Wednesday, July 29, 2015

If Teaching Were A Sport...

LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this TeachingCenter spoof by Key and Peele...if you are a fan of ESPN's SportsCenter you will recognize a lot of themes (and if you haven't seen SportsCenter, watch it after you watch this).

This reminds me a bit of the bumper sticker quote (apparently by Robert Fulghum), "It will be a great day when our schools have all the money they need, and our air force has to have a bake-sale to buy a bomber."

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Sunday, July 19, 2015

July 2015 News and Notes

Congratulations to Two New Nonprofits!

First of all, let's give big congratulations to two important, new local groups that recently got their non-profit status.

1. The E4DS Foundation, Excellence for Dexter Schools, is focused on raising money for regular operating expenses in the Dexter school district. There is also an Educational Foundation for Dexter.

Question of the Day: Is E4DS Different than the Educational Foundation of Dexter?
Yes. E4DS is the only group whose mission involves funding normal operating expenses associated with regular programming in our schools. The Educational Foundation of Dexter (EFD) provides financial support for teacher grants for innovative and creative educational projects that cannot be funded through the school district. E4DS supports the EFD and shares some Board members between the two Foundations. It is our sincere hope that the information you learn about the limitations of available funding will also move you to contribute and support the great work of the EFD!

Find out more at or like them on Facebook.

2. The CivCity Initiative (headed by Mary Morgan, formerly of the Ann Arbor Chronicle) also got non-profit status recently. What do they do? "CivCity is working to crack the nut of civic apathy, increasing awareness of how local government works and how each of us can participate in civic life."

I am hopeful that eventually they will take on some civic initiatives related to the schools--and considering that Linh Song of the Ann Arbor Education Foundation is on the CivCity board, I think that's a real possibility!

Find out more at or like them on Facebook.

National News

The US Senate has passed a version of the Every Child Achieves Act (successor to No Child Left Behind). According to Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teacher Association, who is quoted in this piece on Diane Ravitch's blog:

“The bill continues yearly testing in grades three through eight and once in high school, but leaves it to states to determine how to use those tests for school accountability. It removes the authority of the federal government to demand that teacher evaluations be connected to student test scores and gives more authority to states to determine specific standards and curriculum. 
In giving more authority to states, the bill loosens constraints on how funds will be spent, though fortunately the Senate rejected a voucher amendment. The Senate measure now goes to a conference committee, where senators and members of the House will mesh their bills and develop a final piece of legislation. If approved, that bill will have to be signed or vetoed by President Barack Obama. If Obama vetoes it, Congress would have to override the veto for the bill to become law.
Per Madeloni,
“It is a bittersweet victory to applaud the power of school accountability going back to the states, should this bill become law. While it would allow us to organize locally and make the demands we want for our students and our schools, others have noted that it would mean we have 50 battles to fight instead of one – and that some states are especially weak in their readiness to fight.”  
And the House version [which is called the Student Success Act] is different, but it also provides a means for students who opt out to not count against the 95% rule for participation. In other words, based on federal law, parents opting out their children will not affect Title I funding (to be clear--currently this has not affected Title I funding anywhere in the country, but theoretically, it could).

Do you want the details about the differences between the two bills? This blog post, by Mercedes Schneider, does a good job of explaining the differences around testing. She's got other good stuff on her blog too!

I won't pretend to have read the bill, but at least about this piece of the bill--which gives the ability to parents to opt out--I am pretty happy.

Michigan News

We've got a new State Superintendent of Education, Brian Whiston. Read more about him in Lori Higgins' Detroit Free Press article.

The number of new charter school authorizations is going down. Maybe charter school authorizers are starting to realize they actually need to be accountable for the schools. [Hope springs eternal.]

We have yet another new state law that will negatively affect schools. According to this press release from Miller Canfield:

PA 109 of 2015 amends the Revised School Code to require any district without a positive general fund balance of at least 5% for the two most recent school fiscal years to report annually by July 7 the budgetary assumptions used when adopting its annual budget to the Center for Educational Performance and Information (CEPI). The budgetary assumptions must include the district’s projected foundation allowance, projected membership, estimated expenditures per pupil for the immediately preceding fiscal year and the projected expenditures per pupil for the current fiscal year. Based on the report, the State Treasurer may determine if the potential for fiscal stress exists within the district.

Local News

And that new state law (PA 109) is one of the reasons why the Ann Arbor superintendent and school board have been so focused on fund balance. Here is the list of local schools (including charters) that need to report. [Most of our local charters are for-profits, and their management companies could be manipulating their fund balances to take as much as they can--maybe they'll leave a little more in the bank now.] Ann Arbor was at 4.9% fund balance this past year, and are projecting to be higher in the coming year.

Ann Arbor has a third in-district transfer/schools of choice window. This might be good news for you if (as happened to a friend of mine) your landlord decided to sell the place you are renting and you might want to not be restricted to a single school area, but you want your kids in the same school as last year...

In the past several months, Ann Arbor has now hired four principals from other local school districts--two from Plymouth-Canton (Megan Fenech for Ann Arbor Open and Karen Siegel as assistant deanat Community High School), one from Northville (Alison Epler for Bach Elementary), and one from Farmington (Jerry Morrissey for Forsythe Middle School). I wish them all good luck! [Fenech and Siegel both live in Ann Arbor.] The Community High assistant dean position was filled in April, and is a new position that is being funded because Community High is adding students, and evening classes.

Ben Edmondson
Ypsilanti Community Schools hired Ben Edmondson as their new superintendent. (He is a former Ann Arbor principal, as well as candidate for Ann Arbor superintendent.) Read his 90-day plan here. (It looks ambitious to me, but it probably needs to be.)

Summer Fun:

Are you playing the Ann Arbor summer library game? I am! If you are, I am going to give you five six! leads on ways to get some points and codes. [If you're not, it's not too late to start! Visit, there are both traditional and online versions.]

1. Visit, which is the Washtenaw Health Plan's site about health care coverage. Specifically, visit this blog post for a code, and a clue for another code.

2. Help out with Arborwiki, our local wikipedia. There's lots of work to be done, and lots of points to be gotten. And I registered and updated a page--it really was pretty easy! (On the page, it explains how to get the points.)

3. CivCity is "sponsoring" a bunch of badges. I think you have to go to meetings to get them... Go to and scroll down to CivCity.

4. Go into any local branch, walk around and look for the different codes. That's what I did today at West Branch, and here's a clue to one of the spots.

5. Read. Yup. Whatever you want. You can also get points for commenting on the books, rating them, and tagging them.
The last four books I read? (Which is probably more than I read January through April!)
1. Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind by Sarah Wildman (non-fiction/memoir/genealogy search)
2. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
3. Battle Magic by Tamora Pierce (young adult fantasy)--I liked some of her others' more
4. I'm in the middle of The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict by Trenton Lee Stewart (kids' book, part of the Mysterious Benedict Society series)

6. Staff codes--some of the library staff have special codes they can give you. Ask them!

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Thursday, July 9, 2015

Happy to See Mediation Begins

Like me, you may have gotten this press release--I'm quite happy to see it!

Ann Arbor Public Schools
Ann Arbor Education Association:

The Ann Arbor Public Schools and Ann Arbor Education Association have agreed to enter into conversations with a mediator from the Michigan Employment Relations Commission regarding the current dispute.  This was based upon the recommendation of the administrative law judge and state labor mediator. During this time, the parties have agreed to maintain confidentiality and will not be making public statements. In support of the spirit of mediation, we are requesting that the public and press and all stakeholders stand down and refrain from further comments to allow the process to proceed. We appreciate the opportunity the mediation process affords and look forward to a successful outcome.

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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Guest Post: This is How Our Public Schools Die

Occasionally someone volunteers to write a guest post! I think this post, by Steve Norton, the Executive Director of Michigan Parents for Schools (written in his capacity as a parent, but with the knowledge he brings from MIPFS), is worth your time! He calls it a "companion piece" to the parent letter that was sent to the Ann Arbor school board and teachers' union. (See this post.)

The little embedded video--all of 11 seconds long--is from the movie Independence Day--a movie I've never seen. This holiday should remind us all of our rights and responsibilities as Americans, and that's really what Steve's post is about! (And that's why I've got the text colors set up in red and blue!) --Ruth

By Steve Norton

Everyone who cares about education in our community ought to be paying attention to what is happening right now between the leaders of our school district and the union which represents Ann Arbor teachers. Not to take sides, or to point fingers, but to understand the awful consequences of policies crafted over many years by "think tanks" and lobbying groups who hold tremendous power in Lansing. What we are seeing here today was scripted long ago, by those who hold community governance of education in contempt. Should we continue to follow their script, or should we start writing our own?

As a concerned parent, I definitely want a strong and stable school district which can offer great programs, maintain reasonable class sizes, and avoid constant crises. But as an involved parent, I also know that what matters most for my children is their everyday interaction with the teachers and other professionals who educate and care for them. School is not a place where we send our children to download "facts" and memorize algorithms. A quality education helps teach our children how to think, how to ask the right questions, and how to understand those different from themselves. Together, parents and schools prepare our children to grow into thoughtful citizens and productive members of our community. That's not something which can happen without talented, committed professionals at every level, most especially in the classroom.

So what has our state done to help make this possible? More than twenty years ago, we placed the fate of our local schools largely in the hands of the state legislature, because we gave them control over the funding for our schools. Money isn't everything, but schools are dark and cold without electricity and gas, buses don't run without fuel, and programs don't exist without the people to implement them.

Since that time, districts like Ann Arbor have seen their per-pupil funding lag behind inflation nearly every year, to the point where the real spending power of our funding is  over 21% below where it was in 1995, even before retirement costs are subtracted. Overall state spending on K-12 education has stagnated over the last decade and more, and when the mandatory payments to the state retirement system are taken out, real state per-pupil spending is down 21% since 2002. Perhaps more important, the share of our state's economic product that we use to pay for education has gone steadily down over the last decade: in good times or bad, we are committing less and less of our income to support K-12 schools.

In response, local school districts have been cutting programs, laying off teachers, insisting on pay concessions from employees, and privatizing any services which can legally be contracted out. Class sizes have risen, offerings have narrowed, and teachers have not only had their pay cut but their resources slashed. The rise of high-stakes testing has pushed quality education aside for the sake of test prep. The system, and everyone it it, has been under more and more stress as the years pass by. For background on how this has played out in Ann Arbor, please see the presentation here:

Make no mistake: this was intentional. Having restricted itself to a funding bucket that was no longer adequate for our schools, our Legislature alternated between years when they pompously announced that we "need to live within our resources" and others where they patted themselves on the back for increases which were really illusions. But the consequences of these choices, and the pain, played out at the local rather than state level as school boards were forced to oversee the dismantling of their local schools.

To add fuel to the fire, our elected state officials passed laws to ensure greater conflict at the local level. Starting in 2011, the Legislature made topics which had traditionally been worked out between teachers and school boards into "prohibited subjects" that could not be subject to bargaining and instead are under the sole control of the school board. Sensitive matters to teachers, such as staffing and placement, evaluation, layoff and rehiring priority, and the minimum standards for firing, were handed to beleaguered school boards as a replacement for adequate funding. "You won't get any more funding, but you can use these as leverage to whip things into shape." Already backed into a corner, is it any wonder that school boards were willing to use those new powers?

Furthermore, faced with constant pressure for financial concessions, rising health insurance and retirement costs, and now a real threat to their working conditions, is it any wonder that many teachers and their unions chose to fight back?

But why set this in motion? Well, if you believe - as many influentials in Lansing currently do - that "government" can never to anything as well as the private sector, and that it should be as small as possible, you want "public" education to be placed into private hands. The easiest way to do this is to get families to vote with their feet, and abandon local public schools rather than try to save them. The money follows the children - all of it. After all, who wants to stay on a sinking ship?

It is not necessary to get into the details of what has happened in Ann Arbor to recognize the pattern (for more, see the Parent Letter here []). We are being forced to fight over a shrinking pie. As the pressure continues, and the fights accumulate, our local public schools will be undermined, public confidence in them eroded, and talented educators driven away. This is how our community-governed public schools will die.

When you are in the middle of the fight, it can be hard to step back and look at the big picture. But for our community, it is essential. These kinds of battles will lead nowhere good - and the people who set the stage for this struggle know that. It's time we took it to heart ourselves.

Our school leaders and educators need to set aside their legal weaponry, and quite literally beat their swords into plowshares. All the resources being used to further this standoff, the legal and organizational effort involved, would be better used to secure a settlement among stakeholders locally and to find allies across the state for political action. Those of us on the outside, parents and members of the community, have a job to do as well: we need to do what we can to plug the financial holes for now, and add our energies to the effort to force our lawmakers to do right by our children and our schools. It may seem trite to say "Fight Lansing," but if we do not, our future is clear - and it will play out just as they intended.

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Parents Ask AAPS Board, Teachers' Union to Work on Agreement, Consider Mediation or Other Alternatives

Ann Arbor parent Steve Norton and a small work group have written a letter to the Ann Arbor Public Schools Board and to the Ann Arbor Education Association. It has been signed by a number of Ann Arbor parents--including me! I'm sure when you read it, you will agree with me that if more people had known about it, many more would have signed it.

*If you find yourself agreeing with the letter, but you didn't sign it, you should feel free to let the Board of Education and the AAEA (teachers' union) know how you feel! [One good way is to email them; another way is to share this on Facebook or Twitter. I'd suggest Instagram but I'm not sure it is all that photogenic...]

Steve wrote this to me in an email this morning:
This letter was the result of several weeks of work by a group of concerned AAPS parents who want to help repair the rupture between our district's leaders and our district's teachers. While the group recognizes the real financial concerns of the school board, it is very concerned that the highly confrontational strategy adopted by the Board is seriously undermining the confidence and morale of the very best teachers in our schools.
Central to the effort is an analysis of the legal situation by two attorney-parents, which shows that both sides would be better off in negotiations than waiting for an uncertain ruling by a court or administrative body. The group wants to offer the assistance of parents to help resume collaborative talks, and to remind both parties that, in the end, the schools need to serve the needs of the children and community.
The letter was delivered on 24 June to AAPS board Trustees, Superintendent Swift, AAEA President Linda Carter, and AAEA Executive Director George Przygodski. The group of signatories has received preliminary responses from a Board member and from AAEA, which give us some hope that we can help the parties resume productive discussions. We delayed publication of the letter as a courtesy to the parties, to allow them to absorb and possibly respond to our letter before it was made public. We are publishing the letter now because we believe this is a conversation which should engage the wider parent and teacher community.
Fair warning: Put some attorneys together and you won't get a short letter! It's long, and the link to the whole thing--including: a) the letter; b) the names of those who signed it; and c) the addendum (more detail)--is below.

Update July 5, 2015, a short note from Steve Norton: The workgroup which drafted the letter was convened by Steve Norton and Linh Song , and included some 20 parents and past parents who wanted to speak out on this issue. The group was assisted in understanding and assessing the current status of the contracts and the law surrounding teacher contracts by parents Vince Wellman, a law professor specializing in contract law, and Jack Panitch, an attorney in private practice with significant public sector experience.

Here is the link to the letter.

Here are a couple of excerpts.
As current school parents, we certainly value financial sustainability for our school district; annual budget crises and a decade of program cuts can and have diminished opportunities for our children, making it harder for our community to serve every child. We are very pleased with the renewed  optimism and opportunity in our school district. On the other hand, what really determines the  quality of our schools, and what means most to us as parents, is the quality, commitment and  dedication of the professionals who teach our children every day. Without their full enthusiasm, patience, and care, our school district would be nothing more than an empty shell—no matter how  stable its finances were.  
Parents are not insisting on any one solution. But we do insist that our schools’ elected officials and educators sit down and begin serious work on an agreement that, as much as possible, ensures that our teachers do not feel intimidated or disrespected while also protecting the stability of our schools  as an institution.  
We have become alarmed at the rupture that has occurred between our district’s leaders and educators. This is not mainly a disagreement over money: many teachers are feeling disrespected, hurt and betrayed. Nor are these feelings simply the product of rhetoric from a teachers’ union  engaged in a contract dispute. Recent steps by the Board of Education and district administrative leadership have done much to undermine hard-won goodwill, and we believe many of these steps are not only based on a false premise but are also profoundly unwise. 
The letter ends like this:

There is no question that our schools, as with all local public schools in Michigan, have been under tremendous financial and regulatory pressure in the last decade or more. We are determined to avoid  having a school district in constant financial peril with repeated increases in class size and cuts in  programming. 
At the same time, we as parents love and support our children’s teachers and react strongly to  anything that threatens to disrupt the countless amazing things that happen in our children’s  classrooms every day. 
Finally, we must all remember that we did not reach this point by accident. Laws, budgets and tax  policies have been crafted at the state level to foster precisely this kind of conflict. By continuing  an internal battle, we serve the interests not of our community but of those who wish to undermine community-governed public education. 
We urge you all, in the strongest possible terms, to step back from your legal maneuvering and begin  discussions about how to meet the needs of our children within the financial and legal constraints we  now face. We would be pleased to help you begin these discussions, and we encourage you to  consider some sort of mediation to foster a collaborative approach to finding solutions. 

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