Detroit’s Cautionary Tale

DSC_0107Yesterday’s New York Times carried the story of America’s failure to educate students. Detroit’s schools are a glimpse into an education future that should never be allowed to happen.

When educators warn about creating a two-tier or caste system of schools, the glaring example of this has to be Detroit’s schools. Detroit has created education choice, but the rush to something other than the public school system – schools that accept all comers  – has come with a steep cost to families and students left trying to find a good academic fit.  Tales of schools attempting to lure students from one school to another include enticements such as raffle tickets, bicycles, and cash.

The history behind the current state of education in Detroit is, of course, based in the corporate tradition of making money.

To throw the competition wide open, Michigan allowed an unusually large number of institutions, more than any other state, to create charters: public school districts, community colleges and universities. It gave those institutions a financial incentive: a 3 percent share of the dollars that go to the charter schools. And only they — not the governor, not the state commissioner or board of education — could shut down failing schools.

Just as marketers and sales people entice customers with “delighters”, schools that can offer no improvement over another, are using the same corporate-based incentives to lure students from one school to another. Why? Because the Detroit’s school-age population cannot support the number of charts operating in the City.

Think about that for one moment. Michigan allows a large group of institutions to create charter schools, there is an additional financial incentive above and beyond the per pupil costs, and the decision to close a failing charter is not made by a state board of education, it’s made by the charter institution. Is it any wonder that 80 percent of charter schools in Michigan are run by for-profit corporations?

The story of Detroit’s schools, the failures of state and local governments and elected representatives to protect and provide for the education of all children, the blatant abuses by higher academia and corporations. This is a cautionary tale for all of us.

Read Kate Zernike’s entire piece in the June 28 New York Times here.




Step Therapy Reality Check

WBZ’s I-Team recently broadcast a story of a 22-year-old college student’s experience with medical insurance that should be a cautionary tale for all. Reading Eitan Kling-Levine’s story and the subsequent price he paid with his personal health should shock you.

And in case you think this would never happen to you, let me share a personal experience with “step therapy”, albeit one with lesser consequences and a happier ending.

Several years ago, I was diagnosed with mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea. Not only a relational inconvenience as the snoring kept my partner awake, it was a source of concern as I was continually exhausted from interrupted sleep. The standard protocol for this would be a CPAP, something I had familiarity with as my Dad had COPD and had attempted to use one.

Now I, the patient, know myself fairly well and, as an extremely light sleeper on a “good” day, I knew the noise of the CPAP would keep me awake as much as the sleep apnea did. And then there are the usual side-effects. So I did quite a bit of research and discovered that in my case a dental device called a mandibular advancement device (MAD), fashioned by a dentist with sleep apnea expertise, would be a more effective solution. And, to my great amazement, a renowned expert in this therapy had a practice in Worcester, MA – 40 minutes away. So I set about getting approvals and referrals.

My primary care doctor and the neurologist in that network, all submitted their paperwork. Everything was proceeding smoothly until a pinhead at the insurance company intervened and rejected the referrals. As I had not “failed” with a CPAP  (a $2,000-$3,000 expense), I was not approved for the MAD device ($1,400). In other words, I was not allowed the use of a less costly, more appropriate therapy unless I stepped through the CPAP therapy and failed.  Does that make any sense?

In the end, through the advocacy of a very skilled and persistent referral department in my health care provider’s practice, the MAD device was eventually approved. It took over 6 months; that was 6 months of loss of sleep, anxiety over a load of paperwork and frustration that a solution to a health problem was put on hold by an insurance company.  It could have been worse as you learn from reading Eitan Kling-Levine’s story.

Step Therapy is bad for the health of people, good for the health of someone’s bottom line. From what I can read, the Massachusetts bill correcting this insanity has been referred to committee.

Hopefully that isn’t “step therapy” for killing the measure.


Get Ready Massachusetts

IMG_0200Make no mistake about it. The new and improved testing that is coming at Massachusetts schools starting next spring is a debacle in the making.

Thanks to Tracy Novick for making some of the details more apparent to those interested in trying to stay informed about the new requirements. Read her latest post (link in previous sentence) and be prepared. Especially if you teach Grades 4 or 8.

To say that I am stunned that DESE might want to ramp up the move to computer-driven assessments would be an understatement.  First of all, DESE just awarded the test contract to Measured Progress, the company responsible for MCAS 1.0.  As pointed out in Ms. Novick’s post, this would be rather unremarkable except for the fact that Measured Progress’ subcontractor is none other than Pearson. And Pearson is responsible for…. if you’re answering PARCC Testing, you go to the head of the class.  And for bonus points, exactly which Commissioner of Education sits on the PARCC Consortium Board? That’s right, Mitchell Chester. The Massachusetts Commissioner of Education can’t possibly have any influence in selecting a test contractor with a subcontractor connection to the (rejected) PARCC test. That would be preposterous.

For all tested grades, especially 3-8 (Grade 10 is still tied to MCAS as a graduation requirement), a newly developed test for the upcoming spring will be quite an interesting process. I know it was a long time ago, but when I took Educational Measurement classes, it was quite clear that test writing is not for dummies. Assessment items need to be tried out, revised, and normed. That takes time. MCAS 2.0 is scheduled for roll-out next Spring. To create test items, try them out, norm the test, print the test, and deliver the test to school districts in time for a Test Window of April 3 – May 26 (which, by the way, includes a school vacation week in the middle) seems like a mighty big mountain to climb. Unless of course, a portion of the test might have already been developed. As PARCC has.

So why should Grade 4 and Grade 8 teachers be concerned here? As if the above might not be concern enough, Grades 4 and 8 are required to administer this yet-to-be developed test on computers. This spring, many sources reported on documented evidence that students score lower on computerized tests than they do on traditional paper-pencil versions of the same test (see WAPO link here).

So to sum it up, our 4th and 8th grade students will take a yet-to-be developed high-stakes test using computers. The logistical demands for this are an unknown, the technology skill set is unknown, and the test items unwritten. What could possibly go wrong?

To me, the whole business seems like a case study for wag the dog. In my darker moments, the target test groups, Grades 4 and 8, have been selected to tip schools into under-performing categories. Urban students who have less exposure to rich technology experiences are going to struggle with an online test and those test results will not reflect the students’ knowledge of curriculum. The lower results will most likely tip Level 3 and Level 4 schools into lower performance categories which means…..

If you muttered more state take-overs (and privatization), you just went to the head of the class.

Throw It Against The Wall

We have a working theory in our house: sometimes those outrageous, non-sensical things you hear about are actually not really meant to succeed.  Here is a case in point: a recent article in the New Republic (What Big Food Doesn’t Want You To Know) and cross tweeted by Mark Bittman was published using the premise that large food producers are misusing public funds to pressure Congress to their advantage. What stunned me was that food board receiving funding for their very existence, had convinced Congress to exempt these same groups from the FOIA by including such language in the Agriculture Appropriations Bill. In other words, these groups, using government funds, would be able to operate in secrecy. Outrageous? I thought so.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is not only a good thing, it is a necessary thing when there is a corporate culture of hiding information that might affect a person’s well-being. As in Listeria outbreaks. Or E-coli. Or corporate mergers that make competition something that occurs in name only.

So when the food industry groups want to make such groups exempt from the FOIA, my first reaction is “that can’t be legal” followed by “that is outrageous”. In other words, throw the idea against the wall and see if it sticks.  I hope this one does not.

Now I have a personal story to tell here too. Once I had a student who had a severe illness which prevented her from physically attending school. As part of the student’s IEP, I would allow my mathematics lessons to be videotaped; I would not have a problem doing so once the privacy of my other students was ensured. As part of the process, I was required to sign a permission document which the school department lawyer diligently drafted, however, when I read that document my jaw dropped. Why? Because buried in the language of giving permission to tape lessons – which I had sort of assumed meant I wasn’t going to pursue copyright – was language stating that I would give up all of my collective bargaining rights.

Wait. What? Do away with all of those collective bargaining rights while giving permission to record a lesson? I don’t think so – I liked the protections my union negotiated contract afforded me. Things like not being fired at will. Or a working environment that was reasonable. In the end, after I refused to sign a document that required such a thing, and the school department’s lawyer revised the document.

There’s something dishonorable about both of these two instances, isn’t there? And without paying close attention, most of the time, such occurrences escape public notice.  Throw it against the wall and see if a) anyone is paying attention and b) what one can get away with.


School Committee Meeting, 15 June 2016

School Committee Meeting, 15 June 2016

DSC_0044_edited-15 present, Mr. Gendron absent

This meeting agenda was packed as the School Committee goes on summer meeting schedules (once each month, 3rd Wednesday) for July and August.  After 3 1/2 hours, the Committee also went in to Executive Session for purposes of administrative salary/contract updates (principals, assistant superintendent, superintendent) and salary increases for unaffiliated employees (otherwise not part of a negotiating group). 

Special Order of Business

Presentation and public hearing regarding the transformation of LHS Career Academy into an Innovation School. Passes (6 yea, 1 absent) with supportive statements for staff and from UTL.

The designation “innovation school”, like a “Horace Mann” school is for schools that are chartered, but still under local control in funding and governance. This is a huge distinction from Commonwealth Charter Schools such as LCCPS and Lowell Collegiate. Both of these schools receive public funding on a per pupil basis but are not governed or answerable to municipal school boards. The innovation school fills a need to continue to reach out to some of our most needy and disenfranchised students with a unique and creative program that will remain under governance of the Lowell Public Schools.

Unfinished Business

2016/246 transfers of money – sounded as if it mainly was to expend Circuit Breaker funds so that this funding source was trimmed to the allowable limit.  Through 3 transfers, the district will be enabled to purchase additional laptop carts (1 cart per grade level per school) and to fund furnishing for the additional Grade 5 classrooms needed to accommodate the bubble at the Middle School.

2016/247 Cost of Education for Children Out of District.  The amount presented $129,610 is estimated for 2015-16 (final year-end numbers available after financials close in July).

Dr. Khelfaoui states that while this number is not for 2016-17, he anticipates the expense for educating 36 OOD students will be “flat” – marginally changed up or down as the number of students will remain the same, just the grade level changing.  When questioned as to meeting legalities according to state law regarding students who may also be out-of-state, Dr. Khelfaoui notes that the district can choose to accept such students but that there is no reimbursement from Commonwealth and that the OOD students who also live out-of-state cannot be included in student headcount for purposes of budgeting/funding.

Public Participation

Jonathan Richmond, of TAKEOFF Space, an entity formed to encourage talented low-income students to apply to prestigious colleges reads statement relative to the rejection of his proposal for Lowell High students.

Laura Ortiz, parent, advocating for more precise and inclusive language in Student Handbook which would include anaphalaxis prevention and procedures/safeguards for all students, not just those specifically hypersensitive to food allergies.

Laura Ortiz, parent, advocating that when addressing rezoning, or return to neighborhood schools, that the Committee carefully consider the impact of any attempts to lift the desegragation order. Mr. Gignac clarified his position as looking at rezoning within the context of the desgregation order yet exploring whether some adjustments might be made to address transportation issues/costs and middle school population explosion.


2016/251 (Mr, Gignac) report on class sizes for 2016-17. (Note, during discussion of Online Waitlist, Mr. John Descoteaux reports that 56 students are committed to STEM Grade 5 for next year and 11 will be on a waitlist. This effectively ensures that the large Grade 5 class sizes warned about during budget hearings will no longer be a concern).

2016/252 (Mr. Gignac) Request superintendent investigate the feasibility of rezoning (see note under Public Participation).

2016/254 (Mr. Gignac) report on facility repairs and improvement projects scheduled for this summer.

2016/262 (Mr. Hoey) creation of an Early Candidate pool (amended to referral to Personnel Subcommittee).

Reports of the Superintendent

There were 14 reports from the Superintendent ranging from status update on the Massachusetts Teacher Evaluation System to a thorough vetting of updates to School Handbooks.

2016/236 Massachusetts Teacher Evaluation update. Follows DESE protocols for evaluations; most are completed including the evaluations of school-wide and district staff.  Report to follow (aggregated) in July.

2016/260 Washington School. Principal Cheryl Cunningham and her team present what makes this school unique, special and successful.  Great presentation on the importance of character education to students.

2016/264 Cultural Competency. Along with Head of School Brian Martin, very impressive presentation by Lowell High students explaining the efforts of this group to examine LHS culture in the aftermath of last fall’s racial incident.

2016/265 Parent Handbooks LHS changes explained by Dr. Howe; similar changes presented by Ms. Durkin.  In light of Parent Laura Ortiz’s suggestions, Ms. Durkin to meet with Health Department.

2016/241 Online Waitlist.  Parents will be able to look up waitlist status as long as they know their child’s LASID number. Most students know this from memory already as it is used for lunch check-in. Lookups by LASIDs should be quite easy to do and the waitlist will be more transparent to all. More important, the District has a well thought-out plan to check periodically with families to see if they wish to remain on the wait list for a school.  Sometimes a child may be placed in a school that was not among the family’s listed choices, yet it became a good fit — and in that case, the wait list entry is moot.  

2016/268 Lowell Career Academy Innovation Plan

2016/263 Task force planned to address student growth. To convene in early Fall 2016.

2016/243 Legal consult (re OOD children). Attorney Hall is working with prior documentation of how/when OOD students were placed in Lowell Schools in preparation for offering legal opinion.

2016/259 Report of what civics curriculum materials and programs used in schools.

2016/261 STEM efforts at the High School

2016/262 All principals have been contacted about school materials ordered for 2016-17

2016/267 Nondiscrimination on basis of gender identity

2016/238 and 2016/239 List of eligible teachers and personnel report

New Business

Items accepted and voted favorably include purchases of new food service equipment, financial statements, and 2 donations from the District Attorney’s Office and the Lowell Police Department ($1,000 each).

2016/244 Charter School Resolution was formally voted upon. Lowell will join other school districts and the Lowell City Council in support of keeping the current cap on Charter School seats. Mayor Kennedy reports the City Council unanimously voted on a similar motion during last Tuesday’s meeting.

In my opinion, there are many reasons for insisting on this. The state legislature habitually underfunds the charter school reimbursement account for municipalities.  In Lowell, there is a shortfall of over $1.5 million dollars caused by this underfunding – which means that some municipal program is cut or short-funded so that the money assessed the City for charter school students is paid in full.  There are many other issues of governance and accountability that divide public schools from Commonwealth Charter Schools. I would urge every voter and taxpayer in Lowell to become familiar with those issues as there will be a ballot initiative question in November.

Prior to going to Executive Session, Claire Abrams, Assistant Superintendent, was recognized for her 41 years of service to the Lowell Schools. Claire has been a driving force, particularly in Mathematics, which is where I first met her. With a soft-spoken, calm manner, she has lead many curriculum efforts in Lowell., not the least being toward a mathematics curriculum that is cutting edge. Claire, it was a rare privilege to work with and for you. Your thoughtful leadership will be missed. But you are going to LOVE retirement!

Meeting adjourned from Executive Session. Meeting Packet can be found here.

The Discomfort of New Places

IMG_1444In theory, I enjoy the idea of travel. In reality, I miss my “stuff”. And knowing precisely where everything is.

There is nothing like 24 hours in airports and planes and a 6-hour time zone change to turn even the most Pollyanna-ish of us into raging maniacs of intolerance for humanity. And that is especially true if you have to connect to anyplace through LAX.

IMG_1470But the physical – and mental – discomfort of getting to and from a new place is not where the value of travel can be found. The value of travel, for me, is found in a new sense of understanding.

Speaking for myself, as much as I want to try to fit in – to have that truly locally inspired experience – it will be quite easy to spot me as a visitor.  While it can be exhilarating to break away from the familiar, it is disconcerting. Learning to negotiate my environment when it is unfamiliar has a rather steep learning curve fraught with opportunities to look idiotic. Try asking for postage in French. Or coffee in London (“you takin’?”) .

IMG_1485Whether it is learning that my northeastern compulsion to life’s pace, or aggressive driving, or whatever it is in my daily life that drives me, building more understanding of someone or something different for me comes from travel. This time around I learned that frozen concoctions are indeed delicious breakfast foods. And pineapple juice and champagne do indeed go together.

So along with those magnificent views, beautiful sunsets and sunrises, I hope I’ve learned, absorbed, and maybe take a bit of understanding what once was unfamiliar back with me.