Monday, August 12, 2013

Some real talk about Level 3, Part II

Last week I wrote a review of how Wareham was labeled a Level 3 district. To review, one of seven schools in town is slightly on the wrong side of the 20% line based on myriad calculations based on MCAS results. But wait, there’s more!

As mentioned last week, Level 3 schools are in the bottom 20% in the state, a line of division based on the “hey, gotta draw the line somewhere” method successfully used by Europeans to set the national borders of Africa and the Middle East. However, being at 17% doesn’t mean that WMS just needs to “improve by 3.5%” to get to Level 2. It has to improve by a greater degree than the eight schools above it. If state databanks decree that Wareham Middle School improved by 10% last year, and the eight schools above do 12% better, WMS loses ground. This is the philosophy of the New York Stock Exchange – success isn’t what or how well you do, but how you compare to others. The Department of Education buys into it.

Unfortunately, the state stacked the deck against Wareham Middle School last year. A large element of the numerical gymnastics is comparing WMS to schools that the state labels as similar. In the case of WMS, this means nine others that are located in Amesbury, Billerica, Fall River, Medford, Middleborough, New Bedford (two), Plymouth, Rockland, and Taunton. So Wareham is expecting to keep pace with selected schools in these eight towns and cities, and loses points if it doesn't.

Ask if that truly is a representative group. Would you be surprised to learn that of these nine schools, only 3 have a higher percentage of low-income students? There may not be widespread shock that the average per pupil expenditure of these combined districts for the most recent year available is $12,756, compared to $12,241 in Wareham -- that's the red bar on the graph below. Does anyone believe things would improve if each WMS classroom had an additional $10,000 more to spend on education?  That's an updated set of books.  It's two classroom computers.

 ►The third item on the list of truths about Level 3: Wareham Middle School was placed on its level largely due to comparisons to schools that aren’t comparable. Now, there may statistical glimmers of hope. Wareham will be placed in a different group this summer, perhaps one that is actually appropriate. The “SGP” scores in recent fifth grade MCAS results, a group whose numbers will be counted as WMS students in reports issued starting in 2014, are a bit higher than those scores in grades 6-8. There is new leadership atop WMS and the public schools. This is a chance at a fresh start. Knowledge may be half the battle, but it doesn't have to all be pessimistic.

Finally, there is a sad, final truth to all this: students are barely part of this discussion. Some test scores in a couple subjects certainly are. A change in level can come by fairly grouping schools, or perhaps moving a new grade to WMS. It may or may not be coincidence that “education” has been stripped down to moving numbers around formulas in spreadsheets, and that “improvement” is the province of accountants and rather than educators. Even when WMS leaves Level 3, as long as this is public education, how much have things really improved?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Some real talk about Level 3, Part I

During the past spring’s interviews for superintendent, much conversation focused on the fact that Wareham is a “Level 3 District”. The state places districts anywhere from level 1 (the best) to level 5. It is worth taking a few moments to look at the previous year’s data to figure out what exactly how Wareham ended up there. To begin with, the state feels that each district should be assigned a level based on its lowest performing school. Since one of Wareham’s seven schools is a Level 3 school, the district is a Level 3 district. Using an analogy – imagine basing a baseball team’s record on the win-loss stats of its worst pitcher. Make the Red Sox’s record match John Lackey’s win-loss stats.

►One truth of Level 3 – Wareham is only a “level 3 District” using a bizarre system of classification. Less than one-quarter of its students attend a Level 3 school. For discussion, let’s allow the state its foolish methods. Let’s focus on the Level 3 school and ignore the 76% of Wareham children studying in schools with higher ratings. That school is my past and once again present place of work: Wareham Middle School.

Why is WMS a Level 3 school? According to an arcane MCAS-based formula* the department of education debuted last year, Wareham Middle School was among the lowest-performing 20% of middle schools in Massachusetts. Using only four or five days of testing in two subjects, WMS is placed in the bottom fifth. And just where is WMS in that group? Just below the line. Of the 58 middle schools in the Commonwealth at Level 3, WMS is ranked ninth. Eight schools or three percentile points away from Level 2.

►A second truth about Level 3 – while nobody is happy with the current level of performance, WMS is barely on the wrong side of the arbitrary line that divides Level 2 and Level 3. Under this cockamamie system, how does one get out? That’s the subject of next week’s post.

*This formula doesn’t rank actual test scores, or rate of improvement, or comparisons with other districts. It purports to do it all at once through weighting, averaging, and scaling. The best comparison is the Bowl Championship Series formula used in college football. The formula is purposely confusing, vulnerable to manipulation, an attempt to substitute complexity for authenticity, difficult to relate to what actually occurs. So is the BCS.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

What’s the deal with Unit C negotiations?

After three meetings with the administration since Memorial Day, there isn’t much news coming out about negotiations to replace the Unit C contract due to expire at the end of this month.  There are two reasons for that:

1. As with most other labor negotiations, both sides agreed to “ground rules” that specified that details would be closely held until a tentative agreement was reached.  Unit C members will of course vote on that agreement, but until then these negotiations can only continue if both sides stay with the ground rules.

2. In late July, the superintendent and our WEA’s MTA representative left their positions.  This changeover necessitated a delay.

Our negotiating team is still vigorously pursuing a fair contract, and updates will continue until a tentative agreement is reached.