Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Brown v. Board: ‘A Time to Lose’

You may have heard we are celebrating our 100 years of service here at KASB. For a former history teacher, reviewing old programs and minutes is a fascinating exercise. History truly does repeat itself, over and over.

As we look back on the history of KASB in the context of the history of Kansas education, there is one glaring omission. On the issue Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KASB seems to have remained silent. I wondered about this and did some research.

When one has a history question, walking to Mark Tallman’s office is a good first step. Mark recommended “A Time to Lose” written by the Kansas assistant attorney general who argued the state’s case unsuccessfully, Paul E. Wilson.

The author begins with an insightful history of race relations in Kansas, and I was struck by the paradoxes he exposed. Kansans take pride in being a “free state,” but Wilson reveals that the same “free state” Constitution denied African-Americans the right to vote. We regard ourselves as welcoming to Exodusters, the term used to describe African-Americans who came to Kansas after the Civil War, but Wilson provides examples of Green River Ordinances and Jim Crow Laws that were reactions to these former slaves moving to Kansas. Just like the rest of America, Kansas’ history of race relations is complicated and often embarrassing.

Fast forward to Kansas in the 1950’s. Several years ago when selling a house, I noticed the deed included a covenant that it was in an area that restricted sales to “whites only.” (For an examination of these practices, check out “The Color of Law,” by Richard Rothstein.) That covenant sums up Kansas race relations in the 1950’s – separate but equal was actively and passively the way things were.

Oliver Brown and other plaintiffs in Brown v. Board rejected this premise and practice in the now-famous lawsuit. Kansas’ case was significant because it was not about “separate but equal” school facilities. Brown v. Board was about the premise itself. In the words of Justice Thurgood Marshall, taken from his argument before the Supreme Court: “The only way that this court can decide this case in opposition to our position ... is to find that for some reason Negroes are inferior to all other human beings.”

Commentator Paul Harvey might say ‘and now, for the rest of the story.’ I had assumed KASB remained silent on the issue because of a responsibility to side with a member district. It turns out there is a little-known hero in this story – the duly elected board of education of Topeka Public Schools; the very same “Board” in Brown v. Board.

Yes, when the suit was filed in 1952, Topeka had a policy of separate but equal. White, Latino and Native Americans attended schools separate from African-Americans. However, shortly after the suit was filed, three new board members were elected. The superintendent resigned, and the new board and new superintendent decided not to offer a defense of their separate but equal policy to the Supreme Court. In fact, the board eventually changed the policy and passed a plan to fully desegregate the district before the Supreme Court directed the action.

For the lawyers on both sides, this caused great consternation. The action raised the potential of having the matter before the court being declared moot. Fortunately, those Supreme Court Justices heard the case and decided against separate but equal even though it had already been decided by the Topeka Board.

It was good to learn more about the case, and I recommend the book. It revealed courage on the part of the plaintiffs, the Topeka Board of Education and superintendent. That case was decided over 60 years ago, and race continues to be a sensitive issue.

This conclusion includes no answer to the question of “where was KASB in 1954?” The lack of an answer is a valuable lesson for an association reflecting on its history. The lesson is revealed in a statement made recently by Frank Henderson, Jr., a Kansas board member now serving on the NSBA Board. Reflecting on an NSBA conflict, he said “We were on the wrong side of the issue in 1954; we need to make sure that mistake is not repeated.”

Good advice, Frank.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Putting a round peg in a square hole

On Monday, October 2, the Kansas Supreme Court released its ruling on Gannon v State, finding the school funding law to be unconstitutional on adequacy and equity.
As with past rulings, we heard criticism about activist judges, inefficiency and lack of accountability. But let’s remember, the court studied stacks of exhibits, thousands of pages of documents, multiple precedents and hours of testimony to reach its conclusion. The trial record alone was 21,000 pages and since then more than 3,300 pages of briefs have been filed during the numerous appeals in the case.

The Kansas Supreme Court is the final arbiter of the Kansas Constitution and has consistently ruled that schools are not adequately funded. In its ruling, the court noted that Kansas schools have been funded appropriately for only three of the past 15 years.Now come the arguments that what we really need is more accountability for schools. Kansas schools are audited annually through an independent audit process, by the Kansas State Department of Education and by the federal government. They are subject to audits by Legislative Post Audit. All expenditures are approved monthly by locally elected boards of education. That is a lot of accountability.

But there is another kind of accountability. Some say what we need is better accountability for results. Put me down as an advocate for this idea. The devilish details are revealed in the question: “What results?” We spent 15 years focused on improving a reading and math score, measured by a standardized test. I fell victim to the cult of assessment. What we have learned is that score is not the result that matters. In fact, it isn’t a result at all, it is a small indicator in a greater result.

Six years ago, the Kansas Association of School Boards sponsored a series of listening tours in communities all over the state – our Kansas Conversations. Over 100 communities had discussions about their schools. The one issue that rose to the top? We spend too much time on standardized tests.

A few years later, the Kansas State Board of Education went on a listening tour of the state and asked a different question: “What do we want for our children?” Kansans answered loudly: “We want them to be successful adults.” So now we have an outcome, a result, that is meaningful. And the State Board said, “We are going to hold schools accountable for student success.” Now we have an accountability measure on which we can all agree.

Meanwhile, back in Topeka, our Kansas Legislature struggled to develop a school finance formula that would pass constitutional muster. Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson likes to use a space exploration metaphor, so I will use one here.

Recall the scene from Apollo 13: a room full of engineers are assembled and boxes of materials and equipment are dumped on the table with the directive to figure how to ‘put a round peg into a square hole.’ For our legislators, the square peg was a budget depleted by a failed tax plan and a gubernatorial veto, and the round hole was adequately and equitably funded schools. They did the best they could with what they had. But the court has said the solution didn’t save the ‘astronauts.’ Clearly, more resources were needed.

The challenge is still there. The fix wasn’t good enough. I feel bad for the engineers of this solution. They worked hard. They are already being targeted in their re-election campaigns. They put heart and soul into crafting a workable solution. Now they must go back to work. Our job as school leaders is to provide them with support. We must help in every way we can to bring a workable solution to bear by April 30, 2018 – the Court’s deadline.

We have an accountability measure just like the Apollo engineers did. They needed to bring the astronauts home. We need to set our children forth on a path to success. We have a goal. We have a task. We have a deadline. Let’s get to work.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Max & Dale: Decades of positive impact

One hundred years ago, the first recorded meeting of the The Council of Administration of the Kansas Teacher’s Association held its first meeting. The group that would eventually become the Kansas Association of School Boards’ earliest recorded program is from 1923, and among the topics on the agenda were: 
  • “Necessary Requirements for and a Definite Program for Physical Education” by Dr. Light, President of the Chanute Board of Education
  • “The Duties and Restrictions of the School Superintendent From the Point of View of the Board of Education” by Dr. Brewer of the Beloit Board of Education 
  • “The Progress of Vocational and Industrial Education in Kansas” by CM Miller of the State Department of Education 
The program itself was printed by the Pittsburg High School Printing Department. It could be a program from 2017.

If we fast forward to 1934, a gentleman from Frederick, Kansas, Frank Murphy, was in his eighth year as President of the Association. That is the same year that Max Heim was born in Hays, Kansas. So that old fellow has been around for 80 percent of KASB’s 100 years. Max had a long and storied career in Kansas education, and his picture is on the wall of the Kansas Teacher’s Hall of Fame.

When I was in third or fourth grade, we lived in Manhattan, Kansas, where Max was an assistant superintendent. I have a vague memory of him returning from a meeting and retelling a joke he had heard from someone named Dale Dennis. The reason I remember this joke is because it was just off-color enough for my mom to have said “Max” which was a common admonishment. Remember, this was the late 60s, so it was tame by today’s standards. I can still remember the punch-line. Message me for it!

Why would I remember this?  Maybe it is an interesting name for an interesting man. Born three years later than Max, in 1937, Dale, too, has been around for 80 percent of KASB’s history. Both men have had a considerable effect on the lives of thousands of Kansas children, including me. Naturally, I know more about Max than Dale. Max started his career in Gorham, Kansas as a teacher and coach. He moved through many positions and finished his career working at KASB until another Heim arrived at 1420 Arrowhead in 2010. (Family rumors circulate about a wrongful termination suit, but it is probably just talk instigated by my brother).

But enough about them, back to me. Recently, my mom has been working on organizing papers and mementos from our childhoods. For example, I recently discovered that I was an Honorable Mention State Award Winner in Social Studies while at Santa Fe Trail Junior High school, and was given the name “Mad Dog” by some smart aleck coach who wrote it on my eighth grade football letter at Independence Junior High. (The coach actually called me Baby Robin. Again, message me). Another classic find was from 1973 or `74, a picture of me and my trombone marching with the IHS band for the Neewollah Parade. On the back of the picture from the Independence Daily Reporter is an article about a man named, yep, Dale Dennis. Dennis was quoted in the story about a lawsuit filed by a local district against the state. No need to message me for the content of the suit -- underfunding of education.

If it seems like these guys have been around forever, it is because in terms of the history of Kansas Education, they have. Both men have careers that started in the late 50s and have been having a positive impact on Kansas kids ever since. Max retired seven years ago for the last time, but is still a source of advice and inspiration for me, and many others who know him. Dale recently celebrated his 80th birthday and still puts in the hours of a man half his age. How many superintendents, board members, and legislators have relied on his advice over his career?

And KASB, we are still here too, and will be celebrating 100 years of service. I would say we have been in good company for 80 percent of those years.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The ABC’s of the first day of school

The first day of school is the second-best day or the year. The last day of school is the best day of the year. You can’t have one without the other, and they are both filled with excitement of completely different kinds. What memories and thoughts does the first day call to mind?  I will share my ABC’s of the first day. What are yours?

A is for A New Day in Kansas Schools, thanks to a new vision from KSDE.
B is for Brown, as in Miss Brown, the most beautiful Kindergarten teacher in Colby Kansas in 1963.
C is for school Clothes. Exciting for most kids, but a worry for kids from impoverished homes.
D is for Difference. Some kids are reading on the first day of Kindergarten, while others struggle with their letters, but all kids come with different gifts.
E is for Expectations. Miss Brown expected us to be ready to learn. Kindergarten teachers today expect kids to know their alphabet. Expectations have increased in the last 50 years!
F is for Fear. For many kids, especially ones who are starting in a new school with no friends, the first day is scary.
G is for Graham crackers and goldfish. Miss Brown gave us graham crackers every day, and we had a goldfish pond right in our classroom.
H is for High School Senior. Remember that unique feeling on the first day when you knew this was the last year?
Iis for I can’t believe how much I loved Miss Brown!
Jis for Jaime Escalante. Every teacher should watch “Stand and Deliver” before starting a new school year.
Kis for Kind, the first half of Kindergarten. Is there anyone kinder than a kindergarten teacher on the first day of school?
L is for Learning. It’s fixin’ to start happening’ again.
Mis for Moon Shot. Is your school ready for the Kansas State Board of Education challenge?
Nis for Naps. We don’t do those anymore in Kindergarten, but there will be some educators who will need one at the end of that first day!
Ois for one hundred twenty-eight Crayon box. Yes, my sister had one. Sixteen was my limit, and the dog usually ended up eating a couple leaving me with 13 or 14.
P is for Post-Secondary Success. Do you know your district’s rate?
Q is for Quiz. Teachers! Not on the first day!
Ris for Run, as in don’t run with scissors. A hard lesson learned by one of my Kindergarten classmates. Girl!  Miss Brown told you not to!
S is for School Boards. Without you, there is no first day!
T is for Teachers. Ditto.
U is for Uncle. What kind of uncle would hide a dirty diaper in his niece’s backpack on the first day of high school?
Vis for Victory. Teams are all practiced, and every team is undefeated!
Wis for work. Learning is hard work, but so much fun.
Xis for Xylophone. I got nothing.
Yis for You. As always, it is up to you.
Z is for Zeal. Let’s approach this new year with some of a big dose!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Begin With the End in Mind

Anyone who has ever done curriculum work with Emporia’s George Abel knows that you have to start with where you want to end up.  As George likes to say, “If you don’t know where you are going, how are you going to get there?”  Nobody ever went wrong taking advice from George (unless it was on remodeling!)  Let’s use his formula to address the biggest problem now faced by Governor Brownback and the Legislature.

August 15 Students are walking into buildings for the first day of school.  That is where I want to be, and I am guessing about 80,000 school employees, 900,000 parents, and truth be told, most of the 450,00 returning students themselves want to be there too.  So if one were mapping curriculum, the map goes backwards from there.  What are important standards and benchmarks along the way?

August 14 First day of practice for fall activities.

 August 25 Out of order of importance, but technically a key date because statute says budgets must be turned in to the county by that date in order for a district to levy a tax and collect the revenue necessary to fund school for the year. 

August 11 looms because the notice of budget hearing must be published a minimum of ten days prior to the budget hearing. (I used business days to be safe.)  Of course, this assumes the board would hold the budget hearing the same day the budget must be turned in to the county.

August 4 Let’s say your local paper needs a week notice to print the publication.  Your board must approve the notice by Aug 4 at a very minimum.

August 1 Enrollment for most districts takes place at least two weeks prior to school starting.

July 1-July 31 Staff Payroll and key operational expenses such as utilities and insurance must be paid.  Building maintenance and upkeep, curriculum and instructional planning and development, new staff orientation, staffing, all must be completed.  Summer school, summer lunches, summer activity camps are all scheduled.

July 1 June state aid payments made to districts

June 30 Deadline for the legislature to complete work on a constitutional school finance plan.

 May 24. Today  Memorial Day is right around the corner.  That leaves about thirty days for presentation of a constitutional school funding plan to the court.  In the best of all possible worlds, that plan will be presented and the plaintiffs will agree that it meets constitutional muster, much like last year.  In the worst of all possible worlds, we don’t really know what happens.

Today around the state, 286 school boards are faced with the question “How do we plan for this?” There are 286 different stories and not one of them is the same.  Declining enrollment districts are wondering if they will lose significant funding.  Our state’s second largest district is trying to plan for opening a 5-6A high school.  Students will be there on August 17th, ready or not!  Increasing enrollment districts wonder if the can hire new teachers to reduce class sizes for as many as 200-300 additional students. 286 unique places with as many unique "ends in mind."

Those big questions- the “end in mind, " create hundreds of logistical questions: textbooks, computers, classroom space, interview processes, refurbishing- everything from pencils and paraprofessionals to principals and paint and who gets paid. Those plans need to be made now, for implementation in June and, gulp, July.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Childhood Trauma and Learning

Most everyone has suffered some kind of childhood difficulty. For me, most of it was self-induced. What was it for you? Not making a team, a class bully, middle school in general, or as KASB's Mark Tallman describes, (quoting Niles from “Frazier”) the general difficulties of being “a small-boned child with superior language skills?” While these kinds of experiences can be traumatic, the concept of childhood trauma has been the subject of recent attention and research and the new information is shocking. Marcia Weseman, former middle school principal in the Blue Valley school district was at KASB recently to share some of her knowledge about the subject and it is an important one for school leaders to understand.  

I learned the importance of defining one’s terms in high school novice debate class. For our purposes, childhood trauma goes beyond those listed above. The Centers for Disease Control website has excellent information on Childhood Trauma and what can be far-reaching, long-term impacts on those affected. A good summary description can be found at  

Researchers use the Adverse Childhood Experiences survey to determine an ACE Score. These experiences range from whether you were “sworn at, insulted, put down, or humiliated” at home to whether you had a parent in prison. What they have found is that children with higher ACE scores tend to experience more long-range physical and mental health issues ranging from obesity to cancer. In the short term, children are more likely to have difficulty regulating emotions and behavior, which translates into getting in trouble at school.  

I often hear people my age say things like, “if I got in trouble in school, I got it worse at home, “and “if we could just paddle kids…” The research is showing that children who suffer trauma at home need exactly the opposite at school. Getting angry and yelling at a kid who has been yelled at in his home for years is not an effective strategy. Paddling a kid who has been beaten and abused at home will not yield positive results. Giving a kid whose mom just went to prison a zero for not handing in an assignment will not improve their desire to learn.  

Some folks will resist this idea, saying spare the rod and spoil the child. We can conduct esoteric debates about society’s ills and kids lacking responsibility all day long. I once received a hateful email from a parent at another school because I wouldn’t let a wrestling team travel during a blizzard. He accused me of effeminizing the wrestlers. Those arguments have been going on for centuries.  

Local school boards are the place where esoteric and high-minded debates meet ten-year-old homeless kids. We cannot afford to debate social ills. The students we have are the best we are going to get right now. Schools and districts need to look at their policies and procedures and consider how to build resiliency in students, how to help them manage their turbulent lives so they can be productive citizens.  

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Help Wanted: Great Opportunity to Shape the Future. Long Hours. No Pay.

Positions Available! *

USD XYZ is a full-service education organization focused on preparing all children to be successful citizens. We are known for some of the best results in the country and are proud of our student’s success in academics, social and emotional growth, the arts, and careers.

Our district is focused on success for all students.
We believe in providing the best education possible to insure the success of all students.

The Position: We’re looking for a school board member with good judgement, focus, good listening skills and a sense of goodwill for our children and community. We need a team-player who knows how to work together with others to set and monitor goals for our future. Applicants should be altruistic advocates who are respectful, brave, collaborative, inquisitive, and have time to commit to the children of our community.

We offer long hours and no pay.
We also offer the sense of accomplishment that comes with helping shape our community and country’s future.

The Location: USD XYZ schools are located right here in your community. This is a great place to live because of our great schools and sense of community.

Why Should You Apply?
Opportunity to work with other elected officials with similar goals.
Opportunity to work with professional staff who are committed to our children.
Opportunity for advancement to school board officer.
Opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of children.

Deadline for Application: June 1, 2017. Position starts in January 2018.
For more information, contact your local school district office.

*Every two years, about half (1,000) of the school board positions in Kansas are open to elections.  KASB research indicates that between 250 and 500 incumbents choose not to run every election cycle.  There are jobs open.  Do you have what it takes to serve?