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.