Putting together the puzzle pieces

Delaware won the Federal Race to the Top grant in 2010. With it came to the state $120 million. Of that $120 million, the 19 school districts and 20+ charter schools received roughly half to implement key programs like data coaches ($8.2 million to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.). The other half of that $120 million was reserved for the DoE to use toward their internal programming. These funds likely went towards new units at DoE like the Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Unit and other areas of bureaucratic largesse.

However, it was revealed quite a while back that the state hadn’t fully spent its half of the RttT funds by the time the grant expired on June 30, 2014. They were given an exception by Federal DoE to keep the funds as long as they were to use it in an appropriate manner.It’s expected that those leftover RttT funds will be used toward this Priority Schools initiative in Red Clay and Christina.

In order to fully inform myself where the monies are expected to come from for these Priority Schools AND to get an idea of HOW the DoE’s portion of RttT funds were spent in those four years, I sent the following email to DoE Sec. Mark Murphy:

Hello, Sec. Murphy:

 

Hope the school year has gotten off to a great start for you. I’m feeling quite at home with my new friends at Warner Elementary. They’re quite the dedicated and talented staff.
In doing my own research related to the proposed Priority Schools in my District, I’m interested in getting some financial information from you. In this email, I’m requesting year-by-year financial reports on how the Department spent its portion of the Race to the Top funds. As is known, roughly half of the $120 million dollars went to the school districts and the other half remained at the Department. I’d first like to know the total amount received as the Department’s portion. I’d then like to see the annual reports of how those monies were spent. As well, I’d like to see how much has been unspent and what projects DoE will be doing in order to spend down those monies.
If this information is easily accessible — and digestible — on the Department website, please feel free to forward me to that link. I’ve had members in my Association question me about this new Priority Schools initiative and the potential connection to RttT. Some of those members and myself are quite concerned about the lack of details provided at the press conference on Thursday and would like to peruse financials to learn more.
Hope you enjoy the weekend and thanks so much for your assistance,
Mike

It’s also expected that a California transplant named as DoE’s Chief Accountability and Performance Officer, Penny Schwinn, will be heading up this project at DoE. For those interested, John Young has some information on what Mrs. Schwinn brings to Delaware.For some perspective, she has less than a handful of years of actual teaching experience. At last month’s State Board of Education meeting, she was quoted by multiple sources, myself included, as saying that violence in our city communities “isn’t necessarily something our children need to overcome.” Mrs. Schwinn must have some perspective to make that comment. However, considering she only started her job in Delaware on June 9 of this year, I fail to see how her perspective and understanding is relevant.

I’ve shared with some of my RCEA members my concerns about the state’s plans. There is still much internal discussion to be had, particularly with our three impacted buildings, Warner, Shortlidge, and Highlands Elementary Schools. Within the next week, I’m sure you’ll all be hearing as more and more information and interpretation of said information is digested. Stay tuned.

 

Partnership Zone v2.0?

I pride myself on having excellent long-term memory. As friends and family would likely attest, my short-term memory regarding things like what I ate last night or where I placed my wallet is severely poor. However, I can remember bizarre facts to the day about something I was doing 20 years ago.

Though I don’t recall who recruited me, in my first year of teaching I was selected — likely by my union — to serve on the planning committee for the implementation plans for Race to the Top. I received a substitute day to attend a seminar on RttT held at the Groves Center in Marshallton. I didn’t know him then, but I believe future Red Clay School Board President Kenny Rivera was there representing Brandywine School District. ON another day, I remember going to District headquarters, which at the time was still located in the penthouse suite in Linden Park in Pike Creek. My good friend Vicki Seifred was there, if I recall correctly, and we were tasked with reviewing the final RttT application before we were going to submit it to the State for final approval. One of the first questions that left my mouth — this novice, non-tenured teacher’s mouth — was about sustainability. How was Red Clay — in working with the State — going to ensure the SUSTAINABILITY of the funding for the programs that would be included in our Race to the Top application?

The short answer was there was no guarantee of sustainability because Race to the Top, all along, was a temporary program meant to set in motion a few key practices that could be maintained without future funding. PLCs? Data Coaches? $60 million cash straight to the DoE with little accountability? No problem!

Under Race to the Top, provisions for Partnership Zone schools were made. Some of the “lowest-performing” schools could get access to some cash to implement new programming and professional development for its staff. Sounds great, huh? Well how about a mechanism to sustain those funds once they dried up? Ummm…nope! Not part of the discussion. Case closed. Good night.

Imagine my surprise when I was told late last week that three schools in Red Clay would have the “honor” of essentially being the “new” Partnership Zone schools. Only now they’re called Focus Schools. Or, wait, sorry. Scratch that. They’re call “Priority Schools.” Holy hell if only we had the same level of outrage with this rebranding of BS that the public did over New Coke!

The three schools named in Red Clay are Highlands, Shortlidge, and Warner Elementary Schools. Coincidence they’re all located in the city? Hmmmmm…

I don’t at all question some of the positives that can come from this. If these schools are getting funds to run effective and meaningful after school programs or perhaps provide some truly engaging professional development for the teachers within, then by all means let’s have at it. However, until we have:

  1. Identified a sustainable mechanism that can KEEP those funds for key services coming into these SEVERELY high-needs schools and…
  2. Decouple the idea that FAILURE to achieve certain scores on standardized tests would then mean the school would potentially be targeted for closure and turnaround through, of all things, a charter organization.

then you’d better damn well believe you likely won’t get the support of either the EDUCATORS into those buildings or the communities who send their children there.

Priority Schools are borne out of this idea that SOMETHING needs to be done with the bottom 5% of schools in the state. Rather than Gov. Jack Markell and the legislature truly coming together to look at something like our dysfunctional UNIT COUNT system, they’d rather take the easy way out through competitive grants and coercive faux-accountability provisions like No Child Left Behind to further the instability of the communities in which our neediest schools reside.

I’m proud to report that the staffs at the three schools impacted in my District brought their A-game today. At each of the three schools, a District administrator showed up to share the news about this opportunity. Some of the questions in these three buildings were quite direct. In one school, a teacher said with a somewhat quivering voice, “I’ve been here for 16 years and for 16 years our students have been slighted. And now the Governor wants to come here and grandstand?” One member asked a question surrounding sustainability. The response? Well, we can plan for three years and they’re we’ll “have conversations.”

I will say this once again: For too long, teachers have been the type to go along to get along. They neither need nor desire conflict. They want to come in, work with their children, and then go home to their lives with friends and families. However, at a certain point and at certain schools, enough has turned into enough. Teachers are starting to speak up with a clear passion. And no amount of secretive government money or grants will be able to shut that up at this juncture.

Thanks to the members in those three buildings who spoke up. I hope THAT becomes the new norm.

On #ED25 and Tenure

For those of you who’ve known me longer than about the last 37 seconds, you know I’ve been critical in recent years of the whole “education reform” movement, which seeks to define the education profession by our students’ ability to perform well on standardized tests and then take action against schools and educators based on this “results-driven” ideology.

I’ve taken many jabs at education reform groups in Delaware, such as the Rodel Foundation, the Vision Coalition, as well as public bodies like the Department of Education and the State Board of Education, which have preferred to sidle up to these flavor-of-the-week #edreformers. I don’t feel these groups have the best interests of our students in mind, but not out of any malicious intent. I truly believe they feel what they’re doing is what’s best for our students. However, their very myopic, corporate-driven worldview clashes almost wholly with the experiences the educators in our public school system are faced with on a daily basis.

Recently, the Vision Coalition announced a new initiative, #ED25, which is short for Vision 2025. I’ve made jokes in the past pointing to the fact that in the past few years we’ve gone from Vision 2012 to Vision 2015 to — very briefly and comically — Vision 2020 and now Vision 2025. The #edreformers are sensing that they, perhaps, don’t have the ingredients to get the outcomes they’re demanding, so they’ve opted to — again — move the goal posts a decade down the road when it’s very likely a majority of the stakeholders will have moved on to other activities and therefore absolved themselves of any accountability to the movement they built.

Yes, I’ve been critical. And I was going in to today’s #ED25 Community Conversation with a healthy dose of skepticism. I’ve found past Vision and Rodel events to be very scripted and light on key stakeholder participation. By “key stakeholder” I’m referring to parents and teachers. However, today was different, perhaps because the forum was held in the middle of summer when teachers are on their break. The number of teachers who were there and who SPOKE OUT was phenomenal. So great a job they did representing our profession, that I didn’t even feel the need to open my big fat mouth. And, for those who know me, this is a rarity.

One teacher in particular — a librarian from Christina School District — spoke eloquently to the crowd demanding they visit our public schools, saying until they have, that forums like this are like looking down from the clouds with very little perspective. As the event closed, I introduced myself to her and we had a great conversation about teachers finally rising up and responding to the #edreformers who are so casually and wrongly defining our profession for us. She agreed it’s time we need to go on the offense and put OUR message out there to advocate not only for our profession, but for the children we represent 180 days out of the year.

As we finished, this woman was approached by WDEL Reporter Amy Cherry, who wanted to interview her. She was hesitant. She told Amy that she didn’t want to speak up “for fear of losing her job.” Hold the phone. Hold the phone one damn minute. What? I walked right up and interjected and said “You get on that microphone. You need to be heard. What you said today was too valuable. I know your local association president. I know your school board. I know your superintendent. You aren’t going to lose your job for saying what needs to be said.”

And this, my friends, is why we need due process for our educators. This is why the Vergara decision out of California was so poorly decided. Our educators have a voice. This woman was not alone. I can’t count how many times I’ve been told by members in Red Clay “I don’t want to speak up because I fear I may lose my job.”

This is one of the reasons why we’re in the position we’re in. Teachers have allowed those with questionable interests to define the work we do. Too afraid to “rock the boat” and speak out, teachers have just gone along to get along. To do the work they’ve chosen and want to do with their students. To not cause a fuss. To just do their work.

Tenure is a hot topic these days. However, it’s now up to us to wrest from the hands of the reformers their deformed definition of tenure and to get the real definition out there: “Tenure” is due-process rights for teachers who’ve successfully passed a probationary period of teaching (in Delaware that period is three years). “Tenure” affords these teachers a process that includes a fair hearing before the school board before their employment can be terminated. In my (relatively short) experience, tenure has protected far more great teachers who’ve been disciplined because of speaking out than it has “bad teachers” who are plaguing our education system.

Without tenure, would we have been able to rally as many teachers as we did last year to appeal to the school board to slow down the vote on Red Clay’s plans for inclusion? Honestly…would we have? Teachers who were coming out in droves to ADVOCATE for their ELL and students with special needs. Tenure protected their right to speak free from retaliation and potential termination.

With the California judge’s tossing of due process rights for educators, he is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In every way, throwing out those rights will have a negative impact on schools and our children because teachers will be less inclined to speak up than they already are. By eliminating due process, we are hastening terminations in a profession that craves stability and investment from those who’ve chosen to enter it. Want to get rid of the bad teachers? There are processes in place to deal with them — it’s just following them that needs to be done with absolute fidelity.

In essence, the woman afraid to speak on camera today COULD very well be retaliated against and terminated if her employer feels her comments are out of line. Without tenure, her firing would be completely legal and there’d be no recourse. This. Is. Not. Right. Our society should fully value the contributions of our educators, both inside and outside the classroom.

Teachers — we’ve been quiet for too damn long. Every teacher in this state needs to stand up. When you’re at the Thanksgiving table and your crazy uncle starts spouting off on education today and “those damn teacher unions,” it’s your job to shoot down the bullshit as a representative of an ailing profession that needs as much support as it can get. When the governor visits your school and asks how things are going, BE HONEST. Don’t sugarcoat the shit when you have to return to a high school English class with 42 students. Tell him and the legislature to do their damn jobs and look at revising our school funding/class-size system.

Tenure is our right. Due process is our right. We’ve bargained for it. We’ve earned it. Our students have earned it. Keep speaking up, Christina Librarian. We need you. Your students need you.

DE Dept. of Ed. and State Board of Ed. Need to Check Themselves

It’s been an interesting summer break for me. Full-fledged “summer” with the soaring temps outside. Not so much of a “break,” though. And that’s ok. Keeping busy keeps me sharp and out of trouble.

Or so I thought.

Let’s back this train up quick, fast, and in a hurry.

About three weeks ago, the Delaware State Education Association sent a request to all local presidents asking for their assistance in writing letters to the unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education to protest three planned regulation changes regarding teacher evaluations. These regulation changes included:

  1. Reclassifying the “pre-observation form” as the “observation form” and allowing it to be used in conjunction with unannounced observations
  2. Allow for the use of “short observations” (a.k.a. Walkthroughs) as part of a performance evaluation
  3. Changing the summative rating of “Needs Improvement” from “Satisfactory” to “Unsatisfactory”.

A summary of our actions/letters can be found here. This was a whiz-bang effort coordinated by DSEA, as all letters had to be turned in to the unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education two weeks before its scheduled June meeting. I turned my letter around in about a day. It cannot be overstated the value of these letters. Collectively, they represent the voices of THOUSANDS of educators from around the State of Delaware calling into question these recommended regulation changes.

How this works is the Department of Education makes recommendations to the unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education. The unelected and unaccountable State Board then votes on changes at its monthly meeting. There is, of course, a public comment period before the meeting where submissions can be forwarded to the Board for inclusion.

So the unelected and unaccountable State Board receives the thoughtful letters from over a dozen local association presidents. Letters that explicitly spell out WHY we feel these regulation changes are not appropriate for our profession, which in the past decade has seen a rising tide of almost insurmountable bureaucratic BS on top of the day-to-day responsibilities of educating children. Honestly, I figured the local presidents had made a damn-strong case as to why these regulation changes were bad for the profession. Namely, the recommendation that “defines a summative rating of “Needs Improvement” to be considered an Unsatisfactory Evaluation,” which could prematurely hasten the termination process for some of our novice teachers, for whom a “Needs Improvement” has actually been a rating to provide appropriate development and support in the past.

I was shocked to learn last week that all three questionable regulation changes were voted for unanimously by the unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education. How could they have bypassed the considerate letters of concern representing so many thousand teacher voices? How? I had much to think about.

In the meantime, I’d scheduled myself to attend a State Board of Education Workshop in Dover to hear teacher evaluation framework goddess Charlotte Danielson speak. I’ve long admired Danielson’s work. Although her framework has been effectively bastardized by states across the country and applied in punitive manners — against her wishes — I’ve always enjoyed her candor and experience on the topic.

I went in to this meeting knowing what question I would ask. In effect, “Ms. Danielson, you have said that you don’t appreciate when your framework is used in a punitive manner. Well, in Delaware just last week, our State Board of Education voted on a regulation change related to how a teacher rated ‘Needs Improvement’ would be evaluated as ‘Unsatisfactory,’ which could hasten the termination of some of our youngest teachers. As someone who has shared concerns with using your framework in punitive ways, do you believe it’s right for our State Board of Education to have voted in this manner?”

That is not quite how the question came out, but that was the gist of it. So, I asked the question. And, you know something? It obviously pissed some folks off. Immediately after the question and NOT EVEN ALLOWING MS. DANIELSON TO RESPOND, one member of the unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education assailed me as having not known what I was talking about. In front of a crowd of perhaps 50 people. I said “Sir, I have the regulation language right here.” Meanwhile, a Department of Education employee chided me “Mike, you’ve got it all wrong.” I said “Oh do I now?” In conversations I had with others AFTER the contentious meeting, it became clear to me that I did not have anything wrong.

The unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education member took offense that I had characterized his body in such a manner as to pervert the intent of Charlotte Danielson’s framework for teacher evaluation. He didn’t like that I called out his unelected and unaccountable body in a public manner. 

I stand by the comment I made.The unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education needs to check itself and start listening more to the teachers who work for the children of Delaware as opposed to the bureaucrats in the Townsend Building who have their own ed-reformy ideology that doesn’t square with best practice in our classrooms. Can’t take criticism from controversial, foolish votes you take on your unelected and unaccountable Board? Then find somewhere else to serve.

I think it’s high time the State Legislature look at the power the unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education wields. And they also need to look at the cozy relationship between the Department of Education and the unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education. Time for some legislation clarifying their roles.

$12,960,000

Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) have had mixed success in Delaware. However, from my District’s perspective and the members my Association has surveyed, I’d say results have been downright negative. While many have felt they’ve been effective, many more have found them to be a burdensome waste of time that has continued to fill up teachers’ already full plates. Teachers throughout the state have lost valuable planning, personal, and instructional time to complete these required meetings.

And they’re set to go away this year.

Rumor has it the state is trying to force into Department of Education regulation the continuation of PLCs, which have been a requirement under the expiring Race to the Top grant. I’m not generally one to report on “rumor,” but I’ve heard this one from multiple reliable sources.

Let me put it like this, Department of Education: Teachers are bogged down with the seemingly endless requirements you place on us in the name of data! data! data! and bureaucratic largesse.

You want to continue with PLCs? Time to pay up.

About 8,000 teachers in Delaware.
90 minutes of PLC per week.
$27 per hour of Extra Pay for Extra Responsibility outside the school day.
40 weeks per school year.
My extremely rough estimate is $12,960,000.

Our time is valuable, too. We’ve lost our contractually obligated planning time. We’ve lost our personal time outside of the school day. Our students, at times, have lost valuable time with us so that we could attend these meetings during the school day.

Any changes in state code or regulation that seek to codify PLCs had better have a fiscal note attached. Anything less is an insult to the thousands of teachers who’ve had to work through this ineffectual edreform micromanagement known as PLCs.

Email to Members of RCEA re: class-size waiver

RCEA Members:
As many of you know, Delaware State Code mandates that class sizes in grades K-3 be capped at no more than 22 students. For years, almost every school district has never met this part of state code. Meaning, class sizes have generally crept up over 22 students. It has become a regular practice for all school boards in the state to pass a waiver to this requirement. It’s become a routine. A district can’t make the class-size mandate? Pass a waiver.
 
Until now.
 
On Wednesday night, the Red Clay School Board met for its monthly meeting. On the agenda was the annual class-size-waiver vote. The Director of Elementary Schools gave a detailed, informative presentation on the waiver and listed the schools that didn’t meet the law’s requirements. Of our 14 elementary schools, only two met the class-size requirements outlined in state law. So, the District was asking the Board to grant it a waiver for those schools.
 
Discussion at the Board meeting was lively and engaging surrounding this issue. It’s clear we’ve reached a tipping point in how our schools are funded and how units (teachers) are used in schools. For years, the Board has held its nose while it’s passed this waiver. I say “held its nose” because I’ve never spoken to a Board member who’s LIKED passing the waiver. For years, we’ve seen these waivers pass in most districts with little action on the state level to bring about some change. For years we’ve continued to see our class sizes in K-3 hover above 22 students (sometimes hover way above 22 students). For years. For years. For years.
 
Well, on Wednesday night, the Board voted on the waiver and the motion failed to garner the four-vote majority needed for passage. The vote tied, 3-3, with one Board member absent. Many parents, educators, and community members in the audience cheered. It is my understanding that Red Clay is the first district in state history to say “No” to the class size waiver.
 
RCEA took no position on this waiver frankly, because, we’d become so accustomed to its annual passage and hadn’t even considered it at our last Rep Council meeting. Now, to be sure, we have always listened to the concerns teachers have brought to us regarding class sizes and have had great conversations with District on how we can progress in this area. Those conversations with District have often led to positive actions to help reduce class sizes in some instances well before the time of year when the waiver comes to the Board for a vote. Also, RCEA philosophically believes that smaller class sizes will achieve far greater student results, particularly in our highest-needs schools, where research shows that lowering class sizes to between 13-17 can have a very dramatic impact.
 
In the coming weeks you will be hearing more from RCEA on Actions that you can take to get the conversation started about class sizes and school funding issues. I’ve spoken personally with half-a-dozen legislators in Dover who are ready to tackle this issue. However, in order to gain any traction, we will need you. We will need your phone calls. We will need your letters. We will need you to show up to legislative events. We will need you at Board meetings. We will need you talking to your families and neighbors. We will need you to communicate that though the State’s 16.2 students to 1 teacher ratio SEEMS totally great, when put into practice it’s extremely challenging. You see, out of that ratio we also need to have schools staffed with ABSOLUTELY essential personnel like unified arts teachers, counselors, behavior specialists, psychologists, EDs, etc. These positions are CRITICAL to schools running smoothly, yet by their very nature they then increase the student-to-teacher ratio in our elementary homerooms.
 
There are still many questions to ask and answer about “what this vote means” for the educators and students in Red Clay. RCEA is working closely with District Administration, which is in turn working with the State Department of Education to figure out a path forward in the wake of the waiver vote’s failure. What we know, though, is that it’s clear people have had enough of the state and its underfunded class-size mandate. If the state is going to require classes be a certain size, then it’s time they find the funding and support what WE as educators know is best practice. And that is smaller, more manageable class sizes. The state can talk all it wants about “teacher effectiveness” and “teacher quality” and “Component V” and “rigor” and “data! data! data!,” but WE know what works. We live it every day. WE know our students. We greet them every morning. WE know our jobs. We do them all the time. It’s time the State supported us in what WE know is the right thing to do.
 
As I said to some people on Wednesday evening, we are entering uncharted territory with this vote. We may have some challenging conversations and actions ahead of us.
 
But then no one said our jobs were ever going to be easy.
 
All the best, have a great weekend, and please stay in touch!
 
Mike