Tag Archives: education

School busing in Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor Public Schools’ proposed cuts to busing has provoked lots of parental whining on AnnArbor.com.

Raising the cost of getting kids to school is one of the many costs of sprawl that are not factored in when our elected officials subsidize development in outlying areas.   Nobody ever thinks school busing might get cut next time there’s a downturn.  The homebuyers don’t think about it when they buy the place, and the realtors never suggest they think about it.

Families planning to have kids would do well to recall this story when they start looking to buy a home.  Lots within the city may be smaller, the homes older, more modest & more expensive, but at least there are sidewalks so your kids don’t have to walk in the street.

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May 2011 millage results

Those tax-and-spend liberals seem to have gained the upper hand in Tuesday’s crop of millages across the region.  Nothing like a little bit (OK, a lot) of fiscal austerity from the state government to remind voters why they pay taxes.

The margins were pretty impressive locally.  Pittsfield Township approved a public safety millage, with 72% of the votes in favour.   A special education millage for the Washtenaw Intermediate School District — the only item on the ballot in my precinct — did even better, 77% in favour.

While I don’t much write about west Michigan — Grand Rapids isn’t that much closer to me than Chicago, Columbus, or Cleveland — I took a keen interest in the bus millage that was on the ballot there, especially since it would finance what is, to my knowledge, the first bus rapid transit in Michigan.  It ended up barely squeaking through.  According to MLive,

The millage passed in Grand Rapids and East Grand Rapids. The majority of voters in the surrounding cities who cast ballots were against it…

The transit millage will pay for extending service later into the evening on most routes, expanding some routes, decreasing wait times between buses, and operating the Silver Line high-speed bus line on Division Avenue.

The improvements will be made gradually over the next five years with the full millage levy eventually raising $15.6 million a year. One-third of the millage increase will go toward operating the Silver Line route…

I think it will be interesting to see the effects of BRT in its service area.  While less glamorous than rail, it strikes me as a particularly appropriate and cost-effective option for certain parts of Southeast Michigan, which is such a dispersed and multi-nodal region, and one which deserves more consideration from planners, policymakers and transit advocates than it has received.

Vote on May 3

And vote “yes.”  If you are registered to vote in the Ann Arbor Public Schools District, get thee to your local polling place and support the AAPS special education millage that is on the ballot Tuesday, May 3.  With the level of anticipated cuts in state education funding, Ann Arbor’s kids are going to need every dime they can get for their schooling.

The mess that is education policy

What makes reading about K-12 education so frustrating to me as a layperson is that you hear such conflicting accounts about what works and what doesn’t.  As I’ve been studying up on the current evidence about some of the issues confronting Detroit Public Schools, I keep running into seemingly contradictory claims.

Case in point:  While Ann Crowley celebrates the flexibility she and her colleagues at Palmer Park Academy have in changing their instructional plans, Jonathan Cohn describes how Durant Tuuri Mott Elementary, a high-achieving school in Flint, has thrived on exactly the opposite approach:

(A)t the district level… administrators have made a series of key changes, most important among them the adoption of a new, more rigid curriculum. Why would a more rigid curriculum be good? Because in a community like Flint, volatile economic and family circumstances frequently force children to change schools in the middle of the school year, sometimes more than once. The new curriculum means those students can pick up at the new school right where they left off at the old one.

When us laypeople juxtapose two stories like these, their authors each telling stories completely at odds, can educators blame us for reading this as a discipline in chaos?

Coming from the health sciences,  I am astonished by the apparent anarchy in the U.S. K-12 education field.  In the health sciences, there is a rigorous hierarchy of evidence, with a continually growing base of systematic reviews and meta-analyses summarizing knowledge on thousands of topics, relatively easily retrieved through a couple of centralized and well-curated bibliographic databases.  These are supplemented by another rich layer of guidelines and algorithms helping clinicians to determine how and when to apply that evidence to specific cases.

Education research seems to me to be vastly under-resourced in comparison.  Consensus in the education research community, where it exists, does not seem to consistently be translated into national and state standards, and the data collection likewise is not as robust as it could be.  In health care, the amount of resources expended on a national level to gathering data seems exponentially greater.  No wonder there is so much debate.

That leaves the rest of us shouting at one another because, to us at least, there simply doesn’t seem to be much of an evidence base.  American policymakers make it much, much worse by ignoring evidence, and the media compounds it by lazy and sensationalist reporting.  They are even more allergic to the application of scientific evidence to the education field than they are to medicine, climate change, or even economics.  No one bothers to consult the education literature; legislators, rule-makers, voters and reporters seem already to know what they want to do, whether it is supported by empirical data or not.

To be fair, mainstream health sciences reporting is also frustrating to the lay reader, as most health journalists are ignorant of how to properly appraise a research study.  All too frequently, they focus their reporting on the most sensationalist studies without any regard for methodological quality, or any attempt to convey for the reader the level of bias.  The same problem — lazy journalism, encouraged and exacerbated by Gannett-style management — leaves lay readers out in the cold, whether the topic is medicine, politics, or the education of our own children.

Another case in point:  the tremendous celebrity Diane Ravitch has garnered since she decided a few years ago to reverse her previous positions on school reform.  Ravitch is unquestionably knowledgeable, with a great deal of experience and expertise. But she has also become a reflexive crank, completely dismissing any question about what the rest of us know from personal experience:  some teachers suck, and that that hurts students.  She responds to the slightest questioning of the pre-NCLB status quo as a direct attack on teachers.  She talks as if both of our two major governing parties shared her belief in the solutions to reducing poverty or inequality (hint: at least one of them doesn’t), and as if taxpayers have absolutely no right to expect some sort of measurable results from the public education they fund.  While I agree with Ravitch broadly on a number of points — mainly that poverty is THE major cause of poor student achievement, and that the Republican Party is trying to starve public education — the fact remains that she crowds out media coverage of more balanced and thoughtful perspectives on reform.  She may be the opposite of Michelle Rhee in terms of her beliefs, but they are 100% the same when it comes to belligerent cross-talk.  And the media loves it, because it allows them to reduce the conversation to a Fox News-style screaming match.

(Yes, I acknowledge the irony of a blogger devoting a paragraph to Ravitch while complaining about how much oxygen the media give her.)

One of the few beliefs that do seem to be widely accepted is that your kids will score better if they are surrounded by other rich kids with educated parents, which is why upper class and middle class parents are busy keeping their local school districts as exclusive as possible, and when that fails, moving their kids into the most exclusive private schools they can afford.  The rest of parents still have no idea what to do.  Many of them still don’t know or care enough about education to bother.  For those that do care, we can’t blame them, since even the education community and policymakers can’t seem to agree on a game plan to move forward.

As long as this persists, I simply do not know how education is ever not going to be stratified by race.  There is not a single country on earth that has had to contend with the heterogeneity of our population and been able to effectively equalize attainment.  I despair.

Saving the best DPS schools

First do no harm.  It is a central tenet of medicine and one which would-be school reformers increasingly seem to forget in their haste to transform troubled school systems.

This week, the state of Michigan recognized a number of schools across the state “where students are succeeding academically compared to peer schools, despite such factors as poverty, low funding or having an urban or rural location.”  Three DPS schools made the “best of the best” list:  Thurgood Marshall, Pasteur and Vernor Elementaries.

I’ve tended to write off Detroit Public Schools in my posts on the system, and in that respect I have done a great disservice to a number of DPS schools which are performing well and which deserve to be saved one way or another.  One of these, Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, was profiled by one of its faculty in the Detroit News in early March.  The teacher, Ann Crowley, describes how Palmer Park has been

hailed as an innovator for its management model — teachers are not only in the classrooms, but in the administrative offices as well.

Palmer Park is the only teacher-led school in Detroit… The advantage our school has over traditional public schools is that teachers have the flexibility to practice their craft. They can approach children as individuals, building learning programs designed to meet individual needs.

In contrast to many other DPS schools, where there has been a high level of resentment against the state-appointed reform team,

Palmer Park grew out of meetings with Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb, academic chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett and a group of Detroit Federation of Teachers members hoping to bring to Detroit a school that fully empowers parents and teachers to make decisions in the best interest of children…

Crowley claims the school’s faculty “are doing things no other school in the district can do”:

For one thing, Palmer Park is a no excuses school… Teachers have Response Intervention Time built into their schedules to do intense instruction in reading and math for those students who are falling behind…

Our experience is that the larger class size matters less for older students, if the right instruction model is used…

Our teachers don’t have to wait for approval from the central office downtown to change an instructional plan.

Lead teachers fill some administrative functions and have the authority to adjust schedules and curriculum immediately.

For example, on the second day of implementing the new schedules a student in one of the math classes approached her teacher because she felt the class was a bit advanced for her.  She was in a different class the very next day…

Palmer Park Preparatory Academy is exactly what can be done when people are willing to put children, their learning, and their unique needs above all else.

It does not exist because of district mandates or union contracts. The school exists because a group of teachers wanted to really teach and a community accepted them in their neighborhood.

The progress the Bobb team has made in helping give birth to this school contrasts with the recent announcement that the Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women is slated for closure.   There is so much excess capacity in the DPS system and enrollment is falling so rapidly that it is inevitable that a lot of schools have to close, but it is puzzling that Mr. Bobb selected Ferguson, which has a 90% graduation rate and is one of the few schools in the nation specifically designed for teen mothers.  A DetroitYes commenter pointed me toward a possible explanation:  according to a 2004 Metro Times story, Ferguson “somehow, every year, obtains about double the funding per student of the average Detroit public school.”  If that’s still the case seven years later, it seems conceivable that the school had just become too costly for the almost-bankrupt district to sustain.

I wonder if there is a solution for DPS like that employed for GM, where it can be split into an old sick half that is liquidated,and a healthy half consisting of the stronger assets.  There needs to be a way to save its strongest schools from the system’s cancer.

‘Cities aren’t structures: cities are people’

In a post this week, the St. Louis-focused blog nextStL ticks through all the big money silver bullet projects in downtown St Louis that failed in their ultimate objective:  to revive that city’s downtown.

I am sad to say I have not yet been to St. Louis, which sounds like a place rich in history, but other developments in Detroit this week suggest that it could sorely use nextStL’s reminder.

There are parts of Detroit that have improved since I arrived there in 2007.  For the most part, downtown is not one of them.  The stretch of Woodward between Campus Martius and Grand Circus Park has seen a particularly appalling decline in those four years:  at this point, I think I could count the number of occupied storefronts on that strip of several blocks on the fingers of one hand.

This makes the almost manic reaction to announcements of $221 million in improvements to Cobo Center, home of the North American International Auto Show, a bit more understandable:

The project will be ready by the 2014 North American International Auto Show, and it will “open up” Cobo to the Detroit River with a new atrium entrance.. Many of the changes will create what promises to be dramatic new vistas of Cobo from East Jefferson and from Windsor…

The Cobo authority will borrow the money through a bond sale to pay for the upgrades. Bonds would be paid back using Cobo revenues plus subsidies from the state’s Convention Center Development Fund, which receives liquor and hotel tax revenues from Southeast Michigan.

The Detroit News’ Daniel Howes never wastes the opportunity for hyperbole, and his post on the Cobo announcement was no exception:

Who says the self-defeating politics of southeast Michigan can never change or that Detroit cannot reap the benefit of a repolished jewel without being expected to pay all the bills?…

Realization of a Cobo makeover underscores the positive evolution of southeast Michigan’s political factionalism and the ability of leaders to shape competing interests into shared goals.

Howes is justified in taking comfort from the newfound spirit of cooperation among the Cobo authority, which until the last year or two was riven by typical nasty strife between its suburban members and the city.

It was then ironic that, as I proceed through Triumph of the City, Glaeser begins his discussion of urban decline with the following observations:

The hallmark of declining cities is that they have too much housing and infrastructure relative to the strength of their economies… The folly of building-centric urban renewal reminds us that cities aren’t structures: cities are people…

Even before the flood, New Orleans had done a mediocre job caring for its poor.  Did it really make sense to spend billions on the city’s infrastructure, when money was so badly needed to help educate the children of New Orleans?  New Orleans’ greatness always came from its people, not from its buildings…

Perhaps the most common error was thinking that these cities could build their way back to success with… (projects like the People Mover or the RenCen or Cobo Hall)

I’ve been guilty of this line of thought too, salivating with anticipation over projects like the Woodward light rail line, which is currently in the midst of a seemingly interminable planning and review.  (Seriously, if we see ground broken prior to Election Day 2012 I will eat my hat.)   All the wonderful and arguably much-needed renovations to Cobo or the Book Cadillac, the construction of the rail line, the massive investment in the Gateway Project at the border crossing with Canada — without advancing the city’s human capital, are these for naught?

Of course not.  Much of what makes New Orleans so peerless is its unrivalled preservation of its precious and unique building stock, and failure to maintain infrastructure, after all, was THE direct cause of the horrific destruction that followed the hurricane.  Likewise, I am confident the millions upon millions invested in opening up Detroit’s riverfront, luring people downtown to ice skate at Campus Martius, restoring and maintaining its endangered Jazz Age architectural treasures, enabling Cobo to retain the auto show, and getting cross-border truck traffic off residential streets, have or will more than pay for themselves over our lifetimes.

But Glaeser helps to reinforce my growing concern that both Gov. Snyder and Mayor Bing, for all their good intentions and the vast improvement they represent over their predecessors, still fail to appreciate the single most crucial, obvious, and proven ingredient to urban recovery:  education.  Governor Snyder has opted to cut funding for it in order to slash business taxes;  Mayor Bing has consistently refused to show leadership amidst the crisis of his city’s schools.  I am lucky to be able to live in a community, Ann Arbor, that owes its very existence to education and appreciates its value;  but it troubles me that that even in 2011 so many of our leaders still don’t get it — that so many southeast Michigan voters still don’t get it — and it does not make me optimistic about the region’s future.

The Snyder Budget III: Education cuts & what to do about it

Some of you probably think I’ve gone off the deep end, posting all the apologetics of various aspects of the Governor’s budget like a slavish devotee.  Well, hopefully this post will allay your fears.  While I think there are a lot of tough but necessary decisions and sensible reasoning in the budget, I am one of the many who believe the cuts to education spending it proposes are destructive and must be prevented.

The single most important thing we can do is to convince legislators in the Republican majority that the people who elected them oppose those cuts.  Now, in my experience there are two groups whose opinions matter to most legislators:  their campaign donors, and voters in their own districts.   So your game plan on this issue, and many others that will arise in the eighteen months between now and the next election, will vary depending on where you live.

If like me you reside in a district represented in both the House and Senate by Democrats, don’t waste your time calling your legislators.  For example, writing my State Senator Rebekah Warren and my State Rep. Jeff Irwin about the education cuts would just be preaching to the choir.  Even if they were on the fence, though, lobbying them would be fairly useless, because they are in the minority party.  As I’ve said before, the only votes that matter right now are those of Republicans.

Instead, now is a good time to remember with your friends or family who live in State or House districts represented by Republicans, and remind them that they have the opportunity to let their Republican legislator know they need to look elsewhere to balance the budget.

Now, if you live in a district represented by a Republican, YOU have real power.  Call, email, or write a letter to your rep and your Senator.  Then get the word out to others.  Write a letter to the editor, post on Facebook, tweet about it, whatever works for you.   And if you know anybody with school age kids or grandkids, any rabid UM/MSU/CMU/WMU/OU/Michigan Tech alumni, or anybody else who might be remotely sympathetic on this issue, encourage them to do the same.

Not sure who your legislators are or what party they belong to? Thanks, you doofus, it’s people like you who are ‘too busy to pay attention to politics’ and helped us get in this mess in the first place.  No need to fret, though, now’s your chance to atone for your apathy.  You can go to the handy locator forms for the House or the Senate, enter your zip or address, and if you pull up someone with an ‘R’ next to their name, you know it’s time to get to work.

These quick and easy rules of thumbs are guaranteed to save you time and energy.  If everybody chips in a couple of minutes, we could go a long way toward keeping down tuition and improving education for all the students we know.   Share this post with all your pissed off acquaintances, and happy lobbying!