Leslie Brunetta Budget Comments 2014

Public Comment, SC Budget Hearing, Oct. 21, 2014

Leslie Brunetta


(See data at end)

First, I want to thank you for asking for input so early in the budget process.

I’m here to tell you something you may not know and to ask you to reorient your budget decisions.

I looked at the scores from the 2011 8th grade international TIMMS math test, the test reformers love to beat us all over the head with. In 2011, the US Department of Education disaggregated the scores by state, and then by subgroups within the states. I looked at 8th grade MCAS CPI scores in Massachusetts and in Cambridge to see where CPS kids might rank on the TIMMS test. Keep in mind that these are 2011 scores—so before the Innovation Agenda and before we changed our whole math curriculum.

In 2011, the average Black or low-income CPS 8th grader would be predicted to have scored as well as or better than the average 8th grader in Finland or Israel and better than the average English 8th grader. In fact, Black and low-income CPS 8th graders, who tend to be our two lowest-scoring groups, would have scored better than the average 8th grader in all countries except Russia, Japan, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Singapore, and Korea, all countries that are tremendously test-focused in a way that their own leaders are regretting.

This ranking of CPS students by actual scores is a fact, not an anecdote. In 2011, 7th and 8th graders were taught math by math specialists, but in all the years running up to 7th grade, they were taught by generalists. And yet we hear that there’s something really wrong with our teaching staff, with our curricula, with our structures. We hear it from the state, and we hear it from some of our own administrators. I’m sorry, but those statements are anecdote, not fact.

We would not be getting these results with mediocre staff or mediocre curricula, especially given that these math tests are quite language intensive.

But of course we do have a real problem here. That problem is that while our Black and low-income students would have scored as well as Finnish kids, our White 8th graders would have scored higher than Russia and Japan and our Asian 8th graders would have scored higher than those two countries and Hong Kong. All the good stuff our schools have to offer is not getting to every kid—and we know that without looking at test scores. There are kids in all demographics here who are not getting what they need.

I’m telling you this for two reasons. You often pay big money for and follow advice from people who cannot demonstrate that they have gotten as good results as we have already had for quite some time. You ignore people in the community who actually have proven track records in reaching many of the kids we’re worried about. (If you don’t already know who these people are, you should ask yourself why you don’t.) Most of the consultants you hire have no data to show that they have helped the kids who are losing out more than we’ve helped them already. (Check out their websites. If they’re not trumpeting it, you can bet that they can’t produce it.) If you find someone who can actually show you proof—actual facts rather than anecdotes–that they have obtained results better than we have—of course, listen to them. But before you hire someone, ask for proof.

So, a related point. People are fond of saying we don’t need to spend more money because we already spend more per pupil than almost everywhere else. But can you cite any district or school that hasn’t cherry picked its population that gets better results with disadvantaged kids than we do already? Who says spending more money and getting more individualized attention for the kids who need it with that money won’t result in better outcomes? There is gold-standard research that has found just the opposite. And, in fact, some fairly conservative groups in MA who have supported reform recently issued reports showing that the increases in achievement in MA seen over the last two decades correlated more closely with increased spending in schools than with most other factors; since spending has plateaued, so has achievement.

So I’m asking you to move from the current “outside-in” orientation—in which you constantly look for outside advice and keep trying new structures and new administrative positions and new curricula that are supposed to improve “the system”—to an “inside-out” orientation in which we let our teachers teach how they know best and then turn our focus on individual kids. Have enough people in the schools—teachers, counselors, social workers—so you can find out what every kid needs and what they’re missing out on and why. Essentially, every kid in the system should have an IEP. The idea that more people in a classroom can result in people tripping over each other is just anecdote. I’m sure many districts think we’re crazy for having as many highly trained security specialists at CRLS as we do. Wouldn’t they all trip over each other and the teachers and administrators? But how many urban high schools do you know that are as calm as CRLS? They were hired to fix a crisis, and they significantly helped to fix it, mostly by interacting directly with kids. Look at the fact that Alanna Mallon has found that absenteeism has dropped and classroom engagement improved for kids who receive food at the weekend—that has taken people on the ground to talk to kids and their families and teachers and to pack the backpacks.

Let’s stop waiting for improvements that are always promised to come 3 or 4 years from now and let’s reorient our spending to focus on each child as an individual today.

P.S.: Having added some more data to this analysis, I noticed a few things. One is that CPS students taken all together as a group would be predicted to perform considerably better than Ontario students taken all together. In fact, CPS Black students would perform better than Ontario students taken all together. Ontario is where celebrity reformer and “change leader” Michael Fullan, recently referenced in district presentations on assessment, led reforms that we are recommended to follow by state and national education leaders. It is exactly pieces of data like this that lead me to say about people giving you advice, “Verify, then trust.” (Sorry, Ron, you had a lot more resources at hand than we do.) I have nothing against Fullan, and I’m sure he did help Ontario and probably can help many districts. But perhaps instead of CPS following the advice of Fullan and others, Fullan should be hiring pre-2011 CPS teachers and principals as advisers. CPS results were a long time in the building, and we are currently in the process of changing everything up (including our math curriculum) so we can get results like Fullan’s in Ontario. Think about it.

Country TIMMS  Score MCAS CPI
Korea 613
Singapore 611
Chinese Taipei 609
CPS Asian-American   90
MA Asian-American 599 87
CPS White   83
Hong Kong 586
CPS White   83
MA White 572 79
Japan 570
MA All Students 561 76
CPS All Students   74
MN All Students 545
Russia 539
NC All Students 537
Quebec All Students 532
U.S. White 530
IN All Students 522
CT All Students 518
CO All Students 518
CPS Hispanic   64
CPS Black   62
MA Black 516 62
Israel 516
CPS Low Income   61
Finland 514
FL All Students 513
Ontario All Students 512
US All Students 509
England-GBR 507
MA Hispanic 507 56
Australia 505
Hungary 505
Slovenia 505

All other tested countries score lower than Australia, Hungary, and Slovenia.


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