Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Unleashing the UltraCon Flying Monkeys on Kansas Public Education

For any Kansans who still find it hard to accept that our governor and ultraconservative legislators have declared war, and released their flying monkeys, on public education, I would urge you to read the following summary of last evening’s (3/1/16) MainStream Coalition forum on public education. Panelists included Reps Melissa Rooker (Republican), Nancy Lusk (Democrat) and Jarrod Ousley (Democrat). You can also view a recorded version here.

For our ultraconservative state leaders who subscribe to supply side economics and many of the discredited ideas of Arthur Laffer, the privatization of public education is a NECESSARY component of the march to zero income taxes. There is no way to get there without drastically reducing our spending on public education, as it comprises the majority of our state's budget. And greatly increasing the privatization of public education is the only way to do that and still have some form of large scale education in this state. This goal by the way aligns nicely with the goal of very limited government and the goal of greatly expanding the availability of private education based on religious and other ideological factors (or greatly narrowing what public education can teach). 

In addition, there is a large amount of money to be made from privatizing our public schools, and Kansas must look like a vast, untapped oil field of private school opportunity to those who operate and invest in such enterprises. I’d love to see some reporters look into the potential of such organizations quietly lobbying our legislators on this from behind the curtain.

We do know that ALEC, KPI (and the infamous Dave Trabert) and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce are not so quietly influencing and applying pressure on our state legislators, as well as acting the part of the Trickster, spinning and spreading their memes of misinformation. Major sources of funding for these groups include Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries, Ivan Crossland of Crossland Construction and David Murfin of Murfin Drilling Corp. In addition to funding, they also provide their own form of legislative arm twisting.  

What do these waves of flying monkeys that have been set loose on our state’s public education system consist of, a few of you may ask who’ve only just clicked your heels and returned from Oz? Well, besides implementing the block grant which reduces the amount of funding schools and districts have available for day to day operations, they’ve essentially laundered money in order to take dollars away from public education and give it to private (including religious) schools. They have eliminated teacher due process. Some are trying to criminalize teachers for teaching certain material that’s been approved by their local school boards. They’ve moved local elections, as step one in their plan to make local elections, including school board elections, partisan. They continue overstepping their authority by trying to eliminate the Kansas College and Career Ready Standards (KCCRS), which are based on the Common Core and NGSS, without anything ready to take their place. And the list goes on and on. Break it, then replace it.

And yesterday we saw another revenue shortfall. This time we were $53 million below estimates, and the governor then announced $17 million in cuts to higher education. And today Senator Wagle called for across the board cuts to address the continuing revenue shortfalls, which would impact all education in the state. Yet the governor still refuses to entertain any change to the income tax cuts. But why would he? Its forcing us to shrink government with his presumable hoped for added “benefit” of increased privatization of public education. Ideology and ignorance, aided by greed and apathy, have been waging war on public education in Kansas since Governor Brownback took office.

The question is, what will it take for the apathy to turn to anger and action in mass? The 600+ email reaction to the school district consolidation bill provides a good clue – people have to feel the impacts on their own lives and tie it back to the ultraconservatives. So, will continued legislative and governor anti-public education actions, along with the efforts of public education advocates, create enough of a link to our personal lives in time to generate change this fall in the legislative landscape? Or even limit the damage done the remainder of this legislative session? I don’t know, but it keeps me up at night. That, and flying monkeys.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

From Hunter-Gatherers to the Kansas Legislature: The Power of Transparency

Hunter-gatherers will sometimes resort to public criticism, ridicule and other sorts of shaming to deflate the egos of individual members who put their own benefit ahead of the larger group. Often these individuals try to hide their selfish actions, and if these more benign forms of social control aren’t effective, group members may resort to shunning or even exiling the offenders from the group. I must confess I’ve fantasized about exiling some of our political leaders here in Kansas.

The tug of war between transparency vs. chicanery or shadowiness likely goes back to the dawn of homo sapiens, if not before. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors no doubt used varying degrees of transparency to discourage behaviors that would have been considered “selfish” relative to the families and larger groups they were a part of. While hording food or other resources may benefit you or even your immediate kin, it isn’t particularly helpful to your larger hunter-gatherer group.

Our behaviors and actions, if visible to others and if viewed as “negative” relative to our friends/family, to our community and/or to society as a whole can result in the application of social pressure intended to both a) stop the behaviors of the offenders and b) serve as a warning to others. Social pressures may be informal in nature, such as the loss of family support, the loss of friendships or “public” forms of shaming.

More formal examples of such pressure include laws and regulations with varying degrees of attached punitive consequences. Social pressures can also be positive, reinforcing those behaviors considered beneficial to the group. And the greater the visibility of our actions, whether they’re noble or nefarious, the more effective are the various forms of social pressure. Visibility, or transparency, is enabled through social phenomenon ranging from gossiping to a free press.

Transparency is certainly a necessary component of a successfully functioning democracy. It ensures the decisions and actions of government officials remain visible and available for public scrutiny. Without transparency we lose the ability to verify if public officials are being honest about their actions and if those actions are in the best interest of the general public.

However, in Kansas the ultraconservative legislative leadership’s degree of transparency hasn’t been consistent over the last several sessions as they’ve assisted Governor Brownback in his march to zero income taxes, slashing and burning public services along the way. This last week, the House Education Committee’s ultraconservatives didn’t feel the need for transparency, doing their part to undermine the democratic process.

On Wednesday, February 17, it was published in the weekly agenda that the committee was having an "informational" hearing on the "history of education". In actuality it was a presentation (some have reported it as a rant) by an anti-common core advocate with no opposing side presented. Then, without notice, a “gut-and-go” procedural move was performed, taking the contents of this year’s anti-Common Core House Bill 2676 and stuffing them into last year’s anti-Common Core House Bill 2292.

The “gut-and-go” procedure was developed a few sessions ago by the ultraconservative leadership. It allows a previously approved bill to be “gutted” of its original content and replaced with new legislation while still retaining the status of the “shell” bill. In this case, they inserted far more damning anti-Common Core content into the shell of the older House Bill 2292, which had previously undergone a hearing in committee. As such, they could pass it out of a committee on a voice vote without the need for an additional hearing, which House Bill 2676 would have required. Chicanery at its best.

I should also note that the legislative leadership has been busy replacing the moderate Republicans on key committees with ultraconservatives. The remaining Democrats and odd moderate here and there don’t have the numbers to prevent the passage of bills out of committee. And the lack of moderates on those committees speeds up the process, reducing outside attention and further reducing transparency.

Another exampled occurred on Tuesday, February 16. The agenda indicated the committee was having a hearing on House Bill 2596 - creating the classroom-based funding act. Yet Chairman Highland also brought up House Bill 2199 from last year (with no previous notice) requiring parental or legal guardian permission before a student could take a human sexuality class (changing from opt-out to opt-in). Rep. Barton moved to approve and Rep. Macheers called for the question, stopping further debate on the issue and sending it immediately to a vote. It then passed out of committee on a voice vote. More chicanery.

On Monday, February 15, the agenda indicated there would be a discussion and possible action on House Bill 2207 - development and implementation of ethnic studies in schools. The original bill was intended to promote the education of aspects of social justice, ethnic awareness and diversity. However, Rep. Lunn, inspired by concerns from Rep. Kelley and others put forward amendments to a) limit ethnic studies to a few specific categories, excluding others such as Islam and other religions, and b) prevent the teaching of social justice remedies in the classroom. The purpose of the bill was fundamentally changed from its original intent, without notice, and passed through the committee without a chance for anyone outside of the committee to weigh in. Chicanery.

However, these ultraconservative legislators aren’t always secretive; sometimes they’re particularly blatant. When the committee’s chairman, Rep. Highland, was asked afterwards why the anti-common core bill wasn’t on the agenda, he simply quipped “That happens every day around here” (Anti-CommonCore measure could do away with AP, IB programs in Kansas), implying that transparency isn’t needed. The ultraconservative leadership knows best and doesn’t have to answer to Kansas citizens. Now there’s an ego in need of deflating.

Such blatancy occurs because transparency is only part of what’s required for effective social pressure, whether we’re talking hunter-gatherers or large scale democracies. Transparency must also be coupled with accountability, or at least a perception of accountability. If government officials don’t feel accountable because they’ve successfully limited transparency and/or because most citizens aren’t paying close attention, then their actions sometimes aren’t in the best interest of the public as a whole. They may act to benefit themselves, their donors, and others they identify as part of their in-group, at the expense of the general public.

But when effectively wielded, transparency and accountability can make a difference. After receiving over 600 emails opposing the earlier school district consolidation bill, Chairman Highland decided to pull it from further consideration this legislative session. He folded, just as if he were a hording hunter-gatherer suffering public ridicule and shaming from his fellow group members.

This should inspire all Kansans to action. You can make a difference. Contact legislators about specific legislation. Demand that they be transparent and let them know you will hold them accountable. Particularly for the ultraconservatives, let them know the following:

We’re watching you. We’re aware of your actions. We’re aware of your votes. We’ll be aware if you try to hide your actions and votes. AND we’ll hold you accountable, both now, as we share your actions with others, and in the fall of 2016 when we vote…

When we exile them from the Kansas legislature


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Student Success Committee Bonding Recommendations Anything But Efficient

Real estate developments are often ironically named after what they replace or destroy in the process – think Meadow Brook or Rolling Hills for housing developments. I’ve come to think the naming of the Special Committee on K-12 Student Success followed the same process, serving as a memorial to the historical success of Kansas's public education students.

Bonding Recommendations

The committee approved their final report in a partisan vote on January 19th, with a minority report included as well. They are available through the committee’s website. Despite having “student success” in the name of the committee and final report, the actual goals were to minimize costs to the state. Everything else is either secondary or not a concern at all, and you can see the minority report for more details on many of the reports flaws. Here I will focus on the recommendations made to reduce state aid for local bonds and interest that is used to help fund new construction and major renovations. They are as follows:

  • The Legislature should repeal the current statute for state aid for the payment of principal and interest on bonds for capital improvements.
  • A new state aid statute for bond and interest payments should be created to specifically define and limit what projects may be funded with state aid for capital improvement.
  • The new state aid statute should be limited to a specific dollar amount each fiscal year to avoid unforeseen demands on the State General Fund.
  • A State building architect and project manager should be used in any new building project to reduce the costs associated with the project.
  • A special committee of the legislature should be created to oversee and approve any bond issue before the issuance is placed on a ballot before local voters, if the local school districts desires to obtain capital improvement state aid (bond and interest state aid).

As I post this, HB 2486 has been introduced. It uses some of these recommendations to create a school district bond project review board and reinstate the block grant’s new formula for bond elections held after Jan. 1, 2016. The formula provides 75% state aid for district with the lowest valuation per pupil and drops one percent for each $1,000 increase in AVPP (assessed valuation per pupil). KASB (Kansas Association of School Boards) provides a summary of the bill here. The actual bill is here. But in essence the goal is to reduce the amount of state aid allocated for bond and interest overall, as well as make it more difficult for individual districts to obtain what state aid will be available.

Returning back to the report’s five bond and interest recommendations, the requirement for a state building architect and project manager on any new building project to reduce costs is confusing. When submitting comments on the draft version of this report I asked for clarification but never received a reply, nor did they apparently feel the need to clarify this in the final report.

If the intent was to require a state architect and some type of state construction manager review construction drawings relative to state code requirements and/or make final inspections before occupancy, similar requirements relative to a state architect were previously eliminated to reduce costs. Adding such a requirement would actually increase costs to the state (and I’m not necessarily against doing this). Or maybe they intend to pull it out of public education’s already limited funding.

In the draft version of the report, the wording could potentially have been interpreted as recommending a state architect and project manager would be responsible for the design and construction management of all new construction and major renovations at every district. I’m assuming the goal would be to eliminate at least some of the services architectural firms/design teams are providing to districts on a project by project basis, reducing design and potentially construction administration costs. If that’s really the intention, it’s a poorly thought out recommendation made by individuals with little working knowledge of the building/construction industry.

The remaining recommendations are all intended to a) reduce the number of requests made by individual districts to obtain capital improvement state aid as a result of the ballot requirement, b) limit the types of projects that would be eligible for state aid and c) reduce the dollar amount provided by the state on an individual project basis. The primary goal of the Bonding by Local School Districts recommendations is to reduce state spending, regardless of the impacts on public education and student success.

Increases in Inequity

This is unfortunate, given the amount of work that needs to be done to our nation’s and Kansas’s schools. A report from the Center for Green Schools (2013) estimated that as of 2008 there was $271 billion in deferred maintenance costs nationally just to get schools back to working order and comply with current laws. Modernizing them would take $542 billion over 10 years (starting in 2013), and it should be noted that new construction for enrollment growth was not included in these numbers. 

The 21st Century School Fund estimated in 2008 that our nation had 6.6 billion square feet of PK-12 public school facility square footage (Center for Green Schools 2013). According to information made available by KASB, the 2004-2005 total PK-12 public school facility square footage in Kansas was just under 60.5 million. Using the ratio of Kansas/National square footage (0.009), we can estimate the cost to get Kansas schools back to working order at $2.48 billion and $4.96 billion to fully modernize. 

Histogram of the percentage of bond and interest furnished by state aid;
all districts are included (including those with 0%).
Referring to statewide data made available by KASB, 189 of the 286 districts had outstanding bond and interest on the books for the 2014-2015 school year. Total state aid for this year represented 29% of the total amount of bond and interest for the districts in this dataset. Of the 189 districts with bond and interest, 150 of them were making use of state aid. The percentage that state aid represented of their outstanding bond and interest ranged from 3% to 69%, with 100 of the districts over 30%.

Admittedly this is a somewhat simplistic analysis, but it nevertheless shows that state aid furnishes a significant percentage of the funding for capital improvements at many districts. And a reduction in state aid will disproportionately impact less wealthy communities who have a more difficult time generating the local taxes needed to make these improvements. It will increase the inequity in school building environments across the state. It should also be noted that 96 districts had no outstanding bond and interest on the books at all for the 2014-2015 school year. An interesting question to ask is how many of these districts still have significant deferred maintenance needs, and why aren't they being addressed? Does the current drive to reduce state spending and resulting reduction in public school funding that districts can use to operate on have anything to do with that?

Impacts on Building Operations and Students, Teachers & Staff

What does a reduction in the ability of a district to modernize its fleet of buildings mean exactly? Let’s look at operational impacts first. During the 2008-2009 school year, approximately $50 billion was spent on the O&M (operations and maintenance) of U.S. school district facilities (Center for Green Schools 2013). The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that utilities accounted for approximately $8 billion of the $50 billion. Again applying the previous Kansas/National square footage ratio (0.009), the Kansas operations and maintenance costs are then estimated to have been $455 million for the 2008-2009 school year, with utility costs accounting for $72.8 million of the overall O&M costs.

Modernizing facilities and then eliminating the occurrences of subsequent deferred maintenance would reduce O&M costs over the long term. The constant band aid fixes and periodic major equipment failures/replacements would be greatly reduced and O&M staff would have a greater ability to operate in a proactive vs. reactive manner. This increase in operational efficiency also eases the stress on O&M personnel and custodians, who are often understaffed to begin with.

Modernization will also result in energy savings and reduced utility costs. For the purpose of this exercise, we’ll assume an average of 30% utility savings across this state if every facility was fully modernized, though in actuality the design level savings would likely be greater. This would then calculate out to an estimated annual utility savings of $21.8 million for the state of Kansas. But this just scratches the surface in terms of increased efficiencies.

Decades of multi-disciplinary research have demonstrated the impacts the built environment have on building occupant productivity/performance and health. And a large body of that research has been conducted within education environments. Below is a brief summary of some of these impacts:
  • A study of Chicago and Washington, DC schools found that better school facilities can add 3 to 4 percentage points to a school’s standardized test scores, even after controlling for demographic factors (Schneider 2002).
  • Based on actual improvements in design in green schools and based on a very substantial data set on productivity and test performance of healthier, more comfortable study and learning environments, a 3-5% improvement in learning ability and test scores in green schools appears reasonable and conservative (Kats 2006).
  • Compared to little or no daylighting, classrooms with appropriate daylighting may increase the rate of student learning by a) 20% in math and b) 26% in reading (Heschong Mahone Group 1999).
  • Office workers were found to perform 10% to 25% better on tests of mental function and memory recall when they had the best possible view versus those with no view (Heschong Mahone Group, Inc. 2003).
  • Discomfort represented by non-optimal temperature ranges have been shown to decrease occupant performance / productivity on either side of the optimal temperature range (68OF – 72OF) by up to 9% (Seppänen et al. 2006, Wargocki and Seppänen 2006).
  • Schools with high IAQ total scores and a high Healthy Greenness School Index (GSI) were more likely to have high student attendance rates (36% and 22% respectively) (Lin et al.). 
  • Schools with well-maintained air filters were also 42% more likely to have good 4th grade academic performance (Lin et al.).
  • An analysis of two school districts in Illinois found that student attendance rose by 5% after incorporating cost effective indoor air quality improvements (Illinois Healthy Schools Campaign 2003).
  • When conversational noise was reduced and speech privacy increased, a) the ability of office workers to focus on tasks improved by 48%, b) the performance of tasks relating to accuracy and memory improved by 10% and c) the physical symptoms of stress such as high blood pressure and increased heart rate were reduced by 27% (Sykes 2004).
  • For acoustics and sound impacts, also see Julian Treasure: Why architects need to use their ears
  • Study of Taiwanese 8th graders found that the addition of visible, leafy plants at the back of the classroom (6% of floorplan area) resulted in a) significantly stronger self-reported feelings of preference, comfort, and friendliness and b) significantly fewer hours of sick leave and punishment records (+50% less) (Han 2008).
  • Increasing one’s degree of personal environmental control has been found to provide average measured workforce productivity gains of 7.1% for lighting control, 1.8% for ventilation control and 1.2% for temperature control (Kats et al. 2003).
Let’s assume an overall net productivity/performance benefit from full modernization of all existing Kansas PK-12 school facilities, averaged over the state’s student and teacher/staff populations, of 3%. The average is likely greater than this, but let’s be overly conservative. For students, that’s an overall average of 3% better performance on the various standardized tests that are taken (not that I’m promoting their use as a primary measure of student success). 

With the additional distractions and hardships found in a poor physical environment greatly reduced, students have more of their mental and physical energies available to devote to learning. And these positive learning benefits are compounded year to year over the course of students’ PK-12 careers, assuming that facilities are well maintained. 

Whatever the overall average impact is on productivity/performance, for those students (or teachers/staff) more susceptible physically to various negative aspects of indoor environmental quality, the percentage improvement will be substantially greater. In addition, students who are minorities, in poverty, have special needs, etc. are disproportionately impacted by facilities in poor condition, as their relative limited resources, limited outside support, physical challenges and/or psychological challenges already are a drain on their mental and physical energies to begin with.

Moving to the adults, let’s look at the monetary impacts of this average 3% improvement in productivity/performance. Focusing just on teachers, according to summary reports provided by KSDE (Kansas State Department of Education), the average Kansas teacher salary (including salary + supplemental & summer school salaries + fringe benefits) for 2014-2015 was $54,907 (Average Salaries for Classroom Teachers) and the number of Kansas teachers for 2014-2015 was approximately 34,340, using FTE numbers (Certified Personnel Report). Using the 3% average impact and 2014-2015 data, full modernization is estimated to result in an increase in approximately $56.6 million worth of teacher productivity, statewide. 

Kansas facility estimated costs and potential savings discussed in this article.
Obviously this doesn’t represent dollars that districts can recover and use for other purposes, but it does represent salary dollars spent more “efficiently”. Teachers are able to expend more of their mental and physical energies ($56.6 million dollar's worth) on their primary daily education tasks, as opposed to dealing with sub-par facilities and poor indoor environmental conditions. Adding the productivity savings to the estimated utility savings results in an estimated annual savings of $78.4 million, and this still excludes other classified staff, all non-classified staff, other facility O&M savings and health improvements. And the utility savings and average productivity/performance improvements used here are conservative estimates to begin with.

There are a lot of variables that impact student and teacher/staff productivity/performance and health. Relative to many of these other variables the impacts of the built environment are small on average, but there is a significant body of research confirming the impacts are real. We can also address the built environment relatively easy compared to many other variables. Making it harder for districts to address facility deficiencies just doesn’t make sense. 

Waste of Tax Payer Dollars

When all is said and done, these Bond by Local School Districts recommendations are poorly thought through in terms of their impact on a) student learning, teacher effectiveness and everyone’s health, b) energy and water consumption, c) associated annual utility costs, d) other operational costs and e) the increase in building quality inequity that will result across the state.

The recommendations hit school districts in multiple ways by increasing the difficulty in reducing both building O&M costs (including utilities) and negative environmental impacts on students and teachers. At the same time, as utilities and other O&M costs rise due to continued building deterioration, this becomes an additional hit on district budgets. The recommendations actually increase inefficiencies.

And that’s pretty much how you can sum up the majority of the recommendations made in the report – agenda driven, focused on reducing state spending regardless of the impacts on public education and student success, built on a very narrow, short sighted and flawed definition of efficiency, and lacking any real input from subject experts. The effort to produce this monument to Kansas student success has been a waste of tax payer dollars.


Han, K. T.  2008. Influence of Limitedly Visible Leafy Indoor Plants on the Psychology, Behavior, and Health of Students at a Junior High School in Taiwan. Environment and Behavior 41(5): 658-692.

Kats, G., L. Alevantis, A. Berman, E. Mills, and J. Perlman. 2003. The Costs and Financial Benefits of Green Building: A Report to California’s Sustainable Building Task Force.

Lin, S., C. Kielb, A. Orsini & N. Muscatiello The Evaluation of Green School Building Attributes and Their Effect on the Health and Performance of Students and Teachers in New York State. Final Project Report - Proposal Number: #147 funded by the US Green Building Council. 

Seppänen, O., W. J. Fisk, and Q. H. Lei. 2006. Effect of Temperature on Task Performance in Office Environment. Publication No. LBNL-60946. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory , Berkeley, CA.

Wargocki, P. and O. Seppänen,  editors. 2006. Indoor Climate and Productivity in Offices, Guidebook No. 6. Rehva (Federation of European Heating and Air-Conditioning Associations), Brussels, Belgium.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Insanity Continues: Teacher Merit Pay Follow Up

After someone shared my previous post on teacher merit pay, the following comment was left. Given that others in the private sector likely have similar reactions I felt it was important to provide a response.

This article/editorial is the number one reason why it is so freaking frustrating to be on a school board while simultaneously operating a business division with many many employees all of whom are paid based upon their merit (read value) to the company. School system management nor accounting resembles little that is seen in a successful business venture.

While I think this person’s first sentence is addressed in my original post, I shall reiterate some of the points previously made and slightly expand on them in an attempt to provide additional clarification. I should first state that I’m also a school board member, and I also work in the private sector. Part of my role involves managing other employees, as well as managing the firm’s internal 360-degree review and engagement assessment processes. Given this, I have some experience in trying to understand, “measure” and improve the value that employees bring to a firm.

This person’s basic assertion is that we should be paying people based on their merit, or the value they bring to the organization that employs them. Setting aside larger scale influences such as regional economic factors impacting costs of living + living wage issues, competition within and between industries for employees, etc., I don’t necessarily disagree with this assertion. But, as I pointed out in my previous post, the key is to figure out how to define and measure this value.

Most businesses in the private sector come at it from multiple angles, with specific measures varying by both the type of business and the type of employee. The underlying definition often involves how well the employee contributes to a company’s profit margins and growth (though this is increasingly being considered from larger societal and generational perspectives). A key thing to note, however, is that businesses generally don’t rely on one primary measure of this perceived “value.”

Measuring value may involve the number of calls made per hour for a call center, or the number of “widgets” assembled per hour for certain manufacturing jobs. Customer service reviews may play a role. In various types of consulting firms, profit margins on individual projects that one worked on and/or managed may play a role. Reviews from immediate supervisors, employees and even those one manages can also come into play. Increasingly, the contribution an employee makes to his/her community via volunteering is a consideration. And the list goes on.

Both education and experience are also commonly used to establish various minimum required levels for promotions and pay raises (as well as initial salaries). It’s just not as commonly spelled out or as formal as it is in education and other government jobs, but it’s there nevertheless.

In addition, more and more firms are also attempting to assess and improve their employees’ levels of engagement. This often involves seeking employee feedback on everything from the work environment and hours, to salaries, benefits and amenities. The employees end up having a say in how they’re compensated.

Even focusing on the relatively narrow definition of profit margins and growth, most businesses still seek to use multiple measures when determining an individual employee’s contributions. While it varies by industry, company and employee, the number of variables impacting profit and growth are too many to focus on one primary measure or even a few measures. It wouldn’t be fair to the employee, nor would it tell the whole story to the employer.

So if that’s the case for businesses, how hard must it be to measure a teacher’s contribution to student success when a) there are a large number of potential ways to measure student success, b) we don’t all agree on how the various indicators of student success should be measured or weighted and c) there are a significant number of varying factors impacting student success beyond a teacher’s control. We certainly can’t focus on a single measure, especially one as limited as test scores. Nor can we only use the review of a single principal. They can’t fully capture a teacher’s contribution to student success, and therefore can’t provide an indication of the teacher’s value, or merit.

Which is why, as I pointed out in my last post, I believe we have to start by providing teachers and staff with a competitive base pay and benefits package, with starting salaries and raises based on education and experience. This base pay also needs to be competitive with other professions and reflective of teaching's actual value to society (and reflective of local/regional costs of living), with raises, added pay and/or bonuses based on a combination of experience, continuing education/professional development, additional duties taken on and reviews. And those reviews should be more encompassing like the Danielson framework or national Board measures (as a teacher pointed out to me). In my opinion, this is what an acceptable form of “merit-pay” looks like.

Until there is broader recognition within the education community that quantitative measures like test scores or graduation rates are both reflective of actual student success AND can be tied to individual teachers, they shouldn’t be used to assess value. At the very least they should only account for a very small percentage of all that is evaluated. Teachers should also have a hand in designing how that system looks and works in their local districts, helping to tweak and modify it as we would move forward.

Moving on to this person’s second sentence, [s]chool system management nor accounting resembles little that is seen in a successful business venture, I would suggest he misunderstands the primary mission of a public school district – to provide equitable, good quality education for ALL students served. While there are certain aspects relative to efficiencies on an annual basis and some management practices that school districts can incorporate from the business world, you can’t operate a school district exactly like a business. Education for ALL doesn’t equate to maximizing annual profit margins and growth. Anyone who doubts that should spend some time reviewing the generally miserable track record of private charter schools.

This post is already longer than intended, so I’d encourage this person and anyone else with questions to sit down with their district’s superintendent and finance director to get a better understanding of how a school district’s management and accounting differ from a business, and why. It’s fairly apparent that many of our legislators haven’t done that.

I appreciate this individual’s willingness to serve his community. However, as a board member and private sector consultant I find his response and apparent ignorance of what it takes to successfully educate all kids in an equitable manner equally “freaking” frustrating.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Unique Insanity of Teacher Merit Pay

Governor Brownback and some of his ultra-conservative allies in the legislature have been in the news lately for promoting a merit pay system for Kansas teachers as part of the new funding formula (local districts currently have the option of implementing such a system for their own teachers, though I don't know of any that do). The knee-jerk response that many educators and public education advocates likely have is "You first."

They make it sound like it's a no-brainer. We all get paid based on how well we perform, right? This will attract the highest quality teachers, right? It may sound logical on the surface but a century's worth of history and extensive research in multiple disciplines doesn't back it up. Yet teacher merit pay tied to ill-defined student success measures will not go away. There's an infectious insanity to it that seems to defy attempts at intellectual inoculation. Nevertheless, here's another attempt at inoculation.

Brief History of Teacher Merit Pay

While somewhat trite, the often repeated saying that “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it” certainly applies to the use of merit pay in American public education.

As pointed out by Goldstein (2014), Murnane and Cohen (1986) and Ravitch (2013), there have been repeated attempts and failures to implement merit pay since the early 20th century. A large number of studies on merit pay programs implemented through the 1970s found that most failed within six years of implementation. A few examples of these studies include Bacharach et al. (1984), Doremus (1982), U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (1977) and Young (1900). They all generally faced the following limitations: “excessive administrative paperwork, low funding, disagreements about how to judge good teaching, and strong opposition from teachers themselves” (Goldstein 2014).

For those who would claim that teacher unions were responsible for these failures, up through at least the 50’s teacher unions were not widespread, and where they existed they generally weren’t well organized. Teacher opposition through unions was not responsible for the early failures of merit pay systems.

Murnane and Cohen (1986), as reported by Ravitch (2013), divide these programs into two general categories: test score merit pay systems and principal evaluation merit pay systems. Test score systems are essentially “piece-rate compensation systems” better suited to manufacturing or similar jobs where it’s easier to measure an individual’s contribution to a company’s output. Examples include the number of “widgets” assembled per hour or the number of calls made per hour.

Research and case studies have demonstrated that the consequences of such merit pay systems in education include:
  • With bonuses and test scores taking center stage, there is a focus more on the students who easily respond and less on those who are more difficult to work with. 
  • Collaboration among teachers/staff is damaged or destroyed because they’re in essence competing to be the best at achieving a limited measure of student success and competing for money.
  • All other education goals are downplayed, such as critical thinking skills, positive behavior, citizenship, etc. 
Some similar as well as unique problems arise with the principal evaluation system, and they tend to revolve around problems with actual fairness as well as perceptions of fairness. These include:
  • Teacher tasks and goals can’t easily be evaluated relative to pay. The rate of “wiidget” production is very different from improving student performance. The former is much more in the control of the worker than the latter, which has many other variables outside of a teacher’s control. Not to mention there still isn’t agreement on how to measure student success.
  • Poor ratings, often associated with perceptions of unfairness (real or not) resulted in resentment and teachers actually working less hard.
  • Many principals were used to giving higher ratings to inspire teachers to live up to expectations (a not uncommon management practice in general). However the merit pay bonuses commonly decreased this use of higher ratings due to budget constraints.
  • It greatly weakens the trust between teachers and principals (and even among teachers); as a result, teachers are less likely to ask for help.
By the mid-1980’s, 99 percent of U.S. teachers were in districts using a uniform salary schedule based on education and experience. Yet despite the history and evidence against merit pay, it again saw a resurgence in the 1990’s that continues to this day. According to Ravitch (2013), the assumed underlying cause and effect is that offering bonuses to teachers will motivate them to do what it takes to obtain the money. As a result, they will increase their effort and teach more effectively, raising student test scores in the process.

Great theory, if we’re talking 1925. As with the previous sets of implementations, contemporary merit pay programs haven’t been any more effective. Studies documenting this include:
  • The National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University’s study of Nashville public schools (Springer et al. 2010).  A $15,000 bonus was offered to teachers for improving math test scores. Over three years teacher performance was compared between a control and experimental group, with no significant different in student test scores occurring.
  • A Rand Corporation study (Sparks 2011) documenting the failure of New York City’s implementation of merit pay (no impact on reading and math test scores; no improvement of teacher satisfaction). It was generally seen as a waste of public money.
  • A four-year study (Glazerman and Seifullah 2012) of Chicago’s Teacher Advancement Program found a somewhat higher teacher retention rate but no significant impact on student test scores in the schools where merit pay was implemented.
References to additional studies can be found in Goldstein (2014), Murnane and Cohen (1986) and Ravitch (2013). You can also review the referenced studies on the research page of the National Center on Performance Incentives.

Evidence from the Workplace

Looking at research from the business/management world, we find a lot of work demonstrating the difficulties associated with effectively constructing a monetary focused incentive based system. Kohn’s (1993) article in the Harvard Business Review provides a good overview of some of this research.  A lot of the research methods and interpretations are rooted in psychology as well as what we now term Organizational Development Theory. After reviewing a large amount of research documenting some of the what and why of incentive program ineffectiveness in the workplace (over 25 references are given), he then lays out the following six specific reasons underlying why reward-driven compensation systems end up failing:
  • Pay is not a motivator: The assumption that more money is a strong motivator for people to work better or more over the long term is somewhat controversial, with context playing a huge role in the degree and type of motivation it provides.
  • Rewards punish: “Rewards [can] have a punitive effect because they, like outright punishment, are manipulative.”
  • Rewards rupture relationships: An over emphasis on competition for rewards, recognition and ranking, exacerbated by being highly publicized within an organization, often results in employees seeing each other as “obstacles to their own success.” The end result is the destruction of cooperation and teamwork.
  • Rewards ignore reasons: Relying on incentives (particularly financial incentives) to gain desired results doesn’t address underlying problems. It also has been substituted for giving employees what they really need to be effective – “providing useful feedback, social support, and the room for self-determination.”
  • Rewards discourage risk-taking: “Whenever people are encouraged to think about what they will get for engaging in a task, they become less inclined to take risks or explore possibilities, to play hunches or to consider incidental stimuli. In a word, the number one casualty of rewards is creativity.” 
  • Rewards undermine interest: Employees also tend to place almost complete focus on the specific criteria being evaluated for the incentives, as opposed to the job overall and any intrinsic motivations. “[A]ny incentive or pay-for-performance system tends to make people less enthusiastic about their work and therefore less likely to approach it with a commitment to excellence.”
Some may question that I’m referencing a 1993 article. But contemporary studies and overviews, including Van Dyke (2011), while they have evolved and not all in agreement with Kohn (1993), continue to emphasize the difficulties associated with creating and implementing a fair and effective incentive based system. Many of those difficulties still hinge on a) being able to effectively articulate what the desired outcomes are, b) having agreement among the key stakeholders that the outcomes being focused on are in fact the correct ones, c) effectively measuring the outcomes and d) determining what it is that employees actually value and how that varies by context.

I should also be clear that none of this says money is without any motivational value. What the history of teacher merit pay and the workplace/management research cited above indicate is that a) it is only one piece of the puzzle and b) measured success must equal actual or desired success. If the incentive programs aren’t carefully constructed to effectively account for the multitude of contextual sources of motivation at play (monetary and non-monetary sources), the contextual goals and indicators of success at play, effective measures of this success, organizational operations, the adequacy of base pay levels, the level of trust and respect within the organization, social/cultural factors, etc., then they will have unintended consequences. And unintended consequences have been the norm throughout the history of teacher merit pay, up until the present.

Ravitch (2013) does point out some rare instances where merit pay programs have had some degree of success relative to a) the longevity of the programs, b) teacher satisfaction and c) no negative impact on student success. They were successful because they addressed many of the issues already discussed, some of which follow:
  • Merit pay was tied specifically to the extra work that teachers did. This is much more contextual, objective and easily agreed upon compared to either test scores, which are a very limited and controversial measure of student success, or the evaluation of a principal, which is more subjective and less consistent. Not using principal evaluations also eliminated any damage that such a merit based pay system could do to the trust between principals and teachers.
  • Almost everyone received some type of monetary award, it was often relatively small compared to base pay, and the awards were kept secret to avoid causing hard feelings. This minimized the perception of manipulation sometimes associated with merit based pay as well as the potential for disrupting relationships and collaboration.
  • Teachers and staff had a hand in designing the system. This increased their ownership of the system and desire to see it operate successfully (including working with administration to monitor and tweak it over the long term). Including teachers and staff also helped them feel respected.
  • They also generally occurred in districts that paid well to begin with and provided good working conditions. In other words, merit pay wasn’t used as a supplement for fair and equitable base pay, also helping teachers and staff feel respected. As Jim McNiece, chairman of the Kansas State Board of Education, and education commissioner Randy Watson recently pointed out, raising the pay of some without addressing overall compensation levels in the profession, will likely have a negative impact on morale (Llopis-Jepsen 2016).

Falling back on another trite saying, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” With such a long, unproductive and repeated history, it would seem that teacher merit pay is its own special brand of insanity. The evidence suggests that if you want to positively impact student success, across a wide range of measures, start by providing teachers and staff with a competitive base pay and benefits package, with starting salaries and raises based on education and experience.

If additional incentives are then added, they should contextually be applied per the success stories provided in Ravitch (2013). Tying merit pay to indicators of student success doesn’t work. There are too many contextual variables impacting the various measures of student success, that vary in importance by district. Nor do we all agree on what those success indicators should be or how they should be measured. If these hurdles could be addressed, perhaps some type of merit based system could be implemented based on such indicators. However, I’m skeptical because of the other negative impacts that will potentially remain, on everything from collaboration to the ability to meet all student needs.

The evidence is fairly clear on where to go from here. The question is whether or not Kansas's governor and ultra-conservative legislators will accept it, recognize the limitations of teacher merit pay tied to student success indicators, and drop it as part of the new funding formula. Or will they continue pushing forward with the idea because they're driven by an ideological view of small government and/or a view that privatization should play a much bigger role in preK-12 education? Whichever they choose, Kansans should demand they be honest about what their motivations are.


Bacharach, Samuel B., David B. Lipsky, and Joseph S. Shedd. Paying for Better Teaching (Ithaca, NY: Organizational Analysis and Practice, 1984), 28– 29, 37– 38.

Richard R. Doremus, Whatever Happened to Kalamazoo’s Merit Pay Plan? Phi Delta Kappan 63, no. 6 (February 1982).

Glazerman, Steven and Allison Seifullah. An Evaluation of the Chicago Teacher Advancement Program (Chicago TAP) After Four Years (Washington, D.C.: Mathematica Policy Research, March 7, 2012)

Murnane, Richard J. and David K. Cohen, Merit Pay and the Evaluation Problem: Understanding Why Most Merit Pay Plans Fail and a Few Survive. Harvard Educational Review (Spring 1986).

Sparks, Sarah D. Study Leads to End of New York City Merit-Pay Program. Education Week, July 20, 2011.

Springer, M. G., D. Ballou, L. Hamilton, V. Le, J. R. Lockwood, D. McCaffrey, M. Pepper, and B. Stecher, Teacher Pay for Performance: Experimental Evidence from the Project on Incentives in Teaching (Nashville, Tenn.: National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University, 2010).

Young, Ella Flagg (1900) Isolation in the School. PhD Dissertation, University of Chicago.

United States Commission on Civil Rights. School Desegregation in Kalamazoo, Michigan (April 1977).

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Trap of False Equivalency in the Assault on Kansas Public Education

I found myself in agreement with columnist Steve Rose’s conclusions in his recent Kansas City Star piece Don’t let anti-tax zealots imperil Kansas schools. Towards the end he states that the ultra-conservatives … are willing to plumb the depths and cut to the bone because their priority is tax cutting, not education. They would sacrifice quality education for their crusade.

But according to Mr. Rose he didn’t come to this conclusion based on the differences in the quality of research from opposing sides. He sees KPI’s and KASB’s analyses and interpretations as focused solely on interpreting the data to suit their own positions – neither’s methods or motives are superior or inferior to the other’s.

He instead relies on the Kansas Legislative Research department, a government agency that he sees as a more neutral body than either KPI and KASB. In the article he states that according to Legislative Research, The truth is in the eye of the beholder and it is not provable, one way or the other. You can find statistics to prove either position, and you will gravitate toward the numbers that make your case.

Despite all of this Mr. Rose still comes to his conclusion, it seems, because he thinks that the extent of the tax cuts poses too great a risk to the quality of public education and the future of our children. But to reach that conclusion it would seem that Mr. Rose has made some mental calculations and judgments clearly in line with KASB’s analyses demonstrating that the amount of spending (and how it’s spent) is correlated with student success.

Relative to the Kansas Legislative Research department, he doesn’t provide the actual quote nor the context that it was made within. But it would surprise me if individual Legislative Research analysts truly equate KASB’s and KPI’s quality of analyses and interpretations.

If they do, then both Legislative Research and Mr. Rose have fallen into the trap of false equivalency that we often see in the media. They sometimes feel the need to remain in the “center” of an issue, regardless of the quality of the expertise, data, analyses and/or interpretations on either side. One can objectively analyze multiple sides of an issue and come to a logical conclusion that one side has more validity than the other. When the media attempt to remain completely neutral, despite the data supporting one interpretation over another, they do a disservice to those who consume their information. Per my previous post, it can also support political tricksters in their misrepresentation of data.

In many ways, equating the quality of KASB’s and KPI’s analyses and interpretations in my opinion is about as valid as equating the research and interpretations of climate change scientists vs. deniers, or of evolutionary theorists vs. intelligent design proponents. Here’s one example of this.

In attempting to refute KASB’s recent analyses finding a correlation between funding and student performance (summarized here) KPI took the following actions (summarized here):

  • focused primarily on one narrow measure of student success - NAEP scores (also ACT scores to a smaller degree)
  • didn’t attempt to compare Kansas to similar states 
  • falsely accused KASB of ignoring other variables that impact student success

Contrast this with KASB’s approach that consisted of:

  • inclusion of multiple indicators of student success (graduation rates, NAEP scores, ACT scores, SAT scores and state test scores) for multiple student groups
  • comparisons to a group of states doing better than Kansas as well as a group of states most like Kansas (relative to a series of student population characteristics, adult population characteristics and population distribution characteristics)
  • clearly stating they weren’t statistically proving increased funding results in increased student performance, only showing a correlation

In looking at multiple student groups relative to the student success measures and including the different characteristics to find similar states, KASB built-in multiple variables to consider, from socioeconomic status and special needs to adult education and population density. The following KASB post should make it clear that the organization recognizes the large number of variables (often interacting) that can influence student success. KASB also recognizes that graduation rates and test scores aren’t the only indicators of student success, many of which are difficult to measure but also dependent on adequate funding.

And a significant number of peer reviewed studies have demonstrated a correlation between funding and student success. A 2012 report produced by the Albert Shanker Institute (found here) summarizes the findings from several peer reviewed studies linking student success with the amount of funding (sources are sited).

I will acknowledge that there are discrepancies in how KASB and KPI interpret the NAEP scores relative to funding over time. At this point though I haven’t attempted to review each of these in detail to tease out the source of these discrepancies. But here is where one may also look at both the underlying motivations and the level of expertise involved in both conducting the analyses and making the interpretations.

It’s important to remember that a primary goal of KPI is to significantly reduce government spending and government influence over our lives in general. Their analyses and interpretations are designed to support that goal. And with public education comprising the majority of our state’s budget, it’s always in KPI’s cross-hairs.

In contrast, a primary goal of KASB is the success of students via a strong, equitable education environment, and their analyses and interpretations are designed to support that goal. They are attempting to determine, among other things, what policies, funding amounts and types of spending result in student success, and why. Their interpretations aren’t designed to support increased funding per se, but to provide adequate funding to achieve student success.

In addition, KASB’s interpretations are made by experts in the field of education – experts via academic research experience as well as years of classroom and administrative experience. KPI, however, may partner with individuals having a background in education, but those individuals also typically share KPI’s ideological view of the world.

Yes, KASB is a proponent of public education. But this is in part because as education experts they know the benefits of a strong, equitable public education system, from that of the individual child to society at large.

If I wanted to understand the cost/benefits of building sustainably, I would look at research conducted by professional organizations in the field (USGBC, ASHRAE, IESNA, etc.) as well as peer reviewed research. I would also talk to building owners, facility managers and practitioners who work in the field on a daily basis – architects, engineers, contractors and other specialty consultants. I would do so because these are the experts and the key stakeholders who live the day-to-day. I would not reach out to a political lobbying group that seeks to limit sustainable design requirements (or even guidelines) from showing up in state and municipal codes and standards because they believe in small government.

In order for citizens to be critical consumers of information it is important that the media avoid the trap of false equivalency. They must be objective in their assessment of opposing analyses, interpretations, motivations and expertise. Actual neutrality is not an option. Otherwise we give the tricksters a free pass.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Cherry Picking Data, Tricksters & the Assault on Kansas Public Education

Mark Twain popularized the saying, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” He was of course referring to the “time-honored tradition” of persuading others to your position through the misrepresentation of data. 

One reason it’s such a time-honored tradition is that anyone can fall into the trap of misrepresentation without realizing it. As Thomas Speidel pointed out in his blog post The Perils of Data Story Telling: The Virtues of Data Documentaries, different stories, sometimes contradictory in nature, can be gleaned from a single dataset. Which is why studies need repeating, and why research should undergo a peer review process. And when interpreting data, one should maximize transparency by revealing any uncertainties, ambiguities or assumptions in one’s argument. Deliberately hiding them, or worse, outright stating they don’t exist, is a dishonest approach at persuasion. For elected officials it’s a violation of the public’s trust.

Governor Brownback, his ultra-conservative allies in the Kansas legislature and the Kansas Policy Institute (KPI) have been fairly bold in their misrepresentation of data, in general and specifically in their attacks on public education. Likely they vary as to how explicitly they recognize their own data misrepresentation, with some believing their misrepresentations to be true and others justifying their actions through their end goals (one being the privatization of public education). In all cases their beliefs and actions are reinforced through self-imposed isolation from those who disagree with them, the removal of legislators who don’t toe the line from key committees being one example of this.

Representative J.R. Claeys (@jrclaeys), district 69, is fond of using twitter for his own sleights of hand. Recently he’s tweeted several misrepresentations under the hashtag #doesntfitthenarrative, cherry-picking data in order to provide the appearance of “poking holes” in the arguments of public education supporters. In one tweet he provides the figure below to justify his assertion that public education is and will receive more funding under the Brownback administration.

First, I should state that I’m not exactly sure what portion of funding these numbers portray, but they don’t represent all of the general fund dollars for the years listed (actual and projected). Second, note that the y-axis doesn’t go to zero, giving the appearance that funding is doubling in the selected time frame. Third, years 2015, 2016 and 2017 are legislative approved, not actual dollars. Based on the state’s revenue to date, those numbers may very well be reduced. Fourth, and most importantly, the dollar amounts aren’t adjusted for inflation and the years were carefully selected to portray an increasing trend. KASB has actually performed a detailed analysis of funding over the years, and the three bullet points below summarizes their findings, presented in the following blog post: Record Breaking Numbers! 
  • In terms of actual dollar amounts, KPI is right; the state general fund amounts for 2015-2017 will be record breakers (but this includes KPERS).
  • Once you accurately adjust the dollar amounts for inflation, you see that the peak spending period in Kansas between 1995 and 2017 was in 2008-2009 (NOT 2017), and that the amount in 2015 is about what it was in 2006-2007.
  • Finally, when you adjust for the population and inflation, the per capita amount for the state general fund in 2015 is actually lower than it was in 1995, and the trend would suggest this per capita decline will continue through 2017.  

In full disclosure, KASB’s analysis wasn’t submitted for external peer review to the best of my knowledge. However I have found, that as an organization, they bend over backwards to present their findings in an impartial manner, focusing on the information itself and minimizing any story telling. But you may read through their extensive analyses and judge for yourself.

In another series of tweets, Representative Claeys pulls data on superintendent payouts from a KPI blog post and portrays the data as an example of excessive administrative salaries:

First, payouts are a onetime expense and do not represent annual superintendent salaries, though Rep. Claeys was clearly trying to create that confusion. The actual salary of the Blue Valley superintendent was less than a half of this payout, based on data obtained from Second, Rep. Claeys and KPI have chosen an extreme to represent the norm, a classic cherry picking maneuver. The 2014-2015 Blue Valley superintendent’s actual salary of $285,079 was the second highest salary in the state of Kansas out of 285 listed superintendent salaries (Wichita’s being the highest). The 2014-2015 Kansas average superintendent salary was approximately $110,000, with a standard deviation of approximately $37,000. I don’t have the complete payout data, but I’m making the assumption that the payout for Blue Valley’s superintendent is a similar extreme relative to the statewide data. 

In addition, KASB’s report, Long-Term Growth in Instructional and Student Support Employees, states that while there has been an increase in the state’s number of teachers, paraprofessionals and other instructional/student support staff since 1998, there has actually been a decrease in the number of general administration positions (superintendents, clerical staff, etc.). As a state we seem to have done pretty well keeping administration costs low relative to the increasing recognized needs of equitable public education.

Misdirection, misrepresentation, sleight of hand, and Twain’s lies, damned lies and statistics… these are calling cards of the Trickster, a cross-cultural archetypal character sometimes depicted as hero, sometimes villain, sometimes both and sometimes neither. But always a mischievous character surrounded by conflict and confusion, with his/her own self-interests primarily in mind. Tricksters have often been used in myth and literature to teach us what not to do.

With acknowledgements to @RobertLeonard and many others who’ve previously made use of the Trickster analogy in analyses of contemporary society, I see Representative Claeys, Governor Brownback, KPI and other ultra-conservatives/libertarians acting in various capacities as Tricksters. While they may see themselves as heroes, they are the villains from the perspective of public education, cherry picking data, creating straw man arguments, etc., to suit their own agendas. 

Sometimes they assume a Trickster’s personification of the buffoonish clown, as when celebrating meeting projected state revenues after significantly lowering the bar. At other times they’re a more malevolent Trickster, as when manipulating data to support the block grant, moving elections, doing away with teacher due process or threatening to jail educators for distributing material a minority of legislators deem offensive.

The best defense against public officials who’ve violated the public trust through various forms of Trickster misrepresentations is an informed and engaged public (in conjunction with a free press). A public that challenges legislators when they misrepresent data; a public that insists our state leaders engage with those outside their inner circle. But that takes work on our part. It’s not easy being a citizen in a representative democracy. 

We must educate ourselves with regards to basic statistics and data interpretation. We have to stay current with the world around us and talk to our family, friends and neighbors. And then stay in contact with our representatives to keep them honest. Finding the time for this with all of the world’s distractions is difficult, but the quality of our government, and the resulting quality of our lives (now and in the future), correlates directly with the amount of time we’re willing to put into this as citizens. 

Here are two references to start with for the average lay person regarding statistics and data:

And here are two references to start with regards to public education versus privatization:

Read them for yourselves. Look at other sources. Talk to a wide range of people. Then make up your own mind who the Tricksters are. But don’t wait too long to inoculate yourself against their “lies, damned lies and statistics.” The future of Kansas public education hangs in the balance.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Will Kansas Correct Its Course?

This Tuesday, November 4th, Kansas voters will decide the course our state takes with respect to multiple critical issues. We’ll either continue steaming full speed ahead, right for the looming iceberg, or hopefully we’ll begin correcting course. As a state, we must ask ourselves if we want leaders who clearly assess the facts, who seek multiple viewpoints, who evaluate the results of policy decisions and make adjustments as needed, or if we want leaders who blindly follow a political ideology, particularly if that ideology is cancerous to Kansas.*

Do we want leaders who are willing and able to incorporate sound science (including climate and medical science) within policy where applicable, or do we want leaders who reject peer reviewed science because it conflicts with their world view or pocket book? Are we a forward thinking state that embraces sustainability and renewable energy, with all of the associated positive economic and environmental implications, or are we laggards stuck in a fossil fuel tar pit with the other extinct mega fauna?

Do we want to make it harder or easier for all Kansans to vote and have a voice? Do we want a judiciary that operates independently of the governor and legislature, or do we want justices who think and act exactly like the executive branch, regardless of who’s sitting in the governor’s chair? Do we want a state legislature usurping local laws with respect to guns and potentially other aspects down the road? Do we want a state legislature usurping the authority of the state board of education, another elected body?

And do we want state leaders who under-fund public education and undermine the security of teachers (thereby undermining their effectiveness), leaders who have a very narrow definition of efficiency and make decisions that negatively impact our state’s long term economic competitiveness and the future of our children? Or do we want leaders who recognize the short and long term benefits of a strong, well funded pre-K-16+ public education system? As a school board member I am particularly concerned about the inevitable cuts and consolidations that will happen at the local level across the state if we continue on our current course; for many districts it’s already too late to avoid some of this.

So, if you think your vote doesn't matter, if you think the outcome of this election doesn't matter, think again. How fast we correct course hinges on this midterm. The outcome will matter this year, in five years and in ten plus years from now. It will matter to you, to your family and to your community. It will matter to all of us.

*For more on cancerous ideologies, see Reply to Commentaries on Blueprint for the Global Village - the last few paragraphs that start with "On cancerous ideologies."

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Climate Change Endangers Our Cultural Resources - Another Social Cost of Carbon

The Union of Concerned Scientists recently released a report on the dangers that climate change pose to our cultural resources. The report is summarized here - History Under Water: Climate Change Imperils Historic, Cultural Sites. It's another example of the social cost of carbon (SCC). We could put some dollar estimates on this, from the lost National Park jobs and local economic dollars that flow from visitors (Mesa Verda had over a half million visitors in 2011) to the money required to repair, relocate and/or protect existing sites. But there’s another impact that’s much more difficult to assign a dollar value to. These sites help define, display and educate regarding our local, regional and collective national identities. Through the stories, landscapes and artifacts associated with these sites they help us remember where we came from, what mistakes not to repeat and the best part of our collective selves to pass along to future generations. Without them, it becomes that much easier to forget the what, why and how of who we were – the good and the bad. The loss of existing and undiscovered sites also represents a loss of future discovery as archaeological and other associated methods advance. And of course this same story applies globally. Follow the link to the actual Union of Concerned Scientists’ report and you’ll find a take action link for contacting your senators.

As an aside, the article reports that our National Parks have $11 billion dollars of deferred maintenance needs now, without even accounting for the resilience measures necessary to address the impacts of climate change. Our schools have $271 billion dollars of deferred maintenance just to get them back up to minimum standards. To actually modernize our schools would require $542 billion. Our drinking water infrastructure – $1 trillion+. Our bridges -  $20.5 billion annually spent through 2028. And the list goes on and on relative to our national infrastructure. Plus there’s over $500 billion dollars of work out there to improve building energy efficiency, representing $130 billion dollars of savings annually in energy costs. A vast untapped reserve of jobs and economic boost is out there and energy efficiency itself represents a major wedge for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But we don’t seem to have the political will to do it. And in the meantime our infrastructure and cultural resources will continue to deteriorate, more rapidly with worsening climate change impacts, and with major ramifications to our safety, economy and national identity.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Kansas Legislature's Efforts to Stop Implementation of Common Core and NGSS Misguided

Below is my submitted testimony to the Kansas House Education Committee in support of continued implementation of the Kansas College and Career Ready Standards (our state's version of the Common Core) and Kansas College and Career Ready Standards for Science (our state's version of the NGSS), and opposition to the bill designed to render them null and void.

Many of the legitimate concerns with implementation and assessment are a result of, or exacerbated by, a lack of adequate funding/resources. And a recent poll shows that most Kansans (by a wide margin) believe public schools are underfunded and want the Kansas Supreme Court to order additional funding (

Dear House Education Committee Members,

As a member of the Kansas Review Committee for the Next Generation Science Standards (providing a business/industry perspective), I urge you to vote no on HB 2621. I believe that this is a bad bill for our students and teachers, and Kansas in general, for the following reasons:

1. According to various news reports, it would appear that at least some of the main proponents of this bill and previous efforts to defund implementation haven’t even read through Kansas’ version of the common core and NGSS (or any version for that matter). Some of them apparently haven’t spoken with any of the educators, administrators, scientists or business/industry individuals who were involved in their development. To author or support a bill that seeks to render null and void standards one hasn’t read or sought to gain a broad understanding of is irresponsible and unbecoming of an elected official.

2. The standards’ detractors keep arguing that the Common Core and NGSS are the results of Federal mandates. While the Federal government may desire to see them implemented (because it, too, would like to get rid of No Child Left Behind), these were state driven enterprises – and this is pretty easy to verify. Participating in the NGSS process, I personally know that Kansas concerns and criticisms from our states review committee were reviewed and incorporated into the NGSS standards – and that’s documented for anyone who would like to see.

3. Our state board of education adopted these standards (with large majority support). Education standards fall under their domain, not the state legislature. This bill is an attempt by one elected body to circumvent the authority of another elected body.

4. Continued attempts to stop the implementation of these standards (and defund K-12 in general) essentially create a foundation of shifting sand for our educators in terms of moving forward with working through all of the legitimate concerns with implementation and assessment. There is a hesitancy to fully commit if they think there is a chance the standards will be rendered null and void.

5. A portion of the bill also challenges a statewide database that collects information on students past high school graduation. One of the criticisms revolves around privacy concerns and worries that the Federal government will “grab” this information. First, you need this kind of longitudinal data to verify the effectiveness of your education system – you can’t verify and improve upon what you don’t measure. Second, the state department of education doesn’t share personal information with the Federal government, only aggregate numbers. Nor has there been any indication from the U.S. Department of Education that they would even want that information.

6. And another part of the bill seeks to bar the state education department from collecting and delivering biometric data about students to federal agencies, including their DNA sequences and retina patterns. This is a straw man argument – shifting focus from the standards issue to a hypothetical issue/threat that hasn’t even come up yet in this context in order to scare people. Government spying and data collection is a separate issue and bigger than our state’s education standards issue. It doesn’t belong in this bill.

Per my understanding, the whole point of the common core (math, reading), NGSS and new social studies standards was to improve public education (particularly relative to No Child Left Behind) and establish a STATE driven K-12 framework that allows some level of standardization across the nation while still allowing flexibility at the state and local levels. From my involvement in the NGSS process and reading through the rest of the standards, that seems to be precisely what they’re set up to do. To me, the concerns mentioned above aren’t an argument for trying to render there implementation null and void, but for how we work together to make sure they’re implemented in the best possible manner at the local level (including assessments, which I agree is a tricky and contentious issue).

I also believe that a lot of the concerns with implementation and assessments are driven in part by the general lack of adequate funding/resources in K-12 schools. I know if I was a KS teacher, I would be wondering how I’m supposed to implement this given the current state of funding and political climate.


Marcel Harmon, PhD, PE, LEED AP O+M
Lawrence, KS