Sunday, February 23, 2014

Graduation Statistics in the News

This week, the Strib reported that Minneapolis increased its graduation rate 51.8 percent in 2012 to just under 54 percent this year, and that black four-year graduation rates rose from 38 to 43.6 percent. The headlines reported that "Minneapolis posts steady gain in grad rate." Cool. In St. Cloud, our four year graduation rate remained virtually constant for all students at about 70 percent, while the black four-year rate rose 10 percent from 45 to 55 percent, the ELL rate (primarily recent Somali immigrants) rose 7 percent from 51 to 58 percent, and our special education graduation rate rose 7% from 42 to 49 percent. The St. Cloud Times issued a headline: "St. Cloud, Sauk Rapids graduation rates fall in 2013."   This comparison shows how fickle the media's reportage on education statistics is and how misleading careless reading of statistics can be. 

How is it possible that St. Cloud's graduation rate could be reported as falling, when the three major subgroups targeted for achievement gap improvement showed an average graduation rate increase of from 7 to 10 percent? In St. Cloud, as in the nation at large, growth in educational performance is masked by the rising population of groups impacted by the achievement gap. Reformers and anti government school types consistently garble these statistics in order to mask performance gains. The St. Cloud statistics show a closing of the graduation gap, and significant increases in black, ELL and special ed grad rates, but the growth in the percentage of students in the lower performing groups as figured in the overall average allows the newspaper to report these statistics as if the school district is failing to impact graduation rates. Over and over again, we see this kind of reportage.

The Minnesota Department of Education now reports the 4-year graduation rate, which means that if a student needs an extra year to graduate, the rate reports that person as failing to graduate on time.  

I'm not crowing about our performance. Our only two regular high schools have 4-year graduation rates in the mid 80 percent range. We would like to do a whole lot better, and we are implementing plans to do that. Our district operates an Area Learning Center which collects students from our own and surrounding districts, and most of these kids are there because something is keeping them from graduating on time.  So they are reported as not graduating in the four year graduation rate in St. Cloud's statistics, even if they are coming from another district. So if a student transfers from another district to our ALC to get extra help, that student is marked down as not graduating on time in St. Cloud. Again, I'm not complaining, I''m just pointing out that people are pretty careless with statistics these days, in the rush to take every reported statistic that might support their favorite prescription for school reform (or lack of it). Sometimes within 5 minutes of the posting of a statistics, people are already telling us why those statistics support some conclusion.

So what I want to say, using this as an example, is that the purpose of examining statistics is to develop strategies for better results. If you don't care to find out what's covered in the numbers, how the statistics are defined, and what factors actually contributed to the results, then that's using statistics in the same way that climate change deniers use a hard cold freeze. 

Our goal, in public education, is to graduate our students to excellence.  The time that it takes to get them there should usually be at about age 18.   But some teens are going to take a bit more time, and we shouldn't allow our fixation on statistics to blind us to that fact.  Would you prefer that we rush a student who comes to us in 9th grade from a refugee camp speaking no English out the door at a pre-set age so that we can look good on the statewide statistics or get a better headline in the local newspaper?   Maybe that student would be vastly more prepared for a career and for productive citizenship of we planned on taking an extra year or two, and focused not on the deadline, but rather on quality preparation. 

If a student goes through a family crisis in 11th grade, and takes an extra year to graduate, is that a failure, or is that a great success?   If a child with major disabilities needs two or three extra years to become independent and capable of self supporting work, should the politicians' need to create headlines drive our education plan for that student?  Is the number of students graduating "on-time" as important as the number of students graduating with workforce ready and college ready skills?   Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of changes that we can make in education to increase the number of students who graduate "on-time".   But drawing a red line in a chart, and defining that line as the border between success and failure is not one of them.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Are Extra Large High Schools More Cost Effective to Operate?

In my last post, I described the reasons why our school board and school leadership is looking very seriously at building a new Technical High School.  You can jump to that post by clicking here.  In today's St. Cloud Daily Times, former Apollo (and Tech) Principal Paul Kinney writes about some of the factors that must be addressed when considering the optimal size of a high school.   (Click Here)

Recently, I spoke to a group of Tech alums who are concerned with preserving the tradition of Tech excellence.   They urged us to use our imagination to create a high school of the 21st century, one that will prepare our students for the challenges that they will face, one that makes proper use of technology.  "Go Big," one of them said.  But he wasn't speaking of big in size, but big in imagination, and vision.   Don't cut corners when laying a foundation for our children's future, he argued.   If the community decides that its time to replace the nearly 100 year old building, we'll want to assure that we create a learning space that promotes good teaching, that promotes safety, that makes efficient use of space and promotes a quite and welcoming environment.   You can find a thoughtful list of "33 design principles" to be followed by communities contemplating construction of a new school, authored by Jeff Lackey, a leading thinker in school design.  For another later version click here.

But I want to emphasize that the building itself is merely a stage upon which teaching will take place.   Great theater takes place on all sorts of stages, but "the play's the thing."   Great teaching takes place in old buildings and new, and we must not therefore delude ourselves into believing that a better building means better curriculum, better teaching, or a better education.   Good education takes place in
old brick buildings:  second rate education can occur in the taj mahal of school buildings.  The most important work we are doing this year is our effort to reform and improve our currciculum, our approach to teaching, and the way in which we hold ourselves accountable to produce results.  

In recent months, a few advocates for high school replacement have argued that we should replace both of our high schools, not just one, and consolidate those two high schools into one centrally located mega high school.   In this post, I want to examine some of the assumptions behind the extra-large high school proposal.  

My starting point is this:  the cost of replaing both high schools and combining them into a single centrally located high school will be at least $40 million greater than the cost of  building a high school to handle only half of our high school population.   At three percent interest, that's $1.2 million a year in extra interest, not to mention the payments on principal.   Over the life of the loan, the total cost would be an extra $64 million.   Now eventually the district will have to replace Apollo, but by closing the school now, we will be wasting a valuable resource belonging to the taxpayer-- the balance of the useful life of that high school.   We derived almost 100 years of value out of Technical High School; we will have utilized Apollo for less than half of that.

So that leads us to a discussion of whether we really will be significantly better off with a centrally located extra large high school, than with two smaller high schools in different parts of our 250 square mile school district.   There are two primary issues in addressing size, of course.  One is whether a very large high school is cheaper to operate.   The other is whether it delivers a more effective educational environment.    Many people assume that certainly anything that is bigger must automatically be more efficient and cheaper to operate, on a per student basis.   But, in a 2005 publication, two educational researchers discuss the results of research into the benefits and costs of small high schools, large high schools and extra large high schools.   See Literature Review on Effects of School Size.     After reviewing a number of research articles reviewing  the merits of large and small schools, the authors report:   
In spite of the face validity of school consolidation as a solution for educational problems, the research on school size indicates that the economic and curricular advantages of large schools are often exaggerated......
In fact, the research suggests that increasing the size of schools over 1000 does not actually improve economic efficiency--the cost per student--but actually causes it to decline, they argue:  

When school size is considered in isolation, schools between 500 and 1,000 students are probably operating at peak economic efficiency already (Turner & Thrasher, 1970). Thus, with regard to economies of scale, current research does not support school consolidation of schools that already have 500 or more students. Nor does this literature support consolidation that would result in a school of more than 1000 students. [While efficiencies occur from consolidations up to 500 students, the article continues...] Before consolidating schools with fewer than 500 students, educational decision-makers need to consider additional factors such as transportation costs in determining the likely cost effectiveness of this action.
Why might size increases beyond 1000 students result in cost inefficiencies?  What's going on?   One very obvious factor, of course, is that a very large high school, must support a much larger transportation network, because the extra large school must draw students from a larger geographic area.  In my prior post on this topic, I focused on that issue and pointed out that our school district is 250 square miles in area, which would make it, by far, the largest urban school district served by a single large high school.   But the authors of the literature review on effects of school size contend that business research outside public education suggest that growing a business does not always lead to cost efficiencies.  The explanation, in part is that there are "counteracting dis economies that occur when the size of an organization is increased. These costs, which include coordination costs and the need for an increased workforce, can offset the production efficiencies produced by increased size......[For example] in labor-intensive service organizations such as county governments Gooding and Wagner (1985) actually found a negative relationship between size and efficiency."

For example, the principal in a high school supervises professionals, and that involves supervision, coordination, and communication.   When size increases, the number of professionals supervised gets larger and larger, it becomes difficult for the principal to meet and supervise with all staff, and that means that the principal needs assistant principals or other principals to to conduct that supervision, and increasingly, the head principal becomes a supervisors of supervisors, and the supervision is conducted in layers of supervision.    For example, Wayzata High School has five principals, a head principal, and a principal for each of the grades in the school.    As the school gets more people supervising more people, layers of bureaucracy can build up within the school.
Thus, both very small schools and very large schools tend to be very expensive to operate (Alspaugh, 1994). McGuire (1989) concluded that schools with an enrollment above 2000 students were located on the upward slope of the cost curve and that their combination of teaching personnel and course offerings could be made available in a smaller and more economical setting.
If the extra large high school is not clearly cheaper to operate, on a per student basis, is it possible that it provides a better learning environment?   I'll discuss that in a future post.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Time to Replace Technical High School?

For several decades, various task forces have urged that the school district consider building a new Technical High School.  The school has a proud history and justly deserved reputation for providing a rigorous curriculum that includes a broad range of advanced placement courses.   Its success is a testament to the principle that a school building is far less important than the teachers, programs, and school culture of excellence within.   Building a new Technical High school simply because the building is old would not be justified.   Families send their students to old facilities when they believe that the educational program is strong, and there are numerous examples of high schools and colleges thriving in old facilities.  

We are considering a new Technical High School because the building has outlived its useful life.   Tech was first constructed in 1917.   Over the years, as enrollment grew, the district implemented a number of additions and improvements (1938, 1955, 1962, 1967, 1975).    As a result, the building has numerous roof and wall junctions, and that made it far more difficult to preserve, maintain, and more costly to operate.  Heating, lighting and ventilation are accomplished inefficiently.  During recent years, the District has confronted issues with mold and asbestos.    As it became obvious that the facility needed to be replaced, the District began moving towards high school replacement, but then the great recession hit in 2007-2008.  Our board and administration felt that it was inappropriate to ask the community to approve a major bond issue during a period of high unemployment and widespread fiscal challenges.  Last year, asbestos began to flake off of some of the interior surfaces.  In many respects, that was the last straw.   It became obvious, we simply cannot put off replacement of the nearly 100 year old building any longer.

If we now decide to go forward with construction of a new high school, we have a lot of careful planning to do, and some critical decisions to make, and we will need to find  a community consensus by listening to parents, students, and the entire community.  The decision to replace Technical High School presents major issues that demand that we plan thoughtfully and prudently, to make sure that the decisions we make now will stand the test of time.   The history of district teaches us that the future takes unexpected twists and turns.  Through the 1960's and 1970's, enrollment in our school district was on the rise partly as  a result of the post-war baby boom, and partly as a result of the development of semi-rural land in the surrounding townships and small cities.   The center of population was much further to the north than it is now.   Homes sprung up along Northway drive and along the border of the City and St. Cloud Township.  Ultimately, the community decided that it was imperative to build a second high school near the VA hospital, and Apollo High School was born. Notably, the new building did not drive students out of the older building, because strong and attractive programs in the older building maintained loyal followings.   In the 1970's and 1980's, district and city planners concluded that the growth boom would persist, and they began to plan for a school district with 12,000 or more students.   Three new elementary schools were built, Talahi, Discovery and Oak Hill, to accommodate the continued growth.  However, contrary to predictions, enrollment began to decline, and our enrollment never approached the 12,000 that had been projected.

When I joined the Board of Education in 2004, the district had been experiencing a decade- long period of declining enrollment.  In 2003, the year before,  the Board of Education decided to close three elementary schools, Washington, Jefferson and Garfield, and there was even talk that Lincoln Elementary would certainly be next to close.   Enrollment at Clearview and Madison elementaries was falling precipitously.   The wave of smaller classes in the elementary grades had begun to work  through the middle school and high school grades, and eventually total high school enrollment dropped to about 2200.  Yet, each of our high schools remained individually larger than any other high schools in the area.  

 But in 2005-2006, district enrollment stabilized.  Growth in the elementary grades began to cancel out the declining enrollment still occurring in the high schools, and it began to become apparent that our enrollment would begin gradually to rise.   Madison and Clearview started immersion programs, and at about that time, the surrounding neighborhoods began to attract more families with children, replacing retirees who had no children in school any more.  Immigration contributed to the growth, and other neighborhoods began a new cycle of attracting families with young children.     Growth in St. Joseph justified the construction of a K-8 school, although at the time, skeptics predicted that the school would be underenrolled for a long time to come. 

Elementary school enrollment is now on the rise, and that means that in future years, the increase in enrollment will work its way through the high schools.  In the last several years, the board has been forced to add space to some of our elementary buildings and we'll be forced to expand some others in the near future.  Temporary classrooms at Clearview must be replaced as their permits run out.  South must be expanded to deal with middle-school growth.   Expansions of Madison and Waite Park elementary were completed in recent years because the growth in those schools exceeded their existing capacity.    In the meantime, as I stated at the beginning of this post, the weight of mounting evidence has convinced even former skeptics, that Technical High School must be replaced.  

In recent months, a few advocates for high school replacement have argued that we should replace both of our high schools, not just one, and consolidate those two high schools into one centrally located larger high school.  The current enrollment of our two high schools totals about 2200, but as stated above, total high school enrollment is expected to grow significantly in the the next decade. So what about a centrally located larger High School?

There are about ten Minnesota high schools, extra large high school advocates argue, that exceed 2000 in enrollment--schools like Wayzata, Edina, and several of the Anoka-Hennipen high schools. But it is important to recognize that these extra large-high schools largely serve much more compact communities, communities that are mature and fully developed.    A single high school in our district would serve 250 square miles, in a district that stretches from Clear Lake to St. Joseph.   Most existing  extra large- high schools are serving 30-40 square miles in fully developed residential communities.   Wayzata's school district is 42 square miles.    The average area served by Anoka's five high schools is 34 square miles.   In the table below, I've placed some of the extra large high schools and shown the area that each high school serves.   Then, in the lower rows, I'm showing the area and student population served by some central Minnesota high schools.  I'll have more to say in a future post about the concept of replacing both of our high schools with a single extra large high school.  

District District Area HS Enroll SqMi/HS
Anoka-H (5 HS) 172 2202 34.4
Burnsville 37 2530 37
Edina 13 2436 13
Eden Prairie 34 3007 34
Minnetonka 31 2750 31
Wayzata 42 3060 42
White Bear 46 2257 46

Sartell 48 962 48
Sauk Rapids 138 1078 138
Rocori 122 742 122
Annandale 135 498 135
Albany 152 468 152
(Note, Anoka figures represent average area and average enrollment for the five high schools)

A single extra large-high school in St. Cloud would serve the largest geographic area of any of these schools, by far, six times the area served by Wayzata High School.     In the next months, board members and those in the community who want to weigh in on this issue need to do some homework.   Here are some places to start: