Smartest kids: Ignoring outcry, Massachusetts leaders chose excellence

Editor’s note: This is the final installment of Bridge’s series, “The smartest kids in the nation,” chronicling how four high-performing or fast-improving states are making gains in education while Michigan remains muddled in mediocrity. We previously looked at the improving performance of students in Tennessee, Minnesota and Florida. Today we visit Massachusetts.

BOSTON‒In the spring of 1998, Massachusetts schoolchildren sat for a tough new test carrying the highest of stakes. Business leaders, educators and politicians ‒ Democrats and Republicans ‒ declared that the state’s economic future was riding on students’ performance.

And they failed miserably.

Three out of four 10th graders couldn’t pass math and six of 10 failed the English Language Arts section of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam.

The backlash was immediate: The test was too hard. It demanded too much of immature minds. It robbed communities of local control. It was a plot to humiliate teachers’ unions. It would leave students of color behind.

What Massachusetts leaders did in response to this backlash would alter the state’s education legacy. These leaders not only kept the test, but made its passage a requirement for graduation.

Today, few would dispute that it has paid off.

Last year, 80 percent of 10th-graders passed the math and 91 percent passed the English Language Arts exam on their first try.

Massachusetts’ dominance in the classroom becomes more pronounced when its students are compared with their peers across the country on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Massachusetts has led the nation in all but one NAEP reading and math exam given since 2005.

Consider this: If Massachusetts were a country, it’s 8th graders would have placed second in the world the 2011 TIMSS science test, and fifth in math among 63 countries. Bay State reformers have begun boasting that they are not only building the smartest kids in America, but in the world.

Which is why Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy nonprofit, urged Michigan to learn from Massachusetts when she spoke at the 2014 Mackinac Policy Conference in June.

Michigan students now score among the bottom tier of states nationally on the NAEP, making incremental gains while other states have improved dramatically. Last year, the average Michigan eighth-grader scored lower on the national math test than the average poor eighth-grader in Massachusetts.

Haycock noted that in the middle 1990s, Massachusetts students were “right in the middle of the pack” on national tests, just slightly better than Michigan. “But they got serious about it and now look at the difference. Year after year after year on the national tests, their kids lead the country.

“When people say, ‘No, our kids are too poor’ and, ‘We can’t do this,’ (Michigan leaders should) point to these successes and press for similar results.”

A 2014 study by Royal Oak-based Education Trust-Midwest, “Stalled to Soaring: Michigan’s path to educational recovery,” shows Michigan ranked in the bottom five states for student growth in fourth-grade reading and math over the last decade and was one of only six states where progress slowed, while other states are leapfrogging ahead.

In this series, Bridge visited four diverse states that are high-achieving or fast-improving to study their methods and see if they might make sense for Michigan: Tennessee and Florida where state policies have led to stunning growth; and Massachusetts and Minnesota, long acclaimed for their high-achieving students.

Staying the course

The architects of the Massachusetts system point to a nearly two-decade commitment to a high school exit exam based on a rigorous curriculum. But that is only one factor in its success. Massachusetts uses a different school funding formula than Michigan, has insisted on quality standards for its charter schools, while improving teacher preparation and preschool programs.

If two decades of reform have yielded a lesson, it is this: When kids get what they need to learn, they learn.

This is what Massachusetts did:

  • Made its school more academically challenging by designing a rigorous, statewide curriculum and a single exam that every student must pass to graduate from high school. Despite already high standards, Massachusetts became one of the first states to adopt the Common Core State Standards in 2009.
  • Changed the state’s school funding tax system to invest more in schools in low-income areas. The formula takes into account cost-of-living variances and a community’s ability to fund schools.
  • Developed a statewide annual teacher and administrator evaluation process; made teacher certification more difficult, and moved to hold colleges with teacher preparation programs more accountable for their graduates’ performance in the classroom.
  • Struck what was called a “grand bargain” (link to charter school sidebar) that allowed charter schools in the state, but required them to work under strict guidelines to ensure high quality.
    Forged a long-term commitment to academic rigor among politicians, schools and the business community

The state’s commitment to a rigorous education for all is on display at two Boston schools filled with students from low-income neighborhoods.

In September, Bridge visited Match Charter High and Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School to learn why their students are scoring higher or improving faster than many students from affluent suburban communities. The answer, it seems, lays in the school’s determination to keeping pushing its ambitions higher.

“It’s an easy trap to fall into to say ‘Orchard Gardens is successful, we did it. We’ve produced a lot of growth,’ said Megan Webb, its 34-year-old, Harvard-educated principal. “Now we have to do the really, really hard work of pushing uphill from a higher plane.”

A deer in headlights

In fairness, Massachusetts was better positioned to improve its academic standing than most states. It has, for instance, a more educated population, leading the nation in the percentage of adults with an associate degree or higher - 50.5 percent, compared with a national rate of 39 percent and 37.4 percent in Michigan. And Massachusetts enjoys the nation’s third highest average personal income of $56,923, compared with $39,215 in Michigan, which is 35th.

But until the state began the hard work of reforming its education system, Massachusetts’ K-12 schools didn’t reflect those advantages. The state used to be, as Kati Haycock put it, middling ‒ not much different from Michigan in student achievement and education spending.

In 1992, Michigan’s eighth graders scored at the national average scale score of 267 in math on the NAEP, with 19 percent considered proficient. In Massachusetts that year, eighth graders scored 273 on math, with 23 percent meeting proficiency standards.

That’s as close as Michigan would come.

Dissatisfied with the scores, Massachusetts business leaders concluded that its students weren’t scoring well enough for the state to be globally competitive down the road. Nobody wants their company located in a state where kids aren’t trained to be thinkers.

It was a deer-in-headlights moment, said Paul Reville, one of the Founding Fathers of the Massachusetts school reform. Massachusetts passed the Education Reform Act of 1993 (MERA), which ramped up the requirements for what students were expected to learn, called for more education funding and legalized charter schools. Tough, statewide standards were created in English language arts, foreign languages, health, mathematics, history/social science, and science, technology and engineering.

State education leaders sought input from more than 50,000 residents in developing the standards, known as the Massachusetts Common Core of Learning, which outlines what all students are expected to know and be able to do by the time they graduate from high school.

Reville, a former Massachusetts secretary of education, said the real difference-maker was the creation of a high school exit exam.

“The first couple of years it didn’t count (towards graduation), or we would’ve been failing huge numbers of kids,” said Reville, now a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Sure enough, when it counted, magically the scores jumped, so obviously it was an effort factor.”

At first, failure

The first MCAS test in math and English was given to students in fourth, eighth and 10th grades in 1998. Much like the Common Core standards that are being implemented across Michigan and many other states today, the Massachusetts test was based on the tougher standards and placed a greater emphasis on critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

Last year, more than a half-million Massachusetts public school students in grades 3–10 took the tests in English Language Arts, math, science, and technology/engineering, state education officials reported.

“(T)he MCAS is doing what it is supposed to be doing. It is testing students on what they need to know and the skills they should have in order to function in the world after they graduate from high school,” concluded a 2005 study by the University of Massachusetts Center for Educational Assessment and Measured Progress.

In 2009, state education leaders sought to raise standards even more when Massachusetts was one of the first states to sign onto the Common Core State Standards Initiative, standards that have drawn blowback in some states, including Michigan, for what critics contend is an effort to weaken local control over education. All Massachusetts schools implemented Common Core by 2011.

So what’s happened to the six-point gap that separated Michigan and Massachusetts in eighth-grade math in 1992? It has widened fivefold.

In 2013, Massachusetts eighth graders had an average scale score of 313 on the math NAEP test, while their Michigan peers stood at 280, 33 scale points behind. Michigan’s average eighth grader had a math scale score one point lower than Massachusetts’ average poor eighth grader.

While Massachusetts is leaving most every state behind, state leaders say it’s not yet time to cue the parade. There are still wide achievement gaps between poor and higher income students, and between students of color and white students, according to the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, co-founded by Reville.

By the third grade, poor children in Massachusetts, as elsewhere, are already far behind. Last year, 57 percent of all students passed Massachusetts’ third-grade English test, while 35 percent of low-income students passed; in math, 55 percent of all third-graders passed, compared with 32 percent of poor students.

Still, student populations that typically struggle are outperforming their demographic peers in Michigan and across the nation.

All means all

Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School is a fairly new building, about 11 years old, and surrounded by community centers, a public park, and housing projects just up the street from a hospital complex. The day before school started in September, the sidewalk across the street was pocked with ripped lottery tickets, tiny liquor bottles and pages from a porn magazine.

Orchard Gardens used to be one of the worst schools in Massachusetts. It was known among teachers as a career killer - the kind of poor school with poor test scores that would end any educator’s chance to move up and on. About 73 percent of the children are from low-income homes. More than half of the 860 students are bilingual, many from families that immigrated from Cape Verde, a chain of islands off the coast of Africa.

Today, Orchard Gardens is held up as a star performer; an example of the state reformers’ mantra of “all means all” – that is, that all students, no matter their circumstances, can learn at high levels.

How high?

Orchard Gardens students have been invited to the White House. Three times. Their scores are still below the state average but the trajectory of their growth shows learning is taking place at record speed. The school’s improvement rate was in the top 2 percent in the state in 2012.

The school’s leaders cite the autonomy they’ve been given by the district to make changes, along with partnerships that have given the school resources that it could not have provided to teachers and students on its own. Orchard Gardens was designated as a turnaround school in 2010, which meant it had three years to improve or face a state takeover. To aid the turnaround, the school was given a share of the $250 million in Race to the Top grants the state won from the federal government.

Meanwhile, Boston Public Schools made Orchard Gardens a pilot school, giving its leaders more authority over its budget and hiring. The principal at the time fired about 80 percent of the teachers, even though turnaround status only required removing 50 percent. Security officers were let go to make room for arts teachers. The school day was extended by an hour, and after-school programs kept some students there until 5:15 p.m.

An emphasis was placed on improved reading skills for younger students. Every teacher through the second grade has a trained assistant to run small reading groups. The help comes from one of a dozen community organizations that also help provide after-school tutoring.

First-grade teacher Darlene White-Dottin, whose class recited Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech for President Obama, was recruited to Orchard Gardens after the mass firing. She said focused reform gave the school the autonomy it needed to hire the right staff.

“Here we have resources and input,” the 30-year teaching veteran said. “When I started teaching, it wasn’t like that.”

More poverty, more money

In 1969-70, Massachusetts and Michigan spent the same amount of money on education - about $4,547 per student. By 2013-14, Massachusetts spent $13.9 billion on schools compared with $11.5 billion in Michigan – that’s $2.4 billion more even though Massachusetts has 600,000 fewer students.

“The core of reforming the financial system was recognizing if you rely on low-income communities’ resources alone to fund schools in those communities and wealthy districts to fund their schools you will always have lower-funded schools in low-income districts. In the long term, that was a recipe for disaster,” said Noah Berger, of the Massachusetts Center for Budget and Policy, an independent nonprofit that provides nonpartisan research and analysis of state budget and tax policies.

“A strong economy needs well-educated workers and you need to make sure all of your people have a chance.”

The decision to spend more money in poor communities was spurred largely through the courts. Students from property-poor districts won big in a 1993 case in which students argued that the state wasn’t meeting its constitutional duty to adequately educate students in poor neighborhoods. Within days, the a Democratic legislature passed the Massachusetts Education Reform Act, a measure signed by Republican Gov. William Weld. The act included a complex formula to cure funding inequities, phased in over seven years.

The state set a minimum funding threshold for each school district, based on such factors as teacher salaries, and the tax base and cost of living in each community. The formula allows high-need districts to receive extra support for services to poor, bilingual and special education students.

Massachusetts has also provided more state funding for preschool programs. Between 1996 and 1999, Massachusetts increased spending on early childhood education by 247 percent, according to a study by University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Education.

Bye, partisanship

Education reform in Massachusetts was never an entirely altruistic effort. It gained momentum with powerful institutions in the state because it was economically the right thing to do. In a global economy, knowledge is power.

The business community concluded that Massachusetts’ place in that economy depended on improving student performance, similar to the way Japan and Poland responded after the devastation of World War II.

The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education led the charge for reform in 1993 with its report, Every Child A Winner! The group, representing the largest statewide business organizations, was so integral to reform it was appointed to state committees on teacher evaluations, curriculum and budget review.

“We did a poll with two other groups and found 69 percent of employers were having trouble filling jobs due to a skills gap,” said Linda Noonan, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. “We can’t have a disconnect between what the business community requires and what kids can do.”

In a heavily Democratic state, one Republican governor after the next, including Michigan-born Mitt Romney, followed the business group’s lead.

As a result of the collaboration among business, politicians and education leaders, Massachusetts has become the darling of American school reform.

Whether Michigan could follow Massachusetts’ lead depends on whether Michigan’s fractious Legislature can hash out a plan and stick to it, according to Reville.

“What worries me about what I read is going on in Michigan is that (education reform) strategies have become tools of political battle rather than instruments for improvement,” Reville said.

Education reform does not have to be a Kumbaya, let’s-all-get-along affair. Ultimately, it’s all about doing what’s necessary to boost the state’s economic future, money, he said.

“Why else are people going to come to Michigan? They’re going to come because you have people who can do the jobs of the future. School systems are the main instrument for getting that accomplished.”

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Thu, 10/09/2014 - 7:55am
"As a result of the collaboration among business, politicians and education leaders, Massachusetts has become the darling of American school reform." It won't work here, Michigan is too politically polarized over the issue of education and the result of that can be seen in dueling political commercials about whether a candidate cut funding for schools or not. Pathetic.
Thu, 10/09/2014 - 10:04am
Unfortunately, I believe you are right. If most of the noise we’re hearing from the political ads, abortion, creationism and wolf hunts will trump roads and education.
Thu, 10/09/2014 - 9:45am
Hmmm: 'In 1969-70, Massachusetts and Michigan spent the same amount of money on education – about $4,547 per student. By 2013-14, Massachusetts spent $13.9 billion on schools compared with $11.5 billion in Michigan – that’s $2.4 billion more even though Massachusetts has 600,000 fewer students.' Michigan's 'legislators' are too busy giving businesses tax breaks and cuts. I was just in Massachusetts and the smooth roads and road work going on was in stark contrast to Michigan. 'We' just decided that roads and schools just weren't that important... Vote out our legislature - they failed and shouldn't be allowed to 'graduate' to another term.
Thu, 10/09/2014 - 10:04am
I agree, Rick. Our legislators seem to think that the status quo is acceptable or impossible to change. Plus, they spend so much time in political point-scoring that they fail to work on the actual issues that are in front of us. A different mindset is required.
Ken McFarlane
Thu, 10/09/2014 - 10:42am
“What worries me about what I read is going on in Michigan is that (education reform) strategies have become tools of political battle rather than instruments for improvement,” Reville said. “The core of reforming the financial system was recognizing if you rely on low-income communities’ resources alone to fund schools in those communities and wealthy districts to fund their schools you will always have lower-funded schools in low-income districts. In the long term, that was a recipe for disaster,” said Noah Berger, of the Massachusetts Center for Budget and Policy, an independent nonprofit that provides nonpartisan research and analysis of state budget and tax policies.
Ken McFarlane
Thu, 10/09/2014 - 10:51am
Let's see: 1) more education funding, 2) higher teacher salaries, 3) fewer charter schools with tighter controls, 4) no union busting, 5) a Democratic legislature and moderate (by today's standard) Republican governors. With the Republicans we have running things in Lansing, it's time to compare us to the bottom of the barrel states that happen to be solidly Red states.
Bob Maxfield
Thu, 10/09/2014 - 10:56am
Bravo to The Bridge for this important series. Massachusetts has built on two reform elements sadly lacking in Michigan. The first is adherence to a consistent set of policy standard. While educators may disagree with parts of this agenda, the can count on consistency. Michigan educators are confronted with a changing agenda full of "quick fix" ideas. Second, the Bay State has recognized that it costs more to educate children in low-income districts and has responded accordingly.
John Porter
Thu, 10/09/2014 - 10:58am
To those who say it can't be done in Michigan, I say that if you can't even dream it, you sure as hell can't do it. This is a national security issue. If foreign countries invaded us we would unite fairly quickly I think. We are being rolled over economically and too many people say we can't do anything because of our political system. Phooey. We have heard a lot of complaints about standardized testing. I wrote this article for a web site about living in China, but it might be a wake up call for teachers and students in Michigan. Note that if testing drives performance, we see one reason China is coming up fast. CORRECTION: Not just teachers and students -- everybody needs to wake up and smell the coffee.
Thu, 10/09/2014 - 11:10am
Dreaming is one thing dealing with the reality of the political polarization in Michigan is another, sure I would love to see the situation turn around but with the current political climate in Michigan I don't think it is possible.
Thu, 10/09/2014 - 6:13pm
***, What and how much do you want children to learn? I believe that there is too much reliance on conventional 'wisdom' such as the politics of education that we have built barriers to thinking beyond convention and focusing on results. If we ignore politics for the momonent and decided on what results we want then discussed what is preventing those results and why, I believe the public unencomber by convention would be able to develop approaches to learning that would be even more effective than what has been reported. If we (Bridge readers) had a conversation about education and developed ideas/approaches there just might be a 'charter school' interested in having success that would be consider trying some of the ideas/approaches. We already know children rise to expectations so I would offer set higher expectations. I think a lack of a safe/secure study environment is a barrier to learning, what barriers do you think kids have to overcome?
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Sat, 10/18/2014 - 10:10am
John Porter October 9, 2014 at 10:58 am I read your article is was great. How would one compare their test with our ACT or SAT? Leon
Chastity Pratt ...
Thu, 10/09/2014 - 11:49am
Hmmm. Interesting that you all are discussing the political climate moreso than the strategies at play in Massachusetts. John Porter, your "Phooey" comment is most poignant. When will the debate/discussion in Michigan move from partisan talking points to strategies to make education more rigorous so that our economy grows? Michigan and Massachusetts used to be neck and neck on national test. In 1993, both states adopted reform: Massachusetts made several changes, as the story notes. Michigan allowed charters and resliced the school funding pie (Proposal A). Today, Michigan's average 8th grader scores lower than Massachusetts POOR 8th graders in math. Let that sink in.....
Thu, 10/09/2014 - 2:37pm
The political climate is tied in to the stategy in Michigan and it isn't working, it is basically a "blame game and punishment system". If you can't get all the players on the same page it is doomed to failure.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Sat, 10/18/2014 - 10:07am
Chastity Pratt Dawsey October 9, 2014 at 11:49 am When were they neck and neck? The 4th grade reading data I saw for Mass 1992 was 10 points above Michigan. Same with 2003 data. No change resulting from the 1993 law and changes for decade. Leon
Thu, 10/09/2014 - 12:19pm
As an educator...I have always found that students come up to the challenges presented to them. Tying graduation from high school to the common test is something that motivates everyone concerned. Tough standards are key to success...on every level. Standards from teacher training to challenging work for students must be higher in Michigan. Get rid of bad teachers or low standard teachers and push high standards as the norm is the way to go. I am sometimes appalled at the low standards I see for children's work. Everyone can do this. Emphasis on education is a must.
Thu, 10/09/2014 - 1:16pm
Political debates often start with misperceptions based on apparent "data" - Nearly all of the graphs in this multi-part series have had a "quirk" that is obvious to anyone who has ever tracked an age cohorth through a series of population pyramids. It's especially obvious in the Massachusetts reading scores. The 4th-grade scores show a dramatic jump from 2003 to 2007. Those 2003 students would be in 8th grade in 2007, and the 2007 4th-graders would be in 8th grade in 2011, BUT THERE IS NO INCREASE in 8th grades scortes between 2007 and 2011. In other words, the big jump in 4th-grade scores did not persist into 8th grade. Check the other state comparisons. Reading in 1st grade is about recognizing and decoding letters. Reading in 4th grade is about understanding sentences. Reading in 8th grade is about interpreting meaning of paragraphs, which depends heavily on breadth of vocabulary and prior understanding of concepts. If you focus intensely on improving letter- and word-skills, and reduce time spent on laying solid foundation for conceptual understanding in science, geography, history, do not be surprised if early gains do not persist.
Thu, 10/09/2014 - 9:40pm
Great article. What Massachusetts is doing is only one of several things that we are missing in Michigan to educate our students and close the achievement gap for students of color.
Fri, 10/10/2014 - 11:36am
What's truly sad about this is that Michigan used to rank at or near the top. As our results declined, the focus was, and continues to be, about control vs. achievement. The other important argument has been about competition and charter schools, and the side supporting them completely ignores the evidence available. Unfortunately, until politicians decide to quit playing football with our kids' futures, I don't see any of this changing.
Fri, 10/10/2014 - 12:01pm
Part of the problem may be simply going back to 1992: we were in the second half of the Engler's first term. The politics of education were being forged then with an aggressive stance towards teachers, coupled with broad reforms in funding and school choice. Michigan made a bet then that our future lay with a flourishing diversity of educational options. And at the time, Michigan's industry still flourished. That's another part of the puzzle; we once had the means. Today? The combativeness that was John Engler continues, in particular the hostility to teacher unions. It's the hostility that hobbles. Tactically, it makes sense, since such hostility ensures elections. However this has also prevented the establishment of stakeholder partnerships within communities necessary for reform. And significantly, we lack the means (this too, one of the peculiar Engler era legacies where pension money was looted and the increasing obligations cast forward on school districts). In short, the Massachusetts success taunts for what could have been, when we had a choice and we placed our bet. Any change in that bet will begin with a longer term perspective, one that present term limits effectively sabotages.
Sat, 10/11/2014 - 10:17am
Does MA have term limits? If not, then comparisons are meaningless. In MI we allow all institutional memory to disappear and turn total control over the special interest groups and un-elected staff. MI government is a stepping stone to corporate jobs after term limits. The big money donors run this state...just ask any Republican who did not think RTW was a good idea...ring, ring..."Do you want to be destroyed in the primaries next year?" Non-partisan redistricting and public campaign financing would deliver better outcomes for all Michiganders, students and parents alike. Drive on the roads lately? If one party controls ALL the levers of power and cannot solve a problem that everyone agrees on...Why is that? Pehaps the people who really control the state don't see it as a problem.
Sun, 10/12/2014 - 2:11am
David, I have to disagree, it isn't institutional memory if you have to keep elected official on the job to remember what it. I believe an official should be elected on how well they fulfill the role they are elected to not simply to provide a memory for other officials. To create insittutional memory there has to be a method to capture and retain what is critical. An example would be to have the purpose (results to be achieved) be included in every law then all will be able to know why the law was written and not have to rely on someone who may or may not remember.
Bill Fullmer
Sat, 10/11/2014 - 3:38pm
For me the elephant in the room is a platform of NO NEW TAXES and SMALLER GOV'T. You don't implement progressive programs with such a platform, and you get to watch past successes fail. Minn. and Mass. each set a policy of funding early childhood education, and giving poor neighborhoods more money for their schools. And yes, high standards for students and teachers. It's not rocket science.
Dennis Fitzpatrick
Sun, 10/12/2014 - 8:04am
Looking at the numbers on teachers pay and spending per pupil, one might conclude that our lower numbers are significant contributors to our performance gap. However, recognizing the differences in income either on a per capita or household basis, we are actually doing quite well. Using insights from the Bridge articles on education, it is possible to identify three, maybe four, ideas that can address our unacceptable performance. Business leaders, teachers, legislators and, most importantly, the public will need to focus on them with the tenacity of a pit bull.
Sun, 10/12/2014 - 2:47pm
Dennis, I am curious, why you left out the kids/students from ideas that could help change the current performance in learning? You are not the exception for that I rarely if ever see or hear anyone considering who the students role are in their learning. It seems like the kids are not a consideration, a factor, a possible contributor to their learning. I wonder why, noone has ever explained that to me. Would you help me by sharing why you didn't consider the kids in your three or four ideas?
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Mon, 10/13/2014 - 10:17pm
Duane October 12, 2014 at 2:47 pm I think you make a good point about the kids. But, I don't think Dennis actually said what his insights were or what insights he thought the bridge articles may have suddenly brought to our collective understanding. By far the easiest way for legislatures to increase the performance of teachers is to include words to that effect in all the contracts they sign. Words like, 'I have the knowledge and skills to teach all the students I am assigned to grade level. If they are not at grade level by the end of my school year I will personally hire a tutor to bring them to grade level per the Michigan Constitution before the beginning of the next school year.' By far the easiest way for legislatures to increase the performance of students is to require each one to learn to use a dictionary well and to learn to define all the words they encounter in their studies. By far the easiest way for businesses to increase the performance of new-hires is to require each one to physically demonstrate their competence. I would first have them demonstrate a few of the words that are used in the work they will be doing. If the candidate can not demonstrate what is asked, the interview ends. When the candidate can demonstrate the words used in that work, then they must demonstrate how they can do the work. Again, select simple tasks and have the person actually do the task. If they can do the work, hire them. If they can not, do not hire them. Leon
Wed, 10/15/2014 - 12:09am
Leon, Leon, It seems that you seem more reactive than proactive. I would lean toward providing a tutors (volunteers with diverse backgrounds rather then formally trained teachers) for subgroups of the class when they start the school years. As the kids progress the tutors will be there to address early issues (bad start is harder to overcome than a good start is to screwup). The teachers and the tutors can adjust the tutors' focuses and energies as the year progresses rather then wait until a student performs below a set minimum. The student performances will never be improve in Lansing, it will happen in the schools, homes, and possibly libraries. The students will improve their academic success and learning not the people who make their livings in Lansing with the poltical 'dance' of education. There are three factors necessary in determining the an employees performance, their attitude, their fit into the employer's workplace culture, and the personal desire to succeed. Technical capacity/competence will vary by job roles/responsibilities. Technical competency at the time of hire is best verified by an outside organization (such as a former employer, school, or validdated testing). I doubt the test you suggest would have been effective for you at each place you have worked. There are three aspects to working; work ethic (showing up on time, respecting all others in the work environment. proper dress and language, and commitment to quality results) and none of those are easily determine until they have been on the job for awhile. If they don't demostrate learning success, don't have a desire for learning and responsibility, don;t hire them.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Wed, 10/15/2014 - 4:22pm
Duane October 15, 2014 at 12:09 am It is nice to hear from you again. 'It seems that you seem more reactive than proactive.' I did write something for Bridge that is more proactive. My commentary on 'Why Johnny can't work.' has not been approved for publication.Zeman is reading the second part now. My three points here 'seeming more reactive' are not from any Bridge article, they are in fact from industry and not the Bridge community, per se. I see you may have had a telephone interview with Bridge, how did that go? You said, 'I would lean toward providing a tutors (volunteers with diverse backgrounds rather then formally trained teachers) for subgroups of the class when they start the school years.' This is the way it was done last fall with the Robotics Class at a local High School. But not at the beginning of the school year. There were at least 3 of us tutoring the Robotics students, each in our own ways. The teacher elevated the value of the upcoming competitions over the value our tutoring. I don't think public school teachers have much of a grasp of what is of value in industry or the World of Work. Thus they will casually mis-assign importance's. I remember back in Maryland, when I was at the Pax River Navel Air Station. The CEO of Mobil Oil volunteered three of his top executives to help solve Maryland's Education problems. Maryland refused on the basis that each of the executives would be required to complete a year of teacher indoctrination before they could be expected to understand the issues facing the teaching community. They were saying in other words, the expertise of industry, is secondary to their indoctrination methods. 'The student performances will never be improved in Lansing,' Lansing requires student participation till age 18. Lansing holds about $12,000 per year funding over the heads of students and parents and local schools. This funding has strings attached. Don't you feel Lansing does control the quality of education for the most part? If no one teaches children to read, how many will do it on their own? If a child is taught to study and use a dictionary, he can then learn to read on his own. I have seen it. You said, 'it will happen in the schools, homes, and possibly libraries.' If no one teaches a parent to study and use a dictionary effectively, how many will do it on their own? If someone know howe, they will learn and teach their children. I have seen this. Now, if teachers are taught to teach children to learn effectively, they will do this. I have seen this too. But this is rare, in my opinion. If you see a teacher all fanatically effective and pro-active, they probably did not learn that in Teachers College, they are working it out as they feel is best. But for the most part, I have seen Lansing continue forward without seeming to know these things. I have seen teachers continue forward, seemingly in despair, because they feel ineffective. (The Robotics teacher I worked with had an Algebra II class where no one was above 15 on their ACT test. He had no idea how to bring these kids up to competence in Algebra II, apparently. He ducked away from the class at his first chance.) They need to learn how to be more effective, and the very first thing to know might be... that they do not know how to do this. Otherwise, why are so many in despair about it, and not seeking workable methods that can be used to attain competence? 'There are three factors necessary in determining an employees performance; their attitude, their fit into the employer’s workplace culture, and the personal desire to succeed.' Did you evaluate my suggestion against your experience, or just restate your experience? You sound like you would leave competency at the time of hire, to others only. Well, I feel that is not so effective, because that would be Human Resources wouldn't it? 'I doubt the test you suggest would have been effective for you at each place you have worked.' I don't think you understand my test yet. I think that is just what is done, not at the door, but over a much greater time. I simply condensed it down to something that could be done at the door. I was new to one company that designed engine mounts for large turbo-prop aircraft. I asked the one person that should know, should be competent with that knowledge, if you know the horsepower and the rpm, how do find the torque? He said, if he knew that he would be an Engineer instead of the Sales Manger. Well, when I did work it out, it was just the definition of the word, 'horsepower'. So if you ask, if you know how to ask, a new-hire the definition of key concepts they would be expected to have down cold if they were competent, you can tell if they are competent. Now I just worked it out. But then I knew how to work it, and that it did need to be known. Our Sales Manager did not. He and I got into a tough spot with a very tough customer, Fokker Aircraft, at their plant in Schipol, Neartherlands. He turned the floor over to me. We won that contract, and another a year later. If America, or Michigan, is going to be internationally competitive we need to have students, and teachers, and new-hires, that are more competent. My suggestion is towards that end, not towards maintaining the status quo. You said, 'If they don’t demonstrate learning success, don’t have a desire for learning and responsibility, don't hire them.' Duane, I submit that Michigan schools do not teach these things.
Thu, 10/16/2014 - 1:48am
Leon, It has been awhile, I usually hesitate to inject my thoughts into others conversations so haven't take the opportunity to comment. I did have a conversation, it seem fine but nothing has come from it. Most likely it was what I proposed that didn't work. I hope to see your articles published, it will be interesting how your approach is recieved and what new ideas and examples you include. I am not suprised by your experience with a teacher's perspective on what industry. Years ago I was part of an annual seminar (in Missouri) that help teachers better understand how the chemical industry and government worked on such issues as the envrionment. We help teachers see the industry differently, help them with classroom projects, provided them with contacts for future issues. I came to appreciate their perspective and why they had it. It is like most of us, we have minimal contact outside of our work/professional environment and opens us up for misperceptions, espcially when we get much of our information about from the media. It was always interesting when we would take them (and others especially OSHA) through a plant and explain how, who, and what was necessary for the processes to be operated safely. The work you did with the students is valuable, but even more value would be provide if you could do that same work with the teachers. As for the upcoming competitions, they are much more visible and measurable so like most people teachers gravitate to competitions. I wish the teachers would think about why they focus on the competitions and apply that reasoning in the classroom. I must admit that I see Lansing controling the quality of learning by the barriers they create. It seems to me that if the student has the right attitude that they will succeed even if they are not taught how to read well or effectively. Consider some of the successful people that have dylexia. Bacic skills training can make it much easier for so many more to learn, but even without being taught there will be those who succeed. AS for how important the money is, in relative terms how much what available for you education. How much was spent on technology, how much was spent on building, on adminstration and other non classroom support, Mine was very basic, some succeeded, some failed, and many gain what was necessary. Teachers can be the means to success for so many more today, but it still comes back to the students' attitudes. If they want to learn they will succeed, if the don't want to learn they will fail, I think we need to better understand how the attitudes are develop and how we can influence them. Your example of the Algerbra teacher seem to show and lack of appreciation of how valuable algerbra is and how to convay that to the students. Once they see the value they will have an interest in learning and they will succeed. My concern is that the schools haven't learned was industry has, each employee needs to understand their worth and regularly needs to be trained on how to achieved and deliver that worth. Did you ever have doubts about you value to your employer? Did you ever hesitate to take the initiative to find different ways to deliver value? I have found competency is something that is proven in practice (they work it out) not in testing, so I resist the idea of having some entry testing. Competrncy would depend on the nature of the job. In your case the school provide sufficeint validation of technical competency so why would the employer test you? I feel that what is taught is another barrier created in Lansing and their lack of understanding of what it takes to survive in a global marketplace.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Thu, 10/16/2014 - 8:01pm
Duane October 16, 2014 at 1:48 am 'The work you did with the students is valuable, but even more value would be to provide, if you could, to do that same work with the teachers.' Do you have any ideas how one might arrange that? 'I wish the teachers would think about why they focus on the competitions and apply that reasoning in the classroom.' I don't agree with your reason for their concentrating on competitions. I think it was the easiest thing to do. Let me give an example: Years ago I was experimenting with what is called 'second wind' on myself. At a Regional's Track Meet in High School, I was nearly in last place and got tripped up and nearly fell down on the last lap of four laps for a mile run. I got this huge powerful sensation, like an adrenaline rush and just took off sprinting, faster than I ever had. I began to pass people and ran passed everyone except the leader. I came in .04 seconds behind him, and I won Second Place in our Regional's and qualified for the State Finals in Track. This phenomenon intrigued me so when I had some time as and adult I began to run and work out what this was all about. I understand it has to do with being in excellent communication with one's environment. So I worked it out and was able to run 3 miles and still be so fresh I felt like, 'I could run any distance.' So when my second son was having some physical troubles, I tried this same idea with him. It took 11 days, but he got to the same point, and realized he felt like 'he could run any distance.' So when tutoring a fifth-grader and a second-grader in public school I thought I might try this with them. I got a big surprise. I set out to teach them to run any distance, but they immediately got caught up in this 'competition thing.' Apparently the public school they attended had so emphasized competition with these kids, that they just went there like a snap. There was no thought given to what I said, they just fought each other to the finish line we had set up. I did work this out and they did fine, but this huge thing they got into for a while with 'competition', was news to me. 'It seems to me that if the student has the right attitude that they will succeed even if they are not taught how to read well or effectively.' There are about 1.5 million kids in public K-12 in Michigan and about 100,000 in Home Schools. How many of this number do you think could succeed with 'right attitude' only? 'I think we need to better understand how the attitudes are developed and how we can influence them.' I think we can simply ask each of the students for this information. I have done this. I did this last fall. I had the students say the bad attitudes, actually all the attitudes they knew of, and then I had them demonstrate which would apply to 'The Willing Student' and which applied to 'The Unwilling Student.' It worked great. One student said, 'We hear tons of these, all the time.' The students could see where bad, or all attitudes might come from, and then it gave them a means to handle each of them in a positive way. 'Once they see the value they will have an interest in learning and they will succeed.' I agree. I'm considering doing all 5 of the Algebra II classes at that High School, but I haven't gotten up the nerve yet. 'each employee needs to understand their worth and regularly needs to be trained on how to achieved and deliver that worth.' I agree. I have done this and seen miracles when doing it, or let's say after it was done. Each of the employees came to believe they were far more valuable than they had thought three weeks before. 'Did you ever have doubts about your value to your employer?' Yes, of course. Nearly all my reviews were horrible. One of my first managers, back in 1970, had the attitude and made it known regularly, 'There are fifty Engineers out there that would love to have each on of your jobs, so if you have any complaints, just leave!' Later after 18 straight wins on proposals and on-time completions of projects, my review went like this, 'Well, you haven't made any big screw-ups lately, so I guess everything is going Okay.' I didn't let it go at that. I said, 'I have 18 straight wins on proposals, shipments and Qualification Tests for the FAA. I calculate that as having a Net Present Value (NPV) of $40 million. At a 20% profit that is $8 million in profit for our company. For each $100 dollars in gross sales I generate, you pay me $1. On one program alone I put in $100,000 in free overtime.' He countered by giving the lowest possible bonus. I left the company and got a job as Chief Engineer of a Space company that paid 15% more. Their profit was about 10% and the were a $1.5 million company. I gave the owner, and began implementation, of a cost reduction idea worth $250,000, more than his entire profit for one year. His knee jerk reaction, he fired me. And then hired me back when his emotions were not quite so hot. Yes, I have had doubts. 'Did you ever hesitate to take the initiative to find different ways to deliver value?' That is an interesting question. You are good at those. I think for the first 20 years, I tended to just act. In 1971 I was one of the youngest Squadron Commanders in the US Air Force. I had drug addicts returning home from Viet Nam and had to discharge them. I researched the drug treatment programs the Air Force offered and found all three were filled to overcapacity and could accept no more. I had to discharge an Airman addicted to Heroin with no help from the Air Force. So I recommended to him to seek treatment at the best civilian treatment I knew of. That little bit of initiative resulted in everything but a Courts Marshal, and to my leaving the service. My willingness to use my initiative probably was blunted a little. By 1990 I was up to about 1000 international proposals a year. Then, I crashed I guess. 'I have found competency is something that is proven in practice (they work it out) not in testing, so I resist the idea of having some entry testing.' This issue is outside the intent of this site. But I stand by my recommendation for industry and new-hires from public education. Such a test, or proving things in practice as you say, tends to highlight the weakness's of public education as they hand off skilled people, or unskilled people, to industry. What if education trains people to be difficult for industry to train? What if they instill attitudes, let's say unknowingly, that are most difficult for industry to accommodate without years of retraining, where they may not know how to do the retraining? These can result in extensive costs to industry, and there are simple demonstrations that can detect such, or reverse such? 'In your case the school provides sufficeint validation of technical competency so why would the employer test you?' I talked to a manager for a CAD business. He said it is taking 5 years to bring a designer up to speed. That is a huge cost for industry. What if a few simple demonstrations on the first day could improve that, or screen out those who would be most difficult to bring up to speed? Or why not push this technology back to K-12 and have students actually demonstrate, that is 'work out', their ability to apply competently before they stumble on the next standard test? I submit that if schools have each student demonstrate the words and concepts that will appear on standardized tests, such students will have no difficulty whatsoever with that test. 'I feel that what is taught is another barrier created in Lansing and their lack of understanding of what it takes to survive in a global marketplace.' Exactly!