Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Harvard Razzmatazz about MCPS

Pick an author who serves on the Board of Directors of a company that has an economic relationship with a school system, a willingness to base a book on email messages and classroom notes as primary sources, and you have Harvard’s razzmatazz “Leading for Equity: The Pursuit of Excellence in Montgomery County Public Schools.”

The book fails to recognize the most significant elements that contribute to the success of MCPS: Principals, teachers, parents, and our children.

Montgomery County is a community that boasts a well-educated, wealthy populace. The natural consequence is that a significant proportion of our children will be academically well prepared. Furthermore, with a projected 2010 budget of over 2 BILLION, the school system has to attract the best and the brightest teachers and principals. Indeed, if the system was unable to attract the best and the brightest, with all factors conspiring in its favor, one would have to lay the blame squarely at the foot of Carver (school headquarters).

If you have ever visited your child’s school during an open house, you would have come face-to-face with teachers who captivate our children with their dedication, ebullience, and ability. There are school leaders who step up to do the right thing, and have quietly raised their school performance to new heights. They make decisions not based on race, color, or creed, but on pure educational merit. I feel honored to walk among them, as would you. Sadly, the book slights these wonderful, hardworking people, who are the backbone of any success MCPS has achieved. The book has nary a mention of these professionals.

Instead, Carver unleashed a flurry of emails and phone calls that form the backbone of the book. Take page 114, paragraph 2, where the book quotes “one African American administrator” and you will find no source attributed. Previously, on page 109, you will be treated to a claim that “[t]here was powerful evidence that gap closing strategies not only existed, but worked in red zone schools.” Follow the reference to the quote (Chapter 5, reference 13) and you will find the following “Donna Hollingshead, email message to author, November 11, 2008.” Ms. Hollingshead works for Dr. Frieda Lacey, Deputy Superintendent.

Stay on that page of references (page 173), and look at reference 10, which states “Anonymous superintendent’s email to author, November 11, 2008.” Reference 8, states “Jody Leleck, email message to author, November 18, 2008.” Jody Leleck, is the Associate Superintendent, Office of Curriculum and Instructional Programs.

At the top of the page (173), you will find reference 2, associated with chapter 5: “Stacey, Childress, “Wireless Generation,” Case 9-307-049 (Boston: Harvard Business School, 2008), 6.” Of course, the Wireless Generation website, confirms Ms. Childress is on their Board (the company made the announcement on October 1, 2008)

Clearly, Harvard didn’t feel that a book purportedly assessing a school system should be based on an analysis of data, and the “comparative data of competitors and comparable benchmarks of other organizations.” That last pearl of wisdom comes from the 2006 Baldrige assessment of MCPS.

The Baldrige Education Criteria for Performance Excellence, the book asserts, was used for “district self-assessment” (page 95). Little mention is made of the January 22, 2007, memorandum to the BOE that contained the 2006 Feedback Report from the Baldrige examiners.

The Baldrige report asserts what I have argued all along. To quote but a few highlights:

• “Although comparative data of competitors and comparable benchmarks of other organizations is available from several sources (other state school districts, APQC, private industry data), for some measures, projected performance is rarely used to compare organizational performance with these sources or with other key benchmarks. There is also not a systematic approach to close gaps in performance compared to benchmarks. Without this analysis of data, it may be more difficult for MCPS to plan for and address key challenges.”

• “Although the cost-per-pupil is the highest in the state and MCPS provided segmented results that demonstrated greater revenue per pupil than state and national averages, there are no measures, levels, or trends that reflect how effectively the additional resources are used or what results differentiate MCPS from less wealthy districts. For example, the cost-per-pupil is the highest in the state, but information on how the students and stakeholders benefit from this greater investment in the district is not provided.”

Turnover demonstrates variable-to-less-than-favorable trends for Total Administrators, Principals, Assistant Principals, Support Student Specialists, teachers, Support Services, Para Educators between 2002-2005".

Harvard’s piece of scholarship fails to live up to the Baldrige standards of excellence the authors seek to embrace.

The book is not without nuggets of information that will make you sit up and take notice. There was that story (Page 90, paragraph 2) about negotiations with Lockheed for a video game for teachers to deal with “high-risk professional tasks” such as teaching our children ALGEBRA. On page 102, the authors allege that “the target for Kindergarten reading in 2008 “text level four” which had been painstakingly negotiated with MCEA and MCAASP.” I just can’t bring myself to say what I truly feel.

The authors fall prey to their lack of research with the claim “With the goal of refining and creating strategies to close the achievement gap, the district decided to look at whether or not the students’ MAP-R scores would help principals and teachers identify students at risk of not performing well on state assessments.” According to the book, the district then had one of Oprah’s “Aha! Moments,” when it discovered that MAP-R could indeed predict MSA performance. I suppose it would have been less dramatic, and cost less to go over to the MAP-R site (to the NWEA scale alignment studies page) and download the Maryland Alignment report.

Jody Leleck, in the previous capacity as the principal of Broad Acres ES, is credited with a remarkable turnaround of the school, with a “remarkable performance gain—proficiency levels in grade 3 increasing from 13 percent to 75 percent in reading and from 5 percent to 67 percent in mathematics” (page 113, paragraph 3). The Broad Acres grade-three MSA performance figures, freely available to the public, speak for themselves.

The 2006 Baldrige report stated “MCPS does not currently have measures for the effectiveness of key learning-centered processes, such as curriculum, instruction, and assessment. The development and use of measures for the determination of key learning-centered processes may enable MCPS to achieve better performance, not only providing better educational value for the students, but also better operational performance from the perspective of MCPS's stakeholders.” Did Harvard independently determine if progress had been made under Leleck’s leadership of the Office of Curriculum and Instructional Programs? The book is dismally silent.

Chapter 6, includes a disclaimer (page 173, reference 1) that it “draws heavily on two cases written by Karen Mapp, David Thomas, and Tonika Cheek Clayton … ,” i.e., the “case studies” (see here and here) that are “… not intended to serve as endorsements, sources of primary data, or illustrations of effective or ineffective management.” The second reference in that chapter is another set of notes for class discussion (see here).

Scant attention is paid to the reality that the MCPS graduation rates had fallen to a new low. An extremely rudimentary analysis by this author predicted the fall, and one wonders why Harvard, apparently privy to the MCPS data, failed to detect this trend.

One of the coauthors, Denis Doyle, states on his blog: “Making the point that even inspired leaders are human -- which is to say not error-free -- the story of Montgomery CO is not without its mistakes. The one I would highlight was the decision to develop IT infrastructure in-house. … Put bluntly, Montgomery CO has as much business developing its own IT infrastructure as it would building its own bus fleet. … Am I a party at interest? In as sense, but for a defensible reason. I co-founded an education IT firm precisely because it makes no sense for the nation’s 15,000 school districts to design and build their own IT; certainly no more sense than 50 sets of math and English standards rather than one set of national standards. ” Mr. Doyle highlights a fatal flaw of the book when he pinpoints an error related to his field of expertise. The book sorely needed the contribution of those capable of analyzing data and reaching defensible conclusions.

Meanwhile, I am left with a plethora of questions. Do the reading standards of the software that Ms. Childress’ company hawks correlate to meaningful national standards? Did the authors measure progress over the years against established national norms? Did the authors bother to check if the standards of instruction in any subject, not just math and English,correlate to meaningful standards? Did they note the woeful lack of instruction on the art of WRITING?

Then, there is gifted and talented education … More about that later.

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