WHAT CAN THE FINANCIAL CRISIS TEACH EDUCATION LEADERS?
As this worried owl put on his reading glasses, poured a morning coffee, and pored over Sunday’s news about the resolution of the banking industry’s crisis, I couldn’t help but wonder about the parallels to the crisis of public confidence in the school world.
The common thread is simple: what things are worth. The question in Sunday’s newspaper about the negotiations among Congressional leaders, Henry Paulson, and Ben Bernanke centers on the uncertain value of the bundles of loans held by banks with the intent to resell them to another investor. What are they worth when viewed loan by loan? What are the homes worth if appraisers were loosey-goosey with valuations? What are they worth if home values raced ahead of historical trends for the last 10 years? What are they worth if they are bundled into dissimilar blocks and sold, then resold, and resold again? But most important, what are they worth to federal negotiators, who are considering three different methods of valuing those loans? Are they worth what the properties are worth today, at current market value? Or are they worth the value of interest payments over the duration of the loans, discounted for outright defaults?
Allow me to fly to the forest where education, not commerce, grows. As we enter year eleven of the accountability era, and we see one-fourth of California’s schools and districts in some state of Program Improvement, what are we to conclude about the worth of those schools? How should we value a district in Year 3 of Program Improvement, which landed on the list of 97 districts in Year 3 last January, and remains there today? Should superintendents of those districts worry about their reputations or their job prospects? Should high school students in those districts, or in high schools in Years 4 or 5, worry that their GPAs will be discounted by college admission officers? Should principals worry about enrollment dropping next year, based on parents of this year’s eighth graders fleeing from a potentially “risky investment?”
Are districts and schools in PI like banks with declining stock values? When confidence in a bank is eroding, this erosion is measurable by the minute. It shows up as a decline in the value of a share of stock. But when confidence in schools erodes, the evidence is visible only to those with the eyes sharp enough to read election results on bond measures and parcel taxes, turnout numbers on school board races. The softer signals – conversations over neighbors’ fences, dispirited students, demoralized teachers who take jobs in other districts – are present, but this owl wonders whether anyone is paying attention.
Unfortunately, the only quantifiable measures of value of a school or district today are the federal watchlist of Program Improvement (PI) and the state Academic Performance Index (API). They change annually. This owl is not troubled by the obvious fact that these two measures differ. This owl is troubled by three other factors:
1. The questionable meaning of the PI designation. This has been much discussed in the forest of K-12. The PI label lacks nuance. You are either “in” PI or you are not. You either make AYP or you don’t. Further fuzziness results from a distinction that sorts schools into two types. It is a fate that awaits only schools that take Title I funds, so only five-eighths of the state’s schools can fall into PI. But is a school in PI producing less real “learning?” Is the learning occurring less frequently? At a slower pace? If so, for whom? To members of the public, all that’s clear in this fog zone is that PI schools have entered the zone of questionable worth.
2. The absence of action once a school or district has been “downgraded” (in the language of finance) by the regulatory agencies in charge. This owl is no fan of strict consequences. So do not mistake my comments below for favoring pure strictness. But the public has been led to expect that academic insolvency should result in a takeover. This expectation rests on evidence. Compton, West Contra Costa Unified, and Oakland are among a select handful of districts that have met this fate for reasons of financial insolvency. So far, one district, Coachella, has had a state trustee assigned to take the helm. But of the 905 schools in Year 5 of PI, how many have been substantially revised, reformed, or reconstituted? When the public sees the regulatory agencies of the CDE and the U.S. DoE investing in accountability designations, and assigning them to schools and districts, they expect consequences. When only the lightest consequences (or no consequences) result, the public’s confidence in schooling declines.
3. The hesitance of district leaders in showing staff and the public their own measures of progress. No one has a monopoly on valuation in the very young world of schooling. No law prohibits district leaders from defining progress their own way, and measuring themselves against this yardstick. But few districts do this in a way that is visible, public, and persistent. If leaders of schools and districts don’t like the imposed measures of value, they must create their own.
This owl recently found a dollar bill at the campsite near my tree. I looked at the back. An eye floats over a pyramid. To the right appears these words: “In God we trust.” The dollar used to rest on the silver standard. No more. It is now a faith-based initiative.
Schools used to be a faith-based initiative, too. Parents had faith in teachers and principals. They trusted their kids to study. And educators trusted parents to value literacy, read to their kids, and bring books into the home. That was then. This is now. The post-Enron, post-real estate bubble era, when banks collapse and mutual fund share prices fall below a dollar. Little surprise that skepticism has displaced faith. In this accountability era, parents expect educators to show them that schools work. They seek measures with meaning. They want value they can see, touch, believe in.
Suggestion #1: If you want to turn your public’s skepticism into the social capital of confidence, this tough owl suggests that you meet them with candor and clarity in every communication. This pertains as much to individual students’ report cards as it does to your newsletter and Web site. It is especially relevant to your schools’ annual reports, to your reporting about test results, and to reporting where your district’s money goes.
Suggestion #2: Set your district’s goals realistically, measure your progress, and tell your story. Is your goal to teach all students to read by third grade? Is it getting half of all eighth graders to proficiency in algebra? Is it getting three-fourths of high school seniors into college? Reporting this progress is a perfectly legitimate counterpoint to the accountability goals you have to live with.
Suggestion #3: When your schools hit the PI skids, get in front of the news. Make the story your own. Communicate fully about those schools, to those both inside and outside your district. If you invest in making that story clear, your way, you’ll be more likely to unify staff and community members around that school’s best interests, whatever its PI status.
Supt. John Porter, leader of Franklin-McKinley ESD, asked for help from the Santa Clara County Office of Education before landing in Program Improvement. This article in the San Jose Mercury News is an editorial praising his preemptive strike.
The second national survey of Americans about their schools, conducted by the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) at Harvard University, reveals some unpleasant news. According to this study, Americans think less of their schools than of their police departments and post offices. This study appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of “Education Next.” This is a measure of the crisis of confidence in our system of schooling. Although parents normally value their own kids’ schools more highly than the district, and more highly than public schools in general, this broad measure of public distrust is a signal that is worth heeding.
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