Friday, November 11, 2016

Remembering my Uncle Lloyd. WW II Hero

On Veterans Day, I remember my Uncle Lloyd Karch of  California. My uncle Lloyd was a torpedo pilot in the second world war.  The truth of the matter is that Uncle Lloyd didn't talk much about his service when I saw him at family get togethers.  I knew that he had been a pilot.  I knew that danger was involved, but over the years, he pretty much kept the details to himself, for reasons I think that many Vets will understand.   It is only in recent years, when he opened up to interviewers of the Veterns History Project, that the full depth of is heroism became apparent to me.  The Veterans History project of the American Folklife Center collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.   I would urge you to visit the History Project by clicking on the link.  There, you will find countless personal stories that tell the story of the the sacrifice of Veterans .
Uncle Lloyd served in the Navy in the VT-18 Torpedo Squadron, flying off of the USS Intrepid in the 3d fleet.  He is one of the Vets who took part in the Veterans History project and you can find out a whole lot about the dangerous missions that these courages pilots flew in his entry in that project.
 (Click Link here).   My uncle Lloyd was awarded the Navy Cross for valor in the battle of Lleyte Gulf. 
The citation reads:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lieutenant [then Lieutenant, Junior Grade] Lloyd Elwood Karch, United States Naval (Reserve), for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Pilot of a carrier-based Navy Torpedo Plane in Torpedo Squadron EIGHTEEN (VT-18), attached to the U.S.S. INTREPID (CV-11), in action against enemy Japanese forces during the Battle for Leyte Gulf, on 24 October 1944. Boldly flying through intense anti-aircraft fire to press home an attack against an enemy Battleship Task Force to within approximately 1,000 yards, Lieutenant Karch succeeded in scoring a direct and damaging hit on the stern of a hostile vessel and, although his plane was damaged, made a safe return to base. His outstanding airmanship, courage and devotion to duty were contributing factors in the infliction of costly damage upon the enemy and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

Torpedo missions, and my uncle flew many, took great courage, because the pilot had to deliver his torpedoes through airspace that was exposed to significant hostile fire, often at low elevations.   I remember my Uncle Lloyd, who passe from us last year, this Memorial Day as one of the many Vets who risked everything for their Country. 

I also take this opportunity to remember the contribution of my father Richard Von Korff, biochemist.   A soldier he was not.  As a young man, he joined the efforts of the Northern Regional Laboratory in Peoria Illinois, where he worked on the project to synthesize penicillin.  There, he lent his work ethic and talent for science to that project and was recognized in several of the patents leading to the ultimate result.  The results of fermentation research on corn steep liquor at the Northern Regional Research Laboratory at Peoria, Illinois, allowed the United States to produce 2.3 million doses in time for the invasion of Normandy in the spring of 1944 and saved many lives of soldiers who would otherwise have died from battlefield wounds and infections.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Technical High School Must be Replaced

Since my first year of service on the District 742 school board, our Technical High School’s useful life calendar has been turning its last pages.  For many decades, past school boards have put off building a new high school, by constructing additions, remodels, alterations and make-do-temporary- fixes.  Tech's boilers are themselves at the end of their useful life, and when the boilers fail, modern building codes will require that the new boiler installation will trigger a cascade of major costly alterations and upgrades, at the end of which, we would have a school still impaired and still not fit for 21st century learning.  We've been advised that we are risking a major boiler failure:   but we've also been advised that replacing the boilers would be so costly as to constitute a waste of public funds. 

I'm going to summarize the professional advice that the Board of Education has received here, but you can read actual reports online, and at the bottom of this post, you will find links to the original reports.  There are two reasons that the District is seeking to upgrade our two high schools.  The first, perhaps the most important, is the need to provide our students with 21st century learning spaces.   But this post focuses on the urgency of the undertaking:  because Technical High School has outlived its useful life. 

Three different reports on the condition of Technical High School from architects, consultants and local general contractors all point to the same conclusion.    Local general contractor Gohman Construction advised us that the school remodeling would require a costly overhaul that would substantially exceed the cost of building new, while still leaving the high school on a small land parcel far below state standards for a new high school. (Click here for original Report).  Among the required construction work would be:
  • Asbestos abatement - in everything from floor covering, glue, caulking and mechanical systems.
  • Ceiling demolition to create access.
  • Complete electrical system replacement - manufacturer of current service panels are no longer in business.
  • Removal of slab on grade to allow access to sewer lines (existing sewer lines collapsing).
  • Replacement of plumbing and sewer system.
  • Replacement of HVAC system duct work and piping.
  • Replacement of windows and entrance doors.
  • Remodel stairways to meet ADA codes
  • Removal of combustible wood from building to meet codes. (The 1915 and 1938 buildings are complete wood structures with brick veneer. How this can be addressed within the codes is unknown.)
  • Pool modifications to meet new codes.
  • New finishes throughout to bring up to modern standards
But even if this work were all done, we still would have a building that is inflexible and unsuitable for 21st century learning.  If the voters would approve such a costly project, it is unlikely that the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) would allow the District to attempt such a costly repair, simply to save the old building.   MDE strongly recommends against renovations that cost more than 60% of the cost to build new, and then only if the renovation results in a suitable facility.   The repairs required for Tech would exceed the cost of building new, and still leave us, as I have said, with a subpar building.

In its report, (click here for the original) RA Morton, an experienced construction general contractor wrote:
It is our opinion that the Tech High School building can be viable for other community or re-development purposes but has gracefully outlived its effective purpose for educational programs without substantial cost and phasing challenges to renovate.
By phasing challenges, RA Morton refers to the fact that trying to rehabilitate Technical High School would interrupt school and likely involve finding a different location for students and classrooms during the various phases of construction.   RA Morton estimated that the construction would involve two costs.  The first set of costs, $78 million, represent the estimate of simply renovating and updating mechanical/electrical systems.  The high cost represents in part the cascading effect of having to replace old infrastructure all of which was constructed under far different construction and safety codes.   The second set of costs would be cost associated with major reconfiguration of educational programming space.   And, as the Gohman report explains, reconfiguration in a building with weight bearing internal walls is tremendously challenging.

In April, a group of architects, consulting engineers and local contractors toured the Tech site with the board of education's finance committee.  You can find a copy of the report of what was found by clicking on this link.   The report contains a detailed discussion of the challenges posed by Tech High School:  

ICS, a nationally recognized construction consulting firm with school construction experience wrote the following, after the site visit:
The facility is a product of many decades of “reactive” renovation which  has resulted in a very disconnected and disjointed facility. It is possible to “re-create” a new 21st Century Tech HS on the current site, but this strategy would result in more overall cost, difficult and disruptive phasing, added complexity, and would still be saddled with inherent limitations and compromise due to site constraints and other factors.

Extensive infra-structure issues exist including heating, ventilation, electrical, and plumbing systems. Significant educational space adjacency issues throughout the various vintages of the facility limiting the ability to appropriately organize curricular departments due to space constraints. Major circulation, way-finding, occupant flow, and accessibility issues leading to excessive passing times and lost instructional time.

Varying structural systems (including extensive areas of wood structure) within the various vintages of the facility resulting in added complexity and costs associated with any major renovations and/or improvement project. Grossly limited 8 acre site resulting in inadequate parking, poor access, and limited green/activity space. Rigid building configuration resulting in the inability to readily re-organize to facilitate/enable 21st Century flexible learning communities and opportunities.
An architect from GLT architects wrote:

Bearing wall construction severely limits the ability to re-organize to facilitate/enable 21st century flexible learning communities and opportunities without significant demolition and reconstruction. Although it is theoretically possible to create a new 21st century tech high school on the current site, this strategy would require acquiring additional property, relocation of existing major city utilities, demolition of a significant portion of the existing building, major demolition and reconstruction of the existing facility to remain. That would require additional phasing (and years) to accomplish without disruption of instructional time. Even so, the site would still have many of the inherent limitations and compromises due to site constraints.

For further information go to the District Bond Referendum website or to the VoteYes
site, or both.
Finance Committee Report .
 RA Morton ReportClick Gohman Report

Friday, September 9, 2016

St. Cloud District Plans for Dyslexia Instruction

Implementing a Robust Dyslexia Program
A next step in advancing District 742’s Reading Program

At the District 742 Board of Education August workshop, we spent considerable time listening to a presentation on work being done in the District to implement an evidenced based reading program to address students with dyslexia. While estimates of the number of students impacted by dyslexia vary, a reasonable estimate of the number of students who are impacted is about 9%. In our district, that would mean about 900 students. Some of these students are identified as eligible for special education. But some students are not identified, and may not qualify under current practices.

The good news is that there is overwhelming evidence that if teachers and parents are trained to recognize the symptoms, those students can make dramatic improvement in their reading proficiency, and unlock unrealized potential for the rest of their lives. One of the key concepts that Superintendent Jett and his team have advanced is that our students can do better when we use evidenced based practices in the classroom. Our current paradigm is that when a teacher implements evidenced based practices, when we provide them with the right materials, the right leadership, and when they get the time and support they need to improve their techniques, significant progress results.

Our new efforts in addressing Dyslexia is another step in an attempt to implement modern research based techniques to assure that every student achieves her reading potential.  Three years ago, our district leadership asked the Board of Education to support a major new initiative to improve our reading program. The new leadership in our teaching and learning department told us that we needed to provide teachers with a completely new more modern set of textbooks and a new and more modern coordinated curriculum. They said if we wanted to realize significantly improved results for all students, we needed to change how we teach, how we prepare to teach, and we need to do a better job of intervening with students who aren’t making progress. During the last several years, the Board has supported the investment of over a million dollars in new texts and related materials. Major changes have been implemented in instructional practices, teaching methods, and the leadership of teachers. We aren’t where we need to be yet, but we have seen significant measurable results.

Here are some examples:

  • In the last three years, the percentage of black non English Second Language students scoring proficiency on the MCA-III standardized test has risen by eleven percentage points, a gain of 42%.
  • In the last three years, the proficiency rates of white free and reduced lunch students, white non-free and reduced lunch students, and white non-special education students has increased 5, 6, and 7 percentage points respectively. 
  • At Talahi, non-ELL black students reading proficiency rates have tripled.  
The growth in reading results is not limited to proficiency rates. We are hearing that students are doing better in a broader range of indicators, and that teachers are appreciating the investment in new resources.

At our last workshop, we learned that this year, the District is launching another effort that we expect will make a huge impact on a significant number of students who face leading challenges, students who have dyslexia.

What is Dyslexia: Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities. When a child is dyslexic, a deficit within the language system at the level of the phonological module impairs his or her ability to segment the written word into its underlying phonological components.

This explanation of dyslexia is referred to as the phonological model, or sometimes as the phonological deficit hypothesis.

Different combinations of just 44 phonemes produce every word in the English language. The word “cat,” for example, consists of three phonemes: “kuh,” “aah,” and “tuh.” Phoneme, defined as the smallest meaningful segment of language, is the fundamental element of the linguistic system. In a student with dyslexia, a deficit in phonological processing impairs decoding, prevents word identification. But usually language processes involved in comprehension and meaning are intact, they cannot be called into play, because they can be accessed only after a word has been identified.

So, with the right approach to specialized instruction, students with dyslexia can learn to unlock the phonological codes of the written word in ways that transform them from poor readers to good readers. The payoff for this transformation is enormous, because reading is essential for all sorts of other learning, and poor reading ability can create a domino effect that impairs other aspects of learning. Resources to Learn about Dyslexia:

A great resource for finding out more about dyslexia is the website of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. The Center is headed by Dr. Sally Shawitz: their program conducts groundbreaking research and advocates for programs that address students’ needs.

Students with dyslexia often struggle mightily to read with the fluency that their intellect would suggest. That means that homework takes longer, that when they are forced to read aloud in the classroom, they may feel humiliated and may be branded as incapable, when in fact, they have the intellect to do great work. Some students suffer adverse emotional consequences as they realize that their intellectual strengths are not recognized. When students with dyslexia receive appropriate help, the payoff for the student can be tremendous.

Proper diagnosis followed by a course of appropriate instruction can turn a student regarded as “slow” into a successful student.

National Failure to Address Dyslexia: Until recently, Minnesota, like other states across the country has failed to have active research based programs to address dyslexia. There are a variety of reasons for this. The number of students who have dyslexia is large, and the efforts required to attack dyslexia require resources and training, and unfortunately, many schools of education have not provided that training. Many of the leading advocacy groups for disabled students have not focused on dyslexia. Also, there are a number of students with dyslexia who can function in the average range, despite their dyslexia, and so we tend to think that they are doing just fine, when actually they have vastly greater potential, if only they receive proper support and instruction as early as possible.

Across the country, advocates for parents and students have pushed states to recognize the importance of identifying students who have dyslexia early—in pre-school or kindergarten—and to provide evidence based instruction. (See Minnesota Decoding Dyslexia) In 2015, the Minnesota legislature passed a law which recognizes the existence of dyslexia and provides a statutory definition.

"Dyslexia" means a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate or fluent recognition of words and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede the growth of vocabulary and background knowledge. Minn. Stat. § 125A.01 Subdivision 2.

In years past, educators often urged parents to ignore the symptoms of dyslexia, telling them to wait on the theory that the child would develop his her way out of the problems. Overwhelming research now urges that screening occur early and that early appropriate intervention pays big dividends. A leading authority writes: Studies with children as young as 4 years old demonstrate that there is no need to wait for students to experience years of reading failure to begin intervention. On the contrary some of the most promising results have been obtained in prevention studies. Pennington, Diagnosing Learning Disorders (Guilford Press 2008) Chapter 6.

These studies have led many schools to implement a program called Response to Intervention (RTI). However, in many instances across the country, schools have intervened, but have not implemented appropriate evidence based practices, because students were not identified as having dyslexia. Unfortunately, in some implementations, a response to intervention to reading is being coupled with significantly reduced cognitive testing by school psychologists….This reduced emphasis on testing runs the risk of not identifying children with [dyslexia] and other learning disorders…..Pennington, Supra.

In many circumstances, school psychologists feel that they cannot make the dyslexia diagnosis, because they lack the credentials to do so, or because in many districts there was an unwritten policy prohibiting identification.

Change on the Way: New Minnesota legislation removes such barriers and requires early identification followed by appropriate instruction, whether the student is eligible for special education or not. The states provides:
(a) Each school district shall identify before the end of kindergarten, grade 1, and grade 2 students who are not reading at grade level before the end of the current school year. …The district also must annually report a summary of the district's efforts to screen and identify students with dyslexia or convergence insufficiency disorder to the commissioner by July 1….. A student identified under section 120B.12 must be provided with alternate instruction under section 125A.56, subdivision 1

In St. Cloud, there is a growing universe of private tutors and reading professionals using the Orton Gillingham approach with students who have dyslexia. Some of these tutors certification consists of a short course of tutor-training leading to a certification that the training has been completed, as for example the tutors trained in the Barton System.

Others are professionals with advanced degrees. The approach we call “Orton-Gillingham” has its roots in the research of Orton (1879–1948), a neuropsychologist, and Gillingham (1878-1963), an educator and psychologist, collaborating at Columbia University. One University Center for dyslexia writes:
Of the various remedial methods in use for teaching students with dyslexia, the Orton-Gillingham approach is the most effective. This structured, phonic, rule-based, multisensory approach to teaching reading, spelling and handwriting is considered one of the most valuable methods available for use with these students.

What is crystal clear is that some of the strategies customarily applied in remedial reading programs are inappropriate for students with dyslexia. For example, forcing the student to read aloud is generally counterproductive, and measuring their proficiency through timed tests of reading aloud, fundamentally flawed. Pennington’s treatise explains:
In summary, numerous strides have demonstrated that combined instruction in phoneme awareness, phonological coding, and reading connected text is effective in treating word-reading accuracy difficulties in dyslexia. ….positive results have been replicated by multiple research teams….”

What must also be crystal clear is that across the state, teachers, even teachers of reading, have not always been trained to recognize dyslexia, and many are still using methods that are neither evidence based nor appropriate for students with dyslexia. The good news is that with support from the Minnesota legislature, a new vista has opened to address the reading struggles of a significant portion of our students.

What Should We Do? In St. Cloud, a task force is developing recommendations for how the district will systematically improve its programs to address dyslexia. This will involve earlier screening, development of new strategies, efforts to provide appropriate diagnoses, and to develop the capability to use evidenced based approaches in and out of the classroom. Other school districts will be engaged in this effort as well. The hope is that our district doesn’t engage in half-measures, but rather finds ways to assure that all students impacted by dyslexia can realize their full potential. More than likely, the task force will tell us something like this:

  • We will need to develop a robust policy requiring early screening and early diagnosis for students whose screening results suggest the presence of dyslexia.
  • We will need to figure out how students who are screened are going to access persons qualified to make a diagnosis, or we will need to provide appropriate instruction to students who manifest the symptoms of dyslexia, without requiring a formal diagnosis
  • We will need to transform current practices so that students are receiving small group or individual Orton Gillingham instruction from persons trained to deliver an OG program. We will need to provide classroom accommodations/. 
Resource:  How American Schools Fail Kids with Dyslexia

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Vergara Decision Raises Questions about Minnesota Anti-Tenure Suit

Forslund and Vergara:  The Forslund suit recently filed in Minnesota District Court challenges aspects of tenure and seniority protections afforded to licensed teachers.  The Forslund litigation is a close relative of the California litigation, Vergara v California, which is based upon  theories almost identical to the Minnesota suit Forslund v. Minnesota .  This post begins a discussion of the recent decision of the California Court of Appeals in Vergara v. California and considers what we can learn from Vergara as we ponder Forslund.  Its going to take a couple of posts to do that job:  my goal is to write in a way that assists non-lawyers to wade into the debate intelligently.    Since I've been critical of the theories presented in both Forslund and Vergara, I want to emphasize that my criticisms rest on a failure of the Forslund complaint to identify the correct constitutional flaws in the Minnesota system.  I'm not writing to defend the status quo:  I write to suggest a failure of Forslund's complaint to understand that our public education system is a complex web of interlocking interdependent legal and financial structures which must be reformed as a whole to fix our broken system.

So now let's turn the the California Vergara litigation and see what we can learn that might be useful here in Minnesota.

Facial Constitutional Challenge:  The Vergara plaintiffs brought a "facial constitutional challenge" to the tenure and seniority provisions of California’s Education Code. The Vergara plaintiffs alleged that California's seniority and tenure provisions violate California  Constitution’s guarantee that all citizens enjoy the “equal protection of the laws.” (Cal. Const., art. I, § 7, subd. (a).)

When I say that the Vergara plaintiffs made a "facial challenge" to these laws, I'm using a legal term of art.  A facial claim to a statute means that the plaintiffs contend that the statute itself is unconstitutional, as opposed to the way in which the statute is administered or applied.   For example, a statute that prohibits a demonstration against the government in the downtown areas would be struck down as facially invalid, because violates the first amendment no matter how it is administered.  On the other hand, a statute that requires a permit to demonstrate downtown, would likely survive a facial challenge, but its enforcement could be enjoined if permits were denied to persons who protested against certain causes and not others.    Both Forslund and Vergara, (Minnesota and California) make facial equal protection claims, alleging that some students are taught less than others and consequently are denied equal protection.   Both Forslund and Vergara also allege that tenure and seniority protections violate the two states education clauses of their respective constitutions, (but the California education clauses differ from that of Minnesota's.)

 California's Education Clause:  California's Education Article IX section 1 provides that:
 A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the Legislature shall encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral, and agricultural improvement.
Article IX Section 5 of the California Constitution provides that:
The Legislature shall provide for a system of common  schools by which a free school shall be kept up and supported in each  district at least six months in every year, after the first year in which a school has been established.
Minnesota's Stronger Education Clause.  The California Education clauses are not as powerful as Minnesota's constitutional education clause.  Like California's constitution, Minnesota's constitution, certainly prevents invidious discrimination in our educational system, but the Minnesota Constitution has an education adequacy clause which requires the legislature adequately to fund a "thorough and efficient" system of education,.   Why have the Forslund plaintiffs failed to use the full force of the Minnesota Education clause to seek broader relief on behalf of the students and parents they purport to represent?! Let's save that question for another day, even though its really important.

Now I've said that the California litigation contended that the California tenure and seniority statutes  cause an unequal education "on their face," such that there was no way that they could be administered effectively to produce an equal education.  The allegation of facial invalidity was important to the plaintiffs, (or at least the funders of the California litigation), because they wanted to get rid of the challenged seniority and tenure provisions entirely, instead of fixing the way they were administered.   

Allegation that Seniority and Tenure Cause the Achievement Gap--the Grossly Ineffective 5%:  To prove that seniority and tenure are responsible for the failure of California schools to close the achievement gap, the Vergara plaintiffs needed to blame the gap on seniority and tenure, and that was a tall order.  They began by focusing on what they called "grossly ineffective teachers, which they defined as the bottom five percent of all educators.   The Minnesota Forslund complaint parrots this approach.  According to the Complaints, most teachers, approximately 95% are not grossly ineffective.    But, they contend,  about 5% of the teachers are grossly ineffective, as measured by the progress that their students make.    These teachers, the complaints allege remain in the system because allegedly, neither Minnesota or California are able to rid their school systems of this grossly ineffective 5%. 

Reliance on Value Added Evaluations:  In both cases, the plaintiffs measure gross ineffectiveness using so-called value-added  measures of effectiveness comparing the growth in learning measured by standardized tests to the average growth of all students.  In Minnesota, we use value added measures in evaluation, but the consensus of most professionals is that value added measures are only one measure of competence that should be considered along with a variety of other measures of competence.  However the thesis of the complaints is that value added measures are the gold standard in teacher evaluation, and indeed the Minnesota Forslund complaint criticizes Minnesota's decision to combine test score growth with other measures of effectiveness.

Super Duper Due Process Protections:  How allegedly, do these grossly ineffective teachers survive in the system?  In both cases, California and Minnesota, the complaints allege that teachers have "super-duper" procedural due process rights, (their words, not mine) which cause administrators to avoid efforts to terminate teachers even when they are grossly ineffective.   According to the California complaint, administrators get stuck with these grossly ineffective teachers, because California's tenure laws give them only 18 months (Minnesota administrators get 36 months) to evaluate teachers, and hence allegedly California administrators merely roll the dice and allow teachers to receive tenure, even though their competence has not yet been established.   Then, both Complaints allege, the super duper tenure protections are so onerous that administrators simply give up and settle for gross ineffectiveness. (In Minnesota, the Forslund complaint alleges, these super duper protections include the right to a lawyer, the right to adjudication by arbitration and other due process rights.)  

Do Administrators Really Grant Tenure and Retain Grossly Ineffective Teachers to Save Litigation Costs?  Now as we think about this contention: that Minnesota administrators are not firing ineffective teachers because our seniority system makes it too expensive to complete a firing, we should think about the economics of that argument.  Assume for example that a mid-career costs a school district (salary and benefits) about $25,000 per year more than a starting teacher.  That means that if an administrator can terminate the employment of a grossly ineffective mid-career teacher and replace her with a new teacher, the administrator can save $25,000 per year for the next ten to 20 years-- a saving of from $250,000 to one half million dollars over the life of the grossly ineffective teacher's remaining contract, simply by terminating the mid career ineffective teacher, and by hypothesis, can dramatically improve the district's educational results at the same time.  Are we really sure, then, that administrators avoid terminations because they want to avoid litigation costs, or might there some other reason?
 Now there are some problems with Minnesota's termination system:  arbitrators are chosen by the parties in a mutual strike system that gives the arbitrators an economic motivation to rule in favor of labor and management about evenly.   So I'm not here to defend the system as perfect, but it should give us pause to assume that cost is the primary reason that administrators fail to terminate grossly ineffective teachers (assuming that this is the case).   But this topic, we save for a different time and a different post.
More Defects in the Vergara-Forslund Logic:  California administrators have only 18 months to evaluate new teachers before tenure is granted.  Minnesota administrators have three years to evaluate teachers, twice that in California, but the Minnesota complaint contends that this is still not enough time.  Moreover, the Forslund complaint contends, the Minnesota evaluation system is defective, because only 35% of the teacher's evaluation score is determined by a "value-added" method.  Basically, the complaint is contending that Minnesota administrators cannot identify a grossly ineffective teacher unless they use the Value Added system exclusively, and that, my friends is a preposterous contention. 

Now here, let us pause to remember the difference between a facial challenge and challenge to the implementation of the law as applied.   If it were, for example, alleged that administrators are granting tenure to grossly ineffective teachers because those administrators are themselves incompetent to evaluate quality teachers, then a court might order relief against the administration of the tenure evaluation, rather than eliminate tenure. Is it possible that Plaintiffs in Forslund have identified a problem with administrators and administration, rather than the system of tenure and seniority?! 

This brings us to a common allegation in both complaints, word for word copies of each other.   Both complaints allege that California and Minnesota schools and their administrators ( I quote exatly)
"Hire And Retain Grossly Ineffective Teachers At Alarming Rates"
This raises a rather troublesome question for both California and now the Minnesota litigations.  How does it come to pass that Minnesota and California administrators responsible for hiring and retaining teachers pick candidates who turn out to be grossly ineffective, and do so "at alarming rates?"   Why, in Minnesota, do administrators (allegedly) grant tenure to grossly ineffective teachers, after observing their teaching, evaluating the supposed alarmingly slow progress of their students.  And, if the hiring is occurring at alarming rates, why then are only 5% of teachers grossly ineffective.   If grossly ineffective teachers are being hired at alarming rates, how is it that they fail to accumulate in the teaching force and stay their building up great reservoirs of incompetence. 
Let us remember that in Minnesota, a teacher who fails to prove her competence does not have to be given tenure.  There is no review, no procedure, that can reverse an administrator's decision to deny tenure.  When an administrator has doubt, she can deny tenure without proving incompetence, indeed without having to prove any reason at all.  And, if there is doubt, the administrator can extend the probationary period by consent, and if consent is not given, can deny tenure and replace?  So maybe something else is going on! 
Can 5% of teachers actually cause the Achievement Gap?   How also, we might ask, is it possible, that the primary flaw in Minnesota's allegedly failing system caused by 5% of the teachers who are grossly ineffective.   The complaint suggests that once a student falls a bit behind as a  result of the ineffective teacher, she is doomed for the rest of her academic career, even if the next teachers who follow are highly effective.   This is an allegation that ought to be carefully examined, because in the schools identified by the complaint, the allegation is that an extraordinary number of these students come to the school already way behind even before they are exposed to a single grossly ineffective teacher.  Unless every last one of these students meet their first grossly ineffective teacher in kindergarten or first grade, how is one to explain the achievement gap in these grades?  Because students are coming to school behind, these schools cannot be effective unless they have a system in place that accelerates the progress of students at a pace greater than one year per year of schools.  It cannot possibly be, then, that a student who loses time is doomed for life:  these public schools are in  the business of catching up and surpassing and we need to ask how schools can organize themselves to do vastly more than an ordinary teacher can do in one year.   Now, that's not by any stretch of the imagination to justify even one grossly incompetent teacher.   I'm just suggesting that we take these allegations with a healthy dose of skepticism and recognize that even hiring super duper teachers is not going to be good enough:  we need super duper leaders, with super duper curriculum and super duper training.  The concept of making it all happen merely by getting rid of 5% of the worst teachers is just, pardon my french, plain bunk.  

There is something about these allegations, in fact, that makes one want to ask whether part of the problem is grossly ineffective administration of the personnel responsibilities of school districts that serve students who lack social and economic status.  Or possibly, that their are working conditions and rewards in these schools that discourage teacher retention.  (That's all assuming the claim that schools do retain grossly ineffective teachers, and that remains to be seen).   We'll have more to say about this in the next posts.  And, we'll explain why these defects in logic caused the California Court of Appeals dismissed the Vergara complaint, even though the California system is vastly more problematic than Minnesota's in virtually every respect.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Forslund suit insufficiently ambitious

Part 2

I've begun a series of posts to discuss the challenge to Minnesota's tenure and seniority system brought in Forslund v. State of Minnesota.  The plaintiffs in this new litigation hope to use Minnesota's constitutional education clause to work a substantial improvement in the education provided to Minnesota students, and especially our minority and low income populations.    I'm really sympathetic to this goal, but I believe that the relief that Forslund is not founded on the changes necessary to provide public schools with the necessary tools.  

The overarching goal--to reform Minnesota's public education system -- is tremendously important.  So important, indeed, that it is absolutely critical that anyone who undertakes this task ought to be driven by a deep understanding of the complexities of public education so that the remedy makes a real and lasting difference for Minnesota students.   While the plaintiffs are absolutely right that Minnesota's current school system is unconstitutionally broken, the litigators have failed to think big enough, and have focused on alleged flaws -- seniority and tenure -- that are not at the heart of our broke system.  

Because public education is so complex, its impossible to undertake this task in a few short paragraphs.    In this second post, I focus on the fundamental change in the mission assigned to public education, and hence to teachers, a change that occurred here in Minnesota about 25 years ago unaccompanied by the structural and financial changes necessary to accomplish that new mission. 

Before 1990, Minnesota's public education system was assigned the narrow task of delivering classroom instructional opportunities to students.  State law, and the regulations implementing that law focused on the number of course hours delivered to students, not what students actually learned.   Prior to 1990, state law merely required schools to deliver a minimum number of hours of instruction in math, science, social studies and other areas.  Local districts had the freedom to graduate students who had taken the required number of course hours, whether the students mastered those subjects at a high level or not at all.  
We had what James Conant called a teaching based system instead of a learning based system.  When a teacher delivered instruction, it was understood that some students would take maximum advantage of the offered instruction, and other students would not.   In many school districts, students were grouped  for instruction, with the lower performing students taking courses that were pre-defined as leading to lower expectations.    Our economy was still providing decent wages in semi-skilled employment, and often students expected to learn a trade upon graduation at a level that today would be regarded as not-proficient.  

We often  describe this old delivery system as  as a seat-based education system  (as opposed to a performance-based system).  Our product was time seated at a desk with a teacher at the front of the classroom, not proficiency.  The plaintiffs in Minnesota's seminal school constitutional challenge, Skeen v. State, told the Court that their districts were delivering the legally required education to their students.   They made that concession, because Minnesota's education laws then simply required that students attend classes, but did not require that they learn to any level of proficiency. 

 In a seat-based system,  the state mandates that each school district supply a certain amount of total "seat-time"  for all students, and it mandates as well, a certain amount of seat time in particular subjects, such as math, social studies, science, reading, the arts and so on.  

In Minnesota's seat time based system, the quality of the teaching and the curriculum was locally determined and locally adjusted.  If local schools were confronted with less prepared students, they could spend more to make up the shortfall, or they could adjust their graduation expectations downward accordingly.   Commonly, the teacher was asked to deliver a standard curriculum, and it was expected that certain students would not master that curriculum. 
As stated above, under the seat-based education system,  Minnesota lacked any state mandate regarding the degree of difficulty of the subjects taught to the students occupying those seats, nor any state mandate as to the level of educational proficiency that students must attain in order to be issued a high school diploma.   The seat based system had implications for the way in which we trained teachers, the way in which curriculum was designed, the way in which schools were led, and the way in which teachers, principals, students and school districts were evaluated.    It would have been virtually unheard of in the 1950's to criticize a teacher, principal or a school district because some students were proficient and some were not.   The idea that all students could graduate at high levels of proficiency did not enter into the way in which we structured any part of public education.  
Under the seat based paradigm, costing public education was much simpler, because you can produce an hour of seat time for any student at the same price, regardless of the student's particular educational challenge. If the funding were reduced, you could increase class size, cut textbooks, and even lower the rigor of a school district's educational expectations.  The curriculum was not designed to assure that the lower quartile of a teacher's class would transition to the upper quartile.  One of the fundamental problems with public education today is that education is still structured in virtually the same way that it was back when some kids were expected to be proficient, and others expected to be far less than proficient.  

However,  by the 1990's the federal government began to demand that public education implement a proficiency based system.  Teachers were no  longer deemed successful if they competently delivered a standard curriculum to their class.   Now, they were expected to take all of their students and deliver them to proficiency, no matter how far behind they are, no matter whether they receive support at home, no matter the individual challenges that they might be experiencing.   No Child Left Behind was the mantra, and it meant that the mission assigned to school districts would now be radically different.

This radical change in mission  should have radically changed the entire structure of education, but our legislative process is not up to that task. Fundamental changes run afoul of important interest groups: schools of education, unions, advocates for charter schools, taxpayer advocacy groups, the leisure industry, advocates for disadvantaged groups and advocates for the advantaged.   Our legislative process consists of a series of tweaks and minor adjustments proposed to make modest improvements that offends noone. 

Two Governors, Dayton and Pawlenty, have both convened task forces to examine Minnesota's dysfunctional school finance system.   In each case, those governors prohibited the task force for making ambitious proposals to increase the funding for public education.  If we want truly to understand what must be done to create a system in Minnesota to meet the new mission of education, we need to begin to think anew about redesigning every aspect of public education to accomplish this new mission.
  • In the Vergara litigation, the California Court of Appeals noted that many  factors other than tenure and seniority contribute to problems in the distribution of teachers.  Administrators need to evaluate teachers differently; they need to train, mentor and provide professional development differently.    
  • Teachers are no longer successful if they merely deliver a one size fits all standard curriculum to their students.   Simply firing the bad teachers and hiring good ones in their place will not transform our system.   There are deep seated structural problems in the way schools are managed, that prevent us from creating an effective labor force.  
  • Our funding system is badly broken.   The layoffs about which Forslund complains often result from inadequate funding, or from bargaining settlements which require districts to cut what should not be cut.  In lean financial years Minnesota school districts settle their contracts by cutting programs that are necessary to make teachers effective.   
  • In the Vergara litigation, the Court of Appeals pointed out that the percentage of teachers actually deemed incompetent was quite small, under 5%.   Today, we have overwhelming research based evidence that  teachers need to be trained to deliver instruction differently, and need to be supported differently, and organized differently, if they are going to accomplish the goals of the new proficiency based system. They need more time to plan; more time to develop strategies to address the needs of specific students.  In a teaching based system, a teacher can plan a single lesson for all of her students.  Teaching occurs, but for some students learning does not.  In a learning based system, the demands on teacher planning time rise exponentially, but we do not pay for that time, and our labor laws do not allow us to make teachers give us that additional time for nothing. When we strike only at "incompetency", we are failing to focus on the 95% of teachers who really make a difference for kids.
  • Under a proficiency based system, a new paradigm of leadership is required.  Principals need to lead differently, but they also need assistance from teacher leaders, and our compensation system, and the job description of experienced teachers, has not been redesigned to accomplish this objective.   We still reward teachers for taking courses in a university, even if those courses fail to contribute to the school's mission and objectives.  Management needs to change the way in which teachers collaborate and the system currently makes it very difficult for districts to implement best practices.
  • Under a proficiency based system,  teachers need to be planning together, and developing more complex curriculum to accommodate the students that they have.   If it is no longer acceptable to say that Juan or Mary is failing to learn because they are just not up to the task, then we need to be providing teachers time to accommodate their classroom to meeting Juan and Mary's needs.  Our current system makes it extraordinarily difficult to find the time  to implement the professional development, the planning time, the teamwork  time necessary to accomplish education's new mission. 
  • There is increasing evidence that some students who are behind when they arrive in school need more instructional time, more adult support, and more instructional days, to catch up.   But Minnesota has made no effort to deliver the resources to provide that time, nor has Minnesota provided management the ability to implement these changes.    
When you radically change mission of public education, it is unthinkable that you can continue to fund education at the same level as before.   This change, from measuring time in chairs to measuring proficiency occurred in Minnesota the early 1990's.  But Minnesota's legislative and executive branches never adjusted the funding of education to reflect that change, indeed, never developed and implemented methods to cost the new state mandates.  McCleary v. State a key constitutional decision holds that the State does not meet its constitutional obligation to public education, when it sets funding based on politics rather than a data based costing system.  Unless the state legislature bases funding on credible efforts to determine the cost of required programs, it is acting irrationally and irresponsibly.
The plaintiffs in the Forslund litigation have ignored this constitutional component in their complaint.  Could it be that the people funding the litigation are not willing to support more school funding, even if more funding is required to educate the children they purport to represent?
It stands to reason, certainly, that the cost of delivering students to a pre-set level of proficiency is going to be significantly greater (inflation adjusted), than the cost of simply putting them in classrooms and hoping that they take advantage of  the standard curriculum delivered by the teacher.   Its like the difference between going to the car-dealer and saying, give me all the car you can give me for $20,000, or going to the car dealer and saying, I need a car with 4 wheel drive, exceptional power and handling, and sports-car looks.   Once you specify the end result, the cost is likely to rise significantly.

But in  Minnesota, and in many other states, the legislatures generally focused not on the cost of the newly specified educational result, but instead focused on how much money has historically been provided to public education, and then sought to adjust the level of funding based on existing revenues, tax policy, and the political philosophy of the legislators.

Minnesota's system of  public education is not thorough nor is it efficient.  If we want to fix that problem, we need to fix the whole problem.   Meaningful change requires changes in the leadership of schools, and we need to look deeply at whether school administrators are up to the task, and if not, how we can make necessary changes?    Meaningful change is going to require more staff development, more mentoring, more supervision, more teacher leaders, and more planning time and for many students more instructional days. If the folks who are seeking to fix Minnesota's education system have started out based on a no-new-taxes, no new revenues pledge, then they are undermining the very constitutional mandate that they seek to enforce.

Very probably, we are not going close the achievement gap if students who come to school far behind are expected to close the gap in the same number of instructional days and instructional hours as their advantaged peers.  These tenure litigations are proposing to remove job security from teachers: are they then expecting teachers to work for the same pay in  a position which has no job security as they would work when provided that job security.  Are teachers going to be expected to work longer hours and  more instructional days, at the same rate of pay?   How is it happening that we are attracting to the profession graduates of education schools who we now deem incompetent.   Are the leaders who hire them and grant them tenure incompetent?  Or is it possible that the market for teachers is clearing at a different  level, because there is something about the working conditions and the leadership in these schools that drives teachers away?

Past posts on education and the constitution

  • Minnesota's Education System is Unconstitutional Part I
  • Let's Look at the Skeen Case to understand Minnesota's Constitutional Education Clause
  • Minnesota's Education System Is Unconstitutional--the Change in State Minimum Basic Education  
  • Education and the Constitution (3): State Minimum Proficiency Requirements Fundamentally Changes the Cost of Education
  • McCleary v State, Washington's Groundbreaking School Finance Decision
  •  McCleary v. State, Part I  
  • McCleary v State Requires Legislature to Base Funding on Actual Cost Jvonkorff on Education McCleary v. State, Part II McCleary v State and Determining the Cost of Education Jvonkorff on Education McCleary v. State, Part III
  •  McCleary v. State: what level of scrutiny is appropriate for legislative funding decisions
  • Jvonkorff on Education McCleary v. State, Part IV
  • Correlating the cost of education: fund the child. 
  • Jvonkorff on Education  McCleary V. State Part V 
  • Summary of Decision Network for Excellence
  • Washington Supreme Court Blog   
  • JvonKorff on Education, The Rose Decision 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Minnesota Constitutional Challenge to Tenure Misses the Mark

Jvonkorff on Education and its Facebook Sister "Minnesota School Finance System is Unconstitutional" have woken up from a Spring slumber as a result of recent activity in the Minnesota Courts.  In past years, Jvonkorff on education has written extensively on  state school constitutional litigation.   As some of you know, I've advocated passionately in favor of bringing a broad based constitutional litigation.    However, several years ago, the Dayton administration reversed over a decade of almost uninterrupted school finance neglect, thus providing some relief to school districts.   The blog and its Facebook sister decided to give constitutional claims a rest in hopes that the new administration would begin to pay attention not only to school finance, but also to the major systemic problems that render Minnesota's system of public education unconstitutional.
But now, a team of lawyers have brought to Minnesota an anti-tenure litigation, Forslund v. State.  The suit narrowly challenges Minnesota's tenure laws and its Continuing Contract laws and claims that these laws are the proximate cause of an unconstitutional denial of adequate education to Minnesota's minority and low  income students.  
 In the next few weeks, I'm going to use this new Forslund litigation as an opportunity to focus on why Minnesota's current legal framework for public education is, indeed, unconstitutional, but why this newest litigation  is founded on a deeply flawed theory.  I'm going to argue, instead:

  • That Minnesota's Constitution requires the legislature to establish a thorough and efficient system of public education
  • That the system needed to meet the constitutional mandate is far more complex than the Forslund complaint recognizes. 
  • That the complaint cherry picks just one aspect of the the overall system, an aspect that not  among the most critical problems in Minnesota's legal framework, nor would reforming that one aspect alone move the current system from its unconstitutional state to one that is thorough and efficient and therefore constitutional
  • That the legislature's neglect of the constitutional requirement is deeper and broader than the Forslund complaint and its attorneys understand. That the complaint presents an unsophisticated myopic view of what must be done. 
  • That the complaint performs a public service in that it brings to the fore a critical issue that we should be facing in Minnesota:  the problem of constitutional non compliance, but
  • Like the Skeen case before it, because this litigation focuses on a very narrow issue, there is a grave danger that the litigation will do far more harm than good

This resort to the courts is by no means the first in Minnesota.   Back in February of 2010, we began a series of posts on Minnesota's Skeen case, a constitutional challenge asserting that the way that property tax revenue was made available to certain rural and suburban school districts violated Minnesota's uniformity clause.  Links to some of those posts are found below. 

More recently, a team of litigators have challenged Minnesota's school system, once again,  on the grounds that it is unlawfully segregated. This litigation too seeks to make incremental changes preferred by specific interest groups, but offers no hope of fixing the deep systemic failures in our system. 

Now, on April  14, several parents, aided by a national advocacy group, has challenged Minnesota's tenure and continuing contract laws.  The thesis of this litigation is simple.  Bad teachers are causing children to fail.   Good teachers are leaving the profession, because their contracts are not renewed and they are supplanted by the seniority system, which allegedly keeps mediocre experienced teachers while laying off superior less experienced good teachers. Here again, a special interest group is attempting to use the Minnesota Constitution to challenge an isolated feature of the overall system, but the remedy they seek, and the feature they challenge is just a tiny and almost insignificant component part of the over all flawed system.  

Over the next few weeks, having awoken from our Spring slumber, we're going to explore the strategies in this constitutional litigation with a heavy dose of skepticism.   The underlying thesis of our posts will be this:  that creating a thorough and efficient education system, one that works for all students, is vastly more complex than most lawyers, ivory tower professors, and litigation funders understand.   Almost all of the constitutional litigation brought in Minnesota and in other states are brought and funded by advocates for a narrow solution, one that serves their purposes, however well-intended that their goals may be.   The Skeen ligitation was brought on behalf of a group of "stable and growing" mostly rural and suburban districts to improve the amount of property tax revenues or other revenues coming to their districts.  They were using the constitutional guaranty, as is their right, to achieve a narrower purpose -- to improve their own revenues.   For that reason, other groups of school districts, fearing that the Skeen plaintiffs gains would be their loss, intervened and challenged the Skeen plaintiffs efforts to "fix" school taxation.

In a number of states, plaintiffs have brought constitutional adequacy litigation with the primary purpose of increasing funding.   One of the most thoughtful is the McCleary decision in Washington State, noted below.   These cases have a broader purpose--to provide school districts funding that is correlated to the state mandated basic education that the Constitution requires.   Minnesota surely is ripe for such a litigation, for our state routinely under-funds mandated special education by over a billion dollars a year.   But increased funding alone cannot solve the constitutional defects, because to have a meaningful impact, I will argue, increased funding must be connected to systemic reforms that assure that the funding actually makes a difference for students.   Some adequacy litigation has been funded by organizations not fully comfortable with the reforms that are necessary to fulfill the promise of increased funding.

Now here comes a litigation, however well intended  in which the plaintiffs have sought to make two selected reforms in education, which in and of themselves cannot and will not create the systemic changes required to fulfill the constitutional mandate.  If the goal of these plaintiffs is truly to reform the educational system in ways that educate all students, why then have they chosen one narrow problem, and proposed a remedy that will not and cannot alone bring as the thorough and efficient adequate public education system that our children need?

 The education clause of the Minnesota Constitution states:

“Uniform system of public schools. The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.”
The Constitution mandates a general and uniform system of public schools.   It is the system that is broken, not one small aspect of that system and I'll be writing over the next weeks, as time permits, on the constitutional significance of that idea.   We lawyers tend to think of public education in simplistic terms.   Teachers whose students perform poorly are bad teachers; teachers whose students perform well are good teachers.   If we just get rid of the bad teachers, and bring in some good teachers, wow, all of a sudden great things will happen.    Teachers, we are told are the most important component of the education system, so surely if we just replace bad teachers with good, the achievement gap will narrow and vanish.  

Let us agree that certainly our students are better off if we can keep good teachers and replace teachers who cannot teach effectively.   But what if its not so simple to accomplish that objective, unless we make broad systemic reforms?  It is common for example, for lawyers and pundits, divorced from the real world of schools, to dismiss  the importance of principals.   But what if it is true, and I believe that it is, that assuring that a school is led by a highly competent instructional leader, a principal, is far more important and critical to creating great schools.  What if one of major reasons that so-called bad teachers are ineffective, is the failure of leadership, supervision, professional development, mentoring, and implementation of appropriate robust curriculum, in a building led by an ineffective poorly trained principal.   If the lawyers framing the complaint in the new Minnesota litigation had read Chenoweth's outstanding "It's Being Done" trilogy, perhaps great instructional leadership might have played a greater part in their prayer for relief.

But wait:  great instructional leaders are only one component in the system.  The system of education today is one of the most complex organizations in our society today, with one of the most difficult tasks imaginable.   Changing one component of that system only, is not going to do the job, and it is a fools errand to try.   Resources are part of the problem.  The way in which resources are allocated between labor and other components of the system is part of the problem.   The complete failure of the legislature to correlate resources to education's assigned tasks is a part of the problem.  The abject failure of Minnesota's public health system to provide supports to the growing number of students who need counseling, mentoring, intervention and adult role models is a major part of the problem.   If we are going to fix the system, we need to have a deeper understanding of the complexity of the system.  

So kudos to the plaintiffs for having the courage to step up to the plate and demand that something be done.  But what a tragedy that they have chosen an unambitious, deeply flawed theory of what it is going to take to fufilll Minnesota's constitutional mandate  And for more on these points, stay tuned.

  • Minnesota's Education System is Unconstitutional Part I
  • Let's Look at the Skeen Case to understand Minnesota's Constitutional Education Clause
  • Minnesota's Education System Is Unconstitutional--the Change in State Minimum Basic Education  
  • Education and the Constitution (3): State Minimum Proficiency Requirements Fundamentally Changes the Cost of Education
  • McCleary v State, Washington's Groundbreaking School Finance Decision
  •  McCleary v. State, Part I  
  • McCleary v State Requires Legislature to Base Funding on Actual Cost Jvonkorff on Education McCleary v. State, Part II McCleary v State and Determining the Cost of Education Jvonkorff on Education McCleary v. State, Part III
  •  McCleary v. State: what level of scrutiny is appropriate for legislative funding decisions
  • Jvonkorff on Education McCleary v. State, Part IV
  • Correlating the cost of education: fund the child. 
  • Jvonkorff on Education  McCleary V. State Part V 
  • Summary of Decision Network for Excellence
  • Washington Supreme Court Blog   
  • JvonKorff on Education, The Rose Decision 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Whitesplaining to Blacksplainers

 America has race on the brain right now.   The language of racial justification has propagated its way into education dialog from quasi-sociological courses taught by theoreticians of white privilege and other related doctrines.   Recently, I asked what I felt was a simple question on an educational issue, and I found myself being attacked by blacksplainers for whitesplaining.   I'm wading into this territory thinking I'll probably regret it later.   I've learned recently that white people can use the term whitesplaining against other white people:  in fact, if they do, that turns out to be a big plus for their side of the argument with fellow blacksplainers.  Even a white person can disparage another white person's argument by asserting, evidently on behalf of black people, that the white person is whitesplaining.   One of the most effective arguments a white person can make in favor of a doubtful proposition is that a whole class of people who disagree are serial whitesplainers.   

I hadn't really paid a lot of attention to the meaning of the word until I became a target the other day.   According to one source whitesplaining:
a combining form extracted from mansplain and meaning "to explain or comment on something in a condescending, overconfident, and often inaccurate or oversimplified manner, from the prospective of the group one identifies with, as in ladysplain, whtiesplain:  whitesplained to a person of color.
Notice that in this first definition, whitesplaining is the brother of other kinds of splaining.   Blacksplaining under this definition would be to explain or comment on something in a condescending, overconfident, and often inaccurate or oversimplified manner, from the perspective of the group one identifies with as in ladysplain,  blacksplain...blacksplained to a white person.

People of any race can be condescending.  Here's another definition
The paternalistic lecture given by Whites toward a person of color defining what should or shouldn't be considered
And another explanation:
Whitesplaining – derived from “mansplaining” – is a new, zietgeisty, word, but it’s essentially an expression of privilege: the unconscious, unearned and largely un-examined benefits of prejudice
Ok that makes sense.  If  I were to object to "Black Lives Matter's" concerns about the high rate of  police shooting of  young black males by asserting that they should change their slogan to "All lives matter," that's an example of whitesplaining, and legitimately so.  There's a more eloquent, and persuasive way of expressing that sentiment, but I'll refrain from expressing my opinion on that, because that too would be "whitesplaining."  

But here is what I hear when someone claims that I"m "whitesplaining:"  I really don't give a hoot what you think, and in the mean time, I'm going to  put you down with an epithet to let the whole world know.

Recently there's a crowd of people that have used the term whitesplaining for another purpose, to counteract an idea which may have merit, by using a racial epithet that seeks to suppress dialog with racial invective.  To put down legitimate invitations to dialog by persons of a different perspective, color, or cultural background.  To say:  you can't ask this; you can't assert this, because to assert something with which I disagree is condescending.   Any time you say something on a topic of interest to me, you are failing to take into account my perspective, because you don't see the world in the way that I do.    This whole tactic of killing off dialog with invective is a copy cat of the way that white racists sought to marginalize the opinions of black people.   So perhaps turnabout is fair play.   Take a little dose of racist medicine and see how you like it.    I can blacksplain just as good as you can whitesplain, and don't call me on it, because that's another form of whitesplaining.

In the two major metropolitan school districts teachers are complaining that their job has become unsafe.   There are some few students who are serial disrupters of varying degrees. In schools that are predominantly black, the odds are that more of these students are going to be black.  In any school, the students who are serial disrupters are more likely to be themselves victims of trauma, and who am I to discuss trauma, because that would be more whitesplaining.   But the upshot of all of this is that it is wrong to see teachers as the only victims of these incidents.

Most of the victims are students.  They are victims because teachers are the authorities in the building who are charged with making the building safe for young people.  They are victims because if another student can seem to get away with ignoring adults, then that student can project himself as more powerful than adults, and able to wreak havoc on fellow students with impunity.  Nobody wants their kid to go to a school where the teachers are the targets of violence.    We had better all be willing to have thoughtful dialog on how to address these issues, because its everybody's problem.  Right now the majority of teachers in these schools are still white, and at the rate that black teachers are being graduated, that's going  to be true for quite some time.  We have to  listen to each other.  To challenge people's points of view on how to resolve this as whitesplaining is  another way of trying to win an argument with insults.  

When you are communicating with folks you want to convince, calling them whitesplainers is another way of saying you don't want dialog.  And if you don't want dialog, why the heck are you initiating it.   Persuasion and communication is a mutual process that involves valuing the perspectives of others, even when they are coming from a biased or filtered perspective.   Its fine to attack Matt Damon as a whitesplainer.  He's not listing to you; doesn't care what the heck you think. But when you are dealing with people you want to persuade,  based on the possibility that they care what you think, telling them that they are whitesplaining is a form of blacksplaining, which in my world is no better than whitesplaining, even if you are actually black.

We need to find a way to come together to make sure that all students are getting an education, and that all students are protected too.   Yes, I need to understand your experience, and I want to.   We need to find techniques that keep students out of the juvenile justice system to the maximum extent possible.  We should provide all student in school with an educational environment even kids that serially disrupt, but we have to insist that students in regular classrooms meet reasonable standards of behavior.   To make that happen,. we are going to need more staff, better trained staff, more staff support, more adults on duty and some alternative settings in school.  If you don't agree with me, bring it on, because this is a problem that is only get addressed if we all listen to each other:  I won't claim you're blacksplaining, because frankly, I think my views on this are shared across racial lines.    

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Tension over School Discipline Part II

In my last post, Tension over School Discipline, (Part I of this series of posts), I wrote about the changeover in St. Paul school board members resulting, in part, from discipline concerns in St. Paul. The replacement of board members resulted, in part, because teachers and parents were fed up with the failure of district disciplinary policies to protect students and teachers from classroom and school disruptions.  In that post, I explained some of the reasons why school districts like St. Paul are trying to reduce out of school suspensions and replace the suspension-based paradigm with a more positive effective school atmosphere that keeps kids in school. But the problem is that some school districts are executing these policies in ways that seem to send the message that the rights of obedient students are inferior to the disobedient.  When that happens, chaos ensues, teachers begin to look for other employment, and many families migrate elsewhere.

Out of school suspensions represent the school's failure to reach a particular student, and they perpetuate that student’s failure. They interrupt the student’s education, and the suspended  student typically needs more time in school, not less.  Out of school suspensions reinforce the student’s cycle of failure; they evidence the inability of the school’s efforts to convince the student to behave; they send the student to environments that reinforce bad behavior; they sometimes represent the first step into the juvenile justice system; and they impact a disproportionate number of students who have educational disadvantages.    So let’s start by agreeing that keeping students in school is an important objective:  the issue is whether strategies to keep kids in school destroy the safe, supportive, learning focused environment that teachers and other students deserve and in fact, the school environment which is their constitutional and statutory right. 

If out of school suspensions are damaging to the student, why then do schools ever suspend or expel students?  Of course, the straightforward answer is to protect the in-school environment, to show other students that high disciplinary expectations are in-force and that the rights of students who play by the rules come first.   Suspensions support teachers’ ability to set high disciplinary standards and spend valuable classroom time bearing down on learning activities.   

My own school district’s disciplinary policy (Administrative Procedure 506A) emphasizes this point by granting the classroom teacher the authority to remove a student from class:
Teachers have the responsibility of managing disruptive student behavior by explicitly teaching behavioral expectations; maximizing academic engagement and success; and by responding to disruptive behavior through means such as conferring with the student, implementing proactive behavioral supports, or contacting the student’s parents. When such measures fail, or when the teacher determines it is otherwise appropriate based upon the student’s conduct, the teacher shall have the authority to remove the student from class…… St. Cloud Administrative Procedure 506A 
Most school districts honor the right of the classroom teacher to remove a student from classroom.  The battle in St. Paul and other large-city districts centers on whether a student removed from class for disruptive behavior is allowed to return without consequence, or without convincing the principal that the disruptive behavior will not re-occur.  Teachers in St. Paul, and many parents and students, were complaining that the district was undermining high behavioral standards by placing the right of the mis-behaving student to stay in school above the rights of other students to have a disruption free school environment.   Once parents and students begin to believe that disruptive students’ rights are superior to other students, chaos ensues. 

I focused my last post on St. Paul, because it has been in the news, and recent events demonstrate the potential for push-back when a poorly considered paradigm is installed that fails to protect the classroom and hallways from disruptions.  But I might have selected other school districts as well, because this this issue has created concern in Districts across the country.
Here are some snippets taken from articles about challenges in the Denver public school system:
With a rising din of complaints from teachers about increasing discipline problems in Denver classrooms, district officials Monday updated the school board on plans to pump $1.5 million into mental health services for students next year, create a new out-of-school suspension option and add additional programming for troubled students.   Discipline concerns flare in Denver schools (Chalkbeat, May 14, 2013)  The aim of the discipline policy, revised in recent years, is to reduce in-school or out-of-school suspensions and expulsions so that students can continue to be in a learning environment. It also aims to erase the longstanding disparity between white students and students of color in terms of consequences for student misbehavior.
Following changes in disciplinary approaches, many Denver teachers complained that classroom control in some schools was getting out of hand:
On March 20, 60 Bruce Randolph Middle School teachers, office staff and custodians sent a letter to Superintendent Tom Boasberg complaining about the policy. And 44 staff and teachers at Morey Middle School sent a letter the following day expressing similar concerns.  “The disproportionate amount of time and resources that in the past would have been spent on improving instruction is instead spent by our entire staff, including administrators, instructional team, support staff, and teachers on habitually disruptive students that continually return to our classrooms,” the letter from the teachers at Bruce Randolph states. “This has now reached a critical point.”
As of 2015, in Denver, these concerns still persist.  See Denver teachers union survey puts spotlight on student discipline issues – (Colorado Public Radio, March 2015)
A third of Denver teachers surveyed about behavior issues in class say they don’t feel safe in their own schools.  That’s according to a new survey on discipline (full survey) by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union representing Denver teachers.   Sixty percent of the teachers said behavior and discipline problems have had a negative impact on the teacher's mental health. "The mental health piece, I think, is huge," McRoberts said.  Almost 60 percent of those surveyed would hesitate to send their own child to their school because of discipline issues.  A third reported being instructed to follow questionable discipline reporting practices. And almost 80 percent said they are losing planning time because of discipline problems in the classroom. ….The union says it decided ask the questions about discipline after hearing from teachers that there are problems. But the district’s superintendent questions the reliability of the survey and says school safety is the top priority in the district…
 I don’t pretend to be an expert on St. Paul, or Denver,  but it seems to me that there are lessons to be learned from the chaos that ensued in St. Paul.  St. Paul leadership, I think, failed to recognize that an important pillar of any school, is that students and teachers must have faith that the school will provide them with a safe, largely disruption-free classroom and school atmosphere.   As discussed in Part I, there is overwhelming evidence that students benefit when this atmosphere is maintained through a positive, supportive, process which keeps all students in school, save in rare exceptions, and when discipline is achieved not through punishment but through a culture of positive behavior. 

            What is bringing this issue to the forefront in so many districts?  Here are some of the factors. Each of them is a complex issue in its own right, but often well-meaning school administrators attempt to sweep these problems away with simplistic solutions based upon theoretical ideas and slogans that appeal to advocacy groups, editorial boards, and sometimes school boards, who lack an appreciation of how difficult it is to manage a classroom when confronted by one or more of the few students who persist, despite all efforts, in disrupting the learning environment.
  • There is increasing pressure from State and Federal Government, from advocacy groups, and the media to close the achievement gap, and increasing attacks on the schools, districts and superintendents for not making adequate progress.  Often the leadership becomes convinced that keeping more students in school all the time is essential to meet state and national goals, but they aren't willing to (or lack) the resources necessary to keep students in school while protecting teachers and students from disruption. 
  • More students are coming to school without the skills and attitudes that we traditionally expect as essential for success in school.    The higher expectations, and the perception that schools and teachers are failing them can make it difficult to motivate, can cause some students to drop-out emotionally and intellectually
  • Consulting groups often sell school administrators silver bullet solutions, such as PBIS, restorative justice, culturally responsive teaching, white privilege and anti-racism training, parent involvement, without pairing these programs with a plan to deal with students who fail to respond appropriately.  Some of these programs are predicated on the theory that if teachers do a better job teaching, and if schools do a better job of responding to students’ needs, the issue of discipline will be resolved, but no program, no matter how fantastic, will eliminate the need for dealing with unruly students.  
  • There is pressure by some advocates for students with behavioral disabilities to keep them in the classroom, even when their behavior is disruptive. Disability law does not exempt students with disabilities from behavioral standards, but unfortunately, some advocates treat them as if they are.
  • A small group of students do not readily respond to the strategies designed to keep all students in the classroom.  Some students come homes where punitive discipline is the norm, or no discipline is the norm, and positive persuasive discipline may be perceived as weak and ineffectual.  Some students have disabilities or psychiatric problems that actually exacerbate poor behavior when they are exposed to the stimulus of 25 active kids in a classroom.  Some students are just flat out angry at the world, some for very good reason.  If  a few students get away with disrupting the class, less aggressive students live in fear that they will be themselves the victims of these aggressive students.  Or, they may conclude that they need to act disruptive to remain in favor with these powerful students. Or, they may conclude that there is no reason to obey, because obedience is not rewarded and disobedience has no consequence.  

  • There is a shortage of teachers who come from the same ethnic, racial, or cultural background of a growing number of students.   This exacerbates a perception that possibly certain students are dealt with more harshly based on race, ethnicity or class, and it leaves some students without an adult role model with whom they identify and who can encourage proper behavior. 
  • Some superintendents and front office administrators charged with disciplinary implementation are emotionally and intellectually disconnected from the classroom.   When this happens, they may buy into flashy new programs that actually create chaos in the classroom, and when reports work their way up through the union or courageous principals, that the new program is not working, they may refuse to listen or hear.  They may say: Teachers are lazy and don’t want to take on the difficult students; they aren’t implementing my program with fidelity; they need more training; they are reflecting their white privileged status, and so on.
  • Some of well-meaning programs fail to provide adequate staffing to provide in-school alternatives.  More staffing may be perceived as diverting scarce revenues from teachers salaries.  While all unions say that they want more discipline, in some districts they make wage demands that drive out budgeting for needed staff support.   At bargaining time, it is not unusual to hear teacher representatives tell the public that the District should stop spending money on people who aren’t classroom teachers. 
  • Educators and advocates are concerned with what they describe as “disproportionate” suspensions impacting students of color more severely.   For example, after a review of suspension statistics, then Minneapolis Superintendent Johnson implemented a no-suspension policy for students in the first grade or younger, announced a front office of review of suspensions which (in her view) were impacting higher grade students disproportionately, and promised to close the racial suspension gap by 2018.  See  Washington Post November 26, 2014.
As stated above, it cannot possibly argued that kicking students out of school, even for a few days, is better for the student who has been disruptive or violent.  Ideally, students should stay in school:  the issue is whether it is possible to control school grounds, hallways, and classrooms when out of school suspension is ruled out in every case.  

The issue is what do we do when students fail to meet those expectations, and despite a teacher’s best efforts to use positive supportive techniques, a student disobeys and disrupts in ways that undermines the teacher’s classroom control. 

There are some folks who argue that disruptive behavior is a symptom of conditions and life experience inflicted unfairly on children, such as racism, abuse, disability, dysfunctional home environments, dysfunctional neighborhoods, poverty, or cultural differences not appreciated by a white privileged system.   Therefore, they argue, teachers should be forced to accommodate disruptive students in their classrooms and make adjustments in their teaching approach.   Many of these folks, I would argue, have never been responsible for teaching a classroom with disruptive students, and some of them frankly send their own students to schools that refuse to admit disruptive students.   Sometimes disciplinary dialogues view this issue as if the only person impacted by disciplinary policies is the student who breaks the rules.

In many major urban schools, the students most negatively impacted by relaxed disciplinary policies are themselves students trying to overcome the achievement gap.   The other students, the ones playing by the rules, bearing down, and seeking to navigate the road to college and career, are students who need more instructional time, who more than others, need a learning environment free of fear and disruption.   When we allow urban school discipline to deteriorate, we are denying these students their constitutional and statutory right to a quality education.    These students, above all, need a classroom environment where the teacher doesn’t have to spend the first ten minutes of class dealing with the few obstructionist students who are engaged in a daily power contest with the teacher.  

So how can we markedly reduce out-of-school-suspensions while protecting the rights of students to a disruption free learning-focused environment.    That’s a topic for future posts.

See: St. Paul Supt. Silva sends more staff into schools to address misbehavior 
See: More on Minneapolis incident

Jerry Von Korff is an attorney at the Rinke-Noonan Law firm.  He's  been a member of the St. Cloud School Board since 2004, where he has served as chair, vice chair, finance chair and in an number of other capacities.   This post represents Jerry's own views.  Before practicing law, Jerry got his Masters in Teaching, helped start an upward bound program, and taught social studies and math in Washington, DC and New York.