Friday, January 24, 2014

Cutting Back on the Ben and Jerry's

Perhaps because of my reputation as a Dairy Queen savant, (I know the location of every DQ in Kansas and once celebrated the 4th of July by going to every DQ between Greensburg and Lawrence), KASB Communications Specialist Andrea Hartzell pointed out that I have written about all of the basic food groups, but nothing about dessert.  So let's talk about ice cream.

When I was a superintendent, going to the grocery store was something to be avoided.  You never know who you will run into in the canned foods section, and a jumbo can of baked beans can make a dangerous projectile if launched by an angry patron.  Better safe and hungry than full and chewed on.  In my new position, I am far less likely to encounter an angry legislator because they mostly do their shopping at home.

Even more exciting is that now that I live in the big city, a supermarket really is SUPER!  And by that I mean the selection of Ben and Jerry’s ranges far beyond just Cherry Garcia and Chubby Hubby!  City life has some drawbacks, (among them leaf-obsessed neighbors and doggy poop police-topics for another day), but the frozen food fineries that can be found outweigh them all.  From Americone Dream to What a Cluster, they’ve got it all.

Based upon my love of ice cream and the wintery wonderland to be explored, it should not have been any surprise that when I had my physical this year, my doctor told me I needed to lose three pounds.  (Yes, three pounds.  Three pounds this week.  Three pounds next week.  Etc. Etc. Isn’t she funny?) I still love going to the grocery store, but I spend less time staring through the frozen fog at my favorite flavors.

In fact, if you were to monitor my grocery cart, you would find that I am buying more healthy food and less ice cream.  Way less ice cream.

But suppose you wanted to discredit my claim that I am buying less ice cream?  Here’s how you could do it:  Divide my grocery purchases into two different categories: Let's say fruits/vegetables and ice cream/other.  Now compare my pre-physical and post-physical grocery cart and you might find that pre-physical I was buying ten different fruits and vegetables and 20 ice cream and others.  Post physical, I am buying 12 different fruits and vegetables and 30 ice cream and others. Look!  John is ignoring his doctor and spending all of his money on ice cream!

The truth is, Ben and Jerry’s is pricy, so if I stop buying it, I can buy more items and stay within my budget.  I can buy more tofu (as if), lean meats, soup, beans, things that are good for me,not to mention dog food, (We added another dog to the family, thus the increased mouths to feed.) but your arbitrary assignment of two categories tells a different tale.  If this story sounds familiar, lets look at another data set that is making the rounds in some political circles:

The graph is accurate.  More teachers were added than students. KSDE reports that most of these positions were either because districts added All Day Kindergarten or Special Education positions. Districts also added both teaching and other staff because of special education and implementation of interventions for students.

But the graph appears to be trying to lead the reader to the conclusion that administrative positions have increased. KSDE budget information by function, available since 2002 shows that districts have spent less on administration over the past ten years, and more on instruction.

If we are to have a reasonable discussion of school efficiency, it is important that we use data, but not just try to mold the data to support our previously held beliefs.  Carol Pitts often tells us that if you torture a number long enough, it will say anything you want it to.  Waterboarding the data is not how we will find answers to being more efficacious.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Hitting the Wall at Mile 25

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
-H.L. Mencken

There are 450,000 students in Kansas.  As we all know from personal experience, no two children are alike or have the same needs.  It takes a complex system to provide resources commensurate with every child’s needs.  There are 2,833 schools in Kansas, each in a unique community with unique needs and unique resources.  It takes a complex system to provide resources to educate the children in this many schools.  There are 286 school districts in Kansas, each with unique needs and resources.  It takes a complex system to provide suitable resources for every district in Kansas.

A complaint I often hear about the school finance formula in Kansas is that it is just too complicated.  I heard a Kansas senator speak last week and he challenged the board members and administrators in the room to tell him how much weighting they got for each student.  He was making a point that the formula is so complex that no one can even remember how much weighting they get.

It is probably human nature to seek simple solutions to complex problems, but noted cynic HL Mencken’s words are worth considering, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

Back in the 80’s (for you youngsters that is the 1980’s-a time when Alex P. Keaton was king and bangs were big) I decided that I would like to run a marathon.  I was living in Lawrence at the time and they had a marathon that corresponded with the KU Relays.  I trained hard and was ready to run as the big day approached.  My family was very supportive, my brother, sister, mom, dad, and all the in-laws were there the day before.  As we discussed the run the night before, my sister-in-law posed a question:  “What if you have to go to the bathroom?”  It was something I had not considered, but that I studied on that night.

Some of you may have run marathons recently.  The question of going to the bathroom seems ridiculous and not particularly complex.  But this was back in the day.  There were no Johnny on the Jobs anywhere.  The concept of hydration was just coming into vogue and most of us were raised on the idea that drinking before an athletic event would make you sick.  These were the days before water bottles and three different levels of Gatorade. My simple solution to the question of bathroom use was easy- I just won’t drink anything.

Race morning came and it was a beautiful spring day in Lawrence, morning temperatures in the 60’s with a high predicted in the 80’s. A perfect day for a nice morning run, unless it’s a hilly 26.2 mile run and you don’t drink anything. No Gatorade, no water, no coffee, no 5 hour energy, nothing.  It is really surprising that I made it to mile 25 before passing out.  I struggled up the hill north of Allen Fieldhouse, and like a KU football team, blacked out before reaching Memorial Stadium. 

I learned a valuable lesson that day. My clear and simple solution of not drinking was clearly and simply wrong.  My worry is that if we seek a simple answer to the complex problem of funding schools, we will bonk long before mile 25.  And the stakes are much higher than a finisher’s medal and t-shirt.  The stakes are a suitable education for all of the children of Kansas.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

It’s the Principal of the Matter

Enough time has passed that I can muster the emotional courage to write about the 2013 KC Chiefs season.  In hindsight, it has been a great run under General Manager John Dorsey and Head Coach Andy Reid.  With only one major player change, the Chiefs went from 2-14 to 11-5 in one year.  How did they do it!?  Observation and experience tell us that leadership matters in professional sports.

School districts can experience similar transformations.  MCREL’s research on building and district leadership tells us that building principals and district leadership team’s can make a significant difference in student achievement.  In the words of former Kansas Coach of the Year Doug Moeckel, the superintendent is the head coach and the principals are the coordinators.  That makes the board the owner and GM.  All of these people have to be working in synch for a school system to work with maximum efficacy.

Sports fans can cite many examples of when this hasn’t worked well, but to me the best example is the recent history of the Chiefs.  Head Coach Haley and GM Pioli created a culture of paranoia and misplaced focus that was so bad it led to the team being the laughing stock of the NFL.  There was no trust and no clear understanding on the part of coaches or management about the vision and direction of the team.  In this case it was a breakdown between coach and GM.  Other examples such as Washington and Dallas show a clear breakdown between ownership and coaches.

What lessons can schools learn from these examples?
1. It’s the Leadership TEAM that makes the difference.  No team can win without great assistant coaches.  No school district can win without great principals.  Head Coaches and GM’s include their assistants in helping craft vision and direction.  Boards and superintendents listen to their principals as they develop vision and direction for their students.
2. There is no I in Team.  A platitude, but true.  In Dallas it has become all about Jerry Jones.  When is the last time Dallas won a championship?  In Washington, it became all about the Quarterback.  Their season was lost. It cannot be all about the board, the superintendent, or the principals.  It is about the leadership team.
3. In the words of Dr. Heim the Greater (Max) “When the elephants fight, the grass loses.”  Organizations, like people, have a finite amount of energy.  In school districts, if that energy is spent in conflict at the leadership level the students lose.  Egos, hidden agendas, and opaqueness lead to a lost vision.
4. Leadership matters!  When the Chiefs went 2-14, there was no movement to cut assistant coaches to spend more money on “the players.”  In the NFL, the effects of leadership on performance are well accepted.  Since 2002 in Kansas we have 24 fewer superintendents and 77 fewer principals.  We have 212 fewer administrative support positions.  At the same time we have 12,520 more students and nearly 4,000 more teaching and instructional support positions.  In many of our districts, when the principal and superintendent talk, a mirror is the other party.  We have to help our public see that leadership matters!

From the KASB perspective, we know that being a board member is a thankless job.  We see that being a superintendent is the most important job.  We need to acknowledge that being a principal is the most difficult job.  We have to recognize that all of these leadership positions, working together, will make the best team for Kansas students.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Bunker Hill Wolverines: Out of sight, out of mind?

The Holiday Wolverine Hunt has become a tradition at my parents Bunker Hill farm.  Although my sons and I are the only ones to have actually sighted one of these wily beasts, we lead a band of intrepid young huntsmen in a search that often turns up scat, tracks, fur, and other signs.  In keeping with our Paleolithic ancestors, we protect ourselves with rocks (sticks just make them mad) as we seek to capture a glimpse, or maybe even a photo.  Except for the 55, 24, and 21-year-old guides, our group of pursuers ranges in age from 3 to 7 and we often wander miles of pasture in our search.

Our hunt came to an unfortunate end when the five and six year old boys showed me (on my own iPad) that the wolverine habitat doesn’t go as far south as Bunker Hill Kansas and so our efforts were in vain.  Next they will be telling me there is no Santa Claus.  (I also learned that sharks don’t have a tooth fairy, but that is a different story). Kids nowadays!

So this Christmas instead of hunting wolverines, the kids staged an all day football game.  No exaggeration.  All day.  The five and six year old boys were intermittently joined by players of all ages but excepting short breaks for food and present opening, they played all day.  Some of us older folks were only good for a down or two, saving ourselves for the playoffs.  The youngest (at 3) mostly ran in circles yelling, “we are the Chiefs, we are the Chiefs.” He also insistently told my daughter “you are the Chiefs doctor” after she was called in to action when a player collided with a root cellar vent.

There were a lot of touchdowns, a few penalties (mostly called on me), some minor injuries, and one major de-cleating by a guy-wire.  If Roger Goodell thinks Tom Brady can't take a little roughing the passer, he should have seen a 6-year-old boy go head over heals after catching a cable in the chin at full speed.  It was a clothesline that would have made Fred “The Hammer” Williamson shiver.

Of course, as an educator, it wasn’t just the athletic prowess of my family members that impressed me.  It was the vocabulary.  I was struck by a three-year-old making connections between his team and medical care.  All of these kids under age six spoke clearly and had extensive vocabulary.  They were adept with technology and reason, to the point that they could discredit their uncle’s claim that wolverines roam the tundra of Russell County.  Naturally, being my relatives, these kids are all gifted.  But an objective observer might say that they are typical middle class kids, just starting or getting ready to start school.

Because of my time as an educator, I also have another frame of reference.  I know that because these kids have been read to, played with, and most of all, talked to by adults, they have a significant advantage once they hit the K-12 system. 

In a seminal study that has been often replicated, researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley looked at language exchanges between “professional”, “working class”, and “poor” children and their caregivers. They found that children learn 86-98% of their words from their parents/caregivers. (The rest, no doubt the unrepeatable ones, were learned from their uncles during Holiday football games.)  Over the four years of the study, the difference in number of words heard between children in poor and professional homes was 30 million. 

Put another way, poor children heard one third as many words as children in professional homes.  The researchers point out that there is no less love or caring in these homes, just a lot fewer words.  These words translate to a larger vocabulary, which means more early success in school.  Ask any Kindergarten teacher about what a difference this means to academic success and early literacy.

We know the effects of childhood poverty on student achievement.  Virtually every district in Kansas disaggregates their data by socio-economic status and shows a gap in achievement.  Michael Rebel and Jessica Wolff, among others, have studied this problem internationally as well.  Most recently they looked at results of the PISA and how a country’s scores correlate with childhood poverty rates.

Now if you want some really bad news, let’s look at childhood poverty rates in Kansas.  The Kansas Health Institute reports that childhood poverty rates in Kansas are at a 5 year high, with 19% of Kansas children living at or below the poverty level of $22,000 annual income for a family of four.  Free and reduced price lunch counts are at an all-time high in Kansas as well.  Even worse, Kansas’s childhood poverty rates are growing at a faster rate than all but three states in the nation.

We are faced with a choice as a state.  We have to decide first if this is OK with us.  Playing football with a bunch of smart, professional class relatives it is hard to see why I should care.  I don’t see poor children every day, struggling to learn on empty stomachs.  Like Bunker Hill wolverines, out of sight, out of mind? 

That is not the Kansas that I grew up in- the one in which we helped each other in times of need.  That is not the Kansas of our ancestors, the one in which state government said no to slavery even in the face of massacres.  The one that raised taxes to build schools for the good of the whole during times of need- the dirty thirties, the fifties and sixties, and the early 90’s.  We have a history.

A baby step has been taken- a plan to fully fund all day kindergarten over five years- but this is not enough.  We have to provide quality preschool opportunities, remediation and enrichment for all students in need, and a quality education for all, the sooner, and the earlier, the better.