Sunday, December 29, 2013

Contemplating Donating to Schools, and My Other 2013 Ann Arbor Chronicle Posts

I started writing for the Ann Arbor Chronicle, an important local online news source, earlier this year, in a column that appears approximately every other month.

Today I have another column in the Ann Arbor Chronicle. This one is about donating to public schools, and advocating for the public schools, as we close this year out and start another year.

Here's how I start out:

Ruth Kraut, Ann Arbor Public Schools, The Ann Arbor ChronicleIf you’re like me, then every January you think to yourself, “This year, I’m going to spread out my charitable giving over the course of twelve months. It would be so much better for my cash flow, and probably it would be better for the nonprofits as well.”
And then, come November and December, I realize that once again, I failed to spread out my giving – and I had better pull out my checkbook. Writing the bulk of these checks at the end of the year has a benefit, in that it allows me to look at all of my donations at once. But it also means that I’m in a rush and I don’t always take the time to reflect. So this is my opportunity.
Like many of you, we make donations to local, national, and international groups that focus on a wide range of issues. For us, those organizations do work related to health, the environment, politics, women’s issues, Jewish groups, social action, human services, and more.
Although I do give to some groups that, loosely speaking, fit the category of “education,” those entities do not make up a significant proportion of our donations. I confess to a certain ambivalence to giving to such groups – because, in many ways, I’m already a big contributor to public education. And it’s likely that you are, too.
Read the rest here.

If you are interested in the other articles I wrote for the Chronicle in 2013, here they are.

Taking a Long Look at Redistricting (November 9, 2013)

The Case for Free Public Schools (August 9, 2013)

Disparate Impact of AAPS Cuts? (June 7, 2013)

Consider subscribing to Ann Arbor Schools Musings by Email!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Top Ann Arbor Schools Musings Posts of 2013

Starting with the most popular post from 2013, and working my way down the list...

1. Who is the Broad Foundation and Why Do We in Ann Arbor Care? (May 6, 2013)

In which I explain the association between then-superintendent Pat Green and the Broad Foundation.

2. The (financial) costs of (NWEA) testing in Ann Arbor (Sept. 22, 2013)

In which I discuss the hard costs, and soft costs, of NWEA testing--to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Plus there are a lot of great links to other information about the NWEA test.

3. Principal Principles, Perspectives, and Publicity (Nov. 24, 2013)

Sulura Jackson at Skyline High School graduation.
Photo from

Why did Cindy Leaman leave Pioneer High School for the new Ann Arbor Virtual Academy? Did Sulura Jackson, former principal of Skyline High School, plagiarize?

4. Superintendent Background Research: Richard Faidley (July 9, 2013)

I think this was the first profile I did for superintendent background research during the recent hiring of the AAPS Superintendent. Richard Faidley didn't make it to the next round.

5. State Board of Ed Roadshow Gives (A Lot of) Food for Thought (March 12, 2013)

Julie Roth wrote an excellent guest column for me using the perspective of a "non-teacher, non-educator, non-union Parent Stakeholder."

6. Ypsilanti Community Schools: Meditations on Employment (June 10, 2013)

Willow Run Flyers logo (old)
Ypsilanti High School Phoenix logo (old)
In 2013, we said goodbye to Ypsilanti and Willow Run school districts, and hello to the consolidated Ypsilanti Community Schools. The Ypsilanti and Willow Run consolidation of schools led to the loss of some staff positions, the loss of some staff compensation, and the loss of both the Ypsilanti and Willow Run teachers' unions. Plus I tell a fun family story.

7. AAPS Superintendent Pat Green Resigns. What Do You Think Of That? (April 11, 2013)

When AAPS Superintendent Pat Green resigned, I did a survey. The links to the results are in this post.

8. Finalist for Superintendent Background Research: Brian Osborne (July 9, 2013)

Brian Osborne was offered the AAPS Superintendent position. He didn't take it, and we got runner-up Jeanice Swift. So far, she appears to have embraced the position.

9. Funny Common Core Video Raises Serious Questions (June 8, 2013)

I like this video so much (and I need some pictures in this post) that I'm putting it right in here!

10. Are You Following the NWEA MAP Controversy In Seattle? (Feb. 6, 2013)

In Seattle, teachers refused to administer the NWEA MAP test. Read more recent updates at the Scrap the Map web site.

Consider subscribing to Ann Arbor Schools Musings by Email!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Student Advocacy Center: Solutions, Not Suspensions Campaign

The Student Advocacy Center in Ann Arbor is part of a Solutions, Not Suspensions Campaign. This is part of a national movement to reduce suspensions in schools and promote positive behavioral interventions.

Here are a few facts from the campaign:

Michigan ranks 5th in the country for highest rates of student suspensions, with students of color, students with disabilities, and students in foster care being suspended at significantly higher rates. 
Every dropout costs society an estimated $250,000 over the student’s lifetime in lost income. Research shows that students who are expelled are more likely to drop out of school and/or get arrested.  
Michigan law does not currently require schools to work to reduce suspensions and expulsions and informal guidance by the State Board of Education, while a step in the right direction, has been largely ignored.

Here is the current list of organizational endorsers. (There are also individual endorsers. You can be one of them!) The Student Advocacy Center recently approached the Ypsilanti Community Schools with an informational letter, asking them to be the first school district to sign on to this pledge. That would be timely, too, considering that the YCS school board recently voted on some expulsions, including an expulsion of an elementary school child!  (I believe they were all mandatory, but I'm not positive about that. Did you know that students who are suspended are twice as likely to drop out? Or that black students are are 2-1/2 times more likely to be suspended than white students, according to the U.S. Department of Education?)

  1. ACLU of Michigan 
  2. Ann Arbor Concerned Citizens for Justice
  3. Association for Children's Mental Health 
  4. Better Detroit Youth Movement 
  5. Cherish Our Youth
  6. Citizens for Prison Reform 
  7. Education Trust – Midwest 
  8. Greater Works Youth Empowerment 
  9. Harriet Tubman Center 
  10. Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice
  11. Keeping Them Alive 
  12. Matrix Human Services
  13. Michigan Alliance for Families 
  14. Michigan's Children
  15. Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency
  16. Michigan County Social Services Association
  17. Michigan League for Public Policy 
  18. Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service, Inc. 
  19. National Association of Social Workers - Michigan Chapter
  21. Sower Center for Successful Schools 
  22. Student Advocacy Center of Michigan 
  23. The Arc of Michigan
  24. Youth Voice 

You can sign the pledge, or work to get your school district to sign on to this.

Consider subscribing to Ann Arbor Schools Musings by Email!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Housekeeping Notes--But They Are Really Interesting, I Promise

How Can You Follow This Blog? Let Me Count the Ways

My friend asks me, "How do I know when you've posted?"

Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow
follow, follow, follow, follow

Seriously, there are many ways that you can find out when I've posted.

1. Visit here--a lot! (I usually post 2-4 times/week, but not on a schedule. So you have to check back to find out. Some people think that is a pain. Therefore, there are some easier (painless :)) ways to follow me.

2. Subscribe to the blog by email. I have now made this very easy by setting up a link that shows up at the bottom of every new blog post. [Thanks to Jenna Bacolor of the Ann Arbor Schools Rec & Ed blog--when she did it on her blog I realized there must be a way for me to do it too. And there is!] So just scroll to the bottom of this post, click on the link, and put in your email.

3. Follow me on twitter. My "handle" is @schoolsmuse, and can be found at I now (finally) have the blog set up to auto-post to twitter so every post gets tweeted. Just be warned though, that although I don't use twitter every day, I use it a few times a week, and I re-tweet things that catch my eye. Some of those things are about education, but I also will retweet local events, public health news, environmental news, news from the Middle East, and other things that catch my interest. 

4. Join the Ann Arbor Schools Musings Facebook group, which I started to have some more informal discussions--and allow people to post things that interest them about local education as well. You can find the group here: 

I usually--but not always--put my posts up there. Sometimes I forget, and sometimes it just seems like too much self-promotion.

5. Follow me on an RSS feed. That is a way of looking at a lot of blogs, or web pages, all at once. I used to use Google Reader, but Google closed that down, and I now follow myself--and many other blogs--on There's a link to feedly on the right hand side of the blog. I think it will work, also, to click the links with the orange rainbow on the top right-hand side of my blog. There are other options too: Newsblur, Inoreader, Digg... Readers, feel free to make suggestions about these in the comments.

Commenting Guidelines

1. I love comments. Really, I do. Please comment. On the one hand, I dream of having a comments section that is as robust as Mark Maynard or Dov Bear. On the other hand, I think they have more tolerance for rudeness and snarkiness than I do. (Is that a guy blogger thing?) So having said that, I think my commenting guidelines are very modest, but it's worth mentioning them.

Comments policy: All are welcome to comment, but please be respectful, and assume that everyone wants the best for the schools.

2. Also, I don't mind anonymous comments. Really. I was an anonymous blogger for a while so it would be a little hypocritical to say no to anonymous comments. But the other day, looking at this post (which got 19 comments! maybe a personal record!), my husband said to me, "The same person had all those different opinions?" He was confused. I explained to him that "anonymous" was actually several different anonymi (is that a word?).  If you comment occasionally, even if you log in as anonymous, consider typing a name that you will use consistently every time you comment here. You can put it in the text, as does--for instance--someone who posts as Ypsi Anon. That way, I can (and readers can) separate out multiple opinions.


People are really enthusiastic about this blog, and I really do appreciate that. But I would love some help, in two ways.

1. Want to guest blog about something you know about and are passionate about? I would love informants from local schools and different districts (Ypsilanti, in particular). I would love to have some one write regularly, or occasionally, about their experiences with special education services. I would love to have a teacher or two write about how Common Core and other new legislation is affecting them. Those are just a few ideas. No fortune from this, and not much fame either--but you'll get the thanks of a lot of people in the community who are hungering for more news about local schools and education. [And my thanks to Ypsi Anon, Julie Roth, and Steve Norton who have each stepped up and written things for me over the past year or so.] If you are at all interested, send me an email to rlk234 [at]

2. Don't want to write, but like doing research? One of my most-visited posts, on the Broad Foundation, was easy for me to write because Sharon Simonton had done most of the research for me. I have lots of ideas for things to research that I don't have time to do.

Some of the things I'm interested in:
--local schools history--there is a lot of it, and some of it is very relevant to today!
--Title IX--how are local schools doing with compliance?
--teacher work conditions, union bustings
--effects of testing
--race and class disparities
--language learning
--charter schools--funding, who is going there, work conditions...
--online learning--
--legislative intrigue
and more

If YOU are interested in researching something and have a specific idea, let me know and I'll tell you if I think I might be interested. If you like research but don't have any ideas, I have more than enough for both of us.

See? Housekeeping. Who knew it could be so interesting!

Consider subscribing to Ann Arbor Schools Musings by Email!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Answers: Holiday Gifts for Teachers

Here are the questions, and the answers, that I got to my survey about holiday gifts for teachers. It is also applicable to year-end gifts. Read the full report here.

Did you know that Ann Arbor has guidelines for holiday gifts? So does Plymouth-Canton, apparently, so you might want to check with your school district to see what their guidelines are.

(The guidelines, by the way, address much more than just holiday gifts.)

As far as holiday gifts go though, the most important line is this: 
  • Employee Handbook – As employees of the district, individuals shall not accept gifts of more than token value from students or their parents or guardians or from vendors or businesses.  (Exception:  gifts to a retiring or reassigned employee.)

Below, I've got some choice quotes. The "Other Comments" all addressed the fact that in the situation I described families were asked to give around $20, which "seems excessive," in the words of one commenter.

Parents: What Do You Usually Do For Teacher Gifts? 

Key ideas: group gifts (but maybe $2-$5 per family); homemade items and food; donations to an educational foundation; gifts for the classroom (for instance, books for the class library) personal notes.

We have always made donations to the Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation to thank teachers at the end of the school year, but not in December. And we participate in the PTO sponsored activities to thank teachers/staff in May.
When our children were younger, I appreciated when parents organized and we would contribute to that, but not $30 per family! It was maybe $5 per family, or whatever you could afford. Even if you only get half of the parents participating, I know my own teacher-spouse would feel VERY uncomfortable having families who may be struggling feel pressured to contribute that amount, or feel badly for not being able to contribute so much… If a parent has the income to be so generous that great, but not appropriate to ask others. There are families at every one of AAs schools who struggle financially. 
Once a kid knitted a scarf himself for a favorite teacher; twice kids have made pens or spoons on their lathe for teachers. Often the kids choose and help make the baked goods.

Parents: What Guides Your Decision Making on Teacher Gifts?

Key ideas: make it meaningful and show you appreciate their time over the year; personalize; large group gifts are ok if they don't require to spend a lot of money; no bath salts, coffee mugs, or tchotchkes (teachers get too many).

And a question: What about high school teachers?

Time, we have limited time so we can't bake anything. Money, we have limited money (spouse is teacher!). Our children's teachers are some of the people we value most in this community. And knowing how beat up teachers are feeling these days, we find it particularly important to let them know how much we appreciate them.
I recently realized that we haven't done anything for the high school teachers, in large part because we parents hardly know them (little interaction except for capsule night) and because our high schooler doesn't necessarily enjoy school. This oversight (?) makes me somewhat sad - I suspect they would appreciate it, but don't know what to do.
Teachers are busy, busy people, so I try to think of something related to the gift of time. That's why I like the bread idea. Who has time to bake bread?
Teachers deserve our thanks and appreciation. I think it's important to express that and to have our children express that too. But I think it is more meaningful for a child to write a note, or for a parent to send an email that lays out what a wonderful job someone does, and cc: their principal. I also like donating something to the classroom that is aligned with the teachers goals; rather than personal gifts. 
I think it's very important to recognize all that they do year round -- but the holidays offer a great pause to take stock and give thanks where due given these often tense and embattled times when teachers and schools are so under siege in Michigan. I also have my child make cards for her teachers and write personal notes to them. Sometimes give a small homemade gift with the gift certificate and card. Try to make it personal & hopefully useful/meaningful and keep clutter to a minimum.
I talk with my kids about what might be a good gift for their different teachers, and then try to follow through on our ideas.

Teachers/Administrators: What Kind of Gifts Do You Usually Get?

As I high school teacher, I usually get very few gifts. While gifts can be nice, what I love more than any gift card, plate of cookies, or prepackaged holiday present are sincere notes from students or parents. A real note that does more than just sign a name, but actually engages on a personal level, trumps any actual object. Plus it's pretty much free and and doesn't take much time to do!

I'm fortunate in that gifts I've received from parents/students have always been pretty thoughtful and personal. Anything from homemade treats or crafts to my favorite snacks to wool socks. Lately, I've had parents pool their money together and buy items for the classroom and a gift certificate to Nicola's to keep our classroom library well-stocked.

Teachers/Administrators: What Are Your Favorite/Least Favorite Gifts? How Do You Think About These Things?

Key idea: personalize. 
I also note, especially, this first comment: 
I find it really difficult when a family chooses to give a gift to one person and not to another with whom they work (e.g. the teacher but not the aide, or the secretary but not the clerk). I've had my feelings really hurt at these moments in some years.
While the best things are always gifts for the classroom that we can all use, my favorite personal things are always the thoughtful, homemade things. A ceramic vase a parent made for me, a crafty tile/dry erase message board, a heartfelt letter from a student.
[Spouse of a teacher]: It's nice to be recognized but more than anything sincere words of appreciation from students and parents are the gifts my spouse loves the most. Home made cards, or cards with nice words are the best. Home made food/treats is the second best. Gift cards to Zingerman's and books stores always appreciated by my spouse. (who is not a coffee drinker)
My favorite things are personal messages from families and especially from kids. I'd rather have a heartfelt greeting than just the name on a preprinted card, and the gift matters pretty much not at all (although, honestly, I love me some good holiday sweets!!)

Consider subscribing to Ann Arbor Schools Musings by Email!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Gifts for Teachers: Take My Survey Please!

A friend, whose child is in kindergarten (so this is her first experience with a child in public schools), posted this question on Facebook (paraphrased here):

Another parent suggested that every parent donate $20 for a holiday gift for the kindergarten teacher, and $10 for the teachers' aide. This seems a little excessive to me, with almost 25 kids in the class, but is this what people do?

So please, take my survey.

If you are a parent, what do you usually do (if anything) for holiday gifts?
If you are a teacher or an administrator, what would you like parents to do?
If you are not a parent, teacher, or administrator, what do you think about teacher gifts? Do you remember giving them?
(For those of you who are both teachers and parents, feel free to answer from both perspectives. I will publish the results later this week.)

[Update 12/11/2013: The survey is now closed. But the results are here!]

Consider subscribing to Ann Arbor Schools Musings by Email!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

New York Parents Have A Message--What Would Michigan Parents Say?

My friend Kemala is part of a group of parents that sent a message to Bill de Blasio (the incoming mayor--New York has a mayor-controlled school system) about what they are looking for in a new schools chancellor.

It's a really good video! I like that it has a narrative and a clear message.

And it made me wonder--if parents put together a video in Ann Arbor, or Ypsilanti, or Dexter, or... for the school board, what would the key messaging points be?

What if the video was targeted at state legislators?

Consider subscribing to Ann Arbor Schools Musings by Email!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Today, at the Michigan Capitol: Will Two Terrible Bills Go to the Full House?

Michigan Parents for Schools is reporting:

They may try to push the 3rd grade retention and A-F ratings bills out of committee and through the full House tomorrow. 

Bill #1: Third Grade Retention

The third grade retention bill says that kids have to read proficiently by third grade, or they'll be held back. MIPFS calls it an "all stick, no help" bill.

Writes MIPFS: 

They've softened the bill a bit since it was first introduced, but the basic thrust is still the same. Instead of helping schools serve challenged students, instead of providing the resources schools need to run quality reading programs, the bill proposes simply to hold students back. Does this make any sense to you? It certainly doesn't to us.

Take action on the third grade "read better, or else" bill here

Bill #2: Grading Schools Like an Appliance

Last year the schools were given a color-coding system as a way to "help" inform the public about school quality (based, naturally, on standardized testing). That system didn't make any sense to me,** and now the proposal is to scrap that for a replacement system in which schools would be graded from A to F. 

According to MIPFS, 

Now we have HB 5112, which proposes to scrap that whole (brand new) system and replace it with a simplistic rating that gives every school and district a letter grade from A to F. Not only that, but this "grade" would be based almost entirely on standardized test scores and would grade schools "on a curve," ensuring that some will always "fail." 

We're not shopping for toaster-ovens here.

Take action on the "grading schools like appliances" bill here.

Also, PLEASE: Share this information about these bills on facebook, twitter, your email lists--the children of this state thank you!

**By the way, if you are interested, Okemos Parents for Schools nicely dissected the ridiculousness of the color coding system in this post

Under the new model, every school receives a color on a scale of green, lime-green, yellow, orange, or red - in descending order:
A school earns a color based on the number of points it amasses — two points for each goal met, , one point for each goal met by demonstrating improvement, and zero points if the goal isn’t met at all. Schools that earn 85% or more of the points possible are assigned a green color. To get lime green, they have to earn 70% to 84% of their points; yellow, 60% to 69%; orange, 50% to 59%; and red, below 50%.Michigan to debut color-coded system for measuring school performance, Detroit Free Press, Aug. 19, 2013.
You can see how Okemos scored on the state's Accountability scorecard. As a district, Okemos scored "Orange," the second to lowest rating.  However, every building scored "Yellow," one step higher.  Yet, in every category, every building scored "Green."  How can that be?

Consider subscribing to Ann Arbor Schools Musings by Email!

Monday, December 2, 2013

EMU Dean Resigns from Education Achievement Authority; Protests Tomorrow

Eclectablog is reporting that the Dean of the EMU School of Education has resigned from the Education Achievement Authority.

As Eclectablog notes: 
Not only have EAA administrators been evasive and failed to produce evidence to support their claims of success, they have been found to be leaving special needs students behind.
All of this has led to a number of teachers groups to boycott student teachers from EMU’s education program. Why? Because EMU is has partnered with the EAA since 2011 and is, in fact, the only one of Michigan’s 15 public universities to do so.
And the Dean of the School of Education's resignation is short and to the point. Basically, "I quit. Thank you." 

Why? Well, the faculty was up in arms about EMU's involvement. And without EMU's involvement, the EAA would need to find another university to participate to stay alive. 

According to Eclectablog, 

She [Jann Joseph] has given no reason for her resignation but faculty members’ outrage plus a planned protest during the EAA’s board meeting tomorrow, Tuesday, December 3rd may have played a role. The protest will be followed by a “Teach-In on the Education Achievement Authority” and starts at 7:45 a.m.

Here are the details from the Facebook Event page:

Stand in solidarity with EMU faculty as they picket on Tuesday, December 3rd, in front of the offices of President Martin and the Board of Regents at Welch Hall on the campus of Eastern Michigan University. Your presence will help illustrate the misstep that the EMU administration made as they entered this agreement under a cloak of arrogance. Hosted by Professors Steven Camron and Rebecca Martusewicz.
There are two half-hour informational pickets outside Welch Hall:- 7:45 to 8:15 to coincide with the 8 AM start of the EAA Audit Committee meeting- 8:45 to 9:15 to coincide with the 9 AM start of the EAA Executive Committee and Regular Board meeting
Teach-In to follow from 10:00-12:30 at Halle Library Auditorium

Thanks to Eclectablog for pointing all of this out! 

Consider subscribing to Ann Arbor Schools Musings by Email!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thanks, Mark Maynard and Madame Bartels!

Today I would like to thank two people.

1. This month, I had the occasion to hold a conversation with an family from French-speaking Africa, and I was able to do that because of the French I learned in high school--which wasn't exactly yesterday! No, my French wasn't perfect, but I was able to converse comfortably. And for that, I want to thank Madame Bartels, my primary high school French teacher, wherever she may be. Merci, Madame!

Picture taken from the Facebook Water Street Commons page.

2. I would also like to thank Mark Maynard for his work to engage the Ypsilanti community and report on Ypsilanti happenings--the good, the bad, and the fascinating. I love his interviews with Ypsilantians, but I am especially impressed by his work to make the Water Street Commons a reality. I love driving past the site and seeing people work on it. Until some real development happens, the Commons can create a beautiful, visual presence along Michigan Avenue. If you want to follow Mark Maynard's blog, here is the link.

If you want to follow--or help with--the Water Street Commons, you can find them on Facebook.

Consider subscribing to Ann Arbor Schools Musings by Email!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Principal Principles, Perspectives, and Publicity

Pioneer Perspicacity 

(I was looking for P words--and I had to look perspicacity up, but it's a good choice because essentially it means you are sharing your perspective!)

It turns out that nowadays, when I go out on a Saturday night, people come up to me and ask me about the latest school news--news which, in fact, I hadn't even heard. . . what happens to you when you go out on a Saturday night?

Friday afternoon, Pioneer parents got a short letter from the school district:
Dear Pioneer Families,I have  notified the Pioneer community today that Ms. Cindy Leaman has agreed to serve as Principal of Ann Arbor's A2 Virtual+ Academy beginning January 6, 2014. 
Ms. Tamber Woodworth will serve as Principal for the remainder of the school year. Ms. Woodworth has agreed to return to Pioneer where she served previously as both a class principal and principal prior to her retirement. 
I know we will all work together to support our students at Pioneer.Thank you,Jeanice SwiftSuperintendent
I hadn't heard about it because I'm not a Pioneer parent.

But of course I was interested!

1. You might recall that filling the position of Pioneer principal was the subject of much controversy last fall, when Pat Green didn't fill the position for quite a while, and wouldn't talk about when she would fill it either. Not only did the interim principal have a long-term sub filling his classes, but the cloak of secrecy made parents mad, especially regarding the timing of filling the position. A little bit of communication regarding timing would have gone a long way!  In any case, 51 weeks ago (just under a year) Cindy Leaman was moved from Clague Middle School to fill the Pioneer position.

2. Since it's been just under a year, of course there speculation about this latest move. Talking to Pioneer students and parents, their opinion of Cindy Leaman has ranged from "she's fine" to "she's fine unless you engage with her in any way" to "she's like Dolores Umbridge." (I know--harsh, right? Principals get the brunt of people's opinions, and often it's not in a good way.)

3. Tamber Woodworth will be the interim principal. She has served as interim principal in the past at both Pioneer and Ann Arbor Open, and I think she was a permanent principal at Tappan as well. At Ann Arbor Open and at Pioneer, she seemed to not try to make too many changes while she was there as an interim. That worked well at Ann Arbor Open. She is being brought out of retirement for this position! (And I think there are some restrictions in state law on working for the district you retired from, so she's probably a contractor.)

4. I'm not going to speculate about whether, for Cindy Leaman, the move to running the new Virtual Academy is an upgrade or a downgrade. But as far as communication goes, it's my opinion this whole thing was mishandled. First of all, in general I think that principal moves at any of the schools are significant enough that they should be shared--by the district--with the entire listening audience (probably through AAPS News), in addition to the letter home to Pioneer families. 

In particular, in this case, the Virtual Academy is a brand new entity for the district, and so I think this position is actually adding a principal position to the district. And people don't understand what the Virtual Academy is. (My understanding is that Michigan law now states that students anywhere can take online courses anywhere in the state, and if the district doesn't offer online classes then students will go elsewhere and take their money with them--but that may be oversimplified.)

My point is--please--
Share information about principals with the entire district.
Share more, rather than less. Educate parents, and they will feel more comfortable, and less panicky, about changes. Who is Tamber Woodworth? Why was Cindy Leaman chosen to run the Virtual Academy (does she, for instance, have a background in technology)? What is the Virtual Academy?

Past Principal's Possible Plagiarism

Meanwhile, last week, on Facebook, I got another piece of news: that Sulura Jackson, the former principal at Skyline, was accused of plagiarism in her new district! [By the way, in the illustration the Indy Week chose to use, there is a picture of Skyline's first graduation, and my daughter is the one on the left.]

At the Indy Week, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Billy Ball writes,

What they [teachers] found is startling: Multiple documents obtained by the INDY that show Jackson—before and after her arrival at Chapel Hill High—lifted entire passages and letters from books, online articles and teaching resource guides. She used those passages without citation in staff memos, letters to students and even recommendation letters for colleagues, frequently passing them off as her words.
. . . In some cases, Jackson, who won a Michigan secondary school association's award for top high school principal of 2010–2011, used uncited text pulled from various sources. In others, she seems to use entire letters, such as an online welcoming letter for students posted by an Arizona principal. Sometimes she seems to have attempted to disguise the copied text by changing a single word while retaining the overall form and structure. Other times, entire passages were printed unchanged.

Sulura Jackson at Skyline graduation. Photo from the
Ann Arbor Public Schools website.
And as if that weren't (quite) enough, the friend who posted it on Facebook said that he had noticed Sulura Jackson doing the same thing during the first year that students were at Skyline! And (he's a person who saves things), he sent me an email with the piece in which he noticed the copying. He says he didn't say anything at the time because he didn't want to make any trouble for his daughter.

He wrote me that in the second Skyline newsletter,

When I read the first paragraph of Sulura's letter it was clear to me that she hadn't written it. It took under a minute on Google to find that it was from a tourism press release (I think it was from "pure Michigan" or whatever it was called back in 2008).
Here are the first few lines of the paragraph:

When autumn arrives in Michigan, the state slowly explodes into a frenzy of color; the entire state is in its annual blaze of glory. There is no better place to see the dynamic colors of a trillion trees aflame than along Michigan highways, country roads and coastlines.

And here is a similar passage, attributed to, the state's web site:

It's when 19 million acres of woods slowly explode in a frenzy of color. It's when an entire state is in its annual blaze of glory. It's when autumn arrives in Michigan. And there's no better place to see the dynamic colors of a trillion trees aflame than along our highways, country roads and coastlines. So let's head out to the forests. And let's prepare to be amazed. On the fall color tours of Pure Michigan. 
So as you see, it's not exactly the same--but it's close.

My question is, "Is this plagiarism?"

My friend said to me, "That's not plagiarism! How many ways can you write a cover letter or a condolence letter? The real issue is probably that the teachers don't like her!" Which could be true--there were certainly plenty of teachers who didn't like her at Skyline.

As for the suggestion that Jackson cite sources: It would be really weird to cite sources in a letter that goes into a school newsletter.

On the other hand--if Jackson got hired in North Carolina based in part on her capacity to communicate in writing, and she didn't actually write the stuff, then there is certainly some misrepresentation there. If a student turned this in, would it be considered plagiarism?

I would have to say, though, that in the Indy Week article, the thing that bothers me the most is the thing that always bothered me when she was Skyline principal. Jackson never was willing to admit to being wrong, even when she changed or modified something because she was wrong. So, too, in the Indy Week article she says,

Reached by the INDY Monday, Jackson acknowledged she will use form letters, books and articles to inform her writings, but she denied any wrongdoing."I'm not under the impression that I can't use that," Jackson said. "This is not anything that I'm selling. This is not anything that I'm using for personal gain."

So what do you think? Is it plagiarism? 

Consider subscribing to Ann Arbor Schools Musings by Email!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Missed Opportunities: Ann Arbor and the Washtenaw IB/WAY/ECA Consortium

I wasn't really paying attention to the big brouhaha as to whether the Ann Arbor schools should sign the contract to continue to participate in the International Baccalaureate program, the WAY (Washtenaw Alternatives for Youth) program, or the Early College Alliance. But now I am. And mostly what strikes me is that there have been several missed opportunities. Sure, I know that hindsight is perfect, but looking back and evaluating is also a good way to learn.

So here are five missed opportunities.

1. Missed Meetings: The Ann Arbor News reported that the Ann Arbor school representatives missed many of the consortium meetings. I don't know if Supt. Pat Green or Deputy Supt. Alesia Flye was to blame for that--maybe it was both of them. They're both gone now, so I'm not sure if it matters if we figure that out. Going forward though, if we have a seat at the table, we need to take it. It's pretty clear that we can have more influence if we are there early in the process.

2. Anti-union contract: Someone called me to say that he was worried that the contract the Ann Arbor school board was discussing was anti-union. Given that the contract (click on the link to see it) specifies that if a teacher is tenured in a district and goes to work for the IB, WAY, or ECA schools they are not operating under or accumulating tenure (among other things), you could describe it that way fairly, I think. But here's the thing--this same contract was already voted on by the Ann Arbor schools for this current year in August--and by the other school districts as well. Does the Ann Arbor Education Association or the Washtenaw Education Association not care, or did they just miss this? They probably could have influenced the terms and conditions...

3. Failure to Track: When the Ann Arbor school's Count Day numbers came out, and they were below expectations, much of the attention went to the number of AAPS high school students who were enrolled in the IB, WAY, and ECA programs. And the district seemed surprised by this. To my mind, either they weren't surprised, but wanted the public to feel that they were (which would be misleading), or they were surprised. And if they were surprised, then I have to ask why that is. You might remember that my son applied to the IB program at the Washtenaw International High School--and he found out that he was accepted sometime in late winter or early spring. Now surely, as consortium members, the district could find out how many Ann Arbor students had gotten in to--and later, decided to go to--these alternative programs. The question is, why didn't they take those numbers into consideration as they constructed this year's budget?

4. Transportation Thinking: I don't think the school board and administration really took into account the way that threatening to cut high school transportation could affect the way students looked at schools. I'll probably never be able to prove this, but to my mind, when the district said--at the same time that students were looking at high schools--that high school transportation might not be available, it changed the equation for many parents. I know for myself that I was intimidated by the idea of transporting my son to the IB school. On the other hand, if I lived far from my district high school, and would have to transport my child anyway, then I would not be comparing "drive my child to one school or have him take a bus to the other" but rather "drive my child to school A or school B?" So even the threat of the transportation being cut may have influenced the debate for students at the time when the choices were being made.

5. Going it alone: I believe the ECA, the IB program, and the WAY program are all very worthwhile. But Dexter--which decided to do its own IB program, and which decided not to join the WISD transportation consortium--may have done the best job in looking out for Dexter. I am glad to see the Ann Arbor school board now considering doing its own IB program, even if the consortium IB program continues.

Subscribe to Ann Arbor Schools Musings by Email

Friday, November 15, 2013

Exchange Student: Question #1

As I've mentioned, we have an exchange student living with us. Occasionally, I will share some of her questions about the U.S. educational system.

A recent question:

Why do American teachers give extra credit on tests and for homework?


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

School Finance: Can We Change Proposal A?

This discussion took place in the comments section of this blog post. I thought it was worth sharing more widely. Many thanks to Steve Norton of Michigan Parents for Schools for providing such great detail!

CG said...
Is anyone talking about making a campaign to amend the Proposal A section of the constitution? It seems like that's what it would take to fix this situation.
Steve Norton, MIPFS said...
There is always some talk about changing Proposal A, especially now that nearly 20 years has passed since its adoption. But it's a complex issue, and changing the constitution might not be the best way to fix school funding.

What I'm hearing most about right now are some proposed constitutional amendments (in the Legislature) that would restrict use of the state School Aid Fund to K-12 education only. (Currently, some of it is being used to pay for higher education - a use that is allowed under the Constitution but was clearly not anticipated by the authors of Proposal A.) As we saw last year, constitutional amendments are hard to sell to the public, but this one might have momentum. However, it would not truly solve the problems.

The funding system created by Proposal A has a lot of pieces, not all of which are in the Constitution. Different people dislike different parts of it: some upstate residents are angry that per-pupil funding has not yet been fully equalized across the state; some districts are frustrated that they cannot vote to increase their own taxes to support school operations; most people like the limits on the growth of taxable value of property but many - especially those in real estate - do not like the fact that taxable value resets to SEV when a property is sold (the "pop-up tax").

There are really two approaches to changing the funding system: giving local districts more control, and changing the funding stream. A lot of districts, typically those with high property values, would love to be able to increase their own local taxes to fund school operations. However, across the state, most districts have a pretty modest tax base and would not benefit much from that (and they worry it would increase inequality and reduce pressure to increase funding for all schools). It would be very hard to move any but the most limited proposal along these lines through the Legislature, though it can be changed in statute and does not need a constitutional amendment.

The other approach is to change the funding stream - and this can also be done in statute. Increases in the 6 mill State Education Property Tax are difficult - the constitution requires a 3/4 super-majority in both houses of the Legislature to do this. However, most of the state School Aid Fund comes from the sales tax and the income tax. Changing the rate of the sales tax might take a constitutional amendment (and would be undesirable for other reasons), but extending the tax to services can be done by the Legislature with a normal change in the law. Since services have been the growing part of the economy, and retail sales have not grown as fast as the economy, this would fix one of the built-in limitations of the current funding system. Similarly, the formula for earmarking income tax receipts to School Aid can be changed with normal Legislative action.

But recently, we've been going in just the opposite direction. As part of Gov. Snyder's proposal to end the Michigan Business Tax and replace it with a much smaller Corporate Income Tax (passed into law in 2011), the state School Aid Fund permanently lost $750 million per year that had been earmarked from the MBT but was not replaced. This helped turn the dip in school aid caused by the recession into a permanent state of affairs.

The true battleground is tax policy. If we want to fund education adequately state-wide, we need to change the funding stream to education. There is no mystery about how to do this. What is lacking is the political will - in the Governor's office and in the Legislature - to even discuss raising revenue for the benefit of education.

Steve Norton
Executive Director, Michigan Parents for Schools
CG said...
Thank you, Steve, for this--very informative. How can interested people (like me) help?
Steven Norton said...

That's a good question: how can interested people help?

There are several layers to this. One is local, and it has to do with getting the community re-engaged with our local public schools and reminding people that we have a responsibility to our community and our future when we consider options for our schools. We're not customers, we're owners - and that implies both authority and responsibility.

But on the state level, residents of the Ann Arbor Schools region need to be a little creative. Unlike parents in much of the western and northern parts of the state, our state legislators are almost universally supportive of more funding for education and community control of our schools. Voting for state-wide offices is important. But perhaps most important is to take the lead in shifting the debate on education policy.

Ann Arbor is in a special position to lead on this issue, because we are an affluent community that cares about quality education but wants it for all children, no matter where they live. We don't have a problem sharing resources; we just want to be able to keep what is best about our schools at the same time. This gives us the opportunity to take the moral high ground: what we want for our children is what we want for all children. My organization has taken precisely this position on hot-button issues like the Education Achievement Authority, and as a result we were able to bring together groups that don't usually work with each other, from both upstate and western Michigan and Detroit. We need to break down the regional barriers that have fractured the parent community and prevented us from uniting behind a common purpose.

How to do this? Well, all Ann Arbor citizens can help back up our state lawmakers when they argue for sound education policy in Lansing; we can also reach out directly to lawmakers from other regions. Parents and citizens can participate in state-wide efforts to unite those who care about authentically public education, giving strength to the efforts of organizations like Michigan Parents for Schools. We can and should form alliances with people of goodwill in all parts of the state. And we can use the intelligence and energy of our community to change the public discourse about education all across our state. The current trend to denigrate community-governed public education is based on some core (flawed) ideas; we need to spread other ideas that remind people why our nation has always put a top priority on democratically-governed public education.

It won't be easy or quick. The current situation, where education is seen as just another consumer good and market competition its salvation, has been decades in the making. If we are to turn it around, we must all look beyond the walls of our own schools and the borders of our neighborhoods, and ask others to do likewise.

Steve Norton
Executive Director, Michigan Parents for Schools

Sunday, November 10, 2013

iPad Technology in Schools: What's the Highest, Best Use?

The other day, Amy Biolchini's story about the Chelsea Schools and their iPad problems caught my eye. In "Students evading security software, gaming on iPads post challenge at Chelsea High School," Biolchini writes that,

Officials at Chelsea High School are learning there’s an iPad application for just about everything—except for keeping students from gaming during class.
After the school shifted to one-for-one computing this fall with iPads in the hands of each of the 839 students, administrators are working through challenges inside and outside of school.
A program loaded on to the student’s iPads that filters Internet access has made it difficult for students to work on the devices outside of the school building.
“The biggest challenge has been the whole filter piece,” said Superintendent Andy Ingall. “We certainly want kids to be protected, but it’s a challenge. Access at home has been a big challenge for a pretty good-sized group of kids.”
Nine weeks into the implementation, students are now able to access the Internet at home on their iPads. But now administrators are turning to another issue that’s arisen: students are finding it easy to get away with playing games on the iPads in class.
The reason this caught my eye is that a couple of weeks ago I had read an article in Slate magazine about the roll-out of iPads in the Los Angeles United School District. And that process--which is a $1 BILLION program, by the way--has also not gone so well. Essentially, it has taken almost no time for students to be able to hack the iPads, which were set to essentially be Pearson curriculum delivery devices. Pearson (a for-profit textbook manufacturer, among other things) has contracted with Apple to put its copyrighted material on the iPads. Conveniently enough, they also provide standardized tests to go with them! AND because the Pearson contract is directly with Apple, and not with the school district, it seems to be almost impossible to find out how much money Pearson is making off of this. But I digress, because my main point is this:

From the Huffington Post:

It took just a week for nearly 300 students who got iPads from their Los Angeles high school to figure out how to alter the security settings so they could surf the Web and access social media sites.
But the Slate article, entitled Kids Should Hack Their School Provided iPads, had a slightly different perspective. The subtitle? "That's how they learn." Writes Katherine Mangu-Ward, 

Last year, 40 tablet computers were delivered to the children of two remote Ethiopian villages. The villagers were 100 percent illiterate—the kids had never seen road signs, product labels, or printed material of any kind.
Technicians from the One Laptop Per Child program dropped off a stack of boxes, showed a couple of adults how to use the solar chargers, and then walked away. Within minutes, the kids had cracked the packaging open and figured out how to turn the tablets on. Within weeks, they were singing their ABCs, picked up from the English-language learning software installed on the tablets. Within five months, some kid figured out that the tablets had built-in cameras—they had been disabled for ethical reasons—and hacked the Android operating system to activate them.
So, frankly, it shouldn’t have come as much of a shock when a few hundred of the tech-drenched children of Los Angeles figured out how to “hack” the $678 iPads they were given by their school district, just one month into the new school year.
The article goes on to say:

But why would students gaining mastery over their digital devices be considered a “runaway train” at all? The iPads were loaded with software from the textbook giant Pearson, so perhaps the fantasy was that high school students would be content paging through glowing versions of their textbooks.
But the whole point of introducing current technology into the classroom is to help education catch up with the rest of the world, which has been utterly transformed by fast computers with fast Internet access.
Unfortunately, when it comes to technology in education, traditional schools tend to use fuzzy math. Give ’em iPads, the thinking goes, and the test scores will soar. The intended mechanism isn’t always clear, and the vision becomes even more muddled when the inevitable committees, unions, and concerned parents get involved. The result too often is restricted access to semi-useless tech crippled by proprietary software deals and censored Internet.
Implementing bold ideas like “flipping the classroom”—having students watch lectures at home and spending their classroom hours doing problem sets, engaging in group discussions, or getting one-on-one tutorials—means letting kids use the relevant tech on their own time and in their own way. It means trusting them with access to devices like the ones they might someday use at work. 
 In the Chelsea schools, the cost was around $575,000 and was taken from technology funds, from the 2012 bond.
Technology director Scott Wooster said falling technology prices coupled with leftover money that had been budgeted for computer replacement cycles put the district in a position that administrators felt they could make the iPad purchase.
So what are the plans for replacement cycles?

While the teachers are rightfully concerned with gaming going on in classrooms (a concern I share somewhat, but really--what did they expect?), I found a couple of other things concerning in Biolchini's article on the Chelsea schools. (And I have no idea about most of what is on the iPads. Is it Pearson--or other--textbooks?)

1. There is an app called iBoss on the iPads. It not only filters the internet, it is a tracking device.
If it gets to the point where we need to regulate what students are looking at or downloading, iBoss keeps an account of that. The only time that we will check that is if a parent calls us, or is a teacher in class notices a student off-task and is looking at sites that maybe they shouldn’t be then we can pull up their history,” Kapolka [Chelsea High School principal] said.
You might feel that students need tracking. I myself am more concerned with "Big Brother" than I am with students doing some gaming. However, in the article, one of the students asserts that lots of students have been deleting the iBoss app.

2. Sophomore Alayna Schweda said,

On one hand, your studying materials: you don’t have the your second time of writing them down in notes, so it’s a little harder to remember, and it’s kind of a big transition.
So now we encourage students to study things but they don't take notes on them?

3. What's the penalty for gaming?
Taking the device away if a student is found gaming is the school’s solution now. Students will receive two warnings for misuse before the device is completely taken away from them.
So if the textbooks and the classwork and the homework are all on the iPad, and you take the iPad away, how exactly is that student going to be able to keep up with the classes? This reminds me of some of the research on student suspensions, which indicates that when you take kids out of the classroom, they fall further behind.

My takeaways from this:

1. Administrators and teachers are often blinded by shiny new technology. I'm not saying that technology can't be used for good in classrooms. Of course it can be, and some teachers do. But most, don't.

2. Technology can often be a distraction. There is a reason the Socratic method has lasted as long as it has. Questioning, and discussions, are fundamental to teaching. To the extent that technology can support discussion and understanding, that's great--but often, it serves to distract from that.

3. If one is going to use technology in the classroom, then one can't be afraid of the technology. Fundamentally, I think the idea of "controlling" the students using the technology is at odds with students using the technology.

4. Beware Big Brother. Who controls all the information that gets input into the iPad or computer, when students answer math questions or write an essay? Does that information go back to the textbook manufacturers or is it only used locally? I think it's fair to ask what is on the iPads (or other technology), and how that fits into for-profit educational models. Certainly, Apple and Pearson stand to make a boatload of money (or two boatloads! $1 billion dollars, if the deal--currently paused--eventually goes through). I think there are some civil liberties issues here.

5. Clarity of purpose, use, and replacement planning is essential. It doesn't seem to me that either Chelsea schools or the Los Angeles schools have that. Who is paying for these and what is the replacement cycle? What is their purpose? How will they be used differently from textbooks? (Because iPads are very expensive textbooks.) What happens if a student breaks or loses an iPad?

When we can answer these questions, then we might be ready to include the technology in the schools.