"High Achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation." - Charles Kettering

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Evansville School District Fails Students

My daughter, a Junior this year, has been waiting for her schedule to be posted for a month. On Thursday, my friend informed me that the schedules could only be accessed from the parents accounts. When I looked at her schedule, I was appalled. It was clear that whoever scheduled her was entirely clueless as to her goals and aspirations of attending college as a business major. All her business choices were replaced with two gym classes, a foods class and that intro to nursing student class they started a few years ago. None of which were on her list of alternate classes and none of which makes a college prep schedule. Nobody called us with the problems at all, because, according to the guidance office, they only called in the Seniors this year. There was no chance for us to sit in the guidance office and go over this methodically or wisely, just a hurried few phone calls. Finally, she was offered distance learning opportunities for AP Psych. Only the counselor forgot to tell me that parents are required to pay $350 to enroll their kid in this "opportunity" to properly incent the kids to do well so it's not a waste of money. The money is returned when the kid "satisfactorily completes" the class. Lynda Olenik, the former GT coordinator who is the latest critical employee to flee the district, called me to tell me about the fee. She's staying long enough to get kids started on their distance learning options.  I told her I had to discuss it with Bill. I wrote a huge letter to the school board, the administrator and copied the principal and guidance with the following summary. I asked the district reps in my letter if they expected every parent of every kid who flunked a district offered class to reimburse them for the poor result? I informed the district that I was uninterested in floating them a loan for 4 months and I expected them to come up with a class she can take that is college preparatory and on her list of desirable classes. I also told them that this experience embodies all the reasons people are fleeing from the district, both teachers and students. These break down into at least three general areas of failure:

1-Horrible communication. Why weren't we notified in a timely fashion as to the problems with her schedule? Why weren't emails sent to parents when kids schedules were available? It's a heck of a lot easier to shop for school supplies if you know what your class load will be. Had they anticipated the problems with her getting her business classes, she could have been enrolled in Youth Options last February and avoided the fees completely.

2-Horrible plant/classroom support. An increase in the maximum students per classroom to 30 has reduced the number of instructors to a level that does not sustain good internal options for kids to take. Also, apparently being a business major is not compatible with taking advanced math and science classes because all the business classes she wanted were offered during her discrete math and AP environmental science class. Really. So she's supposed to choose between earning cheap college credits and getting the classes she needs to enter her field? And since when are business and science/math mutually exclusive? Bill Gates anybody?

3-Complete lack of customer service/awareness. We have lived in Evansville since our daughter was one, so she has attended the district for her entire school career. She has been on the college prep track since grade school and nobody in the office putting together her schedule knew that placing 2 gym classes, a medical career survey class and a foods class was incompatible with her needs? I am appalled at the cavalier way in which her schedule was thrown together and cannot fathom what they were thinking, if any thinking at all went on. They are screwing with kids' futures and this has to stop. I called the principal because I was told to do so by the guidance office since it was his decision to keep everyone in the dark as to the scheduling problems, except Seniors, because, well, they have to graduate. I have not received a call back.

We have been passionately involved with our kids' educations for 14 years. I told them I am weary of having to pound tables to get my kids the bare minimum of what they need. It's exhausting and I have other things on my plate right now that reduce the amount of energy I'm willing to expend to beat the district about the head and shoulders to show them the proper way to educate my kids. They are educators and, as they insist, professionals. It should not necessitate my constant intervention to get them to challenge my kids so they are ready to attend university.

So step up or lose funding ECSD. We are not the only family that is disillusioned and disappointed with this latest in a long line of district blunders. Wake up and smell the loss of revenue, dudes. 4K won't save you from this glaring lack of basic educational needs, despite the misguided notions perpetuated by the Wisconsin DPI.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Let's Form Evansville's Academic Warriors!

Calling all folks who are passionate about academic excellence! I have an idea I have been noodling about in my brain for a few years. Every time co- and extra-curricular activities seem to have boundless resources donated from the community, I say to myself and anybody who's in hearing distance, "Where's the passion for the primary function of a school district, that of teaching reading, writing and arithmetic? Where does preparing these kids for life in the real world fall in this district?" I know that passion exists because I hear people complaining about the woeful lack of rigor in our curriculum all the time. 

The loss of the football press box is just the most recent example in a long line of incidents in which it appears that our children's activities take precedence over their basic education. People are falling over themselves to organize fundraisers to pay for something that will be reimbursed by the insurance company, less deductible. Teachers trying to instruct an overcrowded classroom can't look forward to compensation by an insurance company for all the extra hours it takes to grade 5 more essays per class. Seniors unfortunate enough to try and enroll in the Advanced Literature Seminar this year will never be able to get the experience of a college discussion section (my daughter assessed this class as the most generally applicable class for all her college classes thus far) without having to pay exorbitant tuition because the enrollment of 9 was insufficient for them to "rationalize" offering this class. 

Could we warriors for education raise money to close these short sighted gaps administration is causing? Would people donate to such causes? I'm of the opinion that it's all in the marketing! I saw an amazing amount of money solicited at Pete's Inn during the Garage Sale Days last year for the swim team. Those kids hauled in $$ hand over fist. We parents never had to pay an extra $ for our kids to participate in the swim team after that fund raiser. Say 15 is the minimum class size at the HS and there was need to fund 6 kids worth to keep the ALS class.  Each kid is fetching about $6900 in state aid. Divide that by 4 blocks per day and again by 2 semesters per year (ALS is a one semester class) and then multiply by 6. Could we raise $5175 to keep Advanced Lit Sem at the high school this year? Would the administration care if we did? Would it convince them that a sufficient number of people are equally passionate that their kids get a proper education that will prepare them for university or workforce? It's high time for people to be equally aghast by these decisions the administration makes to deny offering useful academic content as they seem to be by the mere suggestion that co- and extra-curricular activities contracts be cut by a percentage that is equivalent to the curricular cuts in hard times. 

People might be inclined to say, "That's what state and local funding is for!" But when the school board and administration use those funds to pay over $200,000 in co- and extra-curricular contracts and refuse to cut more than 5% of that while at the same time cutting the curricular budget by 12%, forcing many teachers to retire early or quit in dismay, I would argue that the state and local funding is not being used to provide a rigorous academic experience for our children. It's a matter of priorities and after observing the budgeting process over the last few years, it became painfully obvious that the administration values sports and music over academic rigor in Evansville. Part of it is because they think that's a primary community value. The problem is that nobody is willing to say it out loud. The board implemented a long series of strategic planning meetings a few years ago and the new administrator has dragged his feet on implementing some of the community suggestions. A friend of mine who has fought for years to get her kids the education they need finally open enrolled out this year. Her comment is, "If they would just admit that the primary focus of this school district is athletics, music and drama and to provide an education sufficient to get their kids an entry level job in service or industry, everyone would be so much better off. The parents who expect their kids to go to university would go up the road to Oregon to get their kid the education they need to get there and the pressure would be off the district to try to be everything to everybody." She said this in a very non-judgmental way. She knows it takes all kinds to make the world go around, but when her bright kids were made to feel awkward because of their brilliance, she wasn't willing to allow that to continue. I'm not ready to throw in the towel yet, but after 14 years of fighting the good fight, I'm very very close. There's more truth in her words than I'd like to admit. 

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Semi-Recent (2005) Economic Impact Study of 4K in Wisconsin: Why Educators Shouldn't Be Entrusted to Perform Complex Statistical Analyses

Click on the link below to see a 2005 report distributed by 4K(now), a self-describing entity that promotes the value of universal 4K. I read the entire study and, most of you won't be surprised to hear, I have a few issues with their scientific method regarding their conclusions. But the approach was sound and included a "conservative" and a "realistic" estimate. It also broke down Milwaukee vs. the rest of Wisconsin, which was informative since Milwaukee has offered 4K for over 20 years now. The "rest of Wisconsin" Model was additional spending required to make 4K universal in 2004-2005, so I extrapolate that the Milwaukee only model refers to the balance of the Milwaukee Public Schools that do not offer 4K. Anyway, they focused entirely on the benefits to public schools in the analysis. It was a cost-benefit analysis without all the added hoo-doo regarding down the road social benefits such as reduced crime, reduced incarceration, reduced welfare, increased taxes collected, etc. The study begins with the cost to provide 4K to the group of kids that don't get it now. Credit goes to the authors for recognizing that not all people are interested in sending their kid to 4K, and they estimate non-participants at 29% of the 89,000+ four years olds in 2004. They also subtract the kids going to private school or being homeschooled to arrive at a public school 4K cohort of 78,500 kids. They provide three different models called actual, guaranteed high quality and comparable to Head Start. The actual model in WI at the time provided $3518 per kid in 4K. The guaranteed high quality model costs more at $4,468 and quality comparable to Head Start costs nearly twice what Wisconsin paid at the time, or $6,445. The total expenditure ranged from 112.93 million dollars to 206.9 million dollars, depending on quality of program offered. Remember this is ADDITIONAL spending and there was no treatment that increased the current spending to the "guaranteed high quality" model  or Head start model to serve the thousands of kids already in 4K across the state. Wisconsin is currently ranked 5/10 in providing quality preschool programming. This was their "Cost" section of the model.

The study continued with the current cost to provide education to the current breakdown of students over the course of their K-12 experience. It had a 14.4% Special Education rate in Wisconsin (as a whole), 83.3% regular ed, no repeated grades and 2.3% regular ed with one repeated grade. At the time (lo those many years ago), it cost an average of $9,919 to educate a regular ed kid per year and $18,846 for a special ed student. Performing math only education gurus can reproduce, they came up with a total cost to educate a cohort of 78,500 incoming kindergartners with the average distribution given above throughout the course of their K-12 educational careers. As 2004 dollars begin to lose oomph over the years, they assessed a 3.5% annual "discount" on the cost to educate, so $9919 in 2004 has the buying power of $9571 in year 2, etc. etc for 12 years. Yes you heard me, they only did calculations for 12 years. Which is fine and dandy, except kids are in school for 13 years. Furthermore, I did all the calculations by hand and even calculating for 12 years, their number comes up 3.9% low. I added a thirteenth iteration to calculate a full 13 years the K-12 system keeps our kids and the value reported in the paper is 9.8% underestimated. Since I didn't want to do this obtuse calculation for every group (and I am inept at writing programs for such things), I presumed a consistent underestimation and came up with a much higher expenditures across the board, as you might suspect. They did all this in order to come up with a model that estimates cost savings to the DPI over the course of a cohort's education, presuming the percent of regular ed kids goes up and special ed kids goes down. As I said before, their hearts are in the right place, but their math is not sound. Ironically, the higher costs result in higher savings over the 13 years of schooling if their assumptions are accurate that special ed need will decrease.

I went through a complete analysis using their methodologies and did not question their cost savings for teacher satisfaction, retention, savings on subs etc. The cost I came up with included increasing the cost to provide Head Start quality 4K to the current kids since they only estimated based on kids new to the system, but if you pay out $6445 for the new kids, you have to go back and recalculate how much more that will cost to provide higher quality programming for the current group of 4 year olds, which turns out to be another $46.98 million added to the estimated $209.90 million for a total new annual expenditure of $256.88 million. These are "additional costs." This would be added on top of the $56.47 million outlaid in 2003 for 4K in Wisconsin (16,051 kids  X $3518/kid). So the actual cost of providing universal 4K in 2004 would have been $313.35 million. If you are doing a cost benefit analysis, you have to include all the costs, not just the new ones.  The cost to provide 4K for each cohort, after taking into account the benefits the public schools estimate from kids being exposed to a consistent preschool experience, was $82.4 million for Model 1 and $167.75 million for the more conservative Model 2. Model 1 predicts that over the course of this cohort's schooling, a benefit/cost ratio of 73.7% will be reached, meaning that 73.7% of the investment in 4K for all will be paid for with future system benefits like lower special ed participation and higher teacher satisfaction. Model 2 predicts a 45.6% benefit/cost ratio. These final values are similar to the ones in the study, but are more realistic in their assumptions.

This is the first analysis I've seen that has focused on the cost to the school system. It's important to make this distinction because all the other societal benefits quoted in the High Scopes study are not really pertinent to universal 4K as the subjects are all economically disadvantaged in that analysis, began preschool at age 3 and the sample size was very small. The authors in the study below try to address these concerns in the body of their paper and make allowances for these differences in their statistical analysis, as they specify in the body of the paper.

The bottom line is that an investment is still required and the system benefits are accrued over 13 years while the costs are annual. I am not a statistician, so I cannot presume to understand how they account for that issue. It doesn't seem right to divide the benefits by 13 because of the change in value of 2004 dollars. But taking that approach, Model 1 benefits averaged over 13 years comes up with an annualized benefit of only $17.8 million, Model 2 is $11.2 million. This reduces the benefit/cost ratio significantly. Annual Model 1 now predicts a benefit/cost ratio of  5.7% and Model 2 only 3.6%. It seems to place the net cost to provide universal 4K at 295.55 million dollars a year for Model 1, or 3.7% of the 7.9 billion dollars in state and local funding for education in 2004 and 302.15 million dollars for Model 2 (3.8% of the total funding). In light of the fact that each grade level cohort should in theory have gotten (1/13)X100 % of total funding, or 7.7% of the education dollar, preschool funding at half that value, or 3.8%, shows the calculations I have done are fairly accurate (4K is only a half day, and entitled to only half the funding).

I am still not of the opinion that the taxpayers should pay for universal preschool because targeted programs are where you get the most bang for the buck. I don't think people who have children should relinquish their responsibilities to provide the best they can for their kids. If you can pay for preschool, then do it and quit feeling entitled to every program and perk the district has to offer. I recently made a little list for myself of what my parents paid for vs. what the Wisconsin public schools now provide "free." That list includes but is not limited to:
  • Private Music Lessons, a required part of a student's choir and band grade in High School. My folks started me in private music lessons when I was 5.
  • Full day kindergarten so people don't have to pay for half day care for their 5 year olds. Everybody went to half day kindergarten in those days.
  • Preschool in the majority of districts, with wrap around care in some cases and/or transportation to and from 4K and day care. People paid to send their kid to preschool in the olden days and currently have several district area preschools to choose from.
Now, many of you might think I'm just a cheap old curmudgeon. That may well be true, but if my kid is passionate about music, I'll find a private instructor for him or her myself, not expect the music teachers to do it so the school can rationalize full pay for teachers who instruct fewer blocks than their peers. The thing is that $50K here and $20K there eventually add up to a deficit budget, even though each individual expense is "pittance, in view of the whole 20 million dollar or so budget." That is public school thinking and what has gotten them into the pickle in which they find themselves.

This entitlement attitude has also resulted in the strained dynamic that exists between educators who think they know what's best for your kids and the responsible parents who do know what's best for their kids. I have had to pound several tables in pursuit of the education that is best for all three of my kids in the last 14 years. I have been and probably continue to be considered an interfering "helicopter" parent all the way from the instructors to the administrators. Those same folks know that I will back them up when my kids need a reminder on what is acceptable behavior. But without my insistence that they challenge my kids to perform at their highest capability, I sincerely doubt what the quality of their education would have been. I have seen my middle kid work her behind off for the first 2 years of high school to make up for the fact that the teachers didn't think she was capable of the higher level math sequence. Or in their words, "signalling her out for the Math track as well as the English track will just make her more conspicuous, which you shouldn't do to a middle school student." Institutionalized low expectations and herd mentality was not the way to convince me of the error of my ways. I just went back to my old ways for our third kid because I was concerned that the HS would go back to the 8 period day and he would be screwed out of making up the math deficit by taking two maths a year. And math is his passion, from which I fully expect an engineering career of some kind. He's been this way since he was 2, when he learned to add and subtract. He was taking apart household appliances by the time he was five, when I learned to buy broken down stuff at garage sales for him to tinker with. And you don't want to "put too much pressure on him?" Good grief people, get a grip. They are not hot house flowers that will wilt under the heat.

So now I feel even more prepared to participate in the 4K committee to inject what I consider the voice of reason. The reason they cannot target populations in need to provide 4K in the public schools is because all programs must be available for all kids. The problem lies in the inability of the current system to think outside the paradigm and create a new one that truly will help students and teachers achieve the desired goal, graduates that are college and career ready. When they are ready to approach that with an open mind instead of a determination to get every last revenue dollar available, true progress can be made.


Thursday, August 8, 2013

4K Investigative Meeting Report

The meeting to kick off the fourth 4K investigation in 6 years was a great disappointment for me. I keep going to these meetings hoping to see new and exciting data that indicate great strides have been made in preschool education. I continue to be disabused of this notion. Last night, they had a woman from the DPI whose specialty is to implement a community based 4K program. Having somebody from the DPI present is a new aspect of community presentation that hasn't been tried before and she was pretty informative. Community based 4K is a program in which the preschools in the community are used to help deliver the 4K program to the district. There are essentially three models of 4K delivery. The first is entirely through the district: in district schools and using district teachers. The second is using area preschools to provide classroom space with teachers provided by the district. The third is to use area preschools for space and they employ the teachers. All teachers are certified preschool instructors with the DPI. The revenue associated with the students would be distributed to the preschools and district in various percentages depending on the model or combination of models implemented. All of this I was aware of through my own research, but it was clear others had never heard of it, so her presence was useful.

The disappointing part of this investigative meeting was the materials used to convince the audience (preaching to the choir last night) that 4K was the best thing since sliced bread. To give you an idea of how dismal it was, "Governor Doyle" (not since 2010) and "State Superintendent Elizabeth Burmeister" (not since 2008) were featured in the videos. Statistics used were not referenced as to the source and looked suspiciously like those from the High Scope Perry Preschool project from the sixties. Upon looking this up, I determined that these data are from that study but an older 1992 iteration of the study from when the participants were age 27. The newest report was released in 2005 and were based on data through age 40. We were all assured that providing universal 4K reduces achievement gaps, increases graduation rates, decreases special ed participation, decreases failure to promote to the next grades, decreases prison time down the road, etc. etc. etc., inferring that anybody against this program is simply a dolt because they don't UNDERSTAND the societal benefits incurred by simply educating 4 year olds.

The High Scope Perry Preschool program was a social experiment that was conducted at Perry Preschool in Kalamazoo Michigan in the sixties. It is unlikely to be purposefully replicated again because, who wants their kid in the control group? But that is what was done back in the unenlightened sixties. A group of kids living in poverty were selected to participate in a 2 year program of intensive preschool beginning at age 3. Another group of kids went on their merry, regular way. The teachers all had at least a bachelors degree in early childhood education and the student teacher ratio ranged from 5-6 to 1. The main scientific criticism of the experiment is that the sample sizes were so small. These people continue to be part of a longitudinal study every several years, the most recent one being in 2005 at age 40. Click on the link below to see the details of that study.  This is a quote from the conclusions section of the report. "The most basic implication of this study is that all young children living in low-income families should have access to preschool programs that have features that are reasonably similar to those of the High/Scope Perry Preschool program." 4K delivery in Wisconsin and every other state of the union doesn't come close to meeting these requirements. Especially the 5-6 to one student child ratio. And yet, these programs continue to promote their societal value based on a study that specifically states that programs provided for these kids must be "reasonably similar" to the High-Scopes program. Wisconsin recommends a 12 to 1 ratio, double the recommendation in the study. Practice is more like 15 to 1. It is already compromised at the outset. Now consider that in most areas in Wisconsin, the children living in poverty comprise about 20-30% (it's higher since the recession, not surprisingly) and the full social value being touted ($7.16 return on every dollar invested) won't be realized.

I was the lone person to state they were against universal 4K at the meeting last night. I stated that, unlike one woman who stated she had been previously against 4K and was now for it, I would probably never change my mind for a variety of reasons. I will add a caveat to that. If I ever see recent data that indicates that the current model of 4K delivery gives the same social improvements that the Perry Preschool project implies, I'd consider changing my mind. Even if somebody would take to heart the criticism that they quote data from a model they can't hope to use in order to sell politicians on the value of the program, and stop doing it, I'd begin to soften a little. The truth of the matter is that the sneaky underhanded way in which the former administrator tried to implement 4K at the expense of half-day five year old kindergarten polluted the entire subject for me and a lot of people. I noted that a primary reason people oppose 4K in Evansville is that our tax levy and low equalized property values result in the highest mill rate in the area, and among the highest statewide. If there were a referendum to initially finance 4K, that debt would go on top of the current debt, making the problem even worse. I noted that I could not speak for all of those against 4K, but that this is a recurring theme when I discuss it with a variety of people who oppose it for many reasons. I also noted that I and others opposed to 4K generally are in favor of every child having a preschool opportunity. We just are opposed to providing it as yet another subsidized service to all when all do not need it. That's when I was attacked by a father in the audience who asked me "How can you claim to be for education but against the building blocks?" I felt like, but didn't say, "How can you be so gullible as to believe all the tripe the DPI spokeswoman just fed you without questioning the source and validity?" I simply answered that I believed that many such as myself could afford to provide for our kids a preschool experience and I believe the statewide focus should rather be on funding services for those in need.

When I asked the woman from the DPI a question about 4K's lack of success in Milwaukee, she gave me the runaround. I stated that "Milwaukee County Schools have offered 4K for over 20 years. Milwaukee County Schools remain the worst in the state in both achievement level and achievement gaps. If the most experienced district in the state (that nearly universally meets the poverty criteria in the High Scopes study) cannot reach the societal improvements touted by 4K, how can Evansville hope to be successful with a new program?" Her answer to me noted that there was over 90% poverty in Milwaukee and she "truly believed that Milwaukee would be a lot worse off without 4K." OK, that is a supposition for which you have not provided any data and which simply refutes your claim that 4K will ultimately promote world peace.  I don't think "treading water" is a good recommendation for any program. What it means is that community outreach programs that engage the whole family in a genuine and useful way would be money better spent. Go figure.

I have told more than one person that I would like to be on the committee to investigate 4K. I stated to my friend last night that I have probably done more research on 4K than the entire room put together last night (except maybe the DPI woman as she was a preschool provider). I think I have information pertinent to the conversation at this point and provide a respectful yet informed op-positional viewpoint. Who knows? Maybe along the way somebody will provide data that states a realistic view of the situation and I'll be stunned into compliance!


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

District Investigates 4K for the Fourth Time in Six Years

Click on the link below to see that the district is again investigating 4K for the district. The meeting is TOMORROW August 7 at 6:30 at Creekside Place. There has been a lot of kerfuffle in this district regarding 4K. It's sad that its lack in Evansville has put the district at a competitive disadvantage, as it is the only one in the area without 4K. This doesn't really affect folks already here because the DPI requires open enrollment into 4K programs from a district without 4K to be paid for with tuition from the incoming students. So people not only have to schlep their kid to another district but have to pay for it as well. They can get paid preschool in one of several preschools in town, so who the heck would pay to go to another district? The true problem is that folks will not move into the district when others offer 4K and all the other amenitites of the ECSD. How will the district spin this? My take on this is that if Evansville were strong in other areas, it wouldn't matter. With the open enrollment out problem continuing this year, I think it's safe to say parents aren't convinced the district is strong otherwise. The question is how can the district meet the need of the kids who lack any preschool training? Since the administration kicked out Head Start back in 08 or so, these kids have lost a leveling mechanism to bring them up to speed with their peers who have had preschool.  Then there are a small group of kids who never had a shot at preschool because the parents made too much for Head Start and not enough to afford preschool. Universal preschool isn't the answer. Meeting the needs for the ones who need it is the answer, with the added benefit of only costing about 25 or 30% of universal 4K (based on how many qualify for free or reduced lunches). What do you think?