Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Pickups and Schools

This year has brought some big changes for me. Among them, I am not commuting 120 miles a day anymore. I also traded my 10-year-old Nissan pickup on a new Ford F150. These changes made me think about an interesting argument made by a Kansas policy group about median spending in schools. The argument is the Legislature should take the median spending level for schools and limit spending to that median for each spending category. The assumption, I guess, is that any spending above the median for each category is wasteful.

So let’s take a look at two hypothetical situations, call them medians for 2014JH and 2016JH. (Since I only had two data sets, I used average instead of median for a measure of central tendency.)

Spending Category               2014JH Monthly       2016JH Monthly       Average
Vehicle Maintenance                       $200                        $20                     $110
Gas                                                   $360                        $20                     $190
Principal and Interest                        $0                           $400                   $200

Based upon this comparison and the policy group’s reasoning, 2014JH is overspending on monthly maintenance by $90 and gas by $170, whereas 2016JH is grossly overspending on principal and interest by $200! These two JH’s are obviously on vehicular spending sprees. The differences in travel and age of vehicle explain the differences.

So let’s look at two large districts in a metropolitan area. One district, call them Metro City, is at the city core. Their buildings were primarily built in the 1950s and ‘60s. The bond debt has been paid off for years, but these buildings require as much or more maintenance as a 2006 Nissan pickup. Their maintenance and energy costs will be relatively high, certainly higher than the median.

Red River, the second district is in the same metropolitan area and has been growing rapidly. All of their buildings have been built since the 1980s. Because of the rapid growth, they add a new school building every year or so. This district’s bond and interest costs will be far above the Metro City’s and above the median in their category. But because they built with modern designs and materials, their energy costs are far less than the median. Maintenance costs on their newer facilities will be less than Metro City and the median.

If one is looking for a way to take cheap shots at different district’s spending levels in different categories, they would say Metro City is wasteful and inefficient because of high energy and maintenance costs out of one side of their mouth and Red River is wasteful and inefficient because of high bond and interest costs out of the other, while ignoring the obvious big picture differences.

Kansas School districts are as different as the children they serve. Garden City and Maize have similar enrollments, but are unique in more ways than my short blog can list. Should we really expect them to be at the same median spending levels in total in categories? If you believe that, you haven’t driven a Ford lately.

Friday, November 20, 2015

My baby boy is going to be a teacher!

My baby boy is going to be a teacher. He is in his last year at Wichita State and will make someone a fine science teacher. He knows 10 times as much about good instructional strategies as I did at his age; what we know about good teaching now compared to 35 years ago is amazing. There will be struggles and challenges, but he is setting forth on a career that is inherently good, and more intrinsically rewarding than any other.

Last week we were talking and he mentioned that he heard two of his best Emporia High School teachers were retiring this year.  He said, “I should write them a note and let them know how much I appreciated them” I told him that is the greatest reward any teacher ever gets, knowing they made a difference, and inspired another generation to pick up the torch.

So when I think about American Education Week, I am reminded not just of all of the great educators I have known, but of all of the students. It is so much fun to run into kids who remember you and some small kindness you afforded them.

I have shared with my son that some kids never leave you. It might be the young man who loved to discuss politics and couldn’t wait to tell you about his greatest high school moment --- attending a Rush Limbaugh show.

It is also the kid who took a swing at you, and had to be taken from school in handcuffs. Ten years later, I went in to pay for my gas and that kid was working behind the counter. There was no avoiding him, but maybe he wouldn’t remember? Nope, he remembered, “Mr. Heim? Hey, you should know that I’m not an a-----e anymore.” Words I will never forget because of the pride with which he spoke them.

Then there are kids who haunt you. Ty, who I took home after he got in a fight, haunts me. His house was a hovel. His dad was passed out on the couch, guarded by a wolf-like creature. I took his advice and did not try to wake dad, because Ty let me know the beast was very protective. I put the suspension paperwork on the kitchen counter, and when I looked over to write a note, noticed the counter top was moving, covered with bugs.

I don’t know what happened to Ty. I wanted to load him back in the car and take him home. I think about that kid a lot. The burdens that life put on him, that no 13-year-old should have to bear. Is it any wonder he wasn’t motivated at school? That he got in fights? What more could we have done?

When I think about American Education Week, I think about the joys of being an educator, which are great. I also think about the kids who we teach, the good and the bad. I am proud that my son wants to be a teacher because it is not for everybody, and it is not easy. Educators help all kids, and most of all the helpless kids. Educators deserve more than a week honoring them.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Be Royal: How to Be the Best in the World!

I don’t know much about baseball. When you spend summers on the farm, swimming and baseball are two things you miss out on.  With hand-eye coordination so poor that I am lucky to hit my mouth with a spoon, it’s not like the world missed out on another George Brett.  In recent years though, I have become a bandwagon Royals fan.  As a long-suffering Chiefs fan, true Royals fans have all of my respect and support as they celebrate a World Series Victory.  (But really folks, it’s not like we won a Super Bowl.)

As a recent bandwagon fan, I know very little about the sport.  What I know I learned from the Movies: Major League, Bull Durham, and MoneyballMoneyball taught me that baseball has become all about the numbers.  Teams hire statisticians who track every aspect of a player’s career and predict potential value.  Friends who follow the sport tell me that every team plays this way now.

So when I heard the baseball talking heads pontificating about the Royals, I found one statement fascinating. “Ned Yost says championships are won in the clubhouse.” These experts talk about how Ned Yost’s focus is on building a team of players who have the right personality, who fit in with each other, who get along, put team above self, work hard, sacrifice, and support each other.  Some people in education call these “soft skills.”

I couldn’t help but think about Commissioner Watson’s Magical Mystery Tour, during which 70-80 percent of Kansans reported that soft skills are what is important to a successful adult.  Kansans are ready to move beyond Moneyball schools that focus on statistics, and on to World Champions, where statistics are just indicators of potential, and success is measured by what they do on the field of real life.

This will be a tough transition.  Statistics are easy, numbers are hard and fast, validity and reliability computed, and performance reduced to a score; but that isn’t good enough to win anymore.  Kansas schools must go beyond the numbers and give kids the skills they need to contribute in the clubhouse.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Low Miles, Only Driven on Sundays

On Tuesday, the Kansas State Board of Education released a new goal for Kansas Education- To lead the world in the success of every student.  A policy group that is often critical of Kansas Public Schools was quick to respond with a list of why Kansas schools are failing at this goal:

“Commissioner Watson said that 'Kansas leads the world in the success of every student.' That's a noble goal but unfortunately, this is not the case today.  The 2015 ACT shows only 32% of the 2015 graduating class was college-ready in English, Reading, Math and Science - and the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that low income students are several years' worth of learning behind everyone else "

"Kansas must be honest about student achievements, our lack of accountability in the finance formula, the great disparity in at-risk student progress, and travesty of remedial courses for high school graduates.”

Coincidentally, I was reading the State of Kansas Supreme Court Response Brief of the Appellant when I saw the news story.  Ironically, the Solicitor General of Kansas takes the opposite view of this policy group in his brief.  (My Junior English teacher would be so proud I knew the difference.)

The State of Kansas, in its argument Kansas Schools are adequately funded, makes strong student achievement it’s central argument:
 “Doomsday predictions, however, have proven to be pure hyperbole.” 

“KASB ranked Kansas number 5 in the country.”

“NAEP statistics tell a similar story of relative success.”

“In addition, Kansas has been addressing achievement gaps.”

            “Clearly Kansas high school students are doing well.”

Many in the Kansas Legislature have been critical of Kansas schools and often cite data from the aforementioned policy group.  But now the state’s Solicitor General is the chief cheerleader for education?  What gives?

My kids drove a 1984 Audi with 450,000 miles on it while they were in high school.  I avoided driving that smoke-belching beast at all costs.  It was a complete junker with no radio and no heater.  Ironically, when my kids argued for a newer model, I was adamant that car was just fine for getting to and from school!  Maybe one of the top five cars in the Emporia High School parking lot!!

In the interest of consistency, it seems the policy group should be testifying against the State of Kansas case on Friday?  Too bad witnesses cannot be called.

The KASB Board of Director’s have directed us to be a “Voice for Public Education.”  The important thing about being a voice is to be truthful and consistent in our positions.  KASB believes that Kansas schools are doing a great job of educating Kansas kids.  KASB also believes that Kansas schools need to get better.  KASB believes that it will take more resources to achieve the goal of “To lead the world in the success of every student.” 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Do We Trust Kansas Voters? (Reading between the lines.)

Last year there was legislation proposed that would have changed school board elections in three ways:
  • Elections would be partisan and subject to party election rules (limiting voter participation in primaries).
  • Elections would be held in the fall.
  • Elections would be in even years in conjunction with national elections.
200 out of 286 school boards passed resolutions against these positions and many others expressed dissent. No school board member testified in favor of all three of these provisions.  In the end, a compromise position moving elections to the fall of odd numbered years passed.

Proponents of the changes argued that turnout is too low in school board elections. Opponents pointed out the focus on local elections and asked if other solutions to the turnout question could be tried.

Looking back, I wonder if the message of proponents is really that the wrong people are voting in school board elections.  Locally elected school board members are focused on improving student success.  Legislators have to be concerned with that issue, and many other social and fiscal issues.  This can cause conflicts between locally elected board members and legislators.  These conflicts should be addressed through respectful discussions, not by trying to change who votes.

Now we have a survey going out to board members about conflicts of interest.  When a bill came up on the subject last year, there was one proponent. What is the underlying message of this survey? We have the wrong people serving on school boards? Board members must think the way they do because they are influenced by having a relative in the profession or a business interest in schools?

KASB is encouraging board members to take the time to fill out and return this survey.  As you answer the questions, please take the time to ask why these questions are being asked.

Does the fact that your brother drives a school bus in Leoti affect your ability to make decisions in the best interest of the students of Lawrence? The legislation that was introduced last year would have restricted anyone who has a relative who works for KSDE or ANY Kansas school district from serving on their local school board.

Perhaps I am paranoid, but I hear two messages in these attempts to change the rules:
1. The wrong people are voting in school board elections.
2. The wrong people are running in school board elections.

Instead of changing the rules, let's change tack and have an honest conversation about why we seem to disagree on some key educational issues. The Kansas State Board of Education and Commissioner Randy Watson have started this process by holding a statewide conversation about what we want for our children.  Let's all participate in this valuable discussion instead of trying to change the rules about who sits at the table.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

My Name is Trevor and I Weigh 38 Pounds!

A year has passed since I was traveling through Western Nebraska on my new motorbike and encountered a nasty thunderstorm.  Riding in the rain is never fun. Riding in a thunderstorm with lightning and hail is scary and painful.  Western Nebraska is not a good place to be caught in such circumstances.  I couldn’t help but think of scenes from "Lonesome Dove" in the same general area.  Blue Duck is scary, but a Western Nebraska thunderstorm is no Sunday afternoon ride.

As I scanned the horizon for shelter, it quickly became apparent that no one lives in Western Nebraska.  I finally spotted a grain elevator and weigh house on the side of the road.  I pulled up under the eves of the shack and waited out the storm.  When it cleared off, I had another problem.  In my haste to get under cover, I had pulled up too close to the building to back out.  There was a small dip in front of me so I decided to plow ahead. 

Wheat chaff floats on the top of water.  If you are in a hurry, you might think the chaff is solid ground, but you will soon learn it's like quick sand.  Once the front tire went in, there was no getting out.  The bike was high-centered and the front tire and wheel were buried in muck. 

An Indian Chief Classic weighs 812 pounds with a full tank of gas.  I’m old and broken down, but nothing if not determined when the stakes of not getting this bike unstuck are years of ridicule.  Even with all of that motivation, I couldn’t budge it.  Searching the area, I found a short 4”x 4” post, a 6' length of angle iron and a 1’X6.”  Like Archimedes, I was able to move the load, but not keep it upright and out of the hole.

Just when I was ready to curl into a fetal position and cry, a young woman and her son rolled up in their car.  The folks of Nebraska are as helpful as Kansans, and without mocking me she told me she had called her husband when she saw my plight and he was 20 minutes away.  Just then the youngster hopped out of the car and announced: “My name is Trevor and I weigh 38 pounds!”

Can’t you hear the conversation in the car? “Mom, I can help him.” “Trevor, you weigh 38 pounds.”  But Trevor didn’t hear it that way, and bless his little heart, he was ready to help.  Trevor manned the lever, I pushed, and mom helped keep the bike upright and we got that bike out of the hole.  If Trevor had heard “You can’t do it,” I would probably still be stuck 15 miles north of Sidney, Nebraska.  Trevor heard that he weighed 38 pounds and that was plenty enough for him.

Around 450,000 kids start school in Kansas this August.  There are a whole bunch of Trevor's out there who don’t know what they can’t do, they only know that they are ready for anything.  Our job is to give them a lever and a place to stand so they can move the world.  Have a great school year.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

It's Your Circus, They're Your Monkeys...

My wife started a new job last week.  Superintendent of Schools.  Her first day in town and with nothing in the cupboard, she headed to the local grocery store early in the morning.  Incognito in ball cap and sunglasses at 7:00 AM, surely she could slip in and out quickly.  Experienced superintendents and board members know the inherent dangers of the grocery store and would never have attempted such a move, but she is new and a risk-taker.  You know how this ends… “Say, aren’t you the new superintendent?  There are a few things I would like to talk with you about….”

There are 58 new superintendents in Kansas this year.  Over half, 35, are brand new to the job, never having served as superintendents before.  These superintendents have all passed their preparation classes and taken their certification exams.  They have all honed their skills as principals and/or central office administrators.  They are smart men and women with good skills and a heart to make things better for kids.  But they have never sat in the superintendent’s chair.

 The part that is hard to learn from books is the personal side: 

  1. You are always the superintendent. Once you put on the hat, it doesn’t come off.  (Even if it’s a ball cap that you think makes you invisible in the grocery store at 7:00AM.) My dad, who has over 20 years experience in the superintendent’s chair, used to say “imagine someone is following you around with a video camera.”  Today, when everyone has a smartphone, you can be assured that someone is.
  2.  Your family will be affected. Your spouse and children will be treated differently. People with good intentions will give them special treatment, which can be even worse than treating them poorly because of a grudge against you.  Then there is always the knucklehead who thinks sending you a message through a son or daughter is a good idea. “Tell your mom we don’t like the….”
  3.  It’s lonely at the top. Any CEO will tell you that, and it is true in this job too.  People make friends with their co-workers, but your co-workers know that the relationship is different even if you don’t think it is.
  4. You live between the rock and the hard place.  Your job is to navigate that space between countervailing forces, parents and teachers, students and taxpayers, board members and staff, just to name a few.  There is inherent stress in that space.
A wise old superintendent described the job with this story:  Picture yourself walking through a meadow on a beautiful sunny day.  In the distance you see a row of trees, swaying in the cool breeze.  As you get closer, you see a little monkey out in front of the trees, jumping up and down and screeching as only a monkey can do.  He is throwing things and yelling at you.  But you think to yourself, it's only one monkey, I may get a little dirty, but I can deal with one little monkey.  So you walk closer and as you approach the trees you notice that the breeze has died down, but the trees are still swaying, the screeching is getting louder and all manner of stuff is being thrown at you.  The whole forest is filled with monkeys, and they are mad at YOU!  Every superintendent has a day or two like this.

Excited about that new job? Of course you are!  Because to quote War Daddy, it’s “the best job you ever had.” Every evening when you lay your head on the pillow, you do it with the knowledge that you did something to help kids today.  There is nothing like it in the world.

Board members, I write this for you as well as for the new superintendents.  You have a new member on your team.  Help them out whenever you can.  Set goals, set boundaries, set expectations and talk through them.  Be supportive, insightful and help them understand there will always be monkeys.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

It's the Economics, Stupid

When a crowd was assembling with torches and pitchforks before a board meeting, Paul McKnabb, a professor at Emporia State University and former Emporia Board Member, used to tell me “Democracy is a messy system and it attracts people with plenty of time on their hands.”  Paul is no doubt watching what is happening in Topeka right now and repeating some variation of that wisdom.  This mess may make more sense than it appears if we look at some data.

The Docking Institute at Fort Hays State University released its “Kansas Speaks” survey in Spring 2015.  The poll shows that the legislature is doing exactly what Kansans want.   How can that be?

When Kansans spoke, they were very clear on the subject of taxes.  The graph clearly says that Kansans prefer to increase sales tax the most and income taxes the least.  A large bloc of Kansas Legislators and the Governor are adamant that this is the best solution.  The will of the people is being done. But as Lee Corso likes to say, “NOT SO FAST!”

Kansans were equally clear on the subject of who should be taxed.  There is strong support to tax large corporations and top income earners.  Less than 10% support increasing taxes on the middle class and small business.  A large bloc of Kansas Legislators are adamant that taxes on corporations and the wealthy should be increased.  The will of the people is being done.

My colleagues at KASB make fun of me because I sometimes claim to be a trained economist.  (I taught 10th grade economics for three semesters.) They call me Economics Professor Emeritus from Lawrence High School.  But one doesn’t need my high level of economic expertise to see the paradox of the “Kansas Speaks” survey. 

Sales taxes, especially as they are structured in Kansas, put more burden on the poor and middle class and less on “Top Income Earners” and “Large Corporations.” Income taxes are the fairest way to tax those two groups.  Property taxes take a larger percentage from middle class farmers and homeowners. 

I speculate that if you asked most Kansans to define small business, 500 employees would not be their threshold.  In most Kansas communities, 500 employees would constitute one of the biggest businesses in town.  The Small Business Administration defines a small business as 500 employees, but in Kansas 53% of all businesses have fewer than 500 employees, and 36% have fewer than 100.

So it is no wonder the Kansas Legislature in messy right now.  We Kansans are sending them a mixed message.  Do we want higher sales taxes or do we want to tax top income earners and large corporations?  Do we want to tax mom and pop businesses or corporations?  It has never been a more important time to consider what you think and to let legislators know. 

I’m pretty sure that all 50 or so of my former students understand this paradox.  Maybe some of them could head up to Topeka and help us out of this mess.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Look Out Texas, Here Comes Kansas

Superintendent Tom Trigg is leaving Blue Valley School District to be the superintendent in Highland Park, Texas.  Look out Texas, here comes Kansas.  If Tom is able to do for Texas what he has done for Kansas, the state might just become something to emulate.

Most educators know what a great job the Blue Valley district does of educating students.  The district is always rated high for student achievement and excellent graduates. Blue Valley is a district that could rest on its laurels but never does.  Most also know the personal awards and recognition Tom has received, including Kansas Superintendent of the Year.  Kansas, of course, has many great districts and superintendents.

What sets Tom apart is that since becoming superintendent in Blue Valley, he has also worked to improve education for all Kansas students.  The easy road would have been to isolate the district and say that BVSD has little in common with the rest of the state.  Tom took the hard road, learning about districts all over the state by being active on the Council of Superintendents and with Kansas professional associations.  He built bridges between all Kansas schools by finding commonalities instead of differences. KASB benefitted as well, when Blue Valley Board Member Pam Robinson served as KASB President.

Tom recognized that by helping all kids, he could help "his kids" even more.  He provided leadership and took chances that have resulted in improvements for all districts in Kansas.  He has helped BVSD become a model for other districts, and he has been a mentor for other leaders across the state. When groups of Kansas school leaders meet to discuss issues, "What does Trigg think" is a commonly asked question.

Blue Valley is a better district because of Tom's commitment to Kansas.  Kansas is a better state because of Tom's commitment to Blue Valley.  That is leadership.  We will all miss Tom Trigg and wish him the best of luck.

Friday, May 29, 2015

1 Kings 3:16-28

They argued back and forth in front of Solomon, 23 until finally he said, “Both of you say this live baby is yours. 24 Someone bring me a sword.”

A sword was brought, and Solomon ordered, 25 “Cut the baby in half! That way each of you can have part of him.” 26 “Please don’t kill my son,” the baby’s mother screamed. “Your Majesty, I love him very much, but give him to her. Just don’t kill him.”

The other woman shouted, “Go ahead and cut him in half. Then neither of us will have the baby.”

27 Solomon said, “Don’t kill the baby.” Then he pointed to the first woman, “She is his real mother. Give the baby to her.”

28 Everyone in Israel was amazed when they heard how Solomon had made his decision. They realized that God had given him wisdom to judge fairly.

Fast forward to Fall of 2014, locked in a heated race for governor, both sides argued vehemently how much they loved education. Both sides claimed credit for providing more funds to education and protecting education from cuts.

And now here we are at the crossroads...

If revenue is not raised, King Solomon's sword will drop on education. Some argue that we should just make more cuts, some argue the only responsible solution is to raise taxes, and still others argue that it's not their mess to fix. I understand all of these arguments and their strategic implications. I also know that if we do not act with the wisdom of Solomon, children will suffer.