In the Land of Missed Opportunities

pexels-photo-619636.jpegWhat will it take to break through the glass ceiling of education leadership in Massachusetts? The answer to that is still to be uncovered.

On Monday, the Board of Education met to make a final candidate selection for Massachusetts’ next Commissioner of Education. There were three candidates: Penny Schwinn, Angelica Infante-Green, and Jeffrey Riley.  Two of the candidates, both women, were from “out-of-state”; Mr. Riley is a known quantity who has most recently been the Receiver of the Lawrence Public Schools.

One would think that with two women in the final three, there would be a fairly decent chance that the next Commissioner might be a woman, but that would mean ignoring what seems to be an unspoken qualification for education commissioner: “known local quantity”.  Mr. Riley currently holds the position of Receiver in Lawrence Public Schools and has since that city’s schools were put under state receivership. He recently resigned the Receiver’s position and one wonders if that were serendipitous or by design.

By many accounts, Ms. Infante-Green’s interview was quite remarkable; she is a strong advocate of both bilingual and special education. As a parent of two bilingual children, one diagnosed with autism, she understands these two important issues intimately. While I disagree with some of her positions, she would have been a formidable advocate for bilingual students and for the differently-abled. To my thinking, the BESE members’ failure to select her as Masachusetts’ next Commissioner of Education is a lost opportunity: the opportunity to select the first woman to head the Commonwealth’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the first Latina to head Massachusetts’ education.

From each board members commentary, I think many of them supported Ms. Infante-Green’s candidacy, but could not, in the end make that selection. It felt as if many of the eight who selected Mr. Riley did so based on a perception of “earning” the position after his tenure in Lawrence. It was safer. So what we seem to have here is a safe, unimaginative selection; hopefully I will be proven incorrect about that last part.

Instead of breaking that glass ceiling, Massachusetts’ Board of Elementary and Secondary Education chose the safe, known, local candidate. In doing so, have state policy-makers missed an opportunity for greatness? I believe so. Missed opportunity indeed.

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Adventures in (GIC) Health Care

If you live in Massachusetts and access health insurance through the Group Insurance Commission (GIC), you are likely aware of the swirling vortex of controversy that has surrounded the January 18 GIC decision to limit health care options for all subscriber/members whether active of retired.  I’m pretty sure the GIC didn’t anticipate the outcry and reaction of members.  That is a disgrace. GIC needs to be transparent in their actions and they need to hear from each and every member about the changes they are proposing.

The public hearing for the Northeast Region was hosted by the UML O’Leary Library. Chaos from the start. Although many attendees had followed GIC’s direction to RSVP (and never received a promised response back), names were not on the pre-registration list. By arriving 30 minutes early, I was able to take a seat inside of the auditorium; not everyone was so lucky. Many who responded to the public hearing invite were not allowed in to the room as it was at capacity.

Roberta Herman, a physician and Executive Director of GIC, made an introduction to the meeting by reading a release from GIC’s board offering that the Board would add an agenda item to their regularly scheduled February 1 meeting. In sum, the item would suggest that the decision to exclude current health care providers from GIC’s 2018 offerings be rescinded. Dr. Herman alluded to hearing the GIC’s subscribers loud and clear and she suggested that the decision to limit providers would be reversed. I, however, would suggest members continue to pressure GIC about this issue. Please continue to contact GIC directly via mail or email AND continue to contact state representatives.

Those who did speak were passionate in stating their displeasure at the current GIC decision to limit carriers and in making the case that GIC has not fulfilled its obligations to public employees OR the municipalities belonging to the group. The rates for 2018 have not yet been set nor have the plans have not been approved, so cities and towns are being asked to commit to GIC’s offerings blindly. Watching GIC roll over last year to outrageous increases in pharmaceuticals by shifting the costs to members by means of doubled co-pays (retirees), decreases to formularies, and a 67% increase in deductibles doesn’t leave one with much hope for 2018’s plans and rate increases.

Here, however, in no particular order are some points raised by speakers at the hearing last evening.  If you are upset disgusted by the middle-of-the-night attempt to pull the rug out from under GIC subscribers, don’t let up the pressure. As one speaker stated last night, the only reason for GIC to backtrack on this effort to limit providers is that they got caught.

  • Harvard Pilgrim and Tufts, two programs GIC proposed to eliminate account for 90,000 members each while Fallon accounts for 20,000. The membership of GIC has been reported at 420,000 (plus) – so about half of the membership has to pick something else.
  • Active employees’ choices are further limited by WHERE in the Commonwealth they live. Neighborhood Health Plan and Health New England are not offered in some geographic areas. Checking last year’s decision-making guide, which is all that is currently available to us, Health New England (HNE) serves Worcester and west; Neighborhood Health Plan (NHP) does not serve Berkshire, Hampshire or Franklin Counties. Here’s the link to last year’s guide as a “loose” reference.
  • Comprehensive services for transgender employees are available through two of the eliminated plans – Tufts and Harvard Pilgrim. Those services are NOT available through the plans on the consolidated list.
  • Despite what Governor Baker claimed earlier in the week (MassLive story updated to reflect the Governor’s more recent statement about poor rollout), subscribers may indeed be unable to access doctors (specialists and primary care) and hospitals with whom they have established a relationship. Several speakers, including medical professionals, spoke about medical entities that do not accept insurance benefits from the GIC-approved vendors (Unicare, HNE, NHP) as the reimbursement rates are unrealistically low.
  • Medical professionals spoke about both questionable financial stability of at least two of the companies approved by GIC and the quality ratings for all three of them.  One speaker – and I am so sorry I didn’t catch his name – had done research through Consumer’s Union. The ratings for all Massachusetts insurers and the NCQA (quality rankings) can be found here.  Notice which 3 providers have exemplary ratings. I know I did.

What happens next is still in flux.  While the GIC is making a motion to rescind their decision, there is no guarantee that the motion will carry, unless of course, public pressure continues to make it difficult for GIC to make decisions without being thoroughly transparent. Bigger issues also need to be addressed. GIC plans/benefits have deteriorated greatly over the last years, as have private sector insurance benefits. With a group as large as GIC’s though, there is opportunity to push back at out-of-control health care costs, particularly the outrageous profiteering from drug companies.

The GIC also needs to fix the decision-making process to be more transparent. Stakeholders should never be blind-sided by news that impacts such personal decision-making as healthcare. Public Hearings should happen well in advance of decision-making. Participants – cities, towns, public agencies, subscribers – should hear at least a year in advance when plan consolidation or any other major changes to health benefits are under consideration. What happened in this case was that cities and towns were required to commit to belonging to GIC a month prior to the consolidation decision. That’s bad enough, but the impact of plan changes to deductibles, copays, and premiums are still to be developed and are unknown.

Representation on the GIC board must include more members from stakeholder groups. Currently the health economist position is vacant. Is there proportional representation from public service unions, or is the “quasi-appointed” (the GIC’s term, not mine) group so heavily populated by folks with no skin in the game?

Stay awake people. The January 18 move to consolidate and change health care for more than half of us was accomplished under cover. It could happen again. Don’t let it.

 

Keeping Things Real

The Group Insurance Commission or GIC here in Massachusetts is at it again. Fellow public employees, active and retired, will recall last year’s efforts by the commission to bring health costs under control. I’d like to think attention was paid to questioning spiraling health care increases, particularly from pharmaceuticals, when the GIC set last year’s rates and policies. However,  the cost controlling aspect of last year’s adventures in rate setting became less about holding-the-line on increased costs,  and more about shifting all the increases to the subscribers.

Last year, subscribers found deductible increases doubling, retirees had co-pays in medi-gap insurances doubling, and some drugs were removed from formularies.  We survived that one, although as a retiree, I noticed my health insurance premium increased 13% over 2016. That cost change does not include increases from raising the deductibles (a 67% increase for individuals last time around) or increases to co-pays, particularly targeted toward retired members last year.

The GIC held a meeting last year and seemed shocked that GIC members from across the Commonwealth were upset by these increases.

Now before anyone goes all “you should be glad you have health insurance at all” on me, yes I am glad to have this benefit. I too, have experienced private sector insurance increases and realize that health coverage increases are pretty steep no matter whom you work for. Unless of course, you happen to be a member of Congress and get something pretty sweet for practically no cost – but that’s another story for another day.

So fast forward to 2018. In fact, let’s go right to January 19, 2018 and the GIC Commissioner’s regular monthly meeting.  This time, the Commissioners decided to eliminate some of the plans and offer fewer health care choices.  Read about which ones here, but interestingly three plans that were eliminated from the GIC’s offerings are ones that serve half of the GIC’s 442,000 members (that would be Harvard Pilgrim, Tufts, and Fallon). Read the Boston Business Journal article to get more specifics on which plans made the cut and which did not. If you believe Governor Baker, “practically everybody” will be able to keep the same trusted doctors and hospitals with whom they have an established relationship. On behalf of the 50% of us who are going to need to change plans, I say we shall see.

GIC members may have an opportunity to find out more as the Commission takes this information on the road around the Commonwealth. In Lowell, that opportunity presents itself this Thursday evening, January 25 (5 pm) at UML’s O’Leary Library on South Campus (Rom 222). That address is

UMass Lowell

O’Leary Library*, Room 222 (South Campus)

61 Wilder Street

Lowell, MA 01854

Parking: Wilder Lot/Visitor Metered Parking Lot

You must RSVP to attend the meeting. Please be sure to do that by emailing the GIC at gic.events@massmail.state.ma.us. The link below should take you to the GIC’s flyer for other venues across the state.

GIC PUBLIC HEARING – 2018_FLYER

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“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

img_1871Day four’s Meditation from the Mat really resonated with me. That is so not only because of the simple truth, but also because what happens on a daily – or is it hourly – basis in these unprecedented times calls us to do something.

When legislative leaders in the United States can’t find money to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), but can find a (very) sizeable tax give-away to very rich and powerful donors, it is time to act.

When the Congress of the United States entertains an offset to the deficits that will result from said give-aways by reducing Medicare and Social Security benefits, it is time to act.

When state aid to schools is based upon 24 year old (plus) formulas that result in underfunded public schools, it is time to act.

When our unique differences are a flashpoint for senseless violence and discrimination, it is time to act.

We must act, we need to speak our truth when we witness or experience those things that harm not only our personal selves, but our collective self. Because we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

The whole of this quote from a Hopi Elder

can be found on p 7-8 of Meditations from the Mat:

“There is a river flowing now, very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and suffer greatly. Know that the river has its destination. The elders say we must push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open and our heads above the water. See who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves, for the moment we do that, our spiritual growth comes to a halt. The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves; banish the word ‘struggle’ from your attitude and vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred way and in celebration. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

 

Teacher

2014-11-25-lincoln-024I started reading Meditations from the Mat this weekend. The writings are daily practices in mindful meditation written by Rolf Gates and Katrina Kenison and had come highly recommended by a group of yogis I’ve encountered in an online group.

In explaining his own yoga journey, from a weekend retreat at Kripalu to yoga teacher training, Rolf Gates relayed a story about an encounter with Baron Baptiste, renowned yoga teacher and author.

…”Are you a teacher?” I said I was, but the words didn’t ring true. I taught classes, but I was not a teacher.

For a while I puzzled over how that could be true; if one taught, one must be a teacher, right?

As Rolf explained, the act of teaching is the act of drawing out. In yoga, that means drawing out what the student may already know about breath, alignments, and postures.

In education today, do we have the flexibility to draw out of our students what they already know and can connect to? Can we lead them to knowledge without having to force it in before the students are ready for it?

Standards in a general sense, are good end-goals for education and educators. Where standards and standards-based education go awry is when those end points are unreasonable or developmentally inappropriate or, in some cases, designed to foster failure. The purpose of early childhood education should not be a dress rehearsal for intermediate grade level standardized testing. Yet it sometimes is.

As an example, I have heard from participants in the graduate level literacy class I led tell of kindergarten students writing or keyboarding.  This is wrong. Forcing young learners toward skills that are outside what is developmentally appropriate for them is a disservice to them.

Teachers want to teach, to draw out, what their students know to make connections. We want learning to be relevant, to spark curiosity and to stay with our students. We want to teach.

 

Data Digging

IMG_0021This article, found in the December 5, 2017 New York Times and titled How Effective Is Your School District, should trigger some more in-depth thought about test results and effective schools. The assumed narrative hyped by press and edu-crats, is that urban school systems, more particularly public urban schools systems, are failing to educate students.

My experience with standardized testing and assessment of children based solely on such measurements has not been all that informative or enlightening. As an example, the last class of fourth grade students I taught before retiring regularly wrote reflective responses to their reading. Their writing was (developmentally) appropriate and most were meeting grade level standards based on the rubrics and inter-rater discussions my colleagues and I used as an assessment guide. Yet the results of their state standardized testing did not reflect that.

One could certainly make the case that, in knowing my students, there could have been a layer of subjectivity which I applied during my assessment, but I don’t think that was true very often. In fact, when my grade level colleagues and I looked at student work, my assessments were most often in alignment with theirs.

So what does this anecdote have to do with school effectiveness?

For most if not all of the years when I was teaching in urban and high poverty schools, I felt as if there were more factors influencing students’ tests and my school’s educational effectiveness. And, as Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy point out in the Times article, by looking more deeply at test results and tracking student growth over time, the rest of the universe just may discover what educators have known in their gut: that when students begin education from trauma and poverty, it may take a bit of time – years actually – to catch up and many students do.

Badger and Quealy refer to third grade students in Chicago Public Schools. Collectively those students are a year or more behind when tested in Grade 3; however, by Grade 8, many of these same children have grown 6 years and are nearly at Eighth Grade performance expectation. To me, that shows a school system that despite being nearly starved to death financially, is able to provide effective education to students, many of whom come from situations of poverty and trauma.

Looking more analytically at standardized test results over time might actually show urban (and southern) schools are actually working. Using a measurement of student growth alongside those performance results shows some remarkable results. Be sure to utilize the graphic further into the article where a reader can add the name of a local district to view that district’s result on the scatter plot.

 

Could it be that our urban districts are models for effective education?  Here’s some solid data that shows that effective schools are not only found in wealthier communities. And it’s a good place to ask how our urban schools are effectively fostering student growth in educational achievement.

Happy or Proficient?

IMG_0021Our good friend and UTL president Paul Georges shared this article with me this morning: “Is a good teacher one who makes kids happy or one who raises test scores“. If you read nothing else in this post, migrate to EdWeek and read that article.

For educators, this is the question above all questions because doing one thing does not necessarily compliment the other.  According to the EdWeek article, a recent study found that, on average, a teacher who managed to raise test scores was worse at making students happy. Here’s the study from David Blazar in MIT Press- read it and weep.

Over the course of my career, I have been an MCAS test administrator (admittedly only for the “legacy” version – whatever that descriptor means). I’ve felt the dichotomy of creating a positive and joyful learning environment for 3rd and 4th grade students and the pressure of removing high stakes testing monkey from our backs. Don’t forget the weeks of “preparation”.

I have no great love or respect for high stakes testing nor for the value of high stakes testing. It did not inform my teaching in a timely manner as the results from the Spring arrive on a teacher’s desk in October. How helpful is that?

What testing in the era of No Child Left Behind and its successors does accomplish is the creation of a toxic and stressful environment for everyone. The joy of learning and exploring is sucked right out of the room; curricula are narrowed and teachable moments left in the dust.

Of course in a perfect world teachers could just not worry about test scores. The reality, however, is far more harsh and possibly devastating.  Agree with it or not, state Departments of Education (including our own here  in Massachusetts), periodically attempt to tie student high-stakes test results to teacher evaluations. So far, thankfully, that effort in Massachusetts has failed.

Kids and teachers are more than a number. Isn’t it time schools used other measures beyond a test to evaluate learning and schools?