Thursday, July 18, 2013

Recap: Superintendent Candidate Brian Osborne

The superintendent candidates have come and gone, and I find myself being slightly reluctant to post anything, because, after all--does it matter? The board will decide. But yes, it does matter--because I promised to share my research and thoughts--and because I think inasmuch as we know a person's strengths and weaknesses going forward, that is helpful. So, I'm sharing this in four parts: what I learned about the candidate from research; key links; what I experienced/noticed when I met the candidate in person; and if the candidate is hired, what we should make sure to communicate to them.

Research on Brian Osborne

I was able to collect lots and lots of information about Brian Osborne. I was able to find more information online about him (he does advocate for what he believes in), and I also have more contacts in South Orange/Maplewood (who helped me develop even more contacts). People wrote to me with their comments, because I asked them to.

To try and summarize, there's good and bad in there--I would say more good than bad.

Statewide in New Jersey, he has done advocacy both on school funding and on teacher tenure laws. Generally, I think teacher tenure is a good thing but I'm not an expert on either New Jersey or Michigan teacher tenure laws. I don't know how to compare them or what the replacements mean, but if you do, you can read about the teacher tenure law (and get a sense of how he advocates) at these links: 

Email #1: 

"I am attaching links to the interim report of the teacher evaluation committee that Osborne was part of [ed. note: I think he chaired the committee] and also the state dept. link to the work of the committee. 
Email #2:  
He has repeatedly advocated for tenure reform, going down to Trenton several times to testify. Here's just one example: another: "
He has been a strong advocate for reducing the achievement gap and "de-leveling" the middle schools (eliminating tracking--their middle schools had a "four track" system). They actually only have eliminated tracking to the extent that we did in Ann Arbor years ago--they still track for math. Also complicating the factor is that in New Jersey you are required to have gifted and talented programs. We don't have that requirement in Michigan. Although many people think he did a great job with pushing through de-leveling, and that it was important work, others felt that: a) he had a good idea but the follow through wasn't good; and that b) the response to no longer having a gifted and talented program has been to bring in the middle school International Baccalaureate program, which they thought of as poorly thought out, and which also ran over budget.

He also got kudos for bringing in full-day kindergarten since, as one commenter told me, "It's not 1953 anymore." In order to do this he had to convince voters to pass a tax levy (millage), so he has experience advocating for taxes. 

New Jersey did an audit of South Orange-Maplewood's Title I funding, and told the district to return over $226,000. 
Here is the full report.

Other strengths that were mentioned to me:
--He is smart.
--He "is good with numbers," "has strong budgeting skills."
--He "has charisma, is articulate, and has great instincts."

Other weaknesses that were mentioned to me:
--good communicator on things like inclement weather, but not a good communicator on other things
--can be unresponsive to parents
--two separate comments about needing to use the Open Public Records Act (New Jersey's equivalent of Michigan's Freedom of Information Act) to get information that should have been accessible without that. An example of that would be the Title I Audit.

I'll close with a summary from a friend of a friend that I think encapsulates the feedback I got fairly well. My friend (who is in the district and likes Osborne, especially because of his work on the achievement gap, but is not very involved in school politics), asked for feedback from his friend. This is a person who has been very involved in school issues, and said that in the beginning Osborne was very responsive to positive or negative issues, but over time became less responsive about tricky/problematic issues. Rather than being test-score obsessed, she described him as "data driven," but noted that was true for the whole state. [Ed. Note: We are not alone--what is happening in Michigan is happening everywhere.] She also said he likes numbers, and studying trends--and may sometimes push through change too quickly. She gave as an example implementing IB in the middle schools. 

Key Links

Live blog: finalist interview 
Live blog: 90 day plan


Much of what I saw in the interview I went to matched up very well with what people from his current district said. He is obviously very smart, articulate, and has well-thought out ideas. He discussed his thoughts about tenure reform saying something like, "not everyone might agree with me," but he was still willing to share his ideas, which I appreciate. I was impressed by how much research he had done about our district (he knew a lot of details); and by his focus on the achievement gap. 

At a different interview (one my friend was at), he waded right into the education reform debate and gave me a better sense of where he stands. My friend wrote me that, at the interview she was at, 
Interestingly, he offered up early on that he wanted to dispel any notion that he was Broad affiliated.  He said he wasn't sure how it got out there because he didn't go through their academy and in fact doesn't agree with them.  He did offer that he twice taught a session at SUPES about governance but said that isn't Broad (we said yes it is). He said "they have had no influence on my learning." 
He further went on to describe his central approach to education as improving teaching and learning in the classroom.  He said he does not agree with any of the reform strategies that include privatization and corporatization of public schools, culling out 10% lowest performing teachers, teacher evaluation solely on test scores, etc.  He said his life work is to keep public education strong and not allow it to be dismantled.  He said he's attracted to AA/fits because AA because values diversity and is progressive (his term)."
Kudos to Osborne for taking this on in an interview, and giving us a sense of where he fits on the education reform spectrum. I really appreciate that!

I was able to ask Brian Osborne about the Title I audit in the session I went to, and I asked him what he learned and what he would have done differently. He said he believed the state had overreached, that they were fighting the audit, and that he probably wouldn't do things differently--there was one out of state trip they took kids on (to historically black colleges) that he would have confirmed would be legal. So I appreciated his support of what they had done. On the other hand, our district has gotten into trouble before doing things that "we" thought were okay and that turned out not to be--remember the substitute teacher lawsuit? Perhaps more concerning to me was that he got rather defensive in answering the question, and said he wouldn't do things differently. I was looking for a "lessons learned" answer.


I was convinced that he would be comfortable, in a fairly short time, advocating for school funding in Michigan--even though he is not from Michigan. I was also very convinced that he has the budget/finance/evaluation skills to work in our district. 

Although I won't always agree with Brian Osborne, I would feel very comfortable with the board offering him the position of Superintendent.

Some of the weaknesses that were enumerated above (particularly around communication with parents, teachers, citizens) and needing to get things through the Open Records Act are things that very much frustrated me with Pat Green. However, I am hoping that the school board can emphasize to him that these are essential elements of being a successful superintendent in Ann Arbor. 

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