Thursday, September 6, 2012

Accountability runs off into a ditch

Sometimes things seem so obvious to me that I cannot fathom how others can miss them. The absurdity of a new feature of Michigan’s accountability system for public schools is one of those things.

Late this summer, Michigan finally got a federal waiver for No Child Left Behind requirements. Congress has been unable to agree for years now on how to renew or update NCLB (which serves as the framework for federal appropriations for K–12 education), because no one likes it. It essentially required all of our children to be above average within the next two years, which cannot be done. So, the Department of Education encouraged states to apply for waivers, substituting their own systems.

There are some admirable aspects to Michigan’s alternate plan, but the Focus Schools designation is emphatically not one of them. The 10% of schools with the largest achievement gaps between their top 30% and bottom 30% within a school are designated as Focus Schools. Note that this statistic has absolutely no reference to achievement, which has been the primary goal for our students. Even if every child in the school meets proficiency standards, it can still record such a gap if the top 30% of students are way more proficient than expected or required. Some Focus Schools are in the 99th percentile of the state’s Top to Bottom List of schools, so their average achievement level is presumably very high indeed.

This is not precisely what happened in the Van Buren Public Schools, but our case makes as little sense. Our Tyler Elementary has long housed a magnet program drawing gifted students from all over the district, comprising more than 30% of the school population. Two years ago, MEAP tests there evidenced a large gap between the top and bottom 30% of those tested. I would think, given that this Title I School housed many of our most gifted students and some of our most economically disadvantaged students, that there would be something wrong if there were not a large top-to-bottom gap. It seems similarly nonsensical that the list of Focus Schools also contains special education center programs, where none of the students even take the regular MEAP tests.

Have we finally reached the kind of denial that people actually exhibit a range of abilities that Kurt Vonnegut foresaw in his story Harrison Bergeron? In that world, “everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the ... unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.”

I am not suggesting that we accept lower standards of achievement for some children. I am convinced by both research and copious anecdotal evidence that — with diverse approaches, skilled instructors, and the right supports — children from all backgrounds and with all levels of inborn talent can learn the knowledge and skills they need for successful lives. And we clearly have not yet reached the point where we are providing our neediest students with all that they need to reach their potential. But the last thing we would ever want to do is to somehow hold back our brightest students so that they do not get too far ahead.

That is exactly what I fear this system will encourage. Among the 358 Focus Schools are all 21 Ann Arbor PS elementary schools. Might that not be because the children of the privileged go to school alongside the disadvantaged? Do we want them to be sorted into separate schools so as to prevent too large a gap in their test scores? Who, exactly, would that serve? Students at the Title I Focus Schools there were offered (this was mandatory) the choice of moving to schools in Ypsilanti and Lincoln school districts. Realistically, how would that improve their educations? How does diversion of money from classrooms to busing to other districts represent wise or efficient use of taxpayer dollars?

What really aggravates me are the requirements put on us because Tyler is a Title I School (see the Focus School FAQs at the MDE site):
• We must revise our school improvement plan and Title I plan (both of which had just been revised);
• We must set aside 10% of our district-level Title I allocation to offer to parents of students in the Focus School the choice to transfer and free transportation to another of our elementary schools (when we just established new attendance areas to avoid exactly such transportation); and
• We had to send letters to Tyler parents notifying them the school has been identified and of those choice options.

Here is where this whole business becomes a farce: Tyler is not the same school as when those tests were taken two years ago. The principal, most of the staff, and 64% of the students are new to this building this year. The fifth grade, as well as the entire gifted magnet program, have moved out to other buildings. This is a solution in search of a problem.

Moreover, this “solution” creates enormous new problems. Because we have no approved Title I plan, we cannot spend that money. (We submitted a new plan within two days of this Focus School notification, but it may be the end of September before the under-manned Michigan Department of Education can get it approved.) Last May, we went through an AdvancED Quality Assurance Review and developed ambitious plans for accomplishing the changes recommended by the review team. We were commended for “the commitment and focused leadership of the superintendent and administrative leadership team that will guide the district in developing a school system that is vision-driven, targeted on student achievement, and has a systemic and systematic process of continuous improvement.” We are investing (for both materials and training) in districtwide curricular consistency for the first time ever, emphasizing improved instructional practices and increased student engagement using research-based methods. Title I funding and teachers were a vital part of these plans — and right now we have neither.

We were doing everything right, exactly what the AdvancED accreditation team and the Michigan Department of Education recommend, yet our initiatives will be undermined by the inflexibility of this new system — even though “increased flexibility” was the entire point of the NCLB waiver. We are experiencing the fearsome old cliché of “We’re from the government and we’re here to help”!