Monday, March 19, 2012

Predictable Schools "Solution"

I've been suffering from Salem fatigue. Nothing going on in town has interested me enough to write about it. There have been several things I've commented on and discussed via Twitter here, and Facebook here, but nothing that got me to write a blog post. I've been following the school situation, waiting for the time to be right to weigh in. I think the time is now. Also, I broke my tailbone recently and I'm crankier than usual. So here it is.

The plan proposed for the Salem schools is crap (mostly). Basically, they are taking the path of least resistance, smallest feel-good change, and beat down the stuff that works best. I wish I could say I was surprised by this, but I had conversations with more than one person where I predicted that the final result would look a lot like this. The DESE just released the final version of their report on Salem Schools. Read it here. Pay close attention to the findings and recommendations summarized in Appendix D. I'll let you decide for yourself whether or not the recommendations from the DESE are remotely adopted in the turnaround plan. (I lied. They aren't. I'm telling you.)

A constant meme in Salem is that we're vastly overstaffed with administrators, and understaffed with teachers. The DESE vehemently disagrees with this assessment. Their conclusion was that we are understaffed on the administrative side, leading to teachers not being evaluated frequently enough, and not being coached or developed in any kind of consistent way across the district. We are grossly overstaffed in the para-professional arena (compared with several similar districts), and our para-professionals, who are involved in teaching kids, but are generally less educated and trained than teachers, are not evaluated at all. From the report:

In combination with the absence of a strong district philosophy and plan, insufficient supervision by central office administrators of school administrators and by school administrators of their staffs is a contributing factor in the variable achievement across the district. The district should implement a cohesive system of supervision and evaluation of instruction based on the new district strategic plan and consistent with the new state regulations on evaluation of educators (see evaluation recommendation below), a system that the district can use to develop a consistent and effective instructional model across schools and levels and to achieve its curriculum goals.

To implement this system, the district needs to have enough administrators. The review team found that the Salem Public Schools’ central office had significantly fewer administrators than four comparable districts. Principals and central office administrator readily acknowledged that the number of administrators was not adequate for supervision and evaluation. In recent years, the already thinly-distributed administrative staff has been reduced, rather than reducing teacher numbers, to maintain class sizes.

The district may need to reconsider the earlier decision to reduce the number of administrators in order to preserve class sizes, and rather look at ways to increase the number of its administrators so that it has enough to carry out supervision and evaluation effectively. Then the district could implement a system of supervision and evaluation both of school administrators and of their schools’ staffs that will advance teaching and learning toward a shared vision of high quality instructional practice, which is key to raising student achievement.

This is one of the only areas that we seem to be getting right in the turnaround proposal, at least some. Funny thing is, they'll take as much heat for this as anything else.

Let's talk about Jim Fleming's attendance for a moment. (I know, I've covered this before.) If ever there was a time for all hands on deck, it's now. Fleming may be on a dock, but he's only on deck half the time. During the election, season, the reason Fleming told us we should re-elect him was that experienced leadership was needed to help guide new administration. How can he do that from Florida? There are minutes available from 4 school committee meetings this year. (Until a week ago, there were no minutes available online since October 3. Think we have a communication problem?) Of those four meetings, Fleming gets a 50% on attendance. That's an F, even in our underperforming schools. It should also be noted that chronic absence is one of the reasons we like to cite for poor school performance. Our students are following the lead of one our school committee members. From the report:

A review of the 2010 attendance data for Hispanic/Latino students revealed that 23.7 percent
were chronically absent. The problem is even more severe at the high school where 39 percent of Hispanic/Latino students were chronically absent in 2010.

If it's good enough for Fleming, why isn't it good enough for the students in his charge? It's time for our school committee to lead by example. We need everyone to show up for class.

The current turnaround plan, and the proposed school choice changes, aren't fixes for what's actually wrong in the district. Read the report people. It's linked on the Salem Schools website above.

We propose reducing school choice. DESE doesn't seem to think that school choice is part of our problem. Why are we tackling it head on?

Today's Salem News article on moving to an income balancing school assignment plan (not included in the DESE recommendations to fix the district) included the following:
Salem's current assignment policy — or lack of one — has led to a school system that is "separate and unequal," according to School Committee member Janet Crane.
"I can't believe we've had this old policy, which was based on racial balance," she said. "We are so far behind the times. ... Back in Lyndon Johnson's years, we knew that children who don't have a full stomach and who don't get a good night's sleep don't learn."
Let me remind you that Janet Crane started her school committee service in January of 2006. More than six years later she can't believe we've had this "old policy?!" What has she done to address it in the last six years? She hasn't enforced the existing policy (there absolutely is one). That's clear. If the existing policy was being enforced, we wouldn't have the imbalance that exists today. (In a nutshell, the policy states that no school can vary more than 10% from the average. Bentley clearly does.) Enforce the plan that exists. Beyond that, DESE is quite clear that it's true that we have a separate and unequal educational experience in our schools (as Crane asserts), however, it's due to systemic failures of leadership, not because of who happens to be learning in the different buildings. Maybe Crane hasn't read the report?

Read this passage from the DESE report:
The review team found the district to be without a fully developed curriculum that was vertically and horizontally articulated and consistently implemented. The district is also without a system for curriculum development and renewal. Teachers, coordinators, and coaches at every school address curricular needs in an ongoing fashion, with limited support and direction from the central office administrators. Salem Public Schools’ curriculum, assessment, and professional development functions are not fully integrated and often operate separately and in a fragmented way.
I need to remind you that the entire school committee was heaping effusive praise on Dr. Cameron when Cameron was on his way out the door. They talked about the man like he was a hero. The DESE paints him as a zero. When they say "central office administrators," they mean superintendent, asst. superintendent. One must ask, how do we trust this school committee to guide us through this? They don't seem to know what's going on in their own system, and district-wide office, never mind the individual schools. Our the emperors naked? Our mayor (and school committee chair) loves consultants. Why haven't we brought in some honest to goodness pros to address this? When the mayor voted not to put him into the school committee vacancy, she said that she'd rather hire Francis Vigeant. Why hasn't she? His company specializes in how to teach better and get better results. He's local. Why aren't we taking advantage of that? If ever there was an issue that required outside expertise, it's this one.

Going back to the snooze article on the choice policy:
Salem officials insist this new plan zeroes in on the right target: socioeconomic status.
"There are differences of opinion over the extent to which income is or is not an issue," Russell said. "In my own experience, there is a correlation between income and (school) success."

Maybe it's our Salem officials who are learning deficient. The right target isn't shuffling students around so that all of our test results only "suck" (we're already there), instead of "really, really suck" in a specific school to the point that the state steps in. The target is teaching children better, more consistently, wherever they sit. DESE was EXTREMELY clear on that. Bentley wasn't the problem, the district is. We're trying to shuffle kids out of Bentley so the scores for that school reach the point of suck, instead of really suck. Is that really the right approach? Can anyone really think that? Let's shuffle deckchairs on the Titanic, and ignore the gaping hole in the hull. Additionally, we aren't just underperforming the Lincolns and Westons of the state. We're underperforming districts that look just like us.

Why not try something really revolutionary? We have ELL students in every school. (Sounds like Bates is being phased out.) Why not go the other way? Why not, instead of ELL students in every school but one, what if we had ELL students in one or two K-8 schools? DESE criticized us for not having a full time ELL administrator (two full time teachers run the ELL program, in addition to teaching full time). Why not focus all of our ELL teachers and resources on a school or two. Have an ELL principal and assistant. There have to be economies of scale there. It has to be easier to share best practices teaching ELL students inside a building. We are failing our ELL students. Very little in the proposed reforms really addresses that. That population underperforms the most. DESE says we reach them the least. Let's go big on that one. Set it up as a public charter if you want (I'm sure there will be cries of segregation around this concept). Make it optional, but make it a true community for ELL students and their families. What good parent wouldn't want their child in that environment? Teach math in as many native languages as possible for the first few years of instruction. Don't complicate it by teaching it in a language the kid doesn't understand.

We seem to hate the private charter schools (go watch Dr. Walsh at the 3/5/12 school committee meeting for proof). We like the public one's though, because the cash stays in the district. Severely limiting elementary school choice opens the door to private charter elementary schools in Salem. I could practically write the application for them. "Students in this neighborhood are limited to the woefully failing Bentley School, or the only failing Carlton School, which is an Innovation (experimental) school. Parents in this area need choices." [Editor's Note: I'm available for hire charter school peeps! Hit me up!] Seriously, today we claim that a parent can choose any school in the city, with all these different models of instruction available. Limit that, and what's the argument against the next charter? I guess I know why a "For Sale" sign went up next door to me last night. Their child starts kindergarten in September, and likely faces that Bentley/Carlton dilemma.

All in, it's clear to me that we're taking the easiest way, even though it seems least likely to bring meaningful fixes to the schools. The problem with feel good ideas like school uniforms, school assignments, revised report cards (according to DESE, if we're going to revise report cards they need to be the ones given to teachers), having a "lead nurse," waiving busing and sports fees, etc., is that they completely ignore the massive failings in leadership, common messaging, communication, and curriculum that are causing us to fail. You can't fix any of that with uniforms or a revamped report card.

Level 4 schools that have produced rapid improvement have been identified to have all of the following in common:

1. The school has an instruction- and results-oriented principal who has galvanized both individual and collective responsibility for the improved achievement of all students through a variety of deliberate improvement structures, expectations, practices, and continuous feedback.
2. The school has created instruction-specific teaming and teacher specific coaching for pursuing ongoing instructional improvement.
3. The school has developed a well-orchestrated system of ongoing data collection and analysis that informs a continuously responsive and adaptive system of tiered instruction directly attentive to students’ specific academic needs.
Our solution needs to ensure that we're setting ourselves up like this. Instead, we're taking the same piecemeal approach that DESE has accused us of, without addressing the big picture of how we teach better and more consistently. That needs to come first. Do those things first, and I don't care how you decide to assign kids to schools, or what you make them wear. Without fixing the big stuff, the stuff we're talking about is meaningless. DESE criticizes us for not using data to drive these decisions. I've heard I can't count how many people asking where the data is to support that any of these proposals will be effective. Thus far, none is forthcoming. We should have started with data, to see where that would take us, instead of the scramble that I'm sure is going on now, where administrators are searching for, and massaging data to support the already reached conclusion. DESE should declare us special ed. One last point on data. We like to scapegoat our "transient population" for our poor results. Where is the data on a student who is in Salem for all of K-8? What does that student's trajectory look like? Why don't we know? Does the district not want us to know?

I have a lot more to say about this topic, but that's enough (more than) for now. I'll definitely have more to say later.

One final note. At the school committee meeting on March 5, the committee spent more time debating a $1 an hour raise for crossing guards than they spent actually debating the Bentley turnaround plan that they passed that night. Does that sound like they're dealing with the big systemic issues, or cutting the grass with scissors?

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