SPF: School Performance Fiction

 

When I first considered writing about the SPF – School Performance Framework – I thought it would be a very straightforward endeavor. The headline was obvious to me: 13 organizations on one side of the education divide collaborated with one organization from the other side and one individual (that would be me)  to ask the Denver Public Schools Board of Education to “revise the SPF criteria and thresholds so district staff, parents, and the general public has a clearer understanding of the definition of a quality school.” The October 21, 2104 letter went on to ask the district to “reflect upon the purpose and design of the SPF in order to guide the district toward greater improvement.” Remember, this is a District that has seen an increasing achievement gap, minimal yearly progress, while pretending “reforms” are working by using data gathering instruments like Median Growth Percentiles (MGP) to hide the truth.  As I conducted more research, this seemingly simple venture turned into a very multi-faceted investigation. And not surprisingly, my suspicions have been confirmed. The School Performance Framework is in reality the School Performance FICTION.

In its letter the SPF Collaborative, as I will refer to the organizations and me, identified three specific criticisms of the current SPF:

  •  Academic status expectations are too low, especially for elementary schools.
  • “High performance” is inconsistent within schools.
  • Growth overshadows proficiency.

All of us believe the DPS SPF (who can stand all these acronyms?) is faulty and leading to confusion and misinformation.

An interesting sidebar to this latest quest for clarity revolves around historic perspective and an old fashioned paper trail. I can provide both because: 1) I was a DPS Board Member in 2008 when the SPF was born; 2) I myself am sort of historic (old) and have institutional memory; and 3) because I still find it easier to work from hard copies, I have most of the documentation around initial SPF presentations. Holding on to paper can be a bad thing, because I can get into the weeds quickly (and my office is a mess). But overall, holding on to paper in this case has been a good thing because when I visited the DPS SPF website, little history is provided.

A brief history from DPS School Performance Framework Binder, April 2008

Purpose: “It (SPF) was created as a means of accrediting our schools as required by the Colorado Department of Education, but also as a way to give the district, our schools and the larger community the information they need to make critical, instructional decisions that will have the greatest impact on improving students achievement.   In addition, the SPF will also eventually be used to inform both teacher and principal compensation systems.”  SB-191 is one of the most punitive teacher evaluation bills in the country.

In the beginning schools were evaluated on six indicators. Each indicator carried its own “weight.”

  • Student Progress over Time or Growth
  • Student Achievement Level or Status
  • College and Career Readiness (high schools only)
  • Student Engagement and Satisfaction
  • School Demand
  • Parent and Community Engagement

Since this beginning rubric more educational indicator has been added for high schools:

  •  Improvement in College and Career Readiness over Time – added in 2011

Please note that from the very beginning, growth has consistently outweighed status (proficiency) by almost 3:1 for elementary and middle schools and 2:1 for high schools.  Some early accountability measures have changed and even gone away – School Accountability Report (SAR), Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) CSAP. They have been replaced with new educationese: Post Secondary readiness, College and Career readiness, TCAP, PARCC and CMAS. Also, note the dramatic decline in weight for status that has occurred in the ensuing years in the high school scorecard. Growth and “Post Secondary Readiness Growth” have somehow taken precedence over old-fashioned proficiency. The SPF Collaborative has criticized the District for this heavy emphasis on growth because what it does is showcase Blue (Distinguished) and Green (Meets Expectations) Schools that are really not Distinguished or Meeting Expectations. Schools losing proficiency percentages have been deemed Blue or Green, when in reality some of these schools are losing proficiency. In fact, DPS recognized 41 schools this fall for growth gains; 17 out of 41 actually LOST proficiency. Finally, historically and presently the bottom three indicators have accounted for approximately 10-12% of overall scores.

 

2008           Elementary                   Middle                         High

Growth           61.8%                          62.8%                          60.3%

Status              32.5%                          31.4%                          30.2%

College and Career Readiness                                              4.0%

 

2011

Growth           66.2%                          65.3%                          36.6%

Status              23.6%                          23.8%                          13.4%

Post secondary readiness Growth                                          26.7%

Post secondary readiness Status                                             17.9%

 

2014

Growth           69.4%                          68.7%                          48.8%

Status              19.1%                          19.0%                          10.9%

Post Secondary Readiness Growth                                        16.4%

Post Secondary Readiness Status                                           17.6%

With the post secondary readiness measures added for high school, the totals for growth and status hold pretty true to the 2 to 1 ratio. And over the years the emphasis on growth has increased while the emphasis on status has declined. It strikes me as very scurrilous that the District has resorted to reassigning weights for this measuring instrument, as if they are trying to show “reforms” are successful. Let us not forget that the SPF was originally designed as an honest attempt to assess just how Denver schools were doing as well as a way to help accelerate improvements in student achievement. Much of the data has been massaged, leaving questions about the SPF’s overall accuracy and truthfulness. While much more nuanced than what I have just said, the SPF Collaborative feels much the same.

After calculating the total points a school receives, the school is then “graded” according to a stoplight:

  • Blue Distinguished
  • Green Meets Expectations
  • Yellow Accredited on Watch
  • Orange Accredited on Priority Watch (added in the last few years)
  • Red Accredited on Probation

In February 2014 The Denver Public Schools published a white paper on the SPF.  While acknowledging too much emphasis has been placed on growth, the changes proposed were minimal and still overemphasize growth.  Growth/Status: Elementary and Middle would go from 3:1 to 3:2 for elementary, 2:1 for middle. High schools would remain the same, 2:1.  These changes would go into effect 2015-16. I do not know how this will be possible since TCAP is gone and totally new standardized tests CMAS and PARCC will be in play in Colorado. We shall see.

Back to the SPF according to the 2008 binder.

Within each of the six or seven primary indicators there are many sub-indicators. Seven main indicators lead to 46 sub categories, which in turn lead to 58 sub-sub categories. You get the picture. This is a very confusing and consumer unfriendly tool for parents to navigate. And why is there little consistency across the district high performing schools?  There is something drastically wrong with a measuring instrument that celebrates proficiency declines and is inconsistent in its definition of high quality schools.

I know I am in the weeds but the following is important because the signatories of the October 21 letter asked the Board to revise these criteria so “district staff, parents, and the general public have a clearer understanding of the definition of a quality school…It is now time to reflect upon the purpose and design of the SPF in order to guide the district toward greater improvement.” Let me revisit the three criticisms from the collaborative in more detail:

 Academic status expectations are too low, especially for elementary schools.

“Third graders reading at grade level across the district… should be the primary goal for Denver.  It should follow that green elementary schools which are by definition meeting expectations, should have 80% of their students at grade level.” Three elementary schools on this year’s SPF scored “DID NOT MEET” in the status indicator, having earned 3%, 20% and 27% of possible proficiency points. Yet these schools were rated as “MEETS EXPECTATIONS.” But as I asked in my MGP post: whose expectations are they meeting? Certainly not mine, nor as it turns out the 13 organizations who signed this letter.

 “High performance” is inconsistent within schools

“It is critical to better define success for those communities that continue to be at the losing end of the widening achievement gap. At “high performing schools” the current performance by low-income and minority students – and progress in closing the achievement gap – is unacceptable. This performance should not be defined as meeting expectations. “

Across the District “Distinguished” and “Meets Expectations” should have the same meaning and the same percentage of proficiencies. Anything else contributes to the fiction of the SPF and contributes to the growing achievement gap.

As education activist and retired DPS teacher Mary T. Sam says,

“We (in the Far Northeast) are aware that when you rank a southeast or Stapleton area school as blue that has proficiencies in the eighties and nineties, and then also rank a Far Northeast school as blue that has proficiencies in the fifties to low sixties, you have no expectations for our black and brown kids.”

 

 Growth overshadows proficiency

“In too strongly weighting academic growth relative to academic proficiency, the current School Performance Framework provides a false positive about what is a good school…The system’s signal that they are green is likely to slow, not increase growth, as it will lead to complacency with the status quo….Students need to be in schools that actually produce learning – as measured by proficiency metrics.” (my emphasis)

No need to be redundant.

COST of SPF:

So, how much has this School Performance Fiction cost Denver taxpayers? Even with my institutional memory and my stacks of paper, I have not been able to pinpoint the initial roll out cost. I recall some of the initial work was done in-house but how much was and how much was contracted out I could not find.  I have heard guestimates of half a million dollars at the outset.  However, going forward there is documentation.

In March 2012 the Board of Education approved a five year contract with Colorado-based RevGen for almost $3million. From the DPS Finance and Audit Committee meeting:

“The total cost for the 5 year contract is $2,838,580, or an average of $567,716/year and will come from the General Funds. This includes annual metric and reporting changes, delivery of all related reports, and support to public and schools. RevGen will deliver the solution in it’s entirety with minimal agreed upon support from ARE and DoTS.”

 

RevGen’s Mission: Profit from Knowledge:

“Today’s Business is data rich. RevGen Partners harvests and transforms your data into knowledge so that it can be directed into action. We dig, sift, extract and apply. With newfound knowledge, a company can increase productivity, performance and profitability.”  This kind of talk is creepy because it uses education “reform” jargon that should have no place in public education, in a “business” dealing with human beings:  data-mining, business, bottom line.

If tweaking and delivering reports is worth over half a million dollars a year, honestly, how much did the initial research and development cost even if it were done in-house?  And has the “investment” been worth the “returns?”  Not so far!

The letter from the 14 of us did not propose solutions. We want to engage with the Board and staff “to best improve performance and accountability in the district…” I, personally, would add engaging with honesty. There will be no improvement until we have honest conversations.

“It is critical that DPS not complicate the message to families that “high performing schools” are actually that – high performing, rather than simply on a path toward high performance. Some green schools are on a strong path to proficiency while others are on a path to proficiency but will never get there. Students need to be in schools that actually produce learning – as measured by proficiency metrics.” (my emphasis)

The SPF Collaborative has asked for a response from the Board of Education by the end of November 2014.   We all await an answer which will determine if this Board is ready to turn the Fiction into an authentic Framework.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JONATHAN KOZOL (and me)

 

Jonathan Kozol, my first education hero, was coming to Regis Jesuit University in Denver for a three day event, and I had been asked to be a participant on a panel with him. For a public education wonk like me, it really doesn’t get much better than that.  Jonathan Kozol and me!

Capturing the essence of Jonathan Kozol, his beliefs and his continuing fight for educational equity has been more difficult than I would have imagined. The reason is this: the United States is seeing growing educational inequities for children in poverty. This gap is larger than when Mr. Kozol first started exposing it in the mid-1960’s, and today’s policy makers are unwilling to make the changes necessary to reduce it, or as “reformers” like to say, “Eliminate the achievement gap.”

Mr. Kozol has been writing and documenting inequities in public education for decades, but what really struck me as I reread his 2006 book, THE SHAME OF THE NATION, was how prophetic he was as he viewed public education’s future in this country. He meticulously documented longstanding inequities, predicting how the current “reforms” would only lead to greater inequities, culminating in the failure of the corporate “reform.”

THE SHAME OF THE NATION shows how the business model has become the blueprint for education “reform.” Education “reformers” use business jargon to describe their activities: “rewards and sanctions,” “return on investment,” “time management,” “college and career ready,” “maximizing proficiency,” “outcomes,” “rigorous,” “managers and officers,” “evaluation,” “accountability,” “portfolios of schools” (like a portfolio of stocks – get rid of the losers, keep the winners).

Mr. Kozol describes the infiltration of business into education this way:

 “Business leaders tell urban school officials…that what they need the schools to give them are “team players.”…Team players may well be of great importance to the operation of a business corporation and are obviously essential in the military services; but a healthy nation needs it future poets, prophets, ribald satirists, and maddening iconoclasts at least as much as it needs people who will file in a perfect line to an objective they are told they cannot question.” (p. 106)

Here is how Denver Public Schools has adopted this business tenet.  Every email sent by a DPS employee is signed and sent with the statement at the bottom, My name is Jeannie Kaplan, I’m from Youngstown, Ohio… and I play for DPS!

Further business verbiage: In DPS principals are no longer principals but building CEOs or building managers. At the district level there is a chief executive officer, a chief financial officer, a chief operating officer, a chief academic officer, a chief strategic officer, and within the school buildings themselves there are managers for everything under the sun. You get the picture. And with all of these managers and officers DPS has witnessed increases in facility and resource imbalances and increases in segregation while academics have remained stagnant. Corporate reform is a failure in the United States. But politics, money and lies will not allow it to go quietly into the night, and Denver’s students and communities are paying the price.

In his address to Regis community on September 30, 2014, Jonathan Kozol spoke to a filled chapel at the University. The surroundings were quite appropriate for the gentle, genteel man who has spent decades fighting for equity in public education and who personifies the Jesuit core belief of social justice. Mr. Kozol explained some reasons for the growing gap in the United States:

  • We now have an apartheid curriculum . Because teachers and principals in the inner city are so test driven, inner city children who are mostly students of color are not allowed to have their voices heard through stories and questions, while white students are given that flexibility, opportunity and creativity.
  • Test preparation is driving out child centered learning. Testing mania has become a national psychosis, driven by business.
  • Racial isolation/segregation which does terrible damage to young people, is on the rise. In SHAME, education analyst Richard Rothstein points out how important it is for children of color to become comfortable in the majority culture and how devastating this new segregation is in the long term: “It is foolhardy to think black children can be taught no matter how well, in isolation and then have the skills and confidence as adults to succeed in a white world where they have no experience.” (p. 229).  That Tuesday night Mr. Kozol referred to the new segregation as a “theological abomination.”
  • And finally, of course, Mr. Kozol believes small class size, enriched curricula, and equitable resources and facilities would offer an equitable education for all children.  This recent article in the Huffington Post clearly and disturbingly describes the safety and health hazards brought into Chicago public schools because business has invaded public schools. Bugs, moldy bread, trash left for days, leaks left unfixed.  You can bet the East coast decision makers who are driving this “reform” did not attend schools under these conditions.

For the panel discussion on Wednesday – my REAL time with Jonathan Kozol (and others) – each panelist was asked to come with a forward-looking solution for public education. “In other words, given Mr. Kozol’s depressingly thorough critique of the vast and growing inequities in American K-12 education, what can we do to improve things?  So our very basic request is that each of you come prepared to speak for just a few minutes on the single initiative or action you’d want to take to improve inequity in K-12 education. “ Followers of public education beware. This is “reform” speak for:  We now need to change the conversation and look for solutions for ten years of education “reform” failures. We need to find a solution to today’s public education problems without looking back. What has been, has been. (What is that old saying about those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it?)

The solution about which I spoke was HONESTY. (MGP, CHUTZPAH, STOP – previous posts addressing this).  Without honesty no meaningful solutions will be found. With honest conversations we could have among other things:

  • A reduction in testing because that creates winners and losers, low self esteem, a demoralized work force.
  • A consistent definition of academic proficiency so an excellent school has the same proficiency outcomes whether it have high numbers of children in poverty, high numbers of second language learners, high numbers of children of color. Anything less is being dishonest.
  • An inclusionary collaboration of decision makers. Who is making decisions and for whom are they making these decisions?
  • An experienced professional work force, stopping the two years in and out model which produces great chaos and churn for our children who can least afford it

Ironically, a few short days after Mr. Kozol’s appearance in Denver, Pasi Sahlberg, former director general in the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, currently visiting professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, wrote an opinion piece for CNN on-line news . I was reminded of Mr. Sahlberg’s March appearance in Denver at a United Opt Out conference where he explained how and why Finland has been successful achieving educational equity (using many of the strategies and beliefs Jonathan Kozol has fought for over the years) while the United States (ignoring similar strategies) has not.

  1. Co-operation, not competition. Teachers have time to work together, have a lighter teaching load than teachers here, have time to really share ideas and best practices. (Think teacher evaluations and bonuses based on student scores and doing better than other teachers).
  2. Creativity not standardization   The more you standardize, the less creativity you have, the fewer new ideas you produce and the less risk-taking you see. In Finland, each school does its own thing. (Think Common Core of State Standards about to be implemented in the U.S. and the concomitant tests PARCC and Smarter Balance).
  3. No test-based culture. There is no word for accountability in Finnish. Responsibility is the word Finns use, and it means an enhancement of trust between teachers and the rest of society. Mr. Sahlberg believes accountability is something that is left when you take responsibility away. Finnish students take one standardized test and that is given in the final year of high school. (Again, think CCSS, PARCC, Smarter Balance)..
  4. Equity, not choice. More choice leads to more inequity. (Think 51 charters, choice, chaos, churn).

Approximately 40 years ago Finland witnessed an increasing educational gap based on socio-economics. It took note and became singularly focused on one goal: EQUITY as illustrated and measured by a good school system for every child. Forty plus years ago Jonathan Kozol recognized INEQUITIES in American public education and has been fighting to eliminate them ever since. Forty years later look at what Finland has accomplished regarding equity, then look at the this country’s track record. With all of the “managers” and “officers” in place the “outcomes” here are terrifying,  particularly as we “evaluate” the equity gap. Who is being held “accountable” for this horrors? It is past the time to listen to Mr. Kozol. If we do not start acting on his strategies, all of us are responsible for promoting and condoning THE SHAME OF THE NATION.