Wednesday, March 31, 2010
In this case, three charter schools apparently let themselves be ripped off or intentionally overpaid an accountant for four years. I have nothing against outsourcing or part time relationships with business managers, but the $700,000 plus collected by this business manager seems far in excess of what a charter school might normally pay. I know what my company charges for such services, and (at the risk of this sounding like a marketing campaign) it's far less than that for an average set of schools, and we provide the entire business office. In addition, Ms. Sharif must not have been a very good accountant because she had over $100,000 in expenses charged to a credit card that she could not document. I understand a lost receipt here and there for small items, but $100,000? Then add the fact that she reported working over 365 days, well last time I checked my logic, it's pretty difficult to work more than 365 days a year.
Oh, and not to pile on, but Harambee is approximately $220,000 behind in its payments to the employee retirement program.
To make matters worse, her husband's construction company earned construction business from the schools. It isn't clear in the article if there was any competitive bid process or whether or not Sharif was involved in the hiring decision, but it sure looks a little strange given all of the other issues.
On top of all of this, one of the schools is the Harambee Institute of Science and Technology that was found to be operating a night club in the school facility.
Yet, the head of one of the schools praised Sharif for doing an excellent job and thinks that all will be sorted out in the end.
As readers of this blog know, I am normally one to defend charter schools, even if they've made some mistakes. In this case, especially since I'm a financial geek, I just can't fathom someone working for three schools and making $175K per year while allowing $100K in undocumented credit card expenditures, retirement contributions to fall behind by $220K and apparently be involved in getting her husband $7.4 million in business from the schools.
I hate to jump to conclusions, (I get enough exercise playing soccer with my son) but if even one of these claims is true, things would look bad. If two or more are true, then, well, "excellent" might just be a touch of grade inflation for the job Sharif has done. I hope the schools aren't guilty of the same grade inflation in the classroom.
The school superintendent is threatening to shut the schools down, which would be sad (assuming that schools are performing well academically). However, surely the superintendent needs to take action against these schools.
A few days ago, I made an offhand comment about Colorado (my state) considering three bills to put into place laws to ensure schools and authorizers have the ability to correct situations like this. I said that those laws were "unnecessary." After hearing about schools like this, I am reconsidering my position on those laws. Laws like the ones that Colorado is considering might have allowed the district to step in sooner.
I hope that these allegations turn out to have another explanation, but the fact is that charter school leaders have to be more responsible than this. They have to know the law and abide by it. Mistakes can happen, but this seems like a clear instance of schools simply ignoring, not only best practices, but the interests of the schools. Charter schools must set high standards in the classroom and in their financial management.
I love charter schools, but I hate charter schools when they violate the law and good accounting practice. It makes us all look bad.
Friday, March 26, 2010
In another flagrant example of a charter school imposing its values on students, The Center for Educational Excellence in Tempe, Arizona forces children to exercise and learn about healthy food choice. Their rationale? It's for the students' own good.
This obvious use of propaganda to subvert students' own choices about their health and weight decisions is justified by the principal's own experience and choices. "I'm 60 years old and I am fat, and I exercise more than most of the children in my classroom. I think that's just unbelievable," says Anne Marshall justifying the imposition of her own ideology on the children.
This move is clearly motivated by partisan politics. The school even uses the fact that First Lady Michelle Obama has taken a stand against childhood obesity.
I suppose what offends me the most is that the school is trying to formulate ideas against obesity in children at an age when they are so easily influenced by adults around them. What if a child has a deep burning desire to be obese? What if children desire MacDonald's or Burger King, or even a Wendy's triple cheese burger? These children will be told by their caring teachers that those are "bad" choices. The child will grow up feeling guilty about choosing to be obese.
What gives schools the right to inculcate such ideology to unsuspecting children? Do teachers openly discuss other options as real choices? Do they allow children to refuse to exercise or choose blatantly unhealthy choices in the cafeteria? I suspect not. If we allow this form of mind control, the next thing charter schools will soon require children to sign "non-obesity" statements. Those who don't will be alienated by their teachers and peers.
This is further proof that charter schools need more and deeper regulation. No longer can we trust that they seek to instill critical thinking skills in children so that children can make their own choices about life. It's obvious that they are engaged merely in mind control and ideological conformity.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
The system uses a combination of test scores and evaluations to provide raises to teachers. The system has gained national attention and Vail Valley will host a national conference in October so that other districts can learn about their system (as if people needed another excuse to visit Vail, Colorado).
Sometimes good things start small like a seed planted in the ground. As Chance the Gardener says, "Yes! There will be growth in the spring."
Monday, March 22, 2010
I keep seeing articles and editorials like this one that almost make me ill.
People keep making the claim that somehow charters are out of control entities that need special laws to keep them from going crazy. I'm not trying to justify a charter forcing anyone to a pledge of a specific ideology. (Although even that is a difficult statement to make. If we tell kids they have to take a pledge of honesty and respect for the property of others, isn't that a bit ideological?)
Let's first consider how many charter schools display behaviors that are blatantly illegal. I haven't looked at the research, but I do read as many articles as I can find on these charters, and I have to say that even if every charter that was accused of illegal behavior was guilty, the percentage is not at an epidemic proportion.
In addition, the accusations presume that traditional public schools do not have similar issues. For example, the accusations seem to assume that all traditional public schools are neutral in their approach to ethics and student expectations.
It also ignores that fact that many school districts have issues that are either unethical or illegal. Just within the past week there are reports that the Detroit Public Schools superintendent can't write a decent sentence. Grammar may or may not be an appropriate requirement for a school district leader (I'd argue that it should be), but if that same person was hired to run a charter school, the entire anti-charter world would be all over that story.
Another example, is the fact that a charter school athletic director cheating to get his players on the court became national news. Does anyone really think that doesn't happen in a pretty fair number of traditional public schools every day? I love watching the NCAA Basketball Tournament as much as anyone else, but can you seriously look at the GPA's of those players and the average percent that graduate from a particular school and tell me that they should be called student athletes?
On the specific topic of schools teaching that capitalism is the best system (or the required belief system), it is difficult to think that there isn't a huge ideological bias behind the opposition. The number of articles opposing charter schools that have clear socialist leanings (including the one referenced above) is telling. In fact, I wish I would have saved the name of the Twitter member who tweeted the article above. When I checked the person's profile, the quote was from Karl Marx, not exactly subtle. I wonder which economic system that person favors? I assume that these people would rather have the right "ideology" even if kids aren't learning to read and write.
The other issue is that charters are regulated. They face almost all of the same laws as traditional public schools. In the same way that a public school official or teacher is found out and dealt with (although in the case of union members, it's clear that they aren't dealt with), charter schools ought to be dealt with under current laws--not knew ones.
One thing I'll be writing about soon are the three new unnecessary bills proposed in Colorado because of the fears that what happened at one school might happen at others. Instead of using the existing laws, charter schools will face more stringent requirements than non-charter public schools. I'm not looking for favors for charter schools. I strongly believe that charter schools should be accountable for results and for complying with regulations, but charters shouldn't be treated like red-headed step children. Those who obey the laws should not be harmed because of those who don't, just like we don't harm traditional school districts because of those who misbehave. There is more than enough regulation out there for all schools, including charters. Let's use those laws to make all schools behave.
Sunday, March 21, 2010
Charter schools often get painted with a broad brush as if all charter schools are run by for profit management companies and that all for profit management companies are evil propaganda machines (as if the opposition isn't a source of propaganda).
In Colorado, I've found that more often than not leaders have taken cuts to run their schools and most are not run by management companies, but by concerned parents and local leaders who are interested in developing a great education for kids.
Hats off to principal Hennessey, her dedication and the proof that great education is not about money.
Having about thirty years since high school and now enjoying the digital age, I find it hard to believe that not only parents, but students are protesting this change.
The generation that most uses Facebook, Youtube, and other media sharing sites that I'm sure I have not clue about is protesting having their education online.
One of the main concerned is that it may not work for some kids. Well, I've got news for many parents who are not paying attention. The current system of regimented five days a week, fifty minutes a day for every subject isn't working for many kids.
The question is what flexibility districts can or should offer when beginning new options like this? Way back in 1977, my high school began School Within A School (SWAS) to try to reach some students with a self-paced option. I never opted in because I was one of the fearful people. While the existing system didn't excite me (I began skipping classes my junior and senior year because I had good grades and wasn't very excited about my classes), I was timid and not willing to experiment. Looking back on the decision, I see the huge benefits that I could have gained.
I wonder if some of these students and even parents will look back in twenty or thirty years and say the same thing. "What the heck was I worried about?" Sure, change is scary. There are lots of things in life that are difficult. I wonder what districts can do to calm some of the fears. Perhaps there is nothing, perhaps this needs to be a trial by fire experience for students and families. The point is that the digital generation is here. Online education will continue to increase both because demand is increasing and to save costs. As this option is allowed and encouraged many students will begin to see the benefits. There are so many ways for students to socialize now that being in class together isn't as necessary. (Nevermind that in my informal poll of people my age the most often method of meeting and making friends was not in the classroom, but in extracurricular activities such as sports, theater or debate club.)
I continue to wonder what is halting the advent of the online classroom that incorporates not only more efficient online instruction, but the next logical step of self-paced completion based on students ability to acquire knowledge and not time spent in a chair or looking at a computer screen. I'm shocked that in this digital age, we experience and up to now non-digital people cannot convince those who have grown up in the digital age that online instruction is to their benefit.
I am not sure what the answer is, but it appears that we'll need a better marketing firm to stress the benefits to the student and not to the school. Charter schools have been good at that in many instances, perhaps they ought to being to use those skills now.
Found this shortly after writing the blog. Seems to me that these examples need to be put in front of more parents and high school students.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
A Life Skill Center in Florida run by White Hat has been criticized and almost was not renewed recently. The Polk County school board voted to extend the contract by a year, but expressed concerns about the schools financial health.
Students and parents spoke at the meeting, and board members were swayed by the students' excitement about attending the school.
When I was in high school, I hated school. I did well on tests, both classroom and standardized because I was a compliant (mostly) student, but I never really liked school.
Now, here is a school board (not a charter school board, but a real live traditional public school district board) that voted to keep a charter school open mostly because the kids like the school. I can find lots of reasons for high school students to like a school that are bad reasons to keep a school open--easy courses, teachers that are nice, or free pizza. So, the question is how does one determine the value of student excitement? Fortunately, in this case, the student excitement seems to be about learning. As we all know, student engagement and enthusiasm is a big part of the learning process. So, I don't want to discount that factor. I simply am not sure how to measure it and it's value.
You see, I'm not sold on test scores, and I'm not sold even on individual student growth. It's not that I don't think those are important, but I don't think that they are the sole determinant of a good or even great school. A great school instills a love of learning that is lifelong. It's easy for me to think of those both peers and more recent high school graduates, who were very successful in their K-12 education, but gave up in college or even after entering the working world and simply stopped learning.
I like the idea of using student excitement as a measure of school "success," but am not sure how to apply that across various cases. Perhaps it must be, as in the Life Skills Center case, decided on an individual basis. Perhaps it's intuitive--something leaders have to sense. Perhaps it's something that you have to sense at first, and then judge by more objective measures once it's observed.
Certainly, the goal of most charter schools is to instill this excitement about being at school (at least that's what I've observed across the country). I hope it's also the goal of most non-charter public schools. But is it enough? Is excitement enough to justify keeping the doors open? For Life Skills Center in the Polk County School District, I guess we'll find out next year.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Michael Mayo, who seems to favor some sort of differentiated pay for teachers argues (as I have here in the past) that paying teachers for students' performance is ludicrous. In fact, he argues that perhaps the legislators of Florida ought to be paid the same way.
Unions in Florida oppose the proposed legislation, partly because it eliminates tenure.
It seems to me, and has seemed to me for a long time, that it's time for this impasse to be passed. Therefore, let me try to be (again) the bridge.
Those fixated on test scores are wrong about a lot of things. They are wrong about test scores being the best indicator of a good education. They are also wrong that one can easily and directly assess a teacher's ability or effectiveness based on a test score, or even set of test scores.
Those who argue that test scores are irrelevant are also wrong. In addition, they seem to be using this argument as a smoke screen for a bigger issue. Those opposed to merit or performance pay for teachers often are really opposed because of philosophical issues, but are using test scores as the sticking point.
Like the Florida teachers who don't want to lose their tenure, many teachers are afraid of any system that might begin to judge them or threaten their livelihood.
The fact is that good schools recognize good habits. They put them on stage and ask those not exercising those habits to develop them. Douglas Reeves says this in Chapter 6 of his book The Learning Leader. He calls it "treasure hunting." If we can recognize these effective traits in teachers, then why not reward them? In addition, if kids are the main focus of our educational system, then we ought to reward teachers, not with guaranteed jobs or salaries, but with rewards that are appropriate to their ability to use effective skills in the classroom.
As I've said before the bridge seems to be to:
- Help unions understand that the landscape is changing--a teacher is not a cog in a machine, and cannot be paid like one.
- Help reformers understand that their is more to life than test scores.
- Help reformers understand that their are recognizable traits of good teaching.
On the other hand, if unions don't begin to see that teacher salaries need to reflect the profession that it is (e.g. creative, varied, flexible, unpredictable), then the teaching profession will never achieve the level of respect that teachers seek. If teachers want to be compared to accountants or lawyers or other professionals who are paid salaries largely unrelated to the person's age or years of service, then they have to accept the same flexibility (and some subjectivity) in their pay system.
We aren't there yet, and it's unclear to me at this point whether the unions simply need to get out of the way on this one. The key is that education needs to become about educating kids and not pacifying teachers or politicians. I would like to see a bridge built that gets over these troubled waters, so that we can move on to the real task at hand, finding and rewarding good teachers who will make a difference to kids.
Monday, March 15, 2010
The charter school leader explained that he fills the role of superintendent as well as a principal for three schools--something that the APS superintendent does not do.
The dilemma for charter schools is that they have some freedom in deciding what is important and how to fulfill their mission. The problem is that some will always judge based on inputs rather than outputs. It seems that both sides of the education choice debate agree that both school leadership and teachers make a difference in a good education. The two edged sword is that if a group of charter schools, such as this example from New Mexico, chooses to hire an excellent (we'll assume for now) leader and pay him what he is worth on the open market, they are criticized. They are criticized not for the output of the school, but for choosing a non-standard input. Criticizing the schools' decision based on the chosen inputs is as ridiculous as criticizing a student based on his or her looks rather than on performance.
Perhaps the problem in many schools--both charter and non-charter--is that school leaders aren't paid enough so we don't get a good supply of quality leaders. That is at least one possibility. Why not allow this set of charter schools to see if it will work.
However, the other side of the sword is that the board must not choose to pay a school leader a salary well above industry averages based on something other than expected school performance. In addition, the board must not continue to pay a school leader a higher than market salary if the school doesn't perform at a commensurate level.
To test this, let's use the example of teacher pay. When a charter school in New York said that it would pay teachers $100,000 per year, I didn't see any complaints--raised eyebrows of curiosity, but no complaints. However, I imagine if the school produced poor results over a few years, people would begin to wonder why the school continued to pay those higher than average salaries when the teachers didn't seem to be doing a good job. In the same way, this Albuquerque charter school leader should be judged based on output rather than input. If he can lead these schools in a way that produces superior results, perhaps he ought to praised (and perhaps required to show that he can replicate his model or train other principals) rather than criticized. On the other hand, if he can't produce schools with superior results, then it should become obvious to all that he isn't worth the money and receive a salary cut or be dismissed.
The point is that freedom to innovate should include innovations with salary. Simply because a salary is higher than average should not be reason to indite the school leader or the board. The results of the school should be used to judge.
Having made the point above, there is the legitimate question of whether the charter schools' boards have thought through the philosophical and mission aspects of paying Mr. Glasrud such a large salary or if they have done it for other non-strategic reasons. It seems to me that it is in the boards' best interest to have some written document that describes their strategic reasons for paying such a non-standard salary.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
The blog goes on and on about the failures of Elizabeth Green and her lack of understanding about what makes a good teacher. Horn then gives a brief reading list for those ignorant of his wonderful knowledge.
He is correct. People who write about teacher training probably should know something about it. I'm no expert on teacher training, although I've taught and used many methods found in research.
However, I began to realize as I read that Horn has no solution for the current problem in schools. He strongly criticizes Doug Lemov's 49 commandments for teachers and likens his method to a production line in a factory, but has no solution of his own. In addition, he says nothing about why, if his knowledge of what makes a good teacher is so widespread, that schools have such big problems hiring and training good teachers. He also doesn't explain what many of us have been asking for years, "Why don't bad teachers either get trained or else get fired?"
I agree with Horn that a great teacher isn't a machine, but I don't think that Lemov believes that either. There is a difference between saying that there are techniques that work consistently to help kids learn and saying that there is some mechanistic way to use these techniques. A teacher, even with the 49 commandments still has to understand the art of how to use them in the same way that any artist needs to learn brush strokes or that a violinist needs to understand proper posture and bow position.
Of course, the greatest artists often take license to vary from the "rules," but it's only when they understand the rules and get really good at them that they can begin to improvise. I recently spoke with a classically trained violinist who now plays primarily in a country band. He told me that it's his classical training that allows him to be a bit "loose" when he plays country music. He has the ability to ignore proper body position and posture sometimes because he can correct in other ways while handling the bow. I'm not a country music fan nor a violinist, but it is quite impressive to watch, especially now that I know that he is doing it.
It strikes me that teachers are the same way. Lemov's 49 commandments may not be gospel, but they may well provide those introductory rules, especially for teachers who need that very basic help, whether for the first time or because they never learned the rules twenty years ago. I also imagine that Lemov would agree that a great teacher can often use these techniques with greater variation and perhaps even ignore some of them at times as they begin to sense what students need in a given setting.
Horn's argument does not demonstrate that good teachers are not built. He also doesn't demonstrate that Lemov's 49 commandments don't work. He simply makes fun of people he doesn't like. Don't be fooled. Teaching can be improved. If it can't, then bad teachers should be fired without attempts to make them better. If it turns out that there is more than one way to make a great teacher, then have at it. Very few in the charter school world is saying that we want bad teachers. In fact, we are simply saying that we want to make good teachers. If a teacher can't be good or doesn't want to work at being good, then he or she isn't a teacher--or at least shouldn't be.
Reich says that to fill all of the budget holes in education, it would take less than half ($200 billion compared to $700 billion) of what it took to bail out banks and financial institutions. However, there are some legitimate places that schools can cut budgets without the effects in the classroom that are either being contemplated or have actually been implemented.
Reich is wrong to paint this as a doomsday scenario and to make the solution so easy. Kids can learn with 30 kids in the classroom. There is debate about who should go to college and the value of a college education for everyone. There are also other ways to make sure qualified (depending on what he means by that) students go to college without bailing out the whole system.
The doomsday prophecies about schools are not true. This is not doomsday. Plenty of countries produce much better K-12 education than the U.S. and spend less money, have less adequate teacher training, and fewer choices in their educational programs. It's not that I favor 30 kids in the classroom, but many charter schools manage with fewer kids in the classroom and manage a tight budget.
In addition, we aren't talking about just $200 billion. It would likely be $200 billion per year for a number of years until the economy turns around and gets back to the year 2008 levels. Who knows how long that might be and how much money would be spent in the long run?
Economists are already concerned about the size of the current deficit, what if we add another two, three or four years of additional federal spending to fill education's budget holes? Schools, both K-12 and post-secondary, can and should be more efficient with their money. The federal government can support that by rewriting federal legislation that makes schools responsible for outcomes and not inputs. let's bail out education by putting money into the essentials of education and into ways that can make it productive and customer focused, not faculty or administration focused. Let's bail out education by removing the shackles and giving educational institutions the freedom to do what they know is best--with help and information, but not with unnecessary requirements.
Opponents see this as taking away from districts. Charter school leaders see this as a fair solution. Afterall "Those families who elect to take their children to a charter school pay property taxes," said Judi Clark, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education.
The issue of how to properly fund charter schools has been difficult. It seems only fair that if a school district is not educating students, then it shouldn't be paid to do so. It shouldn't keep the windfall. On the other hand, many of the fixed costs of running a school district remain.
From my experience in the education world, it's clear that many district leaders don't like budget problems. That may seem like a silly statement. Afterall, no one likes budget problems. However, from my experience in the business world, it seems that business people normally have a better handle on how to cut budgets and how to lay off employees when necessary. That doesn't mean that business people like laying people off. I've been in too many meeting in which lay offs were decided, and I don't recall any of the manager through executive level people liking it.
School districts and charter schools must learn to coexist. Charter schools aren't likely to be going away soon, and they are educating kids. School districts aren't going away soon and they are educating kids. Utah has opened up a can of worms by trying a late session radical change in the way they fund schools. The intent is good. I just hope they haven't let all of the worms out at once.
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
The union argues that teachers can be fired in the current system when they don't perform, but that missed the point. A pay system isn't just about hiring, retaining and firing. It's about ensuring that people are appropriately level of performance and the value that they create. In the current system, a teacher who has been teaching for two years may create just as much or more value than a teacher who has been teaching twenty or more years. There is no reason (at least no good reason) that a teacher with twenty years of service ought to be paid more than a teacher with two years of service. The union leaders don't seem to understand that.
So, instead of making alternate proposals for a fair pay system, the union seems determined to turn back RTTT funding in order to keep an antiquated and unfair pay system.
Instead of blindly opposing the performance pay legislation, the union would be wise to devise an alternate pay system of its own and negotiate a new system on the merits. It appears that the idea of a high effective teacher and appropriate pay for highly effective teachers is coming. The union needs to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.
Link to our performance pay proposal
Thursday, March 4, 2010
I realize it is only one quote, and I haven't read her book yet, but Diane Ravitch says, "there is little evidence that charter schools are generally better than public schools." Ravitch, a former US assistant secretary of education under president George Bush Sr, is a convert to traditional public schools out of school choice. She has written a great deal arguing that charter schools are undermining traditional public education. Ravitch, like many charter school opponents continue to make statements like the one above. That statement is a logical fallacy. To argue that one thing is generally better than another is irrelevant. It presumes that there is no difference between the best of a class and the worst of a class (or the class "generally").
Let's examine a comparison from another field. Volkswagens generally get worse gas mileage than Nissans. I am not positive that statement is true, but I'd guess that it is. However, if I wanted a high gas mileage vehicle, I would not opt for a Nissan, but for a Volkswagen--specifically . Why is that? It's because even though the average gas mileage of a Volkswagen might be worse than that of a Nissan, there is no Nissan that outperforms the VW Jetta TDI.
What we ought to be looking at in education is the best models of each class, and considering them for replicating across the nation (that is if our goal is really to have good schools and not just to say that is our goal and assuming that national and not local education policy should govern).
Ravitch's argument against what she sees as an exploding two tiered system (my paraphrase of her words) is that charter schools will end up with all of the motivated students and the traditional public schools will be left with all of the unmotivated students. I don't believe that Ravitch even believes this extreme position, but let's assume that she's at least mostly right. Let's assume that 80% of motivated students end up in charter schools and that the traditional public schools are left with the rest. Now that Ravitch has armed traditional public schools with her predictions about the futures, they can adjust and perform better than the best charter schools. Of course, if they can perform better than the best charter schools, that begs the question: why haven't they performed better in the past?
I've been in the business world for many years, and the best way for any business to compete is to be better than the competition. Sometimes that means adopting the competition's strengths. Sometimes that means doing one better or doing something different. In addition, what could be better for high school education for their to be a wide variety of choices or a school that offers a wide variety of choices.
Ravitch might be right in her prediction. I don't have a crystal ball, but the answer isn't to hold back motivated students because they might get a better education in a charter school (which Ravitch seems to doubt anyway). The answer is to go forward with the best educational models we can find, not rely on generalities. The education battle is one that must be decided on specifics. Let's look at specific schools and specific models. If the best come from charter schools, then so be it. If the best come from traditional schools, then let's replicate them. Ravitch and those like her want to recall the TDIs so that we can all settle for a Sentra. In that case, we will lose both the efficiency and the power.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
If I want to find out about car buying preferences, I ask people who plan to buy a car within the next year or two. I don't ask everyone in the world. I wonder if teachers are the right people to ask about the potential impact of merit or performance pay. We already know that teachers unions generally oppose performance pay, especially if based on test scores. So, is asking a teacher, who likely opposes performance pay, to judge the effectiveness of performance pay valid?
In the survey "71% say paying teachers more for improved student performance would have only a "moderate" impact or no impact at all."
There is another little nudge at the back of my mind that wonders if asking current teachers about the potential impact of performance pay. What if we ask potential teachers who might be motivated by performance pay their view? What if we ask those who have sat on the sideline because they have no hope in the current structure of being paid what they are worth? I recall about ten years ago being laid off and being curious about teaching business in a local high school. I was told that I'd need to start at the bottom of the pay scale. I was forty years old and had many years of business experience. There was no way that it made sense for me to take a 50% or more pay cut to teach high school, but if there was a chance that because of good performance that I could have made even 80% of my current salary, I probably would have taken the risk. Wouldn't it be worth the effort to provide a performance based system just to have the potential to attract additional experienced talent to the teaching labor pool?
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
I've written a few times now on creating radical different options for various types of students between the ages of 13 and 21 years of age. Adolescents need choices and need to get their hands on projects and take responsibility for their learning. They also need to see how education works for them.
In an interview by the New York Times, Senator Buttars expresses some views on ending high school after 10th or 11th grade. This could be both a cost savings as well as the beginning of truly innovative thinking about high school. I hope that the $900 million is spent in truly innovative ways that don't just educate kids, but gives dropouts reasons to drop back in.
An article in Edweek discusses the teen "Twilight Zone." For some reason, adults don't understand teens, even though we were "them" at one time. It's as if we've forgotten everything we thought as teens and simply force the generation that followed us into the same submission that we experienced. It's almost as if we are saying to today's teens, "We had to go through the silly five days a week, seven classes a day structure, so you have to as well."
As we all know, the five day a week structure is primarily to create a childcare opportunity for parents as well as so that teachers can match the average worker's five day a week schedule. In these days of "data-driven" education models, is there any evidence that five days a week is the optimal schedule for learning, especially delivered in one hour increments per day for each subject for every student? If there is, I'd really like to see it because it violates every experience that most of us have ever had with education.
The article by Joseph and Claudia Allen uses the diet as a metaphor for what is wrong. We've eliminated just about everything from the educational diet, and teens are anemic. We've eliminated self-motivated learning. We've eliminated the chance for students to express themselves in significant ways, especially when their talents or passions don't fit the traditional academic or extra-curricular activities.
As I suggested while brainstorming, why not rip apart the current model and make it much more student directed. Encourage internships and mentorships. Encourage students to accelerate education in areas in which they excel, and perhaps take more time in areas in which they are weak. Allow for education that takes place outside of "school" to count for credits. Ignore largely irrelevant measures such as attendance and begin focusing on output and results and effort and initiative.
Of course, our emphasis on standardized testing and every student progressing at the same rate prevents some of these initiatives from taking place. In addition, outdated views of education as a factory (with teachers paid like factory workers as well) keep students from fulfilling their potential and causing them to drop out.
The Allens say, "Truth be told, traditional high school is actually much more problematic for adolescent motivation. To make our simulation truly comparable to high school, we’d need to ask adults to spend years doing little more than reading and listening to others talk about material that is often not even directly relevant to their chosen careers."
The fact is that its not kids who are the problem. Its our system. When we find that perfectly intelligent students don't care about school, doesn't that make us wonder if there is something deeply wrong with our school system? The Allens state that 25% of high school students fail to graduate on time each year. It seems to me that 25% dissatisfied customers is a pretty high number and should cause radical rethinking. With all of the disincentives to leave school or graduate late, 25% seems like a huge number to me. Imagine all how many other students would love to be doing something besides school, but won't or can't because their parents won't let them or they can't imagine what they'd do without that diploma and college.
It's time for a reawakening of educators and the model for adolescents. Many charter schools don't help because they focus on the kids who already fit in the traditional model. Some of the most successful charter high schools serve exactly those students who normally thrive in the traditional system anyway. They just do a better job because they treat the entire student population almost as if they are in an IB school. To be truly innovative new charter schools must seek to be on the cutting edge of "data-driven" instruction.
Psychologists have shown us the "data," now new schools need to open and "drive" the instruction in new and different ways to meet the real needs of teens in this country.
Monday, March 1, 2010
As charter schools get deeper into budgeting season, the reality of the 7.5% and possibly growing cut to the 2010 budget can paralyze charter school leaders. School leaders, both charter and non-charter, around the country struggle with what to do. Some have already announced lay-offs and building closures. District 70 in Pueblo is contemplating a four day school week to save money, which will place a huge burden on parents.
While there are things that districts and the state could do to radically change the face of education to save money, most of those tactics such as a four day school week or pushing more students to online or eliminating 12th grade will likely never see the table in most areas.
So, what can a charter school do to cut budgets?
1. Reevaluate your mission, vision and goals as well as your current strategy and tactics.
I know that sounds a lot more like an MBA talking than a school leader, but I am an MBA. Every organization needs to reevaluate its strategic plan periodically. There is no better time than this near crisis that is being caused by budget cuts.
So, let's say that your mission is to educate students to be successful citizens and well-rounded people. If you or your school have done a good job with goals, then your goals should lead to fulfilling that mission. The strategies should support the goals and the tactics should support the strategies. There are two place to look at first in deciding cuts--strategies and tactics.
Assuming that your mission hasn't changes, begin with the next level (goals) to make sure that all of the goals are necessary (not just helpful) to achieving your mission. If you look at this like a tree you will see that in most cases if you cut off a goal, you can cut a number of strategies and tactics. Think of the mission as the tree trunk, the goals as the main branches, the strategies as the smaller branches, and the tactics as the leaves.
Perhaps easier to think about are strategies that might be cut off or trimmed. It's hard to think of dropping an entire goal, such as a character education program, but perhaps one of the strategies has been to involve every student in three character related field trips a year. That strategy can be cut and be replaced with a lower cost alternative that could take place in special events at the school. It could also mean cutting certain aspects of reading programs or personnel.
Whether something is a strategy or a tactic is often difficult to determine. If you cut a branch off a tree, you take the leaves with it? Are you cutting a leaf or a branch? if you are cutting a branch, then you are cutting or revising a strategy. If you are cutting a leaf, then it's most like a tactic.
The main point is to cut budgets down to those necessary elements of the school budget that have to be maintained to meet the goals that fulfill the mission.
2. Classroom, Leadership, Operations, Facilities
I like to think of a school having many parts, none of which are optional. Charter schools have proven that financial management is key. I heard a local school district board member the other day say, "Finance is one of those areas that you frequently ignore unless something goes wrong." She went on to say that financial management is really the lifeblood of the district and that everything else would not work if the finances weren't working right.
That being said, the school happens to need a financial expertise and operational expertise because it needs to operate classrooms well.
When cutting budgets prioritize what goes on in educating kids before deciding how to cut. The initial reaction of many financial managers is to increase class size or reduce salaries. Both of these can be detrimental to the class room experience. The reason we financial types think that way is obvious. They are the easiest mathematical solutions to the problem.
So, first look at facilities. Many schools already have neglected their facilities, and so perhaps this isn't an option, but one option is to look around and think about what is the worst case that could happen if some routine maintenance wasn't done this year? Are their repairs that could be postponed?
I'm not suggesting that schools should have unsafe buildings. I am suggesting that teachers might be willing to teach in a not perfect classroom rather than take a salary cut or a lay-off.
Then look at operations. Even in charter schools, I've noticed comfort with existing service providers for custodial contracts, insurance, benefits and IT. It's hard for some people to switch. Go ahead and bid out those services. In addition, look at your internal operational personnel. Do you really need them all? Could they work more efficiently? Would it be more efficient to outsource?
Leadership, and here I mean administrative leadership, is a high priority category, and most charter schools only have one or two administrative leaders. But what do you really need? I know of one school leader who told me that he is considering eliminating his own position this year. Again, we aren't talking about what you are used to, or what works well. We are talking about need.
The last area to look at is the classroom. A good teacher works hard and smart. A good teacher is hard to replace. A good teacher needs appropriate tools as well as encouragement. This will vary from school to school, but most schools prefer small class size to large class size. The research suggests that beyond very small class sizes (14-16 students) that class size isn't as important as having great teachers.
3. Once you've gone through the first two exercises, you have either found that you've been operating extremely efficiently and you don't have much to cut or you may have found that you've added some programs or other line items to your budget that you didn't really need. I recently talked to a CFO who told me that they plan to trim their budget almost exclusively by trimming good, but unnecessary expenses.
The last step is painful because now you have to look at the big rocks. Steven Covey in his well known book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People tells us to imagine a jar and that we have different sized rocks to get into the jar. If we fill it with all of the sand first, we can't get the big rocks in. If we put the big rocks in first, the sand can fill in the gaps. In the same way, we've been talking about big rock priorities. now we are talking about big rocks in terms of dollars. Unfortunately, the big dollar rocks in the school budget are people. Salaries and benefits make up approximately 65% to 70% of a school budget. Facilities is the next biggest piece of the budget. So, if you have to cut 10% out of your budget and you try not to impact salaries, you have to cut almost everything else. That's not realistic.
Mathematically, you can see that if salaries are 70% of the budget, and you are left with cutting 10% of the total budget, that means that you'll have to cut about 14% of the salaries and benefits budget to break even. That's a big number. With any luck, you've eliminated a fair amount in steps 1 and 2 and the pain for the remaining employees is not as high. In addition, if you've been in the habit of budgeting for savings every year instead of spending every penny, you'll be able to eliminate your additional saving for a year to help out.
I do not recommend that schools dip into reserves unless they have well above average reserves that they believe can last at least three more years.
NOTE: I originally published this on my Examiner.com page for Colorado charter schools, but had such a good response that I thought I'd post it here as well. While it was written for Colorado schools, I believe the principles apply universally.