UFN WARNING: UNIDENTIFIED FLYING NUMBERS
This owl is flapping with caution these days. Numbers are flying, and when owls and numbers collide, it’s best to get out of the way. This old owl likes to keep his numbers at a respectable distance—especially unidentified flying numbers. When those numbers are at arms’ length, one can see them in perspective.
Money numbers are flying everywhere now. They’re big. They’re red. And they’re moving fast. The governor has met his match—the flying monkey demons of debt.
FROM BOOM TO BUST?
How confusing! Only a year ago, things looked so rosy. Gov. Schwarzenegger got the state’s bond attorneys to approve the issuance of bonds to cover debt. He had just raised funding for schools by a healthy amount. The Quality Education Investment Act was about to dump $2.9 billion in the laps of about 500 schools that ranked in the lowest 20 percent in student achievement. In fact, the Los Angeles Times quoted Los Angeles Unified board member David Tokofsky, who called this bundle “the most significant investment in public education [since President Johnson made federal aid to schools part of his war on poverty.]”
It was only eight years that former Gov. Gray Davis was approving $10,000 checks to go to each staff person in schools that showed the biggest gains in students’ test scores. Not soon thereafter, the governor was approving $1,000 checks to high school students whose test scores were high. That was, of course, during the dot-com era, when many Californians were behaving as if money grew on trees and whiskey flowed from water faucets. This old owl observed otherwise rational human beings handing out bags of money as if it were a limitless resource. This owl remembered his physics lessons. “What goes up, must come down.” Did the governor and those legislators who followed him forget their physics lessons, or did they just cut class?
A squirrel friend of mine is equally aghast. He has this habit of hiding acorns, one at a time. He works hard and it gives him quite a headache. But my squirrel friend is a cautious and conservative rodent. He knows when acorns are plentiful, that that’s the time to stash them away for leaner years.
Recessions call for squirrel instincts. The city of Vallejo now faces insolvency. Precedents abound: Orange County’s bankruptcy of 1994 and New York City’s financial disaster of the early 1970s. Districts facing the triple threat of enrollment decline, GASB-45 obligations to retirees, and ten-percent budget cuts should be using FCMAT’s approach and issue a budget with a qualified certification. But since 2002–2003, the number of districts that have made use of this method of candid self-assessment has shrunk from 56 to 19. Not a good sign from where this bird sits.
What this owl sees from the air is fog. Human activity surrounded by swirling clouds, where few can see clearly and no one can really hear. Most of the talk about the fiscal emergency is clouded in hemming and hawing, half-truths, and hysteria. A little plain speaking and a dollop of candor would go a long way toward restoring calm in the kingdom. In this humble owl’s opinion, I’d nominate two people as voices of clarity and candor: the esteemed author and journalist Peter Schrag and the clear-sighted head of the Legislative Analyst’s Office, ElizaBeth Hill.
ACADEMIC INSOLVENCY OR JUST AN NCLB SLAP ON THE WRIST?
Other troubling numbers are in the air these days, and for the 97 districts facing “corrective action,” they are life-threatening. Indeed, Ken Noonan, president of the State Board of Education, compared his position to that of a medieval doctor, who is able to treat his patients only with “deadly cures.” Are districts in for a blood-letting?
Again, the fog surrounds this debate. Otherwise intelligent humans are using numbers in the most unintelligent ways. Districts are landing in year three of Program Improvement (PI) for reasons that are, at times, shallow and narrow (slight problems with one or two small cohorts). By the estimate of Supt. Don Iglesias, a former president of ACSA and currently the man in charge at San Jose USD, there are perhaps a half-dozen districts among the 97 that are facing corrective action for the right reasons: deep and broad instructional failings that have persisted for years.
On February 28, the CDE issued its tiered system for treating the “patients.” It includes four “remedies,” ranging from “intensive” to “other” (that’s lower than “light”). Buried in the press release that day was a stratified treatment plan, which ranked districts based on the CDE’s determination of their “illness.” Its recommendations are now under the review of the State Board, whose decisions are expected at the March 12-13 meeting. Stay tuned.
The fog may be parting for those who can wade through four factors that went into the calculations that resulted in assigning districts varying levels of “priority assistance.” But how is a principal, a teacher, or a parent to make sense of this? If a patient is, indeed, ailing, the doctor’s first responsibility is to do no harm. The second responsibility is to diagnose the patient correctly. Are either of these medical best practices likely to be followed when the State Board issues its decisions? And will the remedies match the illnesses?
STATE BOARD MEMBERS ON A LISTENING MISSION
In the middle of January, the State Board of Education leaders were on a listening mission. Ken Noonan, current president, and Ted Mitchell, the incoming president awaiting confirmation, were in San Jose to hear from supes and board members whose districts were at the end of the NCLB road: year three of PI. Gary Borden, the new executive director of the State Board, was also at the table.
This was the first of three meetings they would attend in three days. The other two, held in Bakersfield and Los Angeles, would enable the State Board to make informed decisions about each of the districts that face corrective action. The board had only a short time to gather evidence. They were there to listen to leadership and had cancelled this agenda item from the State Board meeting in January to make time to listen. And they got an earful.
Seven districts in year three of PI were represented at the San Jose meeting. Meeting attendees included superintendents from Salinas City Elementary, Salinas Union High, Monterey Peninsula Unified, Alum Rock Elementary, East Side Union High SD, and Ravenswood.
The board is squeezed between the governor, who appoints them; the Legislature, who confirms them; the Superintendent of Public Instruction; and the California Department of Education (CDE). But it is the US Department of Education that has named the State Board of Education as the party responsible for adhering to the terms of the state’s accountability workbook. This puts the members of the State Board in a tough position when they don’t agree with federal law or policy. The wise souls brave enough to accept a seat on this board are not eager to pull those strings unless they have no recourse. These hearings are designed to give them evidence of progress within many districts facing corrective action, and to buy the State Board time to make decisions that take into consideration the particular circumstances of each of those districts.
“TELL US WHAT WE ARE DOING WRONG!”
Superintendents took time to prepare, and some brought board members and staff to testify. All were earnest in their willingness to do more, to do better, and to remedy the reasons why their districts had fallen into deep PI. But each of those who spoke also earnestly explained the actions they had taken to improve instruction and to bring resources to the sides of their principals and teachers. Others spoke of their vigilance in compelling teachers to teach the standards. Some spoke of their efforts to retune and retool professional development so that students would benefit in ways that testing would reflect.
Supt. Alonzo-Vaughan, leader of Salinas City Elementary, spoke from her heart. Salinas City was the original DAIT district, and she was not shy about saying so. She took the reins after FCMAT “fired a flare” in early 2006, because “I was the last man standing.” Her comments centered on a key question: “Have we been bad?” She declared, “If we’ve been bad, then send us to the woodshed.” But she took a look at her district’s numbers long and hard, put her math-teacher hat on, and questioned the CDE’s conclusions. “The PI methods are flawed. Why would you want to count some children three times when you figure whether we made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)?” She continued to explain that a child who is an English learner, Hispanic/Latino, and receiving free lunches is counted in all three cohorts.
Supt. Roger Anton, who leads Salinas Union HSD, questioned why succeeding in 30 out of 36 criteria for AYP constitutes failure to make AYP overall. He recommended that a diagnosis of districts would be more effective if it centered on a curriculum audit. If accountants who count money audit where money goes, why wouldn’t academic audits review where time goes and, in effect, what gets taught?
Supt. Don Iglesias of San Jose USD didn’t have to be there. His district is making extraordinary gains in getting students through the A-G curriculum and into college. Just last year, five of its schools escaped from the PI list. Supt. Iglesias, a former ACSA president, was keenly attuned to what he called the “excessively apologetic tone” of his colleagues’ comments. After joking drily that the prior speakers sounded like they were addressing a meeting of the Alcoholics Anonymous (My name is Eric, and my district is in PI), he explained his frustration and anger at the unfairness of his colleagues’ dilemma. He was frankly upset at hearing so many apologies from leaders who felt they’d done nothing wrong.
THE BOARD’S OWN CONCERNS
Pres. Ken Noonan has the gift of being both candid and diplomatic at the same time. He called the seven options for corrective action “the seven deadly cures.” Without speaking a direct word against the seven remedies called for in federal law, he put himself at arm’s-length distance. As recently as the mid-1800s, doctors treated many patients with leeches, believing the bloodletting would correct the imbalance in their “humors.” Some patients died from these “cures.”
His commitment is an admirable one—to not harm the patient with the cure. If many of the 97 districts are, in fact, not patients at all, “do no harm” may be the best course the State Board might follow. For those of the 97 districts that are ailing, let us hope that the DAIT teams assigned to them by the CDE are good doctors.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT)
FCMAT chart showing history of qualified certifications of districts’ financial reports, 1994-2007
Peter Schrag in the Sacramento Bee of February 27. “Message to the Politicians: Get Real with the Budget.”
Legislative Analyst’s Office Alternative Budget Overview, 2008-09 Fiscal Year, released February 28, 2008
California Department of Education, tiered system for addressing need for corrective action for districts in year three of Program Improvement.
California Department of Education list of 97 districts facing corrective action, ranked by order of priority.
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