A Blogger’s Reflection

Five years ago, I started the SchoolsRetooled blog and began to gather my thoughts on the US PreK-12 Education Delivery System and, more specifically, urban education. Periodic stints back in the classroom have put the blog on hiatus, and it flagged quite a bit after a family tragedy a couple of years ago. But I stand by my initial vision for education reform, not as a call for competition but, rather, a renewal of the system itself to create the capacity to fully integrate 21st Century innovations and continue to evolve toward excellence.

In December 2011, near the end of my first year of blogging on SchoolsRetooled.com, I published Seven Keys to Education Reform. In this 10-page summary of my approach to system reform, I identified seven levers of change that could improve the system’s functioning by getting more information from data systems, taking a broader view of pedagogy, streamlining organizations around the mission of educating the children, and providing incentives for common ground among educators and between educators and the communities they serve. Beyond organizational dynamics, my thesis presumed an absence of fault on behalf of any of the participants in the education system and, in particular, an end to ageist scapegoating.

In the years since then, policy conflicts defined by political affiliation have shaped the conversations among educators, much to my dismay. My biggest disappointment has been the extent to which the goals of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) were allowed to slip away and the 2014 deadline passed unnoticed. The Obama Administration relaxed the accountabilities, pushing for the Common Core State Standards and advancement of teacher evaluations. Conservatives renewed their support for competition for public schools, choosing incubation of ideas in charter schools, often with private bankrolling.

By the time ESEA was renewed late in 2015 bipartisan support was achieved in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) with very little prescription for how this would be ensured. The clearest policy directive was the prohibition on any further Federal intervention in accountabilities that the legislation defined as states’ rights. The legislature was ruled by Republicans in both houses; the Obama activism in lieu of overdue ESEA renewal was over.

I continue to believe in system reform. The quiet period after the passage of ESSA allows me to reflect here on progress made with my own agenda as well as initiatives needed in the future.

On no-fault education reform

Education reform has evolved such that rhetoric is less about frenzied reactions to missed targets for student achievement on high-stakes tests and more about opportunities for concrete system improvements and real school transformations. However, the worst performing districts often remain trapped in blame-based failure cycles. They will not be able to get out of their own way until they become more inclusive in their solutions, recognizing their allies and working in concert rather than with antagonism and derision.

On a student-centered data system

Data systems have shown great strides within education, but they are not student-centered. ESSA authorizes a limited number of districts to experiment with student-centered accounting, but they focus only on the revenue stream, not really addressing matching of revenues to expenses at the student level. I continue to believe that we will not be able to manage student outcomes effectively until both sides of the equation are in synch. Once the money is at stake, school systems that are reluctant to embrace the challenge of student-centered accounting will realize its necessity. Data on student outcomes and teacher effectiveness will follow logically.

On broad-based pedagogy

Software is beginning to catch up with the structural changes in hardware and data. This bodes well for implementation of blended learning, which balances digital resources with tradition methods. In addition, personalized and competency-based learning can be realized with greater potential for educators and students to share management of the learning process.

Educators are accepting technology that combines attendance, assignment completion, and grading in databases that can also support student portfolio development. In addition, these same platforms support collaborative projects that can be pursued and documented on shared platforms. Textual content is available digitally, and learning is becoming an interactive, multi-media experience. Student support is routinely enhanced with multisensory digital options and close-reading strategies.

On alignment to mission and benchmarks

There have been many experiments in school transformation; however, reorganizing the actual schools has not been a priority yet. I believe this will happen organically as data systems provide better information on student outcomes.

On performance incentives for Special Education

New Special Education guidelines from Federal regulators have shifted emphasis toward student outcomes. This promising development should help to accelerate progress toward grade-level proficiency. I continue to recommend earlier student involvement as members of their education planning teams, but there has not been much movement in that direction. For now, younger students tend to be present more so if they have disciplinary hearings than for prospective planning sessions.

On school leadership and general management

A couple of years ago, the time seemed ripe for two trends to deepen. The first was the emergence of empowered parents demanding a voice in troubled schools. The second was the trend toward education schools entering joint ventures with their management school counterparts within major universities.

Threats of parent trigger interventions have given way to mayors and school district leaders joining to speak with one voice, a more politically savvy voice that recognizes the importance of community members proactively. The university-based collaborations have gotten caught up in concerns about educators finding a back door to access to highly competitive MBA programs. I suspect the long-term solution will be dual degree programs that require admission to graduate programs in both the business and education schools.

On portable pensions

The issues around underfunding of pension plans continue to dominate the conversation, and most actions are currently being focused around solvency. Unfortunately, the recommendations are more likely to be made by those who have mismanaged the programs historically. The pension beneficiaries have continued to be called out for reasons that baffle me – they are the only people who have given up their pay to the fund without fail through the whole fiasco – and ways to eliminate funding shortfalls that reduce obligations to the pensioners get more traction than ways for the government employers to pay back their missing contributions to their employees. This is particularly troublesome when government entities got holidays from making their contributions in lieu of Social Security, something that would never be allowed in the smallest of entrepreneurial businesses.

On financial incentives linking educators to performance

As I stated originally, validated educator effectiveness reports need to precede merit-based pay. There has been significant progress in teacher evaluations and leadership performance assessment. However, there is more work to be done, which necessitates postponing this objective for a while longer. The recent developments in technology cited above should offer greater options for multiple measures of educator performance, a key to getting beyond controversial value-added test scores as the proxy for overall effectiveness in schools.

On valuing people of all ages

The fervor has died down over targeting veteran teachers as the source of all evil in education, and the conversations around accountability for test scores alone have softened. That said, charters schools continue to be organized with an unwritten rule against hiring teachers beyond a fairly young age. Teach for America and other similar programs continue to be granted exemption from teacher prep rules, giving an edge to youth-oriented private organizations that funnel a revolving door of teachers into public systems. As these groups mature, they are demanding a greater role in leadership at the risk of stifling the voices of educators with a deeper commitment to schools and important insight into the issues.

January 22, 2016 at 12:44 PM Leave a comment

2016 Presidential Campaign Analytics

In an election year my civic mindedness as an educator must reflect both my duty to exercise my right to vote and my strong commitment to balanced analysis of the candidates and their positions on the issues…which I cannot say without irony yet.

Happy New Year? Oh, crap! It’s here. I had been avoiding it for most of a year, vowing NOT to pay attention to any Presidential campaign politics until the actual year of the election. Hate the money and other resources plowed into premature, extended campaigns…not to mention the noise pollution and distractions from the real functions of government. No excuses now.

It is time to develop a framework for political analysis. I offer these probing questions.

1.       If the inauguration were held today…Could the candidate credibly take the oath of office to protect and defend The Constitution of the United States based on his or her understanding of the document and who might be comprised in We the People?

2.       Does the candidate believe in our political economy based on democracy and capitalism? (choose one)

a.       Yes, as long as it includes gerrymandering, campaign finance with Big Money, and non-ownership of factors of production.

b.      Yes, as long as it includes Big Money and social programs that trickle up.

c.       No, capitalism sucks, let’s go with social democracy.

3.       Does the candidate possess the basic math skills for the job? For example, could he or she pass a middle school Pre-algebra quiz by recognizing the impact of his or her policies on both sides of any equation, e.g., supply and demand, imports and exports, etc.?

4.       Does the candidate have more than one answer to every issue? For example, is there a challenge to the status quo that could not be addressed by consistently choosing just one of the following strategies?

a.       Throw money at it

b.      Rely on a return to old time values and ignore it

c.       Stockpile weapons, gather a posse, and go get ‘em

5.       What is the candidate’s perspective on globalism? For example, when there is a challenge to the nation’s competitiveness among other world powers in terms of…

a.       Trade balance – raise minimum wage or give more tax credits to the rich?

b.      Education – throw money at it or cite States’ rights to eliminate US Department of Education?

c.       World peace – old-time isolationism says ignore it or stockpile weapons, gather a posse, and go get ‘em?

d.      Climate change – repeal funding for EPA and deny it or throw money at it?

6.       Where does the candidate stand on income inequity? (choose one)

a.       Sit down with “haves” and “have mores” and never worry about standing again.

b.      Throw money at it as in a lottery or casino gambling.

c.       Ask Lions Club to give poor kids glasses so they can get into STEM schools and jobs.

d.      Some or all of the above.

e.       See answer “c” to question 2.

And so on…It is going to be a long year.

January 13, 2016 at 3:41 PM Leave a comment

Using the IEP to Ensure Access to Grade-Level Curriculum

Several years ago, a US Department of Education memorandum announced a planned shift in Special Education policy to emphasize academic outcomes and progress toward grade level performance. This past November, a significant step toward such a benchmark was announced. Now that school is back in session after the holidays the reality is sinking in…this is kind of a big deal.

Late last year, the US Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services issued new guidelines focusing on access to grade-level curricular content for students with disabilities. These new guidelines suggest that IEP goals for students who, for example, are below grade level in Math or ELA should clearly address interventions at two levels:

  • Accommodations that would ensure access to the curriculum in relevant content areas with alignment with State standards at the grade level of the student’s enrollment, and
  • Interventions that should lead to accelerated progress, i.e., greater than one grade year of progress per education plan year, towards grade level competency in the primary Math or ELA disability.

This is good news for students with disabilities. The best intentions in Special Education often have been undermined by regulatory procedures emphasizing a student’s eligibility for services. For more progressive schools, this latest memorandum will reinforce existing commitment to inclusive practices for Students with Special Needs across the curriculum. However, other schools will need to rethink their programs and make adjustments in their…

  • Goal-setting process for IEP teams,
  • Instructional strategies for students,
  • Professional development for teachers, and
  • Ongoing assessment of students’ academic progress against IEP goals.

The Office of Special Education urged educators to continue to pursue high expectations for achievement for Students with Disabilities. Perhaps most significant is the Education Department’s effort to address some of the process that was missing from the strictly results-oriented NCLB. As such, it represents a strong step forward for educational equity.

January 8, 2016 at 9:19 AM Leave a comment

Adding the Education Delivery System to the Lexicon – Without Dualistic Tendencies

Addressing Education as a Delivery System is not new, but its potential cannot be expressed within the lexicon until we acknowledge it beyond the binary. The current attempts to reinvent the US PreK-12 Education Delivery System generally bundle everything old as bad and introduce a single idea or entity as its sole competitor. To be successful, however, the system must be allowed to exist in fluid form. The schoolhouse walls have been tumbling down for a while with innovative ideas arising from necessity, creativity, or some combination of the two in concert with a vision for truly strategic planning. It is not time to sort the winners or losers; the solution is inclusive.

The tradition public education system has become the straw man against challengers such as private for-profit systems, charter school chains, online programs, and other delivery modalities. Unfortunately, many delivery system innovators have adopted the binary approach – The Good (us) versus The Bad (them) – one of the saddest artifacts of weak management in education. Indeed, almost every argument has become mired in the mud of a rope pulling contest between the best bullies from either side of the fray. This attitude is not going to nurture truly ground-breaking developments. Similarly, this adversarial approach keeps us caught up in the spat among the adults, with the students being barely essential to the dialogue aside from the requisite reference to the children by both sides as their sole concern.

A renewed US PreK-12 Education Delivery System (no “s”, not plural) must be student-centered and universally relevant in order to be sustainable. All information – finance, educational outcomes, teacher effectiveness – must be linked at the most basic level directly to the student. Education can no longer be defined by what happens within the schoolhouse walls. It can be delivered anywhere: at home, in the community, online, or within a central education complex. And the facilitator can be a person, a written source, a transmitter, or an interactive digital or interpersonal experience. The process can be personalized for each student with learning experiences designed for students individually or within optimized cohorts.

I am not usually one for getting hung up on semantics, but this one matters. We need a new approach to the Education Delivery System as a whole. The existing system does not work, and power brokers hanging onto their turf will never build a better system. Everyone has a stake in the solution. The children are the future of our world, but they depend on the education delivery system for effectiveness, health and safety for their survival, and a political economy within which they can become thriving adult citizens. Their villages need to get busy and learn to speak as one.

January 6, 2016 at 10:36 AM Leave a comment

ESEA Compromise Bill Misses Mark on Student-Centered Accounting

Student-centered education cannot naturally transcend its current regulatory environment. The best intentions of educators will always give way to funding imperatives and enforcement of the rules. That is, unless the rules are changed. Today’s ESEA Compromise Bill does not do that.

The point of student-centered accounting for PreK-12 Education is the matching of weighted funding with the spending for the student as an individual. It is intended to be the driver for centering all information – financial, academic services, and outcomes – on the student in a case management model. What it is not supposed to be is a way to siphon off public school funds to private alternatives.

We currently fund districts, NOT students, and we manage district outcomes, NOT student outcomes. Unfortunately, the current ESEA compromise bill does not seem interested in a more rational approach that enables analyses concerning to whom and how we deliver education services. Rather than give districts an incentive to become better informed about mission-driven spending, the leadership in both Houses of Congress have used popular jargon inappropriately as a smoke screen for keeping districts flying blind on actual student services AND helping conservatives to get public money for private schools.

Commitment to bettering the schools would suggest new money guidelines for the public schools to help them revise their spending and service mix to improve outcomes. At some point, once the financial models are in place and validated, it would seem logical to have the money follow the student under extraordinary cases of private placements. But that is not the intent of student-centered accounting, nor is it in any way a top priority.

Further, the conservative approach to funding is to expand block grants, presumably allowing the states to manage their own money. This does not seem a bad idea in a naive world, but one only needs to examine the actual practices to see the flaw. Most states lack internal standards for charts of accounts, and the exceptions still miss the point. Perusing hundreds of pages of detail for education accounting in a given state never yields more than a handful of line items on Instruction. If you give them money in a block grant, they will spend it without giving themselves more than block grant details for resource allocation. It is not an informed approach.

Federal ESEA law must either (A) tell the states that they will get weighted student funding and must justify future funding requests based on how they spent the the money to teach each student, or (B) create a financial and cost accounting standard that guides states on how they can better help themselves. School districts will attend to the details in the data…and that definitely has nothing to do with actual teaching.

November 18, 2015 at 4:34 PM Leave a comment

ISIS Mass Grave for Older Women…and the G20?

ISIS has only one use of women – as sex slaves – and kills the rest if over 40. Indeed, a mass grave was discovered when Kurdish fighters recovered territory in Iraq held by ISIS since August 2014 that included the bodies of women, aged 40-80, who had been discarded for their lack of utility for the Islamic State. These Medieval war lords, intent on creating a new world disorder, cannot be allowed to drive world conversations into a sadly regressive series of skirmishes. Leadership must create opportunity to undermine despair.

As terrorism spread across Paris Friday evening, another important news item slipped to the inside pages of International News despite being covered by the BBC, the New York Times, and papers from Boston to Los Angeles. While the atrocities had occurred in the past, the existence of the mass grave for Yazidi women between 40 and 80 is another reminder that we are dealing with humanity’s lowest common denominator. As we sit poised on dystopia, the classically maternal nurturing response deserves a voice lest the martyrdom of these women presage the fall of civilization.

ISIS violates the social contract that we all have with one another…that we can pursue our individual lives in private and public places, secure in the knowledge that there are things we will not do to one another. Marauders who live by the invader’s motto of killing the men, raping the women, and burning the villages are so anachronistic; yet, we are living and dying with them in horrific fashion. And they wish to claim their place in the annals of world power.

The convergence of the G20 Economic Summit, Middle Eastern unrest, and the new age of terrorism in the Western World is unsettling. However, the context can and should help us find our way. A knee-jerk response to a vicious attack is overwhelmingly weighted toward a show of force in return. And the uncharacteristically militaristic action taken by France is understandable. Still, even as we stand by France, we must show restraint from the sidelines.

The world needs a new, healthy economy. The Middle East needs a path to peace. And the terrorists who are consolidating power in the vacuum created by political unrest, poverty, and powerlessness need a worthy competitor dealing in hope.

In 2001, the Bush-Cheney White House unwittingly acted like war lords in retrospect rather than leading the world as proactive preventers of terrorist. We have been caught up on the battlefield ever since. Unfortunately, this regressive posture is reinforced by the threat of the unknown in a new world economic order that is no longer centered in the West. We need to be fearless…but that does not mean warlike.

Each nation of the world must find its core strengths and economic balance in both its local and international posture. War-torn lands must be rebuilt. Factors of production and workers must re-emerge across the globe in modern, sustainable fashion, displacing 18th century techniques that are cheap, environmentally destructive, and imminently dangerous.

People who are not valued can be made indifferent in their allegiance to good or evil. A world response that sees possibilities for mankind can and must be grounded in a vision of peace and prosperity. Without that, our descent into chaos and disorder will render leadership irrelevant. The G20 may seem powerless for the moment, but they are deciding their own fate.

November 16, 2015 at 9:14 AM Leave a comment

Financiers Exporting Own Risk Take Fees and Wreck the Market

The legal ability of banks to package their riskiest assets into blind investment instruments greatly reduced risk for the bankers themselves. Instead of managing risk, they simply exported it to their trust customers via paper transactions. To complicate matters, the act of reducing the penalties for risky behavior among bankers led them to engage in less prudent behavior, again creating a burden for the market…all the while collecting fees for this disservice to all but the industry’s most powerful clients. This behavior continues today as non-productive financial assets are proliferating, edging out real investments in capital assets and long-term shareholder value. Without external intervention this generously rewarded behavior will not change.

The US economy cannot flourish with distributor margins. A few decades ago, as a young analyst, I studied shareholder value creation while working for a hospital supply company. The CEO was leading the company through a change from a sales growth model to a profitable growth model that created real shareholder value. The firm was an industry leader, but its share price had languished despite double digit revenue gains for most of its history. A cornerstone of the strategy was vertical integration into manufacturing.

Fast forward to 2015, and we are faced with a dysfunctional US market that is looking for growth in all the wrong places…because they forgot what real shareholder value means. Having divested the supply function in almost every industry, Wall Street has hidden behind smoke screens of paradigm shifts and non-productive market activity while losing its footing in value added to the economy…and they will not change as long as we pay them to do this. At its gloomiest, one could question whether capitalism, or even the US economy, will actually exist when the cycle completes.

Manufacturers across the US divested their supply functions and replaced them with lower cost producers offshore. The co-existence of supply-side incentives in the US with the transfer of the supplier function left corporations and investment houses with excess cash. Banks diligently created new paper assets for trading, as if our money benefited from a sort of isometric workout in the absence of production in the US economy. And the fees for traders and brokers grew even as our economy stagnated. Indeed there is no incentive for the financial services industry to stop their cycle of spinning flax…for them it really does generate gold.

Dubious analysts were labeled as unclear on the whole global economy concept, and the other great paradigm shift – In technology – apparently justified underwriting bubble machines for technology stocks. In reality, the US simultaneously shifted from an industrial nation to a distribution economy AND moved product promotion and distribution to the Internet. Granted, it is a lot to digest; however, we have presumed new value creation that does not exist. Distributor margins put skid marks on profits that could not be offset by revenue gains. And the great promise of the New Economy on the Internet has thus far only yielded zero sum shifts from traditional advertising and sales outlets to virtual ones. Exceptions exist, but they have become overvalued and, eventually, sources of booms and busts on Wall Street.

Our retirement funds are not growing. Our jobs are not expanding in the right places. Our youth already reflect our future, polarized between the entitlement of wealth and privilege and the lean existence of the underemployed and profoundly indebted. No group better demonstrates the injustice and unsustainability of income inequity. And the market thrives…churning out transactions with no end game a sane person would want to explore.

I suggest investing in Sports Medicine…because capitalism’s Invisible Hands are severely broken, and whoever figures out how to fix them will make a fortune.

October 15, 2015 at 8:04 AM Leave a comment

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