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Policy Governance in Grandview Schools

Published January 14, 2015 by justicewg
Data Czar Steve Tankovich, recently sentenced to jail time for his role in the Columbus data-rigging scandal

Data Czar Steve Tankovich, recently sentenced to jail time for his role in the Columbus data-rigging scandal

I have long criticized the Grandview school board for operating in a way that excluded input from parents, stifled discussion between board members, and allowed the superintendent (and the board president) to run the school with little oversight. I called it “Strong Superintendent” policy, in my featured article about the Grandview schools. While I still think that is a good description of the way the board works, it isn’t the correct technical term used by the professional education community. They call it Policy Governance.

Columbus schools failed because of Policy Governance

While Grandview Heights schools have used Policy Governance for a long time, (it’s difficult to pin a date on it because the board has always denied the policy), the Columbus city schools have a shorter history.

In 2006 the Columbus school board determined that they wanted to change the way the board operated. They set strict rules for how they would run the board meetings, conduct discussions, and interact with the Superintendent. The board passed a new set of rules that sharply restricted any public conflict between members, or conflict with the school administration. This text from the board policy manual sets the root qualities for governance:

“ … focus on strategic leadership rather than administrative detail; observe clear distinction between Board and CEO roles; make collective rather than individual decisions; …”

The practical result of this policy was to take any operational decisions at the school away from the board and allow the Superintendent to run the schools with near total freedom. The written policy still was supposed to be followed, but the gap between what the rules say and the practical decisions made on a daily basis allowed the Superintendent a wide latitude.

The board policy on “making collective decisions” could only succeed by limiting the input of parents to the process. If one board member listened to requests for change, but was unable to use back channel discussion with other board members to sway opinions, there was no way to publicly announce support for policy change. The best way to be a board member under Policy Governance is to shut down communications, not respond to emails and letters, and sit in silence.

Things went wrong

The system under Policy Governance at the Columbus schools seemed to be working. The superintendent was required to produce annual reports on the ways the school administration was following the policies the school board created, and – surprise! – the reports gave high marks every year to the administration. The school board thought that was sufficient.

Unfortunately, with the board taking a hands off approach, the school administrators found it easy to fudge some numbers. When that didn’t set off alarms, the incentive system that rewarded results but didn’t check those results went wrong on a massive scale. A district wide data-rigging scandal was allowed to fester for years. The report by state auditor Yost found a “culture of deceit” in the school administration. After the state stepped in to the investigation, they considered action against the educator licenses of 61 current and former employees, including superintendent Harris. The school data czar was sentenced to jail time for tampering with government records. State Auditor Yost specifically blamed policy governance for creating the data-rigging scandal.

The Columbus school board is now in the process of ditching the Policy Governance mode, going back to a traditional board system that listens to whistle blowers and parents with concerns, and investigates the operation of the school on a lower level. Hands off will become hands on. Board members will be able to voice concerns in public meetings.

A history of policy governance at Grandview

The Grandview Heights school board has a long history of unanimous votes. A normal board meetings has no conflict or even questioning of policy at the school. The board members sit and listen, then vote five yes votes. Years go by between votes that are divided.

The school board, if it responds to questions about the way they produce all of these unanimous votes, claims that there is discussion between board members, but they always resolve their questions and opinions into an unanimous vote. However, the school board meeting notes show no record of these “vigorous discussions”.

In the past community members could ask questions about school policy and get some responses from the board at the “Recognition of Guests and Hearing of the Public” part of the board meeting. Under Grant Douglass this part of the meeting is now just a hearing, not a responding session. Say what you want – the board has no response. Because the board doesn’t want to have any conflict between themselves, they actively try to keep parents out of the decision making process.

A history of bad policy is not a good reason to continue

I’m going to use an analogy that is a good match to the policy position at Grandview.

Drivers who don’t use seat belts can list a dozen reasons why it is a better way to drive. It makes entering and leaving faster, solves the problems with pulling your wallet out at fast food, is more comfortable, etc. Unbelted drivers can’t list the advantages to wearing a seat belt – until they drive past a wreck on the road, and see the result of seatbeltless drivers who are ejected from the car.

Policy Governance seems to work well for school boards that follow that policy. It streamlines the work of the board, taking away time intensive oversight processes, listening to complaints from parents and staff, checking on data. The high level planning process that is engaged by the Policy Governance board is just a lot more fun that the dirty work of supervising the schools at the level where carefully crafted policy meets everyday reality of working with humans who inevitably fail those good policies.

Right now the Grandview Heights schools are driving past the wreck of the Columbus schools. It should be a wakeup call, a reason for deep examination of the assumption that drive the school board.

Could there be the same sort of data-rigging that occurred in the Columbus school going on in the Grandview schools? Without a board that has a hands on review of the numbers, who knows? The Grandview schools have avoided the newspaper headlines level of scandal in the past, mostly because of superintendents who followed the laws. The incentives under a Policy Governance system are to fudge the numbers. How long will we stay lucky?

Is the always unanimous school board the best way to create policy on the school board? The emphasis on collective decisions and suppressing all conflict in meetings has a result in incentives to stop listening to parents, failing to encourage more voices in the decision making process, shutting down those who speak up.

When the board started holding meetings to listen to parents who had children who had been bullied at the schools, they were shocked at the stories they heard. The message they got from those parents was “we couldn’t make a public fuss about the bullying, because that isn’t the way things are done here in Grandview Heights”. How many other simmering problems are suppressed, because painting over problems is easier than addressing them?

The Superintendent is not the problem

Gene Harris, former Columbus school Superintendent, plead guilty to charges in the scandal,

Gene Harris, former Columbus school Superintendent, plead guilty to charges in the scandal.

Because Policy Governance is focused so much on the Superintendent, critics are accused of having issues with the person who holds that job. It is important to state this – while a superintendent who does a good job is vital, it is the system of incentives that are created by Policy Governance that can mislead a school system, even with a competent leader.

I don’t think Gene Harris sat down one day and said “lets make a culture of deceit here in the Columbus schools”. The system went wrong because instead of being focused on education, it was all about making Gene Harris look good. All of her subordinates knew that they worked for her, not the school board or the people of Columbus. Fudging numbers so that the boss looks better is justifiable under that system.

Policy Governance, and the mindset that supports it, inevitably leads to corruption in the system. When questions are repressed, and checks and balances removed, the incentives lead to cheating. Parents are turned away from board meetings if they are trying to make any change in the school policy, because “we don’t do that here”. It’s a discriminatory system that favors small groups who have political power to do the behind the scenes lobbying of board members.

My experience with Policy Governance criticism

The usual reaction I get from the school board boosters here in Grandview to posts like this one is “that guy hates everything in Grandview, don’t listen to him”. Lately the responses have been more “if you don’t like it here in Grandview, get out. We can turn up the heat to help you move”. The people who send these messages have no internal insight into why it is wrong for complaints to be responded to with threats. Maybe because “that’s the way we do things here in Grandview Heights?”.

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Strategic compensation for teachers in Ohio

Published November 3, 2014 by justicewg

Performance based compensation. Merit pay. Strategic compensation. These are all names for a method of teacher compensation that uses teacher ratings, informed by standardized testing of students, and sets in place a system that gives more money to high rated teachers. Some think this is needed in order to “run schools like a business”. Others promote it because it weakens the options teacher unions have to ask for raises, and they see any method of weakening unions as a good thing. What none of the proponents can show is a correlation between these plans and increased performance in the classroom by students.

I looked back at the history of this idea in Ohio, identified some of the people pushing it, and how well they succeeded in putting it into practice. I also looked at the Reynoldsburg school district, to figure out how the school board members decided to try it in their schools, and what they told the parents about their plans before they caused a three week long strike, disrupting all learning and costing the school more than a million dollars.

What the experts say

I highly recommend reading this post by Scott McLeod, J.D., Ph.D.. He did an exhaustive compilation of the research on the issue of teacher evaluation based on student test scores. There isn’t any “maybe it works” to be found in the research, every single study done by a non-ideological researcher or organization finds that the “noise” in normal student test variation drowns out any useful teacher evaluation data.

School system that try to use these teacher rating systems regularly show how wrong they can be. A Teacher of Year rated “unsatisfactory” in Florida. One of nation’s top high schools rated as ‘needs improvement’ under the state’s teacher evaluation system. Contrary the what the Bill Gates style reformers think, the best schools come from areas with strong teacher unions.

Bill Gates should stick to computers

Bill Gates retired from running his software mega-giant, and decided to use his vast wealth to make changes in the way schools are run. The problem is that using methods and thinking that made him a billionaire turns out to have little value in improving schools.

Around 2000 he decided that big schools were the problem with education, and he began a program to offer schools money to break up the size of large schools. Not a totally wrong idea, but after he found that it it resulted in small improvements after spending a lot of money, he dropped the plan. His current idea that will revolutionize the school system in this country is to “run schools like a business”, and offer more money to teachers who have students that do well in standardized tests.

That’s not a new idea at all, it has been tried (and failed) a number of times in the past. The difference is that Gates’s foundation has the money to really promote the idea, and the political power to push it in the halls of government. The federal “Race to the Top” program encourages these ideas. The school system that have implemented these teacher rating systems have again shown that the plan is a failure.

SB 5 in Ohio

While Gates says he doesn’t have a problem with teacher unions, and is not shy about trying to buy their willingness to try out his ideas, the Republicans in Ohio are open with their contempt for unions. This resulted in the passing of Senate Bill 5 in 2011.

Under the supervision of Governor John Kasich, the Republican controlled senate passed a bill called SB 5 that was a direct attack on all public employee unions. It sharply limited the ability of police, teachers, firefighters and all other public union members to negotiate for higher wages and better working conditions. It would have stripped step pay increases from teachers and required student test based compensation plans.

The unions went full out in opposition. In the Nov. 2011 general election the law was repealed 62 percent to 38 percent. It was hoped that this was the end of these sort of dumb ideas in Ohio, but instead it just shifted the plans to implement them on a local level, one school board at a time.

Reynoldsburg board drives off a cliff

There were clues that indicated the Reynoldsburg school board was trying to remove step pay and implement teacher compensation based on student scores. The vice-president was a hard line right winger, featured in a film that showed the anger and contempt she held for those outside her Value Voter Coalition. Yet there was no conversation between the board and the community about the possibility of the board taking this radical action, the newspaper report of the candidate night recorded that the questions and answers were focused on class size. Board president Swope and VP Tornero were re-elected in 2013, and took this as an approval for them to take the school system off the cliff on a foolish and expensive attack on the teacher union. They hired a new superintendent who was an insider with the Kasich team.

The only way the public found out about the removal of step pay from teachers was as the negotiations broke down in the summer. Large crowds attended Reynoldsburg board meetings in August and September, pleading with the board to stop. The board ignored the large crowds and hired a strike-breaking company, insuring that the fight would be long and dirty.

Three weeks after they started the fight with the teachers, the board capitulated on all points. The school had not been able to hire enough strike-breaking teachers or control the fighting going on inside the schools with private security patrolling the halls. Teaching was reduced to giving the kids chromebooks and telling them to look at online instruction.

The school system now faces a bill of more than a million dollars for the failed attempt at running a school without union teachers. The students now need to re-start the year, with weeks of wasted learning to try to catch up on. The October board meeting was filled with angry parents who booed the board into silence when they tried to fend off criticism. A petition signed by more than 1K community members asked for the resignation of the superintendent and the president and VP of the board.

(Dec 16) Reynoldsburg Board of Education President Andrew Swope resigned, and said he was moving his family out of the area.

Who is next?

This will not be the end of the attempts by the true believers in pushing the teachers of Ohio into giving up step pay and using performance compensation. The only question is, which school district will be next?

The Kasich question

A complication to the question of strategic teacher compensation is the re-election of Kasich to the Governor’s office. Will he take his re-election, and the even more republican statehouse, as an opportunity to pass “Son of SB5”, as a way to solidify his support with the tea party on the way to a presidential run?

I have read a lot of stories that try to plot out the path Kasich could take on the way to a run for the white house. Most of them fail to see a man who wants to go through the wringer of a national campaign after his failed attempt in 1999. But he has a window that is open – the current field is filled with tea party, hard right candidates, unpopular with women and working class voters. Kasich won in the 2014 Ohio election with 60 percent of the women’s vote. He had support from workers. He even had 40% of the black vote. There is no other national republican candidate who seems to have a broad a support base as Kasich, even if he is unpopular with the tea party for accepting Medicaid money to bring Obamacare to the poor in Ohio.

If Kasich is thinking about running for national office, he has no reason to bring back a fight he lost the last time SB 5 was tried in Ohio. His brand will be “the moderate republican who can get a broad base of support”. And if he doesn’t run – what does he gain by doing something he said he wouldn’t try in his election campaign?

The above is speculation about Kasich’s plan for the future. His party in Ohio, and the true believers who want strategic compensation, will continue to push it on a local level. As soon as the memory of Reynoldsburg has faded (and Kasich showed that memories are short), a new school district will be the pushing the idea, bringing in strike-breaking management, filling the school with private security. You can be sure that Reynoldsburg was the laboratory for learning how to break unions.

Kids say the darndest things

Published February 17, 2014 by justicewg

dead_birdThe H.S. administration is upset about a new twitter account that has been set up for kids to post anonymous tell-all confessions about the bad things they are up to. Tweet after tweet has kids bragging about vandalism, drug use, sexual encounters, etc. I think what really got the school upset is that there are a few kids making thinly disguised stories about having sex with teachers. The email from H.S. principal Chaffin is posted after the jump.

This social media acting out has been going on for as long as the internet has been around. I looked back in the archives of the old blog and found a post that covers much of the same issues. Back in 2007, the big scandal was kids writing insulting things about teachers on MySpace. I wrote some emails to the super back then, I think they are still pretty relevant to what is happening now. This quote from those exchanges gets to the nub of the issue:

There are two primary facts that have to be kept in mind when you are dealing with a situation where kids are doing bad things on the Internet.

1. Back when we were kids, there was a lot of writing on restroom stall walls that insulted teachers, other students, etc. That’s the nature of kids.
Now we have the Internet, which allows kids to write insults on a much bigger wall that can be seen by more people. But the best way to deal with this kind of childish behavior is no different than back in the old days. You paint over the insults, and move on. Making a big deal out of it just feeds into the power of the wall-scrawler.
All Internet websites have contact info for the administrators of the websites, and an e-mail to them asking for the deletion of offensive content will quickly cause the webpage to be removed. That is the best tactic to suggest to any parent or teacher who reports content that they feel is insulting to them personally.

2. You, as superintendent, are not the Internet police. You have influence over the things that happen in the school, but the things that happen on the Internet – even things that involve kids at the school – are not under your control. The job of “Internet cop” is not part of the school’s mission, and it would be futile to start down that path.

I don’t want to be unsupportive of kids who are being harassed on the internet. When it happens in large amounts over an extended time, it is reasonable for the school to help the kid get the offending material removed. Same for teachers, they shouldn’t have to put up with a campaign of harassment.

But the overwhelming majority of the confessions on this new twitter account are not aimed at any one person, they are just stuff like “Got drunk and had sex before the superbowl -OHS” , “I’m a senior and have a boyfriend but still hookup with my ex on the weekends” -Desales, “A freshman used bible pages to roll joints” -Columbus Academy.

If the school is trying to get this twitter account shut down because of stuff like this, they are being the internet police. Good luck with that! To Chaffin’s credit, he does acknowledge it is a futile task.

Once this twitter feed is taken down, there will likely be another one in a short amount of time if past trends continue.

If that is true, why even try to get it shut down?

This is the email that was sent out by principal Chaffin:
Read the rest of this entry →