Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The New Black Migration: Suburbs or Bust.

A few years ago, I ran across a truly remarkable find while cleaning out my classroom and this little jewel completely captured the heart & soul of parents in urban America.

No, it was not a lottery ticket.

No, instead it was something much more powerful, much more sincere, and much more profound.

To understand the gravity of this item, you have understand the community in which I teach.

I work at a suburban high school that borders the city of Detroit. Eight Mile, the iconic, real and symbolic division between Detroit and its northern suburbs made famous by rap artist Eminem, is a mere 1 1/2 miles south from my high school. In fact, for Detroiters living just south of Eight Mile, my high school is closer to them than the nearest Detroit Public Schools' high school.

Also unique about my high school is that my district is one of only a small number of traditional public school districts that make themselves a multi-county school of choice. Many people think school of choice is a debate between traditional public schools and charter schools, but that only begins to scratch the surface of the Suq-like environment of school enrollment. The following paragraph is a primer on school choice in Michigan: If you know the dealio, feel free to skip.

In 1996, then Republican Governor John Engler successfully pushed for legislation that would allow school districts the option of enrolling non-resident students in their districts. Previously, parents had no choice but to enroll their children in their resident school district. Some districts even had strict policies limiting parents to one specific school within their resident district. The only other option for parents at the time was paying tuition at a private school or traditional school (usually in very affluent communities). Charter schools at this time were still relatively new and usually catered only urban residents.

Considered wildly progressive (ahem.... in conservative terms) for the time, this legislation modified Section 105 & 105c of the School Aid Act of 1979, allowing districts to enroll students in the same county ISD or in the contiguous neighboring county ISDs. It also gave districts the power to limit school of choice to a pre-defined number of seats, to a specific grade level, to a specific academic program or to prohibit students who had documented discipline problems. School districts that enrolled choice students received the lesser of their foundation allowance or the foundation allowance of the student's resident district.

The result is that, depending on where they live, parents have dozens of options for their children. For example, in Macomb County, a collection of working class and middle class communities, most school districts are county-wide schools of choice districts. That is to say if you live in St. Clair Shores, you can attend schools in Warren Consolidated, Sterling Heights, Fraser or Eastpointe, and many more. If you live in Oakland County, which has more affluent and exclusive communities, fewer districts are choice districts. However, because many of the schools in Oakland County are high performing schools, beating state averages on standardized tests, most families are satisfied with their resident districts. Indeed, inherent in an upscale neighborhood's exclusivity is of course the exclusivity of its schools. Non-residents not wanted.

But my school district is somewhat different. Oak Park is a small, mostly African American middle class suburb. It was once a strong hold of the Jewish community and still is home to many Orthodox Jews. The majority of its homes are modestly sized post-war brick bungalos and ranches. Oak Park, for the most part, is a bedrest community, lacking major industry or big box retail. The median family income in Oak Park is almost $55,000, which is above the national average and far above that of Detroit.

The Oak Park School District is unique among Oakland county schools because it is one of only a small number of districts that border Detroit that enroll students in six contiguous county ISDs, Macomb, Lapeer, Geneesee, Livingston, Washtenaw, and Wayne County. Nearly all of those counties I mentioned are much too far from Oak Park for any parent to make a twice daily school commute. But, not Wayne County. For residents of Wayne County, namely Detroit, Oak Park School District is an excellent choice. The Oak Park Schools outperform nearly all Detroit Public Schools, with the exception of Detroit's few examination schools and a sprinkle of charter schools.

It is not surprising then that because of Oak Park's proximity to Detroit and its performance record, an Oak Park administrator discovered several years ago that an astonishing 40 different zip codes were reflected in Oak Park's enrollment data, most from Detroit. The actual city of Oak Park only has 1 zip code. That means thousands of non-resident students are being educated in the 3,500 student Oak Park School District.

However, I must put things into perspective. Oak Park School District, particularly the High School, lags in performance compared to most other Oakland County schools. All of the districts that surround Oak Park in Oakland County, Southfield, Ferndale, & Berkley out perform Oak Park students. In fact, Oak Park High School, along with dozens of other schools, was identified as one of the worst performing schools in the state of Michigan.

So while Oak Park is a better option for Detroit Parents, it still is an option that presents some compromise.

This brings us to the artifact I found in my room.

As I was cleaning out my room a few years ago, I ran across a book of religious prayers and inspirational stories. It was not mine, and I thought it might belong to a parent, since parent teacher conferences were held the week prior. As I opened the cover in search of a name, a small piece of paper fell out. There was no name in the book. There was no name on the piece of paper. But, there was an earnest plea to God, scrawled in neat print handwriting. It read as follows:

"Dear God. Please bless me and my children with a 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom home in the Birmingham School District for around $800 [a month]. I know that through you, all things are possible. Thank you for everything you have done for me."

As a new parent, this simple 3 sentence prayer almost brings me to tears. I can fully identity with and appreciate this parent's quest to find a high performing school for her children. Though I don't know who that parent is, judging from the demographic of the school, it is likely to be a middle class, African American single mother from the city of Detroit. She has likely not even considered a Detroit Public School as an option for her child, and instead chosen Oak Park High Schools as the next best alternative. And still she wants more.

I dearly hope that God has delivered an answer to that woman and her children. Hers is a desire that all parents share; a desire to give their child the best education possible.

However, her dreams of Birmingham are far fetched and unlikely. The city of Birmingham is an ultra exclusive city of the region's most wealthy households. Median income for a family in Birmingham is over $110,000. The city's streets are finely dotted with homes that run well over $500,000 and $1,000,000. Scores of luxury vehicles line the city sidewalks, especially in Downtown Birmingham, where on a summer weekend, you are very likely to see Maserattis, Maybachs, and, Bentleys, oh my.

There is no home that she will be able to find in Birmingham for an $800 mortgage. At best she'll have to settle for an apartment style 800-900 sqft 2 bedroom, 1 bath rental condo for $850 and modify her prayers to ask God that the housing market remain in a recession and that the owner of the condo does not sell it at the conclusion of her lease. Short of that miracle scenario, there is very little possibility that that she will be a Birmingham resident. But, I do believe in miracles and I hope that as you read this, her family is enjoying a scoop of Kilwin's ice cream on Birmigham's prestigious Old Woodward Ave.

This is the essence of the American Dream, the constant struggle for upward mobility towards greater prosperity. Any school child enrolled in a civics class can tell you of the great migration of blacks from the south to the north in search of better civil rights, better economic opportunities, and better lives. Detroit's automotive industry is singularly credited as being the catalyst that brought large waves of blacks to the city. Because of prejudicial real estate laws and practices, Detroit was often the only city where blacks could live. Following the 1967 riots, the black population in Detroit exploded, while whites fled the city for surrounding suburbs.

For a number of years, blacks continued to gain greater economic & political power in Detroit. By the 1980s, blacks were running the city, running the schools, and were a dominant demographic in the private automotive sector.

But just as the Big 3 delivered increasing prosperity to the black community, it also tooketh away. Metro-Detroit's high concentration of auto industry jobs (and their dependent non-auto industry jobs) steadily withered away against the might of the new global economy. Cars were being made in Mexico. Parts were being fabricated in China. Call centers were being staffed in India. The simple manufacturing industry that built America and elevated the socio-economic status of millions of black families had dropped to historical lows. The local bakeries, barbershops, repair shops would be soon to follow.

Adding to the economic woes of the city of Detroit were the political and government corruption scandals that brought a feet-moving vote of no confidence in local government from its citizens. Starting with the schools system, the ouster of Superintendent Dr. David Snead (yes, there is a relation) in 1997 set in motion the precipitous demise of the Detroit Public Schools. After Dr. Snead successfully campaigned for Detroit's largest school bond initiative ($1.5 billion), political pressure was brought to bear to steer contracts to campaign supporters of the then elected school board. At the point of his departure, student enrollment and student performance were rising. But after Dr. Snead was forced to retire, two years later the state dismantled the school board, appointed a new reform board of "experts" and hired a new Schools Chief, Dr. Kenneth Burnley.

At the time, many left-wing Detroiters accused Governor Engler and the "sell-out" mayor Dennis Archer of colluding to destroy public education in Detroit. Their claims had always been dismissed as the rantings of a crazed political fringe croup. But, the ending result of the reform board and the old CEO leadership model certainly gave these groups some small shred of credibility. DPS had lost thousands of students, lagged in academic performance, and was millions of dollars in red.

In response, the newly elected school board, installed after the reform board's term ended, made a very questionable decision in selecting leadership. The first school leader they hired was William Coleman, who was the COO under Dr. Burnley. Under Coleman, DPS continued to struggle, though now Coleman had the political freedom to blame his former boss. Coleman would later be indicted on federal bribery charges. The elected school board then selected Dr. Connie Calloway as school superintendent, who previously managed a small 5,700 student district in Missouri. Many pointed to Calloway's lack of experience in a big city district as a recipe for disaster, but the Board gave her the job on the basis of good interviews.

To their credit Calloway & the elected board were slowly beginning to uncover the mismanagement, fraud, and outright criminal activity in central office under the reform board. But their own failure to manage DPS's current financial condition prompted the State Schools Chief, Michael Flanagan, to declare DPS insolvent and formally request that DPS be again taken over by the state and placed in the hands of an Emergency Financial Manager.

Enter Robert Bobb. Bobb, an experienced municipal manager, was given the mandate by the governor to fix DPS's financial problems. That was a huge task. He was given complete authority over all financial matters. Futhermore, Bobb interpreted this mandate to include power over academic matters, because no academic decision can me made in a school system without an impact on finances. Bobb was now the Czar of DPS. He arrived with great fanfare from parents and the media who said that he would once and for all make DPS whole. He ordered audits. He started investigations. He walked the streets like a modern day folk hero. He would make Detroit Public Schools whole.

And the result?

An even worse financial deficit and still dreadful student achievement, the lowest enrollment in decades. Oh, and a ongoing court battle resulting from his failure to communicate with the elected school board over academic actions continues to stall progress.

Adding to the unfortunate plight of the schools system are the troubles of city hall. Duly elected officials have witnessed the full force of the FBI and the local judicial system. Several have fallen under their investigative findings, most notoriously Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and City Council President Pro-Tem Monica Conyers.

Detroit parents, like that mother yearning for the cheap house in upscale Birmingham, have had it with city life. They have seen the writing on the wall. They have found that living just enough for the city isn't a Stevie Wonder hit; it is a condition from which to be freed. They want out. Try as they might, Detroit parents have worked in, around, and through the system. They have fought to improve their schools, had that control taken from them, had it given back to them in worse condition, only to have it taken back again. They have fought like hell and emerged from the fights beaten and worn down. The Executive Director of the Detroit Parent Network, Sharlonda Buckman, barely able to hold back tears, once told a crowd of Detroit parents that someone needed to go to jail for the abysmal performance of Detroit students.

Many parents, like the one with her child in Oak Park and yearning for Birmingham, are tired of fighting.

Recall now the biblical phrase, "from whence comes my help?" It mentions looking up to the hills and Detroiters are doing just that.

They are looking to the Hills of Bloomfield, Auburn Hills, and Rochester Hills. They are looking to the rich green lawns of Troy, Sterling Heights, Farmington, and Gross Pointe. And yes, they are looking to their excellent schools too.

I have no doubt that this mother's prayers have been duplicated by thousands of Detroit parents. The results of the 2010 census will no doubt show that minority populations have increased in suburban cities and overall population in Detroit will yet again hit an all time low. It is well documented that Detroit's once massive 2 million population count has dithered to barely over 800,000, with consensus that the numbers are likely to get even smaller. So while they desperately scramble to enroll their children in charter schools and suburban schools of choice, parents still have their compass set due north. Way north.

This is the New Black Migration. And if school leaders cannot devise a way to make the city schools a viable option for parents who want the best for their children, it will be a migration whose tide will know no end.

Log on next Sunday for the next EduSpiel Blog: The Future of Teacher Unions in 21st Century Schools.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Tough Nerd Goes Back to School

My undergraduate minor in Political Science tells me that Republican Rick Snyder, self described tough nerd, will be the next governor of Michigan.

But, it doesn't take a degree from the University of Michigan to know that Michiganders (Michiganians?) want significant change in Lansing come November. For a variety of reasons, Michigan has been slowly and steadily losing its luster as a premier state with excellent government services, thriving private enterprise, and high quality of life. Michiganders want to return from the fall from grace and my funny bone tells me they are going to make the switch to red to get there.

A big part of that color swatch has to do with the current governor, Democrat Jennifer Granholm. Michiganders have become weary of her inability to solve or even make a noticeable dent in the economic woes of the state that has the 2nd highest unemployment in the nation. To be fair, much of that has little to do with her efforts as governor. Old Rustbelt manufacturing is fading away in the global economy, and Michigan's less than innovative manufacturing firms have played second fiddle to companies that outsource operations to overseas factories at a fraction of the cost. There's simply little a governor can do to convince a Michigan company not to make a product or have a call center in another country where labor costs are literally pennies on the dollar.

Several months ago, Granholm even publicly came to terms that Michigan's economic recovery would not happen under her watch. Privately, I think she'd come to that conclusion years earlier. Regardless of her personal & private proclamations, voters have long laid the blame for Michigan's economic woes at her feet.

Democrat Virg Bernero, Snyder's General Election opponent, promises a continuation of most of Granholm's economic policies, though they have wildly different personal leadership styles. In fact, he is further to the left than Granholm, campaigning on creating a state-run bank & backed early and vigorously by the state's most powerful labor unions. After being launched into the national spotlight being dubbed as America's Angriest Mayor by CNN, Virg Bernero has promised to toss out the timidity & calculation of the Granholm administration and instead "fix" Michigan come hell or high water.

Despite his fiery rhetoric, all indications point to a gubernatorial GOP win in November. All polls, though they should be taken with a grain of salt, indicate Snyder will win. Not most polls. All polls. Furthermore, tens of thousands more people voted in the 5-way GOP primary for Snyder than in the 2-man Democratic Primary for Bernero.

But, this will be no cake walk for Snyder. He will still have to win on the campaign trail against an opponent who is likely to cream him in the 3 planned debates. If Snyder is a tough nerd, then Bernero is a defensive lineman on the New York Jets. It ain't gonna be pretty. The best Snyder could do is play up low expectations and manage not to get his helmet knocked off (Sorry Peyton).

Bernero has already begun the same attacks on Snyder as Granholm did on Republican Dick DeVos in the 2004 Election. Snyder, a wealthy businessman, has certainly shipped jobs overseas and managed a slew of corporate downsizing in his time in the private sector. Like DeVos, he's never been elected to any high public office and never felt the political backlash of putting people out of work or slashing their wages. That's likely to leave him vulnerable to a frustrated, out-of-work voting population who have been on the pink slip end of the global economy. Granholm handily defeated DeVos in 2006 over that very same issue, so logically there is plenty of opportunity for Bernero to do the same to Snyder.

So, in order to move the polls back & forth, both campaigns are gearing up for a fight. Many journalists have already concluded that this will be an ugly campaign season. But, voters cannot afford to be turned off by the impending negative ads because so much is at stake this election. That is why I have decided to give you a primary on Rick Snyder's education agenda. As the next governor, he will oversee a huge wave of education reforms and debates. He will potentially take over 92 of Michigan's worst schools. He will help determine Michigan school finance and revive the debate on privatization of public services. And, the issue of school choice, namely charterization and vouchers, is primed to take center stage in Lansing.

So how will this tough Nerd take on school reform? Here we go...


Like most conservatives, Snyder is concerned that the financial resources poured into Michigan schools have not yielded desired results. His white paper on school reform begins with a chart ranking Michighan's expenditures, ACT averages, and instructional salaries against other states. By this comparison, Michigan does not look good.

He is reviving the tried & true Republican argument that the performance of Michigan's schools is not necessarily tied to funding increases, but to productivity and accountability. He is likely to make the case that fixing schools doesn't necessarily mean giving them more money, but demanding better results from the money that they've already been given. Expect this to be a big theme in his education agenda. Do not expect significant funding increases to the School Aid Fund.

His "Remedies" can be summarized as such:

1- Invest in higher education.

Snyder clearly recognizes that Michigan's robust higher ed system should be a spring board for economic reform. He uses the word "invest" which is a euphemism for spending more money or at the very least sparing from significant cuts. Like any Republican, Snyder can't win in a primary by saying, "Hey guys, I wanna spend more money on colleges." GOP Primary voters just aren't cut like that.

"Invest" is a much more politically palpable term. And, it is one that can be defined in a variety of ways, providing him maximum flexibility in shaping higher ed. He could increase state revenue sharing to community colleges or universities. He could provide a means for them to procure more grants. Or, he could simply hold current state revenue sharing streams harmless.

2- Focus on performance outcomes.

Snyder's business acumen is probably the driving factor in his push to insist on measuring performance outcomes and a means of gauging progress on what he calls, adopting a P-20 education frame of mind. He wants more kids in Pre-K Programs, he wants more emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics), and he wants greater collaboration between universities, community colleges, and private firms.

Let's break down each of those 3 levels in education.

I have no idea how he plans to get more kids in Pre-K programs, short of increasing funding for such programs or creating tax credits for parents who spend money on those programs. With the exception of those qualifying for Head Start, Pre-school is far from free. And usually, pre-school programs are only offered partial days, which means working parents have to pay for pre-School and day care at the same time. Michigan doesn't have the money to subsidize providers for pre school expenses, nor can Michigan afford to give parents tax credits, unless significant cuts are made elsewhere in state spending. He is a Republican though, so don't put it past him.

As for STEM in K-12, it sounds nice, but he might not have much to do there once in office. Michigan has already recently increased its graduation requirements for coursework completion. At the high school level, all students have to take 4 years of math, 3 years of science, and complete some manner of online learning. Any further major changes in policy would have to be enacted by the Board of Education. Also, as the Michigan is a participant in the Common Core Standards, the increased rigor in Math & Science course expectations are well on the way. English & Math standards have already been written. The most Snyder could do in this department is voice Michigan's continued support and participation.

As for higher ed, the governor has even less influence, particularly with the bit about credit transfers. The University of Michigan surely isn't going to accept some credits from a kid who took jewelry or hip hop dance from Wayne County Community College. Michigan's too bourgeoisie for that. If he wants greater collaborations between the community colleges & universities, he'll have to contend with all of their boards, regents, and presidents. Good luck with that.

He also wants to create a "system to transfer technology from the classroom to industry." I don't know what he means by "system", but private firms & government agencies already regularly pay universities for research and development. Michigan, Michigan State, and Wayne State University are extremely efficient at attracting grant dollars for R & D. It works out for both parties. Private firms get R & D on the cheap because they aren't paying their own full time employees to do the work. Universities benefit too, because they get their tuition paying students to put in hundreds of hours of essentially unpaid labor in the name of research. The most they'll get out of it financially is perhaps a modest stipend or a shot at an internship with the firm. The University in turn, pockets the cash to spend on research costs, provide scholarships, or add to their enormously well-funded endowments. Yes, ballin! So it would seem that a "system"is already well in place.

3 - Buy a school database.

Moving on, Snyder wants to use the same data system as the state of Florida. Long story short, it's a huge online database that tracks multiple data sources relevant to P-20 education. It tracks everything from student test scores, enrollment, demographics, and school finances, among other things. Most of this data is already available in Michigan, although in separate databases that aren't all user friendly or publicly accessible. This will be a valuable tool, if nothing else, to make the already available data easier to access and analyze.

But Snyder makes the case that this database will help parents in their decision making, as if parents already don't have access to relevant information about prospective schools for their children. Though it is not run by the state, the web site already provides parents with information similar to that provided by Florida's data system. Run by a non-profit association of state schools chiefs, School Matters publishes student performance on tests, demographics, & enrollments trends on every public school in the country. Most parents probably don't know about it, but it is there. What Snyder could do is push legislation that would require schools to publish this information themselves & provide it directly to parents. But, that won't happen, because that would essentially be an unfunded mandate. School leaders are already cutting back staff and slashing their budgets. I'm sure very few would be willing to dedicate resources and staff to publish reports that are already available online for free.

4. Reduce administrative overhead & provide more value for money.

Read: Consolidation, Privatization, & more privatization. Let's take these one at a time.

For a little while now there's been an idea jockeying around Lansing that there are too many school districts in Michigan, 549 to be exact. That's 549 superintendents, 549 compliments of central office staff, 549 school get the drift. The city of Warren, for example, despite being nearly a tenth of the population of Detroit has 6 school districts: Warren Consolidated, Fitzgerald, Centerline, Van Dyke, Warren Woods, & East Detroit. Having 6 school districts for a little over 100,000 residents creates a lot of overhead costs. Some lawmakers & policy makers in Lansing have suggested mandating a minimum enrollment count to qualify as a district. That might save some costs, but it would be a political bloodbath to merge small school districts whose communities are accustomed to running their own schools.

Also, naturally in consolidation, there is privatization; particularly in non-instructional services. Janitorial, transportation, food service, tech support, even clerical would qualify as non-instructional and Snyder wants districts to outsource all of those operations in a competitive biding process, known as RFP (request for proposal). So, if those 6 Warren school districts were ever to merge, Snyder wants them to award a contract to a company to provide janitorial services, as opposed to conducting that service in-house. Privatization, though at times unpopular, usually saves districts money on employee costs; sometimes even up to 10% or more. However there are plenty of cases where private companies have charged districts more than what those districts previously paid for those services as an in-house operation.

There are also concerns about quality too. Detroit Public Schools had well documented problems with food quality with their former food service manager, Aramark. Students and parents recounted horrible stories of cold food, putrid meat, and unsanitary conditions at dozens of schools. DPS ended up cancelling the Aramark contract, bringing food service operations in house and saving on costs.

Again, this is not always the case. Many of the smaller districts, for example, cannot handle the logistics of operating their own food service operations and have no choice but to outsource. Furthermore, the theory behind privatization includes the notion that if districts don't like the service, they can always fire the service provider and find a new one.

Still, Snyder wants even more privatization too, especially when it comes to employee compensation. There's little the state can do to cut salary costs. Those are determined by local districts. But the state can alter teacher retirement & health care insurance costs. Michigan already is set to create hybrid pension/401K system for newly hired teachers, saving the state money in the long term. But, I full well expect Snyder at some point to take a stab at doing away with the pension system altogether. Tyson vs. Holyfield ain't got nothing on that potential fight. Watch your ears!

Snyder also wants to pool health care insurance costs, probably into a one state-wide plan, competitively bid of course. Local unions don't want this, because it would eliminate their ability to negotiate employee health care premiums & co-pays with their districts. Andy Dillon, Virg Bernero's democratic primary rival, caught major flack from the unions for touting this idea. So don't expect the MEA or the AFT to get all warm 'n fuzzy on Rick.

5. Implement merit pay, close failing schools, & adopt a school.

As a career salesman, merit pay must seem a natural & logical compensation philosophy to Snyder. The guy who sells more cars should get paid more than the guy who sold less cars, right? Similarly, Snyder wants to pay teachers more who get students to perform on test scores. Merit pay is a land mine of a reform effort in the educational field, and it is actually a tool for reducing employee costs, not improving student performance (more on this in a future blog). Merit pay is an extremely experimental reform initiative and it has not been shown to significantly or consistently improve student achievement. Think of it this way. If you offered your child's 5th grade teacher $2,000 for increasing your child's reading proficiency on a test 7 months from now, do you really think that would make her teach your kid any better than she already is now? Doubtful. Business types don't get this about teachers. I highly doubt Snyder has any veteran classroom teachers advising him on education policy. But you know...the nerds always thought they knew more than their teachers anyway!

Snyder also wants to close failing schools and replace them with successful public or charter schools. This is not a new idea. My former Cass Tech classmate, State Representative Shanelle Jackson, D- Detroit, offered up a similar proposal on this months ago. It did not get traction in the legislature at the time. However, if Snyder is elected, she may get another crack at it and find a governor backing her up, if she's willing to cross the isle. Also, this action would be in line with the Federal School Improvement framework, which does give schools the option of handing over under performing schools to a charter company. Whatever piece of legislation is used, you can definitely expect some number under performing schools to turn charter under the Snyder administration.

Finally, Snyder wants to see more private firms form partnerships with public schools. Public schools get the benefit of providing students with more resources and learning opportunities. Private companies get the benefit of developing their future workforce and getting a tax break. Some school leaders have done this on a small, school by school basis. It would be nice to see an initiative like this statewide.


All in all, Snyder's education reform efforts will probably be centered on those financial reform initiatives mentioned earlier & less on academic reform initiatives. I find this to be refreshingly honest. Snyder knows he doesn't know much about the process of educating students. So, he doesn't go there. But, he does know how to run a financially stable & sustainable enterprise and knows how to effectively run organizations, albeit profit making ones. So, his reform efforts center on changing the organizational operation of schools. I full well expect him to appoint a state schools chief who will more or less drive education reform in regards to instructional improvement. I do not expect that person to have a traditional background in education administration.


What is surprising about Snyder's education platform is that he makes no mention of vouchers, private schools or home schools. Private & home schools are stalwart staples of the political right and there have been rumors that some interested parties are considering another run at a voucher ballot initiative with a conservative friendly state government. But Snyder makes absolutely no mention of it. Many of Snyder's primary opponents mentioned voucher or voucher-like policies in their campaigns. Apparently, at face value, Snyder's platform centers on improving public education through increases in efficiency & productivity and not supplanting it by private schools. This makes sense politically, as vouchers & home schools put a sour taste in the mouths of left of center voters.

Also amazingly, Snyder makes very little mention of charter schools. His white paper only uses the word "charter" one time. He doesn't call for the outright elimination on the cap on charter schools, but does say that he wants to replace failing public schools with charter companies that have a successful track record of student achievement. That places a very tight restriction on charter companies, most of whom operate schools that do not perform significantly better than traditional public schools. So, it might mean only a small handful of EMOs will have a chance at taking over failing schools or opening new schools. This is very different from his primary opponents who essentially wanted increases in charter schools as the bedrock of their education agendas. Republicans salivate at the mouth at the mention of charter schools, but Snyder's support of charters is rather tempered. This too is perhaps a valuable political strategy to appeal to moderate & independent voters, perhaps even some crossover Democrats too.

The once and future Executive

Will Snyder's education agenda "reinvent" Michigan schools? That still remains to be seen. Even if elected, Snyder will have to learn a different skill set as an elected executive over a public institution, which has its differences from that of a hired executive over a private company. Consider this: CEOs have near complete freedom to implement new policies & procedures in the companies they run. This is especially true of non-unionized work environments, such as Gateway Computers, the company Synder previously ran. A CEO essentially has to meet the expectations of a board of directors, often bodies of no more than a dozen people. And, a business' goal is quite simple: return increasing profits to its owners.

Being governor of a state is vastly different. A governor has to build consensus among groups that openly oppose each other. A governor often has limited power to make things happen, especially actions that affect thousands of people. The process of state government is intentionally slow, because it is a democratic institution that must take into account many differing points of view. A governor has to convince the masses of the voting public that what he is doing is right and that can be especially difficult if doing what is right is unpopular.

The metric on successful government also is far more complex than that of a business. A successful government operation has to have balanced budgets, reduced debt/deficits, provide quality service, reduce unemployment, promote economic growth, ensure civil equality, provide safety, the list goes on and on. If the governor makes too many unpopular decisions and neglects any one of those areas, the voting masses will put him out of office. This is critical to take into consideration, because significant reform measures don't often fit into neat, tidy 4 year terms. They may take two terms or two decades.

A classic example of this is in the modern era is the Governator, "Ahnold" Schwarzenegger. The popular action movie hero promised to go Terminator on the California state budget, liberal special interests, and broken government when he campaigned in the 2003 special gubernatorial election to oust Gray Davis. He vowed to take his Conan The Barbarian sword and slash the bloated California financial condition down to a girlie man. Seven years later, California still has one of the worst budget conditions in the country and has the 3rd highest unemployment rate in the country, superseded, by yours truly, the great state of Michigan. And, the Governator had several brawls against the teachers' and nurses' unions, emerging with far more than just a flesh wound. As an amateur movie buff, I feel compelled at this point to say that Schwarzenegger's shortcomings were entirely predictable. The Terminator got his butt kicked in literally every single Terminator movie. In fact, in Terminator 3, he even got his butt kicked by a girl.

Look on the bright side though. If a muscle bound action hero can't get the job done, surely a pocket protecting wearing, 3x college graduate by age 23 nerd can, right? People like nerds. Nerds do their homework. Nerds let you cheat off of them on tests. Nerds dress unfalteringly, which makes even the drably dressed look like fashion mavens. And while nerds don't usually get to take the head cheerleader to prom, their tax returns at the 20 year reunion usually look better than yours.

If Synder can steer clear of those Lambda Lambda Lambda parties, he can get elected with sufficient political capital to see most of his education agenda enacted over the course of his term.

Log on next Sunday for the next EduSpiel blogcast: The New Black Migration: Suburbs or Bust.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Invention of Lying: The Two Sides of the School Choice Debate

I caught an interesting film on HBO the other day entitled, The Invention of Lying. And though the liberty and luxury of watching an afternoon movie in the middle of the weekday should have made me further entrenched into summer vacation bliss, it actually got me thinking about the issue of school choice.

Here's why.

The Invention of Lying is a black comedy, starring Ricky Gervais, playing Mark, and Jennifer Garner, playing Anna. Amazingly, in Mark and Anna's world, there is absolutely no lying. No one lies, either on purpose or accidentally. The truth, ugly, unkind, and unrefined is the rule. No one even possesses the knowledge of how to lie or the desire to lie.

The film immediately takes advantage of this device by opening to a blind date between Mark, rather pudgy and unnatractive, and Anna, quite the opposite. When Anna opens the door to greet Mark, she immediately sighs and tells him that she's frustrated and disappointed, obviously displeased that Mark is not what she'd hoped for. On their dinner date, she proceeds to tell him very politely that she definitely won't be sleeping with him, and that she finds him to be boring and no match for her. Even the waiter tells him bluntly, "She's way out of your league."

The twist of the movie begins when Mark, recently fired from his job as a documentary film script writer (remember no lying, so no Inception or Alice in Wonderland), needs $800 to pay for rent or face eviction. He knows he only has $300 in the bank. But, through some cosmic force, he invents a lie and informs the unsuspecting bank teller that he has $800 in the bank. To his amazement, the Teller apologizes for the error in the system and hands Mark the $800.

Ah, if only that worked in our world!

Mark's biggest lie (albeit truth to many in our world) comes about when he comforts his mother on her hospital death bed. In a touching moment, Mark tells mum that when she dies, there will be a Man in the Sky waiting to welcome her to a place of no pain. She will have a mansion and will see all of the other friends and family members that passed before her. And, she and everyone with her will live on in perpetual happiness & bliss. She slowly fades away with a gentle smile on her face.

Barring a debate on the origins of religion, what on Earth does this film that have to do with the school choice debate?

Well, to put it rather harshly, both sides are Mark. Both sides are lying. Or, as John Kerry would mildly put it, not telling the truth.

Now don't get me wrong, lying isn't all sinister and malevolent. When Mark lied to get the $800, he was simply trying to avoid being homeless. Avoiding homelessness is a good thing, right?When he lied to his mother, he did so out of the fondest of loves, trying to comfort her in her final moments. Who doesn't want to comfort their mother?

So I will not indulge in the usual charged political rhetoric in labeling the usual suspects in the school choice debate, other than calling them liars that is. I will not say that school choice opponents want to keep poor, black children in decrepit, failing schools. I will not say that school choice advocates want to dismantle public education and hand over schools to greedy corporations. I'll admit, pretty compelling arguments can be found to support both of those statements. But, you won't find them in this blog (well, at least not yet. It's early).

I will assume for the moment that all sides in the debate have Mark's heart; they lie not to harm but to help. Both sides have a genuine desire to improve educational outcomes of children and it is their passion for children that makes them inclined to lie to garner support on their behalf. It is not this blogger's intent to demonize traditional education reformers or conservative education reformers.

What I will do is attempt to bring some of the more common platitudes of the two sides of the school choice debate into Mark's world, a world where Convalesent centers are known as "A Sad Place for Old People." Yes, a world of unrefined ugly truth.

Lie #1 - Charter schools are better than Traditional Public Schools.

Not really. But, it's a complicated answer.

You'd have to define what you mean by "better." If by better, one points to standardized test scores, then no, most charter schools aren't better than traditional publics. Study after study has proven this. Most charters nationwide perform at about the same levels as the traditional public schools of their host cities. This is true in Detroit too where charters perform nearly the same as traditionals. Some are pretty good, and some are pretty terrible. They run the whole gamut.

Also if by better, one points to extra-curricular activities, then that also is false. Because charter schools receive even less funding than their traditional public school counterparts, they have less program dollars to fund many sports or extra curricular activities. They may have special partnerships with their charter organizers, corporate sponsors, or interested civic groups, but by and large charters are a mean, lean bare-bones operation. No frills.

If by better, one points to enrollment trends or parent satisfaction, then the answer is yes. Most parents who enroll their children in charter schools are so fed up with the inadequacies & incompetence of their available traditional public schools, the nearest charter school is a breath of fresh air. Many charter schools make it a point to be very accommodating to parents, because their continued financial operation depends so much on having those parents keep their children in their schools. Also, charters are routinely closed for poor performance, so charter schools regularly attempt to provide support to parents in reinforcing educational goals in the home. Charters are also more likely to cater to select student populations poorly served by traditional public schools, like special needs, second chance, at-risk, or strict discipline students.

If by better, one points to safety, then I'd say the answer is yes to that too. Because charter schools have open enrollment, they attract students from all over the city, even across multiple cities. So, it is likely that the crime patterns of the local community are not being reflected into the school. In fact, there are some charter schools that are located in suburbs near the city border, so they're not even physically in the neighborhoods where their students live. That's not the case in traditional schools. If there's a fight at a birthday party on Saturday somewhere in the neighborhood, chances are, those students who were at that party (and their cousins, siblings & friends) will continue that fight on Monday when they arrive to school.

Lie # 2 - Charter school teachers are better than Traditional Public School teachers.

This one, like Lie #1 is can't be answered easily. But, I'm going to have put 2 points up for traditional public schools.

For better or for worse, compensation packages at union represented traditional public schools are likely to be far better than those of charter schools. Keep in mind, charter schools are funded less than traditional public schools, because charter schools do not get the added tax dollars of the municipality in which they're located. Here's a quick primer on Michigan school funding. Feel free to skip if you already know the skinny.

In Michigan, all schools receive the same base per pupil funding allocation, which is around $7,600 (depending on if the legislature had their coffee & are in a good mood). This funding plan, Proposal A, emerged in 1994 to address the huge disparities in district funding between cities. Previously, nearly 70% of school funds were raised through local property taxes. That meant that very affluent cities like Birmingham or Gross Pointe could raise lots of money on low millage rate because of high propery values.. Poorer communities, like Highland Park or Flint, could not raise anywhere near the amount of funds as their much wealthier peers. In an effort to keep up with the Jones', urban city property tax rates were frighteningly high, by today's standards. So, Michigan raised its sales tax from 4% to 6%, with the extra 2% going to the School Aid Fund for all districts to share equally, according to their respective pupil enrollment count. All cities saw their property tax rates drop, though all kept a modest few mills to allocate towards schools. A few districts, 20j districts, spent so much over the state average in 1994 that they were labeled "hold harmless" districts and allowed to keep a greater portion of their property tax funding streams in tact. But, no city could henceforth raise taxes for school funding for operating costs.

So charter schools don't get the added mills from their municipalities for operating costs, nor are any of them 20j schools. So, they get the basic per pupil grant of around $7,600. Since they take in less money than traditional schools, they can't pay as generous salaries. And, because charter school teachers are technically the employees of their respective Education Management Organizations (EMOs), they can't participate in the state's pension system for public employees. They are limited to 401(k)s, which are subject to all of the market volatility you've seen on TV.

What does all of that look like on a recruitment sheet? Well, consider this. A traditional school can offer an experienced teacher with a Master's degree around $80,000, participation in a pension system that in retirement will guarantee them around 44% of their last 3 years average salary ($35,200 a year for life), and a health insurance plan that has either no or very low premiums & deductibles.

What can a charter school offer? Because charter schools are run like private corporations, their compensation packages vary greatly and aren't published publicly. I don't know of any charter school teacher that makes more than 45-50K (If you have a primary source documenting a charter school compensation package, please e-mail me). I once received an offer from a charter school for $35,000, which would have been a VERY significant cut in pay for me. I'd definitely have to cancel HBO and give up my iPhone, and anyone who knows me knows that that cannot come to pass. Also, compensation packages at charter schools are limited to 401(k)s and have health insurance plans that are likely to have high premiums & deductibles.

So what happens?

As charter school teachers are checking papers late at night, they also have their laptops open, searching for job postings at traditional schools. This is confirmed by national studies that show that teacher turn over rates in charter schools are twice as high in charter schools than they are in traditional public schools. This is especially true of positions that are hard to fill, like math, science, & special education.

It could be that many of those leaving the charter schools aren't good teachers and have found themselves poorly suited for professional teaching. But, I think that it is more likely that the most talented teachers in those charter schools see the better working conditions in the traditional schools in middle class & affluent communities, and take their talents elsewhere.

Bottom line: Better compensation packages tend to attract better prospective employees. And if that is true, then traditional schools, particularly affluent schools, are attracting the best teachers.

However, that is not always the case. I know this is beginning to sound like I'm bi-polar, but I'm really not. No, really.

Charter schools may well be attracting the next generation of dream team teachers. As enrollment in traditional urban schools is on the decline, new teachers, trained under reformed university teacher training guidelines, often see that charter schools are the only ones hiring. Also, as traditional schools lay off the younger teachers, charter schools are picking them up. If you subscribe to the notion that today's teachers are more knowledgeable, skillful, and effective than past generations of teachers, then charter schools are sitting on a gold mine. Charter schools also have the freedom to implement non-traditional teacher evaluation systems, so it is possible that those who remain in those charters are some truly remarkable teachers.

Lie # 3 - Charter schools don't have certified teachers.

This one is answered much more easily than the previous two. Not true.

As apart of President Bush's No Child Left Behind, states were required to modify their education laws to meet a provision known as Highly Qualified Teachers. States had to revamp what qualifications teachers would be required to have and those qualifications would have to meet a loose Federal rubric. In Michigan, as in most states, a Highly Qualified teacher meant an individual had to possess 1) a BA college degree Major or Minor in their teaching assignment and 2) A state teaching licence, usually granted after passing a standardized test. However, certification testing is a somewhat recent tool, so older, veteran teachers are likely to have certifications that did not require them to take a test or have a specialty in a particular subject area.

So you can roughly conclude that all teachers in Michigan, unless their employers are doing something illegal (not at all unlikely), are indeed certified.

However, it should be noted that there is competing evidence rating the efficacy of state certification programs. Some studies show that certified teachers produce better performing students, while some studies show no difference at all between certified & non-certified teachers. There is more consensus that experienced teachers who were top performers in college are likely to yield better performing students.

Lie # 4 - Traditional schools, because they are community based schools, are more accountable to parents than charters schools.

This one is tricky, but I've got to hand it to charter schools.

Typically, charter schools are located in urban communities that have large school systems. The Detroit Public Schools, though it has scuttled over 100 schools in the past few years, still has nearly 140 schools, thousands of employees and a whopping $1.2 Billion budget. That's a big 'ol system for a single mom to get a word in edge wise. In big city systems, only individuals who are apart of an advocacy organization tend to get their voices heard. Labor Unions, Commerce Groups, Civil Rights Organizations & PACs usually have heavy weight to throw around, drowning out the lone voices.

Charter schools on the other hand tend to be smaller shop operations. Though most are managed by medium sized to large EMOs, the board of directors of these schools often oversee one or a few schools in that charter. There are also no labor unions to contend with, nor are there PACs or Trade Groups to influence board members. So, that single mom or guardian grandma who has concerns that the school's textbooks are inadequate is probably more likely to get a response and action from a charter school than a traditional public school.

I do want to make two small caveats to that claim (no, I am no schizophrenic). Boards of Directors of charter schools are not publicly elected and are usually appointed by the charter authorizer. So, parents and community members do not have electoral control over individual board members.

Also, the nature of charter schools & school choice is for parents to choose which schools they like best for their children. Duh, right? So, with that in mind, parents who have great dissatisfaction with a charter school are likely to move on to another school. They are not as likely to fight for improvement in their schools as parents in traditional schools. They usually don't stick around & raise a raucous at a Board of Director's meeting or in the Principal's office. They just..well leave.

Lie # 5 - Traditional Schools have unions and unions protect lazy teachers & make it difficult to fire bad teachers.

Yes & Not exclusively & Somewhat.

There are many union represented charter schools in the country. Virtually none in Michigan. Al Traditional Public Schools are union represented.

As colleague Bill Boyer (great teacher, ex-officio rock band member) pointed out to me once, the union is much like a teacher's lawyer. The union represents the teachers' interests in the operation of the organization. The union protects teachers against biased, capricious acts of administrators and in come cases, students & parents. Unions negotiate with districts, on behalf of the teachers, to create collective bargaining agreements that dictate working conditions. And, unions are fairly aggressive at making sure those work rules are followed.

The lazy teacher and the bad teacher are entitled, by Michigan law & union contracts, to the same protections as the industrious teacher and the good teacher. Remember, a lawyer represents all types of clients, from Al Capone to Al Gore. In this country, we have a presumption of innocence and it is the burden of the state to prove guilt. I, for one, like that policy and it seems to have worked pretty well these 234 years.

That same philosophy is extended to the teaching profession. It is the burden of the district to prove that a teacher is lazy or bad. Contrary to misconceived popular belief, the unions don't run the schools, the administrators do. A school administrator must document evidence that proves that a teacher is "bad." This is not unlike other professions, such as law & medicine that have procedures for its professionals who engage in malpractice. In all of these professions, as in teaching, it must be proved to an oversight body that the "bad" teacher is indeed worthy of removal. This process takes more than a year and can be very complicated. So too are the procedures against doctors & lawyers. But, the law does state that a teacher can be immediately removed from the classroom, albeit with pay, until the arbitration is concluded.

But, perhaps more central to the problem is the way in which teachers are evaluated. In this Blogger's opinion there has yet to be implemented in most schools, traditional or charter, a truly effective teacher evaluation tool that objectively measures teacher performance, especially at the high school level. Sure, plenty of universities & think tanks have offered up many models. I'm still waiting on one to be used in an objective, fair & effective manner. If you know of any I'd be glad to hear it. But I've seen plenty and they all come up short.

Even in the DC schools, for example, the evaluation system is somewhat flawed. The IMPACT evaluation tool, which led to the removal of 165 "ineffective" teachers is a very robust evaluation system. Among other things, the IMPACT required 5 30 minute observations by administrators and curriculum experts, based on a standard rubric. Most teachers only got 2 or 3 observations. Furthermore, the document explaining the IMPACT rubric is 65 pages long and there are 20 different groups with unique evaluation criteria. Can anyone, anyone tell me with a straight face that the IMPACT evaluation tool was used accurately, hell even half-way decently?

In fact, in a union generated teacher survey, the vast majority of participants responded that they did not receive any training or professional development on IMPACT. Over 94% of teachers indicated that "There is a lack of uniform understanding among teachers, principals, supervisors and Master Educators of the performance expectations in the 9 Teach modules to earn a 1,2,3, or 4." Translation: HELLO MCFLY! NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THEY ARE DOING!

The IMPACT is rare among evaluation systems in that it uses a value added assessment tool, based on student performance on standardized tests. Teachers have to demonstrate that their students have made progress on these tests from year to year, in order to get a good evaluation. But, a study from Education Statistics, a government funded research arm of the US. Dept. of Ed., found that value added evaluations have a 25%-35% chance of giving a false positive. That means that of the teachers rated ineffective because of lagging student test scores, up to 35% of those teachers aren't really ineffective. It works on all ends of the spectrum too. Of the teachers rated highly effective in a value added evaluation model, a minimum of 25% aren't really "highly effective." This is more indication that IMPACT is more like a DUD.

But, let's assume that every single one of those 165 teachers were truly "ineffective." They were just God awful. As some of my students might say, they were garbo or lame or ham. One thing is still true though. The District of Columbia Schools is a union represented district & it seems Chancellor Rhee had no trouble identifying & firing those lazy, bad teachers. All it took was fierce, bold leadership. If Chancellor Rhee can do it, why can't most school leaders follow suit?

Now here comes my personal revelation, where I too enter the Mark's world. The world of complete truth & disclosure.

I have always known that I wanted to be an educator. Since entering my 9th Grade Pre-AP English class, taught by the masterful Mrs. Rita Sitron, I discovered that I wanted to empower the lives of young people through education. Urban school systems are a great place to embark on such a mission, because they are in most need of great teachers. Charter schools are great places to accomplish this as well, because they are often on the cutting edge of education innovation.

But I don't like Charter Schools. Sorry. I just don't.

My disdain for charter schools chiefly arises because of their lousy compensation packages. I have become accustomed to my union inflated teacher salary & benefits. I look forward to having a secure retirement. If that makes me the villain of education reform, then so be it. Perhaps the compensation packages of traditional schools are unsustainable in this new, global economy. That's certainly a valid criticism. But, in my mind (I'm no megalomaniac. This is supported by years of evaluations, student feedback, parent comments, and student data), I'm a great teacher. I work very, very hard and I expect to be compensated accordingly. How's that for high expectations, aye?

And while we're on the subject of expectations, I'd have too say I'm none too warm on unions either. Unions are notorious for fighting new reform efforts that effect teachers. They fight efforts at measuring individual accountability. They play politics in the schools. I was once even threated to be blacklisted from Detroit by a building union representative who thought I was crossing a teacher strike picket line to work (More on this in a future blog). I do like many of the benefits of being in a a union: the compensation, the fair work rules, the protection, the advocacy. But man, if there isn't a downside.

This brings me to the final lie.

Lie #6. Because unions negotiate for complicated, strict work rules that put the needs of adults ahead of children & because unions foster an antagonistic relationship with administration, the flexibility of charter schools lends them to be more successful.

This is a loaded and overblown assertion.

Attributing a school's success to any one factor is not a credible foundation on which to base an evaluation. Unions are not the sole determinant of a school's quality. In California, for example, many good charter schools are unionized, such as the Green Dot Schools. In Michigan, there are hardly any unionized charter schools, so it is difficult to compare. In traditional public schools, including Detroit, the best schools are typically unionized. Cass, King, & Renaissance are all union represented high schools that are high achieving. In the region, the best suburban schools are unionized too, some even outperforming expensive & moderately priced private schools.

To be fair Cass, King, and Renaissance are all examination schools. A student must pass an examination in a pre-determined score range to be enrolled on one of these schools. And, if students don't adhere to specific academic and discipline standards while in those schools, they are kicked out. In a charter school, this is somewhat different. A charter school is legally prohibited from making a test score a qualification for enrollment. However, charter schools may kick students out if they don't meet non-academic standards, like discipline or attendance. In my own experience, I have taught many ex-charter school children, who despite some problems in the past, turned out to be great students.

Again, it is not my intention in this post to be an advocate for traditional schools or charter schools, but rather to bring clarity to many of the assertions both sides make in this ongoing debate. There are plenty of pundits & prophets who want to see the demise of one or the other. There are plenty of Marks & Annas who want the best for children, and in the process of doing so, glide over the flaws in their own points of view to push their positions.

It is high time that the adults in the school choice debate acknowledge that neither of their positions are the panaceas they'd like them to be. Adding more charter schools will not be the savior of urban education. Simply flooding traditional schools with more money won't accomplish this goal either.

The truth is complicated. It is not sexy or marketable. It cannot be made into bullet points on a brochure. It cannot be a sub-paragraph in a collective bargaining agreement. The truth is likely to make many people angry, as the most taboo truths often do.

But, if we are ever going to fix public education in this country, the truth is that huge, smelly pill your doctor prescribed that you dread swallowing. You have to take it. It will make you better.

And, you are finally going to have to admit to yourself that you were not that cool in high school and that you fibbed on your last tax return.

But now, this post has come to an end and I must leave Mark & Anna's world, bereft of falsehoods.

So in that light, I am logging off to go snack on some fresh, organic vegetables and later I'll do a few hundred crunches to tighten my rock hard abs.

Log on next week Sunday for my next post: A Tough Nerd Returns to School: A primer on Republican Rick Synder's education platform.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Obama: The Disruptor-In-Chief & the Detroit Public Schools

iTunes Availability coming soon!

In three years it won't matter who is in charge of the Detroit Public Schools & dozens of other districts across the country. There's why:

Bestselling author & journalist Jonathan Alter's latest book, The Promise: Obama, Year One, I think provides the most succinct synopsis of what President Obama has sought to change about K-12 education in the United States.

Alter writes that after Obama won the Democratic Primary in 2008, he felt free and clear to adopt an aggressive, reformist education policy. The two most powerful national teacher unions, the NEA & AFT had backed Hilary Clinton in the primary, so there was no political obligation to either organization in the general election or in the White House. They certainly would not have backed John McCain. So, Obama had a unique opportunity to advance an education platform that wouldn't be a retread of traditional labor union backed Democratic policies.

Perhaps most striking is that Alter reveals when Obama was looking for an education secretary, he followed the advice of a fellow congressman to look for someone who would be a "disruptor" and not an "incrementalist" in dealing with the traditional education establishment. So, there would be no push from the Department of Education to raise teacher pay, reduce class size, or tinker towards some arbitrary adequate yearly progress over ten years. He was looking for someone who would make a big dent in the status quo in a short period of time. A few names popped up on a short list: Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, William Bennett, among others. He settled on Arne Duncan. Duncan, Obama thought at first, might not be committed to disrupting the education industry, but after a few quick meetings, Obama learned he found his champion of reform.

So, now what?

Enter Race to the Top (RTTT) & the School Improvement Grant (SIG). If you thought Bush's No Child Left Behind was a disruptor was set on high, RTTT & SIG are set on vaporize. These little covered initiatives are going to make a very substantial change in hundreds of schools in Michigan, and hardly anyone even knows about it.

As most states' budgets were strapped for cash, Duncan & Obama created the Race to the Top Grant, dangling 4.3 Billion education dollars in front of states eyes. But there was a catch. In order to get the money, states & districts had to change laws & policies that would "disrupt" the normal process of schooling. Most states legislatures had to go into special sessions to adopt new education laws and state education leaders scrambled write the application and get unions, districts, and ISDs on board.

The genius part on behalf of the White House was that these states made huge, sweeping changes without receiving a dime from Washington. At the end of the process, over a dozen states made substantial changes, but only two states (Tennessee & Delaware) actually got RTTT grant money in the 1st round. Most of the states that lost either had too weak reforms or failed to get sufficient union support. Michigan failed because of the latter.

Round 2 results were released just last week. Disappointingly, Michigan was not among the finalists, despite having gained union support. It is believed that Michigan's RTTT application scored poorly in the developing Great Teachers and Leaders section of the grant.

Aye, but here's the rub. Michigan's failure to obtain RTTT Grant funds doesn't matter because the legislature already made the changes to k-12 laws and the governor signed the series of bills into law. Michigan is now going to have to enact many of these reforms without any financial support from the Federal Department of Education.

Now enter the new School Improvement Grant & here's where DPS supporters should get a little prickly.

As a part of RTTT, Michigan agreed to identify its worst performing schools and force district leadership of those schools to choose one of four reform models. These schools, called Priority Schools, constitute the bottom 5% performing schools in the state, as measured by the reading passage rate on the MEAP & Michigan Merit Exam. Secondary schools who had graduation rates under 60% were also placed on this list. The district leaders of the Priority Schools had to pick one the following options 1.) close 2.) become charter 3.) replace the principal & do a host of reforms or 4.) replace the principal, 50% or more of the staff , & do a host of reforms.

The SIG was funded by left over economic stimulus money, so even though states like Michigan didn't get RTTT money, low performing schools would still get some support from the Fed. Schools that wrote new school improvement plans and committed to the most rigorous reforms by July 14 would be eligible to receive up to $6 million over three years.

Yeah, wow.

Never before had the states, vis-a-vis pressure from the Fed, been required to follow specific reforms, especially reforms that affected staff placement based on student performance data. Sure, NCLB's highly qualified teacher provision made schools hire certified teaches, but for most schools, that was just a busy exercise in gathering paper work and credentials. Under NCLB, schools had previously just been required to follow a School Improvement Plan of their own design. Schools that didn't meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) on student test scores entered a different phase of improvement, but no serious sanctions would happen to those schools for years to come. Although the ultimate phase required re-constitution of a school, most schools did no more that use a greater share of their Title I dollars on tutoring and Supplemental Education Service (SES) providers.

But now all of a sudden, districts were scrambling to replace administrators, some even instructional staff, to become compliant with the new law. As Michigan released it's official list in June, and new principals/teachers would have to be in place by September, that gave them just 3 months to staff the priority schools.

Perhaps even more complex were the reform initiatives. Schools had to draft new , lengthy school improvement plans that included everything from connecting students with community services, to increasing instructional time, to revising staff evaluation tools, to creating financial incentives for teachers.

The new format was so complex and needed to be completed in so little time, that some districts even resorted to paying outside consultants to write the plans for them. Others had central office staff working round the clock, nights, and weekends to complete applications. Many staff had no idea what their districts were doing. Most DPS staff didn't even receive word from central office about what would happen in their schools until last week. Most parents probably won't realize the changes their schools have made until they drop their children off on the first day of school.

How's that for disruption?

But, that is hardly the full measure of disruption that RTTT & SIG will cause. The potential for political uproar in this town and other towns across the county lay in this little rule in the School Improvement Framework: If the schools don't make sufficient progress in improving academic achievement, if they essentially perform the same as in years past, the districts will lose control over those schools and they will fall under the direction of the state.

Over 100 schools in Michigan were identified as priority schools, most of which are located in poor urban & rural communities. Some charter schools were on the list as well. However, the vast majority of schools on the list, 48 in total, are Detroit Public Schools.

Yeah, wow again.

Now enter the DPS advocates. Most Detroiters (and for good reason) were enraged that then Republican Governor Engler dismantled the Detroit Board of Education, appointed new board members, and a new CEO. After that period, the district lost thousands of students, lost millions of dollars in fraud, and became millions of dollars in the red. Worse still, the needle on academic achievement hadn't budged. I am sure that many citizens across Michigan, not just Detroiters, will be none too pleased that dozens of low performing DPS schools will be taken over by the state, which itself has a poor track record of financial & academic results.

Furthermore, most political analysts can reasonably conclude that Michigan's next governor will be a Republican, and that one, if not both houses of legislature will be Republican led as well. A conservative dominated state government will surely not be willing to directly run hundreds of schools across the state. The Michigan Department of Education barely has the resources to manage its own operations. What does all of this mean? The state will most likely turn those schools over to an Education Management Organization, otherwise known as a charter school company.

So, all of the impassioned screams and pleas from Detroiters about whether or not the Mayor should have control of DPS are an exercise in futility, quite frankly. The series of council meetings about proposed ballot initiatives will all seem a waste of time. If the current or future DPS leadership cannot improve student achievement in its worst performing schools, those 48 schools will no longer be their concern. They will be handed over to a budget battered state of Michigan, whose leaders will probably have no choice but to hand these schools over to charter companies.

So as it stands, more charter schools will probably be created under Obama, than Clinton or Bush saw in their terms, despite their repeated vocal support. More schools will face immediate, drastic changes under Obama than any of his predecessors. Obama & Duncan's RTTT and the SIG will have a much deeper impact on low performing schools than Bush's NCLB ever could have dreamed. And what is most ironic about the political dynamic of RTTT, is that many of the union represented education employees who supported Obama in the general election will now find themselves "disrupted" by the very man they so vigorously supported.

Now here is the central question ....will it work? Will RTTT & SIG lead to significant increases in student performance? Will they finally, for once and for all, turn around failing schools?

For years, traditional reformists (some call them defenders of the status quo, but that's somewhat inaccurate) have opined for years that public education is underfunded. They have continued to make the case that a major reason behind the gap in performance among the middle class to affluent & minority to white is the gap in funding between schools. Poor urban schools could not produce the desired results because they lacked the financial support to do so. Often facing a preponderance of poor, at-risk & special ed students, these schools have made the case that properly educating these students requires more resources.

It is true that the financial gap is real. In Oakland county, a wealthy enclave of suburban communities north of Detroit, that gap is made startlingly apparent. In the Bloomfield Hills Schools, for example, almost $22,000 is spent on each student. As a result, traditional reformists claim, the BHPS students emerge from school each year with stellar achievement rates. But, neighboring Pontiac City School District, an urban school community hit hard by the downturn in the auto industry, spends only $14,000. Pontiac has already been taken over by the state and it currently has a priority school eligible for the School Improvement Grant.

So, traditional reformists want more money. Now they have it. Up to $6 million in program money to be used at the school's discretion to raise student achievement. No, it doesn't address the long term funding inequity between schools, but $6 million is $6 million. That's far more advantageous than increases to the state's School Aid Fund, which mostly help to offset increases in employee pensions & health care premiums. It also provides more freedom than Title I, which has many restrictions on use.

Now it's put up or shut up time. $6 million. Raise student achievement. Improve graduate rates. Or else.

So, in the meantime, all the grape throwers (yes our protesters are known to throw grapes at school board meetings) and civil rights activists should keep their mayoral control protests in perspective and save their angry rhetoric. They may find themselves in need of that rhetoric when the schools they are fighting for slip out of their control.

And for all of Obama's disruption, even traditional reformists have to concede that Obama has been far more generous in spending billions of dollars on our nation's worst performing schools than McCain or any conservative leader would ever be.

Will this work? Time will tell and everyone is watching.

Log on next Sunday for more perspectives on education reform. The next EduSpiel Blog is titled, the Invention of Lying: The Two Sides of the School Choice Debate. In it, I make a shocking personal revelation.