More Thoughts on the Milwaukee Opportunity School District

A little ways back I helped manage a project for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI) entitled “Pathways to Success for Milwaukee Schools.” The project includes a chapter on the idea of a recovery school district (I should note the project was conducted by previous leadership at WPRI, and these are just my opinions). I personally have expressed skepticism regarding the Milwaukee Opportunity School District. Did I change my mind, am I a hypocrite?

Well, the goal of the project was to provide some actual concrete ideas for improving Milwaukee schools, regardless of sector. For too long the education policy focus in Wisconsin has been on overly simplistic solutions to complex challenges. I.e.,we need vouchers, we need non-district charters, we need smaller class sizes, we need more money, if we only sold the empty buildings, we need to break up the district, we need to get rid of vouchers, we need neighborhood schools, etc. The approach used over the past thirty years has been disjointed, inconsistent, and ultimately ineffective at improving the aggregate performance of Milwaukee students. Because of this, the WPRI project was appropriately vast, including chapters on new schools and innovation, quality control, teacher development, and the use of data. I personally supported some of the ideas presented, and was skeptical of others. But my personal opinion really was not the point. The point was to get new thinking out into the public sphere that shed light on the complexity of the challenge.

Unfortunately, the Milwaukee Opportunity School District repeats the mistakes of the past by putting all the focus on structure rather than substance. Is a recovery school district an objectively bad idea? I do not know…but I think in the case of Milwaukee it is a mistake. It further fragments the governance structure, funding mechanisms, accessibility, performance measurement methods, and politics of the city’s schools.

And that, more than anything else in my opinion, is what holds back student achievement. If a public organization has no agreed upon objective or strategy, there is no way it can be successful.   What is needed is legitimacy…recognition by stakeholders and the public at-large that an approach or goal is the right course of action. I personally think this is a task best executed by a democratically elected school board. I guess I am just a sucker for democracy.

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Thoughts from Working the EAA

The world’s largest anything is worth seeing. That is my bit of folksy wisdom for today, and also one reason I spent eight days this summer working security at EAA AirVenture. The other reason is that one of the great perks of being a college professor, having the summer off from a full-time teaching load, also means I have a three-month vacation from a full paycheck.

Overall, my experience working AirVenture was a positive (though tiring) one. First, it is a remarkable thing that Oshkosh, a city of about 66,000 people, annually hosts this event. Working gate security, I had the opportunity to chat up people from all over the country, and the world. I spoke with commercial pilots, military pilots, reporters, students, professors, village managers, air traffic controllers, politicians, retirees, inventors, business executives, and people working just about any other profession you can think of. And the vendors. I came to realize after my first day the air show is a big business opportunity for anyone selling anything aviation related. Given this, I have no doubt that the plan to turn the area into an aviation hub is a smart and viable economic development strategy.

I also couldn’t help but marvel at the logistics of the event. Even managing the security, a tiny piece of the overall business of running the world’s largest airshow, was remarkably complex. I often tell my students the key to a successful organization is a combination of healthy group dynamics and leadership credibility. These things take time to develop…which of course cannot really happen when a job is temporary. Instead, the organization ran a brief but effective training session, and worked to move people into postings where they were most effective. It made the first few days a bit confusing, but it worked very well in the long run. Management fully understood they were not going to change people’s strengths and weaknesses in a week, the key was putting them in the best spot to be effective.

Now, the logistics of keeping tabs on the airplanes was another story. I was reminded of my first visit to Lower Manhattan. I looked around and thought, why the heck would anyone drive a car here? When I looked up at the skies around EAA, I counted 52 different flying objects, and thought, why the heck would anyone fly here? To answer my own question, EAA pilots are a different breed. This was never clearer than the morning I saw a plume of black smoke rising in front of me. It was eerie. But thankfully, it was not a fatal accident. However, it would have been enough for me to stay on the ground for a while. Not this crowd, the whole event was rolling again by early afternoon.

My actual duties consisted of ensuring people had the proper credentials to enter the show, and knew where to go once they got in, i.e. it was mostly customer service. However, each day around noon I helped switched the main road from one-way traffic to two-way traffic. This duty was a study in human behavior. I would stand in the road and direct traffic into the correct lane in order to prevent a head-on collision. Some drivers would tentatively think about ignoring my directive, creeping into the wrong lane in hopes of getting out of the grounds a bit more quickly. I would basically mean-mug them back into their lane. But on occasion, I would be helping someone with directions, and a car would enter the wrong lane. That opened the floodgates; one car doing it meant five cars doing it. The lesson? All it takes is one person taking an action, no matter how misguided (remember they were turning into oncoming traffic) to signal to the group that the action is acceptable.

Like I said, it is remarkable, and awesome, that Oshkosh hosts this event. Being just a small part of it was quite the experience, and something I hope to do again next summer.

Why microaggressions are not so silly

Phillip Roth’s “The Human Stain” begins with a college professor making an innocent remark that is construed as racist by an overly sensitive university community. Though most of the higher-ups realize that the professor did no wrong, they still want him to apologize. He refuses even though it costs him his job.   The start of this excellent book is meant to highlight the occasional absurdity that comes with being on a college campus. The recent Atlantic article on microaggressions, which is getting a whole lot of attention, similarly focuses on the unique sensitivities present on a college campus.

Some of the anecdotes in the article do paint a ridiculous picture of the steps taken in the name of not offending someone. However, I think the article, and some of those applauding it, are missing the point. One argument I have heard is that whether or not an action or statement is offensive can be objectively determined, so an approach that relies on someone’s emotional response to an action or statement is illegitimate. While I do agree that there is an objective way to determine if something is offensive or threatening, that fact does not negate the importance of being sensitive to one’s emotional response.

For example, in one of my classes we discuss the run-up to, execution of, and legacy of the Iraq War. It is a topic that is 100% legitimate to discuss in a public administration course. It is objectively not offensive. However, I have had veterans in my class who, for very personal reasons, find the unit hard to deal with. They let me know this, and I gave them an alternative assignment that exposed them to the same concepts in a way in which they were comfortable. I had no problem with this. College is supposed to be a place where learning occurs in a diverse environment, and if someone is feeling threatened or uncomfortable, they probably are not learning.

I think it comes down to fostering an open environment where students are comfortable telling professors (and other students) if something is bothering them, and professors and students are receptive to one another’s concerns and intentions. One of the great pleasures of teaching is seeing how a classroom culture develops, and finding ways to transfer knowledge and foster learning through that unique culture. Frankly, I do not find microaggressions all that silly, because if someone is offended or threatened, no matter the reason, learning is not happening. And making learning happen is the whole point of universities.

Credibility and the Importance of a First Impression

Last week my family and I attended the open house at my son’s school. We were excited to meet his teacher, and generally eager to get the school year started. Overall, I am very happy with the school. The teachers are great, my son loves it, and there is a steady stream of community engagement events that connect the school with parents, and the wider community. However, a couple of scheduling snafus during the open house got me thinking about what parents look for in a school, and the importance of a first impression.

Basically, we, and about a dozen other families, arrived at the scheduled time and the doors were locked. It was confusing. We spent a half an hour on the playground (so my sons were grateful), and then we were let in. Apparently, the time on the school website was different from the time on the handout sent to parents. Discussing the situation with some friends revealed there were actually three different sets of times floating around. Initially I laughed it off as the type of thing that happens in a large organization during a busy time.

But then I got to thinking about a series of focus groups I helped organize a few years back. The focus groups consisted of Milwaukee parents attending voucher, charter, and traditional public schools. A consistent complaint about all school types was a lack of communication between the school and parents. It was the most common reason parents cited for switching schools. Not test scores, not safety, but the extent to which they were made to feel the school cared about them and their children.

Then I thought about the new parents whose first experience with my son’s school was a locked door. That is a problem. Government is, to a great extent, a customer service enterprise, and it is unfortunate that some parents experienced poor service in their first interaction with what is, in fact, a quality institution.

The lesson here is that government organizations and their employees need to pay attention to the little things, like first impressions. A minor scheduling mishap does not reflect on the school’s ability to deliver on its main objective, delivering a quality education, but it may hurt the school’s credibility in the eyes of it customers. Without that credibility, a government organization will not be seen as successful in the eyes of its stakeholders, regardless of its actual quality.

Trump Decides and I Do?

Politics decides and public administration does. The phrase is a cliché in our field that is meant to speak to the professionalism required to manage the public’s resources, and trust, on a daily basis. It is also feels kind of insulting, as it implies that administrators do not make important value-laden decisions. As I am busy prepping for my introduction to public administration class, I find myself pondering this statement in the context of the current presidential race. Specifically, what does the state of American politics say about administrators, and the field of Public Administration?

The first Republican debate was entertaining and slightly concerning.   It was devoid of substance, as the majority worked to fit in their talking points without saying anything offensive. And of course there was Trump, who appeared to just want to say offensive things. I’m picking on the Republicans here, but this type of behavior occurs on both sides of the political aisle. For a process that picks the ultimate decision-maker in our country, it is shockingly devoid of substance.

Someone pondering a career in Public Administration might reasonably question whether they really want to devote their career to “doing” what these people “decide.” Someone working in government might wonder who the heck they work for. My answer? The sometimes-silly nature of politics makes it all the more important and interesting to work in the field of Public Administration. Consider, an elected politician is just someone who received more votes than their opponent. They naturally work to serve their base, as that is what allows them to maintain their power. The public administrator, however, must serve the public. And oh yeah, that public is hopelessly divided on many issues, culturally, racially, and socio-economically diverse, fickle, and often skeptical of administrative power.

Hence, working in government is a balancing act that requires professionalism, knowledge, communication skills, ethics, and more than a little persistence and humility. Administrative problems are not ones that can be messaged away or ignored as the misguided concerns of those who disagree with one’s political persuasion. No, Public Administration problems are those that deal with the process by which government works to maximize effectiveness, efficiency, and equity in the use of public resources. Or as I tell my students, it’s about being a good steward of the freedom and treasure people give up to be part of a governed society.

As many in the field have long pointed out, administrative values and political values often conflict. When they do, it is the job the administrator to do the work of government even when the decision-makers are openly hostile or uninformed. So, I am not concerned about the ridiculousness of our political debates. Political fads come and go, but the core work of running a government consistent with American values persists. It is that fact that makes it a privilege, a challenge, and whole lot of fun to work in this field.

Exploring Wisconsin’s Smaller Municipalities

Last week I had the privilege of presenting the (very) early results of a project focused on Wisconsin municipalities with less than 10,000 residents.   The goal of this research is to gain perspectives from multiple audiences on the challenges facing Wisconsin’s smaller municipalities. To do this, I (and Douglas Ihrke from UW-Milwaukee) am surveying elected council and board members, municipal CEOs, and department heads in the 126 Wisconsin cities and 386 Wisconsin villages with less than 10,000 residents.

Why focus on these communities? First, a large majority of municipalities in Wisconsin are small (the average population of those under 10,000 is 1,460). While larger cities, quite understandably, get a lot of the research attention, these places are just as important to Wisconsin and just as fruitful a research topic. Second, these places are facing unique challenges…brain drain, financial struggles, changing immigration patterns, changing tourism patterns, and cuts to shared revenue to name a few. Third, Wisconsin’s smaller places are unique. Just yesterday I took the scenic route home from a weekend trip and explored Plain, Loganville, Rock Springs, Montello, Princeton, and a few other places. Just a quick look around and I could tell each of these places has a story that is part of Wisconsin’s cultural fabric.

Specifically, our survey asks about the group dynamics at play in these governments, the real and hoped for role of the nonprofit sector, the fiscal and management impacts of Act 10, the relationships between municipal management and employees, and a host of other issues related to the future health of Wisconsin’s small communities. Thus far, our results indicate mixed feeling surrounding Act 10, and reveal that communities are facing serious challenges related to economic development, reductions in shared revenue, and increasing state mandates. None of this is surprising, but it is sobering.

The end-goal is not just to give these communities a sounding board, but rather use what we find to help municipal managers and employees find research-supported solutions to overcome their very real struggles. For example, are there group dynamic-interventions that can be linked to improved outcomes? Is their capacity in the nonprofit sector to supplement some government functions? Are there untapped opportunities for collaboration between municipalities? Is there a better way for the state to distribute resources to municipalities? Do untapped revenue streams exist?

I do not have the answers to these questions, but I do know the first step to finding answers is paying more attention to these municipalities. My co-researcher and I are hopeful this project can do just that.

What Makes an American?

We are a nation built on contradictions. Our founding principals were fairness, freedom, and opportunity. Yet we had slaves, settled in a place that already had inhabitants, and denied so many the basic right to participate in our Democracy. Today we are a remarkably diverse society. I do not think many other nations have children on a playground asking one another if they are 1/16 Irish, or a quarter German, 1/5 Mexican, or anything else. Our vast ideological, ethnic, and cultural diversities (as well as our diversity of thought), is in my opinion, the defining feature of the United States.   America’s willingness to embrace its diversity, as well as the continuing evolution of that diversity, is what binds us as a people. It allows us to thrive despite the endless contradictions in our society.

Which is why I am dumbfounded by some of the immigration ideas being tossed around by serious (and not-so-serious) presidential candidates. If we build a wall, embrace policies of mass deportation, or take away citizenship as birthright, we are tearing apart the foundation of American society. An America that is culturally, ideologically, or ethnically frozen in time is one that cannot survive. I urge everyone and anyone to ponder a simple question: What makes one an American?

I think it is simple, an American is someone who wants to be an American. Someone who is willing to embrace the contradictions that define the United States. Now, while I myself may be a supporter of amnesty, I certainly understand why most disagree with me on that. I also understand the need for immigration policies that bring order to the process by which someone makes the choice to be an American. However, it is the height of foolishness to think we can freeze America as it is, or somehow create arbitrary rules as to who really deserves to be an American (to say nothing of the basic cruelty of taking away one’s right to citizenship because their parent crossed the border illegally).

I’m reminded of the dead-shark analogy used by Woody Allen in Annie Hall. If our nation stops moving forward, stops evolving, we will sink..

Why the Amazon Model Cannot and Should Not be Applied to the Public Sector

I am fascinated with the idea that organizations, like people, have unique personalities that shape the way in which they operate, and the degree to which they are successful. Hence I read the recent New York Times article on Amazon’s organizational culture with some interest. Basically, Amazon sounds like a terrible place to work. People are encouraged to stab each other in the back, undermine colleagues and bosses, and generally “succeed” by ensuring that others fail.

Of course, Amazon is a private company and is free to cultivate a hostile workplace where crying in your office is a common occurrence. What I do not understand, is why the heck would anyone want to work there? Ok, I guess I kind of get it. If you survive you are well compensated, and ambitious people likely see surviving a job at Amazon as a badge of honor. However, its toxic culture goes against a great deal of research (in the public sector at least) linking positive cultures to performance gains.

Gerald Gabris, Kimberly Nelson, Douglas Ihrke (my Ph.D. advisor), Robert Golembiewski, Brian Cherry, Nate Grasse, myself, and others have all published articles on the link between positive group dynamics and public performance. To oversimplify a bit, boards and organizations that minimize negative types of conflict (like relationship conflict between two people), establish a culture of trust and ownership, and establish clear separation of duties between the executive and staff, are generally higher performing. I also think these are organizations where people actually want to work. Excuse the anecdote, but in my experience I have found myself more productive in organizational situations in which the culture was open and honest. It did not mean I was always in agreement with everyone, but rather I felt comfortable voicing my disagreement openly, and was not offended when others voiced their disagreement openly with me.

I guess the larger issue is job satisfaction. Where does it come from? It is a question I ponder with my students, and I find, those interested in public service are motivated by a diverse set of factors that go beyond money. They want to get paid, of course, but they are cognizant that the money likely will be lower in public service. Now, plenty of people (I’d suspect most) in the private sector have motivations that go beyond money. The difference is that in the private sector, someone whose only objective is paycheck maximization can be satisfied. If that is your only motivation and you enter public service, it is time to reevaluate your decision.

Despite my misgivings, the Amazon model is driving profits and innovation. This could be the result of their charismatic leader, their ability to tap into a subset of workers to whom this culture appeals, or something else. However, from my point-of-view the Amazon story reveals less about what works in management and more about the difference between management in the public and private sector. The public sector serves broader society, hence its mission, its culture, and its employees must work to be representative of, and at the very least tolerant of, that broader society. This is accomplished not by rigid extremes and ruthless competition, but open and moderate administration from the board level on down. It sounds kind of boring and it will not be the subject of a New York Times article, but it is what makes our public organizations legitimate and accountable to our diverse society.

A Look At Revenue Limit Trends

The topic of school funding has been getting some attention in the state’s largest newspaper. Basically, principals and superintendents in Wisconsin school districts say they need more of it. I fully admit, years ago I would have rolled my eyes at these letters. Of course those running schools and districts want more resources, why wouldn’t they? If so inclined, read Paul Peterson’s classic City Limits, and you’ll find a nice explanation of the resource maximization motivations of public organizations. However, I do not think this letter deserves an eye-roll. A quick look at revenue limit trends in Wisconsin shows that districts are indeed struggling.

Discussing the role of money in education is complicated. There is little convincing evidence that putting more money into public education will increase academic outcomes. But this does not mean schools and school districts do not need a certain level of funding to continue educating pupils. Teachers, utility bills, and a wide variety of other expenses still must be paid. Some scholars, mostly in education schools, have explored the idea of adequacy to determine what exactly it costs to provide a decent education to a public school pupil. Adequacy funding does not quite do it for me. While a formula for defining adequacy may objectively exist, I do not think that the public and elected officials will ever coalesce around a single method for defining adequacy, making the concept of minimal (in my opinion) practical value from the administrative side of things.

I think what can be agreed upon, at least here in Wisconsin, is that school districts are facing serious revenue constraints that are impacting their ability to provide a quality education product. As Alan Borsuk wrote a couple weeks ago, the source of the financial difficulties relates to revenue limits. Education finance is complex, and total expenditures and revenues, school aids, tax levies, productivity, etc. are all part of the puzzle. However, from a school district’s point of view, revenue limits are by far the most important factor. Revenue limits determine how much money school districts have to spend, regardless of the source.

Since 1993 Wisconsin schools have been subject to these limits, which are exactly what they sound like. Every year school districts are allowed to raise additional state and local revenues by a set capped dollar-amount per-pupil. For example, if a district raised $10,000 for a pupil in year 1, and the legislature increased revenue limits by $200, the district could raise up of $10,200 in year 2 (The LFB informational paper is a great resource for less-simplified information on this). It is important to note that districts can and do go to referendum to exceed revenue limits, but I’d argue the uncertain outcome of referenda make the step, rightly, an exceptional rather than regular occurrence.

So how is dollar amount increase determined? For a while (1999 to 2009), it was indexed to inflation, meaning in real dollars revenues to school districts were designed to be essentially flat. Since 2009, however, the number is an arbitrary dollar amount chosen by the state legislature. As can be seen in the chart below, the annual dollar increase has been down in recent years (including a cut in 2012).

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The next chart shows the actual annual average per-pupil revenue limit by year in inflation adjusted 2015 dollars. After years of steady predictable increases, the actual dollars school districts had to work with decreased in 2012, and has yet to recover to 2004 levels. So what exactly does this mean?   Should we get rid of revenue caps? I personally do not think so, but that is another story. Are our schools underfunded or overfunded? Again, that is a discussion for another day.

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What this look at revenue limit trends does show is that school districts, even with the financial help of Act 10, are experiencing serious financial stress. However you feel philosophically about education funding, the difficulties faced by Wisconsin districts are real, and will likely begin to impact quality.

Standardized Testing and the Analytics Paradox

Two new articles caught my eye over the weekend. The first was Alan Borsuk’s latest column touching on the state of testing in Wisconsin, which he appropriately describes as being in a “state of limbo.” Borsuk states that Wisconsin students will, in 2015-2016, be taking their third different test in three years (and what test will be used is still undecided). In addition, the school report card will be taking a year off. I guess that means my son’s school will continue to “meet few expectations” for a while.

The other article is an academic piece entitled Value-Added Measures: Undermined Intentions and Exacerbated Inequities by Kimberly Kappler Hewitt. In the article Dr. Hewitt reports the results of a survey on value adding testing she administered to teachers in a decent-sized North Carolina school district. Generally, she found the use of value-added testing in teacher effectiveness models to increase perceived inequities and undermine teacher morale and methods.

Reading these two pieces on the same day got me thinking about what I call the analytics paradox. It is impossible to perfectly and objectively measure public performance, yet the public sector nonetheless needs to use analytics to improve public performance. As I tell my students in my research methods course, analytics are nothing more than attempts to measure a concept. So, in K-12 education a standardized test score is an attempt to translate student performance (or teacher performance, or school performance) into a number (or grade, or percentage, etc.). Obviously, it is impossible to perfectly translate a concept as complex as student performance into such a simple variable. Yet there is huge pressure to try. And I think that it good.

Why? As I wrote a few years back in a report I co-authored for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, data, when in the hands of public employees, can be actionable intelligence used to improve the performance of public organizations. Now, if that data is viewed as an attempt to undermine public employees, as the Hewitt piece illustrates, the chances of said data having a positive impact on public performance goes way down.

Going back to my first paragraph, I mentioned my son’s school is deemed to be meeting few expectations under the state report card system. What exactly does that mean? A closer look shows the low score is mostly driven by a failure of the school to close reading and math achievement gaps. On its face, that is good to know. But the story is more complex. The school is only K-5, meaning the school has very little time (grade 3 – 5) to close the gaps. In addition the school has a fairly large ESL population (in addition to being majority low-income). The way I take this, as a parent and taxpayer, is it is important to know where the school can improve, but also not surprising that the gaps exist given the population served and limited time of attendance.

On the heels of the push to turn over control of low-performing schools in Milwaukee to outside providers, I could see how the school district may view this report card as a threat. As a researcher, I’d like to view this as a baseline by which to determine if the school is showing progress. But, as Borsuk articulates, this is impossible because Wisconsin keeps changing the tests.

The lessons for policy makers and public managers here is actually fairly simple. First, policy makers need to make performance data widely available to public managers in a format they can use on the ground. Simplicity, like letter grades for schools, sounds nice, but doesn’t mean all that much to the practitioner. Second, policy makers also need to be consistent with how they measure public performance. Three years of different tests means three years of very limited-use data. There is no perfect analytic, and the search for it undermines the usefulness of what is available. Last, practitioners need to continue to embrace the use of analytics (the reality is public employees constantly make good use of data), and demonstrate (celebrate?) exactly how they are using data to make evidence-based decisions.

It is disheartening to watch how politicized and divisive the boring world of K-12 performance data has become. Creating consistent, useful systems with high face validity need not be this complicated.