Tuesday, March 12, 2013

State Board of Ed Roadshow Gives (A Lot of) Food for Thought

As I noted the other day, I was unable to be at the recent forum at Pioneer High School with the State Board of Education. Luckily, my friend Julie Roth was able to go, and she consented to write a blog post. Thanks Julie!

Initial thoughts on the State Board of Education Forum meeting, by a non-teacher, non-educator, non-union Parent Stakeholder:

I am a bit sad that I feel I must first mention my non-teacher status to somehow ensure my credibility to have an opinion that is not automatically suspect or dismissed as self-interest.  Be that as it may…..

I am grateful to the state BOE, the hosting Washtenaw Alliance for Education, and all the many state legislators, superintendents, teachers, school board members, parents, students and others who PACKED the “little theater” at Pioneer High School.   There is certainly plenty of community interest in the future of our public schools.  No apathy here!

As a parent, I haven’t spent much time thinking about the Michigan State Board of Education.  I never really knew who or what they were.  Never directed any of my concerns to them, instead sending comments to my legislators, local school board members, and governor.  But now that I know a bit more about their role, that will certainly change.

Two of the four panelists were state BOE members:  President John Austin (D-Ann Arbor), and member Eileen Weiser (R-Ann Arbor).  The other two were Prof. David Arsen (MSU expert on school finance) and Peter Ruddell (Lansing attorney and primary author of the Oxford Foundation Report).   The meeting started with comments from each of the panelists regarding the report (formally called the Public Education Finance Act) and the proposals for changing our education system that are included in the bill going through the House.  David Arsen authored a strong critique of the report here, and it is definitely worth reading. 

The visions for the future of Michigan’s public education system were all over the map.  What I gathered is that the bill currently being discussed would do several things, including “un-bundling” the funding that the state provides to the school for each student.  If the student took 3 classes at Pioneer, 2 online classes provided from an online “school,” a class at a local charter, and one at a community college, then the funding for that student would be split between all those places.  How a student would actually do all of this is not clear.  I seemed to get the impression that most if not all classes taken outside a student’s primary school would be taken by distance, or online.  In addition, all these “schools” (I put this in quotes, because it seems anything now could be called a “school”) could have money taken away from them depending on how the kids did on standardized tests.

Austin and Arsen brought up a number of concerns.  If funding were scattered around all over the place, then what exactly would that do to our comprehensive community schools that provide so much more than the math and reading that are on the assessments?  What about sports, arts, science labs, community building, after school clubs?  What would be our schools’ ability to continue to provide these things that are not tested as “core” subjects, but are an integral part of our kids’ education?  Arsen talked a good deal about our disastrous funding nose-dive, and he has a great, very clear graph of what has happened to school funding over the past decade in the document I linked above.  He also cited research that showed a direct correlation between funding / resources and student achievement. 

Weiser acknowledged that studies show only 10% of students learn well in an online environment.  She then talked about the idea of “blended learning” which involves face-to-face instructors PLUS online instruction.  But this made no sense to me, because the online learning being discussed here (taking classes at lots of different places) could never be with instructors physically present, because students can’t get from one district to another and another all day.  So here we are, talking about “innovation” that would be a bad idea for 90% of our kids? 

Another concept that Arsen discussed was the fact that the current system of charters and other “alternatives” incentivizes these schools to attract those students who will do best on standardized tests.  That is, the students with high socioeconomic levels, involved parents, no learning disorders, no IEPs, no disabilities…..  you get the picture.  Since the standardized tests are so high-stakes, and funding is tied to so-called “achievement” (defined, as far as I can tell, as doing well on tests), then schools profit from culling from the herd.  And when successfully done, this leaves those kids with greater needs and fewer resources in schools that have increasingly fewer funds (as more kids leave), creating a horrible, inequitable death-spiral of sorts.  You really should read his critique – it covers these things much more thoroughly than I can.

I was concerned about Weiser’s inability to follow her own arguments to conclusion.  She would conflate some idea about “community center” schools where kids all go and get what they need, including online courses, activities, physical instruction, etc….  open longer hours and more days…..  With talk about splitting up funding to all these other entities, so how exactly is that school supposed to provide all this rich activity?

I was also concerned about Ruddells’ comments.  He skirted difficult questions from the audience – those for which he had no good answers, arguably because his position on these issues seems to come from a place of running some sort of business model of schools.  The problem with this is fundamental, in my opinion…..  The bottom line of business is profit.  The bottom line of schools is learning.  They are not, and will never be, the same thing.  His answers were brief, at times dismissive, and he used humor to deflect.  But I’m not laughing.

It’s worth noting that this entire piece of legislation was written by lawyers.  Lawyers!  With no input whatsoever from actual educators.  How telling! 

Christine Stead
After the initial comments by the panelists, the audience was given about 45 minutes for questions.  I’d estimate Christine Stead, the AAPS Board of Education member charged with manning the microphone, was able to get to something like 10% of those who had questions.  The energy in the room was palpable, with moments of spontaneous applause, and at other times anger and frustration.    The questions ranged from the EAA to preschool funding, and I can’t recall all of them here.

I was unable to ask my questions in person.  So since I have been given this blog as an outlet, I will leave you with them, unanswered:

Q:  If the sole primary measure of “outcomes” in all these non-bundled online learning experiences and charter “schools” and other school-like entities (including the public schools) is the scores on the standardized tests, then what is to prevent the logical trajectory of our educational system becoming one big Kaplan Test Prep class?  Kaplan is allegedly really good at making good test-takers.  Why don’t we all just send our kids there, and call it an education?

Q:  Part of the success of community based public schools is due to active, engaged, invested parents.  No, not all of them are so engaged, but the ones that are benefit ALL the kids, via Boosters and PTOs and fundraising and helping in classrooms and helping with after school clubs and all the zillions of ways that we engage in our schools.  If our kids are scattered all over the place, what happens to that investment?  Where do we focus our energies?  Or, in the currently favored business-speak – we are free labor!  Don’t dismiss the importance of that so readily.

Q:  Standardized tests are touted as a great way to evaluate kids.  But really, they are being used to evaluate teachers.  And sample sizes are TOO SMALL and NOT randomized.  Anyone with any understanding of statistics knows that this renders them useless in evaluating individual teachers.  In addition, I have talked to teachers, parents, principals and union members who all agree with me on this:  Everyone knows who the problem teachers are.  Just ASK.  Ask the parents, the other teachers, the principal, and the kids.  And when 3 of the 4 groups agree there is a problem, then intervene.  STOP using standardized tests to dismantle our education system in the name of teacher evaluation.

Q:  Final Question.  At what point, exactly, do we acknowledge that we are, quite simply, unable to provide adequate education NOT due to horrible teachers or horrible schools, but due to inadequate funding as well as all the issues that come with poverty and lack of privilege?  We CANNOT deliver a fabulous, innovative, engaging, project-based education to every student with ever-increasing class sizes, decreased classroom aides, reduction in arts and enrichment, and ever-increasing focus on teaching to the never-ending tests.   We need to change our priorities.  ALL our students deserve what the kids of our legislators get in their private schools.  And when they get it, believe it or not, it’s good for ALL of us.

This whole thing just feels like a big, convoluted, thinly-veiled scheme designed to take yet more funding away from the public schools, in the ultimate effort to dismantle public education, one step at a time.


  1. Here is a list of email addresses for the state BOE. Add your own legislators, and tell them what you think! If we don't speak out, we have no room to complain....;;;;;;;; ;;


  2. Thank you for this posting. Yes, David Arsen's letter to the govenor was more in depth, but for us parents that are just now getting involved in all this political business, you explained the issues clearly, and let people know that the decisions made will in fact eventually affect us all.

  3. From another non-union, non teacher parent stakeholder in MI thanks for getting involved. The more that get a sense of what is going on (which in almost unbelievable once you first get a sense of it) the worse you will feel. You ask, of course, the right questions but you see Mr. Ruddell is not interested in answering those questions, nor is he qualified to do by training or experience. Yet, every parent in MI public schools and, frankly, every taxpayer who sees their local schools as a value needs to follow what he does. If you haven't had a chance read the McLellan letter on the PEFA update page.

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  5. The overhaul proposed for school finance, aka "Oxford Plan", is most prominently an inequitable plan. It assumes that all parents are equally capable of taking advantage of all choices. My biggest take-away from the panel was that none of them have first-hand experience with the fundamentally discriminatory consequences of the plan.

    People who have no cars have fewer choices. People with no access to technology have fewer choices. People whose children have special educational needs have fewer choices. Under the Oxford Plan, people whose children are considered "hard to teach" have fewer choices, since schools have the right of refusal to take these children. I harbor no illusions that this makes for educational equity--it further solidifies inequity based on ability, income and need.

    My own comments, to be shared with the entire MI SBOE are at

  6. Kathleen, just read your blog comments, they are so telling, such real-time examples of the errors of all this so-called reform. The problem is, I really think that the "reformers" honestly don't care. I think they want to de-fund public education until it fails, then use that failure as an excuse to further dismantle it. In fact, that's exactly what they are doing. I have no idea how to stop them, since they control all branches of government in this state despite our Blue population due to gerrymandering. If they want to dismantle it, what can stop them? I don't hear them listening to reason, because I think they aren't interested in improving public education. Just replacing it.