Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Average Weather, Stock Market Price Fluctuations, African American Suspension Rates, Failing Schools, Politicians, and the issue of Wicked Problems

((My goal had been to publish this in March, but that didn't happen.  It does, however, help to explain the March weather references))

In my opinion, daily weather averages are not all that helpful in places like Milwaukee.  Or, more precisely, the way they are used by meteorologists is not helpful- especially during months like March.  I often hear them proclaim that "We should have a high today of 38." 

The lowest recorded Milwaukee March temperature is -10, and the highest recorded temperature is 84.  Yes, we can generally expect that a random day in March will be warmer than a random day in January, but we also know that it is very common for the reverse to be true.  So common, in fact, that cold weather in March doesn't surprise us at all..

There really is no such thing as an 'average' or 'normal' day in Milwaukee in March.  In places like Milwaukee, in months like March, it is useless to declare what a temperature "should" be on any given day.

Weather in Milwaukee in March is 'Wicked.'  It is complex and dynamic and multifaceted.  We miss all of the complexity and dynamism when we reduce it to statements like "Our high temperature should be 38 today."

"The stock market fell sharply today on fears that .....  Shares of 'X' were hit especially hard, as investors..."  I call BS.  If this were so widely known, and/or so obvious, why and how would anyone ever lose money on a stock?  The truth is that we don't often know why a stock price fluctuates day to day.  Declaring with certainty that we do know, when we don't, only gives a false impression that a very complex entity- the market- can be explained simply and with great certainty and clarity.

Stock market price fluctuations are a 'Wicked Problem.'  They occur for complex and dynamic and multifaceted reasons. 

I heard a reporter talking the other day about the "suspension rate gap" that exists between White and African-American students.  According to the reporter, the primary problem is a lack of teacher training. 

Hold on.  Do I think more and better training can help?  Sure.  Is that, in and of itself, going to make a big dent in the suspension rate gap?  I doubt it.  The Suspension Rate Gap persists because it is a 'Wicked Problem.'  It is complex and dynamic and multifaceted. 

The narrative of failing schools drives me especially insane.  As I've noted before, the schools that are struggling cannot be fixed by any one thing.  These schools, and the neighborhoods they serve, are plagued by complex, dynamic, multifaceted 'Wicked Problems.'

We are gearing up for another Presidential Campaign.  Politicians of all ideological stripes will assure us that the solutions are simple and straightforward.  There will be untold references to 'rolling up our sleeves,' and 'sitting around the kitchen table.'  Candidates will try to use downhome folksy wisdom to connect to voters.  It works only because we let them get away with it.

We have many "Wicked Problems."   We need to accept and embrace the complexity.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Letter to Wisconsin Legislators

We must state our significant concerns with the Omnibus Education Package that was recently passed by the Joint Finance Committee.   We believe that this budget underfunds Wisconsin public schools and will force school districts to reduce educational opportunities for the children they serve.  We are not alone.  An unprecedented number of school district administrators and school boards have already written letters urging their communities to ask their local legislators to re-think aspects of this legislation.
For the purpose of this letter, we will limit our concerns to the financial implications of this bill:
  • School districts across the state, including ours, will face state aid cuts in order to support voucher expansion.  In its’ current iteration, this bill will provide less state aid to Wisconsin public school students than was provided in 2010.
  • For the first time since revenue limits were imposed in 1993-94, there will be no adjustment in per pupil revenue limits in either year of the 2015-17 biennium.
  • The proposed law allows students in special education to be allocated $12,000 in publicly funded annual vouchers to attend private and parochial schools.  The reality is that costs vary significantly from student to student based upon their individual needs.  As a result, the new law could over fund a special needs student while significantly limiting funding to another.  It is difficult to understand a change in funding for private/parochial vouchers even though there has been no increase in funding for public school education students in eight years.
  • Alan Borsuk, Education Columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, recently noted that “…the impact of no increases in school spending for years on end is building… Ultimately, the key education story out of this budget is the continuation of zero-increase spending policies.”
  • Per pupil educational spending in Wisconsin will drop below the national average.  A few years ago, we were 12th in the nation.  
  • Our School Districts have used the authority and flexibilities provided by Act 10. However, not all school district expenses can be controlled by Act 10.  We ask that allowable resources for our students and all 860,000 public school students in our state allow us to keep pace with inflation to help us manage the costs we cannot control through the Act 10 tools.

We believe that the fiscal pressures on public schools are being imposed by legislators who adhere to the false narrative that our schools are “failing.”  Wisconsin has one of the highest graduation rates in the nation, with high school graduation rates exceeding 90%.  Our state consistently scores among the top four states in the nation on the ACT College Entrance Exam and the vast majority of School Districts scored well on the newly created State Report Cards.  Our School Districts have performed well on the State Report Cards and in the competitive world of open enrollment!  
We urge you to learn more about the proposals in the 2015-2017 state budget and how it will impact schools throughout the state of Wisconsin.  Please join us in advocating on behalf of the children so that we can continue to provide one of the best public education systems in the nation.  
We are not trying to be partisan.  While we believe that people of good faith can legitimately disagree on education policy, we also believe that many legislators are listening more to special interests than they are to constituents.  Many things pertaining to education in the Omnibus Bill have direct ties to special interest groups, and little or nothing to do with the day to day concerns and issues being discussed by parents or members of the community.
If you agree, now is the time to let your voice be heard by forwarding this message to families, friends and neighbors.  You may also contact your representatives directly.  Though our schools are small, we cover a wide geographic area.
Possible Assembly Representatives:                                           Possible State Senators:
District 39 Representative Mark Born                                      District 8 Senator Alberta Darling                                   
District 58 Representative Bob Gannon                                   District 13 Senator Scott Fitzgerald                             
District 59 Jesse Kremer                                                              District 20 Senator Duey Strobel                              


John Engstrom                                                                                 Scott Sabol               
District Administrator                                                                    District Administrator           
Friess Lake School                                                                           Neosho, Saylesville, and Herman Schools       

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Friess Lake School- a 'Helmet School'

For what it's worth- I decided to post my speech from the 2015 Friess Lake Graduation Ceremony:
So here we are.  Graduation for the Friess Lake Class of 2015.   When I think way back to your first days here as Kindergartners- this day just never quite seems possible.  This day seems so far in the future- with special Mother’s Day programs, field trips to the zoo and the pumpkin farm, those first concerts and Field Days, that first dance as 5th graders, sporting events, social studies projects, Mr. Hoefs flooding the aquaponics lab- and then flooding it again- and again- all of these things, and so many more, they come and go in what now seems like the blink of an eye.

In college football, there are a few elite programs whose teams have been amongst the best in the business for generations.  Those programs are often referred to as ‘Helmet Schools.’  These are teams who almost always compete for a conference title, and who define a great season by winning a national championship.  

If I may be so bold to suggest, Friess Lake has been a helmet school district in its’ own right.  By that I mean, our students have had amazing academic success that has been sustained over many years.  Every year is solid, and in the best years- it’s truly amazing.

There have been some real powerhouse groups of students that have gone to school here and walked across this stage- take a look at the recent HUHS Student Recognition program that is posted in the entryway for one piece of evidence.   I had the pleasure and honor of attending the HUHS Graduation Ceremony on Sunday.  The program is also posted in the entryway.  A few stats: 60% of Friess Lake alums graduated with a 3.0 or higher vs 43% of the rest of the graduating class.  38% of Friess Lake alums were in the National Honor Society vs 17% of the rest of the graduating class.  Friess Lake alums only constituted 9% of the overall graduating class, but 3 of our graduates- 30%-  placed in the Top Ten.      

 And that’s just the most recent example- there have been generations worth of graduating classes that have also done well here… in high school… and beyond.  

 “Helmet School”

Projecting forward- this class- the Friess Lake Class of 2015, YOU- might just prove to be the most gifted group yet.  Time will tell, and you will have to earn it, but the potential is undeniable.  The great thing about middle school is that it really is an opportunity to discover and learn, and a few of them have learned a few lessons in humility- that a nice smile and talent isn’t enough- you’ve still got to sustain an effort and work if you want to be successful.  That’s part of growing up.

That said, those of us who’ve been fortunate to work with this group every day for the last nine years have been firsthand witnesses to their growth and their talents.

Here I go with another sports analogy….  There is an old cheer that used to be quite popular back in the day.   Basically- a leader points out various things in the form of a question, to which the crowd responds affirmatively.  “Is this a basketball?”  “Yes, this is a basketball”   “Is this the scoreboard?”  Yes….  Is this the winning team?”  Yes….   

By any statistical measure or metric- from informal observations to classroom assessments to standardized tests- the Friess Lake Class of 2015 is a Winning team!

This is an academically gifted group of young people- and yet, for all that academic talent and intellectual horsepower- that’s not the thing that I find most remarkable about this group.  They were presented with a unique opportunity in that they had a classmate with special needs- they could’ve shunned or teased or marginalized or minimally tolerated that person- but what they did instead has been remarkable.  They embraced him and included him and looked out for him in ways that you can’t teach and you can’t force and you can’t fake.   And they did it day after day, month after month, and year after year. 

Yes- that plays out a little differently in 8th grade vs 1st grade, but it’s still there and it’s still real.  It’s one thing to have a high IQ- lots of folks have that though.  It’s much rarer territory to have a high IQ and a healthy level of empathy for others- even and especially others who are different.  It’s been a joy to watch that unfold over the years.  And that, more than anything else, has distinguished this class as a special group of young people. 

So… the days of being line leaders and endless games of rock paper scissors and bringing us dirt cakes on your birthday…  and marching around the school in your Captain America Halloween costumes and writing poems about John Deere tractors (Billy)…   those days have come and gone.  No more Friess Lake Dolphin basketball or volleyball games, no more concerts or talent shows.  This is where that chapter ends, and the next one begins.

We hope that as you move forward you will, occasionally, reflect back on your time here and remember good times, good friends, and the very real sense of family and support that characterized your time here at Friess Lake School.  Draw strength from that as you face new challenges.

The last nine years have flown by- the next nine will as well.  Make good choices.  Thank you.




Now- the reading of the names.  Before we do so- my annual reminder about noise.  During the Graduation Ceremony we’re going to do it my way, and my way is that we honor ALL of the graduates with respectful silence as each name is called.  Yelling and cheering makes it all about you, and your kid.  It creates a disruption that is disrespectful to those who come next.  There is dignity is silence.


After the program- all bets are off.  Come back up here and re-create the scene however you want.  Yell- scream- Dance- Moonwalk.  Whatever.  After the program.  Clear?  Here we go:



Now ladies and gentlemen it is my distinct honor and privilege to present the Friess Lake School District graduating class of 2015!!




Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Poverty and the Wisconsin School Report Cards

Wisconsin Data
     Wealthiest Counties and % Poverty                                         



·      There are a total of 33 public school districts in the wealthiest counties. 
·      The three county average School District Score was a 77.4 
·      The School Report Card scores for those districts range from Herman @ 64.6 to Swallow @ 88. 

o Eight of the school districts were in the Meet Expectations Category (53-72.9), Nineteen districts were in the Exceeds Expectations Category (73-82.9), and Six were in the Significantly Exceeds Expectations Category (83+).
o   The eight districts scoring @ Meets Expectations had a combined average poverty rate of 32%. 
o   The six districts scoring @ Significantly Exceeds Expectations had a combined average poverty rate of 7.8%
This is key: Even within the wealthiest counties the disparity can be significant.  Waukesha, Hartford Jt.1, and Herman each had poverty rates above 35%, while North Lake, Swallow, and Cedarburg had poverty rates between 0-8%.
        Poorest Counties and % Poverty




·      There are a total of 12 public school districts in the poorest counties. 
·      The four county average School District Score was a 66.1
·      The School Report Card scores for those districts range from Bowler @ 58.4 to Chequamegon @ 72.3. 

o   All of the districts in the poorest counties were in the Meets Expectations Category.
o   The three districts with the lowest scores had a combined average poverty rate of 66.6%. 
o   The three districts with the highest scores had a combined average poverty rate of 54%.
I celebrate the great work that is being done in these high poverty schools to still score in a range that meets the high expectations that Wisconsin has for public schools.  I congratulate the great work that is being done in the low poverty schools to exceed those high expectations
There are many people who argue that poverty is not a factor in determining school performance.  Opinions are fine, but opinions based on actual evidence are golden.  I think poverty is a huge factor in determining school performance and I’ve provided data that supports my belief.  High poverty schools can do great work, but the School District Report Card System is rigged against them. 
Want to offer a different view?  OK, show me your data.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Time to call the Voucher/Charter Movement What It Is

Let's start with some data.  Here are the total private and public school enrollments for the State of Wisconsin 2008-2014, and then again 2000-2004.

*I could've mistyped or incorrectly added any number- doesn't change the obvious

Year   Private Enrollment   Public Enrollment   Total Enrollment   Private %   Public %

2014        119,801                       874,414                  994,215                12             88
2013        122,949                       872,436                  995,385                12.4          87.6
2012        124,668                       871,105                  995,770                12.5          87.5
2011        125,372                       872,286                  997,658                12.6          87.4
2010        126,812                       872,436                  999,248                12.7          87.3
2009        130,800                       873,586               1,004,386                13             87
2008        133,606                       874,633               1,008,239                13.3          86.7

2004        137,852                       880,031               1,017,883                13.5          86.5
2003        142,619                       881,231               1,023,850                13.9          86.1
2002        146,145                       879,361               1,025,506                14.2          85.8
2001        148,336                       879,476               1,027,812                14.4          85.6

Three obvious facts:

1.  We are a declining enrollment state.

2.  The overall percentage of students attending public and private schools has remained remarkably steady

3.  The overall percentage of students attending private schools is down slightly

Here is my story built on those facts.

The last decade or so has seen unprecedented attacks on public schools.  The drumbeat of negativity is relentless.  Public schools are failing.  We are a nation at risk.  Public schools are horrible.  Achievement is down.  Have you heard that the Common Core is teaching students to masturbate?  What we need is a voucher in every backpack.  School Choice is the answer.  On and on and on it goes.

All politics is local.

I believe that the public is buying into this national, and statewide narrative, even as they continue to believe that THEIR local school is basically fine.  If there was ever going to be a decade when people abandoned their crummy local school in favor of a superior private experience- it would've been the last one.  And yet, the percentage of people attending public schools has remained relatively constant.  

In the meantime, those who would seek to destroy public education have slowly accumulated political power- and they aim to use that power.

The public has bought the overall narrative, and they don't see the negative consequences at the local level, so they are silent to supportive of many education reform efforts.

Well, the time has come to say ENOUGH.  Public schools serve most students in most communities, often the most vulnerable.  Public schools are not failing- that argument is built on manufactured data. 

Do you know why people around here support Friess Lake School?  Because we're good!  You know what else we are?  Very much like most other public schools. 

Governor Walker's budget is bad for public education.  It is bad for the almost 90% of students served by public schools.  It is bad for the State of Wisconsin.

Monday, February 9, 2015

WisTax Analysis of Governor's Budget Proposal

Here is an article from the non-partisan folks at WisTax that shows the impact to K-12 education of the Governor's budget proposal.

I thought we made tough decisions and fixed the big problems in the last biennial budget.  I thought things were "working" so well that the state had a surplus.  My question is:  Why do we have a deficit again? 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Successful Schools Act- Um, no thank you

The latest piece of legislative idiocy to grace the national stage is the U.S. House's Successful Schools Act.  It is a classic diatribe against federal overreach and in favor of a lower federal role in education.  

I think the bill is poorly researched and based on "ideology math."  Here's my own poorly researched rebuttal.  I'm using actual data, but I'm putting it together and creating comparisons as I see fit.  In other words, I'm doing exactly what the bills authors and supporters did.  The only difference is that I'm writing a blog post, they're writing legislation.

For the purposes of illustration, I'm going to focus on a few key numbers from two states- Mississippi and Minnesota.  Minnesota is both my home state and the home of the bills primary author.  Mississippi is the alpha to Minnesota's omega on, well, pretty much everything... 

It's a Republican sponsored bill.  The State of Mississippi has four Representatives in the U.S. House, three of whom are Republicans.  I think it is safe to say that they have, or will, vote in favor of the bill.  Fine.  But remember, a key goal of the bill is to reduce the role of the federal government in K-12 education.  Here are a few easily obtainable facts regarding current federal education spending in two states, Mississippi and Minnesota. 

  • Mississippi receives $2,052 federal dollars per student (2011 data),
  • Minnesota receives $1,080 federal dollars per student 

  • Mississippi, with a K-12 public school enrollment of 490,619, receives $193,652,568 in Title I funds  ($395/student)* 
  • Minnesota, with a K-12 public school enrollment of 839,738, receives $176,949, 502 in Title I funds  ($211/student)*
So, even though the conservative firebrand anti-federal government language and sentiment often appears to be strongest in the south- it also appears that they will take the money.

Let's set aside questions of how and why the federal government role in education expanded in the first place, or how and why so many southern states had a flurry of private academies open in the mid-1960's, or how and why states like Minnesota routinely have much higher educational achievement than states like Mississippi.  All great questions, but for another time.

I have a simple proposal: Let's just reduce the amount of federal education dollars flowing into Mississippi to the amount flowing into Minnesota.  Or, take an average of federal education dollars flowing into the old Confederate States and reduce it to the average of federal education dollars flowing into the Union States. 

The cost savings would be enormous.  Problem solved- as I can't imagine that any new problems could possibly be created.  Looks like we're all done here.  You're Welcome!

*Yes, I understand that Title I funds are not distributed on a per student basis.  In fact, they are distributed on a series of formulas based on poverty rates.  Mississippi has more people living in poverty than Minnesota.  It shouldn't though- seeing as how it is a right to work state with low taxation and low government spending.  One would think that Mississippi would be THE STATE that conservatives would hold up as an example of all that is pure and right and good.  A beacon on the hill, or, more apropos, the Darling of the Delta.

Just guessing, but my hunch is that the Mississippi Legislators subscribe to the theory that federal government spending doesn't help reduce poverty.  So, my plan should provide an easy way for them to walk their talk.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Something Important

Seth Godin has issued a "Your Turn" Challenge to blog for 7 straight days.  It's a thing.  I'm not participating, directly, but I do feel compelled to try to blog more frequently.
One of the prompts Godin used was to write about something important- so here goes:

The short answer is “education,” my chosen profession.  The more complex answer is educational design- how we set up and deliver instructional opportunities to modern learners.  

One phrase that has hit me over the last year or so is this: “The design process begins with empathy for the end user.”  Let’s see how that has played out in the world of education

  • No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was not designed with empathy for students (the end users).
  • The Standardized Testing craze, built on the foundation of accountability, was not designed with empathy for students.  
  • The Common Core (or anything that would replace it) was not designed with empathy for students.
  • The practice of assigning young people into grades based on their chronological age was not developed out of empathy for students.
  • The practice of separating subjects into neatly isolated silos was not developed out of empathy for students.
  • Grading and assessment models that value sorting and selecting over teaching and learning were not developed out of empathy for students

In some of these areas, it’s hard to see how I can do much more than ‘joust at the windmills’ of fighting against legislators who aren’t listening.  However, a lack of progress on that front doesn’t mean all is lost.  Some of these things are within the control of local schools.  

I love the way that Warren Berger uses questioning techniques to drive innovation and thinking. The seemingly simple opening of “How might we….” is actually very powerful.  

We can decide how to group and re-group students throughout the day, how we integrate various subjects together, whether or not we continue to promote the arts, and whether or not we implement innovative programs like the Maker Movement, coding, problem based learning, or Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop.

The key is to focus less on “Why don’t THEY…,” and more on “How might WE…”