A Letter For Hallie

  Spreckles Organ in Balboa Park, San Diego; the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ.  ID’d by Tom Spencer.

We leave soon to spend two weeks touring historical sites, in a country with responsible adult leadership, related to the 500th anniversary of a pivotal event in world history.  Though focused on travel preparations I wanted to write another post before leaving without having to work too hard. Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs Communications Associate Hallie Milner, by regurgitating arguments from Limited Thinkers I’ve previously debunked, handed me an easy assignment. Based on her title and photo I’m assuming she is fairly new to the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs mission of misleading Oklahomans and that she still can learn how to thoughtfully analyze information and present truthful arguments that are not formed in advance of her analysis like her colleagues, the Fellows at the OCPA, usually do.  So I will not deem her to be a limited thinker this time.

 

Dear Hallie,

Congratulations on having a job with an organization whose mission is supposed to be doing research and providing information about matters of importance to the quality of life for the people of Oklahoma.  It is an opportunity to use your academic skills for the betterment of our state.  Unfortunately, based on my thoughtful review of many writings promulgated by your colleagues over the last year, summarized in my recent Declaration of Intelligence, they fall far short of any reasonable measure of quality.  In several writings about them I have demonstrated that they often are deliberately misleading, shoddily researched and of no useful value to Oklahoma’s policy makers.

Your July 17, 2017 post “Comparing Oklahoma School Districts To Surrounding States” is similarly deficient in a couple of ways.  I applaud that you tackled the issue of school district consolidation in Oklahoma; as a big city guy I’ve always believed that having fewer school districts would improve education in our state, though I admit my belief is not based on any real research, and your writing does not provide any other than to state the obvious that there would be fewer superintendents.  While the savings from having fewer superintendents is real, I doubt that it is highly significant, probably less than what we’d save if we got rid of either our state house or senate, a consolidation idea that also has much merit.  Rather the real savings would come from reducing the “fixed costs” to which you allude but about which you do not elaborate or quantify.

As a Tulsa Public Schools board member during the early 1980s when we were still adjusting to its dramatic decline in school enrollment, I reviewed many studies about the cost savings of school consolidation.  My recollection is that the primary savings came from not operating as many buildings, i.e. fewer custodians, lower utilities, less maintenance and repairs, etc., from having fewer building administrators, and from having larger class sizes when students are served in one building instead of two.  Most of the savings came from changes in staffing standards, but undeniably operating fewer buildings saves money.  And isn’t that the political challenge with school consolidation in rural Oklahoma:  fewer buildings means many small towns lose their primary employer and even their reason for being.  We also had to consider the increase in student transportation costs which in a rural setting would be even greater and some offset.

I suspect much has been written and researched about the experiences other states have had with school consolidation which might provide helpful guidance to our state’s policy makers, but instead of turning to the obvious you looked only at a brief summary of work by Benjamin Scafidi that I’ve reviewed in several posts, Purging the SurgeA Dirge for a Surge and Return of the Surge.  Based on his work you make this statement:

The abundance of school districts could also explain some of the growth of non-teaching jobs in Oklahoma public education. Between 1998 and 2011, Oklahoma increased school administration employees by 49 percent, while student enrollment only increased by 6 percent. In other words, in the Oklahoma education system, administration grew eight times faster than the students did. When federal or state overreach imposes burdens on local districts, those burdens can require hiring additional district-level staff. While no one can blame school districts for unfunded mandates, perhaps the cost of such overreach would be less if Oklahoma had fewer public school districts. 

By referring only to “school administration employees” you do not inform your readers that Scafidi’s work looks at two categories of employees—teachers and all others.  All others includes school administrators but mostly consists of “teacher aides, counselors, social workers, reading and math coaches, janitors, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, curriculum specialists, etc.” to use his most recent words.  In Oklahoma, if you did real research, I suspect you’d find that the largest numbers of “all other” are teacher assistants, bus drivers and cafeteria workers– job categories most people would not consider as “school administration”.   Why then do you use the term “administration”?  If you are misinformed, then at least read the source material.  If you just want to mislead your readers, then you are working at the right place.

Now if your theory, that an abundance of school districts explains the growth in administration employees per Scafidi’s research, is correct then we should see a correlation between the number of students per school district in a state and the ratio of the growth in “administration” to the growth in students, namely an inverse relationship.  In other words, if we look at the six states you mentioned in your post, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas, the “Scafidi Ratio” as I’ll call it, namely growth in non-teaching employees divided by growth in students, should be in the opposite order of your first graph and the same order as your second graph.  Specifically, Oklahoma should have the highest Ratio, followed by Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Colorado, and Texas, in that order.

Here’s the data from Appendix 1 of Scafidi’s most recent work, see Return of the Surge, that is based on student and employee growth rates from 1992 to 2015, and my calculation of the Scafidi Ratio:

 

State Student All Other Staff Scafidi
Growth Growth Ratio
Oklahoma 17% 36%      2.12
Missouri 9% 24%      2.67
Kansas 12% 50%      4.17
Arkansas 12% 50%      4.17
Colorado 50% 94%      1.88
Texas 48% 66%      1.38

The data doesn’t support your argument because the Ratio column should trend steadily down, but instead rises before it then falls.  If there is a relationship to the Scafidi Ratio it appears to be to the Student Growth percentage, i.e. the greater the student growth, the lower the Ratio, which has nothing to do with school district consolidation.

Again school district consolidation is a worthy topic for research by a think tank.  Think harder and maybe next time your writing will contribute meaningfully to the discussion.

 

As always lunch is on me for the first to ID the location of the photo above.  14 free lunches eaten so far.

Return of the Surge

Nebraska Capitol in Lincoln; ID’d by Kenneth Cole

As summer draws to a close and with my grandkid Uber driver duties suspended unexpectedly while they are out of town a few days, I took a look to see what’s happening on the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs website—and it wasn’t pretty, but it does give me an opening to complete the San Diego trifecta before summer’s end.  I first wrote about the amazing Slomo in A Rise By Any Other Name.  We actually saw him again this July, for the first time in several visits to Pacific Beach, while we were watching the sunset, hoping for a green flash.  We did not see the flash which I wrote about in my post In A Flash and is the second of the trifecta.  The third happening in the trifecta is to see a grunion run.  More about them in a bit.

Hot off the press on the OCPA’s “Educational Freedom” blog is the title “Oklahoma’s (Missing) $8,872 Teacher Pay Raise”.  It is another iteration of the research done by Benjamin Scafidi about the scandalous fact that school districts nationwide have dared to hire adults to help educate, transport, feed and keep safe our nation’s children.  His newest report is titled “Back-to-the-Staffing-Surge-by-Ben-Scafidi”.  I have dealt with his work in earlier posts, namely a A Dirge for a Surge, Purging the Surge, The Glib, The Bad and The Ugly, and The Ugly Step-Thinker, but like a bad horror movie genre (think Return of Swamp Thing, Return of the Living Dead or Return of the Killer Tomatoes), he keeps “surging” back to remind us of the obvious, that school districts could afford to give Oklahoma’s teachers an $8,872 raise if they would just fire thousands of teacher assistants, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, and, of course, administrators. 

But first let’s enjoy the beach.  Grunion are small (think double the size of minnows) ocean fish that return to Southern California beaches with the twice monthly highest tides (full moon and new moon) from spring through summer to spawn in the sand.  The eggs are laid and fertilized in a frenzy of activity on the beach as the grunion ride in with each wave during a “run”.  The eggs take about a half month to incubate in the sand and then the new little grunion can head out with the next lunar high tide.  It’s pretty cool to see and also reasonably predictable.  Linda and I saw them first in the early nineties while taking what we thought would be a quiet night time stroll on the summer sand—instead we found a grunion run in progress and lots of spectators and a couple of “fishermen” who were gathering them up by hand in buckets (this is allowed for some of the season’s runs).  Here’s this year’s schedule.  https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Fishing/Ocean/Grunion#28352306-2017-runs

Here’s a couple of photos, not ours which I couldn’t locate, but similar to what we have seen a few times over the years. 

 

Here is a video of our most recent grunion run experience in June, 2016.

So you see the grunion “return” each year to do their thing.  You may have heard of another California based annual returning, namely the swallows of Mission San Juan Capistrano.  After driving past the exit many times on I-5 between Los Angeles and San Diego we finally made a brief visit to the Mission and were so impressed that we timed a spring vacation visit the next year to coincide with the March 19 festival when the birds would return to nest at the Mission.  Turns out they don’t.  The only nesting swallows we saw that year at a mission were at Dwight Mission in Oklahoma a few weeks later.  The swallows do return to San Juan Capistrano but they no longer nest at the old Mission building, preferring higher buildings and bridges instead.  Still the Mission festival and activities are lots of fun, including a lecture by a biology professor from the University of Tulsa who does field work studying cliff swallows in Nebraska.

Now we return to the surge.  The timing of Surge Scafidi’s post is ironic coming the same day the Oklahoma Supreme Court has nixed the legislature’s $1.50 per pack “fee” on cigarettes costing our already strapped state budget over $200 million in budgeted revenues.  So now our governor and the majority of our legislators who previously swallowed the supply side tax cutting myth peddled by the limited thinkers at the OCPA are learning that when you cut tax rates you generally will collect less revenue—duh.  But there is no easy correction because with the passage in 1992 of State Question 640, in direct response to the implementation of House Bill 1017, see Once Upon A Time and House Bill 1017 25th Anniversary, it takes a super majority three-fourths vote to raise state revenue.  Not to worry though because the Surge assures us there’s plenty of funding for teacher pay raises, just fire all the other excess school employees—exactly 6,221 of them.

As I pointed out in my earlier critiques of his work, his not so veiled effort to mislead his readers into believing that school administrators made up the bulk of the non-teacher hiring surge certainly diminishes his credibility as a “researcher” interested in presenting facts.  He has yielded somewhat to that criticism by now clearly stating up front that “all other staff” includes “teacher aides, counselors, social workers, reading and math coaches, janitors, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, curriculum specialists, etc.” as well as school administrators.  He also acknowledges that from 1950 to 1992 perhaps additional staffing was justified “because during those decades public schools began welcoming students with special needs and were allowed to integrate by race or were integrated by government policies.”  Translated he’s thrown in the towel on holding up the state of public education in 1950 as being a lofty standard to which we should aspire.  Instead he harkens back to 1992 as the gold standard for school staffing.

For Oklahoma his data, which I have not vetted, shows that from 1992 to 2015 our student population went up 17% and the “all other staff” increased 36%.  By doing simple arithmetic, i.e. 36% – 17% = 19%, that is the percentage of excess “all other staff” schools have, being 6,221 positions, which at $60,000 each would free up over $373 million for teacher raises—did you notice the $60,000?  Now Surge Scafidi looks at national data first, and then does a state by state breakout so all the little echo tanks around the country, like the OCPA, can try to capture a newspaper or other media headline telling the public there’s plenty of funding for schools and teacher raises.  Fair enough if your objective is pushing a preconceived narrative, i.e. “public schools bad, school choice good” instead of doing real research and analysis.

What drives me crazy is that the limited thinkers at the OCPA, if they were true thinkers, should not regurgitate this data for Oklahoma consumption without a little localized vetting.  For example:

1.  If Surge Scafidi acknowledges that staffing levels for schools in 1950 that did not serve all students regardless of race or disability were less than what is justifiable and needed in 1992, then perhaps the passage of House Bill 1017 and subsequent legislation expanding early childhood education and mandating the use of teacher assistants in those programs explains some of the surge since 1992.  If the Surge’s pay raise plan for teachers comes at the expense of dismantling early childhood education programs in Oklahoma our policy makers need to know that—if facts mean anything to Limited Thinkers. 

2.  A quick glance at national school nutrition data (https://www.fns.usda.gov/pd/child-nutrition-tables ) shows that total meals served nationally went from 4,953,830,000 in 1992 to 7,339,690,000 in 2015 for an increase of 48.2% while student population increased only 20% according to the Surge’s table.  I suspect Oklahoma’s data would show a similar pattern.  More meals served per student likely means more staff, i.e. cafeteria workers, needed at a rate of increase greater than student growth.    If the Surge’s pay raise plan for teachers comes at the expense of cutting back on child nutrition programs in Oklahoma our policy makers need to know that—if facts mean anything to Limited Thinkers.  It’s also worth mentioning, Surge Scafidi, that any funding saved by reducing cafeteria staffing will lower the price of school meals and is not available for teacher raises.

3.  $60,000; yes, $60,000, tell that to Oklahoma’s teacher assistants, bus drivers and cafeteria workers.  That’s what Surge Scafidi, for his “thought experiment”, determined is a low side estimate of their average annual compensation and cost to their employer that, if laid off, could be used for teacher raises.  In my posts Miserables Love Company and Later, Sooner I show why The 1889 Institute’s Byron Schlomach, my Schlomo, is off by $10,000 when he claimed the average Oklahoma teacher costs $66,000.  So a real number for the cost of a teacher in 2015 is about $56,000; ask teacher assistants, bus drivers and cafeteria workers if they are paid, in Oklahoma, as much as teachers.  $60,000 as an average cost saved for each of those 6,221 “all other staff” the Surge wants Oklahoma districts to lay off is an absurdly high number.  At most it is half that amount so double the number of “all other staff” the Surge wants us to fire so teachers can have a raise—if facts mean anything to Limited Thinkers.

I shouldn’t be doing this quick analysis.  If the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs is going to print this stuff and pass it off as real research, the limited thinkers there should vet it themselves—if only they knew how.  But see facts don’t matter to them as long as the “research” conforms to their narrative that “public education bad, school choice good”.

As always lunch on me to the first to ID the lead photo.

 

 

Charlie’s Wake

This is the real challenge; the one below it is a hint.

 

A couple of years into my decade of teaching economics at Tulsa Junior (now Community) College a couple of us decided to organize a men’s (late 1970s) faculty softball team and enter the City’s park and rec league. There were ten positions and you had to buy your position so there was no coaching and no subs during games. We called ourselves the Pedants (look it up, I had to).  I played mostly outfield for three years till I tired of the lousy schedules we got being in the lowest league and the rest of my life, like coaching youth soccer and politics picked up.  We included a couple of ringers, one named Charlie came to us by way of his neighbor Danney Goble, gifted member of the history faculty and published author (see Onward to the Past), but more a wannabe ball player like the rest of us than the real deal.  Charlie, though more than a decade older than the rest of us, was the real deal having played for a baseball state championship as a student at Tulsa Central (I think they won).  Charlie taught mathematics at a local junior high school and we welcomed him as a polished player at any position who quietly led by example and consistency, and he could suffer us fools.   Here is a photo of gifts he welded for each of us.

 

Our softball friendship evolved into four of us Pedants playing doubles tennis year ’round every Saturday morning for about 15 years at the courts by Hillcrest Hospital.  Charlie was not then a tennis payer but had accepted my challenge and beat me (I had played off and on since junior high) with steady defense the first time, and every time, we played singles.  He was savvy and a good athlete.  He was my partner all those years against our shortstop and first baseman, the Mikes.  

Over the years we shared many conversations and experiences off the court as our children grew up and some left home.  Our Saturday matches ended when Charlie and one Mike could no longer play hard court tennis without pain so they focused on golf while the other Mike and I continued with tennis by joining a USTA league and settling in with new tennis friends.  As happens when common interests end Charlie and I just didn’t stay in touch except through reports by mutual friends.  I did visit him last December and planned to do so again.  He died in July.  

My first job out of college was teaching secondary mathematics for the School District of Philadelphia.  I had scholarship offers to study for a PhD in economics at UCLA and Wisconsin (my preference) but a 1A draft status and the Vietnam War (Plan C for us losers who didnt have bone spurs or other medical disqualification) derailed my plan A.  Plan B presented itself when the Philadelphia recruiters came on campus looking for math and science teachers.  My minor in mathematics qualified me so they got a two year commitment from a certifiable, though wholly unprepared, math teacher and I got an occupational deferment from the state of Pennsylvania; my time in Philly lasted four years and every day I was grateful for the deferment my education provided me and knew that otherwise I could be one of the thousands of my less fortunate contemporaries.   

In reality I was a poor recruit to teach in the Philadelphia schools.  True I knew math, would easily get emergency certification followed by standard certification in one year, and I was highly motivated by the evening news to stay employed, but I had no experience and no training to be a teacher.  Regardless, I had a contract to teach; the only question was at what school. The best secondary positions were in the high schools simply because the students are calmer at that age and many of the hardest to manage had dropped out.    Many junior high teachers, if they had high school subject certifications, would put in for transfers that were often awarded based on seniority.  So I was first assigned to a north Philly junior high, went for the interview, and the principal wisely passed, opting instead for his uncertified long term sub on whom he knew he could rely to last year after year, unlike us newbies who had a 60+% no show rate the second year. 

The principal at my second assigned north Philly junior high either didn’t care or figured he was stuck with me so I reported there the first day with the other faculty for my teaching assignment, as did an experienced teacher from the Catholic diocese schools. He had taken the job for higher pay and the pension, not the working conditions.  Yes, the District Office bureaucracy had assigned two of us to the same position.  He pulled out his union book and cited something that said since he was there first he would get the assignment; I didn’t object assuming I’d have a job somewhere since they’d signed a contract with me.  He spent the day in teacher meetings while I sat in the office.  At some point the District Office acknowledged their error and determined I would be assigned to West Philadelphia High School which happened to be a pleasant one mile walk from our apartment near the University of Pennsylvania.  The next four years were challenging to say the least, but I know my work life would have been much harder but for this lucky accident.  Here is West Philly High.

 

Working hands on as a classroom teacher those four years in Philly, then two at Wilson Junior High in Tulsa, followed by eleven at Tulsa Junior College, left me with several observations.

1.  Not much good is going to happen in your classroom for students if you don’t have disciplinary control.  Individually my students at West Philly were as sweet and fun as anywhere else, but there were enough who couldn’t sit still, goofballs, that maintaining discipline my first year was impossible and very challenging the other three.  Lower class sizes definitely help.

2.  Some people have a natural or acquired teaching charisma that students respond to; most of us do not.  These “naturals” are special and every student deserves to be taught and inspired by one or more each year.  The rest of us can be good teachers if we follow the well-established teaching rubrics that are tried and true and that most teachers are exposed to in their college instruction.  Simply stated:  review prior, introduce new, practice new, evaluate, then use evaluation to guide next session, i.e. review, etc.

3.  The best teachers are in K-12 schools; not colleges and universities.  College and university teachers look good because they start with self-disciplined students who are motivated to please the teacher—how can you fail to look good.  But many of them haven’t a clue how to really teach and wouldn’t last a semester at the schools where Charlie and I taught.

4.  In real world K-12 schools a strong, effective building leader makes a huge difference.  This fact was driven home to me when, after several days on the picket line in West Philadelphia a judge ordered my union, the American Federation of Teachers, back to work.  After a day of reflection, I went back to work; most did not.  With the teachers available the District established “Senior Centers” so the high school seniors could stay on track for graduation.  I was assigned to Bartram High School in southwest Philly where the principal was a well-organized, highly visible, leader.  Unlike my school where the school office was the center of chaos and the principal (his name was Walter Scott, I kid you not) rarely left his office, if he was in the building at all, the Bartram principal and school administration functioned and had your back which the students figured out.  It was like night and day.

So, in my opinion, if you want K-12 schools to function properly hire all the natural teachers you can recruit, be sure the rest follow a sound teaching rubric, give every building a strong, knowledgeable leader who will stay several years, and then get out of their way.  The best resource for understanding how this works is the Effective Schools movement; I was lucky as a school board member in Tulsa to hear its founder, Ron Edmonds, speak a few years before his passing.  Here’s what makes effective schools:  have strong building leadership, an orderly environment (discipline), high expectations for student success, focus on instructional time, and frequent monitoring of student progress using results to adapt instruction.  At one time Tulsa Public Schools had a School Effectiveness policy, I know because I introduced it; a policy isn’t needed, it’s just what I could do as a board member, but having educators committed to these strategies that are known to work is essential. 

I don’t know if Charlie was a good teacher because I was never in his classroom and never talked with one of his students.  I do know that he showed up for work every day, that he worked hard and that he cared about his students.  I know this because that is how he approached every endeavor we shared—he showed up, worked hard and cared about the people he was with.  With the right educational leadership in our state, in our school districts, in each school, and with the committed educators we have, the many more we need in our classrooms and lots of Charlies, children in all parts of Oklahoma can learn, thrive and help our state become a better place to live for us all.  What’s stopping us is state political leadership, bolstered with the shoddy cookie-cutter policy work done by Limited Thinkers at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and its echo tank the 1889 Institute, that sees only what public education costs our state with no attention to the lasting benefits it produces or to financing proven strategies that will make our schools more effective. 

As always lunch is on me (13 free lunches so far) to the first to ID each photo location.