Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Money is not the only answer...

Money is not the only answer, but it makes a difference. - Barack Obama

Today I had the opportunity to present oral testimony to a joint session of the Massachusetts House and Senate Committee on Ways and Means with regard to educational funding and the FY'18 budget. The following is a full copy of the written testimony presented to the committee. 

March 29, 2017

The Honorable Brian S. Dempsey, House Chair
The Honorable Karen E. Spilka, Senate Chair
The Honorable Stephen Kulik, House Vice Chair
The Honorable Sal N. DiDomenico, Senate Vice Chair
The Honorable Elizabeth A. Malia, House Assistant Vice Chair
The Honorable Patricia Jehlen, Senate Assistant Vice Chair
The Honorable Todd M. Smola, Ranking House Minority Member
The Honorable Viriato M. deMacedo, Ranking Senate Minority Member
Joint Committee on Ways and Means

Dear Representative Dempsey, Senator Spilka, and Distinguished Members of the House and Senate Committees on Ways and Means:

My name is Dr. Todd H. Gazda and I am the Superintendent of the Ludlow Public Schools. Additionally, I am also an Executive Committee member for the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents and it is in that capacity that I am before you today. We are at a pivotal juncture in this country with respect to public education. Our public schools find themselves under a microscope and pulled by competing forces like never before. It is a system in flux as it strives to institute necessary change in order to effectively meet the demands of today’s students and society.

Change never comes without cost: be that time, money, resources or personnel. These elements are intricately tied together and essential for productive organizations to function effectively. The number and pace of regulations to which we as educators and schools must respond continues to increase at an alarming rate. The problem is that State and federal revenue has not kept pace with the burdens created by these demands.

The early 1990’s saw a major change to the delivery of educational services we provided to the children in this state.  When talking about education, policy makers often like to point out that the development of Massachusetts statewide standards for teaching and learning coupled with assessment of those standards through a standardized state test propelled our Commonwealth on an upward trajectory from a good educational system to a great one that leads the country and is competitively ranked among the best in the world. However, what those same individuals often overlook, or at best downplay, is the massive infusion of state money and resources that accompanied that change in practice.

We now find ourselves in a similar situation as faced our Commonwealth in the early 1990’s with the Foundation Budget Review Commission finding that schools in Massachusetts are underfunded by billions of dollars. In the 1993 case of McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that the education clause of our Commonwealth’s Constitution is not “merely aspirational or hortatory, but also imposes on the Commonwealth an enforceable duty to provide an education for all its children, rich and poor, in every city and town through the public schools.”  We can only hope that it won’t take a looming court case like McDuffy to spur necessary action now.

This year the governor’s budget proposes an increase of $20/student in Chapter 70 funding. Although, this comes to millions of dollars at the state level and sounds impressive when considered in the aggregate, when parsed out and distributed across the state it is woefully inadequate to the task we are being asked to accomplish.  Take Ludlow for example, this proposed increase would garner us approximately $52,000.

To put that in perspective, the amount our budget here in Ludlow (~2600 students/total proposed FY’18 budget of $33,674,143) would need to increase just to maintain level services next year is $877,834. Furthermore, that figure does not calculate in the increase in health insurance rates which would push that amount even higher. Consequently, M.A.S.S. is asking that this year, at a minimum, the legislature increase Chapter 70 funding by $100.00/ student for FY’18. Although this won’t get us to where we truly need to be, it is a step in the right direction.

It costs money to change a system and currently the flaws in the state funding formula, coupled with insufficient financial support at the state level merely shifts the burden to adequately fund our schools from the state to local municipalities.

What is the practical impact of that problem for us? It means that flaws in the Foundation Budget formula result in an ever increasing gap between what the state says is the minimum amount required to operate a school system (Net School Spending Requirement) and what it actually takes to run a district. Many factors are exacerbating that discrepancy and these problems are clearly outlined in the foundation budget review commission report. I would like to highlight just a few of the major issues that are creating major problems for districts across the state.

  1. Insufficient state financial support is creating, once again a disparity and equity problem between those more affluent communities that can support additional funds above the Net School Spending Requirement and those that are in weaker financial positions. This is one of the very issues the McDuffy case was based upon. 
  1. This equity issue is a multi-faceted problem as the disparity is driven by different factors depending upon the communities involved. In our rural areas where there are little if any commercial interests, the primary source of local funding comes from residential property taxes. This dynamic is causing those taxes to increase dramatically while seriously curtailing local towns and schools ability to appropriate needed funds due to the shortfall in state support. A declining student population in many of the rural areas of the state is adding to the financial challenges faced in these localities.
In our urban centers, the challenges of school districts being forced to fill the gaps left by underfunded social service agencies is straining the available resources in those communities. Adding an additional financial burden in a number of these urban centers are the recent changes in the funding formula for economically disadvantaged students. The change in the way these students are accounted for by the formula has led to a situation where the number of these students in several districts being dramatically under calculated resulting in the loss of substantial funds. This problem has been recognized by state regulatory authorities and yet a remedy to this problem has yet to be developed. 

  1. As the gap widens between the Net School Spending Requirement and Actual Costs, those of us advocating for our schools at the local level are facing an increasingly uphill battle. As we advocate for support of our local budget we experience understandable resistance in our communities as we argue for budgets that are millions of dollars above the Net School Spending Requirement. This leads to the inaccurate perception that we are not managing our funds effectively and, while we can explain that the formula is flawed, that explanation has difficulty resonating when held up against the millions of dollars many towns are spending above the Net School Spending Requirement. Each year as that gap widens, that challenge increases.

  1. Consequently, M.A.S.S. strongly supports the approval and implementation of the Foundation Budget Review Commission’s findings.  The face of public education is dramatically changing. Undervaluation by the current formula of the cost of health insurance, special education, education for English Language Learners, transportation reimbursement, among other areas are problems of which you are aware.

a.      Health insurance and benefits actual expenses exceed the allowance in the foundation budget by $1.2 billion.
    1.     Special Education actual expenses exceed the assumed allowances in the foundation budget by over $1 billion.

I have included the M.A.S. S. talking points regarding the School Finance Task Force Report with this written testimony. That document outlines our organization’s review of that study along with our major concerns and some potential solutions regarding school finance. We are more than willing to lend our energies and educational expertise to working with you to figure out remedies to the problems facing our system.

In 1993 the Massachusetts State Legislature showed great fortitude and foresight in developing a seven year plan to bring state funding up to appropriate levels. It is time for that again. It is time that we fund education to the amounts indicated by the Foundation Budget Review Commission established by the state to research this very topic. It is time that we live up to the obligations we have already made, such as fully funding special education circuit breaker accounts, regional transportation, and charter school reimbursement, prior to creating additional requirements further necessitating the commitment of financial resources.

As I said at the beginning of this testimony, change never comes without a cost. We have an educational system that must be transformed to meet the needs of today’s student and our global 21st century society. Yet, the funding we are receiving from the state makes it challenging to maintain the status quo, let alone change the system. There is only so much we can do at the local level to redistribute, reallocate and repurpose scarce resources. We need your help.

As superintendents responsible for the management of resources in our districts we understanding the political and fiscal realities confronting us. We understand the problems of a scarcity of current resources, funding streams available and the realities of our current political environment both locally and at the federal level. Massachusetts continues to be a leader in public education and the model to which the country looks for guidance. It is time that we demonstrate once again the political willpower to live up to the duty clearly articulated in our state constitution, reinforced by McDuffy, that our state must “provide an education for all its children, rich and poor, in every city and town through the public schools.”  

Thank you for your time today. We truly appreciate all that you have done, and will do, for our children and our schools. We recognize the dilemma facing this body and the legislature as a whole and M.AS.S. is committed to working with you in this process.


Todd H. Gazda, Ed.D., JD
Superintendent, Ludlow Public Schools
Executive Committee Member, M.A.S.S.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Grizzly bears are the LEAST of our problems now...

I usually stay away from any broad political commentary in my posts and focus on educational policy considerations rather than the actions or in this case qualifications of one individual. However, with the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the new Secretary of Education I am compelled to violate that self-imposed rule. Our country has become so divided that political dialogue now frequently degenerates into personal attacks rather than an examination of the merits of any position or in this case a true examination of the fitness of an individual for the post to which they have been nominated. It is the duty of the United States Senate to hold hearings to give "advice and consent" to the president's appointment of individuals to lead the various departments of the executive branch in order to ensure they are qualified for the position they seek to hold. This week, the Senate failed in that duty in a most spectacular fashion.

Sadly, I have come to expect little from the United States Congress. They are so caught up in rigid partisan bickering and gridlock that nothing substantive can be accomplished unless the majority party at any given time can ram it down the minority party’s throat. However, this shameful act of blatantly putting Party before Country truly hits a new low even for that body. I cannot see Republican Senators honestly asserting that Mrs. DeVos is qualified for the position to which she was appointed. This leaves two, equally deplorable, possible reasons for their approval: 1. They feel beholden to her for the millions of dollars her family has donated to them or 2. They are blindly following their president. In doing so they are abrogating their responsibility as Senators to ensure that those who are appointed to run executive departments are qualified to do so.

I have not been a fan of the last couple of educational secretaries. They had a tendency to a bureaucratic mindset and to propagate policies that added layers of bureaucracy to an already overburdened system. Rather support the truly transformational changes needed in our educational system these Secretaries of Education merely continued to repackage the failed test and punish policies of the last 20 years. HOWEVER, even so, I will agree that these individuals had the qualifications which made them fit for the position even if I disagreed with their policies. That is most definitely NOT the case with Betsy DeVos.

I understand and support the principal that Presidents have the right to appoint members of their team who they believe will be able to implement their policy agenda. There are actually a couple of these current cabinet appointees that I feel will do a good job in the positions to which they have been appointed. Others I have serious reservations about and have major concerns about their ethical conflicts, political ideologies and policy beliefs, yet concede they are “qualified” through experience and/or education for the posts they now hold. Once again however, this is most definitely NOT the case with Betsy DeVos. 

Ms. DeVos has never been an educator nor has she been involved in public education. Her only “experience” in this realm has been take any action, support any initiative or fund any campaign that seeks to undermine and pull money from public education and funnel it into private education or charters. She has demonstrated through her record that she does not intend to support public education, but rather her intent is to destroy that institution that is and has always been the bedrock of our democracy.  One need only look to her home state of Michigan and the mess poorly regulated charters have made of the educational system in Detroit to see how those ideas have played out. Do we really want our whole country to head to the path Betsy would take us?

Mrs. DeVos clearly demonstrated in her Senate hearing that she lacks even a basic understanding of such educational principals as “achievement versus growth” and is unfamiliar with even the basics of the IDEA. Her answers with regard to specifics regarding education were vague and superficial at best. This is completely understandable given her level of experience. Then there is the now bizarre viral quote that gun policy should be determined at the local level because schools might need guns to protect them from grizzlies. Seriously, who says that? All these things clearly demonstrate that the travesty of this appointment of such a monumentally unqualified individual.

This is a sad and shameful decision made by our United States Senators. My outrage and indignation is truly non-partisan in nature. I would be just as appalled if Democrats had pushed through such and obviously unqualified individual. I applaud the two Republican Senators (Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine) who put country before partisan politics and voted against this confirmation. They put the interests of the children of our country over kowtowing to presidential power. They are to be commended for that stance. This is a sad day for public education in the United States and I guess we now know just how much it costs to buy a cabinet secretary position in our federal government. The attack upon public education now continues unabated and has a new leader who will push the privatization agenda as never before. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Education is the passport to the future...

Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today. –   Malcom X

The past 25 years have seen dramatic changes in our culture and society. Twenty-five years ago the internet was in its infancy and we considered our country invulnerable as our Twin Towers still stood and the spate of school shootings from Columbine to Sandy Hook had not yet stolen our safety and innocence. Globalization, 911, the internet, the Great Recession and the ever increasing pace of technological advances make this a much different world than it was in 1992, yet our public schools are still very much mired in the policies of the past. The current concept of “education reform” has not evolved and is not designed to truly transform public education; it merely continues to add additional levels of bureaucracy to an already overburdened system, thus inhibiting necessary change in our public schools.

In reflecting upon the changes occurring in our society it often appears that education continues to lag behind. Our country is in the midst of a cultural shift the likes of which we haven’t experienced since the industrial revolution. The organization, structures and practices prevalent in our public school system today are largely an outgrowth of and a response to the needs of an industrialized society. The problem is that society has now changed and our educational system has not kept pace.

Public K-12 schools struggle with making the necessary transformation inhibited in that process by the very policies designed by our legislators to address this challenge. These policies and practices are often mired in the industrial past and not designed to support the development and incorporation of the new skills necessary to succeed in our information driven, 21st century, digital world.

The challenges being experienced are not limited to K-12 education. The most straightforward and dramatic way to speed this necessary transition in public education would be to change the way we train our teachers. If you walk into most higher education classrooms it’s like taking a trip back in time to 1992. There is often little technology available for professors and even less incorporated into the learning environment. Similar to the K-12 policy environment,  in higher education many of the alleged “reform” strategies often focus on more and better accountability provisions than they do on transforming practice. In order to change this trend resources must be allocated to support the goal of providing access to technology and professional development for professors to support the transition to a more digital learning environment. I say this not to criticize, but to point out the need to train our teachers with the most up to date, cutting edge tools and instructional strategies possible. This change is essential if we are to advance necessary transformation of the practices in our schools.

New teachers bring with them to their schools a wealth of energy and enthusiasm for their profession which often helps to invigorate the educators they work with. Every school community needs a balance of energetic new staff along with veteran teachers whose experience and knowledge can support and provide direction to younger colleagues. Those new teachers, trained in the most cutting edge practices with the ability to leverage the power of technology by incorporating daily digital supports into their instructional practices have the potential, through the positive examples they set, to work as change agents to transform the educational environment in a school. However, first they must come to the profession with the tools, skills and knowledge to make such an impact. It is incumbent upon higher education institutions and teacher training programs to take the appropriate steps ensure their graduates have access to vital resources in order to acquire those essential skills.

The student of today demands an educational environment where the skills and passion they bring to the classroom community are recognized and incorporated into the teachers' instructional practices. If we are to adequately prepare our students for life in a 21st century global society, education must weave digital and traditional instructional strategies together into a comprehensive approach to teaching and learning. As we move into the 21st century we must build within our students the skills necessary to achieve in this rapidly changing global environment. We must encourage collaboration and the development of critical thinking skills. Rote memorization is not enough. As Einstein once stated, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” We must work to inspire creativity and innovation, training our students to apply what they know to novel situations.

In order to accomplish those goals outlined above we must have teachers trained in the most appropriate skills to support that transition. We need to stop pointing fingers and assigning blame, but rather work together to move our educational system forward. Access to technology and incorporation of digital learning skills into higher education programs that train and prepare our new teachers is an essential part of this process. It is time for the practice of training new teachers to evolve and adapt to this new reality. Through this endeavor, K-12 and higher education working together can transform our system to one that is reflective of the needs of today’s students and world. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.

In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity ― Albert Einstein

Now that the question of raising the charter cap in Massachusetts has been resolved, at least for now, I am hopeful that we can begin to examine and discuss other necessary changes to our educational system here in the Commonwealth. I say this with a certain amount of trepidation as it seems that every time those discussions arise the end results rarely align with what educators in the field believe is important to improve our system. However, there is an area of immediate concern that should be addressed.  

The state accountability system here in Massachusetts is currently in a state of disorder. Over the last three years students in the commonwealth have taken four different state exams (MCAS, PARCC [paper based], PARCC [computer based], and MCAS 2.0). I understand that the DESE has done what it could to crosswalk the scores for these assessments in order to place schools in levels and assign percentile rankings. However, with many different assessment scores comprising districts' accountability rating based on a four-year calculation, the validity of those calculations are very much in question at least by many of us in the field. Furthermore, regardless of the efforts taken to be able to compare scores/growth/achievement levels on the various exams, many important variables have not been taken into account.

For example, student performance across the state has demonstrated that students who took the PARCC exam on paper score higher than those who took the PARCC exam on computers. Although analysis of the testing data has proven this to be true, this fact is not taken into account by the state for purposes of accountability and those scores are compared as if they were of equal weight. Additionally, at least 40 schools across the state saw their accountability levels negatively impacted due to opt-out students lowering participation rates. Not only do opt-out students impact participation rates, but this has the added effect of lowering scores as we have seen that the vast majority of those students are our higher achieving students. Thus, achievement in those schools is negatively impacted along with participation.

My reason for pointing out the above concerns is to encourage that, while we finalize both the exam and its impact on our accountability system, the department should reset accountability for next year when all districts have taken MCAS 2.0. I am not suggesting a moratorium on accountability, but rather a resetting of accountability determinations for all schools so that any variables, uncertainty or problems with having multiple state exams figure into the accountability determination is eliminated providing equity once again between districts.

In addition to resetting accountability determinations, we should also investigate the development of a calculation to weight the paper vs. computer based exam for MCAS 2.0 during this transition from one mode to the other. Some districts have made the decision to move immediately to full computer based testing because, although they know  in the short term it will negatively impact their scores compared to those districts that remain with paper based exams, they feel it will be a benefit in the long run as their students will gain familiarity with that platform.  

Some schools systems, however, even if they have the capability to take the MCAS 2.0 on computers, are reluctant to make that move before they absolutely have to because they know that students score higher on the paper based exams than they do on computer based ones. Basically, it's the difference between playing the long game instead of focusing on an immediate return. However, this fact is working to inhibit this transition resulting in an unequal playing field for districts.

These types of decisions are not educational decisions and they do not essentially effect the delivery of educational services to our students one way or the other. They are rather strategic calculations to take a big hit now rather than smaller ones over time so that in upcoming years the scores would be more competitive. This is a strategic gamesmanship decision and calculation all superintendents are being driven to consider due to the nature of this assessment system being in flux for years now. This should not be the case.

Furthermore, in looking to mitigate detrimental impacts to districts of this system in transition, the DESE’s idea of “hold harmless” is not a viable solution to this problem. To say that districts will be "held harmless" has no real meaning for those of us in the field for two primary reasons.  First, districts are not truly held harmless as, if we continue with the current method of calculating accountability, individual year’s scores are still factored into a four-year accountability determination. Thus, those scores continue to follow (harm) us for 4 years. Second, even in the current year we are not "held harmless" The harm is in public perception not our actual accountability rating. That perception is dramatically shaped by the percentile ranking of a school even more so than the accountability "level". Consequently, since the drop in percentile ranking is still shown on the district profile, even though they are "held harmless", public perception of the district is harmed.

At a minimum, we need to reset accountability levels after the administration of the MCAS 2.0 this year so that we all have a level playing field with the same assessment.  Additionally, taking this action would mean that districts truly were held harmless during this transition. As part of this calculation developing a method to weight computer versus paper based testing will add further validity to the system and help spur the transition to a fully computer based system by removing districts’ incentives to delay.

In the end, all that educators are looking for is an accountability system that gives a fair and accurate picture of the health of a district. I still assert that standardized testing alone will not accomplish this goal and that we need a more comprehensive accountability system that takes a holistic approach based on more than test scores, but that is a larger discussion for another day.  In the meantime, I believe that the steps outlined above would certainly help in moving us in a direction that provides greater clarity and equity in our current accountability system

Monday, October 17, 2016

A narrative is like a room ...

A narrative is like a room on whose walls a number of false doors have been painted; while within the narrative, we have many apparent choices of exit, but when the author leads us to one particular door, we know it is the right one because it opens. - John Updike

As the Charter school debate continues to blaze, in this state and across the country, it is helpful to examine the narrative which is driving this push by charter advocates to increase the number of charter schools. Charter School advocates assert that every child is entitled to the opportunity for a high quality educational experience and that traditional public schools, particularly in our urban areas, are “failing” in their duty to provide such services. We have for the past 20 years or so labored under our current educational policy agenda centered upon state standards, standardized assessments and punitive consequences for schools for failure to meet those standards. As a result of these polices, overall performance on Tests such as NAEP and PISA showed some improvement, but gaps still exist between the aggregate scores for all students and some subgroups such as those delineated by race, economic status and/or students with disabilities. However, rather than blame the policies that drive this system for these gaps, the blame for that failure is being placed upon the districts and schools responsible for implementing them.

Charter school advocates would now have us include within this narrative that charter schools are inherently better than public schools and thus we should have more of them to allow parents the “choice” of a better education for their children. The data does not bear out this viewpoint however, as although there are some high performing charter schools just as there are high performing traditional public schools, when taken in the aggregate, charters do not score appreciably higher on state assessments. Additionally, recent studies seem to shed light on the fact that charter students may be less prepared than their traditional public school counterparts for success in college and careers.

The idea of charter schools has now gone well beyond the mission for which they were originally conceived. Charters were never designed to replace public schools, but rather to fill the gaps for specific populations of students and as a laboratory for innovations that could then be shared with traditional public schools thereby serving to improve the system as a whole. This sharing of innovative practices has yet to come to fruition and often charters themselves seem reluctant to participate in that practice.

As an example, let’s take a look at the publically available employment contract for the Rising Tide Public Charter School in Plymouth. According to the language found in the confidentiality provision of the employment contract for the that school, teachers are prohibited from sharing information with others which “includes but is not limited to matters of a technical nature such as methods of instruction, curriculum development, proposed changes to curriculum, and similar items…” This demonstrates that not only are charters uninterested in sharing any practices with public schools, their teachers are, at least at this school, specifically prohibited from doing so.

In addition to this hurdle, the 2014 report of MA State Auditor Suzanne Bump found, among other flaws in the accountability and oversight by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, that the mechanisms for “sharing” of innovative practices had not even been established. Consequently, although substantial questions remain about the accountability, oversight and funding of charter schools, we are to believe that the solution is to increase their number.

Competition for scarce resources from the state also adds to the complexity of this question. Policy makers who favor our current system often like to assert that the development of Massachusetts statewide standards for teaching and learning coupled with assessment of those standards through a standardized state test propelled our Commonwealth on an upward trajectory from a good educational system to a great one that leads the country and is competitively ranked among the best in the world. However, what those same individuals overlook, or at best downplay, is the massive infusion of money and resources that accompanied that change in practice.

We now find ourselves in a similar situation as faced our Commonwealth in the early 1990’s with the Foundation Budget Review Commission finding last year that schools in Massachusetts are underfunded by billions of dollars. In McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education, the Supreme Judicial Court held that the education clause of our Commonwealth’s Constitution is not “merely aspirational or hortatory, but also imposes on the Commonwealth an enforceable duty to provide an education for all its children, rich and poor, in every city and town through the public schools.”  We can only hope that it won’t take a looming court case like McDuffy to spur necessary legislative action.

Today however, rather than explore policy changes that might remedy this situation, charter advocates assert that we must increase the number of charter schools so that students have the “choice” to attend a higher performing school. This argument defies logic as the creation of more charter schools would strip even more resources from struggling schools in our neediest communities already found to be underfunded by the review commission. How will this do other than exacerbate the disparity and increase the challenges faced by our neediest schools and populations?

One need only look to the disarray created in other large urban environments such as Chicago and Detroit to see the educational chaos that results from charter caps and regulations that are too loose allowing for the creation of weak charters that fail to meet the needs of their student populations. There is a reason that millions of dollars are pouring into Massachusetts from out of state interests in support of more charters in this state. Right now in Massachusetts we have relatively few charter school run by “for profit” management companies. Raising the cap on Charters in the Commonwealth could result in a system that sees the influx of more of these entities risking the results found across the country when profit is placed before educational considerations. Please let us remember that these are PUBLIC funds that those entities are using to profit themselves.

I can already hear charter advocates complaining that this is a doomsday scenario. However, that is but one risk inherent in this push to increase the number of charters in our state. The argument that increased number of charter creates a competitive environment where traditional public schools will be encouraged to rise to the occasion fails to take into account that in competition there is always a winner and a loser. None of our children should be losers when it comes to access to a free and appropriate public education.  It is time to ignore the false doors and find the door that opens to supporting educational opportunities for all our children. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

It is time to do that which is hard...

Well, it’s that time of year again when, with a big yawn and stretch, our schools slowly awake from their summer slumber as staff and students return after their annual summer hiatus. Soon the halls will once again be filled with life. This is a period of expectation with the whole year before us. The trials and tribulations of last year that wore us down have faded and we are emotionally charged, expectant, and ready to embrace the school year before us.

These are turbulent times in public education as schools adapt to the new realities of the cultural shifts affecting our society. Reflecting upon the challenges facing public education in our country I am forced to ask myself when as a nation did we stop dreaming big? From manifest destiny, the building of the intercontinental railroad and the development of the assembly line to the establishment of our National Parks, the construction of the interstate highway system, and travel to the moon Americans have always dreamed big. While the execution of those dreams was at times questionable and the steps taken may have created controversy, it was the vision, drive and willpower, both individually and collectively, to achieve greatness that propelled this country to leadership on the world stage.

On September 12, 1962, President Kennedy delivered what is commonly referred to as his "We choose to go to the moon" speech.

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.

President Kennedy committed us to reaching the moon within the decade of the 1960’s. He had no idea whether we would succeed or fail. It was a big risk, but one which he believed was essential for our country. He recognized that, even if we were to fail, the advances created in the attempt alone were worth the effort. So he took that risk and led us down the difficult path towards what seemed at the time an unreachable goal.  

When did we as a country stop doing that which is hard? When did we become a risk adverse myopic society fixated on transactions lacking the patience and political willpower for large scale transformational change? Such change is often difficult to measure, except over time, requires working together to build consensus and will entail mistakes and setbacks along the way.  The polarization of our political environment prioritizes Party over progress, maintaining power over doing that which is right, and consequently tweaks rather than transforms our current systems. This is particularly true with respect to public education.

One personal quality that I admit can be both a boon and a burden is that I am not good at moderation. I have a strong tendency to go “all in”. About seven years ago I decided to start running for the first time. Within eight months of that first run, I ran my first marathon. Shortly thereafter I began competing in triathlons. Within one year of making that decision I competed in my first half-ironman triathlon. I relay these examples not to brag, although I must admit I am proud of those accomplishments, but to provide context and understanding for the following: When asked what my goal is as an educator my response is always, “To reform public education”.

I am not so arrogant to believe that I can actually accomplish this on my own, but my goal remains as I take every opportunity to work with likeminded individuals to collectively change our educational system. The work is hard, but necessary, as our system must change to meet the needs of today’s students and society. In my district I encourage my teachers to take risk, try something new and work together to change our practices as much as the possible within the constraints of our current system. However, if we are to make real, substantive, and lasting progress we need to change the current educational polices that work to inhibit that change through a primary focus on measuring and accountability rather than innovation. 

Consequently, to the teacher in the classroom I ask, what are you doing to utilize the latest technologies and change your practices as new opportunities for your students become available? To the administrator in the building I ask, how are you supporting those teachers by encouraging and modeling these practices through your own actions? And, most importantly, to our policy makers I ask, what are you doing to listen to all educators (rather than a select chosen few) and support necessary changes to our system providing flexibility for growth and transformation? I ask these questions not to criticize, but to encourage you to think beyond the immediate to what is possible.           

It is time to stop merely doing that which is easy or expedient and work together to do that which is hard by instituting necessary reform. It is time to put aside Party to do that which is best for our country and its children. It is time to remember what truly made America great finding the vision and courage to set long term goals while practicing the patience to see the process through. It’s time to stop arguing over increasing the cap on charter schools or what new test we will use or how to prove educators are doing their jobs, thus breaking this fixation on tweaking policies that have proven ineffective at providing desired results. It’s a new school year and it’s time to do, once again, that which is hard. Dream big and go “all in” to reform public education. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

There has to be a better way...

It’s that time of year again. State standardized testing season is upon us. Across the Commonwealth students in grades 3 and up will have the opportunity to prove what they have learned over the course of this year through their performance on a standardized state assessment. At least, theoretically, that it is what these tests are supposed to measure. The results from these tests will then be used to hold teachers, schools, and districts accountable, ranking our schools across the state from lowest to highest based almost exclusively on the performance of their students on these exams. In order to maximize performance, schools often try not to schedule more than one session per day as student performance declines in subsequent sessions due to fatigue. Furthermore, due to staffing, resource constraints, and students needing accommodations, different grade levels are tested at different times and on different days. Consequently, with multiple sessions in each content area across many days, the disruption to the learning environment and lost instructional time has a substantial impact in our schools.     

Advocates of this approach assert that such an accountability systems is essential, for otherwise how are we to know how our schools are performing.  Without such a system how can we compare one school and district to another? Without such a system how can we identify weak schools or teachers? These arguments are easily understandable and seem logical when taken at face value. However, educators know that these arguments are buttressed by false logic inherent in their formation and based upon the presumption that these tests, taken in isolation, are a true and accurate measure of school and teacher performance as well as individual student achievement.  In reality the steps necessary to gain a true picture of a district and school’s performance are much more complex and comprised of a rich tapestry of indicators. The difficulty is that the complexity of that process is difficult to boil down to a number or data point.

Complex policy discussions are difficult today because the media forces us to argue in soundbites. Additionally, the emergency atmosphere currently surrounding education leads to a situation where immediate results are seen as necessary to reform what is continually portrayed as a failing system. This creates an environment where actions taken are transactional instead of transformational. Transformation of a system takes time and patience. It involves false starts, failures and trips down blind alleys. However, in the end, such time spent would result in a transformed system that is reshaped in the image of our modern society and culture. Today in education, everybody is talking about innovation, but few are doing anything truly innovative. Our current system is designed to drive us toward standardized delivery of education services which inhibits necessary innovation and mires us in mediocrity. Pockets of excellence do emerge, but it is difficult as we struggle upstream against the deluge of polices flooding our overburdened system. Educators realize this, but are held hostage to our test scores as these are the primary metric by which the state judges our performance.

This year in Massachusetts the situation has reached a level that is truly unbelievable. Students across the state will be taking multiple forms of state assessments.  Students in some districts will continue taking the traditional paper based MCAS exam. Other students will be taking the paper based PARCC exam and still others will be taking the PARCC exam on computers. Further complicating the picture is the fact that some districts whose students took the PARCC exam on computer last year have now switched back to have them take it on paper instead. Why you might ask? The answer is that student performance across the state demonstrated that students did better when taking the exam on paper as opposed to computer.  Given the high stakes nature of the results of these exams for districts one can’t fault systems for trying to give themselves a competitive advantage by gaming the system. However, what do such strategies have to do with an accurate measurement of student achievement?

The state will point out that schools that have chosen to have their students take PARCC will be “held harmless” if their scores decline. The problem is that schools will only be held harmless for students’ achievement scores and not participation rates. Across the state parents, concerned about the impact that the chaotic approach to standardized testing outlined above is having upon the educational environment in our schools, are expressing their dissatisfaction in the only way left to them: by opting their children out of standardized state assessments. No one is listening to their concerns, so they are left with no alternative course of action.. Now, administrators are anxious as this will create a situation which negatively impacts schools and districts as they decline in “levels” when their participation rates fall.  Furthermore, the state refuses to set up a process to even track the number of students who are opted out. One can only assume that they don’t want to have the ability to accurately report how many students were opted out as they feel that this might encourage the movement.

There has to be a better way. It is time to infuse some rationality into this discussion. It is time to put these state accountability provisions on hold while we work on the next generation MCAS exam that is currently under development. The problem is that the development of that exam is being rushed because of an extremely aggressive timeline scheduled to have that exam ready for next year. I do not fault the efforts of those working on that project, but rarely does a rushed development process lead to a solid end product. We need to stop worrying about merely getting this new exam done and worry rather about getting it right. We need to work together to determine what is the most focused and concise exam possible to minimize the disruption to instructional time in our schools, yet still garner the information we need to assess performance. We need to ask the question if something else such as performance based assessment measures could help provide a more complete picture of student performance.  We need to work to develop a set of additional school performance indicators to obtain an accurate and comprehensive picture of school and district performance so that we are not relying on test scores alone. We need to take the time to do the hard work of creating a comprehensive system that gives us an accurate picture of our schools rather than quickly coble together one which merely replicates the problems of the past.  This is an opportunity for us to get this right; to learn from the past 20 years and develop a system that will transform public education for the 21st century.