Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Finalist for Superintendent Background Research: Brian Osborne

Time presses. The school board is on a very fast timeline to make a decision about semi-finalists, and I don't have half the information I would like to have! I will add more as I find out more (at least for the finalists), but for now I'm just going to share a disorganized group of information, take from it what you can. For the finalists we will try to find out more information.

Of the three non-local candidates, Brian Osborne is coming from the district that is most like Ann Arbor. South Orange-Maplewood is a highly diverse district, bordered by some very low-rent areas (like Newark). It is home to many high-achieving professional families but has a formidable achievement gap and the student population is something along the lines of 50/50 people of color (mostly African-American) and white. In addition, it has a very active and engaged population, probably comparable to Ann Arbor.

However, where Ann Arbor's per-pupil allocation is just over $9,000, it appears that South Orange-Maplewood's is nearly double that. Although they have had to make budget cuts, I'm pretty sure they still have the opportunity to tax their citizens if they want to. And my friend in Maplewood tells me his son's high school classes are closer to 25, where my children's high school class sizes were over 30. So is it really comparable?

Partly because I know a few people in Maplewood, and partly because there is more material available on the web about Brian Osborne, I probably have the most information about him.

My friend alerted me to a conversation that is going on in the forum Maplewood Online, about Brian Osborne leaving and whether that is a good thing. It seems to be a fairly civil forum, and you can read the discussion here

Probably the main thing that I've gotten from the discussion so far is that he is probably looking to leave because Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has decided that school administration costs too much, and that superintendents are getting paid too much. So he has put in place a hard salary cap. One commenter writes, "To put this in perspective, Osborne's salary will go down almost 20% under the cap, from $204,088 to $167,500. No one with other options would take that kind of hit."

Brian Osborne's Background

Brian started out as a Teach for America teacher. You might know what TFA is--it's a program that takes high-performing college graduates and puts them in inner city schools with only a small amount of training for a two-year commitment. Some of them (most of them, I think) leave teaching after their two year commitment is up. It's attractive to urban school districts because the TFA teachers cost less. I'm kind of agnostic regarding TFA. For the most part, I think it's a great experience for the TFA teachers, but may not be so great for the students, who get constant turnover and new teachers. Teachers who are new to teaching are not going to be as good as teachers who have a few years experience.

Anyway, Brian stayed in education. Of the three non-local candidates, he certainly has the most elite (as in competitive universities) background, with an A.B. from Colgate University, a M.A.T. from New York University and an Ed.D. from Harvard Graduate School of Education.

He went through Harvard's Urban Superintendents program, and he is affiliated with the SUPES Academy. I know, I haven't had time to write this post yet, but the SUPES Academy appears to be (since 2011) the successor to the Broad Academy that I have written about previously. He is also connected to several people who are affiliated with the "education reform" movement--most notably Joel Klein, whom he worked with in New York City, and Andres Alonso, who wrote a recommendation for him, saying that he "recruited him to be part of the Children First reform.

He is a member of the “Education Equity Project, Joel Klein’s vanity non-profit that supposedly works for education reform.” Discussion about that found here:

First, the good:

He's bilingual in English and Spanish.

He has experience running a school district. 

He seems to be well-liked in his school district. According to my friend who is in the district, Brian has been very focused on the achievement gap in the district. His primary effort has been to "de-level" classes; to open up pathways for students to move up to higher levels (so they don't get stuck in a lower-level class); and to encourage students to take more higher level classes (like AP classes). My friend felt that most of the people who don't like him have wanted to maintain tracking. I know, Ann Arbor has to a great extent (though not entirely) eliminated tracking, but I think that is an important initiative and does show some of his priorities. Here is a discussion of it:

He is a good communicator. I liked his twitter feed:

It reminded me of Scot Graden's (Saline Superintendent).

Second, the neutral:

I wasn't able to get the full text of his dissertation, A Qualitative Study of One District's Efforts to Improve Mathematics Instruction to Scale, but I did read the abstract. However, I liked that he did a qualitative study that looked at math as a gatekeeper to achievement, and that he looked at a multi-faceted approach. 

He has written the governor about state funding of schools. At least he is advocating! There is some good stuff in this letter, and a couple of things I didn't like so much:

This paragraph gives me some pause: 
By capitalizing on technology and blurring the lines between high school, college and highly skilled work, we can develop in New Jersey richer, more engaging and relevant learning opportunities for our young people while reducing the burden on our taxpayers. No district can do this alone. We need the creativity of an entire state galvanized by the vision of a forward thinking leader. Otherwise, I fear that despite rhetoric emphasizing the importance of education, the path we are on will inevitably lead to the dismantling of public education in our State.

Third, things that make me nervous/I would like to know more:

He is the Chair of the New Jersey Dept. of Education Teacher Evaluation Pilot Advisory Committee. Does that mean that he supports using test scores to evaluate teachers? A friend who teaches in a different New Jersey district tells me that they are engulfed by teaching to the test and narrowing of the curriculum. 

Where does he fit on the education reform scale? What does he think about testing? My friend in the district says he doesn't think this is a major issue for Brian Osborne, but this is an area I would like to know more about.

What about his SUPES/Broad connections?

He says he has advocated at the state level for changes in tenure reform laws. What kind of changes?

In his interview (based on what I read in, he was fairly well-informed about the district and had pretty specific answers. But when he asks if the teachers understand the economic situation? Well yeah, I'm pretty sure that they do, given that they have been "giving back" to the district for years. So is it just a matter of educating him?


  1. My friend Alan (who lives in Maplewood) asked his friend who is very involved in school issues and the PTA her impressions of Brian Osborne. In particular I asked him to ask her about his communication skills and approach to testing/education reform. Here is what she had to say:

    "a friend who was pres. of an elementary school PTA and has been very involved in school issues:
    I think that in the beginning of Brian's time in our district he was extremely responsive to positive or negative issues. Now, he is much more responsive when good things happen, but not as responsive (on a personal level) when issues come up that are tricky/problematic. On a general sense with sending emails to the community in response to weather related issues or school emergencies he is very responsive.
    In regard to being test score obsessed I'd say he is more data driven. It may be that our state is especially test score obsessed and that may be why there is emphasis on that in our district. He does like to look at numbers and study trends and then try to make change. I would also say that sometimes he gets very excited about change and possibly pushes it through too quickly without taking other circumstances into account. Like IB in the middle schools for example."

  2. Ruth, thanks for the info. The data-driven approach to the de-leveling question is exactly the type of thing AAPS needs to do, in order to evaluate which strategies (eg, trimesters, mastery learning, reading intervention) work and which ones can go.

    As to whether teachers understand the economic situation, it's like everything -- some do and some don't. Many teachers seem to be fairly insular in that they work & socialize with the same small group of folks; that can limit the flow of unbiased information. Sort of like people who only watch MSNBC or only watch Fox News. So I didn't think Osborne's question was insidious.

  3. I'd love to see more emphasis on using data, yes explicitly including standardized test data, to drive AAPS educational decisions from the individual classroom up to the Board of Education. Much of what has been done so far in the name of closing the achievement gap has seemed to have no effect, or worse, the effect of leaving our brightest and highest-potential students academically adrift because the teachers no longer have any spare capacity to advance their learning while also struggling to teach the students who hadn't actually mastered the material in the previous grades.

    I'm pretty sure that most teachers and school employees in general do not get the current truth of the economy in Michigan, and to a lesser extent the rest of the Midwest. Wage (and total compensation) levels for many jobs, even so-called high tech and professional jobs, have fallen by 15-30% over the past 6 years, defined-benefit pensions are no longer common for private-sector workers, and substantial contributions (in both premiums and co-pays) are the new normal for health insurance. Michigan has undergone a loss of up to 25% of it's total tax income in un-adjusted dollars during 10 of the past 12 years, while the state allocation of dollars for K-12 education has fallen exactly once. Those funds were restored the next year. That's not what I call slashing education; that's preserving education above all other state expenditures during a time of economic crisis.

  4. There is a difference between writing something on your resume and having it be true. Supt. Osborne has a personal, and politically expedient, belief in deleveling, and he actually refused to provide any data to back up his beliefs. The deleveling effort was an affront to a large plurality of high-achievers here in SO/MA, those who pay the high taxes and are entitled to better than teaching down to the lowest kid in the room. Osborne's slate of candidates was soundly defeated in our last BOE election. While Osborne is not a bad guy, he is ambitious, elitist and somewhat arrogant. Despite being very well-taken care of here, including a very generous package of perks and our taxpayers paying for his Ed.D. at Harvard, he never even moved his family here. And he'll probably only rent if he moves to Ann Arbor. He has no intention of staying very long.

  5. Re school funding in the comment by the earlier "Anonymous": Yes, Michigan has lost substantial tax revenue, but much of that was because of an ill-advised decision to roll back income tax rates when revenue was temporarily up. School aid has its own dedicated (by the constitution) source of funds, and the transfer from the state's General Fund had dwindled to nearly nothing by the time Snyder came into office.

    School districts have been cut nearly $500 dollars per student (a cut that would have come earlier were it not for the Federal stimulus funds); Ann Arbor lost over $200 more per pupil when 20j funding was cut in a game of political chicken.

    Overall state spending on K-12 for next year is still lower than spending in 2006-07 in unadjusted dollars. When adjusted for inflation, state spending has declined 17% in the last 12 years. Even when adjusted for the decline in students, per pupil spending is still almost 8% lower than 12 years ago in inflation-adjusted dollars. Much of this was the result of the permanent revenue cut to school aid with the end of the Michigan Business Tax (which had contributed some $750 million each year to the School Aid Fund). The new CIT does not contribute to school aid and represents a $1 billion plus tax cut.

    Finally, census data makes it clear that workers with a high school diploma or less had much larger pay cuts and much higher rates of unemployment than those with a bachelor's degree.

    The share of the state's overall income spent on K-12 education has been falling over the last 10 years, in good times and bad. This is not the way to rebuild our state.