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.


  1. Regarding your most recent "disruption" blog, thought I would put my two cents in.

    I think a theme that could be used in a follow-up post would be distraction.

    Without going into too much detail, it seems as if much of what politicians have done recently is based on distracting people from the fact they do not have answers.

    I believe it was D.C. that just fired 240-something teachers? What was this based upon? What specific individual teacher data was used to determine which teachers deserved to be fired? What is solved by sweeping everyone out the door without that specific data?

    Maybe they deserved to be fired but you can’t point at a teacher in room X and fire them for poor test scores without any data indicating their poor teaching contributed to those test scores, can you?

    Maybe what it solves is a) getting rid of higher priced teachers, and b) making it appear as if something is actually being done.

    It seems that whenever we hear people talk about low test scores, etc., we never hear them mention how they know quantitatively which teacher(s) are failing.

    Same goes for the discussion of old, burned out teachers being at the core of all sorts of academic problems. I have never seen data, especially at the high school level where we are, showing that supposed older, burned out teachers are dragging down test scores compared to those fresh out of college or non-tenured teachers. Many other sound bites along the lines of blaming old, burned out teachers seem more like baseless distractions than proven reality.

    Martin Kaye

  2. This is why the Feds need as little involvement in education as possible. With all the money teachers already spend out of their own pocket getting credentialed, having some consultants come in to tell you something you could figure out yourself is a waste of money and time