It’s budget season in Harford County, when public hearings are held, pleas for funding are made and grumblings about taxes waft through the air. At one such hearing last Wednesday night, Harford County Public Schools were a hot topic. But don’t you wonder what the Board of Education does with its money? Let’s look at one example.
A few years back, the Board of Education approved a series of high school reforms known as Comprehensive Secondary School Reform (CSSRP). One of the core concepts behind reform was that students would be more engaged in school if they could take more electives, which also meant that students would spend less time in classes covering math, science, English and social studies.
The idea was that something had to be done to improve student achievement; and this was definitely something. Despite warnings from teachers, parents, students, a few brave administrators and a boatload of research, the Board of Education approved the change. In light of those same warnings however, the board promised an independent review by the end of the first year of implementation.
Although a group of analysts from Aberdeen Proving Ground offered their assistance early and often, and for free, the “independent” analysis is now being conducted by the same administration that recommended the reforms in the first place. The report is seven months overdue and isn’t expected for at least four more.
The only other analysis is being conducted by a firm called Leadership Capacity, Inc. whose address is also listed as the home address of Dr. Michael Hickey, Director of the Center for Leadership in Education at Towson University and a former superintendent of Howard County Public Schools. Leadership Capacity bills itself as an “educational consulting and training group” and unlike the analysts at APG, they are not volunteers. The firm is being paid $46,000 to collect and analyze soft data involving surveys and focus groups. Here’s some of what the board got for our money:
Leadership Capacity, Inc. sent surveys to randomly selected parents accompanied by a cover letter with the following explanation:
“The Board has requested a comprehensive evaluation of the progress of CSSRP through the 2006-07 school year, and more particularly on the impact of these changes on various groups including students, staff and parents.”
So far, so good. But that same cover letter goes on to undermine the stated purpose of the survey by directing parents to include their students’ “overall high school experience” in their responses. Shouldn’t Leadership Capacity, which is being paid to evaluate changes brought about by CSSRP be aware that current 11th and 12 graders’ “overall high school experience” occurred both before and after CSSRP was implemented?
By explicitly asking parents to co-mingle these experiences, Leadership Capacity has effectively corrupted its own data. The only comfort is that the survey asks so few questions about the actual impact of CSSRP that there will not be much data to corrupt. Instead, the survey seeks parents’ level of agreement with a series of generalized concepts which were approved by the board of education back in 2005. So what we have here is an expensive, irrelevant opinion poll. Oh, and it’s also poorly designed.
The survey’s 28 questions are actually posed as statements with which parents can agree or disagree in varying degrees. There is also an option labeled “unable to judge”. Thank goodness, because many statements assume parents have information they could not possibly have, such as what is best for all students or what the experience of all students has been. Inexplicably, the survey rarely asks parents about their own student. If the only rational response to a statement is “unable to judge”, why ask the question in the first place? Some statements are written so that any level of disagreement would be illogical. Others contain the erroneous assumption that quantity equals quality.
Last, but not at all least, substantive, relevant data has been omitted; creating leading statements which should have no place in a professionally designed survey. All of which makes you question the leadership capacity of Leadership Capacity, Inc., not to mention the Board of Education that continues to employ their services.
Here are just a few examples taken from the actual text of the survey along with some of the questions that should have been asked, but weren’t.
1. All Harford County high school students should have the opportunity to earn as many as 32 credits, compared to 28 credits available previously in some schools.
On the surface, this sounds like a good idea, but the question contains the embedded bias that taking more credits will be greeted as an “opportunity”. By this logic, 40, 50 or 60 credits would also be an “opportunity”. Dividing students’ efforts among more classes, especially students who are struggling with the core curriculum, is not necessarily in their best interest. During the first year of CSSRP, the total number of students who were failing at least one course spiked, rising to over 50% of the student body at Joppatowne, Edgewood, Aberdeen and Havre de Grace high schools. Were the additional course requirements a factor? Did students fail core classes or electives? Did students take the “opportunity” to add rigor to their schedules? Anecdotal evidence suggests that some students have chosen to fill their schedules with several gym classes. If credits are added without regard to quality, more is not necessarily better.
2. Students learn more in the 4-period schedule than in a schedule with shorter periods.
Parents could not possibly know whether all students learn more under a particular schedule. They were not asked about their own student’s success under the 4-period schedule, which they might actually know something about. The statement also leaves out relevant information. Classes in the 4-period schedule meet for 90 minutes, but they also meet less frequently, resulting in less overall instruction time in each class when compared to schedules with “shorter” periods (of about an hour). The 4-period schedule has meant the loss of up to 4 weeks worth of class meetings in each of the core subjects such as math, science, English and social studies when compared with other scheduling models. Did this loss impact student achievement in core subjects? Did students find some courses were better suited to the 90-minute format? If so, which ones? Which were not? Too bad these questions are never asked.
3. Ninth grade students receive increased support in their transition to high school by working with a core group of the same teachers and students.
Parents could not possibly know whether all 9th grade students are working with a core group of the same teachers, or whether they received increased support from doing so. Parents were not asked about their own child’s experience. They were also not informed that under CSSRP, most teachers’ student loads have increased, so that teachers’ attention is divided among more students. A better question would have been to ask parents whether their 9th grader received adequate support in their transition to high school and to compare those results to 9th graders prior to CSSRP.
4. The availability of additional off-campus educational experiences would provide students with learning opportunities beyond the current course offerings.
Additional experiences are by definition “beyond the current course offerings”. Disagreement with this statement would be illogical. What is not asked, but would be helpful to know, is whether parents believe their students would benefit from these experiences. For example, do parents want their student taking classes at the community college or would they be better served by taking Advanced Placement courses in high school with their peers?
5. Requiring students to select a career pathway with specific courses helps students to focus their high school program.
Selecting specific courses creates a focus by definition; disagreement with this statement would be absurd. What is not asked, but would be helpful to know is whether parents believe their student would benefit from this focus. Do parents want their students exposed to a broad range of subjects or do they support the CSSRP requirement that students must select a career path in high school?
What is most disturbing is not the $46,000 paid to Leadership Concepts for their efforts, it’s the missed opportunity to evaluate whether a much larger, ongoing investment in CSSRP was a mainly a good idea or a mistake that needs correcting. After all, $46,000 pales in comparison to the schools’ budget of nearly half a billion dollars. But in this budget season, when competing interests vie for limited dollars, it’s always worth asking: What did we really get for $46,000?
Survey Says… Fleeced.