Friday, July 31, 2009
As Obama's administration is fighting hard to get states to tie teacher performance pay to student test scores, I applaud the unions for fighting this effort. It's not that I disagree with performance pay. I am whole heartedly in favor a strategic, well thought out performance pay system that rewards the actions teachers should take to be successful. A teacher cannot control the results of students. A teacher is a mentor and an influencer. So, a teacher should be rewarded by supporting and developing the habits that make one a good influencer and mentor.
In a post the other day, I said that a teacher needs to develop the whole student. Schools need to pay their teachers based on a couple of categories:
Are they prepared to teach? This involves far more than advanced degrees or even being highly qualified. A teacher with no degree or formal educational background could be prepared to teach. Preparation is an attitude, a style, a focus, and content knowledge.
Do they engage students? Are they creative? Do they find ways to involve the students in the material? Lecturing is not teaching. Explaining is not always teaching. It's part of it.
Do they act like teachers? Are they professional? Do they take a serious approach to their classrooms? I don't mean serious as if they are serious all the time. A good teacher will have fun with students and use humor. However, just like a good comedian, not everything is "just" for fun. To put together a good comic routine takes work and focus.
There are other factors that might be "local factors." Things like school mission, teamwork, etc. are often relative to the structure or vision of a school or district. Those ought to be recognized.
While we might be able to add to this list. The unions are absolutely correct that student test scores cannot be the focus. Just as most career advisors will tell you to make a lot of money, most of the time you can't focus on the money. You have to focus on something you love and go for it with a passion. In the same way, simply going for test scores can lead to bad teaching or even cheating. Focusing on what makes a good educator will raise test scores. Even if it doesn't, it will make better people.
Thursday, July 30, 2009
Unions have a place in America and in America's education system.
They serve many useful teachers, and unify the voice of millions of deserving and dedicated educators. They have earned their place at the table, and whether through force or by bowing to the inevitable, they are even showing new willingness to participate with reform. But they make me crazy when they give away their new-found credibility or squander their focus on things that don't serve students or teachers. So, union leaders, let's please go in the same direction. Win me back—starting now.
01. Don’t spend my money lobbying on non-educational political issues.
02. Don’t protect my atrocious colleagues just because they are veterans.
03. Don’t discourage my high-performing new colleagues (See #2).
04. Don’t sue to block the initiative of entrepreneurial leaders.
05. Don’t foster a culture of fear to maintain union dues.
07. Don’t raise dues when the state affiliate gets stupid with investments.
08. Don’t use political contributions to bribe politicians to kill reform.
09. Don’t lie about student performance.
10. Don’t disrespect parents who want better choices.
11. In honor of Spinal Tap, stop dialing Union official pay up to "11"
We need credible, honorable teacher union leadership in every local and at every level. Like the mainline Muslim's who condemn fringe radicals, mainline educators need to call out the fringe elements within the union. Here was an encouraging start by an honest and pragmatic union teacher in Baltimore. May her tribe increase.
Some states already have an advantage in getting their hands on this pot of gold. "Seven states - including Tennessee, Rhode Island, Indiana, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Colorado and Illinois - have already made changes to some of the restrictions for their charter school in order for them to qualify for the funding, the AP added." With any luck, this pot of gold will be used to transform education not only toward charters schools, which are not uniform in method or results, but toward improved education for those who need it most. In addition, I'd like to see a significant portion go toward high end students. It's not difficult mathematically to prove that raising the high end students even higher will benefit both average test scores as well as our society.
It is way to early to predict, but let's hope that states receiving this money use it well so that when we look up a few years from now we see the rainbow at the end of the pot of gold.
For a start up or small charter school to hire someone with that experience is normally either expensive or inefficient. A small charter school doesn't normally need a full time person with high levels of expertise. What a start up or small school needs is a little from a person with expertise, a little from a person to just pay bills, and little bit of a person who has expertise in payroll. What a charter school usually hires is a person who knows a little about a lot.
This is why outsourcing can be so valuable to a young or smaller charter school. (I'm defining small very liberally, perhaps up to 600 students.) Outsourcing does just what the charter needs. It provides the services the charter school needs and only the services a charter school needs. The school gets a little of a number of employees who are all experts in their specific functions. The charter school gets a lot of people who know a lot about a little.
In addition, many companies who provide outsourced HR and accounting services have additional areas of expertise and better infrastructure. For example, my company offers a high end software package that allows for a great deal of custom reporting. We have a person with expertise in writing reports. Many companies can help find financing, have expertise in fundraising, or train board members in governance. In addition to the benefits of additional services and expertise, an outsourced company is almost always less expensive that trying to provide these functions in house.
The last major advantage of outsourcing is that it allows founders and leaders to focus on education and leave the administrative functions to others. As charter schools lead the way in innovative education, I think they'll begin to lead the way in innovative thinking about administrative services and the outsourced services to charter schools will continue to grow.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
So, here are some random thoughts that may clear up why I am anti-union (in general) and anti-central controlled public education.
First, as I expressed on July 4th, I believe in freedom. Centrally controlled public schools do not allow for freedom. As Peter expressed in an earlier blog. Not allowing freedom is like an ice cream store offering only one flavor.
Second, centrally controlled organizations tend to stagnate and protect themselves. They build infrastructure both in facilities and in organizational hierarchy. When it's time to change, they either don't change or they change far too slowly.
Third, I strongly believe that we are already way behind in using technology to educate children. I don't mean laptops in every classroom. I mean using technology in ways that make kids interested. Having a class discussion and asking kids to use the internet is not use of technology. What if instructors created podcasts or youtube videos that students could watch for homework. What if we did more hands on work in class and had the "lecture" be something the students took home. It's not hard and it's not expensive.
Fourth, the current five day a week model in class has been outdated for years. Let's face it, the five day school week we have has been created to satisfy working parents. Summer break was to meet the needs of the farm community. Nothing about the very way we do school is because of the educational needs of kids. Even the idea of a minimum number of hours in class doesn't make sense. Why not be flexible? Why have a kid who needs two hours in class sit in a room of twenty to thirty five students that need six or eight hours a day in class?
Fifth, grades K-12??? What a joke. Here again, we've created a holding pattern because we don't want kids on the street before age 18. Many kids are college ready by 10th grade. So...DUH! Let's let them go to college. It would save everyone a lot of time and money and keep school a lot more interesting for those who are ready to move on.
Sixth, speaking of college, why is it that the mantra seems to be that we have to prepare all kids for college? This doesn't make sense. Not everyone should be in college. It dumbs down the college degree. I know many people who are college graduates who should not be. I also know many people who do not have college degrees who do a great job. Why don't we tell kids that being a comedian or an entrepreneur is another great way to make a living without going to college?
Seventh, I believe that Christianson's conclusion that 2020 will see 50% of high school courses taught online is too conservative. I don't have great research like he does. What I do have is evidence that most forecasts are necessarily conservative because they do no always anticipate the increasing rate of acceptance of technology. Go back five years and who could have imagined the iphone (other than Apple). I know people getting rid of $200 ipods because they've got that technology in their iphone for just another $50 to $100. Look back to 1999. What were you doing then and thinking about technology? Now, don't look at that curve, but a curve two to three times that steep.
Eighth, union readers will wonder, what the heck does all of this have to do with unions? The point is that unions almost always try to slow down or halt change. Members would have to change radically to make all of the things happen that I've outlined. Even most charter schools haven't dealt with these realities. The ones that do are often criticized because sometimes their students lag behind, especially at the low grades. However, what does it mean to be behind at fifth grade? Sure, things like reading are really important to develop early. But there aren't universal standards for everything.
As I look through all of this, it's not as short as I thought it would be. All in all, it's good to get this out there for readers to see. That way you will know why I stand for many of the things I hold dear. It's not just a simple debate for me. It's trying to figure out what really is best for our kids, not just for academic education but for their whole persons.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
The governor has not said anything about cuts to K-12 education. However, it is hard to imagine cutting that much money out of an already strained budget without cutting something significant from K-12.
I'm sure that lawsuits would follow using amendment 23, which states that K-12 education budgets must be funded at inflation plus 1% each year. However, amendment 23 only covers the per pupil revenue provided to schools. The governor and legislature could easily eliminate charter school capital construction from the budget for 2009-10, which has already been promised to charter schools in statute. This would mean a huge blow both to the concept of charter school capital construction as well as the practical operation of charter schools for the coming school year.
In the 08-09 school year, the legislature cut the charter school capital construction funding from $10 million to $5 million. This year the legislature only budgeted the $5 million, but even that could be taken away. This would be yet another way that charter schools feel the brunt of budget cuts more than districts.
Charter leaders, I'm sure, will keep their ears to the ground as these talks continue. Stay tuned as the worst is not over yet.
· The QB complied perfectly, marching his team down to the one-yard line and punting the ball out of the stadium.
Impossible? (Yes okay, impossible)
This connundrum reveals one way traditional school leaders can be like a mistakenly cautious coach. They sometimes misread the situation and make bad decisions as a result. One place where the TPS get it wrong is on the balance of teacher pay and class size. Because of a phenomenon called the Triangle of Tension, class size and net revenues are inversely proportional. The more students crammed in each class, the more monies are available to pay teachers and buy nice things. Reducing class sizes is risky—sort of like going for it on fourth down. If a school has an established pay scale, it is especially hard to transition from paying teachers ($X to teach 35 students) back to (X-$10K to teach 20). That’s why charter schools are a more promising platform to calibrate the revenue/class size tension. Starting from a blank slate is a whole lot easier than imposing a turnaround within established expectations.
The ratio of 1:35 can work when the learning is collaboration between students and teachers. If the students like the teacher and want to learn, they'll stand on their desks to read poetry. Students reward energy and novelty, because it stands as a bright spot in the classroom archipelago. This is one of those tropes where Hollywood tends to get it right. Great movie teachers like Jaime Escalante, Glenn Holland, Mark Thackeray, & Erin Gruwell are based on and inspired by real teachers. Others, from Ben Stein’s character in Ferris to Dolores Umbridge in Potter, reflect the comically (or sadistically) worst across the profession. The epic teachers are like courageous coaches because they take the risk to be extraordinary.
At many high-performing districts around the country, well-paid teachers deliver well-executed lessons to well-fed (and well-rested) learners in classes of 30-35 students. The students represent revenue, the teachers deliver quality lessons, and learning happens—almost by default. But not all schools are so blessed. More commonly, students are warehoused in classrooms where the teacher, facility, equipment, etc. are just overwhelmed by the size of the class. In these settings, there is almost no disincentive for increasing class size. Adding one more student is like punting on fourth and five—a no-brainer. Fighting to reduce class sizes and broaden the pool of high-quality teachers seems risky, but that’s exactly the risk many charter schools and their teachers are choosing to take. For many teachers (I have argued especially for those teachers who are intrinsically motivated by the altruistic aspects of education) the quality of teaching a smaller group of students is worth a financial tradeoff. For others it is not. I believe in letting the teachers choose. Teacher unions resist this logic. They don’t believe in letting teachers make their own deal with the school or district.
Just like the coaches who are too eager to punt, school districts are afraid or inhibited from re-balancing the student load/compensation equation. But just as it would work to take more chances in the NFL, there is evidence that earning a new set of educational downs is a risk worth taking.
Charter schools may not be the answer, but the state of Washington doesn't seem to even know what the question is. They haven't met even the most basic requirements to qualify for the federal money that Obama and Duncan have set out for states.
Monday, July 27, 2009
What is a charter school leader to do? It’s tough enough for the school districts. Then let’s add to that the necessity to pull out money from revenue to make lease, mortgage or bond payments. When we try to save for a building to eliminate rent, some cry that we are taking money that belongs to today’s kids. Teachers say that we are hurting them when we freeze salaries, even though we have no choice but to pay increasing retirement and health benefit costs. Special education requirements continue to increase as we all try to figure out how to implement RTI. To add to our misery, we hear stories of unions increasing to attract charter school teachers. We know that administrative costs will rise as we have to comply with ARRA tracking.
Here are a few suggestions as you move forward.
Be Cautious. Begin with what you know for certain about revenue. Don’t guess. Don’t hope for more students. Don’t commit to fixed expenses that you don’t have to. This includes building leases and other leases that lock you in—unless you can get a great rate in this economy and lock it in for multiple years.
Control what you can control. You can’t control the price of your utilities, but you can control your usage to some extent. Be especially careful about summer usage of your building. Perhaps have some days that the building isn’t used at all. Year round employees could go to a four day work week. Maybe they can work at home some days. The less your building is open, the less you have to use air conditioning, especially in July and early August. Think of other things that you can control.
Focus on the big nuts. While every little bit helps, you can make a lot more impact on your budget when you focus on large expenditures. Is your lease coming up for renewal? Negotiate a lower rate. There are lots of empty buildings around. No one wants to move a whole school, but if you are small, that might be the ticket. Find a new health benefit provide if you can. Bid out any maintenance service contracts you have or get out of them completely and go to a pay for service model rather than a fixed contract. Also, we all hate to lay-off people, but you need to look at that. For small schools one or two employees could pay the utility bill for a year.
Consider outsourcing. You are a school. You are really good at education. Why pay someone full time on site to run IT, facilities, HR or Accounting and Finance if you can get better service and a better rate outsourcing. Many times these experts can provide better service at a lower cost because they have multiple clients and more efficiency. They often also have better tools and experience than you can purchase in house. You do often give up some responsiveness, but in tight budget years, what good is immediate response if you can’t keep the lights on or you have to add additional students to each classroom because you can’t afford that extra third grade teacher.
No one likes tight budgets in schools—especially charter schools, but great leaders adapt to changing situations. Leaders need to make hard decisions. Be creative, think innovatively. That’s what charter schools were created to do.
Every day I see more and more stories about online or hybrid education reaching new students and new regions. What does this mean for education generally, for charter schools, and for school leaders?
Just today there were articles about online schools reaching younger age groups and those who need to finish courses in order to graduate. I'm beginning to wonder if the pace of online programs aren't accelerating and going to see an increasing rate of acceration in the next ten (not twenty years).
For education in general, my recommendation is to be cautious when building schools and other expensive fixed assets. These may not be needed twenty years from now. In addition, be futuristic when installing technology. Think about a school as something else. What might that building's use be in twenty years when perhaps half of its students are in online programs some place. What technologies will need to be in place?
For charter schools that often emphasize uniforms, discipline, specific curriculum; how does that all change as schools respond to the demand for online education. Think about what your school would look like if only half of its students want to come to class and the other half want to learn online. Will you allow online only learning? Can you develop a financial plan to operate with only half of your students? What will you do with the other half of your building? What about in the ten years or so after that? Will any students want to be in your building?
For charter leaders, what will your role be? how will it change? Will your salary be lowered if you only have half the students? Will charter leaders have to be technology leaders? What kind of teachers will you hire? How will you instill character in a student you never see? What will it mean to be a leader? How can you or can you show students that you care? Where will relationships be built?
I have to admit that I don't have a lot of those answers, but we need to start developing the shape of those answers. Many online programs already have.
For more information see:
More, younger children take online classes
iQ Academy Launches new Online Middle and High School in California
Summer school students leaving classroom for the Internet
One of the freedoms was to hire non-union and non-certified teachers. Recent reports of increasing acceptance of unions in charter schools has raised some questions. It's no secret that I'm not a fan of unions. It's not individual teachers that I'm afraid of, and I imagine that many union teachers who teach in charter schools will maintain the high standards and desire to innovate and educate that they've always had.
There are two ways that this seems to be bad for charter schools. First, it may require charter schools to keep teachers who are not performing well or who don't fit the school's vision or methods. Up until now, charter schools have felt free to let teachers go if their isn't a fit. Second, if this means that teachers' salaries will increase greatly (let's say between 5% and 15%), it will either change the school's dynamics or else kill the school. OR worse, it may change the school's dynamics, then kill the school in a slow death.
“A charter school is a more fragile host than a school district,” said Paul T. Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. “Labor unrest in a charter school can wipe it out fast. It won’t go well for unions if the schools they organize decline in quality or go bust.” As Mr. Hill says, if this move simply makes a charter school more like a district school in vision and class size in order to make up for higher salaries, schools will lose their distinct character. In addition, it's just possible that some very good teachers who are not licensed by their states could get pushed out by unionization, harming the school's quality.
While I do not normally subscribe to conspiracy theories, it struck me while reading the New York Times article that this could be a concious effort by unions to kill off charter schools. Most union leaders have made no secret that charter teachers are scabs and that charter schools are harming public education. I just wonder if charter school teachers think ahead about the future of what they are now doing, if they would still vote in favor of a union. Is it possible that individual schools that want something like a union could develop a teachers' group that had some strength of a union, but with a more local cooperative character. For now, I'm just observing and wondering.
Sunday, July 26, 2009
Charter School Management Corporation is currently in approximately 90 schools in California and is now seeking to expand into the Colorado market with high tech software, a staff of bookkeepers, HR support, payroll specialists and Controller/CFO consultants. I'm looking forward to this new position as I believe that CSMC has a lot to offer charter schools.
I'm also the new Colorado Charter School Examiner at www.examiner.com. Feel free to check out my articles, make comments, and send me ideas for stories you'd like to read. I recently wrote an article explaining the difference between highly qualified teachers (HQT) and Colorado state licensure and what charter schools can and cannot waive out of.
It's been great being part of The Classical Academy. I can't believe what wonderful people I've had a chance to work with there.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Exposing the unions is something we do pretty often on this blog. There is a reason for that. We don't think the unions are being honest with us. They say they want what is best for the kids and for the schools, but everything that comes out of their mouths is what it best for them.
Arguments in favor of pay for performance are put down with research that pay for performance doesn't work, despite much evidence that it does. So, in a case where all of the evidence appears to show that higher degrees in education do not produce better teaching, the unions do not argue for lower pay for higher degrees. A recent report led to a headline on Education Week "Report Urges Halt to Extra Pay for Master's Degrees."
This is not new research. A report in the Dallas Morning News over two years ago came to this same conclusion. So, what is the union position on pay and research? I did a search and have found nothing to contradict this. Why aren't the unions crying out in opposition of higher pay for higher degrees?
Have we exposed the truth about this "emperor?" Might it be true that the unions are simply finding arguments to support positions they want to hold rather than really relying on the truth? That couldn't be, could it?
When I grew up in Seldovia, Alaska, there used to be a robust king crab fishery around Kachemak Bay. This is the kind of fishing you might watch on Deadliest Catch—the same kind that claimed my brother 22 years ago. My father was a schoolteacher and part-time tax man, and sometimes his fisherman clients didn’t have cash to pay at tax time. Those were the days when I might walk home from school and find an in-kind payment in the form of several crab crawling around our gated porch.
Crab can survive a long time out of water, and they spend that time trying to escape. In the escaping, they have two behaviors that relate to education. Although they are bottom dwellers, crab will try to climb up and out of a trap, crab pot, live-tank, or my porch. And just as surely as one crab will start to make a successful escape, there will be two or three other crabs latching on and pulling him back. I think the pull-back crabs are members of the American Federation of crusTeacheans or perhaps belong to No Escapees Allowed.
Tales of crabby behaviors by teachers unions are legion. Just when a teacher, school, district, or state seem to be crawling out of the traps of traditional education, you can just guarantee that someone or something will come along and try to drag them back. Here are just a few of the things unions have said and done to pull students, teachers, schools, and systems back from the brink of success.
KIPP is a great system and they’ve hired willing teachers at 18% above union scale to help change kids’ lives? Pull ‘em back.
Certified, licensed, professionals want to consider coming out from under the national AFT? Ignore their right to self-determination, supplant them with cronies, and threaten them with legal action for asserting their independence. For extra irony, have the leader of the newly appointed junta accuse duly elected union leaders of violating principles of democracy.
Save teachers and schools money by offering state-purchased health insurance at rates lower than the union-owned, revenue-generating plan? No you don’t!
Government agencies, private-sector philanthropists, and non-profit entities want to fund experiments and innovations that might threaten the status quo? Oppose them with such energy and deception that you turn one of your own senior union officers into a deeply informed and unassailable critic.
States respond to critical teacher shortages with incentive pay for hard-to-staff subjects?
Create a false-front organization to publish phony research opposing the interests of your own members.
Offer excellent teachers a 40% pay raise with additional bonus potential? Reject the option out of hand because great teachers who don’t need the protection of tenure might cheerfully forgo tenure for compensation.
The unions have no qualms about punishing students, deceiving legislators, violating school board autonomy, and lying to parents. Maybe that’s why lots of smart (not all conservative, right-wingers) people who see current union behavior as an obstacle to true reform include:
Unions aren't always bad, and most union members are great and dedicated teachers. But the two national unions act against the interests of teachers, students, and our nation—all of whom desperately need reform. Unions don't have to block reform, but they are so risk-averse that even when local groups of courageous teachers take some personal and professional risks to improve schools, the unions fight bitterly. If you point out that the unions are part of a broken system, you get labeled either a right-wing zealot or a left-wing traitor. But forget about the critics. The crabs just want to make sure nobody escapes the pot. “If anyone’s gonna be miserable—everyone’s gonna be miserable.”
Anyone else feel like cracking some crabs?
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Charter schools aren't protected by the district and they aren't protected by the state, even though they are public schools. Seems to me that by most people's definition of unfair, this is unfair. Wouldn't you say?
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
So Los Angeles Unified School District is going to try what many of us think is a wonderful experiment--perhaps the boldest experiment of any large school district. Boston has approved a number of very successful charter schools, but LA seems to be going one better.
They are inviting community members, unions, charter school operators to provide input on up to 70 schools. Community members would have the final say.
"This resolution is an effort to try something new and desperately needed," said LAUSD board member Yolie Flores Aguilar, who wrote the plan.
Unions are, of course, upset. Why?
"They did not get the help of every union to build schools (only) to give them away to private enterprise," said A.J. Duffy, president of the United Teachers Los Angeles.
The unions are afraid that the district is giving away its responsibility and that this might lead to chaos.
Now, let's look at the district that the union helped build. By its own admission, the district was failing. Newer schools in the district have much higher graduation rates. New York opened many news schools and had great success. So, what are the chances that even if the district ends up privatized (as the unions fear) that it will be worse off for students than the existing situation. Any betters out there?
I'd say that it appears that the unions again are looking out for themselves and not for students. Just like Jackson Pollock's paintings, one person's chaos is another person's masterpiece.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
While there are many possible conclusions that can be made from the report, the fact that there are different conclusions being made suggests that the facts to not give us proof of anything except that so far in charter school history, charters have not shown a propensity to far exceed their traditional public school counterparts.
Because we cannot make a clear conclusion, let me make a few suggestions.
1. Charter schools are younger as a group than public schools, and many charter schools are only four or fewer years old. It may take another four or five years to find out the real impact of charter schools. As they are, on the whole, not doing worse than public schools, they should continue to move forward.
2. We should analyze those charter schools (17%) that are doing far better than their comparison schools and figure out what they are doing right to see if their practices can be replicated.
3. Charter schools should be encouraged because they can innovate faster than traditional schools. Another possibility is that we make traditional public schools into organizations that can and do innovate faster.
4. We should take action to evaluate poor schools to determine if and how they might be fixed. Did they hire a bad leader? Are teachers not being held accountable? Should the school be closed? There is nothing wrong with saying that a school cannot be fixed if it's true.
Education reform must happen. I believe that charter schools are the best hope we have for that innovation, but they must be taken seriously when they succeed. They must be encouraged to change if they aren't succeeding. They must also close if they fail.
The solution to education is bigger than charter versus non-charter. The solution is to find out what works and implement it whether it be in a charter or non-charter. If non-charters don't want innovation, then they should be closed just like a charter school would. If a charter school refuses to innovate, it should be closed as well. No more double standards. It's public money, so let's find out what best serves the public, not teachers, not superintendents, and not charter leaders. Choice, innovation, effectiveness. Let's go for it!
Saturday, July 4, 2009
The National Association for Public Charter Schools has proposed a model of charter school legislation to encourage states to put charter schools on level ground as true public schools.
Duncan's position has been called "blackmail" by many (just do a Google search for Arne Duncan charter schools blackmail) as they wonder why so much support for charters.
I've given many reasons on this blog in support of charters. Today I'll just give one--FREEDOM.
People have the freedom to choose to try innovation. This is the American way. Most great inventions have come at a risk. Charter schools may prove to be the wrong direction, but unless we have the freedom to try, and perhaps fail (as traditional public schools have in many areas), we will not have the freedom to succeed or try truly revolutionary growth and improvement in education.
So, today, the message is short and sweet. In all aspects of American life, including public education, let freedom ring.