Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Work Goes On: The Dream Shall Never Die

What Are The Odds? 

Given that the Chicago Cubs came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Cleveland Indians in the World Series, and Iowa just defeated UM in football, I shouldn't have been as shocked as I was to have Trump win.

Rationally, I knew that, as described, the chance of Trump winning was about the same as a college kicker making a 38-yard field goal. I've seen that happen--not frequently, but also--not so infrequently. (I'm not a huge football fan--but I get called in to watch the replays of the big plays.)

So, the election happened.

And I should be happier than I am that two out of three of "my" candidates won the Ann Arbor school board election. Actually, I am very happy that Harmony Mitchell and Jeff Gaynor won seats on the AAPS board; and that Donna Lasinski won a seat in the State House, leaving open an AAPS school board seat, so another new person can join the school board (and, in the process, putting a dedicated education advocate in the state House).

But I would have given all that up for a Clinton victory.

I was at an immigration conference on Friday, and Rep. Stephanie Chang spoke. She represents Ecorse, River Rouge, and part of Detroit, and one of the things she said is, "We need more candidates running for office!"

I think she's right. So I am really happy that we had competitive school board elections in nearly all of our local districts. It takes a lot to put yourself out there--I appreciate that people are willing to do it!

I had forgotten, but even when candidates lose, competitive elections do some important things:
  • draw attention to key issues
  • allow candidates to refine narratives and see what catches attention
  • running for "lower level" seats like school board allows candidates to learn the skills needed to run for higher office

One thing that I had also forgotten is that there are lots of roles for people who want to support candidates, but don't want to run for office. I had also forgotten that canvassing can be fun, especially if you are working with friends. I canvassed for Hillary Clinton in Ohio and Pennsylvania with old friends; made a new friend canvassing for Clinton in Michigan; and got a lot of exercise walking the streets for Hunter, Harmony and Jeff in some beautiful fall weather.

Now What?

The pressing question for me, now, is: what should I work on? Part of me thinks, "Why were you working on local education issues when so many "bigger" issues are more important?" Part of me thinks, "Work on things you can control and that have a chance of success."

Should I be working on climate change? the Dakota pipeline? civil liberties? reproductive rights? I'm exhausted just thinking about it!

Even within education issues, the big question for me is whether we should focus on the short game or the long game. Let's face it--the short game is ALL defense, and it's much bigger than some of the issues that are important to me, like overtesting. [They are related, though.]

Some proposals I have heard are coming down the pike from the state legislature include attacks on teacher pensions and the use of specialized education accounts to pay for private schools.

The long game would be focused on things like ending gerrymandering; improving our Freedom of Information Act law; ending online charters and for-profit charters.

I still believe that our new local group Educate Ann Arbor; the statewide group Michigan Parents for Schools; the national Network for Public Education have a lot to contribute.

More Than Ever

For inspiration, I am sharing Ted Kennedy's 1980 Democratic convention concession speech, in which he says:

"the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die." 

After we are done mourning--we've got work to do. So whatever you choose to work on? Choose something.
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Saturday, October 15, 2016

WeRoc Questionnaires For AAPS School Board Candidates

I was asked by WeRoc to post the AAPS school board candidates' answers to their questions. After thinking about it for a while, I've decided to share them because I like what WeRoc tries to do. Also, they have some excellent questions for the candidates, and they are a bit different from most of the other questions I have seen.

In any case, if you are really interested in my thoughts about the election, and my endorsements, you will find them here

Who is WeRoc?

The Washtenaw Regional Organizational Coalition (WeROC) brings together faith, labor, and community organizations and individuals to create a collective voice to impact public affairs and issues in the Washtenaw County, Michigan area. We are affiliated with the MOSES organization in S.E. Michigan ( and the national Gamaliel Foundation network of community organizing projects. Our unique organizing process focuses on creating opportunities for more people of color, lower income residents, and youth to participate at the tables where decisions affecting them and the broader community are made — and finding effective ways to dismantle the structures that stubbornly maintain racism and economic inequality in our area. 

WeRoc AAPS School Board Questionnaire and Answers

You can find the WeRoc questionnaire and answers here. (The answers were a bit too long to put inside the blog post.)

To whet your interest, here are the questions:

1. In what ways would you seek to increase minority and low-income parent voice in decision-making?

2. In what ways would you seek to increase minority and low-income youth voice in decision-making?

3. What is your vision of a positive school climate and how would you like to see your district promote that vision? Would you promote Restorative Justice and/or Communities in Schools programs?

4. What is your school district’s approach to school discipline and do you think it’s working? If not, what would you like to change?

5. As a school board member, you may be asked to make decisions about non- mandatory student expulsions and long-term suspensions. What will be your guiding principles in making those difficult decisions? Are there situations you would absolutely expel? Are there situations you would not expel?

6. Nationally, there is a disturbing trend of suspending preschool and early elementary school students and some communities are responding with a strict moratorium on such suspensions. What is your position on suspensions in the early grades?

7. How will you promote transparency and regular review of expulsion, suspension and school arrest data?

8. School dropout is a problem with enormous social costs. What do you feel your district could do differently do address school dropout?

9. What role, if any, do you feel law enforcement should have in schools?

10. In your position as Board member or Trustee, you will be in a unique position to be a powerful advocate for children from marginalized groups. How do you see yourself exercising that power?

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Monday, October 10, 2016

Ann Arbor School Board Endorsements: Mitchell, Gaynor, Van Valkenburgh

It's time for Ann Arbor school board endorsements. 

There are eight candidates for three spots, and my friends who have gotten their absentee ballots are asking me what I think.

I know, you're thinking--in the past, Ruth has not made endorsements. That's true. But in the past, I haven't worked on anybody's campaigns either.

I feel this year is different. You should (and you will!) vote for whomever you decide to vote for, but I would like to share my thoughts.

I really appreciate anybody that takes on the often-thankless task of running for (any) school board. It doesn't pay big bucks, it takes a lot of time, it's hard work, you get a lot of criticism. Having said that, there are more candidates than spots, so we do have to choose.

FIRST: We're Talking About The Non-Partisan Ballot

I'm not a person who checks the straight-ticket box (even when I vote a straight ticket, which is probably 95% of the time, I like to fill in all of the little circles).

But if you are a person who checks the straight-ticket box, you should know that many of the school-related races: school boards, community college trustees--ALL of that--is on the non-partisan part of the ballot. Even if you vote a straight ticket, DON'T FORGET about that part of the ballot!

SECOND: I Think It's Time For A Change

There are three seats open, and two incumbents--Deb Mexicotte and Simone Lightfoot--are running again. I'm not supporting either of them, and I hope that you won't either--especially not Deb Mexicotte, who has been the president of the board for the last several years.

There is a lot that this board has to be proud of, and I have agreed with probably 80-85% of their decisions. However, the other 15-20% has been extremely problematic.

Although a former board member pointed out to me that seven people are on the board (so it's not like these two incumbents could do anything just by themselves), these two are the only ones running for re-election. Also, the president of the board does a lot of work setting the agenda and the process, and in my opinion, that has been the most problematic part of the current board.

I have concerns with the teacher evaluation system (which I believe goes far beyond what the state requires); I have concerns with the way the district has dealt with over-testing of students (the number of tests has been increasing every year); I have concerns with privatization and the number of "employees" who are not the district's employees.

But make no mistake about this--my biggest concerns are about process and transparency. I've had these concerns for several years, and in fact discussed them in an Ann Arbor Chronicle issue back in 2014! (Read it here.)  Board votes are frequently 7-0 with little or no discussion; items get rushed through; discussion of important items happens late in the board meeting when parents, students, teachers, citizens are unable to be there; minutes reflect simply the motion and the vote, and not the discussion. Subcommittee meetings are held during the school day, when teachers and students are not able to be there.

As one recent example: in the past, there were informal budget meetings with concerned community members in May, while the budget was being developed, to discuss what might be added or cut. This year, there were no meetings, and the budget was not even shown to the public until the day of the meeting where it had its public unveiling.

A friend asked me if this was really the work of the Superintendent? I believe that if the school board--and particularly the school board president--were to say, "That's not how we do things here," then that's not what would be done.

Current school board members can certainly be proud of many achievements (largely because of our fine staff), but when it comes to process, they have been sorely lacking.

So, I will not be voting for the incumbents, and I hope you won't either.

THIRD: I'm supporting Hunter Van Valkenburgh, Jeff Gaynor, and Harmony Mitchell

[Photos in order from left to right]

Hunter Van Valkenburgh
is a parent, an attorney, a former teacher himself (not in Ann Arbor), and the husband of an Ann Arbor Open teacher. 

Jeff Gaynor is a recently-retired AAPS teacher who also hosted several exchange students who were placed in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

Harmony Mitchell is a parent who moved here a few years ago from the DC area, where she saw first-hand the havoc wreaked by the so-called "education reform" agenda of Michelle Rhee and company.

I have had extensive conversations with these three candidates, and I know that they are concerned with transparency and process. I know that they support our teachers. They are running as a slate, and you can read about their campaign and their platform(s) here.

They also have--all three of them--endorsed the Educate Ann Arbor platform, which I mentioned recently. (Go ahead, you can endorse the platform too!)

FOURTH: But what if...

But what if you don't like to vote for slates? What if you don't like one of these candidates, but you like the other two?

Well then...I'm still going to ask you to not vote for the incumbents, because...there are three other good options.

[Photos in order from left to right]

1. Rebecca Lazarus--Rebecca is a parent of two children in the district and a graphic designer, and she would be my first choice, because although I don't know her personally, she also has endorsed the Educate Ann Arbor platform, so I know her values line up with mine. Read more about Rebecca here.

2. Don Wilkerson--Don is also a parent of two children in the district, and he has been actively involved in his school's PTO and in the PTO Council. He previously ran for the board and he is a hard worker. He has unfortunately (in my opinion) aligned his campaign with Deb Mexicotte's and Simone Lightfoot's. Read more about Don here.

3. Jeremy Glick--Jeremy is a recent graduate of Skyline High School and a University of Michigan undergraduate. He would like to bring the student perspective to the school board. Read more about Jeremy here.

You can also read about lots of local races, including Ann Arbor school board, at

Last, But Not Least: State Board of Education

The State Board of Education deserves its own blog post, but in case you are pressed for time on your absentee ballot, I am supporting John Austin and Ismael ("Ish") Ahmed. Yes, they are Democrats. Read about John Austin here. Read about Ismael Ahmed here.

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Sunday, October 9, 2016

Who's In For Scholarships? Join Me At Rick's* Run For Kids!

Next Saturday, October 15th, in the morning, you will find me at Rick's Run For Kids, doing a mixture of running and walking around beautiful Gallup Park to raise scholarship money for Ann Arbor Public Schools Rec & Ed. 


Rick's Run For Kids is one way that Rec & Ed raises money for scholarships that allow lower-income families in our district to access all the wonderful extra-curricular work that Rec & Ed does. That includes summer camps, after school language and dance programs, youth soccer (baseball, volleyball, field hockey, etc.), exercise and educational classes, and so much more.

I'm on the Recreation Advisory Committee for AAPS, and this really does make a difference.


Please join me. Sign up here! 

Online registration goes until noon on October 12th, you can register in person after that.

The 5K starts at 9:00 A.M.
There is a Kids' Dash for kids 10 and under that starts at 10:15 a.m.

*Who was Rick?

No, in this case, Rick does not refer to our state's governor. (You laugh, but I was asked that by a couple of people.)

Rick refers to Rick Dekeon, a beloved Physical Education teacher at (then) Northside Elementary, who also served on the Recreation Advisory Committee for many years and was a Rec & Ed coach and official. He believed that athletics are for everyone, and through RAC and several other PE committees, his influence went far beyond the halls of Northside. He volunteered his time to run a before-school running club for kids, and that's why a Run for Kids seems like a great way to memorialize him.

So won't you join me?  (Bring a couple of friends, too--why not?!)

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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Introducing...Educate Ann Arbor

Those of you who have been reading this blog for years know that this year, my youngest child is entering his senior year of high school! Where did the time go?

[Digression: He writes, too--follow the Community High School Communicator, people--it's got good stuff!]

So anyway, you know that I'm planning on phasing out my writing here as he phases out his career. (Or--I'm willing to "sell" this blog--for $0.00!--if anyone else wants to take on writing about our county schools. Seriously, maybe that's you.) MORE SERIOUSLY, I cannot do "this" alone.

So anyway, what I've been thinking about is the subject of "this": what comes next? I don't mean for me personally--I mean for the movement to educate people about our schools, promote transparent decision-making, support children and teachers, advocate for better school finance arrangements, oppose testing and the educational reform agenda...just for starters. These are not short-term issues; they require long-term attention.

Across the nation, people are organizing. Diane Ravitch helped establish the Network for Public Education.

Many thanks to Pete Sickman-Garner for the fantastic logo and to Meredith Buhalis for web site design.

Here in Ann Arbor, we are organizing too, and I'm proud to say that I'm part of the group that has established a new "organization," (it is so informal at this point that it is kind of a "baby organization") and a new web site,

I am excited about our mission and our platform. It's a bit long, but hey--education is kind of complicated. I didn't know it at the time, but the platform very much echoes the platform of the Network for Public Education.

I'm posting the "overview" part of the mission below.

I very much hope that you will visit the web site and ENDORSE our platform. Eventually we will have a list of people who have endorsed the platform on the web site (which is why you have the option of "endorsing" anonymously--in case you cannot or don't want to be public). And eventually, this will not just be a small group of people with a vision, but a large group of people with many action plans.

Educate Ann Arbor is a group of parents, teachers, school staff, students and citizens who care about our public school systems and work toward educating our community about public education. We believe parents should have an active voice in their children’s education. We believe teachers are professionals and should be treated as professionals. We believe in teacher-driven assessment. We support the rights of teachers, paraprofessionals, and other school staff to unionize. We endorse community-driven decision-making. We insist the State of Michigan make school funding a priority.
Read the rest of our platform/philosophy here, and join us!

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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Good, And Plenty

Exactly three years ago I wrote a post about how I hate the "Exceptional" tag that the Ann Arbor Public Schools uses to promote their schools. You can read that post here.

I've thought some more about it. I still hate it. Because exceptional doesn't mean good, or excellent; exceptional means that we are better than everybody else.

That's not my goal. We don't need to think of ourselves as better than everybody else. I was thinking about it earlier this summer, and I believe there is a candy that represents my goal.

Here's what I want, for all schools.

Schools that are good, and that have plenty of opportunities for all kids.

That's my new slogan: Good, and Plenty

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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Before The School Year Starts

Maybe you have already bought back to school supplies. Maybe you are not a procrastinator. Maybe you are not squeezing the last few days of vacation out of the summer.

But my advice this week, based on my Facebook feed and an email I got from a worried parent, is this:

1. Check the bus schedules, if you expect your child to take the bus, NOW. 

For some Ann Arbor high school students, 
the bus transportation may be 
provided on an Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority bus.
Don't wait until next Sunday or Monday when everything is closed. If there is a problem (and I have heard about a few), you are much more likely to resolve it before the school year starts if you try to solve it now.

--Look the schedule up (in Ann Arbor:
--If there is a problem (for instance, if your child would have to walk more than 1.5 miles, or cross a very busy street without a crossing guard or light), then I would suggest doing multiple things:

  • Call Transportation and ask for a Router to discuss the problem, in Ann Arbor: (734) 994-2330
  • Fill out the Parent Question and Concern Form
  • Let the school principal know your concern as well 
  • If necessary (if you don't feel like you are getting a resolution) then bump up your concern to the Superintendent and the Board of Education.

And by the way, it helps to know your rights: you can read the Ann Arbor Transportation Policy in Board Policy 3760.R.01 which can be found in Board Docs

2. Did your child have a crummy year last year? Are you worried that will happen again? Take Action Now. For instance: 

It's OK to request a meeting: Summer vacation is over for teachers and principals--you should feel free to write an email or place a phone call asking for a meeting. (If it's simple, maybe you don't need a meeting--but anything complicated, ask to get on the schedule!) Don't feel badly about asking to meet with the principal or with teachers or counselors--they are there to help you problem-solve. If you have complicated/multiple issues, it may help for you to describe the problems in advance--but that is not a requirement. It is better to ask earlier, before the school year is well underway.

Is it possible that your child's difficulties are due to an undiagnosed learning disability or other issue that would be covered by special education statutes and would qualify your child for additional services? Sometimes (not always) a telltale sign for this, is that your child did well in elementary school because they are smart, but as the work (and school day) gets more complex, they have trouble with a specific class or classes (even though they seem to be trying); they have trouble organizing (even though they are trying); all of a sudden they are failing classes.
If you have been wondering about whether your child would qualify for additional services under an IEP or 504 plan, it is your right to request an evaluation. (You can also have someone do an evaluation for you at your expense.) Once you request an evaluation, the school district is "on the clock" to provide it--so it really is in your interest to request this early. 

3. There Are Resources To Help You!

In addition to teachers, principals, and counselors, don't forget that other parents have a wealth of knowledge. If you are new to the school, the PTO is a great place to start.

If you have issues with special education or truancy, the Student Advocacy Center can be a great resource for you. It has Sample Letters for requesting an evaluation or disputing decisions around special education.

Another great resource in Ann Arbor is the Ann Arbor Parent Advisory Committee for Special Education (AAPAC for short), a group of parents that have children who receive special education services and who work to improve services to kids. They have experienced parents who are often liaisons to specific schools, and they have regular meetings as well.
[Note: some of the other districts have similar groups as well.]

The Michigan Alliance for Families has a parent mentor available to all parents in public schools (that includes charter schools) who can be very helpful--for instance, reviewing an IEP to see if it addresses the concerns that an evaluation might raise.

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Monday, August 8, 2016

Voter Registration: With Schools, Every Vote Matters

Last week, the day after the election, I was helping a woman from Whitmore Lake complete a Medicaid application.

At the end of the application, there is a chance to register people to vote. 

Me: Are you registered to vote?
Her: No.
Me: Would you like to be?
Her: No. They're both a bunch of liars.

Here you see my internal struggle. On the one hand, I think, there's a good chance she wouldn't vote my way. [I'm with her...]
On the other hand, I really believe that more voters is better for the greater good, even if people don't vote "my way."

I sometimes use this moment with people to talk about how a former mayor of Ann Arbor (Albert Wheeler) and a current County Commissioner (Yousef Rabhi) only won their elections by one vote (ok, on the recount for Yousef, two votes).

So while one part of my brain is having this internal struggle, the other part of my brain (the one that goes with the "other hand") pipes up:

"The thing is, the presidential election is not the only thing on the ballot. There are lots of other things too."

And she says to me...
"You mean, I could vote on a school millage?"

Yes! Why yes, you can!
[I admit to being totally surprised by this question.]

"There's no law," I found myself saying, "that you have to vote for everything on the ballot."

"OK," she said, "I'll register."
And so we did.

You might, or might not know, but the Whitmore Lake sinking fund vote lost by six votes. SIX votes.





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Monday, July 25, 2016

Election News: National and Local Developments

Note to Readers: Before I share any national or local news, I just want to say that I think that this (November) election is super important. [Don't forget, there is also an election August 2, 2016!] I'll be working on both national and local campaigns and I hope you will, too!

National News

It's no surprise that Hillary Clinton has picked Tim Kaine as her running mate, or that Donald Trump has picked Mike Pence.

Here is what Diane Ravitch has to say about Tim Kaine, in a post titled "Tim Kaine Loves Public Schools." By the way, his wife Anne is the Secretary of Education in Virginia, and by all accounts she is a friend to teachers and a foe to the education reform agenda. This sounds pretty good!

You can also read an op-ed he wrote a few years ago about what he learned as a parent in the Richmond Public Schools.

Here is what an Indiana teacher has to say about Mike Pence, in an article titled "A Negative Impact." For education, it's pretty bad.

In Indiana, small, rural schools are shutting down because funding has been cut, families are moving out of district, and whole communities are losing jobs where school corporations are the largest employers.
Inner-city schools, like Indianapolis Public Schools, are urban nightmares as charter schools take away public school funding, yet only meet the needs of a fraction of the population.

Local News

School board candidates need to turn in their petitions by Tuesday. In Ann Arbor, three school board positions are open. I believe current school board candidate Simone Lightfoot has already turned in her petition.

On Monday, at least one slate of candidates is turning in their petitions: Jeff Gaynor, Harmony Mitchell, and Hunter Van Valkenburgh.

You can read their full press release here:

Their platform and principles:

All three candidates agree on the following principles: Our district should be focused on instructional opportunities in a broad variety of subjects, not just those emphasized in the standardized testing regime now in place. To the greatest extent possible, our Board should resist the push for school “reform” propounded by politicians whose real goal is to undermine public education and recapture education funds for private gain. Within the requirement to balance the district’s budget, the emphasis should be on lowering the student-teacher ratio to levels that maximize student-teacher interaction and allow teachers to reach all of their students effectively. Where adjustments to compensation must be made to balance the budget, we believe it should be done in an equitable and cooperative fashion rather than on the backs of the poorest-paid and least-powerful employee groups.
In addition to budgetary priorities, we want to emphasize the professional competence of our instructional staff in a number of ways. Teachers should be given academic freedom to design creative learning opportunities and not be shackled to the requirements of an externally-imposed standardized test and evaluation instruments. Students’ primary means of assessment should be teacher-generated, not imposed by for-profit testing companies. Teacher evaluation should be designed by a collaborative effort between teachers and administrators. Our current evaluation system wastes untold hours of teachers’ and administrators’ time in what amounts to a huge data-production effort, leaving little opportunity to actually address any needed areas of improvement.
We also want to improve the democratic process where Board decision-making is concerned. Too often, meetings extend past midnight, in violation of the Board’s own rules. This term, several controversial measures were voted in by unanimous votes, with little or no public discussion at the regular meeting. Public comment time is overly restrictive, and the lack of public dialogue on controversial issues is disturbing. We want to explore the possibility of setting aside meeting time to engage in public dialogue between Board members and representatives of community groups with a stake in major decisions.

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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Swimming Lessons

My heart aches tonight for a child I didn't know. 

Billy Dunn was about to turn 19, and he loved fishing and swimming, and he drowned in Ford Lake.

Billy knew how to swim, but I have had friends tell me how--even though they were good swimmers--they almost drowned in open water.

Billy Dunn
In fact, the Talmud (the compendium of Jewish law) says that one of the obligations of being a parent is teaching your children to swim.

Summertime is a great time for swim lessons!

Since Memorial Day is this weekend, it seems like a good time to say: Summertime is a great time for swim lessons!

Here are some options:

The Ann Arbor YMCA is offering Free SPLASH Safety Around Water classes at local pools at apartment complexes in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor this summer. Find out more here.

They also have private and group swim lessons for adults, and private and group swim lessons for kids, and private and group swim lessons for teens.

The City of Ann Arbor pools have joined the USA Swimming Foundation’s water safety initiative, Make a Splash. The USA Swimming Foundation launched Make a Splash in 2007 with the goal to teach every child to learn to swim. We aim to spread awareness of the importance to learn to swim and be safe around water. As a Make a Splash local partner, we are dedicated to providing quality swim instruction and the common goal of saving lives and getting children in better shape.

Rutherford Pool, Ypsilanti--offers four levels of swim lessons

Goldfish Swim School

One more thing--think about becoming a lifeguard or a swim teacher if you like hanging out around the pool! It's a great summer job, and you might be able to save a life.

May Billy Dunn's memory be a blessing.

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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Spotlight, P.R., & the State of the Schools

Generally speaking, I am not a movie person.

It's rather ironic, then, that I am talking about movies twice in one week!

[The first time was last Friday, where I gave the Welcome at the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice fundraising breakfast, and talked about how Sandra Bullock's character in Miss Congeniality wants world peace, and how we know we can't just want world peace, we have to act on it. Check out ICPJ here.]

Probably my favorite movie of last year was the movie Spotlight. That's the movie about the Boston Globe reporters who uncovered the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. I was fascinated by the work the reporters did to uncover the story, to build the case. If you were watching, though, there was a part that horrified me. (And no, it's not what you think--of course the scandal itself is horrifying--this is more subtle.) There's a part in the movie when 9/11 happens. (And yes, that too is horrifying--but again, this is more subtle.)

What happens to the reporters working on Spotlight when 9/11 happens? They get pulled off their project. Every one of them. [In the process, they upset many of the survivors/witnesses they had interviewed.] The project, uncovering the abuse scandal, languished.

And if that was the case in 2001, that is even more the case now.

Look at what happened in Flint! If not for the dedication of an investigative reporter hired by the ACLU (not the usual path for investigative journalism, to be hired by a nonprofit), who knows when this story would have seen the light of day! After it broke, some Flint MLive reporters and Detroit Free Press and Detroit News reporters have turned their attention to the story in Flint (and they've done an excellent job)--but I imagine that in doing so, they have been pulled off some equally important story, that in turn may never see the light of day.

We need to do a better job supporting investigative journalism. The model we have is not working, and investigative journalism is critical to our democracy.

Right now we have a single, new to town, education reporter for MLive in Ann Arbor. (Welcome, Lauren Slagter.) And yet in Washtenaw County we have over 46,000 K-12 students in our county, and thousands of school teachers/staff.

Meanwhile, Monet Tiedemann has been live blogging as many of the Ann Arbor school board meetings as she can at

But that's it.

The situation is similar, or worse, in Dexter, Chelsea (they have Chelsea Update, at least), Saline, Ypsilanti...


So if you've been paying attention, you will notice that Ann Arbor school administration--and to a lesser but notable extent, Chelsea, Dexter, Saline, and Ypsilanti school administration--have been putting a lot of effort into their own P.R. machines. You can see evidence of this on twitter, and facebook;  in emailed newsletters; and on their school web sites. Each of them, in their own way, are trying to promote their districts, share the good news about their districts, draw attention to their districts. And who can blame them? Journalists are few and far between.

So last week, Jeanice Swift organized a "State of the Ann Arbor Schools" event. She had the Community High band Tempus Fugit play, she had Rep. Jeff Irwin and County Commissioner Andy LaBarre speak, and she herself spoke.
Tempus Fugit playing at the State of the Schools.
L to R: Aidan Wada-Dawson, Jonathan Lynn, Aaron Willette,
Seamus Lynch, Danny Freiband, Avery Farmer.

Rep. Jeff Irwin speaking. He had my favorite line:
"Education is economic development."

And I think that organizing this event, from the point of view of promoting the school district, was a good idea. I do hope that next year the event will be held in one of our schools, and not on the second floor of a hotel with no easy parking. I do hope that next year the event will be widely promoted to parents, PTOs, etc. In other words, I'd like to see 200 citizens in addition to the 50 or so administrators and blue ribbon panel members that were there.

In full disclosure, I left before Jeanice Swift spoke, so I'm not sure what she said exactly. But based on the handouts, I imagine she talked about happy things, like the fact that graduation rates are improving, and that she discussed some of the new district initiatives.


In case you are wondering, I don't expect Jeanice Swift, in a State of the Schools event, to dwell on issues that are significant problems, and even if she does or did, I would expect her to give a PR perspective on it, because essentially, this is a PR event.

It's reasonable to expect that not everything is hunky-dory, and that it might require someone from the outside to look in and see what's not working. 

For instance: I think it's worth mentioning that the teachers I have spoken to are still quite upset about the time consuming and (in their opinion) ridiculous evaluation process they are now required to go through; still upset about the way the school board treated them last year during contract negotiations; worried about the way contract negotiations are going this year. And--many of them are afraid to speak out, feeling they have been implicitly threatened.

The point is this: there are a lot of great things going on in the Ann Arbor schools (and in the other local districts, too). But there are also things that don't fit the narrative of a PR machine, and they don't show up in a State of the Schools event. 

We expect that we will learn about them through the media--and at this point, I'm not really sure that's possible.

So who knows what we are missing?!

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Friday, May 6, 2016

State House Burns Detroit Schools in Middle of Night Session

While we were sleeping, the State House Republicans pushed through some awful legislation that burns the Detroit schools. (In case you are wondering, the State Senate legislation is better, although in my opinion it is not better enough. But it is bipartisan.)

Pushed through. At 4:30 in the morning. That's a great time for decision-making, right?

Phone lines are open: Feel free to call House Speaker Kevin Cotter and give him a piece of your mind. Phone: 517-373-1789; Email: 

The point, people, is that we would never. ever. ever. accept what they are doing to the Detroit Schools as equitable or just or reasonable or in the students' interests in Ann Arbor, Chelsea, Dexter, Okemos, East Grand Rapids...OR EVEN IN schools with a higher percentage of students of color like Southfield or Ypsilanti. 

Never. Ever. And that's because it's not equitable, just, reasonable, or in the students' interests.

[For instance--would we accept saying that all of the teachers have to apply for their jobs back, no guarantees, no union, and if they don't get them back, or don't apply, we can bring in uncertified teachers to teach our kids? I don't think so.]

And it's the same shameful thinking--death of a thousand cuts--that brings us the Flint lead crisis.

Which--in an educational sense--we will be paying for, for many years, because kids with lead poisoning will need special education services, which are mandated. [And by the way, a little shout out to all the Washtenaw County voters who said yes to the special education millage. Totally off topic, but...phew! We needed that.] Back to Detroit, where the schools probably need that money more.

What we can be proud of, folks, is the House Democratic caucus. There were some outstanding speeches. I am just sorry that some folks are either too thick skulled or too "in the pocket" of special interests (yes, I'm talking about the DeVos family agenda) to listen.

But do listen to the speeches:

Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo of Detroit, and former DPS teacher:

"The package today builds on that foundation of institutional racism."

Rep. Sam Singh of East Lansing:

"Just because you say it's about the kids, doesn't mean it's about the kids."

Rep. Adam Zemke of Ann Arbor:

From his Facebook post:  
In the middle of the night, House Republicans rammed through a partisan package of bills created specifically to set Detroit Public Schools down a path of continued systemic financial and academic inadequacy. 
This package is intentionally designed to provide inadequate debt service toDPS, to incorporate uncertified teachers in their classrooms and to allow the continued proliferation of unchecked, low-quality schools in the City of Detroit. 
It's despicable, low-down and dirty politics to satisfy the sick desires of one family on the west side of the state. The House Republican's plan reflects that they are bought and paid for.

Last, but not least--

Seth Meyers, of Late Night with Seth Meyers, stands with Detroit teachers:

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Monday, May 2, 2016

Please Vote Yes: Washtenaw County Special Ed. Millage May 3

Tuesday May 3d the county has a special education millage on the ballot. 

It's the only thing on the ballot, and it's critical that it passes. 

It will support special education services in all of our county districts--and since special education services are mandated and have to be supported whether funded or not--we also support general education by voting yes. All of the funds will stay local.

Students up to age 26 are eligible to receive special education services. Your YES vote means public schools in Washtenaw County can support the 6,500 students who count on these services without eliminating programs that benefit ALL students. 

Unfortunately, the Washtenaw County Republican Party voted to oppose this millage. 

Please don't let the "No" votes win.

For several of our districts, it is the difference between deficit budgets and break-even budgets.

Read more here.

Support our schools--join me in voting yes!

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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Guest Post: Teachers, Statistics, and Teacher Evaluation

Have I mentioned that I love guest posts? 

Priti Shah, an AAPS parent and a UM psychology professor read a version of this during public commentary at a school board meeting, and she followed her comments up as a formal letter. I liked it so much that I asked if I could post it here. The reason I asked is that I think we need to understand what good evaluation would mean, and why the system being imposed on teachers by the school district is not a good system. And by the way, if you have never spoken at public comment (or haven't recently), I encourage it!

Dear Ann Arbor School Board Members:

This letter follows up on my comments during the public comment period of the Ann Arbor School Board meeting in January 2016. I spoke about the new teacher evaluation system.

As a reminder, I’m the parent of two children in the Ann Arbor Public Schools (11th and 6th grade). I am also a Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, and my research areas are in cognition and cognitive neuroscience and educational psychology. I base my comments on my feelings as a parent as well as based on the research evidence regarding teacher evaluations.
Priti Shah

The reason I wanted to speak was because I am very concerned about the climate of respect and collaboration teachers and administration that has been eroding in the Ann Arbor Public Schools and the impact on our children.

I start with three assumptions: 
(1) we all want the very best teachers possible,  
(2) we all want them to have the resources they need to provide the best possible educational experiences for each of our children, and 
(3) we want to be able to do all that without wasting our hard-earned resources. 

I strongly believe in setting high expectations and rewarding high quality work.  And as an educational scientist, I believe very much in high quality, research-supported teacher evaluation.  High quality evaluation should be valid (that is, someone who is rated as a “good” teacher should actually be a good teacher and someone who is rated as a “bad” teacher should actually be a bad teacher) and reliable (that is, evaluation shouldn’t change too much depending on who is in one classroom or which day the assessment occurs). Validity is a very hard nut to crack, because it depends fundamentally on one’s definition of what a good teacher is.

The new teacher evaluation system relies on two components: (1) student growth on a menu of standardized tests and (2) the Charlotte Danielson teacher evaluation system.  I would like to outline my concerns with respect to both of these approaches in terms of validity and reliability.

Student Growth

While I understand that incorporating student growth into teachers’ evaluations is mandated by state law, I want to highlight that the use of student growth—and how a teacher contributes to that growth--is problematic from a statistical perspective.  The American Statistical Association, in their policy statement on the issue, point to numerous concerns with respect to using student growth data for teacher evaluation purposes.  Most studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions. Student growth measures are not highly reliable, in other words. 

Most studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in 

test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found 

in the system-level conditions. Student growth measures are not highly 

reliable, in other words.  

A good teacher may look like a bad teacher depending on the composition of students in his or her class.  A group of Ann Arbor students in AP English may not show huge growth on a standardized English test because those students are already performing at ceiling on the test; their teacher might be rated as ineffective because there was no growth.  A teacher whose students may need safety and security (and warm coats and breakfast) may do an outstanding job and yet the circumstances that they are dealing with might lead to minimal growth on a standardized test. 

Another problem with using test scores to evaluate teachers is that relevant test scores are not available for many subjects taught by teachers-- my children have taken outstanding courses in subjects for which there are no standardized tests used: engineering design; communications, media and public policy; orchestra; art.  Some of these teachers will only interact with students once a week for an hour.  Evaluating these teachers on the performance of their students in subjects that they do not teach, and students that they rarely see, is absurd.

Furthermore, there is good support for the idea that teachers change their practices in light of these high stakes evaluations, often removing activities that promote critical thinking and creativity to spend more time on tested materials.

Most importantly, growth rates for different years for the same teachers vary widely, suggesting that these measures are not very reliable indicators of teacher quality and highly influenced by exactly which random kids they are teaching. And unfortunately, students will spend increasing amounts of time, and the district increasing amounts of money on high stakes tests that assess learning to the detriment of resources spent on other activities.

The Ann Arbor Public Schools would like to focus on growth for the bottom 1/3 of students in hopes that this will be an incentive to reducing the achievement gap.  Unfortunately, having 1/3 of the data to work with will mean a massive reduction in the possible reliability of the data because of smaller sample size.  And the bottom 1/3 is a dramatically different benchmark standard across teachers (i.e., you cannot compare growth across teachers if one is using the bottom 33% of the students in AP English and another the bottom 33% of students in guitar).

The Charlotte Danielson Framework

The second proposed component of the new teacher evaluation system is the Charlotte Danielson Framework. On the surface, this is a reasonable measure that involves administrators evaluating teachers on a systematic set of 76 items that are likely to be positively associated with teacher quality. 

Again, a good measure of teaching quality an assessment requires two key features: it needs to be reliable – in that the same teacher would be rated the same across time by different people—and valid—that is, that a good score on the means someone really is a good teacher.  Unfortunately, the reliability or validity of this framework is just not clear, based on the extant evidence.  Sure, you’ll hear some relatively high numbers from the people who sell the Danielson system but they are based on expert coders watching the same lessons on video.  Consider rating a baseball player for 15 minutes during a game.  If he makes a home run that day, your two independent raters will rate him similarly. If he strikes out, the two independent raters will rate him low. It’ll look like your rating system is highly reliable. That’s how reliability of these observational methods is tested. This is just one of many problems associated with such classroom observation methods.  

I point the board to a 2012 article in Education Researcher by Harvard School of Education Professor and University of Michigan PhD Heather Hill for a more technical discussion of these and related concerns. And at the same time I appeal to your common sense: Look at the rubrics and ask yourself—have you ever had a terrible teacher who could check off all the boxes and look like an “effective” teacher because they could use the right lingo and implement the criteria superficially?  Have you ever had a stellar educator who inspired and motivated you to succeed but didn’t see eye to eye with the administrators’ views on how classroom seating could be organized? Might there be a teacher who can shine during such a formal evaluation process but shows active disdain for some students throughout the school year?

I appreciate the extreme difficulty but necessity of evaluating teacher effectiveness, but I can confidently state that just by moving from rating teacher on one subset of the criteria annually to rating them on all four will not necessarily positively impact the reliability or validity of the measure. Indeed, it is likely to reduce the quality of the ratings, the validity of the measures, while simultaneously increasing burden on teachers and administrators. Just because there are more items does not mean an assessment is better.   Neither do I think that the vast majority of highly effective experienced teachers are going to change and become less effective. At my own job, our evaluations become less frequent with greater seniority; this makes sense to me.


Given that teachers must be evaluated, and that none of the proposed methods are particularly reliable or valid, I would probably use a combination of metrics as proposed by the school board. However, I would (1) try to minimize burden on the teachers and administrators (as in, not that many hours of time), (2) involve teachers in decision making at all phases (to get input on what they think should be included and what is reasonable and won’t distract them from their real work), (3) include not just administrator evaluations but peer evaluations (that is, ratings of other teachers, who often know more about what goes on in classrooms), and (4) consider also input of parents and students.   

A proud mama moment: my son wrote an article advocating the inclusion of student ratings of teachers for the Skyline Skybox (; while I think student evaluations can be problematic in some situations, he makes an excellent point.   Student evaluations, based on specific questions regarding teaching effectiveness (not just “was this a good class” but whether the teacher seemed to care, whether students respect the teacher, and so forth) can actually be better predictors of student growth than observational methods.  And I can tell you that parents in our community are pretty well informed regarding which teachers seem engaged, caring, and effective. Parent and student surveys are cheap.


We need to start with some basic assumptions in revamping the teacher evaluation system in Ann Arbor.

My first assumption is that most of our teachers are smart, hard working, and caring professionals. I have observed far, far, more excellence in the Ann Arbor Schools classrooms on my many visits and interactions with teachers than I have experienced ineffective teaching.

Second, the Ann Arbor school system needs to maintain its leadership position regarding school administration and governance as well as quality schools.  The reason we have such outstanding teachers is that they want to work in our district.  We want to attract the very best teachers, not drive them away with unnecessary busywork.  Let’s interpret our state’s laws in a manner best suited to our teachers and students instead of jumping through hoops that may well be unnecessary.

Finally, let’s all agree that we want to expend our time and money on what helps our children learn, and that we do not want more and more of our money go to for profit testing companies, consultants to train administrators and run workshops teachers on evaluation rubrics, software so that administrators can rapidly rate teachers on numerous criteria quickly in the classroom at the press of a button.

Thanks for your time, and I’m happy to have a longer conversation with anyone who would like to talk to me.


Priti Shah

A few references:

Hill, H. C., Charalambous, C. Y., & Kraft, M. A. (2012). When rater reliability is not enough teacher observation systems and a case for the generalizability study. Educational Researcher, 41(2), 56-64.