Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education committee of the whole meeting (May 16, 2012) Part 2: Besides the budget, the AAPS board discussed several other issues at its committee meeting.
The board is beginning its first evaluation of the one employee for whom it is directly responsible – superintendent Patricia Green. Green joined the district on July 1, 2011, and will undergo her first formal evaluation by the board during an executive session scheduled for June 20, 2102.
At the May 16 board meeting, trustees agreed to a process for soliciting input on Green from members of the AAPS community, including parents, principals, staff, board associations, bargaining groups, and specific people invited by trustees to participate.
The board also tentatively agreed to direct the AAPS administration to form a committee representing a wide range of stakeholders to study the sustainability of transportation services in the district. And board members affirmed the “differentiated instruction” approach to teaching used throughout the district, in lieu of maintaining a separate “gifted and talented” program.
This report covers the non-budget portions of the May 16 school board committee of the whole meeting. The budget discussion during this meeting was covered in an earlier report.
Superintendent Evaluation Process
As vice president of the board, trustee Christine Stead is charged with coordinating the annual evaluation of the superintendent. At the May 16 meeting, Stead presented the board with an evaluation rubric for their consideration, and led trustees through a discussion about including other members of the AAPS community in the evaluation process via a survey instrument.
Superintendent Evaluation: Survey Instrument
The rubric Stead presented was developed by the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB), and contains suggestions for rating superintendents as ineffective, minimally effective, effective, or highly effective in 11 categories: relationship with the board; community relations; staff relationships; business and finance; educational leadership; personal qualities; evaluation; progress toward the school improvement plan; student attendance; student/parent/teacher feedback; and student growth and achievement.
Stead pointed out that the MASB tool is incomplete, because the state has not yet determined metrics it will require for measuring student growth and achievement. She suggested that the board should use the MASB tool to think about which categories are most important, and how the board wants to measure them as the state clarifies its requirements. For now, however, Stead suggested that the board should use the same tool it has used for superintendent evaluations in the past. She requested that board secretary Amy Osinski send a copy of the old tool to trustees, and that trustees return it to Osinski with any suggested modifications within seven days.
Superintendent Evaluation: Community Feedback
Stead asked her board colleagues if they would like to include an element of community feedback in Green’s evaluation, and they expressed general agreement that they would. Stead explained that the methodology used in the past invited a selected group of AAPS community members to complete the same survey instrument used by the board.
Trustee Susan Baskett pointed out that not many districts are doing “360-degree evaluations,” but said that the AAPS has always valued input from the community. [This type of evaluation involves a broader range of feedback, rather than just input from an employee's supervisors. For example, it can include input from people who are managed by the person being evaluated.] Trustee Glenn Nelson said that people write to the board all the time asking for that evaluation instrument.
Board president Deb Mexicotte reviewed how the collection of community feedback has been done in the past. First, board members, including the superintendent, make a list of people they would like to survey, which is intended to reflect a broad range of people in the district. Surveys are then sent to those people confidentially, along with representatives from a set of “standard stakeholders,” Mexicotte said, including bargaining units, principals, staff members, board associations, and parents. All the input that comes in is then aggregated by the board secretary and presented to the board during a closed session. “We struck a compromise between something information-seeking, but not ‘FOIA-able,’” Mexicotte said, referring to disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
Trustee Simone Lightfoot said the process seems “secretive and not inclusive,” and suggested that the board seek broader input, such as a survey of all parents. However, several trustees weighed in against this approach.
Andy Thomas said that opening up the survey very broadly would produce negatively-skewed responses, because those responding would not necessarily be representative. Lightfoot argued that the current approach of selecting who gets to fill out a survey is skewed as well. Baskett pointed out that opening the survey up to everyone could mean that the board would get opinions from people who have never met Green, and that would not be fair. Lightfoot asked, “Will it be a requirement that [survey respondents] have met Green?”
Irene Patalan said she was very interested in the opinions of people who have had “professional encounters” with Green, such as meetings, interactions, planning, or other discussions. Lightfoot said she is also interested in hearing from the “not so well-placed and those that are moderately to minimally knowledgeable.” Mexicotte said, “If there are people you want heard, you can put them on the list.” Lightfoot replied that she did not have a list of people in mind, but would like instead to make the process available to everyone.
There are some people in the community who might not have had the opportunity to work with Green, Baskett said, but the board should hear from them, too. She suggested, “The broader community will know that we are doing this evaluation and will have the opportunity to reach out to us as public servants, and we can decide if we want to take their input or not.”
Stead stated that if you have not met a person, you cannot give feedback on that person. She said it would not be constructive to solicit input from everyone in the district, and that seeking “favorability ratings” would not be a good use of public funds. “I’m very interested in [the opinions of] people who have met with and worked with our superintendent enough,” Stead said. “I am less interested in [the opinions of] people who have only read articles in annarbor.com.”
Mexicotte, Thomas, and Nelson each spoke about the fact that evaluating the superintendent is a primary task of the board itself, and that while the board can certainly choose to solicit public comments – and indeed will very likely get e-mails related to this – trustees ultimately have to make the decisions themselves.
Lightfoot argued that the board owes it to people to solicit broader input, and that the board should be less concerned with controlling what people say and more concerned with evaluating their comments. “We want all the taxpayers to give us $45 million [a reference to the technology millage that voters approved on May 8], but we only want those who have met the superintendent to weigh in,” she said.
“If we are getting complaints that people do not have access to the superintendent, then it’s a double-edged sword to say we cannot allow input if they haven’t met her,” Lightfoot added. “…I want the public to write me.”
Superintendent Evaluation: Next Steps
Baskett suggested that it has always bothered her that the board secretary has been the person to aggregate the public comments while keeping them all confidential. She recommended getting someone from outside of the current administration to do that task. She noted that her suggestion was “nothing personal” against board secretary Amy Osinski, “who we know and love.” Baskett suggested that former deputy superintendent of instruction Lee Ann Dickinson-Kelley – or someone else nearby, retired, and familiar with the district – could objectively collect the data.
Stead asked if the board wanted to do a favorability poll, and trustees indicated they did not. She then asked if the trustees wanted to create a list of people to survey, consistent with past practice, and they indicated that they did. Stead asked for suggestions about how many people each trustee could add to the list. Mexicotte suggested five to seven, but added that there should be no official limit.
Osinski said the board has usually sent out about 70 surveys, and 50-60 are typically returned.
Stead then charged Mexicotte with identifying people who could be the collection point for community feedback. Mexicotte said she would identify someone within 48 hours. Patalan said that if there was not time to find an alternate person, Osinski could perform the task this year and that would be fine.
Mexicotte asked Green if she would like to say anything, and Green replied that she had enjoyed listening to the discussion.
Stead concluded that within seven days, a data collection person will have been identified, and the board will have provided feedback on the survey tool and lists of community members to survey. Then, she said, the tool can be sent out to the community members, who will have 1-2 weeks to respond. The board will then meet in executive session on June 20 to conduct the superintendent evaluation.
Deb Mexicotte invited Simone Lightfoot to speak about a subcommittee that Lightfoot has been interested in setting up. Lightfoot introduced the idea of creating a board subcommittee to look at sustainable solutions to the transportation issues facing the district, and suggested the group could include Ann Arbor city councilmembers, the mayor, students who ride the bus and their parents, and transportation experts from the University of Michigan. She added that the board should “hold harmless” transportation services while the committee worked on a sustainable plan.
Mexicotte said it is not required that the board both set up a committee to study this and hold transportation harmless – that is, not make cuts to the transportation budget – until the study is complete.
Andy Thomas questioned whether a board committee with community representatives and members of other organizations is really a “subcommittee” of the board. Mexicotte, Susan Baskett and Glenn Nelson cited examples of other committees that have included participation by outside organizations or community members. Mexicotte pointed out that the committee that was created to redraw attendance boundaries after Skyline High School was built was an administrative committee, not a board committee, and that it worked well because it had a specific task.
Baskett asked for clarification on the difference between an administrative committee and a board committee.
Mexicotte answered that the difference is who is charging the committee, and directing its work and reporting cycle. The advantage of creating a board committee on transportation is that the board would have complete control over the process, she said. The disadvantages of forming a board committee rather than an administrative one, she said, are that board members might not be the experts needed to do the work, and it’s more work for board members as “citizen-volunteers.” She suggested that the board could task a group with creating the best plan possible to transport students if high school busing is completely eliminated in 2013-14.
Christine Stead suggested that rather than form a new committee at all, the board could ask the existing transportation safety committee (TSC) to look into this. Mexicotte suggested also considering the city-schools committee.
Lightfoot said it’s not fair to talk about eliminating transportation until the impact is discussed. “It seems like we are going to vote on the budget and then look at all the detail. How can I reconcile that black, brown, and economically disadvantaged students will take the brunt of these cuts?” she asked. Responding to the suggestion to use the TSC, Lightfoot added, “I am not for reinventing wheels. I am for inventing wheels that need to be invented, though.” She said she liked the idea of cross-governmental units, like the city-schools committee, working together.
Baskett pointed out that in the past, she has known people to feel “used” on administrative committees that are “top-heavy,” and said she wants to be sure the board affords community residents a real voice. Mexicotte said that challenge would be the same whether the committee formed is led by the board or by the administration.
Nelson suggested that it would be appropriate to create an administrative committee to take up this issue, and Irene Patalan agreed. Lightfoot said she would be amenable to that. But Lightfoot wondered what would make the process any different than what is already in place. Mexicotte answered, “The reason it’s different than people sending us things is that there is a structure, an agenda, milestones, and an expectation of an outcome. That’s what different – even though at the beginning you have a million ideas on a table, there is a process to work through them.”
Stead and Thomas each pointed out that it’s not realistic to think about transportation as sustainable. Thomas said there are two points of view in this debate – one that views maintaining lower class sizes as the most important goal, and another that views offering transportation services as an issue of social equity – that is, that transportation must be preserved, even if it means lowering the quality of education for all.
Baskett said she would support the formation of an administrative committee on transportation as a way to engage the community in future planning, and pointed out that people might suggest options that the board has not considered. She added that members of both the city-schools and TSC committees could be invited to join the new committee.
Mexicotte indicated that she was of two minds. On the one hand, she said, the administration has already vetted this budget, and she questioned pulling out one topic for extra consideration. But on the other hand, she said she was open to forming a committee, if the board thinks it requires a different level of scrutiny.
Baskett said she does not feel assured that the administration has sufficiently studied every issue. She said she has felt uninformed of the administration’s work in determining the impacts of their budget recommendations. Responding to Baskett, Nelson noted the budget proposal did have a column that listed impacts.
Nelson then said that from his perspective, what differentiates transportation somewhat is that it’s inter-governmental. He said an internal transportation committee would not be as effective as one with representation from the schools, the city, and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA). Mexicotte said she found Nelson’s argument compelling.
Patalan called on district parents to help get kids to school. She said she is very interested in working with different governmental entities with the expertise of different communities and different PTOs (parent-teacher organizations). Patalan also said she believes that when the administration makes suggestions, it means they have done their best.
Stead said she would also support an administrative committee on this issue, regardless of the budget. She noted that the district could use work on placing crossing guards, and working with the city on not ticketing parents for idling their cars during pick-up and drop-off if driving to school increases due to transportation cuts. [The city of Ann Arbor does not currently have an anti-idling ordinance, although the issue has been discussed.]
Mexicotte asked for agreement from the board would like to put together a framework for charging the administration to engage in a comprehensive assessment of the sustainability of transportation in this district, with a wide range of stakeholders. The group would report back to the board by December of 2012 or January of 2013 at the latest.
Stead responded by saying she had a different view on the milestones of the committee, adding that if transportation is fully eliminated, “we want that group to be working hard over the summer.”
Mexicotte said the board could discuss the specific charge to the committee at the next regular board meeting on May 23.
Gifted and Talented Programming
In response to a request from Christine Stead, the AAPS administration brought a report to the board explaining why the district does not have a discrete gifted and talented program, but instead focuses on employing “differentiated instruction” in all classrooms. Superintendent Patricia Green said their report would give some background on how differentiation works in AAPS. Alesia Flye, AAPS deputy superintendent of instruction, added that she will also describe “differentiated instruction” and speak to how it is used to meet the needs of higher-achieving students, and how it relates to the district’s strategic plan.
Gifted and Talented Programming: Administrative Presentation
Differentiated instruction, Flye explained, is teaching in a way that meets the instructional needs and learning styles of all students in a classroom. It is instruction that is inquiry-based, open-ended, multi-faceted, concept-centered, interdisciplinary, interest-based, and student-selected. Flexible skill-grouping is also a major component of differentiated instruction.
Flye note that differentiated instruction is well-suited to meeting the needs of both gifted students and high achievers, and that AAPS will be providing professional development to strengthen the use of differentiated instruction throughout the district.
Flye then highlighted elements of differentiated instruction used in AAPS by core subject area, and noted that overall there is a “no ceiling” policy, meaning students can always achieve higher levels of learning. In English language arts, Flye said, elementary students receive small group instruction; middle school students use My Access software to reach writing instruction far above grade level; and high school students have access to accelerated and advanced placement (AP) classes. Glenn Nelson added that AAPS students also take courses at the University of Michigan and Washtenaw Community College.
Susan Baskett asked how small group instruction is implemented in elementary classrooms. Dawn Linden, AAPS assistant superintendent of elementary education, said that literacy class would begin with whole group instruction, and then students work in leveled reading groups, with the teacher rotating from group to group. In math, Linden said, the district is piloting a guided math program that is similar. Green added that this model very significantly does not create fixed groups of students, but flexible ones. “Without flexibility,” she said, “you are tracking students – this is not that.”
Science classes at the elementary level, Flye said, are taught with an inquiry-based approach and the program supports cross-curricular tie-ins. In middle and high schools, AP courses are offered, along with magnet programs, career and tech ed internships, and a variety of extracurricular options for enrichment, such as robotics and the Science Olympiad.
In social studies, Flye noted, secondary options include AP classes, an accelerated American studies course, humanities, magnet programs, community resource classes, and integrated/blended classes.
Linden connected differentiated learning to personalized learning plans, which are a key part of the district’s strategic plan. She explained that the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) test, parent conferences, and detailed report cards offer teachers tools to identify realistic goals for every student on a quarterly basis.
Flye said that AAPS has not been consistent about providing uninterrupted blocks of time for literacy and math instruction at the elementary level, but that her team is working closely with all the buildings to achieve this. Green noted that “what has traditionally been done is those master schedules are set around the specials [art, music, physical education, library, and humanities] and those become the drivers, but this will totally reverse that.” She said that standardizing instruction blocks will make better use of district resources, and be a step forward instructionally.
At the secondary level, Linden said, personalized learning plans bring in career development and contain both short and long-term goals.
Flye closed the presentation by summarizing the gifted and talented programming in two comparable districts – in Utica, Mich., and in Waterloo, Iowa. In Utica, she said, students are identified at the end of third grade and participate in enrichment activities led by teachers or parents outside of the school day, such as social studies olympiad, science olympiad, Lego robotics, and chess club. In Waterloo, Flye explained, the district pays for a special teacher who provides direct support to academically gifted and talented students in the classroom and offers them some extended activities.
In both cases, Flye said, formal identification of academically gifted and talented students leads to a program serving roughly 3% of the district’s students.
Gifted and Talented Programming: Board Discussion
The board expressed appreciation for the presentation, and support for the idea of focusing on differentiated instruction over creating a separate program for academically gifted and talented students. Their primary questions related to the testing necessary to support a differentiated instruction model.
Simone Lightfoot argued that the amount of testing is a concern, and asked if any more tests would be added. Flye said that no more tests would be added and that the district is “data rich.” Flye added the challenge is teaching teachers to use data to plan instructionally for each student, and noted that the NWEA test is a tool that provides immediate information – it really helps cater instruction to individual students.
Lightfoot asked whether any of the other tests being used can be replaced with the NWEA, and Flye said the district is looking into that. Green added that in both of the previous states where she had worked, districts she was in had done just that. “We cut back on testing that we did not feel was value-added.”
Deb Mexicotte said she agreed entirely that AAPS should be looking at its testing schedule, and ask whether “some tests that we know teachers are comfortable with are meeting our needs anymore.” She expressed skepticism that the redesigned state assessment would be rolled out on time and that it would be a good tool. She suggested that AAPS might be able to pursue a waiver if the NWEA test meets the state testing requirements. “I would rather we did the one that served our students best,” she said. Flye said a waiver might be an option.
Andy Thomas said he would like the district to continue doing differentiated learning in lieu of having a gifted and talented program. Flye agreed, and said that AAPS has not yet maximized its potential in terms of differentiated instruction. “We can get more out of our staff in terms of instructional delivery,” she said.
Christine Stead said she is worried about the effectiveness of differentiated learning in the district, and also about the awareness of differentiated instruction in the wider community. Saying that she worries about charter schools using the lure of a gifted and talented program to pull students away, Stead suggested that AAPS needs to figure out how to compete effectively by articulating how its top students are continuing to progress. She said she thinks the NWEA test will help show that, but that the story of how differentiated learning is happening needs to be captured and communicated.
Stead also suggested that tenure reform could allow the district to offer incentives to teachers to ensure that all students are progressing and not “capping out.” She said she would like to see that AAPS is able to reward teachers who can respond to differentiated groups.
Linden observed that consistency is the district’s biggest problem. Master teachers are differentiating on a daily basis, and AAPS needs to highlight what is being done. She also noted that some teachers are still uncomfortable with the NWEA tool.
Stead said that the NWEA should serve as the foundation for personalized learning plans at the elementary level, and that perhaps there should be additional parent conferences held midway through the school year. “We need to spend more time and energy packaging these things, showing the data,” she asserted.
Nelson said he likes the “no ceilings” approach, and does not like labeling kids. In addition to aggregate scores, he suggested that individual stories could illustrate the differentiated approach, such as a 10th grader taking a calculus class at the University of Michigan.
Baskett wanted more information about the opportunities to take college courses, and information about related costs. She said there are equity issues in terms of how such information is communicated in the district. Mexicotte asked the administration to send out those numbers to the board.
Flye said the district is creating a curriculum pathways document that will illustrate the complete path for elementary, middle school, and high school – all the AP classes, dual enrollment options, and all the routes through programs. Green said she is also trying to work differently with community centers and the NAACP to see if information can be disseminated through those organizations. Lightfoot urged the district to be sure the pathways document is simple to understand and not convoluted.
Irene Patalan said this approach really resonated with her as a parent and as a former teacher.
Mexicotte said it would be nice to have a phone number of someone who has complete understanding of the curriculum pathway, and that it opens doors to be able to have a conversation. She also said she really likes the idea of stories, and noted that as a special needs parent, differentiated instruction is “the word.”
Along with “no ceilings,” Mexicotte said she wants to ensure that there are “no floors and no doors, either.” For example, she said, placement testing is so rigid that it practically prevents students from being able to do it. Saying she appreciates differentiated instruction and wants the district to make it stronger and better, Mexicotte added that she also likes it because there is no gatekeeper. She also suggested that the district look into allowing accelerated students to take more than seven classes by expanding online learning options. Flye said that she was supportive of online options.
Present: President Deb Mexicotte, vice president Christine Stead, secretary Andy Thomas, treasurer Irene Patalan, and trustees Susan Baskett, Simone Lightfoot, and Glenn Nelson.
Next regular meeting: Wednesday, May 23, 2012, at 7 p.m. in fourth-floor conference room of the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor.