep its projected $14.48 million debt, and the new charter company will start out debt-free and receive state aid payments.
As EM, Weatherspoon has the authority to act as the charter authorizer and appoint the board for the new charter system. He will also decide what building and materials could be offered to the charter company. He says the rest will be “put on the market and gotten rid of.”
In other words--Muskegon Heights will now have a school board that they didn't elect and cannot remove. Yet the taxpayers will still be on the hook for the debt. I believe there is no bankruptcy for school districts (if there were, that might have solved this problem a while ago), and I'm not sure how the debt gets paid off or what it means. I do know this though--Muskegon Heights fits every definition of a failing district. Nonetheless, this is not a good solution for public education.


  1. The anti-profit crusade in public education is non sense. Proponents of traditional schools throw the profit dagger at charter schools while ignoring all the parties involved with traditional schools earning a profit - teachers, administrators, vendors - much if not all of it well deserved. Profits are already being earned, traditional or charter.

    Perhaps the argument ought to be framed: "companies shouldn't earn a profit, only teachers should." This of course ignores all the vendors, including those that will reap gains for the recently passed tech bond. If a company launches a successful academic program, I'd argue they deserve a profit. This brings up two issues: 1. How much profit should they earn vs. classroom expenditures; and 2. How do we measure a successful program?

    1. The profit should be a fraction of the cost of running the classroom. Transparency ought to be increased in order to gage a profit vs. expense ratio.

    2. MEAP is not an effective method of measuring academic success. It measures proficiency. Schools/districts in disadvantaged areas may never have a majority of their students earn a proficient score on MEAP. But these same schools can show growth, and tests such as NWEA MAP measure growth. By measuring growth, we'll identify what programs work.

    The Muskegon Heights move to Charters is fascinating. It's success or failure could have a big impact on the future of Charters.


  2. dswan,

    There is a difference between "profit" and "salary."

    A for-profit company is just that -- it's bottom line reason for existing is to maximize profit. If you don't think that bottom line purpose will wreak havoc with public education, you're crazy. Educating our kids is a long-term investment that our entire society pretty much agreed was worth investing in. Short terms profits will change the course and nature of that education irrevocably.

    Not everything in the world is about profits. It is in my best interest, your best interest, society's best interest to have a well-educated youth -- ALL of them. Not just those who can afford to leave the underfunded mess that is public schools for a private school education.


  3. We have allowed teachers to earn automatic pay increases based on length of time on the job - not performance; (until recently) to avoid shouldering any burden for the increase in health benefits facing districts; and we've forced districts to layoff teachers based on date of hire. Certainly, these agreements are wreaking havoc with public education too. Will the bottom line pursuits be any worse than those listed above? - not necessarily.

    "It is in my best interest, your best interest, society's best interest to have a well-educated youth -- ALL of them" - well said. I'm optimistic that ending the monopoly that is public education will raise the bar for all - as long as we measure growth, not proficiency.


  4. dswan,
    You put way more faith in for-profit charters (with their lack of transparency, lower achievement scores, and higher percentage of money spent outside the classroom, not to mention frequent ties to large right-wing conglomerates) than I ever will.


  5. A2anon,

    It is entirely possible that in hindsight, I will one day say my faith in charters was misplaced. For now, I believe there are changes that can be made in traditional schools that can positively impact our children. Changes that will only occur if there is a challenge to the status quo. Charters are the catalyst for these changes. If executed, the need for charters will be minimized if not eliminated.

    I will say further that my faith cannot be applied to all charters and I agree that they should face the same transparency requirements as traditional school. Transparency which I hope one day includes data that measures student growth.

  6. "dswan" - I'm only now seeing this, but just in case someone is still reading, a few points:

    1) Profit is a return to invested capital. Teachers and other public school staff are not making a "profit," nor do we expect any core function of our public schools to be run by a for-profit entity. Items are purchased from outside from for-profit companies when the schools do not feel they should do it themselves: computers, textbooks, etc.

    In contrast, the vast majority (70-80%) of Michigan charter schools are managed by for-profit management companies, who typically hire most if not all the staff and often own the buildings (for which they receive rent). These companies make a profit when they are able to return earnings to their owners/investors solely as return on investment and not for other work or services performed. Since most of them are privately-held, we cannot peek into their books to see how much profit they actually make. They do not reveal the management company's profit margins in their required audit reports, because those services show up as "contracted services." The charter schools themselves must be non-profit, but often the charter school itself is nothing but its board of directors, and all other functions are performed by the management company.

    Is this a sensible use of public funds?

    2) It has become so common to describe learning and "growth" as changes in test scores that very few people even think twice about it. But exactly what do test scores measure? And do they even do it accurately? A good school may generate good test scores as a by-product, but the opposite is not true: good test scores say nothing about the quality of the overall program.

    In the end, we don't care about test scores. We care about preparing our children to be intelligent citizens and productive members of our community who are prepared to deal with change. Test scores don't capture this (see the long-term life effects from the Perry Preschool study, for example). Why do we invest so much importance on a narrow and superficial evaluation tool?

  7. Well said, Steve.
    My other question is this: Why is it that an emergency manager gets powers that a school board cannot get even when they recognize an emergency? In a typical bankruptcy case, the management is not taken over when a group declares bankruptcy. And very often the debt is essentially nullified. In the case of Muskegon Heights, if the school board could have abrogated contracts or resolved debt under an "emergency" or "bankruptcy" proceeding, maybe they would have--and maybe they would have done it earlier. And then maybe fewer people would have lost their jobs, the district would not be left as a shell with just the debt attached to the residents, and most importantly, we would still have a form of democratic governance.

  8. Ruth, I agree with you, but I'm told by legal experts that the law is on the side of the legislature on this. Technically, all units of local government are creatures of the State, and the state legislature decided what powers to delegate to local elected bodies. So, the legislature can choose to delegate more powers to an EM than to the school board he or she supplants.

    But politically, it's a paternalist argument: you all have been bad children, and now "Father" needs to come in, dispense some discipline, and put things back in order. It's rather like Proposal A and other similar measures: we know better, and so we have to save you from yourselves. (Prop A prevents local communities from taxing themselves more for school operations, even if they want to.)

    Lastly, there is some financial logic to the EM's actions, because the deck is stacked against local public districts. By transferring the students to charters, they will be completely funded by the state (charters have no local taxing authority, so there is no local contribution). That leaves Muskegon Heights' rump school district with a local millage they can use to pay down the debt. Also, since most charter school staff are employed by a management organization rather than directly by the school, they do not participate in MPSERS and the charter can avoid the 24% (soon to be 27%) of payroll they must contribute to the pension system. (They usually use 401k's, which are much cheaper.) Charters are also usually non-union and have lower pay scales, which allows them to have smaller classes - even if half their staff do turn over every two years.

    In case you haven't noticed, the only democratic governance our legislature is interested in is the one that got them elected - they have worked very hard to ensure that most of the legislation they have rammed through will be very hard to undo regardless of what future elections bring.

  9. Steve,

    Thank you for weighing in.

    For the average taxpayer looking at the top teacher salaries posted on or it's predecessor, AA News, the lines between a reasonable expense and profits get blurred. In many districts, there are core functions that have been privatized - transportation, custodians, food service; it's not limited simply to the purchase of items. Charter operators also have expenses similar to traditional schools - teachers, curriculum, books; plus a few expenses traditional schools don't have to face, sales and property taxes come to mind; so the assertion that rent is all profit seems a stretch.

    "In the end, we don't care about test scores" This is contrary to any parent that has ever considered where to buy a house. Test scores for the neighborhood school are the first thing many parents look for. "Why do we invest so much importance on a narrow evaluation tool?" Since we're investing so much in education, it's nice to know what the return is. As long as colleges are using ACT scores for admission and entry into many fields requires passing tests, why not prepare kids for assessments?

    In my conversations, I've found that parents DO care about test scores while the do NOT care about profit vs. non-profit. Identifying a program that works for his/her child is the goal and getting access to that program is crucial. The Great Profit debate takes a back seat to finding what works. Looking at the wait lists for alternatives such as Community, AA Open, or NHA charter schools; there are many families who feel their needs are not being met in the traditional setting. So, rather that debate about profits, why not debate the programs and use the data from growth measurements to identify what's working?

    Muskegon Heights and now Highland Park are considering a move to charters, both will be interesting cases to follow. I'm all for extending EM powers to school boards, especially those that allow the ability to rewrite contracts.


  10. D. Swan--

    Sure, people look at test scores, but if they didn't exist they would look at other, more important things. When my parents looked for a house 40+ years ago, did they look for a house in a good school district? You bet. Did they assess the school district based on test scores? No. They didn't exist. They looked at graduation rates, the types of classes that were offered, what people in the district had to say about it, what the funding for the schools was like. . . And I think they were able to do a good job identifying a good school district. I don't think that test scores would allow them to do a better job. Test scores are mostly correlated with the wealth and education of the surrounding community.

  11. Ruth,

    You were fortunate to have such thorough parents. In today's world, I'm not sure a majority of parents would consider all of the data points you mentioned - maybe if they were readily available in one location.

    I agree, our current test scores, based on a percentage of students scoring proficient or above is a measure of wealth. However, a growth measure would be valuable even in districts overcome with poverty as it would reflect which programs are breaking through the ceiling. There are schools in Detroit that now offer free breakfast and lunch to all students - it would be nice to know if doing so affects growth positively. And if yes, perhaps it would be easier to expand the program to other schools with the data in hand. I think I'm beginning to sound like a broken record in my position on growth measurements in testing, so I'll leave it at that.