Wednesday, November 19, 2014

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

I will venture a guess that every school district in Kansas has bought a vehicle in the past few years. Most likely you have purchased a suburban-type vehicle for transporting students. If your community has a car dealership, you were forced to make a choice: buy the vehicle off the state bid list, buy the vehicle from your local dealer, or buy your vehicle from a neighboring community dealer. <

The state bid list is easy, and usually cheapest. The state has done all of the work, so you don’t even have to go through the formal bid process. Just order the vehicle you want, write the check, and they deliver the car. Oh, and then wait for the call…

Dealer: Mr/s Board Member? Yes, this is John from John’s New Suburban and Expedition Dealership calling. I noticed the board purchased a new vehicle from the state bid list. I don’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to bid on that. Sure, I know I probably can’t beat the bid, but I can come close enough to meet the bid exception rule.

You: I understand John, but we are trying to be as efficient as possible. We buy two vehicles a year and save $1500. We can put that extra money right into the classroom.

Dealer: Saving money is important and I want my tax dollars spent as efficiently as possible. Please keep in mind though that I employ 25 people, and all of their kids attend our local schools. My own kids attend the high school and I serve on the high school site council. My wife and I both donated money to the Vote Yes campaign to build the new elementary school last year. Every year we donate a vehicle to the high school good student raffle. My employees get time off to volunteer in their kid’s schools, and when you don’t patronize local businesses you make it hard for me to do all of these things.

You: Gosh John, you have really given me some things to think about. Thanks for the call.

Not every district has a car dealership, but nearly all districts have local vendors who sell insurance, gasoline, food, mowers, or provide printing, architectural, audit, tutoring, mechanic, HVAC, or legal services. They all have similar stories.

I am reminded of the famous “If by whiskey” speech made by Mississippi legislator Noah “Soggy” Sweat on the subject of legalizing alcohol in his state. (It’s true and worth the read if you haven’t seen it- Google it.)

“My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. If when you say whiskey you mean the devil's brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason… certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips… then certainly I am for it.

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”

So my friends, if when you talk about school district efficiency, you mean state intervention, more rules and regulations about what, when, and where boards can spend money and more infringements by the legislature on local control; if you are advocating standard schedules and calendars that have no concern for local needs or mores; if you mean regional and state purchasing that further hacks out the heart of local community businesses, that takes food from the mouths of my neighbors, then I am against it.

But if by efficiency you mean lower costs so more money can be spent on student instruction, sharing resources and collaborating with our neighbors, working together to maximize purchasing power; if you advocate better services by working together; if you create structures and systems that improve education for all children, then by all means I am in favor.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Lessons from the Election

Alliance for Freedom Gubernatorial Mailer
About three weeks before the election I started collecting, as opposed to tossing, campaign postcards that were mailed to my house.  After the election, I looked back through them, curious about the message that moved voters. As I reviewed the literature, one thing leaped off the pages: EDUCATION! The candidates clearly believed that the key to winning state-level elections was to convince people that they love Kansas schools and educators more than their opponent.

My collection consists of 16 mailers. Over the three weeks before the election, every single mailer was about education. 100%! There was nothing about any other issue.I am surprised that it didn’t occur to me before. (I might have been distracted by the national race flyer with the flowers sprouting out of the shotgun. That thing still intrigues me for some reason.) I wonder if others had the same experience as me, or if the campaign targeting has become so sophisticated that they were able to pinpoint that education (and flower-sprouting shotguns) is the most important issue at my house?

Let’s assume that the campaigners aren’t quite that good yet, and that education really was the key issue in this election. What messages did the winning candidate want voters to hear? (I only included the winning gubernatorial candidate's messages because he obviously did a better job of understanding and communicating the key points.) The following is a list of headlines or highlighted quotes from the mailers in my collection (The categories are mine.):

Quality Schools
*Kansas schools are fifth best in the country
*Support the Governor’s budget that helped make Kansas schools the fifth best in America.
*(Kansas) rated best based on criteria such as student-teacher ratios, test scores, and school safety.
*Quality schools create opportunities for Kansas students.

Adequate Resources
*Increased overall state school funding
*Education is a top priority with the (Kansas) budget
*…an increase of $270 million (in school funding) since 2011
*School funding has increased every year during Governor Brownback’s administration
*$129 million more for schools and education
*State school funding has increased every year--- nearly $400 million more than 2010.
*Invest in our students
*School funding bill a huge win…
Alliance for Freedom Gubernatorial Mailers
*$5.9 Billion K-12 Funding

Quality Staff
*More teachers better pay
*280 additional special education teachers
*600+ new teachers statewide
*676 more educators in Kansas
*First permanent teacher raises in 5 years
*Teacher salaries up 2.3%

Quality Programs
*236 percent increase in technical education enrollment
*Increased literacy funding by $20.8 million

Local Governance
*Increased local control
*Local parents, teachers, and educators know what is best for our children---they should be making decisions about out kids futures.

The lesson from the election is clear:
  1.     Kansas has great schools.
  2.     Great schools require increasing financial resources
  3.     Great schools require more and better-paid teachers.
  4.     Local control is important to quality governance.

Kansas board members will debate and vote on KASB Legislative Positions for the 2015 Legislative Session in the following categories at our at the Dec. 7 Delegate Assembly:

  1. RAISE STANDARDS FOR SUCCESS. Continue to improve educational outcomes by raising standards for students, educators, schools and districts.
  2. FINANCE FOR SUCCESS. Provide constitutionally suitable funding for continuing educational improvement in all districts.
  3. LOCAL LEADERSHIP FOR SUCCESS. Strengthen responsiveness to parents and community needs under locally elected boards and school leadership.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Thank a Veteran today!

Over the weekend, my son and I went to see "Fury." The movie is about a World War II tank crew and how they adapt to the horrors of war.  Emporians who see the movie and had the privilege of knowing retired Army Sgt Ken Bradstreet will no doubt have a similar reaction to mine - picturing a man you knew and respected in that horrible situation.

For those of you who didn't know Sgt. Bradstreet, he was the leader of a tank crew during the same time period depicted in the movie.  I got to know Ken because the year before I became superintendent in Emporia, the district decided not to give students the day off on Veterans Day. This was a decision that did not sit well with this retired veteran and he was quite capable of expressing his displeasure.

Over the years, Ken and I got to be friends, and he shared his experiences: the anger of getting a refurbished tank in which the blood from the past crew had been painted over sloppily; the repulsive stench associated with rolling into the Dacha Death Camp; the choke chain dog collars used to restrain concentration camp prisoners; and worst of all, the loss of friends. Ken was always willing to share his experiences with students in Lyon County although it was obviously difficult for him. He knew that it helped kids connect the abstract idea of service with the real life horror of war.

Emporia High School's History Department did an exceptional job of working with Ken Bradstreet to teach students respect for service. Even after Ken's death, my youngest son was encouraged to reach out to a veteran as part of learning history. He interviewed my wife's grandfather, who served in the Pacific Theater. His experiences were equally emotional and horrible. Man's inhumanity to man is more than a literary concept when seen through the eyes of our veterans.

It is so important that our schools continue to help all students understand the sacrifice, courage and commitment of those who serve our country. Without that knowledge, our kids will grow up understanding neither the horror of armed conflict or the need for investing in a lifetime of support for these men and women.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

“Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am…”

If the movie `A Christmas Story' were based upon my life story it wouldn't have been a Red Ryder BB Gun with a compass in the stock that was Holy Grail, rather it would be a two-wheeled contraption of any kind. My mother was convinced that any kind of two-wheeled motorized vehicle was the devil's work. I heard “you'll break your neck” more times than Ralphy heard `you'll shoot your eye out.’

So, I blame my mother for my 45-year obsession with motorcycles. As soon as I graduated from high school and left home I scanned the Lawrence Journal-World want ads for a used bike. The first one I found was a two-stroke Suzuki GS 350. It was not exactly a rolling classic. Its most distinguishing feature was the beautiful trail of blue smoke it left behind.

Over the years since that Suzuki met with an untimely demise on the streets of Lawrence, Kansas, I have owned several different makes and models of motorcycles from dirt bikes to café racers to my new Indian cruiser. What I have learned over those years is that motorcycling, like many hobbies, is a subculture filled with subcultures. A casual observer might think a motorcycle is just a motorcycle but a rider knows that the difference between a dirt biker and a chopper rider is vast.

There are dirt bike aficionados, cruiser riders, chopper fans, bobber freaks, sport bikers, adventure cyclists, touring riders, stunters, and just plain commuters. The sport bikers with their high revving speed machines look down their visors at the teacup helmeted leather clad cruiser riders with much disdain. The adventure cyclists clothed in jumpsuits astride SUV like machines with giant metal saddlebags have no use for retro-riding hipsters on stripped down Triumphs.

It's not too much of a stretch to draw comparisons between motorcyclists and Kansans when it comes to politics. We have conservatives, moderates, tea partiers, liberals, libertarians, socialists, and everything in between. Over the past several months my mailbox runneth over with glossy postcards explaining the horrors and dangers of differences between candidates and positions.

If we assembled a random group of motorcyclists we could quickly reach agreement, in spite of our differences, on why we ride and what makes a motorcycle a motorcycle. However it is not in the best interest of motorcycle apparel makers, magazine publishers, or manufacturers to have agreement. Marketing demands that people identify and behave in ways that create identities around niches. It is the best way to sell more stuff.

If we assembled a group of Kansas voters in a room, the one thing that all could agree on is education is a major issue with Kansas voters. Most all candidates are touting their records of support for schools, students, teachers, and more resources for public education. Based upon the glossy flyers that show up in my mailbox, everyone wants the best for Kansas education.

Unfortunately, much like the motorcycle business, politics demand that we create niches of voters just like subcultures of bikers. The harm of a strategy of identifying small differences and turning them into big ones is that it polarizes Kansans against one another. An unknowing observer might think that Kansans are all either fascists or communists.

What we know about human behavior and beliefs is that if graphed it looks less like two bubbles separated by a chasm and more like the old bell curve we recognize from statistics. If we slice the curve in the middle, we polarize 50 percent on the left and 50 percent on the right. If we look at polls in major elections right now we get 50 percent on the left and 50 percent on the right. That view of politics gives too much power to the extremes. The folks at the 49th and 51st percentile have far more in common than those at the 1st and 50th. I propose that after the election we encourage our legislators not to slice from the left or the right but to take a big slice from the middle.

Kansas has long been a progressive, common-sense state. We have done this by taking our slice from the middle. Modern politics are trying to do to our state what is happening to our nation. The attempt to define our country in terms of extreme red or blue ignores the fact that most of us are purple. (Please note this is not an advertisement for the Wildcat nation.)

Whoever wins and whoever loses needs to be prepared to view our state as a whole and not as one side against the other. Let's take our slice out of the middle. A motorcycle has two wheels and engine. Whether it's a Harley-Davidson or a Vespa it is still a motorcycle and it's still fun to ride. Kansans agree that education is the most important issue facing our state. Lets unite around it!

The fact is Kansas education is good but needs to get better. Kansans need to define what our kids need to know and be able to do upon graduation not based upon party lines but based upon what the majority of Kansans in the middle want for their kids. Kansans then need to provide the resources necessary to make this happen. We will never get there if we keep trying to slice the curve from the left and the right. Like it or not, Steelers Wheel was right, ‘Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”

Friday, October 10, 2014

Math Myths and Urban Legends

One characteristic of a good friend is that they have the ability to challenge your thinking. Without people like this in your life, it is easy to start thinking that you pretty much know everything. I am fortunate to have a lot of people in my life who challenge my thinking. Recently, a friend asked me about this new math being taught at his son's high school.

The teaching and learning of math is a pet peeve of mine. My biggest complaint about math is the common belief that because the kid who makes $7.50 an hour at the local Gas and Grub got my change wrong, schools have failed at math instruction. If you haven't said it yourself, someone has said it to you.

Let's think about the state of what kids in Kansas know and are able to do compared to the good old days when we could all make change. Folks my age can remember the "advanced kids" were tracked into algebra class in the freshman year. Thirty years later, my kids took algebra in the 7th grade. In my large high school, a handful of kids graduated with four years of math. Now many students go to college with calculus credit already on their transcript. Kids today take and learn more math than they did in the good old days.

The bigger issue is that it is still not enough. Our kids need to have a deeper understanding of math and how to use it. We have to expand our definition of math, and at the same time go deeper with our understanding of math. My friend's concern was that kids were not spending enough time on memorizing math facts, and too much time on learning new and different ways to solve math problems. That concern lays bare education's fundamental math problem.

In the good old days, we memorized the multiplication tables. We worked on speed addition and subtraction. A good memory made you a good math student. As an educator, I have heard countless parents talk about the fact that their kids were straight A math students until Algebra, and suddenly they were getting D's and F’s. Once a student gets to algebra, statistics, physics, chemistry, geometry, finance, economics, etc., memorization of the multiplication tables isn't the advantage that it once was. A deep understanding of math skills is far more valuable.

I often challenge people by asking what 1/3 divided by 7/16 is. Most everyone knows how to find the answer is to invert and multiply. Duh. Then I ask them to explain what 1/3 divided by 7/16 means. Most stare at me blankly. We memorize algorithms and formulas, but we don't understand what the numbers mean. When letters start to take the place of numbers, memorized applications have less power.

So how do we teach deeper math understanding? That is a question for experts in math instruction, but we don't do it by teaching math the way we always did it. My friend sent a problem that involved asking the student to solve the following: 86-12=? An explanation of one way to find the answer was to round to the nearest five, subtract, then add what your rounded back in. (I shortened it, but you get the gist.) The idea is that fives are easier to visualize (tens even more so).

What struck me about this "new math" is that my grandfather (not the same one who counted pinheads on the bus) taught me this method when I was a kid. He could do lengthy arithmetic problems in his head by using strategies like rounding and finger math. He also had a strange way of working long division that I have seen in some YouTube videos being described as an "ingenious new method."

My grandfather fought in WWI, and received his terminal degree (8th grade diploma) over a century ago. He didn't know calculus or statistics but he understood the concepts of math. The barn he built 100 years ago is still standing, so we can assume he understood geometry and angles. The family farm is still the family farm, so we can assume he understood finance.

So I started out by arguing that kids today know more math than ever, and then I tell you that my grandfather understood math better than many of our students do now? My point is that we have moved away from understanding math and more toward just following a formula and getting an answer. If we want to move beyond where we are, we will have to help kids know and be able to do both.

That is the conclusion my friend and I reached anyway. Maybe you will reach a different one, but please be open-minded enough to think that the way we have always done it may not be the best way. Oh, and as far as making change? My grandfather wasn't very good at that, because he always just rounded up to the nearest dollar on our wages when we worked for him. That's the kind of guy he was.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

What We Have Here is Failure to Communicate

If you cannot quote at least one line from Cool Hand Luke, I am calling you out. A few days ago at our office, a reference to the movie was lost on young Brian Jordan who was forced to admit he had not seen the movie. (Always the learner, Brian raced home that night and watched it on Netflix and was in full quote mode the next day.)

Cool Hand Luke epitomizes the anti-hero movies of the late 60s and early 70s. Those of my vintage grew up with classic anti-heroes that started in the 50s with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Marlon Brando in The Wild One, who responded to the question “What are you rebelling against?” with the iconic answer “What’ve you got?”

Folks my age grew up with rule-breakers who were trying to do the right things outside of, or in spite of, “the system.” Recently, I read a book that includes the other side of the story. Nixonland is a fascinating look at how America reacted to the rebellious bikers and hippies that my friends and I thought were so cool growing up. In my mind, my grandfather’s disdain for long hair, groovy music, peace signs, and happenin’ threads was what proved it was all alright, alright, alright.

Until reading Nixonland, I did not realize that my grandpa was the norm, not the exception. The book discusses how the 60’s were a time when American culture began to splinter, and how politicians capitalized on this splintering for their own good. Looking at our culture now, those splinters have become chasms of blue and red. The anti-heroes may have won at the box-office, but they led to the rise of radicals on both sides of political spectrum.

The author explains that as protests grew in number and scope, public opinion turned against the protesters. Protests for ending the war in Vietnam and for civil rights begat less overall public support for those causes. It also led to violence on both sides. At a time when America needed leaders to help them heal, we got politicians who saw an opportunity to capitalize on the division.

Fifty-years later, we are left to deal with the aftermath. Politicians of our decade have learned the lessons of the 1960s. Wedge issues, retribution, vindictiveness, dirty tricks, demonization, and personal attacks are the tools of division and only serve the politicians.

A professor told me once that it is one thing to understand the game; it is another thing to win it. In our current political environment, we first need to redefine winning. If winning means my party is in charge then there are still a lot of losers. If winning is redefined as making our country, state, or schools better, different tactics must be employed. Wedge issues, retribution, vindictiveness, dirty tricks, demonization, and personal attacks have to be replaced with building trust, looking at data, meaningful dialogue, and compromise.

Cool Hand Luke was a great movie, but  <SPOILER ALERT >  Luke dies in the end, and the abysmal prison system just keeps right on going. Captain America was cool, but he and Billy die for no reason in the end. Education leaders need to look for solutions instead of raging against the machine. It's way more cool to eat fifty eggs than to work in anonymity for prison reform. It’s more fulfilling in the short-term to complain about where we are, but much better for all if we figure out how to chart a course for where we want to be.

KASB will be in your area starting Tuesday, holding Educational Summits in an attempt to develop a course for the future of Kansas education. Please join us, because Mark Tallman has a really cool hand.

Friday, September 12, 2014


How many of you remember when we relied on people like Siskel and Ebert to keep us from wasting $1.50 on a bad movie? My kids now have a rule- no movies below 60% on Rotten Tomatoes so they won't blow eight bucks on this year's Ishtar. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Rotten Tomatoes is a meta-analysis of all of reviews posted by critics and if you access it via your Flixster App, you can get user scores too. This new technology helps movie buffs such as myself avoid the old newspaper advertising technique of modifying the critics words to make the movie sound better.

"This supposed summer blockbuster is a bomb!" becomes "...SUMMER BLOCKBUSTER...!"

"A small masterpiece of dementia." becomes "MASTERPIECE!"

"Spectacular mess" becomes "Spectacular!"

You get the drift. Rotten Tomatoes has ruined it for "creative" ad writers. But don't worry about them starving, because these masters of word and phrase plucking are not in the unemployment line. Every two years they are able to find plenty of work writing political advertisements!

This year, they seem to have started particularly early, and we can look forward to two more months of misleading and uninformative material coming out of mysterious organizations with high-minded names.  

Postcards, flyers, and commercials that pluck quotes and data like my older sister used to pick the best cherries off of my grandparents cherry tree because she was the tallest.  How does one know what to believe?

While there is no "Rotten Tomatoes" for political advertising, the KASB Board of Directors has charged the staff with being a "truth machine" for claims about Kansas Schools.  This is a charge that we take very seriously.  The bad news is that the real truth is often complex, and if time is not taken to understand the whole story, voters can be easily misled.  Finding out the facts requires work, and listening to an explanation of the issues.  Is there really more money in education? Is there more money available to be spent on students and teachers? Is the money being provided by the feds, the state, or by local efforts? It gets complicated.

I encourage readers to take the time to learn the facts.  Read "The Tallman Education Report" and Ted Carter's blog to become more informed.

Someday, we may have Flixster for politicians.  Until then, we have Mark and Ted.  Put them to work for you!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The more things change, the more they stay the same?

So I guess Kansas City has a new baseball team? The Royals? This is news to me because I only listen to sports talk radio from August to March every year. This allows me to hear lunatics scream and wail about Chiefs football and Jayhawk basketball, and generally by August these “Royals” aren’t getting a lot of airplay. August is the time when Royals fans have lost hope, and Chiefs fans are gaining false hope.

The recent success of the Royals has sports talk wasting my time with talk of pitching rotations and batting orders instead of important things like who will the be the Chief’s third QB!? One station had a competition to have callers talk about where they were 29 years ago when the Royals last made the playoffs. Not being a baseball fan, I don’t have a lot of memories around the sport, but 29 years ago I remember Ell-Saline shop (yes, it was shop back then) teacher Tom Fee parading through the school halls wearing a crown, holding a bat as a scepter, with a blue Royals blanket for a cape. One might say Tom was a fan. He and his wife Marilyn traveled to every home game.

As I thought about Tom and Marilyn Fee (both ESHS teachers) it reminded me that it was my first year as a school administrator, principal of Ell-Saline Jr-Sr High School. I hope those teachers have forgiven me by now for being green as a gourd and not really knowing what I was doing. Fortunately, it was enough just not to be the previous principal.

So where were you 29 years ago? Youngsters, don’t bother with your smart answers. Now think about how much education has changed since the Royals last made the playoffs. We were just thinking about continuous improvement in schools. We were still accredited based upon a system of counting inputs like, “Did you fly the flag? and How many books were in the library.” QPA was still years away, and now it is being retired in favor of a more robust system of accreditation.
Everyone gave the ITBS, and no one paid much attention to the results. There wasn’t talk about assessments for accountability, or to inform instruction. Now we have a generation of students and teachers who know no other way except how important it is to do on state assessments. A sad fact, I think.

Ell-Saline bought eight apple computers that year, and assigned two students to a computer in computer class. Students learned some obscure programming language. We showed off that lab to anyone and everyone who came through the building. We were state of the art. Today, the paper has an article about all 25,000 of the students in Shawnee Mission joining districts all over Kansas in getting their district-provided computers for the start of school. According to mybroadband, my antiquated iPhone 5 has 262,144 times more memory and is 1,300 times faster than those old Apples.

But as William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” How many things are exactly the same as they were 29 years ago? Grading scales, attendance policies, worksheets, nine months on, three months off, and Parent-Teacher conferences all look pretty much the same as they did in 1985, 1975, and 1955. Some say all educational change is a pendulum swing; I would say that it certainly swings back and forth, but we continue to get better. The one tradition we have to embrace is a willingness to look critically at what we are doing and continue to change and get better, even if it takes 29 years to make the playoffs.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Ask Good Questions

The name in this story has been changed to protect his FERPA, HIPPA, IDEA, IPA, and ERISA rights. Let's call this young man Daryl Gardner. Daryl was a ninth grader and I was a junior high assistant principal. Daryl did not particularly like school, and to be fair, school did not particularly like him. I served the role of match-maker, trying to bring the star-crossed lovers together, but had limited success. He was a nice-enough kid, certainly not an academic, but not a mean-spirited young man. Today we might say he was unengaged.

In a large junior high school, the office can be a hectic place between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m. Kids coming and going and the phone ringing off the hook with parents calling about absences and the like. Always the helpful soldier, I grabbed the phone early one morning because the receptionist was on another call. Now this part of the story sounds better than it reads. If you want to get the full effect, you may want to read it out loud.
Me: South Junior High School, may I help you?
Caller: Daryl Gardner will not be in today, he is sick.
Me: Daryl, is that you?
Caller: No, this is my dad.
Me: See you first hour, Daryl.
Caller: OK

It is always important to ask the right questions. Assistant principals are like lawyers and cops, they always know the answer to the question before they ask it. I knew Daryl, and knew his dad, and I knew his dad never called him in sick. So I asked.

This is the season for elections. Everyone should be voting on Tuesday and again in November. Voters need to pay heed and ask good questions. Campaign rhetoric can be true (hey, maybe Daryl WAS sick) but misleading at the same time.

At KASB we often get requests to list candidate votes on key issues. We can do so, but how someone votes on a bill can be misconstrued. A representative might be strongly in favor of parts of a bill, but strongly opposed to others. They may vote against something that appears to be pro-education for reasons that are also pro-education. It is important to ask questions! Why did this legislator vote for or against this bill might be more important than how did this person vote on this bill. Ask questions.

Don't accept as fact what is printed on that shiny flyer you get in the mail before the election. If an issue is so simple it fits on a flyer, there has to be more to the story. Well-informed voters know the rest of the story.

Please remember to vote on Tuesday, and in November. Daryl probably won't. I think he is sick...

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Charter Question: Paradoxically Ironic?

I have had the opportunity to work with the Kansas Legislative Post Audit group on a few occasions. The LPA staff has always proven itself to be professional and fair-minded. LPA is required by statute to do three “Efficiency Audits” of school districts every year. The Emporia School District was one of the districts audited this year, and the report was presented to the LPA committee on July 21. Having spent a large part of my life in Emporia, I was eager to hear the results.

KASB Advocacy staff member Tom Krebs covered the committee meeting and was quick to report new leadership in Emporia seems to have made a world of difference because they got a good report from LPA. Mr. Krebs intimated the LPA report found that in the past four years the district has shown massive improvements in all areas, but I cannot seem to find that particular finding in the report. (For those of you who don’t get the gist of Mr. Krebs’ humor, I left the superintendency four years ago.)

Emporia’s LPA report had a fairly typical list of suggestions from LPA: Procurement cards, schedule changes, and food service were areas where savings might be found. But there was one recommendation that jumped off the page: on page 20 ( the LPA staff included the following recommendation: “The district could save between $260,000 and $600,000 annually by housing its charter school within existing traditional school buildings or by closing it entirely.”

In “The Crack-up,” F. Scott FItzgerald wrote, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." As much as I want to have a first-rate mind, I am really struggling with his one. Charter school advocates argue the state should have more charter schools because they offer better achievement at a lower cost. Thanks to the thoroughness of LPA, we can use the Emporia Charter School as a test for both of these arguments. LPA found that achievement in the charter school was about the same as the rest of the district in reading, and a little lower in math. The lower cost argument is addressed directly in the finding: the district would save $600,000 by closing the charter school.

After consulting with English experts Mark Tallman and Carol Pitts, the ruling is this is both a paradox and an irony. Other opinions as to how to classify the phenomena are welcome, and I have a few in mind that I learned from my father, who is less concerned with literary devices but much more descriptive with colloquialism and colorful vernacular.

But I have diverged from the point: charter schools are not a panacea for achievement and/or efficiencies in Kansas. In Kansas, past legislatures have recognized this fact and provided locally-elected boards of education the authority to seek charter status when they see a need and purpose. The Emporia Charter School was not created to save money. It was created to serve a group of students who could be better served in a smaller setting with different types of instruction. The locally-elected board saw the need, applied for charter school status, and governed the school to meet the needs of those students.

It was not state bureaucrats, not city, county or state politicians, not ivory-tower academics, not national think tanks or ALEC. It was just the elected leaders who were chosen by the community specifically for their ability to make decisions about how to educate children. Yet when this happens, many of the same people who advocate for more charter schools and more efficient education will criticize Emporia as inefficient.

I imagine some smart pundit will explain to me how this is not an irony or a paradox at all, and it is just that I have failed Fitzgerald’s intelligence test. For now, I am puzzled. What does it mean to be efficient? How do we put a price on innovation? On achievement? Those answers will need more discussion, but this latest LPA report will provide some clues.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Counting Pinheads- Efficiency and Learning

My grandfather wasn’t a particularly learned man, nor was he what most would call open-minded. When the Bunker Hill (current population 73) White Owls could no longer field a team and the school closed the doors, he proved he could hold a grudge. Even 20 years later, he just knew the huge conglomerate city district that took over was wasting his tax dollars. What measure did he use to make this determination? “Every day that %$@*&# yellow bus rolls by with one little pinhead on it.” I’m no statistician, but a sample size of one might be a bit small for making generalizations. How many of you have heard similar conclusions based upon equally sketchy data?

KASB’s new Research Director, Ted Carter, is a bit of a statistician, and he did an analysis of school spending and efficiency that goes beyond how many “pinheads” are on the yellow dog that rolled by my grandpa’s double-wide. Ted looked at national statistics on learning using the NAEP and graduation rate, and spending using total revenue per pupil. He then did a state-by-state regression analysis to see if revenue per student is correlated with NAEP achievement and/or graduation rates. He used statistical methods to control for variances in cost-of-living in each state.

What Ted found should not come as a surprise. A 2006 Legislative Post Audit found that within the state there is a strong correlation between spending and achievement on state assessments. KASB’s research found the connection between achievement and spending exists nationally as well. To use Ted’s words, “regression analysis indicates the amount of money spent per pupil is a significant predictor of achievement for all students, students ineligible for free or reduced price lunches, and students eligible for free or reduced price lunch. In other words, we can assert that per pupil spending and average NAEP proficiency levels are related, and we can expect that as per pupil spending increases, average NAEP benchmark percents will also increase.”

In other words, money matters. But of course money is not the only thing that matters. We have to think beyond test scores and spreadsheets. When thinking about our own children’s educations their score on a standardized test is never the most important factor in measuring school success. Parents want to know how their schools have fostered development of their child’s strengths, shored up their weaknesses, improved their job-skills, and showed them how to appreciate heritage and culture. These things can’t be measured by regression analysis, but they are required in the Rose Standards.

Determining efficiency is no easy task, and taxpayers want to know their money is being spent effectively and efficiently. Parents want to know their children are learning skills needed to be great citizens of the 21st century and beyond. School leaders and legislatures have to find the best path for both of these interests.

My grandpa would have dismissed this column and said with great bluster and colorful language, “Figures lie and liars figure” and/or “It was good enough for me…” And he would continue to sit in his chair, Archie Bunker-style, and count the pinheads on the bus. The Kansas Legislature created an Efficiency Committee that begins meeting Friday, July 18. I know they will take a measured, and statistically accurate view and not follow my grandpa’s statistical methods.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

I beg your pardon, I never promised you a Rose Garden- Lynn Anderson and The Supremes

Wait a minute - Lynn Anderson didn’t have any back-up singers, let alone the Supremes. Diana Ross never, to my knowledge, sang “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden…” OK, you got me, I wasn’t talking about THOSE Supremes.  I was talking about the Kansas Supremes, and in fact they DID promise us a Rose garden, but not that kind of rose.

By now you have either given up or your interest is piqued. For those of you still with me, most people know that the Kansas Supreme Court ruled on the Gannon case last March. The ruling asked for immediate relief on equity in funding, and remanded the issue of adequacy of funding back to the three-judge-panel.

In its directions to the three judge panel, the Court said the focus should not be about trying to find a specific number for adequacy, rather it should be about determining what is necessary to meet something called the Rose Standards. By its action, the court made the Rose Standards the gold standard for measuring suitable education funding in Kansas.

In an interesting twist few would have predicted, the Kansas House and Senate agreed with the Court and put the Rose Standards in HB 2506. Because of controversy surrounding other aspects of the bill, the Rose Standards got little attention. When the Governor signed the bill, media attention focused on money, due process, tax credits, and licensure. There was little mention of education standards. The fact that the Kansas Supreme Court, the Kansas House of Representatives, the Kansas Senate, and the Kansas Governor all agreed on something would seem to be newsworthy?

So what are these Rose Standards? If you attended one of the KASB Advocacy Tour meetings, you know that there are seven:
  1. Sufficient oral and written communication skills to enable students to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization;
  2. Sufficient knowledge of economic, social, and political systems to enable the students to make informed choices;
  3. Sufficient understanding of governmental processes to enable the students to understand the issues that affect his or her community, state, and nation;
  4. Sufficient self-knowledge and knowledge of his or her mental and physical wellness;
  5. Sufficient grounding in the arts to enable each student to appreciate his or her cultural and historical heritage;
  6. Sufficient training or preparation for advanced training in either academic or vocational fields so as to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently; and
  7. Sufficient levels of academic or vocational skills to enable public school students to compete favorably with their counterparts in surrounding states, in academics or in the job market.
School leaders are encouraged to familiarize themselves with these standards and consider what challenges exist to meeting them. Is your district meeting them now? Do they truly represent what our students need to know and be able to do? Do you have the resources necessary to provide programs to help students achieve these standards?

We have been promised the Rose Standards by the Supreme Court, the Legislature, and the Governor. We need to provide them the appropriate attention.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

New Logo, Continuing Commitment to Service

When one reaches a certain advanced age, looking back at changes seen and experienced can help inform and improve decisions to be made in the present. Or, one can become so fascinated with the past that life becomes all reflection and no time is spent in the present, or planning for the future. After spending 13 years at Emporia as superintendent, I actually heard myself thinking, “We tried that once, it didn’t work.” I knew then it was time to think about a new challenge.

After four years at KASB, this geriatric has taken some time to do some reflecting. Recently the KASB Board of Directors went through a planning process to look at our future. It is always helpful to take a reflective look at the past as we look ahead.

Personally, my history with KASB goes back to 1983. As a new doctoral student, like anyone who has been in that position, I was looking for a dissertation topic. My dad was superintendent in Junction City at the time, and he suggested we visit with the executive director of KASB to pick his brain for ideas.

We drove to an old building that looked like a house, just southwest of the Topeka Holidome. I recall meeting John Koepke, who gave me a quick tour of the building and introduced me to some staff. It was cramped, and if memory serves, there were about 10 staff members at the time. John joked that since Max was never able to hold a job for long, maybe I should write on superintendent turnover in Kansas. A great idea that became my dissertation.

From a broader perspective, as the board looked back on data about the history of KASB, service has been a hallmark of the association for as long as I can remember, and the data bears it out. In the 1980s and 90s there were many changes taking place in education and KASB filled a role to help board members and administrators stay abreast of those changes. The service model of the day was seminars and workshops. Thousands of educators and board members attended seminars at KASB every year. Thousands attended a convention that lasted a full three days and included banquets and evening dances. Under John Koepke’s leadership, KASB grew from a few staff members in an old house, to over 40 staff serving educators from a large building on Arrowhead Road.

During the 2000s, things began to change. Budgets grew tight and professional development budgets were cut to the bone. Associations of every kind in Kansas and the nation experienced a drop in attendance at seminars and conventions. At the same time, a social phenomenon defined in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone was occurring. Memberships and participation in everything from local bowling leagues to professional associations like the American Medical Association were in rapid decline. As Putnam put it, people were moving from the front porch to the back patio, and in doing so were decreasing civic and social involvement.

When I was hired in 2010, the KASB Board recognized changes were required for the association to continue to thrive. The Executive Committee of Pam Robinson, Rodney Roush, and Fred Patton represented the desire of the board with a clear direction: improve service, improve leadership for student achievement, and be a voice for public education. A different business model began to emerge. KASB would no longer be an ivory tower of knowledge to be pursued by our members, but we had to become a service organization that met our members, how and where they needed us. On-site trainings, whole board workshops in districts, individually designed trainings, and customized service have become the norm.

Staff members have embraced a culture of service at any cost. They have collaborated with service centers, other associations, KSDE, and local districts to provide service using a new array of delivery models. KASB has turned a corner and is moving forward again, thanks to a visionary board and a staff that have embraced a need to continue to improve every day.

The board met in June and acknowledged the positive direction with a new directive; continue to get better at serving our districts and being a “truth machine” for Kansas public education. This board, and this staff, will not go backward. We will demand continuing improvement on behalf of Kansas students.

On July 1, to acknowledge a new service model and direction, a new logo was introduced. It represents KASB being a voice for all Kansas public education. We think it symbolizes where we have been, and where we want to be.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Glass Chalkboard

Every summer the Kansas School Superintendent’s Association has a summer conference to give superintendents an opportunity to network and learn from each other.  I have been attending these meetings for longer than I care to think about.  At this year’s meeting, a couple of old-timers noted how much the meetings have changed over the years.  The biggest change noted by this individual was in the number of female superintendents.  I chimed in, saying yes, I can remember when it was just Sandi and Winona.    They looked at me and said, “Who?”

In 1985 I was finishing a year of graduate school and searching desperately for a district willing to take a chance on a 25-year-old principal candidate with 3 years of teaching experience and a load of student loans.  My son, who recently graduated from WSU with a biology degree (anyone hiring?) described the job search process as throwing resumes over a cliff and hoping one of them gets stuck on the way down.  That was my experience, exactly! 

Then one day, I got a call from the Ell-Saline School District.  Dr. Sandi Terrill wanted me to come for an interview.  Even better, after the interview, she offered me the job!  Obviously, female superintendents have EXCELLENT judgment? 

The primary point of this trip down memory lane is that Sandi Terrill was the only female superintendent in the state in 1985.  The secondary point is that Sandi was a great superintendent, and I learned so many things from working with her.  One of the things I learned is that sexism was alive and well in Kansas in 1984, and she dealt with it with grace and professionalism.  I confirmed a belief that women can be great educational leaders.

So 30 years have passed, what is the state of gender equity in the superintendency in Kansas?  Fortunately, those statistics are readily available.  There were 304 school districts in 1984, so the percentage of female superintendents was .03%.  It didn’t change much for the next decade, ranging between two and three females until 1991 when it finally jumped to over 1% (4). The chart below shows a fairly steady increase until the past three years, when progress has flattened out at 15% (45 females).

Some context might be helpful at this point.  While the general population has slightly more females than males, in the teaching profession females out number males significantly.  A 2011 report in "Education News" showed that Kansas had the lowest percentage of female teachers in the country at 70%. However, the national percentage of female superintendents is 24%.  Still low, but much higher than Kansas.

So we know that in Kansas, 70% of the teachers are female, but only 15% of the superintendents.  Maybe female teachers just aren’t interested in being administrators?  But look at the graph again.  The blue line represents the percentage of female principals.  There has been a steady increase to 41%.  The green line shows the percentage of assistant superintendents who are female- 63%!  Almost the 70% one would expect.  So we have 70% of teachers, 40% of principals, 63% of the assistant superintendents and 15% of superintendents who are female. 

Why the drop-off at the top?  There has been a lot of speculation about this.  Dr. Dawn Johnson wrote a dissertation on the subject for Wichita State University.  She also has good, research-based suggestions for women who hope to attain the superintendency.  Her work focused on the individual seeking the job.  Because Kansas has such a low percentage of female superintendents (24% national v 15% state), should we all ask ourselves what “we” could do to expand and improve the pool of potential candidates and not assume it is all on “them”? If people are still holding a grudge against women because Sandi Terrill hired me as a principal, it's time to get over it!

What can local boards do? Begin by refusing to accept a too commonly held belief that “our community isn’t ready for a female superintendent” or “a woman isn’t tough enough for this job.” Consider all candidates equally and respectfully.

What can your state associations (KASB, KSSA, et al) do? Use more female superintendents to assist in the search process.  Help board members see that we have successful female superintendents all over Kansas, not to mention a highly successful female commissioner!  Provide training and opportunities for networking for potential superintendent candidates. Help mentor and develop strong leaders, regardless of gender.

Being a school superintendent is a tough, but very rewarding job.  We have thousands of female teachers who are in the trenches every day excelling at a tough and rewarding job.  We should encourage more of them to rise to the top leadership role and shatter the glass chalkboard.

Friday, April 25, 2014

"Students are Dismissed to the Gym for the Assembly"

My assignment for today was to write a blog about the uncertainties of HB 2506. I was in the middle of doing so when I had to leave my work and go to a school assembly. Readers should understand that I have been to a lot of school assemblies in my five decades plus on the planet. As a student thinking about trying to be cool, as a teacher thinking about not leaving any of my students out, as building administrator thinking about what problems were going to be caused by some kid trying to be cool or getting left out, and as a superintendent thinking about not leaving any of my board members out. I also had many opportunities to go and take pride in my own kids. I tried to come up with an estimate of how may assemblies-countless.

Today I went to the assembly just to watch. Sure, my stepdaughters were prominent players in the proceedings, but I just watched. No worries, just enjoying the moment. I drove home as quickly as I could and still have goosebumps from what I witnessed when I just took the time to watch. Let me set the stage for you:
  1. Assemblies like this happen all over Kansas in schools large and small. When I talk about this one, I hope that it encourages you to go see one in your community. 
  2. This assembly was in a gym filled with 2,000 high school students. Many of you have had small groups of kids at your house. You know how ten can seem like 100. Imagine 2,000. 
  3. The students were in charge of this assembly. Students planned it, organized it, and led it. The principal never spoke, and teachers spoke only when called upon by the students. 
  4. In the interest of full disclosure, my stepdaughters are on the committee that planned the assembly. This gives me insights into the work and drama that went into the assembly, and the commensurate learning. 
  5. The assembly started at 9:30 and lasted until 11:00. 
So what happens when you take 2,000 teenagers, pack them into a gym, and put a handful of other teenagers in charge of them for an hour and a half? That is the part that gave me goosebumps (and embarrassingly brought a tear to my eye). This is also the part where I wish I were a better writer, so I could better describe what I saw, and more so what I felt.

The first activity featured the robotics team. Students described and demonstrated the robot they built. Naturally, it didn't work at first, but after a quick repair it raced around the gym chasing a giant beach ball, to the delight of the student body. The bot picked up the ball and launched it, just as it was designed to do, and the crowd roared. This wasn't a football championship, it was a robotics team.

But there were moments for athletes. Teams were introduced, by their captains, not their coaches, with one exception. A four-time state contender and 2014 state wrestling champ was introduced and cheered. He was so embarrassed I thought he would take down his coach with a fireman’s carry to get off the floor more quickly. A more humble young man I have not seen, with the exception maybe of my own boys.

The other exception to the no adults rule was when the special education jobs skills team was introduced. The team members, some assisted by their paras, were recognized by their teacher for winning numerous medals and ribbons at a job skills competition at the local college. The student body recognized their achievements with the first standing ovation of the day. The Kleenex came out of my wife’s purse at that moment.

The choirs sang, the classes did skits; more teams were introduced, just like in every other assembly that takes place in Kansas. The students were simply incredible. If there was a lull between events, they immediately went into their class chants. They were having fun, and so was I.

I will need your agreement not to mention the next activity to Gary Musselman or KSHSAA, because an unsanctioned sporting event took place. The rock-paper-scissors champion of the school was decided in a hard-fought quadrangular tournament. It culminated in the champion, a six-foot, hundred-nothing pound kid with a Swiss-ball-sized natural, being carried off the court by his friends in triumph. (I think when he did the splits in his warm-up the other players may have been intimidated.)

I cannot capture everything I saw or felt, but two things will stay with me. The assembly had the requisite pie the teacher event. The first victim was introduced-she was celebrating her retirement with a pie in the face. Upon hearing her name, 2,000 students jumped spontaneously to their feet and tried to blow the roof off the place. This, fellow educators, is what it is all about. Peyton may throw more touchdown passes, LeBron may score more points, and some ‘roid infused baseball player may hit more homers, they will all make millions more, but none of them will ever have an experience like she did. It was just plain cool to watch.

The second was when a group of students presented a new specially designed bicycle to another student in the district. They had raised the money to purchase the bike, and the glow on the girl’s face as she rode it out the gym out-shined the sparkle of all the prom queens' gowns. Again, a spontaneous roar from the students followed.

They finished up with a poetry slam. After sitting in an assembly for over an hour, the kids listened attentively to two lengthy poems written by their classmates. Not “Roses are red” or “There once was a fellow from Spain,” but long, intricate, and thoughtful words about school and life. The works moved the crowd to another ovation. Imagine the courage needed to walk onto a basketball court surrounded by 2,000 teenage peers with nothing but a microphone and some rhymes, being able to command the crowd, and then walking off to a standing ovation. Goosebumps.

I am leaving a lot out, and we can all worry about HB 2506 later. I am not going to take the time to brag about Isabelle and Olivia, who were masterful (whoops). I am just going to say that as long as our future is in the hands of public school students like the ones I saw today, I will rest easy.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Don't Be a Twit, Get on the Twitter!

“There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.”
Steve Ballmer, USA Today, April 30, 2007.

Sometime around 1990 I attended the National School Boards Association Technology Conference in Dallas.  The vendor hall was filled with exciting new technology!  I recall seeing a 20 pound Apple “portable” computer and IBM was touting their latest System 36 “minicomputer” which was about the size of Smart Car and had less computing power than your grandpa’s flip phone.

But the seminal moment for me was when I got stuck talking to a salesman from a company called America Online. He was excitedly describing how one could sit in New York and write an electronic message to someone in California!  It was free and instantaneous!  As I am a technology visionary and savant, my answer was “Why wouldn’t I just pick up the phone and call?”  Really? Electronic mail?  It will never catch on. 

About ten years later as superintendent in Emporia, I recall visiting with new teachers every year at the beginning year.  I would ask them how many had email accounts.  In the early years, a smattering of nerds would raise their hands, but after about three years it became a dumb question to ask. 

Today we live in a world defined by Moore’s Law.  Computing power is increasing exponentially and its power in communication moves equally fast.  Living in a house with two teenage girls I have seen Facebook, Vine, Snapchat, YikYak and a host of other social media come and go.  One thing that seems to have some staying power is Twitter.  Because we have established that I am a visionary when it comes to technology, I never really saw the power of twitter.  I used it to share and receive news and journal articles and for entertainment value.

After the last weekend of the legislative session, I realized the true power of Twitter.  It excels as an event-based social media tool.  I should have noticed this before because I have watched twitter during KU basketball games to see Fake Jeff Withey’s comments, during the last episode of Breaking Bad to share an experience with like-minded fanboys, and while watching Chief’s games to share the pain.  Twitter is about being there even when you can’t be there.

The last weekend of the legislative session, even though I was 800 miles away from Topeka, I was up at 2:00 AM with all of the rest of those political junkies, sharing in the experience with those who were actually there.  It was fascinating to watch and learn.  Rumors started, peaked, and ended or became truth in waves that might last minutes or even seconds.  Lobbyists and journalists interact with regular folks, exchanging information and sorting through the noise to develop a picture of what is really happening. (Special shout out to @tallman_mark and @tomkrebs1.)

Twitter allows everyone to be part of the action, see different views and perspectives, and share their own.  By the time the newspaper is printed, it is old news.  Skeptics like to quote Michael Scott from the office who said, “Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone, in the world, can write anything they want about any subject. So you know you are getting the best possible information.”  Michael’s ironic statement fails to take into account that journalists are now some of the most active voices on Twitter, and their reputations depend on accuracy in tweets as much as in print or on the air. 

I am a convert, and new converts are the worst about proselytizing, but school leaders need to embrace social media.  Facebook, Twitter, and whatever kids are using now that I haven’t even heard of are essential to communicating both during “events” and for general information.  So get on the Google machine, search up The Twitter, start yourself an account, and get in the game.