Betsy DeVos: What a Weak Nominee Looks Like

In a confirmation hearing, one might face tough questioning, and those tough questions might – understandably – trip up a nominee. What shouldn’t happen, to someone of normal ability and proper preparation, is to stumble over simple, straightforward questions.

That’s what happened to Trump nominee for secretary of education Betsy DeVos: she stumbled (indeed, almost threw herself to the ground) over direct questions that a capable nominee could have answered: (1) about her wealth, (2) about the difference between growth and proficiency, and (3) about guns in schools. A more capable nominee could have managed these questions easily; she’s not that nominee.

Sen. Sanders asks about DeVos how she became Trump’s nominee:

Sanders: “Okay. My question is, and I don’t mean to be rude. Do you think, if you were not a multi-billionaire, if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions to the Republican Party, that you would be sitting here today?”

DeVos: “Senator, as a matter of fact, I do think that there would be that possibility. I’ve worked very hard on behalf of parents and children for the last almost 30 years to be a voice for students and to empower parents to make decisions on behalf of their children, primarily low-income children.”

How she should have answered: Avoid answering with ‘would be that possibility’; begin with a detailed list of accomplishments in the very first words of her reply, e.g., “There are x contributions that I’ve made to education in this country, and I can list and describe them all, in order, to you now…”

Sen. Franken asks DeVos about the difference between growth and proficiency (where proficiency is hitting a benchmark and growth is about progress from one level of ability to another):

DeVos: “I think, if I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would also correlate it to competency and mastery, so that each student is measured according to the advancement they’re making in each subject area.”

Franken: “Well, that’s growth. That’s not proficiency.  I’m talking about the debate between proficiency and growth and what your thoughts are on that.”

How she should have answered: DeVos should have known – and made clear she knew – the difference between the two ways to measure progress; contending that she was just clarifying Franken’s question doesn’t mitigate the obvious truth that she didn’t see the distinction between the two. (Franken clearly does understand the difference, so she’s not clarifying his words, she’s making her own error). She either truly doesn’t know the difference, or lacks the intellectual ability or composure to comprehend a question in a formal setting.

Sen. Murphy asks about guns in schools:

Murphy: Do you think guns have any place in or around schools?

DeVos: That is best left to locales and states to decide. If the underlying question is—

Murphy: You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?

DeVos: I will refer back to [Wyoming] Sen. [Mike] Enzi and the school he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming. I think probably there, I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies.

How she should have answered: Anything but this. Referring to a senator’s remark about wildlife doesn’t help here. Candidly, she would have been better off contending that guns were useful to defend against Martians: at least she might have been able to later say that she was joking.

Contending that guns in schools are needed to defend against wildlife is world-class buffoonery. A defense, if any, would have to talk about human threats and emphasize limitations to assure those possessing guns were well-trained. The problem here is that there are very few parents who will accept that well-trained means someone other than a police officer. She would have been better off to advocate for more police; even then, there are legitimate concerns about the quality of police training in communities that hire poorly and skimp on training costs.)

Her position is a hard political one to hold in any event, but talking about grizzlies is simply embarrassing.

Trump promised America that he would hire the “best people“; in DeVos he’s picked someone either too dim or too lazy to represent herself adequately, to a level that the vast majority of her fellow citizens easily meet each day.

Borsuk’s Annual Education Awards

Alan Borsuk, Senior Fellow in Law and Public Policy at Marquette Law School, recently published The year’s education winners and losers (12.31.16) and More winners and losers in education awards (1.1.17). He expresses his gratitude: “Thank you to all the people (especially politicians) who give me so much material. This is not necessarily a compliment, but you keep me well-supplied. I am in your debt.”

Of his winners and losers (combining both lists), these recipients seem especially noteworthy:

Schools of the Year: Milwaukee College Prep. Five schools in Milwaukee earned the top rating when the state’s new school report cards were unveiled recently.  Four of them were the four Milwaukee College Prep charter schools on the north side. They earned the ratings by doing a thousand things that make schools outstanding, starting with a strong commitment to excellent leaders and teachers….

Book of the Year: “Evicted,” by Matthew Desmond. The book has made several national lists of best books of the year, including the one in the New York Times. The book is not directly about schools. But it is all about Milwaukee and you can’t read it without seeing how much the unstable lives of children here affect their education. Desmond says that if you lose stable housing, everything else falls apart. This is a major truth that needs to be kept in mind….

The Stuck Needle Award: The state’s new accountability systems. The first results of the Forward test were released in 2016, along with the first round of revised school report cards. The results were not much different from those using the old tests and report cards. Overall, fewer than half of the state’s third- through eighth-graders were rated proficient in reading and language arts. Is this satisfactory? Tell me again, how are we going to move forward in 2017 and beyond?….

The Quiet Giant Award: Is it just me or did the Common Core learning standards controversy sort of fall off everyone’s radar in 2016, even as the implementation of the standards generally proceeds? Maybe they were actually not such a big and terrible thing.

It’s worth noting that no one who committed to a marketing-first approach won from Borsuk even a single laudatory mention. There are two reasons for this: (1) no one who commits to a marketing-first approach deserves to win praise for his or her work, and (2) Borsuk has the good sense to see as much.

For Mr. Trump, It’s STEM, Schwem, Whatever…

In response to a question about whether state-sponsored hacking against an American political party should go unpunished, Donald Trump grew expansive, giving his typically thoughtful perspective on science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and (even) epistemology:

“I think we ought to get on with our lives. I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole age of computer [sic] has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on.”

So much for contemporary science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – why bother with STEM when ‘nobody knows exactly what’s going on’ anyway? Perhaps one thought that science and technology made America the most advanced country in all the world, indeed, made her a world-historical place committed to study and exploration.

But then, Trump knows because he knows that no one knows – under his view, our problems aren’t just educational; honest to goodness, a theory of knowledge, itself, is pointless.  It’s one big muddled scene.

Casting this last point as Trump’s attack on epistemology gives him too much credit, of course.  Saying nobody knows what’s going on has a more practical value for Trump, and is merely a pose: he insists that the truth is indeterminable whenever he wishes to evade responsibility for his own lies.

We’d best hold to our educational pursuits in spite of Trump’s suggestion, and hold as tightly to the conviction that in so many matters, truths – and the lies contrary to them – are determinable.

Design, Late 2016

Whitewater’s local public school district held a board meeting last night, and one of the topics was physical change to the schools following a successful construction referendum in November.

The district administrator gave an overview of some design possibilities, that one could characterize into two broad categories: design changes for students’ safety (e.g., more secure entrances) and everything else. Of the changes for security, there’s not much to suggest, as one supposes that those prudent alternations have been well-reviewed.

For the other changes, there’s far more play between form and function, so to speak. One has more room to choose between one style or another, and this seems especially true as one departs from elementary school choices. Watching the presentation (with illustrations showing what other schools have or will soon do), I thought that I might comment on the aesthetic of the possibilities.

Thought, but only for a moment: does one aesthetic or another make that much difference now, to America, in late 2016? Will light or dark, or eastward or westward facing objects matter now?

Perhaps so, but not so much as many other choices: a day learning principles of liberty in a shack is preferable to a year ignoring them while in a palace. I see, of course, that one can have both, but we have over-emphasized the material over the ideal (security being the prudent exception).

I’m reminded of a scene from one of Orwell’s essays, where a man facing tragedy still takes a moment to step aside from a puddle. In this, Orwell saw a common humanity between himself and the man, and I’ll surely not disagree.

Yet where Orwell’s account led to only one outcome, we have even now – as a society – more than one possible future, some being destinies, and others mere fates.

The place or size of the puddles before us surely isn’t our principal concern, however much we might wish it to be otherwise.

That From Which Dreams Are Made

local Wisconsin, like most states, publishes sets of scorecards measuring students’ progress. (The overwhelming majority of school districts – 91% – at least meet expectations. Our local district falls within this common group; a few particular schools are admirably above it.)

Yesterday, the district announced the latest results, after the state’s Department of Public Instruction made them public twelve days earlier. The district announcement brings two points to mind, one small and one large.

First the small: an obvious coordination in the announcement on the same day (district news release, district automated calls announcing the release, and school board member’s use of his ersatz news site to promote uncritically that same release) offers yet another example supporting my view from yesterday on conflicts of interest (seeConflicts of Interest Don’t Explode, They Corrode).  I almost feel as though I should offer my thanks to all concerned.

And yet, and yet, there’s a second, larger point: these state scores are not the substantive learning – often immeasurable – on which hopeful adventure and exploration depend.  Last month, I wrote about James Fallows’ Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed, and his eighth sign seems especially relevant:

8. They have unusual schools. Early in our stay, we would ask what was the most distinctive school to visit at the K–12 level. If four or five answers came quickly to mind, that was a good sign.

The examples people suggested ranged widely. Some were “normal” public schools. Some were charters. Some emphasized career and technical training, like Camden County High School, in Georgia. Some were statewide public boarding schools, like the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, and the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Sciences. Some were religious or private schools. The common theme was intensity of experimentation.

(See, from this website, James Fallows on ‘Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed’ (Part 1) and (Part 2).)

There it is, honest to goodness: success for students – and so for a community – comes from distinctive programs and distinctive study, from which particular scores are merely imperfect (sometimes misleading) measurements.

This community – like countless misguided communities – mistakes the map for the terrain. People don’t walk through a map, of course: they walk, variously, through woods, fields, mountains, or beaches.

Scholastic scores like these are touted in communities either through ignorance, a pandering to the ignorance of others, or for futile competitive advantage (which often combines the first two reasons).   Whitewater’s been using this public-relations approach for years, to no clear advantage for students or the community.

There are so many subjects, considered so many times, that are more important than a few charts from a state agency.

The academic exploration that underlies a mere chart is that from which dreams are, truly, made.

One Degree of Separation

This post’s title is a play on the idea of six degrees, or connections, being a sufficient number to link two people, even those unknown to each other.

For today, I’m thinking about an academic degree, rather than a degree that describes a connection between people, and how that academic degree divides rather expresses a connection.

Old Whitewater has the lazy, entitled, lower-middle class habit of thinking that a university degree – in and of itself – is a worthy measure of a person’s learning or understanding.  It’s a status-based culture, in which a few are sure that a formal education necessarily proves intellectual and informational superiority.

I’m from a paternal family that very much values formal education, and has for a very long time, but fortunately without the conceit that formal schooling necessarily implies some sort of superiority.

On the contrary, we would say that formal schooling is a human good, but one that establishes (if one is discerning) a burden, and a social obligation, but not an entitlement.  

Part of that burden is continuing reading, study, and commitment to a cause, long after one has left school.

Use of a formal education as status distinction, the way an Englishman would use an aristocratic title, is beneath a discerning American.  Education is a pursuit that should continue long after formal schooling ends. One should read literature in one’s field throughout one’s life, and learn things in new fields along one’s way.

(Occasionally, I have remarked on someone’s formal education, but only to make the point – however imperfectly – that much should be expected of someone who’s been formally schooled.  It does not matter to me if others don’t think they’ve such an obligation, or underestimate the depth of that obligation; it’s a old  truth apart from what they or I might think.)

It’s coldly disappointing how many times I’ve listened to some of Whitewater’s officials speak to others as though those speaking alone understood concepts that are, in fact, well known to most people.  It’s a conceit, and a laughable one, to presume that there are only a few sharp people in a community.  On the contrary, most people in most communities are very clever, and function well each day at complicated tasks.

Civilization would not – could not – have come so far if the overwhelming majority of people were not capable and clever.  

If that stings someone’s sense of formal, educational entitlement, so be it.  If one reads well, reasons well, and writes well, one may easily distinguish oneself.  If one reads poorly, reasons poorly, and writes poorly, then one is a poor reflection on one’s school.

It does no good for someone to say he went there, or he did this and that, if years later no one can discern that he went anywhere or did anything much at all.

A formal education has so much to offer (far beyond money, by the way), but it should inspire one to offer much, rather than slothfully rest on a decades-old, formal experience.

The learning that leads to a degree should be only a beginning.

 

At Whitewater’s Common Council Meeting, 10.4.16

There are a few moments from last night’s Common Council meeting that I’ll consider briefly today.

Budget.  It’s fall, and so for Whitewater’s local government that means a proposed budget rollout, and  Council sessions principally occupied with that subject through November.

On efficiency of government services, City Manager Clapper remarked that one can expect municipal services to cost more each year, in the way that Christmas presents for his children seem to cost more each year.  The two are not analogous, of course: city work is a day-in, day-out provision of services, unlike holiday-season demand for retail toys.  It’s an inapt comparison.

In any event, a successful, functioning market produces lower-cost, higher-quality goods and services year over year.  America’s most competitive industries function this way, in goods or services (cheaper data storage, increased computing power, improved call quality, more advanced automobiles, etc.).

What City Manager Clapper is contending is that Whitewater’s local government will not, or cannot, meet the standards of the most productive private enterprises, but will look more like toymakers who rely on higher prices through seasonal demand.

It is, if nothing else, an honest admission.

There’s also something odd about reliance on efficiency comparisons to cities of similar size when some – but not all – of those cities receive vast sums of public money for infrastructure, operations, etc.  It’s easy to claim local government functions at relatively lower cost when one’s city is awash in public money, to subsidize city government or to support a public university.

Our full-time staff might reply that they need some measure of state subsidy to function in a city that has a university that places infrastructure demands on local government.

Fair enough.

Would municipal officials live with the need for a subsidy while there is a university in town, or forgo the subsidy and ask UW-Whitewater to leave?

It’s a rhetorical question:  if UW-Whitewater became UW-Palmyra, so to speak, this city’s economy would collapse.  Crying about the need to maintain a university amounts to crocodile tears; the university gives more than she takes from Whitewater.

There’s also the question of Mr. Clapper’s search for revenue (fees, charges, surcharges, tipping fees for imported filth) to keep city government functioning at the ever-larger level he’d like (money for chosen businesses, running an aquatic center, spending big – millions – on infrastructure).

Over two million for the East Gateway project – do you feel two million better off?   (Funny, then-councilmember Kidd wanted hundreds of thousands more for buried wires along the project site.)

If Mr. Clapper didn’t spend so much, and didn’t seek to acquire so much under city control, he wouldn’t need so much.

As for supposed revenue streams, there’s still a lingering, eighteen-month window to find a partner to deliver waste into Whitewater, in the absurd theory that the tipping fees would make Whitewater better off.  Lynn Binnie helpfully turned out a majority for Clapper to continue along this path (Binnie, Kidd, Wellnitz, Grady).

There was no duress in any of this, of course – politicians choose freely, sometimes well, sometimes poorly.  There are those who, no doubt, experience duress in life, but that unfortunate pressure doesn’t weigh on middle-aged men while sitting on Whitewater’s Common Council.

The Schools Presentation.   The session last night began with a presentation from the Whitewater Schools’ new district administrator, Dr. Mark Elworthy, and Director of Business Services Nathan Jaeger.

It can’t be an easy time to arrive – Dr. Elworthy started this summer, with a construction referendum in the works, and a Board that went out of its way to mention at Dr. Elworthy’s introduction that he had been successful with prior referenda at other districts.  One day, this district and her leaders (and other districts) will be able to lead with something other than the budget.

Honestly, I wish that had happened last night.  There’s value in a PowerPoint for Council, but I think it would have been even more effective to listen to Dr. Elworthy alone, without a presentation, simply talking about what he wanted to accomplish (operational, capital, curricular, all of it).

Finally, there’s Business Director Jaeger’s reliance on a school construction survey from the spring to consider.

I’ll take two days next week first to discuss the survey and then to show, apart from the survey but relying on better information, that the referendum is likely to pass.

Lock Box.  Better to place the matter – new ordinance, repeal of old, etc. – on an upcoming agenda.  The friction over this issue shows that full-time municipal staff have a problem listening to merchants and appreciating their concerns.  It also shows that full-time municipal staff think that it’s legitimate to circumvent those concerns through an ad hoc committee composed of obliging insiders.

All in all, we’re a small town, but never a dull one.

The Masking Effect of Act 10 

We’ve had Act 10 for several years now, and during that time in no sector has that law been more discussed or felt than in K12 public education. Whitewater has avoided some of the Act 10 strife that has gripped other parts of the state, and that’s been to our advantage, whatever one thinks of the provision. 

(I am opposed to Act 10 on traditional libertarian grounds: any person in any occupation should be free to associate with others and bargain against, and in opposition to, the government. Those who hold office locally or statewide have too much authority as it is; they don’t need more tools, but rather deserve fewer.)

Yet whatever one thinks of the direct consequences of Act 10, it’s had a second, masking effect: all the attention to decisions involving resources has almost certainly obscured the sound of other decisions unrelated to fiscal policy.

(I’m not describing choices not made for lack of money, but choices made yet not heard for all the attention Act 10 has received.)

As we drift farther from Act 10’s beginning, and that law is either attenuated or people become inured to discussion of it, attention is likely to shift to policies over these last several years of which we’ve heard less. Act 10 has masked the sound of these other policies, but it’s a masking effect that will not endure: other subjects will come to residents’ hearing, no matter how loud Act 10 has been.

The Other Hiring Decisions

The Whitewater Schools will soon select a new district administrator.  It’s an important decision, but one that’s made easier by its consequent infrequency: there are few positions available at that level, and always a few candidates for each available position.

Across our state, however, hiring teachers in sufficient numbers and of sufficient quality is a more difficult matter:

According to the most recent figures available, there were 8,867 people enrolled in teacher preparation programs in Wisconsin in the 2013-’14 school year. In itself, that would be enough to fill all the expected teacher openings in coming years.

But things aren’t so simple. As Riggle [professor at St. Norbert College in DePere and president of theWisconsin Association of Colleges of Teacher Education] said, the interests students have don’t fully match what’s needed out there.

There is also the delicate but important matter of who is going into teaching. In many cases, the upcoming teachers are hardworking, capable, talented and idealistic. And in some cases, they aren’t so strong in at least a couple of those areas.

And then there is the matter of how to do better in preparing people to become teachers.

SeeMath problem facing schools: How to get enough teachers? @ JSOnline.

These challenges are more than cyclical, as the article’s author, Alan Borsuk of Marquette Law, notes.

After we’ve hired a new administrator, we will yet face the persistent – but now aggravated – Wisconsin problem of finding sufficient numbers of teachers.  It’s neither an accident nor an insoluble mystery why faculty hiring is more difficult in some states than others.   That’s a long subject for another day, but a subject and a day that cannot seriously be treated as a surprise, nor postponed indefinitely.

Our next administrator’s hiring will leave before us other hiring challenges, of many more people over many more years, yet to be resolved.

Hiring a District Administrator

Over the next few days, Whitewater’s school board will interview candidates for district administrator.  For the district, these last several years have been relatively tranquil if fiscally difficult. I’ve observed that, as against other districts, we have been fortunate to avoid the labor-management tension that has plagued too many districts. (‘One or more’ would be the correct definition of too many.)

And yet, and yet, this question presents itself: Is recent administrative practice a suitable model for future administrative policy?  Should we keep doing merely what we have been doing?

Old Whitewater – a state of mind rather than a person or age bracket – loves nothing so much as stability, even if it should be the stability of mediocrity.  (That Leslie Steinhaus received two contractual terms as administrator confirms my contention.) 

In the coverage of this hiring decision, we are sure to hear all one could want, and more, concerning who, yet the most  pressing concerns will always be what and how.

The Whitewater Schools’ Motto

The Whitewater Unified School District has a motto, a very good one:

Every graduate an engaged lifelong learner.

If our schools achieve this result – graduates who are engaged, lifelong learners – that engagement and that learning will take different forms for different people. People are and should be, to borrow a title from a fine book, free to choose.

For those with political or administrative roles, however, whether graduates themselves or shepherding students to graduate, engaged, lifelong learning must have a set of core expectations: basic principles of reasoning, a desire to measure accurately, and an ability to assess the quality & significance of measurements taken.

It’s not asking too much of properly schooled leaders to meet these core expectations. Whitewater’s leaders want things – very often good things – but wanting something isn’t enough. In any endeavor, but especially in endeavors of learning, there should be presentations based on sound data, on accurate and representative measurements, acquired through neutral, unbiased inquiries.

It’s a mistake to think that the principal divide is between those who are for or against education. Americans rightly esteem learning; we are an inquisitive people.

No, the principal divide is between those who think that support for education allows any possible claim, and those who believe that respect for education necessarily allows only some, sound claims, discarding other possibilities as unfounded or inaccurate.

There shouldn’t be much of a divide like this, here or elsewhere, but there is. We’ll not be truly competitive and attractive until this divide disappears, and a more discerning perspective takes hold.

Minecraft, Education Edition

33cscreenshotPost 16 in a series.

We often say, and mostly rightly, that work should come before play.  That’s true for school, too: study and homework typically comes before play.  Sometimes, however, play is a kind of study, and has educational value.

Microsoft’s Minecraft (Education Edition) is a video game that’s more than a game:

A hundred schools will start testing Minecraft Education Edition in May, but more can get it in June when a free early-access program begins, Microsoft and its Mojang game studio said Thursday….

“During the summer months, we are also going to be focused on working with educators on building out lesson plans, sharing learning activity ideas and creating reusable projects,” Microsoft said.

Minecraft players turn trees, animals and minerals resources into tools, weapons and shelter to survive nightly monster onslaughts. It’s a major hit, with more than 70 million copies sold. It’s not just about survival, though. A creative mode lets players build fanciful structures, automate pig farming and even reproduce the complicated internal workings of computer logic circuitry.

This open-endedness has made Minecraft adaptable to everything from computer programming to art history. Especially because kids take the initiative to learn with Minecraft on their own, it’s no wonder schools like it and parents don’t freak out so much when kids get obsessed….

SeeSchool’s out for summer? Not for Minecraft Education Edition @ CNET and Minecraft: Education Edition.

Electronic doesn’t always mean better, but rather sometimes it is advantageous.  Most people see this, but not everyone.  I am often surprised to meet well-schooled people who are sure that there is one way to approach something, a small number of ways to categorize something, and that approaches and  categories are so fixed that they might as well be immutable natural laws.

There is no field of advanced study in America (or elsewhere) that does not have within it competing schools of thought, each advanced by equally talented academics.  In fact, we would be surprised to find otherwise: one graduate department might align one way or another, but we’d expect that there would be an acknowledgement and engagement with competing theories elsewhere.

And yet, and yet, regarding teaching young children, one sometimes encounters those who see only one view, one method, one possibility.  (I’m speaking generally, not of one person or place.)  I’d say, in my experience, most teachers are open to creative options, but when one encounters someone who’s not, it’s quickly apparent, and always disappointing.

Minecraft, other games, electronic presentations, etc. are not the solution to all our educational challenges.  They’re not even close.  They are, however, partial solutions, and worthy reminders that what we once did isn’t an unalterable impediment against what we may yet do.

Asking About a Student’s Day

33cscreenshotPost 15 in a series.

Every parent wants to know how a child’s day went at school – what he or she learned, experienced, and thought about the day.  Sometimes, however, the obvious question (“how was school today?”) doesn’t elicit more than a brief, unspecific answer.

An NBC news story online, offers suggestions from a parent on how to ask children about their school days in a way to get a more informative answer. The questions – and variations one can easily craft – are from Liz Evans, a parent of three and blogger.

Evans suggests questions that should help parents learn more from their children about school experiences.

See, Not Having Luck Asking the Kids ‘So How Was School Today? @ NBC News.

Variations in Spending

33cscreenshotPost 14 in a series.

National Public Radio, and twenty of its radio stations, have completed a project to see how much each public school district in America spends, per pupil on education. See, Why America’s Schools Have A Money Problem @ NPR.

The study focused on spending per pupil, and found wide disparities, even when adjusted for regional cost differences. Two school districts in Illinois are an example:

…$9,794 is how much money the Chicago Ridge School District in Illinois spent per child in 2013 (the number has been adjusted by Education Week to account for regional cost differences). It’s well below that year’s national average of $11,841.

Ridge’s two elementary campuses and one middle school sit along Chicago’s southern edge. Roughly two-thirds of its students come from low-income families, and a third are learning English as a second language….

“We don’t have a lot of the extra things that other districts may have, simply because we can’t afford them,” says Ridge Superintendent Kevin Russell.

One of those other districts sits less than an hour north, in Chicago’s affluent suburbs, nestled into a warren of corporate offices: Rondout School, the only campus in Rondout District 72.

It has 22 teachers and 145 students, and spent $28,639 on each one of them.

But there’s another variation that the study does not consider: among districts with roughly the same level of spending, how much variation is there in curriculum and programming?  Admittedly, a study like that would be far larger even than a study of variations in per pupil spending.

Still, I wonder: do districts with the similar spending levels look the same substantively, and if not, how many variations of programming and method are possible within a given range of spending. Understandably, richer districts will look different from poorer ones.

Within the same spending range, however, how much variation exists within districts?  This presents a follow-up question: if there are variations (including significant ones), are some more effective than others?

I don’t know of a study that possibly captures so much detail about so many places, but the question still lingers: how different are some districts in curriculum, programming, and method from others of similar resources?

(About the picture for this series – it’s a screenshot of a calculator app for Android phones that emulates a Hewlett Packard 33C.  I used an HP calculator in school, and they were amazing machines.  My phone’s calculator app pays tribute to a fine machine of yore.)

Avoiding Others’ Missteps

33cscreenshotPost 12 in a series.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that I would say a bit more about how not to go about a school budget referendum. The post had Milton, Wisconsin’s many mistakes in mind, but I held off posting on the subject because it seemed that the situation there would get worse, offering even more missteps for Whitewater to avoid. As it turns out, the situation in Milton has gone south over the last week. There’s no reason to take pleasure in that community’s mistakes, but they are instructive to others, Whitewater included.

We have had the benefit, for the most part, of placid times in the Whitewater Unified School District, with fewer controversies than many communities across Wisconsin, these last several years. Many communities have faced – to their detriment – more rancor than we have. That’s not merely to the benefit of our school district, but to the economy of the immediate area: harmony within the boundaries of the school district helps Whitewater’s economy by making the city more desirable to those in nearby towns, and of interest to those farther away.

I think this relative calm can and will continue. If we avoid a few obvious errors, we can manage well.

Looking at Milton, as that district’s referendum effort has progressed, one sees mistake after mistake, all avoidable, all self-inflicted. It’s quite a list: misdirected community surveys, confusion over basic goals, uncertainty over how to ask for community comments, conflicts between school board members (one has now resigned), ambiguous or disputed board resolutions (which might have been prevented by better draftsmanship), and critical press coverage of it all.

See, from the Gazette, Our Views: Just the FACTs: Milton School District’s missteps erode trust (subscription req’d), and Milton School Board member Janet Green resigns.

Whitewater was free from these problems during her last referendum, and likely will be again if there is a fall referendum. There are two reasons for this. First, we have had a generally cooperative board and administration, without rancor or (thankfully) conflict-inspired resignations. Second, in general, this has been a less antagonistic environment than many other districts have seen. It’s my guess – and it’s simply my guess, not a survey – that there’s less willingness to clash over education in this area than in others. Perhaps several factors are at play, but it’s been a relatively quiet time.

We can easily avoid winding up where Milton is.

There’s an obvious educational benefit to doing well and considering calmly, but there’s an economic benefit, too: one gains a comparative advantage as a community by avoiding obvious missteps that now trouble another, nearby city.

(About the picture for this series – it’s a screenshot of a calculator app for Android phones that emulates a Hewlett Packard 33C.  I used an HP calculator in school, and they were amazing machines.  My phone’s calculator app pays tribute to a fine machine of yore.)

Assumptions on Referenda

33cscreenshotPost 11 in a weekly series.

There’s a theory – in Whitewater and other places – that good policy comes from having as many ‘adults in the room’ (that is, as many established & mature people) as possible. I’d say that’s necessary, but insufficient. Relying only on the established & mature, without specific consideration of discernment and insight, relies on too little.

One has to ask: what do you believe, and why do you believe it?

Asking what one believes, and why one believes it, should be an ongoing exercise. Circumstances change; one evaluates anew by what exists now, not on what was, or on what one thinks about oneself.

In the last Whitewater Schools referendum, I assumed (incorrectly) that the vote would be close, and that even the place of the referendum question on the ballot might prove significant.

Looking back, those assumptions were wrong: the referendum carried well enough, and ballot position probably made little if any difference.

I thought as I did because previous referenda in Whitewater had been contentious. That was, however, some time ago.

Looking at referenda results now, from across the state, it’s clear that an overwhelming number of referenda pass (74 of 76 referenda from the February 2016 elections passed).

What does this mean? A few new assumptions and questions:

1. A majority of voters will support more spending for schools, even using referenda to do so.  This must include significant numbers of voters who did (and still do) support Act 10.  It’s numerically impossible that every winning referendum came about only with the votes of those opposed to Act 10; even obviously conservative districts have supported referenda.

2. Waiting for an outcry against spending, of the kind outcry that this school district had in the past, is probably waiting for a lion who’s not there, and won’t show up.

3. Some referenda will fail, and some will only pass on a second try (still possible under our laws, mere legislation obviously notwithstanding).

4. It’s impossible that because most referenda pass, any referendum has a greater than ninety percentage chance of success.  These votes are not like drawing lots, where nine of ten are drawn, without knowledge of what the lots look like.  On the contrary, the minimum requirements of a school referendum require a stated amount sought and the purposes for it.

(Janesville not long ago proposed a municipal referendum where the city sought an amount but described no purpose for it.  It failed, of course.  By the way, the recommendation to submit a referendum without a stated purpose is an example of some of the worst municipal lawyering I can recall.)

5. There must be – in these many referenda that succeed – a successful gauging of what the community will bear.   It’s not (I’ll assume it cannot be) only by chance that referenda succeed.

6. Even in a favorable climate, requests will have to be defensible, as even a favorable climate has limits.

7. What is that defensible amount, and what are those defensible purposes?  I’m not sure.

8. Is it easier or harder to advance a referendum in a unified school district (that is, one that is made up from several towns)?  I think harder, overall, for reasons I’ll state in a future post.

So, a revised assumption: that a referendum’s more likely to pass that I thought at the time of our last referendum, but there are still critical elements that make the high success rate of February 2016’s referenda deceptively reassuring.

Next week: What Not to Do When Seeking a Referendum.

THE EDUCATION POST: Tuesdays @ 10 AM, here on FREE WHITEWATER.

(About the picture for this series – it’s a screenshot of a calculator app for Android phones that emulates a Hewlett Packard 33C.  I used an HP calculator in school, and they were amazing machines.  My phone’s calculator app pays tribute to a fine machine of yore.)

Tenure

33cscreenshotPost 10 in a weekly series.

The UW System Board of Regents recently adopted a tenure policy, about which much has been said statewide. How it will change day-to-day prospects for faculty I’ve no idea. The UW System changes from March 10th are only part of a process in which local campuses will have their own tenure policies reviewed at the board level. (UW-Madison adopted its own tenure policies in November, for example.)

This is, no doubt, an important topic on campus, but I am uncertain how much these changes have occupied residents not connected to campus. I’d guess Whitewater (the whole city, adding in surrounding towns) is too fragmented for there to be a common view. That’s true of many topics – we’ve passed the point of being one politically or even culturally unified place (if ever we were). There’s still a lingering desire to think and speak about Whitewater as one place, but that’s really only true as one geographical place. That’s not because the university isn’t relatively large; it’s because residents aren’t sufficiently alike to see and view the issue the same way, with the same intensity. Attention and interests differ significantly.

A webcast of the meeting is online, along with supporting written materials.

THE EDUCATION POST: Tuesdays @ 10 AM, here on FREE WHITEWATER.

Describing Kenesh Shorukov’s Day

33cscreenshotPost 9 in a weekly series.

Most people don’t ride horses to work; in a nation like ours, of 323,000,000, it would be impossible.

So, I’m not posting a video of a teacher riding to work on a horse because I think that American teachers should commute to work on horseback, nor am I suggesting that teachers here should be grateful that they don’t have to commute on horseback.  A technologically-advanced society cannot sustain itself as Kyrgyzstan does.

Achievement as we define it – and as existing conditions require even if we did not define it – demands far more.

I’m posting the video because it’s illustrative of effort.  It’s affecting – and it is affecting – because it’s a simple story, told mostly by actions recorded.

That’s what film and video do: they allow one to show something compelling, in only a few minutes, without even many words.  A few day-in-the-life videos, easily posted and replayed (on websites or phones) would emphasize unquantifiable – but compelling – work.

SeeA Snowy Trek On Horseback To Teach School @ Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and along these lines, Video & Liveliness.

THE EDUCATION POST: Tuesdays @ 10 AM, here on FREE WHITEWATER.

Borsuk on Testing

33cscreenshotPost 8 in a weekly series.

In January, Alan Borsuk, a senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University Law School, wrote an essay in the Journal Sentinel about Wisconsin’s mercurial standardized-testing regime.  See, Wisconsin grades as proficient in standardized testing chaos.

Borsuk observes the scene over the last few years:

The standardized tests a few hundred thousand Wisconsin third- through eighth-graders will take this spring will be the third version of such tests used in three years, each with a different definition of proficiency.

Months overdue, results the Department of Public Instruction released Wednesday did not include data for individual schools or districts or for private schools taking part in the voucher program, a big step backward from past practice.

The state testing picture has been chaotic of late. There seems to be some hope it will settle into a more consistent, maybe even helpful testing routine, starting this spring. But the ups and downs of the last couple of years justify skepticism.

Since substantive topics could not have changed much over this brief period, and the science of test-taking cannot possibly have changed meaningfully over the same brief time, there is only a political explanation (not left or right, but instead deeper than either) for the swings from one test to another.  Either the political class failed to choose tests properly somewhere along the way, or they’re still failing to choose properly.

Toward the end of his essay, Borsuk mentions recent state ACT scores:

Last year, close to all Wisconsin 11th-graders took the ACT college-admission test. In the past, the ACT was voluntary; 73% of students in the Class of 2015 took it, including 12th-graders and some who took it multiple times. Officials last summer reported an average ACT score of 22.2 for Wisconsin, which politicians of all stripes bragged about. In the new data, based on almost all juniors, the average score was 20.0. This is almost certain to mean politicians will:

a. Talk a lot less about average ACT scores in Wisconsin.

b. Overlook inconvenient details and keep talking about a 22.2 average.

He implies that the correct answer is a combination of (a) and (b): speaking less about inconvenient facts, and relying on stale data.

Turns out that his implication is spot on.

I’d recommend the full essay to readers.

THE EDUCATION POST: Tuesdays @ 10 AM, here on FREE WHITEWATER.

A Theory About the Diverging Futures of the Whitewater Schools and UW-Whitewater

33cscreenshotPost 7 in a weekly series.

Before I begin today’s post, I’ll mention that there is now an announcement at the Whitewater Unified School District’s webpage about academic success at one of our schools despite economic hardship. It’s a prominent mention, and that’s a good decision – we should lead with what we have truly done. For more on this topic, see Whitewater’s True and Worthy Success.

For today, it’s a working thesis of sorts, that came to me after a conversation with an education policymaker in Madison. It goes like this. While there are concerns about funding education at both the public school K12 and university levels, these programs would face markedly different futures if spending cuts continue.

Although local school districts must by law offer a minimum core of courses, and by law a core of the same courses as other school districts, that’s not true at UW System schools, where one could by restructuring treat the UW System (or much of it) as a single entity, and allocate previously-considered vital subjects between parts of the System. Over time, UW System schools would look less like separate, comprehensive universities and more like unique branches of a larger tree.

That’s not possible for K12 education. No one could offer science in Whitewater, with the expectation that students would take language arts in Fort Atkinson, and calculus in Jefferson.

One could, by contrast, divide subjects between System schools (far more than is true today).

My point is not that this would be desirable, but that it would be possible. It would mean that our comprehensive universities would be less comprehensive, so to speak. (In fact, the risks to a school like UW-Whitewater – and our city – might be considerable.) Cuts within (public schools) and cuts within, but presented as across (branches of a university system), would have a different character in description and impact.

In one case labor would (mostly notably) face layoffs, in the other wage stagnation.

We are not yet at the point of divergent futures, within a common, low-funding environment. We could be on our way, though, by the end of the decade.

I don’t know; I’m persuaded after my conversation that it’s at least one possible shape of things to come.

THE EDUCATION POST: Tuesdays @ 10 AM, here on FREE WHITEWATER.