Friday, July 27, 2007

Once Again, the Double Standard

The crackerjack investigative staff of the Milton Times has rocked the summertime calm of the 7th best place to live in America! “School Clerical Staff Win Large Raises.” Imagine our good fortune that this story did not break before Money Magazine identified Milton one of the top 10 of 3000 similar communities. How would they have reacted to news concerning the “honesty and accountability”, as the Milton Times editorial described it, of the Milton School Department? Would we have lost the top Massachusetts position to Chelmsford?

Sarcasm off.

Alright. So what’s the story? Five clerical staffers in the school department were given raises for FY 2008 ranging from 8-16%. These are sizeable increases. And they are occurring at a time when personnel are being cut in the school department because salary increases in the school department were not funded by the Town Meeting. This somehow raises issues of honesty and accountability in the eyes of the Times, and of fiscal responsibility according to some others.

Let’s look at the numbers. The FY 2008 raises for these five employees total $24,868. Had they been the standard 3%, they would have been around $17,872 less --this amount out of a school budget of over $30 million, with the average cost of single teacher running around $50,000. Is this fiscal irresponsibility? Lack of honesty? Does it really contribute to the pain being inflicted upon Milton school children by a wholly inadequate budget coming out of Town Meeting? Of course it doesn’t. Descriptive terms like those used by the Times and others lose all meaning when they are applied in such an inappropriate way.

In the real world of government and private industry increases in compensation beyond the standard occur all the time. When a Police patrolman becomes a Sergeant, or a Sergeant becomes a Lieutenant, the pay jumps more than the standard 3%. When a school teacher becomes an Assistant Principal the same thing occurs. Whenever the responsibilities of an employee in the private sector change significantly, whether accompanied by a title change or not, raises above the standard are expected. These changes occur in good times, and they occur in bad times when layoffs are necessary. They occur because smart management knows that keeping employees properly compensated and motivated is crucial at all times.

It should not be surprising to anyone that the Milton Times is beating the drum on this story. Their long history of antagonism toward the School department begins at the top and manifests itself in a double standard with respect to “news” which has been seen over and over again. Do you really believe the Times is only interested in the issue of large raises during times of very tight budgets?

The Warrant for the 2007 Town Meeting contained the following statement in the report of the Warrant Committee.

“For the 28 DPW employees who are members of the Milton Public Employees Association, the aggregate cost of salary increases from FY2007 to FY2008 is $128,137, a 10.92% increase. The Town does not have sufficient revenue to sustain increases of these magnitudes year after year.”

Not a single member of the public, and not a single Town Meeting member rose at Town Meeting to question or oppose this action. Money to pay these increases was approved. Neither before nor after the Town Meeting did the Milton Times raise this as an issue of accountability, or, indeed, at all.

Along with the front page article the Times ran an editorial about this story. Apparently it is growing sensitive to charges of unfairness in its coverage of the schools. It claimed a responsibility to disclose information it had discovered. The Times has been receiving leaks of information for many years. Why do these leaks place more of an obligation on the paper to report about something than the facts laid out plainly in something like the Town Warrant, on exactly the same issue? And why does it seem to get such leaks about the School Department only?

The fiscal problems we face as a town are far more complex than the simplistic, agenda driven output of the Milton Times. No one should expect that enterprise to expend the effort to understand and communicate the larger questions. What we can expect of citizens, and especially of Town Meeting members, is a resistance to the emotional responses which sensationalized reporting can engender.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once again: Thank you Phil for a reasoned treatise on the so-called news coverage from The Milton Times. Many people are sure that if there were alternative newspapers in town, The Milton Times would go down.

10:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. Pat Desmond , Times owner and editor has an ax to grind and all of her coverage on the schools is negative. She provided no coverage on such issues as Shields and Mulen's violation of the open meeting law;no coverage or response to the issues surronding Shields and Mullens racist comments to the No Place for Hate representatives. Phil, I think we need a new paper in town and you are a gifted writter. How about it?

12:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps our citizens need a real education of the origins and intent of the compulsory school system from a 30 year veteran.

Parents need real choices without breaking their pocket books.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

I'm afraid that Mr. Gatto's views are more political than they are educational.

His libertarian fantasy world ignores the fact that all modern societies have agreed that universal, free, public education is a key element in both individual and societal success. This social compact holds that it is the duty of all citizens, whether they have children or not, to educate the next generation of human beings and citizens.

It is easy to criticize something as large and complex as the task of educating millions of youngsters in the context of many other social problems. But the fact of the matter is nothing better has been proposed that isn't a not so discreet call to let me worry about my kids, and to hell with the rest.

1:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you dismiss his ideas too easily. He is asking for true reform and his ideas are compelling. Do you think that it was easy for him to criticize? I think it was fortitude and conviction!

And I'm afraid that the answer is easier than you profess. Our schools should concentrate on active literacy, self directed learning, and apprenticeships, not mindless standardized tests that beat a curious mind into submission.

Why is it that we hear about Japan, and yet Hong Kong children consistently prove better at math and science with a shorter school year. How does Sweden succeed with a 9 year program?

The answer isn't just more money, but a change of philosophy. Read Alvin Toffler, he says the same thing.

As parents, we have no control of the curriculum, abdicating our responsibility to a group of faceless social engineering experts. And now we have "No child left behind...."- the one size fits all mentality.

3:00 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

I'm afraid that his ideas are easy to dismiss, whether his criticism was easy for him or not.

In fact the school should concentrate on what they are concentrating on, basic skills acquisition, and a body of fundamental knowledge in the areas of science, mathematics, languages, etc. Self-directed learning comes at the end of the process, when skills and a fairly broad knowledge of the basics has been attained.

Japan has one of the most rote systems of drill and test in the world, so you seem to be arguing against your own point. As for Sweden, the 9 year program is just the "compulsory" component of their system. Virtually all students continue for three more years of "Upper Secondary Education" before going on to college. About 38% do so, versus about 55% in the US.

Of course more money isn't always the only answer. But the converse, that money is not important is equally incorrect.

As for local control, you again argue against your own point. Sweden, Japan and Hong Kong have national, not local or state, control of curricula.

I'm afraid there's a lot more to the education question than what one can read in Gatto.

11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, Mr. Gatto used many of his ideas in practice, with great success. He was elected teacher of the year in NYC two or three times. There is an excellent Google video that was a clip from 60 minutes that walks through his approach. He was successful with poor and rich alike.

In the case of Japan, I am not arguing against my point. My point was that rote systems and drills are, in the end, not successful. I was using examples to prove that point.

Our system, with the MCAS now in place is moving in that direction and it concerns me a great deal.
I have a child at Glover and the main focus is to teach to the test. This is folly. It may acheive better test scores but it is fantasy to assume that we are educating our children properly using this approach. Apparently, once the tests are completed in May, they pretty much do nothing for the next 4 weeks!They watch movies once or twice a week! Give me a break! My child was bored with the repetition of practicing the same problems over and over again. What message does this send our kids. The real world certainly is more exciting than that!

And in regards to self-directed learning, even Milton Academy empowers a middle school student to customize their curriculum in 7th or 8th grade.

Phillip, your coverage of the financial issues are fair and correct. I will support increases in the budget if it is earmarked towards activities and learning that create a "whole person" such as art, music and sport activities.

Taking more free-time from my child to do repetitive mind numbing homework is the wrong message to give our children.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

I'm familiar with Mr. Gatto and his teaching success. It doesn't, I'm afraid, improve my views of his philosophy.

You mentioned Hong Kong and Sweden as alternatives. And yet Hong Kong is perhaps even more known for rote learning that Japan. Students are ranked from the earliest ages. Teaching to exams is notorious. Large numbers of students attend "cram schools" to get an edge in cutthroat competition. Students are required to wear uniforms. Single sex education is common at the secondary level, which closely follows the British system. So I'm having trouble understanding your point. Are nations which score higher on international tests your model or not?

Frankly I've never understood this complaint about "teaching to the test". We either have a common body of knowldege and skills we wish to teach or we don't. The clear consensus is that we do. Therefore, we must have a way of determinging whether such knowledge and skills are being learned. The tests do that as well as provide a diagnostic tool for identifying problems and addressing them.

Milton Academy, like all private schools, teaches a self-selected group of students. They use the substantial resources from tuition ($38,000 for boarders, $31,000 for day students) to maintain a student faculty ration of 5:1. Most public schools are around 16:1. They maintain an average class size of 14, versus the mid 20's or higher for most public schools. Students are required to 5 courses per semester. You point to an example for your case which lavishes money on education and has the luxury of teaching the most gifted.

If you'd like to produce with your tax dollars something like that kind of learning environment; if you'd like to see more art and music; if you'd like to see the adoption of enrichment programs for students who can do more, you'd have a supporter in me. But that requires more money, not less. And right now we don't have enough.

10:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hong Kong was mentioned because education reform (decentralization) was initiated shortly after 1997. You won't find that information on Wikipedia.

Sweden was mentioned because, since 1992, they instituted education vouchers which has instilled competition and has met with much success. Can you imagine- a welfare/nanny state like Sweden promoting free market ideas.

The "high stakes" use of standardized tests promotes the behaviors and results I mentioned through my own experience as a parent. I'm sure you remember the debates in years past in this regard. Of course, we can talk about approach and philosophy, but our kids well-being is most important. Right? MCAS should be used diagnostically and only as one measure, and not viewed as the silver-bullet to a complicated problem.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

Hong Kong scored high in international tests at least as far back as 1999. Attributing their high scores to a decentralization that was not all that radical is simply not the case. You won't find that information in Gatto's film.

Other than the fact that they have vouchers, I don't understand your referencing of Sweden. They perform below the United States on international tests of math and science, your apparent standard. And Sweden was a nation that had no history of private education available, creating a drive for one. If you really believe the private sector could do a better job educating than the current system, I don't know what to tell you. Milton Friedman wasn't right about everything. We talked about Milton Academy, which you brought up as an example of freedom, at over $30,000 per year. What price freedom?

No one really views MCAS as a silver bullet. But graduating children with a lack of skills and basic knowledge had to stop. It serves a very useful purpose for both diagnosis and measurement. There is no sense in diagnosing if one doesn't expect the cure to produce measurable results.

Yes, the well being of "all" kids is important. And an educational system must keep all kinds in mind

2:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Privatizing the education system may actually drop private education prices even at the elite private schools since the demand would drop in favor of alternatives. They would be forced to react. As is stands now, government run schools have a monopoly on a large market segment in the US. Providing tax credits, vouchers or other means would bring attract more alternatives to meet the demand.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

The prices would drop only if you could produce something like the education found at Milton Academy for significantly less than $30,000 per year. Othewise what's the attraction?

You'd have to be able to do it at the some average of the going rate for public schools, say on the order of $10,000.

But I'm not interested in solving the problems of education for some students, but for all.

3:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is nothing wrong with different prices for education. Of course the Miltons, Exeters, Grotons, would remain higher than most, but for many of us, the 10K in credits, plus 10K of my own money would go a long way. Right now, I'm priced out of the 20K market because of the taxes I pay.

You can't level the playing field entirely. But, I suppose collectivists/socialists still believe in that pipe dream.

6:45 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

It's not simply a matter of whether there are different prices or not. You claimed the free market would lower the prices. That would not happen.

And a voucher system for PUBLIC education which still opened opportunities only for those with a certain amount of money is antithetical to publich education.

In Sweden I believe the PRIVATE schools are required to educate for the going public rate as well as meet the public school guidelines and curriculum.

There are cheaper communities than Milton, but the difference in taxes will be nothing like the $10,000 shortfall you're talking about.

In fact you can greatly level the playing field, and pointing out that you can't do so entirely is merely an excuse for not trying- favored by social darwinists.

5:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let me just say, that as a former teacher in the town of Milton, the problems there are huge...really, ridiculously huge. The notion that the school department is one bursting with truth and integrity makes my blood boil. NEVER in my career, have I seen a department that was run so poorly as the Milton Public Schools.

The town of Milton has been hijacked by political figures. The people at the helm are in control, and they use intimidation tactics to keep it that way. Milton spends a lot of time teaching children about respect for one another, diversity, and bullying. As a former teacher, I find this positively laughable. All those endearing, quality life traits that are being constantly drilled into the heads of your children are exactly the traits that the administration seems to lack. The biggest bully in the Milton Public Schools was just recently appointed to a complete takeover. It's horrifying.

You wonder why the Milton Times doesn't print anything of worth on the state of the Milton wonder why there is never a truely reasonable explanation for the chaos that is the school budget, or the acheivement gap? It is not for lack of information about such things, it is more to do with the fact that the Times would never dare print such "blasphemy" because someone at the top of the school department would get VERY upset...and you don't want to see her when she's upset!

School districts in other towns are not run this way. That is not to say that everyplace else is it's own Utopia, however, the kind of political hack drama that takes place in Milton is somewhat countered by a series of checks and balances in most other towns. However in Milton, you've got probably the most vindictive person I've heard tell of, in an extreme power position, you dare to cross her, and you will be put in your place. That is why the Milton Times "crack investigative team" never comes up with the real stories...they've been threatened to the point that they wouldn't dare. Check it out...the information is out there, you just have to know who to ask.

8:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

who can we ask that is not afraid to speak freely?

11:20 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

If people are afraid to speak freely, one has to consider the possibility that what they say anonymously serves a personal agenda.

The first test of that is to read what they say, pay attention to the charges, the tone, the balance of their comments.

I didn't respond to the long post prior to yours because I didn't want to dignify its charges by doing so.

All school systems must find the proper balance between citizen oversight (through the School Committee)/parental input and giving the educational professionals their due authority to educate all children to the highest degree possible. Massachusetts law makes it clear that the balance in this dynamic rests with the School administration when it comes to educational issues.

The government of Milton is in the control of the citizens, through the people they elect. As for the schools, we are far more in danger of allowing a small group of activist parents to wreak havoc with the system as they act out what they appear to think is their right to control affairs, then we are being dictated to by a school administration.

Finally, the notion that the school budget is in chaos is utter nonsense.

11:51 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home