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Four More Points on the Audit

October 31, 2012 1 comment

It’s easy as a critic of the way the SDE operates under Janet Barresi to find fault with the latest headline-grabber. Even the Oklahoman took issue with Barresi and her staff.

Undoubtedly, the report released Monday showing that the SDE maintained a slush fund is notable for (a) the poor execution of plans by key staff members; (b) the questionable legality of operating a foundation to sponsor a conference; (c) the insistence by the SDE that State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones did not have the right to review foundation documents; and (d) the sheer hypocrisy of SDE staff who were critical of Sandy Garrett for doing something similar.

Poor execution – The SDE used staff to form a foundation to oversee the collection and spending of funds related to the Innovations 2011 conference. As Barresi stated Monday, when the report was released, this had been the common practice during the previous administration. Unfortunately, the formation of the foundation was never completed. One problem is that it looks as if a temporary employee (at the time) was put into a position that should have been handled by a full-time, senior staff member. Organizing a conference of this magnitude is a huge undertaking. In the wake of this audit report, that one employee seems to be taking the majority of the heat for all of the problems with the slush fund. Anything involving money should go all the way to the top of the chain of command. Blame falls at each of the layers above this one employee as well.

Questionable legality – The crux of this issue seems to be that state employees raised funds for a private foundation during work hours. This would be no more legal than say using private money to pay the salaries of unofficial employees doing state business, as happened during the spring of 2011, right? Beyond this is the added conflict of companies who bid on state contracts donating funds so you can have your conference. (This happens during campaigns too, by the way.) Whether the law was broken or not will have to be determined later. The ethics are clear though. In order to have the conference in the way the SDE wanted, the donations had to run through a third party. Exhibitor fees would not have, however.

Right to review documents – Since the foundation was never officially created, all fundraising and communication should be colored by the assumption that the work was being done on behalf of the SDE. Clearly, Jones and his staff should have had access to these documents. As the audit closes with questions about the 2012 summer conference, it should also be noted that the SDE held three REAC3H summits during the 2011-12 school year. The first was held in a lavish hotel in Tulsa. At each, lunch was served. Somebody paid for that. Perhaps the records on those events should see the light of day too. I have no reason to believe laws were broken there either, but given the three audit reports this year on the SDE, it seems a call for full transparency is in order.

Hypocrisy – SDE staff seemed giddy in the spring when reports of similar (not exactly the same, since Garrett’s staff successfully completed the formation of a non-profit organization – and Barresi was listed as a board member) reports surfaced involving the actions of previous employees. The response this week has ranged from we were just following what the previous administration did to not that it was an excuse, but we were very busy. None of this holds water. It looks bad. Even if the three previous points can be chalked up to good intent with sloppy results, the stink of the double-standard is going to linger a while.

Bringing people together at conferences and summits is an important part of education. There are times when we need a concerted effort at getting everybody onto the same page. Learning about new regulations and processes can’t happen in a vacuum. Teachers and administrators thrive on quality professional development. Hopefully, with this series of reports, planning will resume for future events with one intent only – helping people help kids. The grandstanding, palm-greasing, and self-congratulation wouldn’t be missed.

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October Review / November Preview

October 31, 2012 1 comment

October has been an amazing month, both in public education, and for the blog. There have been almost 11,000 page views of this site this month – more than twice as many as any other month since I started doing this in April. While that averages out to about only 350 per day, and I know some of those page views are multiple hits by the same people, I still find it reassuring that more and more people are looking for someone to counterbalance the smears on public education that are all too common.

We’ve had other surprises and major events this month. Here is a review of the top five blog posts for October:

  1. A-F Poverty Bias – Only published a few days ago, this has quickly become the second-most viewed blog post on this website. The fact that poverty impacts student achievement resonates with anybody who has ever taught. Politicians more interested in puffery and demagoguery just don’t get it, though.
  2. 173 Bottles of White Out on the Wall – I played with the title on this one for a while. At the time, this was the number of superintendents who were protesting elements of the A-F Report Cards. Not only was the product in question; so was the process. In the end, 313 of 522 superintendents in Oklahoma gave their name to the protest. The State Board of Education listened, momentarily, and delayed the release of the report cards.
  3. Unfit Response – After the SBE delayed the release of the report cards, Superintendent Barresi handled herself with something short of poise. She stuck a finger in the face of a board member. She gave a petulant interview on channel 4 in Oklahoma City. And she told schools to release the report cards anyway.
  4. This is Only a Test – In the middle of the month, school districts received notice that the SDE had botched the bid process for state testing suffered “administrative challenges” in awarding the third through eighth grade testing contract. This is going to cause the state writing test to be pushed back into April. The writing test this year also includes a day of field testing for new items/processes. That’s two extra testing days that will be added to the already crowded April/May testing window. It will likely cause a delay in score reporting as well.
  5. Happy A-F Report Card Eve – The night before the planned release of the A-F Report Cards, I took to verse and missed badly on my prediction. It was a fun little poem, but the parts that would ring true would not do so for a few more weeks.

November should be eventful as well. The state auditor’s report published earlier this week will lead to more news articles, commentary, denials, and finger pointing. The second arm of the accountability monster – the federal piece – is yet to be finalized. And following next week’s elections, a legislative agenda will start taking on a more clear form.

State Auditor’s Report

October 30, 2012 Comments off

The State Auditor yesterday released a report reviewing the financial management of the Oklahoma State Department of Education Innovation 2011 summer conference. Before I get to the eight key findings of the report, it’s important to remember that Superintendent Barresi and her staff made several critical statements about the previous regime and their use of private donors for conferences. They called it a “slush fund” and questioned the oversight of the board of the “shadow organization” that was taking donation during SDE work hours.

Here are the findings:

  1. OSDE officials solicited, collected, and deposited funds in an unofficial and unauthorized bank account purporting to belong to a private non-profit organization.
  2. An apparent verbal agreement was the only basis for the relationship between OSDE and the Foundation. There was no written contract.
  3. The Foundation’s Board of Directors never met and never voted.
  4. OSDE officials apparently discussed and may have determined the amounts to be paid to Foundation officials from the Foundation bank account.
  5. In addition to the pay for Foundation officials, OSDE exercised at least some control over other Foundation expenditures.
  6. OSDE paid $16,429 for an overdue bill that appeared to be a Foundation obligation and not a debt of the State of Oklahoma.
  7. Near the end of our fieldwork, both the Foundation and the OSDE adopted the position that OSAI had no authority to review the “private” records of the Foundation.
  8. The Oklahoma Department of Education did not follow state law in “contracting” with the Foundation. We disagree with the position that the Foundation’s records are not subject to audit.

Other findings not enumerated at the beginning of the report (which you should read in its entirety) include the fact that Superintendent Barresi asked for the audit and that Pearson (until recently, our testing vendor) made significant donations to the Foundation. Auditor Jones rightly points out that there is an inevitable mix between state vendors and exhibitors. Conferences are not feasible without exhibitors.

Some of the findings of both reports don’t bother me at all. State employees work tirelessly to host a conference. To do extra things for attendees, they accept donations. Both Superintendent Garrett’s staff and Barresi’s have done this.

It’s the self-righteousness that bothers me. Sure, Barresi is ready to move forward. She had a different posture entirely back in March, when she not only criticized similar past practices, but disavowed knowledge that she had been listed as a member of the OCIC Board that had organized previous conferences.

In the end, this is mostly about sloppy bookkeeping. State employees should exercise caution soliciting donations on state time. The SDE will continue rebranding itself and having summer conferences, and it will continue supporting activities for participants with the help of donations from people who have an interest in getting their names and faces in front of school people.

Just be smart about it.

And next week, at the REAC3H Summit, try not to wonder who paid for the coffee and pastries.

It’s Not Accountability If …

October 29, 2012 2 comments

Calling the release of the A-F Report Cards a victory for accountability and transparency misses the mark on both counts. Taking some of the data generated by schools, ignoring other data, failing to discuss context, and producing a nice, neat letter grade is hardly transparent. For the reasons below, it also fails to hold schools accountable.

Discrepancies in socio-economic status – I pay a lot of attention to poverty because it’s a big deal. To simplify the discussion: it’s not a lot harder to teach a poor kid than a rich kid, but it is a lot harder to teach a class full of poor kids than a class full of rich kids. There are other variables. There are outliers. Broad generalizations don’t capture every child, and that’s what policy-makers and practitioners alike should consider – every child. In some households below the poverty line, children are well-fed, have hundreds of books to read, enjoy good health, and benefit from attentive parents. In some affluent homes, the opposite is true. When you look at hundreds of thousands of students across the state, though, the trends hold up.

Grade span disparity – If the accountability system is worth anything, schools at all grade levels will have an equal opportunity at high achievement. Looking at the numbers below, this didn’t happen. Secondary schools were much more likely to receive an A or B than elementary schools were. Saying that a secondary school with an A is outperforming an elementary school with a B may not be accurate – or at least if these results were meaningful.*

School Grade Elementary Middle School High School Total Count
A 45 43 72 160
B 292 273 277 842
C 272 226 96 594
D 81 44 13 138
F 2 6 2 10

Poor distribution of data weights – At the elementary level, student attendance accounts for 33 percent of the report card grade. At the high school level, graduation rate counts for 27 percent of the report card grade. Neither of these weights make sense. Schools can lose a letter grade for one data point.

No accounting for special circumstances – At the early October State Board of Education meeting when the report cards were postponed, one situation in particular caught my attention. A school that was adding a class per year (and had not yet matriculated a senior class) lost points for graduation rate. How in the world is that supposed to tell parents anything? This is a perfect example of why many schools have given parents the report cards and then gone back to their regularly scheduled programming.

It misses the simple things – Because every test is run through complex formulas, nobody can look at a report card and tell something as simple as what percentage of kids passed the reading test? If you want to give parents simple information, give them that – at the least.

For all the time and effort the SDE put into developing and promoting these report cards, they give schools, parents, and community members little to use.

*To be fair, API – the previous accountability system – had the opposite skew. Elementary schools had an easier time getting high scores.

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Still Blaming Teachers

October 28, 2012 4 comments

The idea that schools receiving an A on their Report Card are better than those receiving other grades is just plain silly. As I noted yesterday, most of the schools receiving high grades serve affluent populations. And most of the schools receiving low grades serve children in severe poverty.

Ask yourself: at which school is teaching harder? At one, you have helicopter parents. You have a waiting list for office and library volunteers. You have direct donation fundraisers rather than door-to-door sales. At the other, you have children who move every 90 days. You have hungry kids. You have students for whom poverty but one of the dysfunctions they face.

There is no doubt in my mind that both types of school have hard-working administrators, teachers, and parents. There is also no doubt that just as all children deserve to be fed, all children deserve to learn from engaging, highly-skilled teachers.

This is why I patently reject the premise of this tweet I received today from former SDE Chief of Staff Jennifer Carter:

I wish people would quit blaming poverty & focus on helping those kids succeed.

The idea that people who have spent their career working in schools are focused on anything other than helping kids succeed is an insult. You might as well be calling us dirtbags again.

You can ignore the numbers. You can believe schools with lower grades are worse schools. You’re welcome to be wrong. It’s never stopped you before.

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A-F Poverty Bias

October 27, 2012 16 comments

Friday’s editorial in the Oklahoman praising all things A-F tried to throw cold water on the idea that poverty matters. We’ve heard State Superintendent Janet Barresi do it. We’ve heard State Board of Education member Bill Price do it too. When someone mentions poverty, they usually say they don’t want to hear the myths and excuses.

Ok, then. Maybe facts will be more compelling.

I took the 100 schools with the highest poverty rates (as indicated by free/reduced lunch participation) in the state and the 100 schools with the lowest poverty rates in the state and explored how the grades fell among them*.

Here is the grade distribution of the high-poverty schools:

Letter Grade Distribution of High-Poverty Schools

A

B C D F

2

8 32 46

2

Here is the grade distribution of the low-poverty schools:

Letter Grade Distribution of Low-Poverty Schools 

A

B C D F
46 48 3 2

2

Ten of the poorest 100 schools made an A or B. Of the most affluent, 94 did.

The Oklahoman used some of the outliers to justify its case:

Those who attribute good school grades to socio-economic factors are off the mark. Several A schools were in rural communities that aren’t concentrations of wealth and privilege. The poverty rate in Canton is higher than the statewide rate. Average household income is 14 percent lower than the statewide average. Yet Canton High School got an A. At Cottonwood in Coal County, the poverty rate is 21 percent; household income is 30 percent lower than the statewide average. Yet Cottonwood received an A.

(By the way, school districts have been hearing about the Cottonwood Miracle for nearly two years now. That’s why the SDE hired the district’s retired superintendent to be the state’s Literacy Director. Unfortunately, she doesn’t come to meetings with school district people, which makes the miracle a little harder to replicate.)

I have said this often, and I’ll say it again. Poverty matters. Students facing all kinds of socioeconomic hurdles (money, family disruption, mobility during the school year) struggle in school. Every school works hard to mitigate those factors. But you can never build on last year’s gains because you likely no longer have last year’s kids. Schools with high levels of poverty also have high teacher turnover.

Nobody in public education denies that all schools should have the same goals for all students. And few reasonable people looking in from the outside would see these statistical anomalies and declare a trend. Yes, it’s possible for high-poverty schools to have high achievement. Yes, it’s possible for low-poverty schools to fall flat. Trends, however, will always revert to form. In this case, predictably and reliably, the inherent bias in accountability systems follows form – and fails.

*Note – I used 2011 Free/Reduced Lunch Data and eliminated schools not receiving report cards.

Reaction Redux

October 26, 2012 Comments off

In a letter that goes home to parents today, Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent calls the system for calculating A-F Report Cards “arbitrary and capricious.” He continues, saying:

“After today, I will no longer talk about the A-F school grading system. It is flawed, and I stand by my earlier comments that these grades are not an accurate representation of the work being done in our schools.”

Other superintendents share similar concerns.

Lloyd Snow from Sand Springs said that the SDE “needs to make the grading system more explainable…it is a flawed program and a flawed process.”

Derald Glover from Ft. Gibson said, “It is what it is…We’ve got a lot of important things going on in the district and the grade card is not a high priority for us.”

Mike McClaren from Claremore said, “There are a few questions we have regarding the overall grading of our schools…We just want to make sure there is a fair representation.”

Jim Glaze from Chickasha pointed out a specific concern: “I feel like it needs to be tweaked a bit…Student attendance is worth 1/3 of the total score in elementary school, about 30 percent in middle school and it’s not figured in when it comes to high school. If it is important at the lower levels then it should be just as important at higher levels.”

Outside the SDE, there is actual support for the report cards as well.

Gov. Mary Fallin, in a statement given before the grades were released, said, “The report cards released today give parents, students, teachers and administrators an easy way to identify success. As with any change, especially one that measures performance and demands accountability, these report cards will have their detractors. Ultimately, however, this is about what is fair and right for Oklahoma’s children, who deserve to attend schools with high standards and transparent measures of success.”

Meanwhile, the Oklahoman wrote this morning that the results of Oklahoma’s A-F grading system should be embraced. They call Edmond superintendent David Goin’s criticism of the system “baffling” because his district’s schools did so well.

Criticism from even the high-performing districts is testament, however, to the fact that no matter where you end up on the scale, you find both the product and process to be flawed. This isn’t just complaining by people trying to suppress their scores. The frustration is universal. Well, 313 superintendents out of about 520, anyway.

I saw a tweet today even comparing it to the color-coded terror threat system used by Homeland Security during the Bush Administration. Maybe that’s the best analogy. Systems such as these are designed to be easily understood by people who don’t like to think. School administrators and teachers have to think. And they’ve been using all the data at their disposal to make informed decisions since they got it this summer. These report cards contribute absolutely nothing to that process.

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