Thursday, July 11, 2013

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics (An Open Letter to the Salem School Committee)

Dear Salem School Committee:

Fact #1: According to Dr. Brendan Walsh, the Salem School Committee is responsible for everything that happens in the Salem schools. Be forewarned. I will regularly refer back to this fact.

Whatever programming occurs within the purview of the Salem Public Schools does so only with the approval, overt or tacit, of the School Committee. The mayor is one of seven members of the committee. The superintendent is an employee of the committee. Cooperative efforts and/or innovations may stem from many sources, but the School Committee must approve of all. - Dr. Walsh

For Dr. Walsh's sake, ignore that the letter that he made that statement in was an utterly gauche chastisement of a lauded educator who is actually getting her hands dirty while improving the prospects of Salem students. Also, please ignore the fact that it's completely self-aggrandizing (not to mention rude) to publicly (apparently he'd already done so privately) seek kudos from someone who hasn't voluntarily provided them.

Unless Nate Bryant has a change of heart, when the Salem School Committee meets on July 15 you are poised to do away with the extended year model at the Saltonstall School. This lends credence to the idea that you do not need to have the best argument if you are willing to fight the longest. A few committee members have been trying to do away with the extended year model for years. It appears they've finally worn down enough of you to get their way. Meanwhile Saltonstall is one of the schools that has actually reached the level of mediocre. Systemic mediocrity and worse is something that happened on the school committee's watch. You are, according to one of your own, to blame. See fact #1. Clearly, at a time when our district is in utterly bad shape, the thing to do is to focus on making modifications at one of the schools that is in the best shape, right? Messing with the Saltonstall model, while failing to put enough focus on more troubled schools, is akin to hitting a rock with your boat, and while it is sinking under you, you're fidgeting with your FM radio because there's static on the Sox game.

The DESE criticized the district for failing to prioritize. This is yet another example.

Let me state that I currently have no children in the Salem Public Schools. Additionally, it's very unlikely that I'll ever have a child at the Saltonstall School. Based on the current assignment policy, I live too far away to get my children in there as a parent who will have to pay for lunch. I have nothing to lose personally if Saltonstall loses the extended year program. As currently constituted, nobody in the city has anything to gain from that program being eliminated, either. There is absolutely no plan for what (if anything) to do with the anticipated savings (hopefully $150k) if the extended year is eliminated. Note that no savings will be realized unless the Salem Teachers Union agrees to it at the negotiating table. The Bentley School has an extended day currently, with teachers working different shifts because the union couldn't come to an agreement on compensation for the extended day. Why will they agree to give up a contractual benefit at Saltonstall now? My guess? Dr. Crane has been vocal about wanting the school committee to get another raise, so I'd guess that some savings may be gobbled there. Level 4 status warrants greater pay, no? (See fact #1.)

At the last School Committee meeting, the fact that there is still no plan for extended learning in other schools was of great concern to Mr. Fleming. He stated that he had heard the same last year, and it wasn't good enough that he was hearing the same now. I agree. Well, Mr. Fleming, let me ask you. Where is your plan? You are on the school committee, sir. Spend less time in FL, and lead. See fact #1. The plan is your responsibility. Demand accountability, or develop it yourself. The fact that there still isn't one, a year later, is your failing. Last year, you agreed to offer extended summer learning at all schools. Where is it? Fact #1! The pilot program being contemplated for this summer will serve 160 students. By my count, there are more than 160 elementary students in Salem. Where is their summer learning? It should also be noted that the proposed program for 160 students is actually more expensive than the existing Saltonstall model that educates 360. I'm not a math whiz, but I'm good with numbers, and eliminating a program that educates 360 for 100-150k doesn't make financial sense, especially when you're adding one that will educate 160 students for 200k. This is especially true when the funding is present to do both, and have 520 students in summer learning. More equity!

Going back to Dr. Walsh, here is Brendan Walsh, a year ago, in the Salem News:
And to do for some what you cannot do for all is, simply put, wrong.
So, Dr. Walsh, I must be confused. Maybe it's above my head because I don't have an Ed. Doc. It's a core belief of yours that doing for some, what you cannot do for all, is wrong. You put it in writing, and I've heard you say it out loud more than once at committee meetings. So why, when given the choice of having 520 kids in a summer learning program, would you choose instead to cancel that summer learning for 360 kids, but approve a more expensive program that will serve only 160? How do you come to the conclusion that there is more equity in 160 students in summer learning, than 520? How does having only 160 students in a summer program reach your goal of doing for all more than having 520 kids in a summer program? As Mr. Fleming would phrase the question, "Where is the equity, sir?" (Mr. Fleming seems to believe that if you make a snide remark, all is forgiven by adding a "sir" to the end. Last year he instructed one parent to "Open your ears, sir" when said parent stated that postponing ending the Saltonstall calendar for a year wasn't really a compromise.) Was your equity argument just a straw man? Was it a lie?

Back to Dr. Walsh ... Last year, you clearly stated that for you, the issue of the extended year was one of equity. You said it multiple times. It's referenced in print, above, in case you forgot. Of course, that was unsuccessful, so this year, you claim that, no, not really. It's really about results.

Walsh states:

If one wishes to use the “summer loss” argument for employing an extended year due to evidence indicating that low-income kids lose ground in the summer, I would generally agree, as will be noted later. But, as I have pointed out during every discussion of this subject, Saltonstall, as our least-needy school, is precisely the wrong school in which to make that argument.

Walsh makes a valid and fair point. Saltonstall is our least needy school ... right? Dr. Walsh wouldn't lie about that, would he? Well, a review of MCAS data would suggest that his statement, repeated frequently, that Saltonstall is our least needy school, is in fact, a lie. Unless it's a damn lie. It's definitely not a valid statistic. Looking at both the 2012 and 2011 MCAS data, the percentage of low income students at Saltonstall is 5 points higher than the percentage of low income students at Witchcraft Heights, which Dr. Walsh is obsessed with comparing to Saltonstall. If you look at the High Needs groups (deduplicated count of students who fit into the low income, disability, or ELL or formerly ELL groups) Saltonstall's percentages are higher than Witchcraft's in that group as well. In fact, half of the Saltonstall student body (and well more the year prior) is classified as High Needs. Thank goodness they're not needy, right Dr. Walsh? In life, I've found that if someone has the strongest argument, they don't feel the need to exaggerate, or fudge the facts. So what gives?

Let's take the comparison, since certain committee members seem intent on it, even though the DESE has specifically warned the district not to compare the Saltonstall School to others in the district, a little further. If I told you that you had two schools, A+B. In school A, the principal has been in place since 2007. The school hasn't been moved, and is in a nice facility that was renovated 10 years ago. It has a nice, bright cafeteria, with adequate gym facilities, and the school configuration hasn't changed. The school is nestled in a nice suburban neighborhood of single family homes with garages and yards, on a hill. Additionally, school A has fewer poor kids (by 5 points), and fewer High Needs kids in general, than school B. On the other hand, school B has had three different principals in the time that school A has had one universally praised principal. School B has had 3 grades added to it in the last 5 years. School B was in one facility that was in disrepair (check out the pictures), and has spent the last two years in another inadequate facility. The current one is so inadequate that three "school B" classes are actually being held at School C. School assemblies can't be done with the whole school, and the ones that do happen take place in the hallway. Lunch is served in the basement. IEP meetings are held in a storage room. School B, when it's in its correct location, is located a block from a drunk and druggy park, abutting a neighborhood filled with crime and rental units. Currently, several classrooms are isolated from the school administration by over a mile. School B has has a higher percentage of low income and high needs kids than school A.

Have the picture of those two schools? Great. Now let me tell you that they have nearly identical test scores. Hearing all of those facts, is it really School B that you'd say is underperforming? Even if I tell you that they have 5.5% more school days, to go with their 5% more low income kids? Did I cherry pick making this comparison? Sure. Aren't you, as school committee members, also cherry picking when you compare these two schools and neglect to consider any of these factors, and only consider the calendar difference, while telling us that School B is the least needy (incorrectly)? The problem with statistics is that people often pick and choose which ones they want to talk about. The stability factors in the two schools you're comparing are absolutely valid, and are also very slanted in favor of School A.

Let's go back to Dr. Walsh's assertion that the Saltonstall School is our "least needy," since debunked. It's true that it is #2 on the least needy scale. So, how did it get there? Simply put, the school department thoroughly ignored the student assignment policy that was in place, which required the schools to be racially biased. Who is responsible for this failure? You guessed it. See fact #1! In fact, the school department, according to Dr. Crane, operated under that policy for years and years, while it was completely illegal to use racial balance as a factor. Who is responsible for such malfeasance? See fact #1!

Last year, after years of illegality, the school committee finally passed a new student assignment policy, that uses "socioeconomic status" to balance the schools. Supposedly, each incoming kindergarten class will have a low income ratio that is within 10% of the district as a whole. Bravo! Down the road, we won't have to slam any schools as being least needy. Right? Not so fast. The kindergarten class at Bentley last year, after the implementation of this policy, was 81% free/reduced lunch, in clear violation of the policy. Who is responsible for allowing this? See fact #1. The school committee was notified of this in a memo dated November 5. Not a word has been spoken of this. Clearly the new policy is not being applied effectively. How are you addressing it? See fact #1. (It should also be noted that according to that memo, Saltonstall is yet again not the least needy school. They got 50% FRL kids, as did the Bates School. Witchcraft Heights got the least needy population again, at 47%. Remind me, if it has  to be within 10% of the average, how did Bentley get 81% FRL kids?

If the answer to that question is siblings, fix it. Do something really unpopuplar, but probably right. If you want guaranteed sibling placement, you need to go to one of the two closest schools to your home, or something like that. If the answer is that the policy just wasn't followed, see fact #1. you've had 8 months to address it.

Now back to Mr. Fleming. This is him during the last school committee meeting.

Mr. Fleming said earlier in the last meeting that you could make stats say anything, then did exactly that with the extended learning survey. He misrepresented the results of a survey that was done around extended learning. He said, "The data was very, very, very clear. Significantly, people wanted an extended day. Not a combo or an extended year. ...The clear choice was an extended day." I filed a public records request for the data he was dramatically waiving.

Here's some data from the same set of data he cited.

At the Bentley school, which currently has an extended day model, 16 parents expressed that they were at least somewhat interested in extended learning at all. 16, in a school of 314 or so. Of the 314 or so parents, 13 expressed that they wouldn't want an extended year. 9 would like a model that includes extended year. Wow. Mr. Fleming is right. The data is clear.

Let's look at another school. At the high school, 50% of respondents were at least somewhat interested in an extended learning model. Of the respondents, 66% of the respondents favored a model that included extending the school year. 50% wanted both an extended day and year. "Very, very, very clear?" Clear as mud.

At the Saltonstall school, not surprisingly, 90% of the respondents are at least somewhat interested in extended learning. 84% of them favor a model that extends the year to one that only extends the day. Strangely, Mr. Fleming sees this as a clear.

The Horace Mann School data appears to be messed up, but according to what was provided, 21% of respondents would prefer an extended day only. What a mandate!

Here's one more school. At the Carlton School, whose unique model is probably next on the chopping (homogenization) block, more than half of the respondents prefer a model that extends the year to one that only extends the day. Mr. Fleming, are you sure that you know the meaning of the word clear?

Mr. Fleming mentions that teachers were surveyed as well. He forgets, in his very, very, very clear data, that 56% of the teachers who responded have no interest in any extended learning model at all. How do you get around that with the teachers union?

I'd also point out that in a district of over 4000 students, the response rate was under 20%. That would seem to indicate that there is, in fact, little interest across the district for additional extended learning.

But I'm cherry picking through the data, right? Sure. But the fact that I can means that you are too, when you talk about how very, very, very clear it is. It's amazing how differently you can present data. In fact, where did I learn to cherry pick like this?

I've been dying to get this into a blog post forever. I say this all the time.

Dr. Walsh, Dr. Crane, and Mr. Fleming seem to think that there's an equity issue with the Saltonstall program. Pay no attention to the fact that the per pupil spending at Saltonstall is in the middle of the pack of Salem elementary schools. Is the fact that the Carlton School is an innovation school also an equity issue? Dr. Walsh has said, as quoted above, that you should not do for some, what you cannot do for all. So does that mean that once the Saltonstall calendar has been eliminated, that Innovation Schools, and any quasi-dual language programs are next on the chopping block? After all, you should not do for some what you cannot do for all. Be careful what you wish for. Janet Crane's cookie cutter approach doesn't seem very appealing to most people.

Every decision you make about a specific school should answer the following question. How does what we are doing better this school? Do you have an answer? Of course not. Failing to answer that question, you need to be able to answer the following question. How does what we are doing better the district? To answer that question, you'd need a plan. You don't have one. The only thing we know about this decision is that it is detrimental to the Saltonstall School model. A model, by the way, that was effective in increasing MCAS scores in its early years, and was specifically lauded by the DESE as one that should be duplicated. If it's not as effective as it should be, fix it. There's no plan to better anything else as a result of removing it. In better times, you may have some leeway, you may be able to say, "trust us." But let's be honest, there is a vast crisis of confidence in your leadership. On your watch, you've praised to the moon a superintendent who has since been completely discredited by the DESE. On your watch we've become a level 4 district. On your watch, you've hired a superintendent who has published a piece that makes it crystal clear that he doesn't know the difference between a plural, a possessive, and a plural possessive. It should have enough sics to make you sick. Never mind the fact that it reads like something that should be put out by Destination Salem, rather than a detailed update on the progress in our schools from the superintendent. On your watch, a record number of Saltonstall parents, generally lauded for being an involved group, have applied to the local charter school. On your watch you've demanded in the newspaper that credit be given to you for all in the schools. Are you sure you want that? That letter was published the day before the AG announced that the school department had violated purchasing laws for years. You then demanded to know why you weren't aware. Frankly, we all demand to know that. Why weren't you aware? Forget that! Why weren't you leading the investigation? Why hadn't you cleaned this up years ago? I have Mr. Sheehan's resignation letter that you accepted. He flat out told you. In fact, here it is.

Isn't the public records law grand?

At the time of his resignation, you (especially Dr. Walsh) praised Mr. Sheehan's work. You looked on as Dr. Cameron flat out lied (or is it a damn lie?) about Mr. Sheehan's reasons for retiring. Cameron (who you point out reported to you) said, "The timing is connected to his ability to retire with a certain number of years' services in the teachers' retirement system." That lie was told, in front of you, by Cameron, prior to your glowing evaluation of him. During that evaluation, Mr. Fleming said the following, "Superintendent Cameron's ethics, honesty and integrity are of the highest quality," Are you freaking serious? You're praising his ethics, honesty and integrity six months after he lied right in front of you? Why should we trust anything you say? In fact, Mr. Sheehan made it clear in his memo that he was retiring at great financial penalty to himself. Now, years later, you blame the whistleblower. Why not thank him? See fact #1. Do you really expect us to trust that you'll make the right decisions going forward? Really? I've written two public records requests in my life, both in response to fantastical claims by school committee members. Both have resulted in me uncovering lies told at school committee meetings. You seem to have a truth problem. Why should we believe you? In you?

Does Dr. Walsh (center) really look like he thinks ill of Mr. Sheehan (left)?

Let's assume the Saltonstall calendar goes away. Even the parents seem resigned to that. I hope you feel good that none of them even bothered to stand up at the last school committee meeting. I wouldn't think that having an interested and involved parent group become less so is a good thing, but I'm not an Ed Doc like some of you. The school calendar is greatly modified if Mr. Bryant doesn't realize that all he's doing is taking an action detrimental to a school in the district, with no plan to help any other. Then what? What's the plan? Saltonstall's school year ends basically a full month earlier than it does this year. What instruction and support are you giving the school to adapt their approach? They will have to rework plenty, with very little time to do so. What is your mandate? What does Saltonstall look like next year? How has the program changed? Who will do the work to make it happen? When? It's mid-July. You meet again in late August. you need to be able to answer these questions before you make this move. After all, you are responsible. See fact #1.

P.S. - I just bought another house here. What was I thinking?!