Timeless Posts XXI
Mission Creep in Public Schools
Posted in January 2012
I recently received a copy of the Weekly Legislative Report from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns urging town officials and school board members in Vermont to prevail upon legislators to stop “mission creep” in our public schools. “Mission creep”, according to Wikipedia’s definition is “the expansion of a project or mission beyond its original goals, often after initial success”.
I wrote this article for the Valley News in 2007 because I was concerned that our schools were being asked to do too much. The article implies that schools should have a limited role: we should focus on education and education alone. I’ve changed my thinking on that: as noted in my posted White Paper on Reformatting Schools I think that the schools should become the nexus for providing social services to students and should assume the primary responsibility for before-and-after school child care. The White Paper on waivers reinforces this by pointing out that by the time a student takes their first standardized test in 3rd grade they’ve spent 6% of their life in school… and yet the school is 100% responsible for the student’s performance. I don’t think our responsibility is going to change… so it is then imperative for use to work collaboratively with social agencies to prepare children to be successful learners once they set foot in our schools.
Here’s the op-ed piece from late 2007:
The recent Dresden School Board meeting offered two examples of “mission creep”: v A review of a proposal by concerned parents that we forbid the sale of junk foods in our vending machines v And a review of the Code of Conduct agreement signed by parents and student athletes in which athletes pledge to abstain from the use of drugs or alcohol, with an eye toward expanding this agreement to other extra-curricular activities. Implicit in these deliberations is the assumption that public schools are responsible for students’ diets during the hours they are in our schools and for the behavior of student athletes around the clock during sport seasons. There are arguments for and against the schools assuming the responsibility to provide only healthy foods on campus. If we serve students junk food and soda during the hours they are in school, we are effectively endorsing their consumption despite the lessons we teach in the health classrooms about nutrition. If we ban these foods, however, we are effectively denying students the chance to exercise the good judgment we are teaching in those same classes. Similarly, there are arguments for and against the efforts of the school to assume responsibility for the off-campus behavior of student athletes. If we don’t ask students to sign a pledge that they will not use drugs, tobacco, or alcohol when they are participating on a sports team, we are tacitly accepting these behaviors as acceptable off campus and indicating that training rules only apply during the hours students are under our direct supervision. If we require students to sign a pledge, though, we are effectively intruding in their personal lives and holding them to a higher standard than their peers who do not participate in sports. In both cases, our schools considered or accepted these responsibilities with the best of intentions. Both the high school and middle school decided to stop selling french fires and other unhealthy foods because of health concerns, so an outright ban of junk food in vending machines would appear to be the next step in assuming responsibility for students’ diets. The high school instituted their code of conduct agreement because everyone has witnessed how the use of drugs and alcohol affect the health and well being of high school students. In both cases, the roles and responsibilities of parents and the community come into play and, too often, have a limited effect on our efforts. How can the school ban junk food within its cafeteria and allow students to bring junk food in their lunches packed from home and local businesses (not to mention our cafeterias) that depend on revenue from the sale of junk foods? How can the school forbid the off campus use of alcohol by athletes when some parents and community members believe that those of us who attempt to regulate the use of drugs and alcohol around the clock are somehow intruding into the private lives of student athletes or being moralistic. As state legislatures convene in the coming months and our local school boards deliberate on policies and budgets, keep your eyes open for “mission creep”… and let your public officials know when you think they are accepting responsibilities beyond their original goals.
This originally appeared as an op ed piece in the Valley News, our regional newspaper. It was written at a time when the legislature was trying to come up with a definition of “adequacy” that wouldn’t require huge sums of money
The recent court ruling in New Hampshire, which found that the State failed to define a “constitutionally adequate education”, comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the issue of education funding in New Hampshire. For decades the state legislature has grappled with the issue of funding equity, a seemingly impossible task given the state’s heavy reliance on property taxes to fund public schools, and over the years they have repeatedly fallen short of the mark. While the court ruling last week did not address the issue of equity directly, the legislature will be faced with the equity issue when it addresses the court’s mandate to “define and determine the cost of a constitutionally adequate education, further define the requirements of accountability, and establish a uniform tax rate by the end of fiscal year 2007”. Following this legislative session, the Court will reexamine the funding method enacted and may take further action, if necessary, to ensure that the State provides a constitutionally adequate education.
In order to meet the directive set forth by the court, it seems to me that unless the legislature defines “adequacy” at a minimal level, they will be faced with two distasteful choices: raise tax revenues in the state or redistribute the existing funds raised in the towns. As an educator, I am concerned that the state will base their definition of “adequacy” on the economic realities they face and shortchange the opportunities for future New Hampshire students.
As a superintendent who has worked in five different districts in four different states, I can attest to the reality that local communities and state legislatures often define an “adequate education” based on political and economic realities. In Bethel, Maine in the early 80s an 1890 vintage elementary school was “good enough for my kids because it was good enough for my grandfather”. In Brentwood New Hampshire in the mid 80s physical education, art and music programs were viewed as “frills”. In Western Maryland in the 90s class sizes of 25 were sufficient in elementary schools and class sizes of 35 or more were acceptable in upper level middle school courses. In all of these districts an “adequate wage” for teachers and administrators was so low that turnover was a fact of life— and the teachers and administrators who left the district were inevitably the best and brightest. These standards were not based on any dispassionate definition of adequacy. They were based on economic constraints.
Based on my experience as a school administrator, and given the urgency to have all students achieving at the highest level possible, I believe that the definition of an “adequate” education should be based on the explicit and implicit standards set by the highest performing districts— without regard to cost. If those standards are used, an “adequate” education would include the following:
- Class sizes of 18-22 in the primary grades
- Class sizes of no more than 25 in intermediate grades
- Art, Music, and Physical Education at least twice per week in the elementary grades
- A media center in each school equipped with internet access
- A computer classroom in every school large enough to accommodate a class
- At least one computer in every classroom with internet access
- Opportunities for High School students to enroll in courses that prepare them for SAT II tests in all content areas
- Opportunities for High School students to enter the workforce upon graduation with pre-apprenticeship skills
- Funds for each teacher to pursue graduate level courses and/or professional growth opportunities throughout their career
- Teacher compensation levels that attract and retain talented and creative college graduates
- Clean, well maintained schools
These “adequacy” standards are needed if we hope to graduate students who can compete in the global economy. But today these standards cannot be reached across the board in New Hampshire because of disparities in the property tax base. This conundrum may lead the legislature to revisit the notion of redistributing “excess” property tax revenue from relatively wealthy communities to poorer communities in order to avoid a broad based State tax. As Californians can attest, this approach is self-defeating since it will eventually cause the wealthier towns to depress their property taxes to avoid sending the “surplus” to other communities and institute user fees to retain the higher standards in their community.
In the weeks ahead, I urge you to share your “adequate education” standards with the candidates for the legislature in your communities. If the legislators tell you those standards require more funding, ask them how they plan to provide the funding needed to achieve these standards or to share their definition, for that definition will determine the fate of our students for the years ahead.
This article originally appeared in Education Week. It reflects my belief that schools need to assume more leadership in coordinating the services provided to students before they enter school and while they attend school.
A Homeland Security Bill for Education
Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the President and his cabinet proposed the creation of a Department of Homeland Security that would improve coordination among law enforcement agencies and provide a means of sharing confidential information gathered by each agency. Last week, congress passed legislation providing this newly created department with the tools it needs to provide the kind of comprehensive planning required to ensure our country’s safety.
Nearly two decades earlier the Nation at Risk report began with this sobering paragraph:
If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.
Our nation’s response to this “attack from within” focussed completely on public schools, overlooking the fact that public schools are not the sole providers of services to children. After years of struggling to address the concerns raised by A Nation at Risk, public school leaders might consider proposing an Education Homeland Security Act. Such a bill would be written to improve coordination among the agencies that provide services to at risk children and to provide a means for those agencies to share confidential information.
Public schools have worked for years to see that no child is left behind, and teachers and administrators know that many– if not most– of the children who are being left behind are already identified and are already receiving services from other agencies. Unfortunately, these services are uncoordinated because of turf issues among the agencies and issues of confidentiality. Two cases from my career as a Superintendent of Schools illustrate how this lack of coordination and communication plays out in schools.
In the mid-90s, one of my assistant high school principals informed me that a parent in his school advised him that a recently enrolled transfer student moved into our district after being charged with murder in another community. The parent, a State trooper who had knowledge of these charges from his work, thought that the school should know this. He provided us with a means of confirming this information using public information sources. While the information was available through FOIL requests, because of confidentiality issues the district was not informed of this pending charge when the student enrolled. This extreme situation is in no ways unusual. Because of confidentiality laws and agency regulations, schools are often unaware of criminal activities of students in the community. Students on probation for crimes ranging from shoplifting to assault are enrolled in schools without the knowledge of school administrators. Without objective information, school administrators are forced to rely on hearsay or community gossip regarding students’ activities out of school. Furthermore, because of confidentiality issues and heavy caseloads for probation officers, schools are often unaware of the conditions of probation set forth by judges, conditions that often require regular school attendance and/or passing grades. Sadly, this lack of coordinated services results in a lost opportunity for meaningful intervention, an opportunity for child welfare workers to demonstrate to at-risk youngsters that the adults in the community care about them and are united in their effort to improve their quality of life.
In the same school district, a parent who was adopting an at-risk handicapped child from an inner city school district was shocked to find that none of the five caseworkers from each county who attended his meeting to complete the adoption process had communicated with either school district. The only way the school district would be informed of any of the efforts of any of the agencies was if the district initiated contact with each of the agencies independently after the child encountered problems in school. This, too, is typical of communication between child welfare agencies and public schools. Districts are often unaware of problems a student is encountering at home or services the student is receiving from child welfare workers that are designed to support the child’s efforts at school.
This lack of agency coordination brings to mind the fable of the five blind men touching an elephant and independently describing its appearance. Based on feeling the tail, the legs, the trunk, the ears, and the body of the creature each blind man developed a wildly different picture of the animal. Like the five blind men, independent agencies cannot develop a clear picture of the child they serve. They can only get a true understanding through sharing of information. Without this shared knowledge, it is impossible for any agency to develop a coherent strategy for providing coordinated services.
Like the problems with law enforcement agencies, the lack of coordination among the various agencies serving children can only be addressed through legislation, legislation that is based on meeting the individual needs of the child at risk. Like the recently enacted Homeland Security Bill, an Education Homeland Security Bill would need to address two hot-button issues: confidentiality and territoriality.
The public’s consensus to allow information sharing among law enforcement agencies is predicated on two articles of faith. First, the public believes the sharing of each agencies confidential information regarding suspected terrorists is needed to ensure public safety. Second, the public trusts that the databank on suspected terrorists will be established in accordance with the legislation and used only for the purpose set forth in the legislation.
The notion of assembling a database on at-risk students, like the notion of assembling a database of potential terrorists, is frightening. The benefits of sharing the confidential information among service providers, however, are far-reaching and essential to ensuring that no at-risk child is left behind. Because success in school is the basis for success in life and the basis for defining each child’s self-image, service providers would benefit from knowing about a child’s performance in school. Because a child only spends one fourth of their time in school, schools would benefit from knowing about the problems a child is encountering at home or in the community. In sharing information, each party would learn more about the individual child and be able to motivate the child more effectively. Both the service providers and educators have a common goal for every at-risk child: they want them to be successful learners and to have an improved quality of life. This overarching goal ought to compel cooperation among child welfare agencies the same way that the overarching goal of community safety is compelling cooperation among law enforcement agencies.
The issue of expanding the sharing of confidential information inevitably raises the specter of misuse of this information. Implicit in this concern is a mistrust of the government or of workers in “the other agencies” who might disclose confidential information inappropriately. Child welfare workers–be they social workers, counselors, probation officers or teachers– are currently adhering to the confidentiality guidelines established by their place of work. The fact that this information is NOT being shared among agencies is evidence that these child welfare workers can be trusted to follow confidentiality guidelines. The public now operates under the assumption that child welfare workers are following confidentiality guidelines within their agencies and all evidence indicates the public’s trust is justified. Why would the public believe that these workers would operate differently if their agency’s confidential information were shared with other child welfare workers who adhere to confidentiality guidelines?
Interagency cooperation exists in many states, but federal confidentiality guidelines and agency confidentiality guidelines often preclude the free exchange of information between case workers trying to achieve a common goal. Public schools and child welfare workers need to share information and coordinate services if we want schools that leave no child behind. To achieve that goal, the public needs to place the same faith in our schools and child welfare agencies that we have placed in our law enforcement. An Education Homeland Security Bill would signal that kind of trust.
In 2002, I visited my step daughter in who was living in Calaveras County CA. Her best friend’s mother was the founder of Mountain Oaks School, a home-school hybrid that came into existence thanks to this woman’s initiative and the resourcefulness of the local Superintendent. This Education Week article describes this “networked school”. Many of the ideas that are championed in these posts emerged from that chance encounter.
The Networked School
I’ve seen the future of public education in the foothills of the Sierras. Mountain Oaks School, located in an industrial park just outside San Andreas, California, is the kind of personalized public school that will spring up from coast-to-coast as traditional public schools are forced to narrow their curriculum and eliminate programs due to mandated testing and budget constraints. Founded nine years ago, Mountain Oaks School is a flexible web-like networked school that is far more effective and much more appealing to parents and students than the rigid hierarchical factory school design that often typifies public education today.
In the early 1990s, Calaveras County Associate Superintendent Ron Lewis had concern for the home-schooling families who contributed to public schools as taxpayers but were not receiving any benefits. He commissioned two homeschool parents to research what the homeschooling families in the area would want and need from a public institution. These two parents, Linda Mariani and Nancy McKone, were certified teachers who educated their children and neighbors’ children at home because they appreciated the positive effects homeschooling had on their children and family life. Ms. Mariani and Ms. McKone met ace-to-face with scores of homeschooling families and generated reams of information that served as the basis for the their report. The design for Mountain Oaks School emerged from their findings.
Mountain Oaks School, which now serves 379 students in grades K-12, has no classrooms, no formally scheduled classes, no formal discipline code, no classroom teachers, and no report cards. Instead of these traditional trappings of “school”, Mountain Oaks provides homeschooling parents with a network of services and homeschooled students with a network of learning opportunities
Mountain Oaks is situated in two small warehouses and every inch of space is put to use. The first floor of the two-story “lower building” includes an office that also serves as a student-mentor teacher meeting space; a 12-station computer lab in a long, narrow, corridor-like space; a conference/seminar/classroom; a mailroom; and a 400 square foot library. While the library is undersized by conventional standards, shelves full of books and resource material line every available wall space on both stories of the lower building. The second floor of the “lower building” consists of 6 faculty office spaces of varying sizes and configurations and a larger conference/seminar/classroom/kitchen room. The “upper building” houses an art studio, a lounge for secondary students, and lots of storage space for consumable learning materials that students and parents can access when they wish using an honor system.
Overcrowding isn’t an issue at Mountain Oaks despite the small physical plant because the 379 students enrolled in the school are never in attendance at one time. Instead of scheduling “classes” that meet regularly, Mountain Oaks schedules ad hoc workshops that meet as needed and where needed. The topics of the workshops range from formal instruction in Foreign Language and preparation seminars for California’s High School exit examinations to introductory units in crafts and interdisciplinary lessons in poetry, geography and art. The workshops are often held off-campus in private homes, in nearby public parks, or in community centers. These workshops are offered for parents and students, in some cases together and in other cases separately. Most of the workshops are offered to multi-aged groups of students, recognizing that 12 and 18 years olds can learn introductory pottery skills or foreign languages together and children of all ages can sing or play instruments together. The workshops not only teach academic content, but also provide students with an opportunity to develop social skills and meet with peers.
There are no classroom teachers at Mountain Oaks. Instead, there is a faculty of mentor-teachers, each of whom is assigned up to 25 students. These mentor-teachers, who serve as a combination case manager/counselor/guide for the student and parent, are assigned to the student by an intake team based on the student’s personal and academic needs, the student’s learning style, and the kind of instructional approach desired by the parent. Mentor teachers work with students for varied time periods. Some mentor teachers have worked with the same student for the nine years the school has been in operation; others work for a semester at a time. Students have the option to change mentor-teachers at the end of a semester if the parents or student’s needs are not being met. The mentor teachers accept these reassignments, realizing that the fit between the teacher, student, and parent is crucial to the student’s success, and realizing that as a student matures and interests develop, the fit may change.
At the beginning of each semester, the mentor teacher helps the parent and student develop a personalized learning plan which defines the learning standards the student will master in the coming weeks and the means of measuring progress toward that standard. At periodic meetings throughout the semester, the mentor teacher assists the parent and student in monitoring the student’s progress toward the attainment of the standards they set for themselves and provides direct supplementary instruction or appropriate instructional materials as needed. At the end of each semester, the mentor teacher, student and parent, develop grades for the student’s performance using appropriate rubrics agreed upon at the beginning of the semester.
This holistic performance assessment takes the place of a traditional grading system. Since the students and parents are directly involved in planning the work for the semester, there are no students who fail. Modifications, adjustments, and redirection can happen at anytime during the semester to meet individual needs and interests. One by-product of the Mountain Oaks grading system is the absence of competition between students. Discussions about “Whatja get?” are non-existent. Instead, students ask, “What are you studying?” This grading system doesn’t work for every student. A few students realize they are not committed to the independent learning process and decide to go back to a model where there is more external control. The majority of students who attend Mountain Oaks, though, welcome the opportunity to learn at their own pace in their own way.
Mountain Oaks is like a traditional public school in two respects: it offers a wide array of extra-curricular activities for students and it has varied demographics. Mountain Oaks has inter-scholastic and intra-mural athletic teams, an Academic Decathlon squad, a school newspaper and yearbook, and many special interest clubs sponsored by interested parents and community members. The demographics of Mountain Oaks are similar to the nearby public schools. Roughly 1/3 of its students qualify for free or reduced lunches and many of its students were or would be identified as handicapped in a traditional school setting. Students come from single parent families and families where both parents work.
The most striking difference between Mountain Oaks School and the typical public school is the level of parent involvement. Mountain Oak School parents want to provide an educational program that meets their children’s unique needs and they believe that the traditional public school cannot do that as well as they can. Before enrolling in Mountain Oaks, each parent commits to working four hours per month for the school. In keeping with California’s Independent Study guidelines, the parents agree to provide a minimum of four hours a day of supervised instruction for the core subjects for their child. This instruction can take place at home, on campus, or in some other venue. At first blush, this appears to be an unreasonable expectation for a parent, but since students are so engaged in their learning process and not limited to working during the normal school day, the four-hour commitment is much less onerous. The internet and the Mountain Oaks’ warehouse are full of instructional materials, and the student’s mentor-teacher, Mountain Oaks parent volunteers, and the Mountain Oaks staff have a network of resources to support the parent’s effort.
As budget crises force districts to reduce the length of the school year, to limit the number of elective courses and extra-curricular activities, and to abandon popular programs such as enrichment and elementary art and music, public schools will become less inviting and less personal. As the institution of NCLB forces all schools to narrow their curriculum focus to boost test scores, they will find it more difficult to meet the unique needs of individual students. Mountain Oaks School offers a low cost, high performing alternative to the traditional public school. It replaces the rigid factory design with a flexible network design. It replaces a one-size-fits all mentality with a customer focus. It replaces a regulatory environment with a nurturing one. It replaces an Industrial Age organizational pattern with one for the Information Age. In Calaveras County, the School Board and administration found a way to merge the homeschooling movement with public schooling and they encouraged homeschooling parents to design their own learning environment. If public schools hold fast to the factory school model, their school buildings will soon be as empty and forlorn as the steel mills in the Rust Belt. If public schools are open to new ideas, they may redefine “school” and find a powerful way to connect with students and parents. It happened in the foothills of the Sierras. It can happen in your community.
(Published March 2010 in Education Week)
Adlai Stevenson one quipped: “Americans are suckers for good news. Given a choice between disagreeable fact and agreeable fantasy they will choose the fantasy every time”. For decades the American public has chosen to believe in an agreeable fantasy that merit pay for teachers will cure the ills of our “failing public schools”, particularly urban and high poverty schools. This agreeable fantasy ignores three disagreeable facts: we already have merit pay in public education; there is no link between the performance of public schools and the revenues that fund public schools; and teachers don’t want merit pay.
FACT ONE: We Already Have Merit Pay
Our current method of school funding, which is based primarily on State and local taxes, creates a de facto merit pay system, a system that works against the urgent goal of providing quality instruction in districts with the highest poverty levels. Teachers working in school districts with high property tax revenues earn significantly more than their counterparts in other districts, and they have far superior working conditions. As a result, those wealthy districts attract and retain the best teachers while less affluent districts struggle to fill positions and often lose their most promising teachers to wealthier districts within commuting range.
Serving as a public school superintendent for over 25 years, I have experienced this de facto system of merit pay from both sides of the barrel. In the affluent college community in New Hampshire where I now work, our applicant pool includes not only a large number of recent college graduates with exceptional transcripts but also many experienced teachers from neighboring districts with solid experience and stellar references. These applicants are seeking jobs in our district in part because we pay very well compared to other districts in northern New England. Often, though, applicants indicate other reasons for applying to our district. They cite our superior professional growth opportunities, our fully staffed and equipped media centers; our wide range student services; the availability of technology, and our manageable class sizes and course loads. Most importantly, applicants want to work in our district because they know our students want to succeed in school, our parents understand and appreciate the value of education, and our community supports our schools by consistently passing budgets. A decade ago working in the Lower Hudson Valley in New York State I had the opposite experience. Each spring some of the best and brightest teachers regretfully submitted their resignations. They did so because they landed jobs in more affluent districts to the south where salaries, benefits, and working conditions were markedly better, and the communities more supportive. Our district paid relatively well for our region, but better opportunities existed within commuting distance and many of our exceptional veteran and promising newer teachers left for those jobs.
FACT 2: Performance is not linked to revenue in public education
Because public schools rely on State and local taxes, there is no connection between performance and funding. In the private sector, if a company’s profits increase, management can use those additional funds to reward those employees whose performance caused the bottom line to grow. In school districts, pay increases depend on tax revenues, which fluctuate due to variables beyond the control of school districts. When a district’s test scores soar during a year when the tax base declines due to erosion in the local property tax base, reduction in State aid, or the downshifting of State and/or Federal government costs, it is impossible to reward the improved performance. “Merit pay” funds for a district’s best teachers would be pitted against increased class sizes, the elimination of “non-essential” programs, deferring maintenance, or reducing compensation for other employees. None of these choices are politically possible.
FACT 3: Teachers do not want merit pay
Finally, the most insurmountable disagreeable truth about merit pay is that teachers don’t want it. Given the choice, teachers will accept decent pay and good working conditions over extraordinary pay and a stressful workplace. Public school teachers want to work where they have a sense that they are making a difference in students’ lives, where they are respected and valued in the community, and where they can earn enough to live comfortably in the community where they work.
Finally, here’s the most disagreeable truth about our current funding for public education: only a sizeable and sustained infusion of money can offset the existing pay and workplace disparities that make a mockery of the ideal of equal opportunity in public schools. The hard-working teachers in low paying districts need decent wages; the forlorn schools in those districts need to be upgraded; all communities need access to current technology; and finally, students in all schools should have the staffing levels and rich curriculum offerings that are “givens” in affluent districts.
Calls for merit pay deflect the spotlight from the existing disparities in public education, overlook the disconnect between revenues and performance that exist in the public sector, and the need for communities to provide moral support to teachers as well as fiscal support. Until we face these disagreeable facts, the agreeable fantasy of merit pay should be put on the shelf with the other mental models that block progress in public education.