Monday, September 29, 2014

School Choice- via Rep. Kestell (R-Elkhart Lake)

Outgoing Rep. Kestell reflects on legislative career

By Jason Smathers
Sheboygan Press
10:41 p.m. CDT September 28, 2014

Rep. Steve Kestell believes his best asset in the Legislature was stopping "bad bills."

Yet, as he exits the Legislature after 16 years as a state representative, the Elkhart Lake Republican said he sees one potential mistake on the horizon: school choice expansion.

While the outgoing education chair said he supports the notion of choice, he warned that state leaders could put the state back into the sort of "fiscal mess" they found themselves in before Act 10 if they don't think the idea through.

"This is a case where ideology sort of overwhelms good sense and judgment," Kestell said. "Where people who should have known better and are good mathematicians aren't willing to do the math. It's because they don't want to show what would be detrimental to their plans. And the math doesn't work. It just doesn't work."

Kestell, speaking to the Sheboygan Press in an exit interview, said that expanding school choice could exacerbate already declining enrollment in rural schools. With the state funding schools on a "per pupil" basis, the former Howards Grove school board member said he fears there's no plan on how to handle that funding squeeze.

"That [rural schools] problem will be on steroids with the wide-open school choice program cutting across the state," Kestell said. "No one has even tried to explain how we're going to deal with that as a state. No one has tried to explain how we're going to fund parallel school programs. Because that's where we're heading."

Kestell said he already took issue with one aspect of the initial statewide school choice program, which gives students publicly funded vouchers to go participating private schools. While Kestell hoped the program would benefit poor students stuck in failing schools, there was nothing in the final budget that specified it would go specifically to children currently in public schools.

As a result, around two-thirds of those receiving vouchers in the first two years of the program already attended private schools. He said that while the main authors said they didn't intend for that to happen, they didn't try to fix it either. That, Kestell said, was because there was a campaign fighting any fix.

"It's sort of like if you went to the bank and they gave you too much change for their check, you started a campaign saying, 'I'm going to keep this! How dare you!' That's kind of what happened there. So going forward, one of the biggest reasons given for vouchers is gone and without explanation."

Kestell's disappointment over the state's direction on education issues extends to the issue of school accountability. While the Legislature passed a bare-bones version of a bill near the end of session, it came nowhere near addressing the sanctions Gov. Scott Walker originally wanted. While conservatives and the state Department of Public Instruction battled back on those details, Kestell said during one committee meeting that one of the sides has got to compromise.

That, it seems, has not happened yet, Kestell says now. He attributes part of the failure to State Superintendent Tony Evers, whose department decried later versions of the bill as emphasizing "punishment and labels, not support for struggling schools." While he said that Evers, also from the Sheboygan area, is a "nice guy," he said that DPI has become too partisan during his tenure and needs to "play it straight" when presenting information like state test scores.

"If facts are on your side, that should be sufficient," Kestell said. "Give people cold hard facts without window dressing, without skewing, without making arguments. Just give people facts.

Kestell has faced his own fair share of criticism in his final terms in office. When he supported Common Core standards, he got a barrage of hate mail, while several activists in the Republican Party pushed a party resolution to censure Kestell and Senate Education Chair Luther Olsen.

In addition, he was one of only four GOP state legislators to vote against the state budget, a choice he attributes to not knowing the full impact of last minute additions by legislative leaders.

Kestell said it was after the budget vote that he was leaning toward retirement. It was only because of the "no confidence" resolution pushed by Common Core opponents that Kestell held off on the announcement longer than he normally would have.

"I just didn't want to give those folks the satisfaction of thinking they'd gotten to me," Kestell said.

But he doesn't regret his decisions. Kestell said that he made the best decisions given the information in front of him. Whether it be Common Core, the budget or school accountability, Kestell says he did what he believed was right.

"I made a point of telling the truth," Kestell said. "I think sometimes I did that too much for some people."

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Office, Office Space, and Public Education

I loved the TV series 'The Office."  I also loved the movie "Office Space."  Both were exaggerated takes on working life in corporate America.  Both poked fun at some of the inane business practices and cultures that can permeate a company.  Both built off of truths, but took them to extremes for comedic effect.

The shows worked because there was enough truth for people to connect with the characters, even as they recognized the 'over the top' nature of the events.

The narrative around public schools has been a steady drumbeat of how terrible they are and what a threat they pose to our nation's future.  The worst case outliers are presented as normal public schools, while the very best charters/vouchers are highlighted as being typical of those institutions- and both of those narratives are false. 

I don't know of anybody who would claim that public schools are perfect.  They are not.  A few are, truly, underperforming.  However, just as Steve Carrel- as Michael Scott- was not a typical boss; truly failing schools are not a typical representation of public education. 

The Office was a comedy, and people got the joke.  The attack on public schools is serious, and it's based on an ideologically driven agenda that distorts reality.  The question is, "For whose benefit?"

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Hypocrisy

As I read the attached article, I can't help but wonder how many of these parents- the ones willing to shell out $35,000+/year for their own child's education- complain about the high costs of public education and support policies that reduce spending for public schools.

I freely acknowledge that a perfectly legitimate argument can be made in favor of reduced spending on public schools.  I'm just saying that it seems overtly hypocritical to make that argument while simultaneously spending huge sums of money on your own child's education.

Why?  Because one of the cornerstones of that argument is that money doesn't matter, that $9,000-12,000/yr. is more than enough to provide a high quality education, and throwing more money at public schools doesn't make them any better.  Fair enough.  Make that case and walk your talk.  But, to me, making that argument while spending three or four times that amount to ensure an elite educational experience for your own child is hypocritical.

The articles doesn't make the connection.  There may not be one.  I could be wrong.  However, experience leads me to suspect that a healthy majority of the parents who are lining up to spend this kind of money for private schools are also supporting vouchers, tax cuts, and other policies that would take money away from public schools.  Some of them are likely to be the talking heads we see on TV taking potshots at public education costs, while writing out a tuition check for their five year old that equals the per capita income in Wisconsin.  

On another note, the whole situation described in this article, and the mindset and lifestyle that goes with it, is insane:

Bonus article!  The Dangers of Income Inequality:

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A "Fringe" angle on school politics

I read this post from Seth Godin earlier today:

People who like this stuff...

like this stuff.

When you work in a genre (any genre), break all the rules at your own peril. Sure, you need to break some rules, need to do something worth talking about. But please understand who the work is for.
If it's for people outside the genre, you have a lot of evangelizing to do. And if it's for those that are already in it, you can't push too far, because they like the genre. That's why they're here.

Those who have walked away probably aren't just waiting around for you to fix it. Those who have never been don't think the genre has a problem they need solved. Blue sky thinking isn't really blue sky thinking. It's a slightly different shade of the blue that's already popular.

It's a little like the futility of the "Under New Management" sign on a restaurant. People who like the place don't want to hear you're changing everything, and people who didn't like the old place aren't in such a hurry for a new place that they'll form a line out the door.

The opportunity is to create a pathway, a series of ever-increasing expectations and experiences that moves people from here to there.

As I read it, I couldn't help but think of school politics- primarily the School Report Card, due out today, and the ongoing Voucher School Debate.

If School Report Cards and Voucher Schools were available for purchase on a site like Amazon, it would be easy to predict what the people purchasing those items would also be interested in buying.  The algorithm would be pretty simple.  If you like Vouchers, you might also like...

Godin speaks of an opportunity to create a pathway that moves people.  As much as I like and respect his work, I'm not seeing a pathway to move people on this one.  Not on this issue, not at this time, not in this area.  Entrenchment is the operative word of the moment. 

Fortunately, people here love Friess Lake School!  Sadly, that does nothing to diminish their support for Vouchers.  We are a great school district, but we're not an outlier.  Great school districts are the norm in Wisconsin.  In my opinion, the "People who like this stuff also like..." algorithm is off when it comes to many school issues- including vouchers.  As far as I'm concerned, if you like and support great public schools, you SHOULDN'T like vouchers.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Using test results to evaluate teachers

Using standardized tests to evaluate teachers is gaining prominence in education.  Many people are convinced it is a good idea.  I've always felt it was a bad one.  I keep waiting to read something that convinces me otherwise.  

I'm just sitting down at the end of the first day and flipping through the latest edition of the Phi Delta Kappan and I came across an article by W. James Popham entitled "The right test for the wrong reason."  Popham is professor emeritus at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA.  I've been reading his articles for years and have always found him to be an interesting and thoughtful writer.

A few quotes that I found to be compelling:
  • Increasingly, America's educators are being evaluated on the basis of student performances on tests that were created to yield comparative score interpretations rather than to measure instructional quality.  This is a terrible mistake.
  • ...we have no meaningful evidence at hand indicating that these tests can accurately distinguish between well taught and badly taught students.
  • The evidence to support the accuracy of such score-based inferences about instructional quality is essentially nonexistent.
  • The only way to begin changing an indefensible practice is to set out seriously to alter the practice.  It is time, indeed past time, for those of us who recognize the seriousness of this situation to don our alteration armor and head into battle.
Popham, W. James.  Phi Delta Kappan  September 2014  The right test for the wrong reason  pp. 47-52

We tend to circle the wagons around an idea and ridicule those questioning the idea du jour.  Using standardized test results to evaluate teachers is all the rage, it is widely viewed as an idea whose time has come.  Maybe.  But, as Popham makes clear, not with these tests.  These tests have some value and merit and uses.  Evaluating teachers is not one of those uses.

I'm still waiting for someone to show me how it is a good idea to use our current standardized tests to evaluate teachers.