Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Dear Dr. Swift, The Honeymoon Is Over

For the first year and a half of Dr. Swift's employment as the Ann Arbor Public Schools Superintendent, I heard almost entirely positive reviews. She had her "Listen & Learn" tour, she learned a lot from that, and she proposed new programs and ideas. Some notable successes--she got the principals of Roberto Clemente and Ann Arbor Tech to work together; turned Northside into Ann Arbor STEAM; got the school board to open seats to schools of choice, and also attracted a lot of Ann Arbor residents back into the schools. The number of students in the district grew significantly, and that allowed the budget to grow as well. If the custodians' jobs were cut along the way, I think the thought went, that was just a casualty of the times.

All this was in stark contrast to her predecessor, Pat Green, whose honeymoon lasted about 3 months, and whose focus in budget cycles was to thumb her nose at parents, propose cuts that managed to tick off a lot of people without likely saving any money (remember the idea of cutting middle school Athletic Directors), and generally share a negative vibe.

Recently though, while going back through other things that I had written, I was startled to see the headline of a piece I wrote in February 2014 for the Ann Arbor Chronicle. Titled Good Ideas, Flawed Process, the subheading said: "New superintendent brings positive proposals, but Ann Arbor Public Schools board violates its own policies, undermines public process." 

At the time I thought that this had a lot to do with her newness on the job and to the community, and hey--good ideas make all the difference, right? Well, maybe not.

And now I think I can say, with full confidence: "Dear Dr. Swift, the honeymoon is over."

Let's look at three areas, all of which concern me--as well as a lot of other parents and teachers.

1. Testing: in particular, M-STEP Testing.
As you know, the M-STEP (or, as I prefer to call it, the MIS-Step) is the state-mandated test that robs teaching time, robs computer lab time, and does not replace any of the other tests that are already being given (NWEA MAP, SRI, ACT, WorkKeys, regular final exams, to name just a few...). It's quite a bit longer than the MEAP that it replaced. For those of us who already thought there was too much testing, well, this doesn't help matters.

Parents have the right to refuse this test for their children, but administrators have been nervous about potential implications for the district (at least for this year and next, likely none).

An email from the Superintendent implying that parents don't have the right to refuse this test, when they do, got a lot of parents hot under the collar--even parents who were happy to have their kids take the tests.

For myself, I wasn't surprised that the Superintendent was supporting the test (that's her job), but I was disappointed that she wasn't following the lead of Rod Rock, the Clarkston Superintendent who (with the chair of the Clarkston PTA, Ariana Bokas) wrote a wonderful op-ed in Bridge magazine about better ways to approach testing. Read it here.

2. International Baccalaureate schools: Huron, Scarlett, Mitchell

In the coming years, the Scarlett, Mitchell, and Huron schools are supposed to become International Baccalaureate schools. This is one of the ideas that came out of the first round of the Listen and Learn tour. To teach in an IB school, you need a certain type of training--and the whole "teach in an IB school" thing is really not for every teacher.

Past magnets and school openings have developed teacher staffing in different ways. Skyline's staffing plan was developed through a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the teachers' union; A2Steam's staffing was developed as a "pilot," which means that teachers there don't have certain union work rules or protections for a certain period of time.

And let's note that A2Steam is a much smaller program than the combined programming of Mitchell, Scarlett, and Huron (together well over 2000 students).

According to my sources, the teachers' union and the Superintendent's representatives were meeting monthly all of this year to develop an MOA around the IB staffing, and the union apparently thought that MOA was going to go to the board for approval. At the last minute, they found out that the Superintendent was ignoring the MOA, and bringing a proposal for a pilot program to the school board. The pilot proposal passed the school board unanimously, and I have no idea whether the school board knew in advance of the vote (I'm sure they know now) that the AAEA felt they had been dealt with duplicitously...that they had been bamboozled. And part of the teachers' question was, "Why act as if you were going to bring the MOA forward...why waste our time over the past year...if you never planned to do that."

3. Teachers as Professionals

All of that sets the tone for some additional conflict.
Last year, teachers agreed to take a "one-time" pay rollback. [Although why anybody thought things would be better financially this year, with our current legislature, is a bit beyond me.]
So now this year, the district would like to reopen the contract (so they can extend these pay savings) and the union has just said no, thank you.

And that's at least partly because of the issues with the IB pilot, above.
And a refusal to negotiate over pay will likely threaten the school budget solvency, and that's not good.

But there's another issue, and it's one that concerns me a bit more.
Several teachers that I have spoken with have told me that they--or other teachers they work with--have been implicitly threatened, in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways, for speaking out at school board meetings, for speaking to school board members, for writing on social media, and even for sharing their opinions about testing in meetings where there were only teachers and administrators.

This does not sit well with me at all.

If teachers are professionals, let's treat teachers like professionals.

In a recent letter to teachers, the Superintendent wrote:

Unlike what has been stated in the media, the teachers of this district are respected and affirmed both by the district leadership and the families of Ann Arbor.  Unfortunately, the state leadership continues to devalue public education and as a result, each of us must continue to call for changes in legislation and leadership to reflect the funding that is needed and deserved to adequately support our schools.  At the same time, we do not create good will for public education with hostile attacks on the district. Public attacks on the new programs that our community values and that our teachers have so competently developed ultimately harms everyone.  (Emphases added.)

While some people might read this as relatively innocuous, many teachers don't feel respected or affirmed by the district leadership right now. And in the context of the subtle and not-so-subtle threats that teachers have experienced or heard about, many of them are reading this as a warning not to criticize the IB program or any other new programs. And the irony is, for the most part the criticisms are not about the programs themselves, but about the way the program will be staffed, and about why and how teachers will have to reapply for jobs...for the teachers that I've talked to, this did not feel like much of a Teacher Appreciation Week.

4. Tonight's Board Meeting

Tonight's Board meeting (Wed. 5/13/2015) starts at 7 p.m. and has been moved to Forsythe Middle School because a crowd is expected. It should be interesting.

5. Process Matters

Dear Dr. Swift--

There is still time to turn this around. You are rightfully concerned about the district's finances. You are rightfully developing new and exciting programs.

But you have to see parents and teachers, and teachers' aides, and secretaries, and principals--all of them, all of us--as partners.

The end does not justify the means. We need transparency and we need good will.

Process matters. I mean that both ways--process does matter, and also--let's discuss matters of process.

And now, please read the coda to this post (think of it as part II), which I wrote on 5/16/2015.

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  1. Your last point sounds an awful lot like what I hear from teachers in Van Buren (my wife works in the district) with regards to their superintendent- Michael Van Tassel. No talking to school board members, no social media, barely veiled threats, having and sharing opinions are all things that can get teachers written up or otherwise reprimanded.

  2. She will not bully the parents, nor the teachers if the parents back them up. She will be sent packing.

    1. I think Dr. Swift has done a lot of good in the district.
      I am hoping we can help her become more collaborative, and I'm in no way ready to "send her packing."

  3. I think perspective dictates a lot and to be honest, almost any business would make the same exact statement to their employees about negative talk on social media, et al about their employers. The reason is because it makes the employer/company/organization look weak. This type of weakness threatens the overall viability of the employer and consequently the jobs of the employees. It's REALLY important to take into consideration this view. Just like a firm would never want internal struggle to be released to the outside world because their clients would doubt they are strong enough to handle the toughest of cases & interests, a school district also cannot appear to be in strife because it depletes the amount of overall income that the government and taxpayers will want to provide. A weak school district will NOT incite taxpayors to fork over more of their income to help an ongoing, and public, struggle. It's not necessarily fair, but it's the way the world works. Governments will not want to provide added monetary assistance or even bolster credibility of a school district if they are not seen as a strong and cohesive unit. Again, not necessarily fair, but it's the way the world works. This is a reality that the financial and business worlds have had to deal with for ages. School districts are not free from this type of scrutiny. Good and caring teachers should always be hailed as heroes and rewarded financially for their incredibly hard work and dedication to educating our children. However, it also needs to be appreciated that there are other influences which will impact the longevity of a career and a system. Therefore, I don't necessarily see the statement made by Dr. Swift as a threat, but rather as evidence that she is someone who knows the way the world works outside of the classroom, administration building or board meeting.

    1. hear where you are coming from and I think that probably summarizes Dr. Swift's point of view. The teachers see the comments in the letter (and in person) as threatening because--in many cases--the comments they have been made have been (in their view, and mine) very mild. Since I'm sitting at tonight's board meeting, I have to point out that some teachers who have felt subtly or not so subtly threatened have merely spoken at public commentary to the school board and asked the school board to address x, y, or z.