Monday, November 28, 2011

Let’s Flip That

A current argument in the education policy world is between those who argue that the quality of inputs to system matter (i.e. resources, poverty in communities, etc.) and those who argue that we need to emphasize the quality of outputs (i.e. reformers).  Here is my tongue-in-cheek argument that this discussion is itself specious.  I am not attacking religion, just trying to demonstrate the absurdity of applying a factory model in an inappropriate context.  It gets ugly fast. 

All this input/output business just underscores the paradigm that organizes our schools: the factory.  In a factory, the quality of the inputs matter, as do the quality of the outputs.  I worked in a factory.  We manufactured architectural millwork.  Now if I sent #2 pine to the door shop as opposed to FAS mahogany or rift and quartered white oak, I'd get a different outcome (I won't mention the injury factor this would entail.)  They'd probably muddle through and call me an idiot, but they'd get some sort of decent door done.  Do this for enough years and it would degrade the craftsmanship, as workers become demoralized.  I could go "make better doors or you're fired."  Workers could organize a union and push back.  Yadda yadda yadda.

Let's apply the factory paradigm to a different context, say church.  So the inputs are the babies that we baptize, batch process in Sunday school, confirm, marry - the whole 7 sacraments thing.  We send the finished product out the other end feet first in a pine box.  Then we quantify - how many souls went to heaven, how many went to hell?  As our statistical methods become more sophisticated, we could calculate how many years souls spent in purgatory with, say, their eyelids sewn shut with barbed wire (see Dante.) 

This would enable us to calculate value added scores for priests and nuns, who we could then hire, fire, promote to bishop or otherwise "differentially compensate" as we deem fit.

But wait - some of the priests object, "our churches are filled with alcoholics, prostitutes, beggars, and criminals.  That's why our numbers are down!"  Too bad!  Improve your technique - demographics is not destiny!  We should close failing churches, fire the priest and half the nuns, or turn the church over to the management of televangelists.  We could even have a nun's union run by bad nuns (and excommunicate the nuns who dared to strike.)

What if instead of applying the factory paradigm to churches (amusing, but getting tiresome) we applied a church paradigm to schools?  Schools as temples of learning.  Just as churches (at their best) can be incubators of human spirituality, schools could be incubators of the human intellect.

Of course if we transfer the Roman military/ecclesiastical hierarchy along with the paradigm (schools are already organized along these lines), we'll end up right where we are now with no changes.  And I'll personally skip the celibacy thing thank you very much!

Or maybe there's a better paradigm for the organization of schools - but it sure ain't the factory!

Rethinking Administration Part II: Solutions

It’s time to re-conceive school administration as a set of tasks rather than as individual persons.  These tasks can then be distributed within the system, either to make administration do-able, or, more radically, to eliminate the traditional building level administrator entirely.  Improving education means reconsidering traditional ideas when those ideas get in the way of the end goal of the educational enterprise: great student learning.
Many would say that we need to do a better job of recruiting, training and inducting administrators.  There are also those that would say that we should look for administrative talent outside the ranks of educators, and recruit administrators from the ranks of business and industry.
Neither of these solutions has much promise.  If improved recruitment, training and induction of administrators were a solution, we’d already be doing it.  At best, it can produce a handful of superstars, when what we need is systems to elevate the practice of the average administrator.  Those systems are doomed to failure because the job is itself unreasonable – you have to be “superman” (or woman) to perform it.  Systems that speak to the average are an inefficient way to create the exceptional. 
Likewise, recruiting from outside the profession means you will recruit people with a subset of skills needed for successful administration, but certain skills, like evaluation, curriculum and assessment, are so deeply rooted in classroom practice that an educational leader from outside would be rendered dependent on others, or risk failure in these key categories.
This points to a simpler solution: why not re-conceive administration as tasks rather than individuals, and then distribute these tasks within the organization to people with the skills and talent to perform individual tasks well?  Then a range of administrative solutions become possible:
  • Elimination of the building administrator: The more radical solution is found in a handful of teacher led schools around the country.  At the Math Science Leadership Academy, an elementary school organized by union leaders in Denver, administrative tasks are distributed among a team of teacher leaders.  The existence of a strategic compensation model, ProComp, encourages leadership work engagement among teachers.  But to succeed, communities have to let go of traditional paradigms of the classroom and school: one teacher full time in the classroom (leadership work requires release time within the student day), and the single “go to” administrator as the ombudsman for every issue.
  • Reconceptualizing administration as traffic control: This model is found in the Plattsburgh NY City School District where superintendent Jake Short believes in cultivating and “driving down” decision making capacity in the system to the level of implementation, where the information to make good decisions actually exists.  Short monitors the resulting decisions for quality, and legality, and to make sure that the necessary decisions are in fact made and implemented.  When interviewing Short, I pressed him on how he would behave if he disagreed with one of the resulting decisions.  In matters pertaining to the legality of the decision, he is obligated to intervene, but otherwise it becomes a persuasion task; he avoids overruling the decisions of the people to whom he has delegated in the interest of nurturing a system with a distributed capacity for excellent decision making.

    An expansive Wallace Foundation study devoted to examining the traits of effective school principals has found that high student achievement is linked to “collective leadership”: the combined influence of educators, parents, and others on school decisions.
  • Distributing certain tasks or functions within the organization: This third possibility, breaking off discrete tasks in the interest of making administration a more reasonable job, is exemplified in the many districts nationally who have implemented Peer Assistance and Review Systems.  The first such system was the Toledo Plan, which dates back thirty years.  Evaluation and support of novice teachers as well as struggling veterans, is turned over to teachers and their union.  Involving teachers in the evaluation of peers works because teachers are affected by the presence of ineffective colleagues.

    Allowing teachers, through their unions, to take charge of quality in the profession, has been shown in the research to elevate practice.  When a consensus in the teaching community develops around practice, the union supports removal of non-performing individuals because teachers participated in the decision and the fairness of that decision cannot be impugned.

    The conceptual difficulty for boards will be paying teachers for work that is not direct instruction of students.
In my Vermont experience, evaluation is the piece of administration which gets short shrift.  Administrators, even when they have the skill set to do the job, do not have the time because of the myriad demands of the principalship.  Administrators also often lack knowledge to be genuinely helpful when evaluating teachers in specialized content areas. 
Breaking off this one piece and handing it to teachers and their unions seems to me a first step towards establishing a model of building and district administration that can actually be accomplished by the real flesh and blood people to whom we entrust the task.  But just a first step – ultimately resolving the issue of rural administration may well require more radical solutions.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Rethinking Administration Part I: The Problem

It’s time to re-conceive school administration as a set of tasks rather than as individual persons.  These tasks can then be distributed within the system, either to make administration do-able, or, more radically, to eliminate the traditional building level administrator entirely.  Improving education means reconsidering traditional ideas when those ideas get in the way of the end goal of the educational enterprise: great student learning.
In my twenty plus years of teaching/working in Vermont public schools, I’ve worked under fourteen principals and six superintendents.  I have to temper this assertion by pointing out that, as a rural elementary school music teacher, I’ve always worked in two schools simultaneously.  I’ve been twenty years at one of those schools, where I have experienced six of those principals and four of the superintendents, an average tenure of a little over three years for the principals.  The five year average for superintendents actually exceeds the national average by about two years, mostly due to our current superintendent having served almost thirteen years
This collection of administrators has been a mixed bag.  As a group, they lurch from the incompetent, the criminal, and the incoherent, to a handful who could actually perform enough of the grab bag of tasks that constitute administration to be considered competent.  Proficiency in administration seems to be less a function of mastery of the craft and more a question of mere longevity: two of the more ostensibly successful administrators I’ve served under achieved whatever success largely due to outlasting their faculties long enough to implement some changes.
Longevity is a pretty low bar.  The task of school administration itself, however, is impossible.  One must demonstrate skills in curriculum, teacher evaluation, budgeting, scheduling, contract administration, education law, special education, management of the physical plant, politics, discipline, transportation, communication, negotiation and personnel management (not to mention leadership…) I have yet to see the complete package in any one individual, not because there is anything wrong with the people themselves, but because the job is itself unreasonable.  Proficiency or even distinction in any small set of these tasks may not be enough to overcome failure in any one area.
Furthermore, administrators are promoted from the classroom.  The qualities that make one a skilled and effective classroom teacher are not necessarily the skills that make one an effective administrator - but background in the classroom is essential to having the “street cred” to run a school.  This problem is exacerbated by the lack of assistant principalships in the Vermont to train prospective administrators.
Anyone that has sat on an administrative search committee in a small town can speak of the thinness of the talent pool.  One often experiences a motley collection of retreads and unproven first timers.  In Vermont, the real dance of the lemons happens not in the teaching force, which tends to be stable and competent, but in the ranks of administration.  The plethora of small community schools in our state means we have a demand for a large number of administrators relative to the student population.  Then we spend a lot of money hiring people to do impossible work.
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and School Improvement Grants (SIG) have exacerbated the talent pool problem by creating job instability for principals - who in their right mind would want a job where you face being fired for reasons not under your direct control?  Every one of the four turnaround models involve firing the principal, and absent a sensible re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) - or a waiver - 100% of schools face being identified as failing and therefore on the path to firing their principal by 2014.  This year 72% of Vermont schools failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP.)
Please don’t interpret this post as an indictment of every administrator.  I have worked with some excellent administrators; the problem is that they are the exception rather than the rule.  The rest?  Good, well-meaning people plying a 1950's role cursed with 21st century expectations.
Tomorrow Part II: Solutions

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Modest Proposal

After years of toiling for unions that protect lazy teachers and allow them to harm innocent children, I’ve finally come to my senses and bought into the neo-liberal agenda.  Privatization, choice, competition and markets….think of this as my reverse Diane Ravitch moment.  If you can’t beat’em, join’em.    This is my ticket to the gravy train and I want to share some great ideas I’ve come up with.
We have a problem.  As taxes on the wealthy approach zero, foundations are no longer going to be necessary to shelter the wealth of the rich from taxation.  Revenues will decline as the middle class (the people who get taxed) shrinks.  How are we going to fund our schools with neither revenue, nor foundations?
The answer lies in the financial markets.  Wall Street has the talent and the capacity to develop innovative investment instruments that can save our schools.  Why did this never occur to me before?  There are so many smart people on Wall Street – I know this is true because they have more money than I do.  If we unlock the genius of Wall Street everything will be OK.
There are a couple of key innovations that make this financial miracle possible.  First of all, thanks to standardized tests, education has become a commodity.  It can be traded just like pork bellies or Brent crude.  Second, when a product becomes a commodity, the efficiency of the market allows the producer to be paid below the rate needed to sustain life, meaning that education costs cannot only be controlled, but radically cut.  The commoditization of education provides a way to quantify costs per unit output (test scores.)
I propose that investors be able to make direct investments schools – in essence, buy shares.  The value of the investment will fluctuate according to the value of the school, which will be a function of test scores and per pupil spending.  Like any good commodities business, schools that can squeeze higher test scores at lower unit costs will be more valuable.  When this occurs, the value of the security will rise.
This market could be part of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.  Investors will be able to use put and call options so they can bet either for or against student learning.  In addition, a futures market would allow accurate predictions of test scores at individual schools through the price fluctuations of these securities.  With securities pricing information in hand, management could bring resources to bear on problems pro-actively.  The miracle of the invisible hand will improve schools even as everyone gets rich – and all with no messy revenues to raise!
One difficulty this poses for the wealthy investor is exposure to conditions in individual schools.  For example an outbreak of flu, or an inconvenient school shooting during testing could cause an investor to lose money.  Plus, statisticians have warned us of the instability of VAM when applied to the relatively small student populations of individual schools and teachers’ classrooms – what rational investor would want to be exposed to this sort of risk?
Luckily, we can use derivatives to hedge against these risks.  Individual school securities can be sliced up and bundled with other schools with similar characteristics.  These derivatives could be sliced and bundled a second time to allow creative money managers to customize investment portfolios for the risk profiles of their wealthy investors.  Investors would be able to hedge their risks and bet for and against student learning simultaneously, while continuing to make money.  These derivatives could become so divorced from the underlying value of student test scores that they increase in value indefinitely.  This will encourage the wealthy to pour their money into schools, now guaranteed money makers.
I believe that similar mechanisms can be employed on other public goods.  A prime example is infant mortality rates – a candidate for commoditization if there ever was one.  We have a statistic which can float up and down, and a measurable unit cost.  The use of derivatives in this case would create an efficient market that would allow infant mortality rates in a community like East St. Louis to settle to an economically sustainable level.
The miracle of the market is that by removing irrational considerations, like ethics, that distort the economic system and lead to inefficiencies, like doctors and hospitals, we can achieve the best possible rates of infant mortality at the lowest cost.  Self interest flows naturally to the public good, with no sacrifices. 
I am so glad to have discovered the power of unregulated markets.  I’d like to pitch this idea to Goldman Sachs, and the Gates Foundation.  I don’t think I’ll bother with the US Government, since there won’t be much of it left in a few years. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

A College Student Speaks Out

My daughter Liz Beatty-Owens gave this speech at a labor rally at Johnson State College in October.  Liz is 20, and is already a skilled organizer, with a deep understanding of the political and educational issues we face.  She and I work together when we can on behalf of the Vermont Workers Center.  Liz spent last weekend at Zuccotti Park in New York City participating in Occupy Wall Street (that's Liz serenading Mayor Bloomberg)
I am standing here today because- I am a student- half way done with my college career and I am already $20,000 in debt. And yes- in terms of debt I am one of the lucky ones.
I am here today because I am a student with a 15-credit work load, working 2 part time jobs, thousands of dollars in debt and I still cannot regularly afford to live comfortably - and I know I am not the only one.
I am here today because I have followed the rules.  I graduated from high school and I went to college - the path laid out for us by our society - yet it has not been made a sustainable path.
I can’t help but feel discouraged when each semester I have multiple peers drop out of college for financial reasons- going off to minimum wage jobs or, in two cases, the military, with semesters of debt looming behind them.
I don’t know about you but I want to live in an educated society where a college degree is not considered a privilege but recognized as a social good.
I have had the opportunity these last two semesters through numerous political science classes to speak to many of our Vermont political leaders and active community members. And more often than not the question is asked of me in this situation- why aren’t more young adults involved with politics- more active and driven in this field?
And as this question resonates with me I can’t help but turn to them and say: How can we expect the majority of students to support the government when students are not being looked out for by our government.  We are underfunded and consequently unsupported.  It’s a give and take deal.
That said, it has become clear to me this semester that the student population at Johnson is no longer willing to stand idly by.  We have groups forming such as Students for a Democratic Society (Wednesday nights at 7:00) and an ambitious group of students named Johnson to Wall Street (Tuesdays at 7:00).
And lastly, I would like to see the creation of a student union to represent our voice and our expectations at a state wide level- initially here at Johnson but then becoming VSC wide.  There is power in numbers- and we have the intelligence, the energy and the drive to create change right here, right now.
I would like to invite every Johnson student to sign up for the Student Union.  Our table is right over there….
With a unified voice we can stand up for students and create change at a localized level.
Let’s ask Vermont to once again set an example for the rest of the country- we’ve done it before with health care and same sex marriage- let’s do it again! Let’s support our students, fund our colleges and create social justice!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Which Way Forward for Teacher Unions?

I gave this speech April 4, 2011 in Burlington, VT as a participant on a panel "Which Way Forward for Unions?"
I love my union.  I believe that unions are a fundamental social good.  They are institutions that elevate not only the workers who are their members, but all workers in general by raising the bar of good employment practices and fair compensation.
I’m second third generation union.  My mother worked 34 years for the county jail and her union guaranteed that after a lifetime of toil and difficulties she retired in dignity and could fulfill her greatest wish – that in old age she could be independent and not a burden on her children. 
VT-NEA has helped guarantee a middle class existence and a dignified retirement for thousands of Vermont’s teachers.  For me personally, engagement with my union has given me tremendous opportunities to develop professional and leadership skills.  For this I am very grateful.
Part of caring deeply is to be critical and encourage improvement and greater efficacy in the union.  VT-NEA and all teachers unions are in a time of great flux.  The ability to change is key to our survival.  But we must do this in a way that honors and is built on the strengths that we have inherited from the hard work and sacrifice of those who have come before us.
Where do we stand right now?  Here in Vermont, the system of teacher negotiations is broken.  We have an expensive, ritualistic political theatre of teacher negotiations, a divisive process which has become detached from the fundamental purpose of the educational enterprise: great student learning, and produces incremental language changes and pay raises below the rate of inflation
However, in one district I work in, I assisted in an interest based process that quickly arrived at a three year settlement including a lift up and set down of the salary schedule, which yielded new money in excess of 11% over three years.  The contrast was stark.
When I went to Washington last summer for my Fellowship, I was puzzling about this contrast.  I had a chance to sit down with one of the Department’s top experts on unions and after a half hour of analysis he looked at me and said “you guys have a mess.”
My take away from this conversation was that we needed bargaining reform in Vermont.  But as I continued to work with the department on labor management questions, it became apparent to me that bargaining reform could only exist in the context of comprehensive union reform.  What does this look like?
The model that speaks to me most strongly as a union leader is the Three Frames of Progressive Unionism, developed by the Mooney Institute for Teacher Union Leadership.  The Three Frames are Industrial Unionism, Professional Unionism, and Social Justice Unionism.
Industrial Unionism uses collective power to meet bread and butter needs of members and ensure fairness from management.  It is the bulk of what we think of when we consider teacher union work:  negotiations, grievances, and yes strikes, or near strikes.  It assumes an adversarial relationship with management. The Industrial Frame has elevated the profession, but presents some problems. 
First, industrial style labor relations were adopted from industry.  As schools evolve away from a factory model, the foundation of the industrial frame is shifting beneath us. 
Second, the political conditions sustaining this model are changing – think Wisconsin.  Not only are we facing a coordinated, well financed attack on our collective bargaining rights from the radical right, but the Democratic Party, to which teacher unions hitched their fortunes, is no longer a reliable ally or protector.
Third, the public, as well as rank and file, may be becoming impatient with the inefficiency of teacher negotiations, detached from the fundamental purpose of education: great student learning.
Professional Unionism seeks control of the profession to ensure quality.  In this frame, focus is on professional development and quality of teaching/learning.  The methods include collaboration with management.  I believe many teachers identify with this frame, because confrontation is not in our character.  The problem here is that it is na├»ve to think that teachers’ good intentions will make stupid or duplicitous behavior by bureaucrats, politicians and administrators go away.
Social Justice Unionism seeks equity for our students through active engagement in the community.  It wraps the unions’ arms around bigger social problems, problems that if they were solved would help make the curriculum accessible to even our most vulnerable students.  Social Justice Unionism represents the pinnacle of our work.  How do we get there, especially in the overt hostility of the current environment?
First, it is important to note that these three frames are symbiotic.  You don’t get to choose.  Living exclusively in one is perilous.  The three frames are individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for the success of teachers’ unions.
Second, I used to believe that the three frames existed in equality.  Events in Wisconsin and other states this year have taught me that they actually exist in a hierarchy.  For all of the historical and political problems of an exclusive industrial unionism, a robust capacity to attend to the bread and butter issues of both members and unions themselves is the foundation for the existence of meaningful progress in the Professional and Social Justice Frames.  There will always remain the need for working people to confront power.  Anything else is wishful thinking.
The possibilities of Professional and Social Justice Unionism flow from the power of Industrial Unionism.  Professional Unionism unlocks the potential of collaborative labor management relations to improve educational outcomes, but is defended from foolishness by the shield of Industrial Unionism.  Social Justice Unionism extends the benefits of our work to stakeholders outside our membership, especially children, and creates a stable political base that cannot be provided by an exclusively industrial/adversarial approach.  Professional Unionism enjoys the enhanced capabilities of students and families whose basic needs are being met. 
Where does Wisconsin fit in this vision?  The political vandals like Scott Walker who are seeking to end teachers’ collective bargaining rights are essentially destroying the possibility of teachers unions becoming strong, responsible partners in creating great student learning.  Unions need excess capacity to operate in the Professional and Social Justice frames.  Attacking our sustainability by eliminating dues deductions, as in Alabama, or forcing us to hold certification elections each year, as in Wisconsin, compromises our ability to put our shoulder to the common challenge of a creating a great educational system.
I want to close with one last thought concerning Social Justice Unionism.  Before I became active with VT-NEA, I was active with the Vermont Worker’s Center.  I came away from that experience with an insight: how dangerous it is for my union to go it alone.  Solidarity with other workers is a keystone moving forward in the current hostile labor environment.  I foresaw that to the extent we failed to help others, it meant that we were failing to push problems away from ourselves proactively.  I predicted the present crisis; I am shocked at the scale and virulence of the assault.
Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on this day in 1968 after coming to the support of striking Memphis sanitation workers.  He didn’t need to do this, but he did, because he fully grasped the necessity of workers’ struggle for justice.  I hope that tonight we are in some small way honoring the spirit of solidarity in which Dr. King gave his life.  Thank you.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

SB5 Repeal: Ohio Injustice Averted

How you spell relief?  I spell it SB5.  Finally the tide has turned in the corporate anti-labor assault on public sector unions.
If there were teacher unions in any state that didn't deserve SB5 it was those of Ohio.  Ohio is the home of the Toledo Plan, the ground breaking Peer Assistance and Review System (PARS) which has been a national model of teacher taking control of professionalism for decades.  According to new research, deployment of a PARS system leads to more collaborative labor management relations.
Another example: The Dayton local was recently highlighted in NEA Today for using the grievance procedure to acquire textbooks for special needs students.
But I discovered the most significant example of the progressive work of Ohio's teacher unions in Denver, at the US Department of Education's Labor Management Conference.  At a reception, I spent considerable time talking with several representatives of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, a federal agency charged with improving relations between labor and management.  At one point I was talking with an FMCS mediator from Ohio, who turned to a colleague and asked, "What percentage of teacher negotiations we do in Ohio do you think are interest based?"  The colleague thought about it for a moment, and replied, "Eighty percent."
Eighty percent.  As a VT-NEA local leader, I've been working to encourage the use of interest based bargaining (IBB) in two Vermont supervisory unions, a state where the labor-management relations often have an adversarial character because they rely on distributive tools.  We are just taking our first baby steps to achieve what has been achieved in Ohio.  And Ohio, where FMCS deploys this tool 80% of the time, which has been using contemporary conflict management tools for decades, where unions join with their communities to create great student results, experiences SB5.  I was shocked, saddened and angered.
Ohio's unions did not deserve this assault.  They were punished for doing some of the most progressive, collaborative and innovative work in the country.  I am incredibly relieved that the citizens of Ohio recognized the treasure they have in these great civic institutions, public sector unions, by not just repealing SB5, but repudiating their governor by an almost two to one margin.