Saturday, May 01, 2010

The Beat Goes On, But Music's Out of Tune

May 1, 2010, 7:10 a.m.

Just When I Thought There Was No More School News
(brought to you by*)

Schools Update

[If you're looking for links to the prior 11-part series on the recent superintendent search, see "Superintendent Murley's Calm Seas, Smooth Sailing," April 29, 2010.]

When I was asked how I liked being a school board member I often responded, "Well, you may not get any pay, but at least you get a lot of grief." Now it turns out, when it comes to paying for our redistricting efforts we may have the reverse of that: "We may not have solved the boundaries problem during the last year, but at least it's cost us a lot of money."

This morning's Gazette reports, Gregg Hennigan, "Iowa City Schools Paid $106,000 for Consultant," The Gazette, May 1, 2010, p. A3. (Why do we have to get that news from Cedar Rapids? Why wasn't that story in the Press-Citizen -- or did I just miss it?)

But how good is the Board's data? Julie Eisele, "Letter: Where is School Board Getting Information?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 1, 2010, p. A11. Apparently the "dangers" of students driving to school along I-80 -- which some parents and Board members have used as an argument against one of the proposed boundary changes -- are statistically substantially less than their driving on in-city routes (according to studies by the staff of the Johnson County Council of Governments, JCCOG).

It's reminiscent of Mark Twain's observation that "It's not what we don't know that hurts us, it's what we know that ain't so." [The quote, in a variety of forms, is variously attributed to Mark Twain, Will Rogers, and others. (The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations, 1987, attributes it to Josh Billings.)

Or, as the poster in the modest office of one of my favorite one-time school superintendents put it: "In God we trust. All others bring data." (Attributed to W. Edwards Demming.)

Oh, and how is the neighboring, big city approach to redistricting going; the one that I wrote about recently? Right on schedule. It took exactly the planned two weeks from the Board's first announcement, through informing parents, public meetings -- to the Board's vote last Tuesday night. And what did their consultant cost them? Not a dime. So far as I know they didn't have one. Is there a lesson there? See "School Boundaries: There Are Better Ways; Options Include: (1) Others' Practices, and (2) Common Sense; The Rock Island-Milan School District," April 16, 2010; and Nicole Lauer, "Rock Island board changes boundaries for six schools," Dispatch-Argus Quad-Cities Online, April 27, 2010.

Now our City Council wants to weigh in on the Board's redistricting with a meeting Monday. That should be a big help -- notwithstanding a Council member's acknowledgment that, "We still feel this is a decision to be made by the School Board." Lee Hermiston, "Iowa City Council to Discuss Redistricting," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 1, 2010, p. A1.

Actually, I think the Iowa City metropolitan area should do a lot more working together (as the School District ought to do a lot more working with other local educational institutions such as Regina and Kirkwood). That's what JCCOG is about. After all, our total population is roughly that of an apartment development in one of the world's larger cities. And yet we're served with dozens of city councils, police and fire departments, bus companies, school districts, and other governmental units and institutions. The City of Iowa City (amongst a great many other organizations) does have a stake in school boundaries. Where they're drawn has an impact on City services (e.g., water, sewer, roads, fire and police), property tax revenues, and the direction of business and residential growth and "development," including that impact on green space and flood control. Unfortunately, we don't currently have the process set up to create, utilize and have the School District benefit from input provided by the City Council of Iowa City (and Coralville, at an earlier meeting).

Students' performance; SINA; and No Child Left Behind

And speaking of educational data, and "what we know that ain't so," take a look at Rob Daniel's "Schools Try to Improve in Math and Reading," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 1, 2010, p. A1.

This could be (and undoubtedly has been) a subject for a doctoral dissertation at a college of education. So I'll just make one little point.

Years ago, as a school board member concerned about our schools' performance, while doing some research on the Internet, I came upon the rankings of schools in either Massachusetts or Connecticut. I don't now remember which. Anyhow, they did not compare the schools with each other on the basis of students' test scores. They compared each school with itself. So a school with an average 82 percentile score was considered a SINA school (not literally, but figuratively) if a reasonable expectation, for that school, would have been a 94 percentile score. Similarly, a school that one would reasonably predict would have a 27 percentile score would be heralded as a great success when it came in at the 42 percentile.

Similarly, Iowa City parents and School Board members, do what you need to do under federal and state law. But if you feel some need to do a comparative evaluation of Iowa City's schools, to make sure you buy a home where your kid can go to "the best" school, make sure you're looking at the right numbers. For example, you might want to look at the progress of the children of middle and upper class parents who stay in the same school from kindergarten through sixth grade. How much progress do they make during those seven years? That's apples-to-apples, schools-to-schools. Or, similarly, consider the children of poor, homeless parents who spend only one year (but at least one full year) in the school. How much progress do those students make in a year? (The same could be done, if you cared to, for race, ethnicity, and special needs students.)

My own (uninformed by such data) opinion is that by those measures all of our schools are roughly equal. We have good teachers everywhere. It's kind of silly to make major decisions on the basis of which school is "best" -- but it's especially silly if your data mixes the test scores of the homeless kid who only stayed in the school for four months with those of the over privileged who spend seven years there. I wouldn't be surprised to discover, with an apples-to-apples comparison, that some of our SINA and high percentage "free-and-reduced-lunch" schools are actually the District's "best" schools. Why? Because, like the old Avis Rental Car ad, their teachers have to "try harder." (Avis' "We try harder" campaign was launched by then-Avis CEO Robert Townsend.)

Pounding nails. You know the concept: Don't be too outstanding in your organization or, like a nail that's sticking out, you'll just be pounded down. I don't know why institutions tend to get rid of their very best people. Oh, I have some ideas, but I won't go into that here. But we may have yet another example from within our School District.

I acknowledge a lack of first-hand knowledge of the facts. But that's never held me back before. But apparently City High has a program called Fas Trac that, while it may need some proof reading help with its spelling, is otherwise working wonders in turning kids' lives around under the charismatic leadership of someone named Henri Harper.

So what is the District doing? It's laying him off and redesigning the program he created into something much more conventional and easily managed. See Editorial, "Programs Only As Good As the Staff Who Run Them," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 1, 2010, p. A11; and two letters to the editor: Claire Ashman, "Changes With Fas Trac; Fas Trac Program is a Success, So Why Cut Teacher?" and Annie Tucker, "Changes With Fas Trac; Fas Trac is Essential in Eliminating Systemic Inequity," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 1, 2010, p. A11.

Wow! And just when I thought there would be nothing more to say about the local schools this morning, and that I'd probably be writing about the joys, campaign contributions, politics of -- and lessons from -- off shore drilling for oil.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
# # #

1 comment:

Nick said...

Notice Regarding Advertising: This blog runs an open comments section. All comments related to blog entries have (so far) remained posted, regardless of how critical. Although I would prefer that those posting comments identify themselves, anonymous comments are also accepted.

The only limitation is that advertising posing as comments will be removed. That is why, if one or more of the comments posted on this blog essay contained links to unrelated matter, they no longer appear here.
-- Nick