Sunday, August 29, 2010

Doubling Stragegies (3)

On Thursday, I wrote about the concept of doubling student performance. The word comes from a book by Allen Odden of the University of Wisconsin, titled Doubling Student Performance and finding the resources to do it. The concept of doubling, speaks to making a quantum leap in the performance of a sub-group of students who are not reaching proficiency. Odden's book reports the results of the University of Wisconsin's research into how school districts have taken these students--who are not performing at acceptable levels--and "doubled" their performance. He calls it doubling, because the idea is that if a only 40% of a particular subgroup of students are performing at the proficient level, the district decides to double the number reaching proficiency, say, to 80%. On Saturday, I briefly described three of the ten strategies identified by Odden's research, strategies that are common to the districts and schools that have demonstrated outstanding success in the doubling process. Today, I want to discuss two more of the ten. As a reminder, the first three strategies are (1) Understanding the performance problem and the challenge, (2) Set ambitious goals, and (3) Change the curriculum program and create a new instructional vision.

But before I proceed, I want to mention the excellent point that a commenter made on Saturday. He pointed out that there is a danger when we assume that all students must achieve to an arbitrary cut line that is set at a high level of proficiency. He pointed out that some young people have abilities and interests that likely will make their life more fulfilling if we don't demand that they master Algebra II, for example. This is an important issue. But we know for sure that there are lots of students who are deprived of even making the choice of aspiring to learn Algebra II, or let it go by the boards, because they are not learning basic reading, writing and math skills. But I do agree, that we need to temper our enthusiasm for doubling with a recognition that we must make sure that we don't destroy some young lives in the process, by trying to force them to learn what is beyond the mental equipment that the good Lord gave them.

But today, I do want to talk about the next two doubling strategies, (4) Formative Assessments and Data-Based Decision Making, and (5) Ongoing Intensive Professional Development.

  • Formative Assessments and Data-Based Decision Making. Despite the outcry in some circles that there is too much testing, Odden says that the doubling districts are actually introducing more testing, not less, but they are using new form of testing in a fundamentally different way. The idea is to use what I call "just in time" testing results to drive instruction, what testing experts call "formative testing." The state proficiency tests that come from No Child Left Behind provide end of the year "summative" tests, that tell the teacher, parent and student how students performed at the end of the year, when it is too late to use those testing results for anything other than hand-wringing and casting blame. The new wave of testing is providing teachers immediate feedback at the beginning and during the year, so that the teacher can use the testing results to attack the problem immediately.

Several years ago, our board of education supported the District's request to install a new testing system, the nationally recognized Northwest Evaluation Associates (NWEA), and I've posted extensively in the past on how our district is using MAP tests and RIT scores to provide teachers with the testing tools they need to make a difference early in the school year. (For a prior post on the use of NWEA in our district, click here and here. )In addition to its use by teachers to improve instruction, and its use by educational leaders to monitor and assist teachers with struggling students, the NWEA testing system is providing our district with an enhanced accountability system that is providing a window on where we are succeeding, and where we are not measuring up. The proper use of the NWEA system is identified by Odden and others as one of the most cost-effective ways of stimulating improved instruction and achieving the goal of doubling.

I put a check mark behind this goal, because it has been implemented by our district as a centerpiece of our doubling strategy. The check mark doesn't mean that we are done yet, in making necessary improvements in the use of NWEA testing to drive improved instruction. But it does mean that we have provided resources, implemented testing, and the process of the use of formative assessments and data-based decision making is well under way in our district.

  • Ongoing Intensive Professional Development Ongoing intensive professional development is a critical component as well of restructuring public education to drive up the scores of students who have historically not reached proficiency. When I discuss this aspect of doubling, I often hear from so-called traditionalists that, well, good teachers don't need professional development, because they have a teachers license, and they should be expected to teach without additional help. I have to postpone a discussion of that position to another day, because my main goal here is to describe what Odden and many others who have reviewed district success stories have found. I'm reporting to you what the all of the leading national experts on making huge performance leaps have found over and over again in successful districts. This is not some theoretical exercise in education philosophy. This is the result of painstaking study of success. "So stay with me for a while. I'm arguing that the best way do something hard, is to replicate the work of folks who have been successful."

I want to put an exclamation point on the Professional Development requirement, because it requires a significant allocation of resources. The kind of professional staff development that really works--that is proven to work--has been estimated to cost about $450 per student in 2005 dollars, and Odden is a hard nosed conservative when it comes to estimating the cost of education. Finding resources to implement ongoing intensive professional development is one of the major challenges in implementing a doubling process, and Odden suggests that every district should do an audit of where it is currently putting its staff development resources and first to reallocate existing resources to proven strategies. He writes

"funding a comprehensive, ongoing professional-development the key to success with many [of the other] strategies, such as class-size reduction. Thus, it should be the top priority for any district or school launching a strategy to dramatically boost student performance."
I didn't put a check mark next to this item, even though we've made a significant beginning here in our school district. But to earn a check mark, in my view, we must permanently allocate the necessary resources, and we must gain widespread acceptance within our district of the absolute necessity of this component. And, we must review our current practices so that we are using our professional staff development in the right way and at the right time, and to do this, we need a systemic commitment to the kind of professional staff development that is proven most effective. Because this is so important, according to virtually all who have studied school success, I'm going to devote a post to professional development in the coming days.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Doubling Student Performance (2)

On Thursday, I wrote about the concept of doubling student performance. The word comes from a book by Allen Odden of the University of Wisconsin, titled Doubling Student Performance and finding the resources to do it. I'm writing about Doubling, because, while we haven't used the word here in St. Cloud, "doubling" is exactly what we have undertaken to do. Now we have a whole bunch of students in our district who are, well, scoring off the charts. Our two high schools run about 600 Advance placement test-takers and about 800 Advanced placement tests taken each year, give or take. We rank in the top schools in the state in terms of students taking really hard courses and doing really well. So, we have a significant group of students who are performing at the very top of students in Minnesota and in the nation.

The concept of doubling, speaks to making a quantum leap in the performance of a sub-group of students who are not reaching proficiency. Odden's book reports the results of the University of Wisconsin's research into how school districts have taken these students--who are not performing at acceptable levels--and "doubled" their performance. He calls it doubling, because the idea is that if only 40% of a particular subgroup of students are performing at the proficient level, the district decides to double the number reaching proficiency, say, to 80%. Doubling is a benefit to the students themselves, of course, because it means that they are prepared to be productive citizens as adults. But doubling benefits other students as well, because it means more students are taking advanced courses, and the more students taking advanced courses, the broader and deeper the courses we can offer.

I'm going to stay on this topic, because its so important and so central to what we are seeking to achieve in our school district. Odden writes about how districts can marshal existing resources to make significant progress, and how it can reallocate resources where necessary. He argues that school districts cannot start by obsessing about the barriers to this doubling process. He says that the school districts that have made stellar progress by first using the resources that they have. He doesn't claim that all districts have all the resources they need, but he argues that we need to focus first on achieving exceptional results with the resources we have.

Today, I simply want to list the Ten Strategies, a few each day, that Odden says are common to the school districts that make exceptional progress. I'll discuss each of these in future posts in more detail. The first three are:
  • Understanding the performance problem and the challenge.√ In the past year or so, you may have heard teachers and administrators discussing 'data retreats', and that is one of the things that they do at data retreats. They "gain an understanding of the current performance data by analyzing state or local testing data."
Now before some of you minimize the importance of doing this, remember I'm reporting to you what the one of the leading national experts on making huge performance leaps has found over and over again in successful districts. This is not some theoretical exercise in education philosophy. This is the results of painstaking study of success. So stay with me for a while. I'm arguing that the best way do something hard, is to replicate the work of folks who have been successful. I put a checkmark next to the first one, because this work is well underway in our district.
  • Set ambitious goals. Odden says that the successful school districts "ignore demographics and set high expectations" without regard to perceived barriers. The goals strive for quantum improvements that apply to minority students, first generation students, poor students, and non-English speaking students. We don't focus, then, on the reasons why students might fail; we set goals that might, at first, seem almost insurmountable. I put a check next to this item as well, because in fact, in our last year's strategic plan adoption, the District did establish eye popping goals for its students, although frankly that decision was little noticed, and I think it is important that we better explain the magnitude of what we have undertaken.
  • Change the curriculum Program and Create a new instructional vision. Odden says that almost always the school makes major changes in the curriculum, especially in those parts of the curriculum that are not achieving success for all students. This is a big undertaking; it cannot be done overnight. It doesn't require that everything is tossed. You keep what is working. But it requires making significant changes, and as we shall see, making these changes requires adoption of some of the other ten strategies. I'm not going to put a final check next to this one, although in a variety of areas, the district has made some major changes already in teaching approaches. But in the next post, I'll take a look at how Districts radically change the approach to instruction, use testing more effectively, and find ways to use instructional time more efficiently.
That's it for today. Seven more to come.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Doubling Student Performance!

I've been reading a recent book by Allan R. Odden of the University of Wisconsin, titled Doubling Student Performance and finding the resources to do it. Odden is a Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis (ELPA), Director of Strategic Management of Human Capital, and codirector of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education in the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. Odden and his research team have studied a number of schools and districts from around the country that have "doubled student performance" and closed the achievement gap on state tests over the past five to seven years. Teams of successful and performance-focused educational leaders focused on key strategies which have helped them to dramatically improve student learning.

I've been a fan of the work going on at the University of Wisconsin in education policy because it is highly practical--focused on "what works."

Over the next weeks, from time to time, I'm going to discuss Odden's research and the ten themes that he argues are central to the successful "doubling" of student performance. If you are an education professional, much of this will not be new to you at all. But in our community, the idea of doubling has not been adequately described. Its a process that we have begun, although we don't call it doubling. By "Doubling", Odden really means making huge gains in performance, from a point at, or just above average, as measured by proficiency scores, to above the 90 the percentile in performance. The term "doubling" is by no means scientifically exact. But the phrase the core concept of making grand, eye-popping performance improvements. The Districts that Odden studied didn't accomplish this over-night. They were engaged in a five plus year transformation that involved reallocation of resources, the establishment of very ambitious goals, and the use of data to manage change, and a number of other principles described in the book.

As I write about Odden's research, I intend to compare those principles to the strategic process currently underway in our school district. I'd like to use Odden's ideas as a template to discuss which of Odden's strategies are already underway in the district, how the district is going about applying those strategies, and to discuss how we are measuring our progress. Odden has identified ten strategies that take the resources that Districts already have, and make a huge impact on student resources. He doesn't argue that public education doesn't need more resources. But he does argue that public education needs to start by making the most effective possible use of the resources already available. He claims that providing more resources, globally, to public education does not by itself provide fair value for the new resources, because often those new resources are allocated to programs which are not connected by proven research to the "doubling" of student performance.

I'm reading "Doubling" because our district currently has its own "doubling" efforts under way, as I have said. We haven't used the "doubling" word, but essentially, that's the transformation that we've committed to. As we undertake this mission, I want to know more about what other districts are doing--how they measure success--on how rapidly their success has been achieved, so that we here in St. Cloud can measure our progress against what other districts have accomplished. So this is Doubling Post Number 1. As I have time, I'll post more about Odden's ten doubling principles, and which of those principles are underway here.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

They didn't let my kids pray in school!

The law respecting the accommodation of religion in public schools is a deeply complex area. Because the law has changed so much, I often hear from citizens who tell me, "why do you do that--they didn't let my kids do that, when they were in school." And the simple fact is that they are right: The legal groundrules applicable to school and religion have been evolving over the last 50 years, and in many respects, the interpretation of the constitution has significantly changed.

Both the establishment clause and the free-exercise (or anti-discrimination) clauses of the first amendment have been gradually reinterpreted during this period. In some respects, the changes have resulted from the natural process by which cases come before the Supreme Court and further guidance is provided. But also, the Court has shifted in the last several decades in significant ways. More and more, the courts are protecting the exercise of religion more aggressively under the rubric of the anti-discrimination (free exercise) clause of the first amendment. The Courts are making it clear that schools cannot interfere with the expression of religious ideas simply because they are religious. Concurrently, to some extent, the Courts are less likely to find violations of the establishment clause. What this means is that something that might have been prohibited when you were in school, indeed, may well be permitted, because interpretation of the Constitution has changed.

What I studied in law school in the early 1970's about the first amendment groundrules for religion and government is quite out of date. If you think things are different now, well you are right, because the Supreme Court has fundamentally changed its approach to these issues in ways that are far more favorable to free exercise of religion. For a detailed discussion of the establishment clause and free-exercise clauses, try this link.

Impact of No Child Left Behind. Another major factor that has caused local school districts across the country to change the way they approach religion is the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which requires the Secretary of Education to issue guidance on constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools. In addition, the law requires that, as a condition of receiving ESEA funds, the State must certify that it has no policy that prevents, or otherwise denies participation in, constitutionally protected prayer in public schools as set forth in the guidance. The Secretary of Education's Guidance has significantly changed practices in many school districts because it has attempted to clarify the groundrules for implementing the first amendment, and the guidance provides significant protections for free exercise.

You can find the Secretary of Education's Guidance on the Internet here. The guidance echos what I have mentioned above:

The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment requires public school officials to be neutral in their treatment of religion, showing neither favoritism toward nor hostility against religious expression such as prayer. Accordingly, the First Amendment forbids religious activity that is sponsored by the government but protects religious activity that is initiated by private individuals, and the line between government-sponsored and privately initiated religious expression is vital to a proper understanding of the First Amendment's scope. As the Court has explained in several cases, "there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect."

Now the guidance is just that, a guidance. The truth of the matter is that the Secretary of Education is not charged by the Constitution to interpret the first amendment. But the guidance is an important source of understanding when we look at what is permissible and not permissible. The guidance tells us:

Students may pray when not engaged in school activities or instruction, subject to the same rules designed to prevent material disruption of the educational program that are applied to other privately initiated expressive activities. Among other things, students may read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray or study religious materials with fellow students during recess, the lunch hour, or other noninstructional time to the same extent that they may engage in nonreligious activities. While school authorities may impose rules of order and pedagogical restrictions on student activities, they may not discriminate against student prayer or religious speech in applying such rules and restrictions.

There is much more in the guidance on the topic of prayer in school. Schools must now accommodate requests for release from instructional time for religious purposes in the same way that they would accommodate other requests:

It has long been established that schools have the discretion to dismiss students to off-premises religious instruction, provided that schools do not encourage or discourage participation in such instruction or penalize students for attending or not attending. Similarly, schools may excuse students from class to remove a significant burden on their religious exercise, where doing so would not impose material burdens on other students. For example, it would be lawful for schools to excuse Muslim students briefly from class to enable them to fulfill their religious obligations to pray during Ramadan.

Where school officials have a practice of excusing students from class on the basis of parents' requests for accommodation of nonreligious needs, religiously motivated requests for excusal may not be accorded less favorable treatment. In addition, in some circumstances, based on federal or state constitutional law or pursuant to state statutes, schools may be required to make accommodations that relieve substantial burdens on students' religious exercise. Schools officials are therefore encouraged to consult with their attorneys regarding such obligations.

Now this guidance simply does not answer all questions by any means. Application of the rules require judgments as to what imposes "material burdens on other students." Further, the guidance itself is subject to attack by persons who believe that the guidance is a violation of the first amendment in some way. One of the things that most school districts dread is the possibility that they will become embroiled in legal controversy that ultimately leads to significant expense to the district. The most successful districts address these issues by dialog, consensus building, reason, listening, and common sense.

Keeping out of Trouble by Avoiding Conflict: Educators are not constitutional lawyers, and as I have said, even constitutional scholars have a great deal of difficulty interpreting the first amendment these days. Because first amendment disputes can embroil educators in the Courts, there is a tendency at times to make decisions that avoid conflict and sometimes, an educator will make a decision that is fundamentally wrong, simply because they misunderstand what the rules are. Nobody wants to get sued. Honest people, trying to do the right thing, simply cannot always be expected to apply these complicated rules to perfection. A student writes an essay about Jesus or Moses, or Mohamed and wants to read it aloud in class. Perhaps the teacher, fearing a violation of the establishment clause prohibits the reading, but alas, has violated the free exercise clause. The graduation committee decides to invite a student to give a speech on how Jesus inspires us at graduation, and inadvertently runs afoul of the establishment clause.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Unfunded Mandates Complicate Planning for Budget Cuts

On last Wednesday night the Board discussed at some length the question whether we could begin the budget process for the 2011-2012 school year. Our budget process typically begins around the beginning of the calendar year, which would mean January of 2011. Some have advocated that we should try to advance the budget discussions, so that we can address possible major cuts in finding that some predict will occur. The problem is that there are so many imponderables that it means that basically you budget blind.

One problem is that planning for cuts is complicated by the fact that significant portions of our budget are protected by state unfunded mandates. These unfunded mandates complicated a school board's budget planning in two ways. First, the parts of your budget that are protected by state spending mandates are off the table when you try to manage any cuts that do come. Second, when school districts are mandated to spend, regardless of funding reimbursement, often that is the area that the legislature chooses to cut first. The reason is that the legislature can cut funding for mandated programs, without cutting the program itself. The result is that the pain of cutting revenue from the mandated program is transferred to the entire rest of the unprotected education budget.

We are now five months from the beginning of the legislative session. Most of the candidates for state office have been fairly vague about their plans for K-12 education. The Congress just passed, and the President signed some financial relief for public education and health care, but we are not clear how that will impact local school districts. It is unlikely that we will have any sense of what the legislature will be doing next year, let alone what a new Governor's budget will look like. But there has been some loose talk suggesting that we can be sure that that the State will cut education significantly next year and the following year. Some have argued that we will experience cuts totally $10 million in the next two years. A few politicians have said that they could foresee public education cuts as high large as 30 percent. Let's take a look at how state mandated spending--the protection of some of our budget--operates to magnify the impact of cuts on the portions of our unprotected budget. Special education is the largest mandated spending program, so I'll use that as an example.

The operating budget for the St. Cloud School District for 2011-2012 is $87.8 million. Of this, $23 million is for special education. The special education budget has been frozen at about that amount since 2004-2005. (Another $2 million for special education transportation is found in the transportation budget). State and federal law prohibit us from cutting special education below that $23 million. That's called "maintenance of effort." That law immunizes more than twenty-five percent of our operating budget from cuts and forces any cuts to land on other portions of the budget. To be clear, special education staffing has been reduced significantly in the last 5 years. As labor and other costs have gone up, we have been forced to cut staff in order to keep the budget constant. But we can never go below the maintenance of effort floor, $23 million in spending (plus the transportation costs).

At the present time, the state and federal government combined provide us with about $ 8 million less in special education revenue support than the $23 million that they require us to spend. In other words, they make us spend $23 million (plus the $2 million on special education transportation), but they reimburse us $ 8 million less than that, and that $ 8 million must be transferred out of the funding allotted to regular education programs. This special education shortfall has fluctuated over the years, but it is now at an all time high, caused primarily by state reductions in support for special education. As the state pulls money out of special education support for districts like ours, it inflicts a double-whammy on the non-special education part of our budget, which must absorb any shortfalls in its own budget and the shortfalls that are inflicted on special education as well.

Now let's look at how this maintenance of effort magnifies the impact of a ten million cut in our $87 million budget. At first blush, a ten million cut would seem to be an 11.4 percent cut in the $87 million, but the non-special education portion of our general fund budget is about $64 million. If you have to take all of the $10 million in cuts from unprotected budget lines, then you are cutting $10 million out of $64 million, which is actually a 17 percent cut. But wait: I've only mentioned the special education maintenance of effort requirement. The legislature has protected a variety of other parts of our budget from cuts as well, and many of the unprotected budget areas are critically important to delivery of our core educational mission.

Now when I discuss this with budget hawks who like to trumpet, "well, you'll just have to live within your means," I tell them that cutting a school district budget by that amount is easier said than done. You can't stop heating buildings or keeping the lights on. Its against the law, and foolish, to run schools without principals. The governor signed a law last year that prohibits us from cutting counselors and social workers. Buildings have to be kept cleaned, and a variety of expenditures are necessary to maintain safety. When you remove all of the items that are "off the table" for one reason or another, the rest of the budget would have to be cut way more than by 20 percent, or 1/5. The impact of a 11 percent cut in the overall budget produces a 20 percent cut in the areas of our budget that are not protected by mandated spending.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Time for Courageous Dialog (2)

Today's Times contains a dialog on whether the people who raise questions about immigrants in this community and how we accommodate immigrants in public schools, are motivated by racism or other venality. I expressed my views on this topic a few weeks ago in a post called Time for Courageous Dialog. Yesterday, Dick Andzenge broached the subject of whether immigrants expect too much when they ask for religious accommodations. That set off another intense and sometimes highly charged discussion as well.

I wanted to raise the flag one more time for my own view, which is that these issues are more likely to divide us if we don't talk about them openly and with a good will. One of the reasons that they fester in our community is that we fear that discussing them will result in a diatribe of name-calling. As my post argues, if we don't discuss these issues, and confront them openly, then we will leave the public forum exclusively to the people who get their thrills out of creating division and hostility.

This is not white-cloud -- and people who have concerns about immigration, or diversity issues, are not automatically racists. Nor can we attribute the views of one or two Somalis to all Somalis. It is racist to accuse all white people in St. Cloud as subscribing to the views of a few crazy people, just because they are white. It is racist to accuse all Somalis of supporting a particular cause, just because some Somalis do.

I know, for example, that many Somalis in this community were appalled when CAIR brought their charges against the District. Many of them spoke to me personally and said, how can we express our disapproval of what CAIR is doing. Yes, I believe that most Somalis strongly support the idea that they should be allowed to pray when their religion calls upon them to pray, or fast when their religion calls upon them to fast. But it is not at all clear that most Somalis wanted CAIR to make this a legal issue, and I would caution people against assuming that just because a legal group in Minneapolis has one client who brings a legal claim, that therefore every Somali thinks that their employer should have been sued.

These issues are matters of public significance. I get questions from citizens about them all the time. Often, the citizen expresses some reluctance to raise the issues that concern them, because they don't want to give the impression that their motivations arise from prejudice or hatred. The people who ask me these questions about what we are doing and why are typically fine people who haven't an ounce of prejudice in their veins. Sometimes white parents are concerned that we might be less strict with Somali students than White students. They have a right to express these concerns, and we cannot respond by saying that therefore they must be racists.

The one thing that I have discovered for sure, is that when I talk to Somali parents they are largely concerned about the very same thing that non-Somali parents are concerned about. They want their children to learn English as soon as possible. They want us to maintain a high level of discipline for all children, and they want discipline to be strictly meted out equally to all students. Sometime minority and immigrant parents are concerned that possibly we are more strict with minority and immigrant students than white students. They too have a right to ask these questions and engage us in dialog. We demean and destroy that dialog if we immediately jump to name calling.

In and among the group of people asking these questions, may on occasion be a lurking racist, but we have to stay off of that and work on doing the right thing. If a person asks a fair question, its still a fair question, even if they are asking us for the wrong reasons. We need to confront these questions by answering them with courageous dialog.