In it for the Money: School Transportation

We make 40 adults do the work one dude did with a big yellow bus

Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. Sometimes it’s later, like this month.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

Over the last couple years school busing has been drastically altered in most Michigan districts. As a consequence most schools – including my son’s school, Bryant Elementary, which is only K-2nd grade – expanded their “walking zone” (kids that get no busing) to 1.5 miles. Do you know how long it takes a five-year-old to walk 1.5 miles? [1]

If you live at the far edge of the “walking zone,” you aren’t going to be walking – especially once our autumn rains arrive – you’ll be driving your kid to school.

Spoiler alert: Bryant Elementary was built in 1972 and renovated in 1983. So it’s not designed to have dozens of cars drop off individual children each morning – it’s designed for all of the kids to arrive at once in four big buses. An efficient set of buses has been converted to a frustrating, time-gobbling traffic jam.

The Ghost Of Busing Schemes Yet To Come

In other districts (Southgate jumps to mind), busing was effectively eliminated in 2011-2012 [2]. Back in October of last year I talked to a dental hygienist who spent three hours per day ferrying her three kids to their respective schools.

If you’re wondering why there is such a crazy drag on Michigan’s economy, maybe part of the problem is that we make 40 able-bodied adults do, at no pay, the work that we once paid one dude a basically fair salary to do with a big yellow bus. Those are hours spent not making anything anyone can buy, not earning any money to buy anything from anyone else, not creating jobs for another person, not rendering or using services, not being useful to the community.

In other words, reducing bus service shrinks the entire local economy. But whatever shrinkage the economy undergoes, it’s is treated as pretty innocuous, or at least not the school district’s purview. Board of education secretary Andy Thomas went so far as to point out during a 2011 debate that the schools were not in the transportation business [3].

But by offloading these very modest communally amortized expenses to individuals with school-age children, we both reduce the community’s capacity to maintain (let alone expand) all services, and also those individuals’ abilities to spend money locally. This shrinks the community’s tolerance for taxation, which leads to more services being cut, which leads to more citizen hours inefficiently boondoggled . . . ad nauseam.

It’s a negative feedback loop.

If you’re looking to so weaken a society that you can drown it in a bathtub, I suppose you have two options: You can hammer on it with artillery and air raids until it is too shattered and skittish to get out of bed and get anything done, or you can slowly bleed it dry with a million little, seemingly insignificant mosquito bites.

No one flees their homeland over mosquitoes. No one takes up arms against a sea of mosquitoes. We just slap and scratch and kvetch and toss and turn and keep on keeping on.

Until one day we collapse, probably while carrying our kindergartners to school.

The Economics Of Austerity

Maybe you’re basically OK with all this. Maybe you personally don’t need the damn busing anyway; maybe you can afford to spend that extra quality time waiting in a parking lot traffic jam. Maybe you have the good fortune to make your daily bread in a business that’s less responsive to local economic fluctuations.

Hell, maybe you feel a bit heartened, sacrificing your hours and bloating your carbon-footprint in the service of your children’s education – and thus, their futures! Yes, your hours are still squandered, but you have the cold comfort of knowing that these fallow hours are squandered in selfless devotion: It’s for the kids!

But, by the same token, this is a pretty selfish kind of selflessness, isn’t it? ‘cause it isn’t for the kids; it’s for your kids.

Put simply: We each look out for our own at the expense of all looking out for each other.

Are We Getting Busing Wrong?

Here in Washtenaw County we have yet to deploy the Southgate Nuclear Option, but we seem to be sliding that direction: Walking zones were expanded last year, and this year three high school bus lines were eliminated. (Students will instead be issued AATA bus passes – which is actually a pretty good deal, in my humble opinion; those things cost $30 per month!) And bus routes for Bryant (a K-2nd school) and Pattengill (the corresponding 3rd-5th) have been combined, requiring changes to the schoolday schedule. (Pattengill adopting a later start and end time. Ypsi high schools also changed their start times. Because Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, and Willow Run share buses, all that has translated to something around a half-million dollars in savings).

I can’t speak for how things are working in Ypsi or at the high schools in Ann Arbor, but I can say that (predictably) not everyone is happy at Bryant and Pattengill. By the fourth day of school room parents at Bryant had forwarded the rest of us an email under the subject line “Combined Busing/Staggered Start Time Chaos” – which tends to imply that the new routes aren’t super popular in some quarters. The email encouraged us to forward our concerns and testimonials to pretty much everyone in the Bryant/Pattengill administrative universe (i.e., both principals, the board of education, the school superintendent, the assistant superintendent for elementary education, the deputy superintendent of operations, the director of communications, and the PTO).

Four days later the schools’ administrators scheduled a “Town Hall” meeting for Sept. 20 to “discuss the emergent issues that have arisen due to the new staggered school start time and combined busing.” [4] A follow-up email from the PTO, sent a few hours before the meeting, indicated that “The majority of our community has been negatively impacted by the implementation of the staggered start and new bus system” and forebodingly closed, noting that the PTO “can guarantee that at some point in the future you will feel the negative effect.”

Email inquiries as to the source and veracity of these claims went unanswered. The first is especially suspect: Even if they just mean a majority of the families at Bryant and Pattengill, that’s hundreds of families. To my knowledge, there was never any effort to poll families impartially about their perception of the new system. Hundreds of folks independently contacted the PTO to complain about this within the first several days of school? Pardon me for being a little incredulous.

Far be it from me to indulge in a tangent, but just to add my two cents: I think AAPS and transportation are doing well, or certainly well enough, considering the conditions under which they must function.

From what I’ve seen, this new busing arrangement had a few hitches over the first few days, but has since smoothed out admirably (and quickly). Considering the complexity of any school busing system (a point I’ll return to shortly), compounded by the statutory requirements placed on a public school busing system, and the budget limitations under which our system must now function, AAPS/transportation seems to have made some compromises and come out with a system that is different – and clearly not ideal – but functional. [5]

That said, I see a simply monstrous line of cars queued up outside Pattengill at 3:50 every afternoon, and this waste of human hours and fossil fuels still breaks my heart.

The Travails Of The Traveling Salesman

Casual observation: We all think that school transportation is a pretty damned straightforward problem. I base this on two phenomena: (1) Every time board-of-education elections roll around, at least one newcomer’s platform includes his or her “common sense” plan to save a pile of money by “streamlining” the school bus system; (2) Every time our local “news” “paper” blogthing runs an article that mentions school budgets and AAPS transportation, the comment threads are choked with anonymous locals more than happy to step forward and tell us how simple and obvious it is to solve this whole busing thing.

But the simple truth is this: Plotting bus routes is hard. In fact, mathematically speaking, plotting bus routes is among the hardest possible problems. I know that sounds stupid, because the problem is so easy to formulate – it’s even easy to take a stab at solving it via guess-and-check. The challenge arises when you take all your guesses and try to sort out which is the best route.

This is a real-world example of one of computational science’s most vexing problems, the Traveling Salesman Problem. [6] The Traveling Salesman Problem can be described like so: “Given a list of cities he must visit, and knowing the distance between any of these points, can the salesman plot a path that hits each city only once while traveling the minimum roundtrip distance?”

The obvious answer is “Well, duh, yeah; there must be a shortest route!” And, in fact, it’s super-easy to check a proposed route and see if it’s shorter than some other route. But, it’s super hard to check all possible routes, because every time you add a new stop that must be visited, the time it takes to calculate and evaluate all possible routes takes a big jump – even with the best-known software implementations of the best-known algorithms for tackling this task, that time doubles for every individual additional stop.

For example, if you have four points to visit and it takes you 10 seconds to figure out the shortest route [7], then if you bump it up to five stops [8], it will take you 20 seconds to run the same calculation. Six stops [9]? You’ll need 40 seconds. Ten stops [10]? You’ll need more than 10 minutes. Twenty stops [11]? You’ll need 182 hours to calculate the most efficient route. That’s for one bus [12].

Now, I’m not claiming that a school bus system is a pure instance of the Traveling Salesman Problem – because some routes are no-brainers, others are hairy tangles of one-way streets and construction. But even as a savagely reduced instance of the Traveling Salesman Problem, this is a brain-buster. Math – which is to say, the universe itself – is against us when it comes to streamlining a bus system. I want to surface this, because one of the special intellectual hazards of the post-Google age is the pernicious sense that if we can clearly formulate a problem, then we can just as easily track down the answer in a negligible amount of time.

Some problems are very hard – not because they are morally ambiguous, or because we have to balance this need and that cost, but just simply computationally difficult, even in our Age of the Ubiquitous Hive-mind Pocket Supercomputer.

When honest, intelligent, well-intentioned public servants fail to find the perfect, optimal solution, it isn’t necessarily because of a nefarious conspiracy, or because they lacked the smarts or will, or because government is a nanny-state scam to steal money from the hardworking makers-of-stuff and captains of industry. Possibly, it’s just because it would take 1.5 years of 12-hour work days (with no vacations) to find that perfect solution, and by then we’d need a new answer, because conditions will have changed.

Greasing The Squeaky Wheel

But, you know what, I’m not really worried about the math – even though the math is interesting, and helps illustrate how fundamentally difficult resource management is, even in a purely theoretical model.

What I’m worried about is the wheels. We grease the squeaky ones, because when I’m hearing creaking or groaning in my bike’s drivetrain, it means metal is rubbing metal. That’s sub-optimal, and needs to be addressed. But, all too often, in systems composed of humans, the wheel that squeaks is the one that can afford to squeak.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I was alerted to the purported catastrophic folly of the new busing system via email – although I know that not all the families at my son’s school can necessarily afford regular email access in the home.

Those emails were sent in English; I know for a fact that English is not the home language for many of my son’s peers. That Town Hall meeting ran from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on a school night. Those can be hard hours depending on your work (my wife couldn’t attend because, as a teacher in a different district, she was at her school’s curriculum night that evening, holding our newborn so that the boy and I could pass out in a chair in the basement with X-MEN cartoons on Netflix). How the hell could a parent conceivably show up and squeak at that meeting without a partner to watch the kid or kids on whose behalf he or she is squeaking?

It’s a bummer that the budget for everything is shrinking, and that belts need to be tightened. And, you know what, I don’t discard the possibility that the new busing system really is a catastrophe, that 300+ families really have independently emailed the PTO in English and Spanish and French and Hindi to register their alarm. That might be the case and, dammit, then it means that out of the quadrillions of solutions to this version of the Traveling Salesman Problem, we landed at one of the bottom-half solutions. We need to roll the dice again and aim for the top half, ASAP. I support that.

But, on the other hand, as a dude who has a firm handle on written and spoken English, a flexible schedule, and solidly middle-class levels of income, wealth, and security, I wouldn’t be OK with looking my boy in the eye and saying “Don’t worry, son; when they fucked with the busing system I went to bat and made sure that someone other than you got the short end of the stick.”

We each tend to look out for our own at the expense of all looking out for each other. So I’d like this to be the takeaway:

It isn’t that my kid is in this system with your kid.
Our kids are in it together.


[1] I don’t live in Bryant’s walking zone, but I’ve hiked with my son since he was still in his baby carriage. He’s lean and long-legged, and the summer before he started kindergarten it was not unusual for it to take him nearly two hours to hike a 1.5 mile trail.

[2] Disclosure: I originally drafted the nut of this section a year ago, in an email to Ann Arbor Chronicle editor Dave Askins. Revising it on September 18, 2012, I was suddenly incredulous: No busing at all? That seems pretty far-fetched. Southgate isn’t a small town with a one-room schoolhouse; there’re at least a half-dozen schools there. They must have busing. So I Googled the Southgate Schools Transportation website. Check out the bus schedules for their schools (you’ll need to click through for each separate school – and I strongly urge you to take the 30 seconds to do so). Absolutely astounding. They didn’t even bother updating it from last year. I called the dispatcher’s office, just to confirm that there’d been no change. The phone rang and rang with no answer, then kicked me into an inscrutable voicemail system. On the second attempt I ended up talking to a very pleasant maintenance worker who happened to be standing near the ringing phone. She confirmed that there was no general education busing again this year in Southgate, although they still maintained (and had never interrupted) their special ed busing (which, presumably, is why they still have a dispatcher at all; he was away from his desk, because I’d called during lunch).

[3] Source: [link]

[4] Disclosure: I missed the meeting, because my son and I were both sick with something that I’m told could not conceivable be monkeypox, despite fitting the bill. I’ve yet to get any feedback on what transpired there.

[5] My son goes to Bryant, and most days is picked up/dropped off in front of Pattengill – the closest bus stop to our house. In other words, we’re likely the least affected by the change in busing. On the other days I drop him off for beforecare, and he rides a different bus to aftercare at the local JCC. This is clearly an off-label use of the service. Consequently, over the last year and some change, we’ve hit a snag now and again. Nonetheless, I’ve found all of the parts that AAPS plays in this process to be functional – in fact, considering the cost of our other educational options compared to the small portion of our tax bill that goes to pay for this entire system, I find this to be an astoundingly good value for all of us. It’s not perfect, but it sure is good and affordable.

[6] I hate to be tediously mathematical [6a], but just in case you want some Google fodder: Brainteasers like the Traveling Salesman Problem are part of a class of problems mathematicians call “NP-complete.” Briefly, this means that any given answer to the problem can be easily verified, but that the total number of possible answers that must be sorted out in order to find the best one grows exponentially. Other known NP-Complete problems include brainteaserish things like the “Knapsack Problem” and the game Minesweeper, and a lot of nitty-gritty biological, economic, and comp sci situations – about 3,000 problems have been identified as NP-Complete. Also – and this will sound weird – but any NP-Complete problem can be converted into any other NP-Complete problem, so solving one in a practical amount of time means being able to solve them all. Finding ways to efficiently crack NP-complete problems is the Holy Grail of computer science.

[6a] Disclosure: I clearly sorta delight in being tediously anything! Thank you for joining me down here in the footnotes!

[7] Under the stated conditions the total number of routes can be calculated as (n-1)! (which you can actually plug straight into Google – for example, this example would be “(4-1)!” – if you don’t get what the exclamation point means and just want to see some damn numbers). Since this formula gives you every route twice (once forward, once backward), folks working on Traveling Salesman Problem algorithms often choose to use (n-1)!/2 to represent the total number of paths they’ll consider. But the direction a path flows can be significant in a bus route (i.e., it can be more desirable to hit some points first or last, because of the way aftercare and enrichment programs are distributed among AAPS facilities), I’ve chosen to go with (n-1)! So, if you have a route with four points, then there are (4-1)!, or six, possible paths the bus might travel. Plot them all on a map (or, really, have a computer do so), measure the distance/travel time, consider limitations (do you have to hit a specific point earlier or later in the run?), and see which is best.

[8] Which means 24 possible routes.

[9] 120 possible routes. In case it seems germane, Bus 85 (serving Bryant/Pattengill) has six stops on its route.

[10] 362,880 possible routes (!!!).

[11] Oh damn: 121,645,100,000,000,000 possible routes. I am not making up this number. Bus 75 – which serves Slauson – has 19 stops. Does that mean there are six quadrillion possible paths that bus could drive? No; lots of those ideal routes are through houses and lawns and trees and what have you.

[12] A quick sifting of the 2012-2013 Bus Transportation Routes for AAPS makes it look like they’re running about 60 routes.

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  1. By Jim Carty
    September 23, 2012 at 1:27 pm | permalink

    As someone with three children in Dexter school I’m keenly aware of the financial challenges our schools are facing. Our school board has worked hard to avoid cutting back on actual educational aspects of school and, yes, that has meant changes to bussing. I’m completely in favor of that, just as I’m in favor of higher fees associated with extracurricular activities, but the fact is no system is going to make everyone happy. I’m also in favor of larger walking zones, particularly in light of the explosion of childhood obesity in America.

    I’d be more than happy to have my 5-year-old walk 1.5 miles with you. He’ll do it in a lot less than 1 hour.

    Stopped reading after the broken heart line, btw. Just too ridiculous to go on.

  2. September 23, 2012 at 2:37 pm | permalink

    I was just in a meeting with some City of Southgate folks earlier this week, and the topic of school busing came up. They noted that the small residential streets around the schools, just recently low-traffic enough that kids walked to school without stop signs at the intersections, are now traffic jams for an hour or so a day. It’s become common for parents to drive their kids partway to school, get caught in the traffic jam, and let their kids out to walk the last half- to mile through traffic.

    Walking all the way to school in Southgate isn’t really an option–the community is bisected by fast 7-lanes with lights half a mile apart, like Eureka and Dix-Toledo, so you can’t sniff at the parents that they ought to let their kids man up and walk the whole way.

  3. September 24, 2012 at 9:29 am | permalink

    As a parent in the AAPS, and Vice President of the AAPS BOE, I really appreciate the way that David has framed this discussion – and I am acutely aware of the severe underfunding of public education, compliments of our current legislators. It is beyond comprehension to me that our currently-dominating party (GOP), one that purports to be business-savvy and business-friendly, cannot understand the impact that reducing funding for education is having.

    An economic framing of this issue is one that we might think would resonate with our current legislators, but they appear deaf to economic efficiency arguments because they are so bought in to ‘less is more’ and ‘no new taxes’.

    AAPS became a donor district when Proposal A went in to place in 1994. Since then, we ‘donate’ much more of our 6 mills that goes to the Department of Education than we get back (almost 80% at this point). With more drastic cuts to off-set a business tax break (cutting $1.1B out of the School Aid Fund – and then miscalculating the ongoing effect on revenue, which will reduce the SAF revenue more than they initially thought going forward), we have set ourselves up for a lengthy period of ongoing cuts to public education.

    This situation passes on the impact to local school boards to determine how best to continue reducing their general operating budget (in AAPS, this has been an average of 10% each year for 5 years). Hence the focus on ‘core business’ (education) vs. providing the services that we know help get our kids to schools so that they have access to an education.

    David – excellent work in highlighting the economic inefficiency of the kinds of reductions school districts are being forced to make these days.

    The next task might be to elect representatives that can understand things like economic efficiency and look at overall economic implications that come with an excellent public education. Maybe we can start thinking about the value of an education in terms of home values, unemployment rates, quality of life, etc. Then maybe we can start adequately funding education again and stop reducing programs so that school districts are forced to cut away services that we all know help ensure access to an excellent education (like adequate transportation, good nutrition, excellent programs and enough days/time in school to position our children to compete in a global economy where kids in countries that routinely score much higher than the US on the PISA exam essentially have an extra 3 years of education than our children by the time they graduate).

  4. By Bob Rorke
    September 24, 2012 at 12:08 pm | permalink

    The Ann Arbor Public Schools are not underfunded. Financial budgeting decisions are being made at the wrong level in this organization. What is the cost of four buses and four bus drivers? What is the cost of adding the needed capacity to serve the neglected leadership? A rather small portion of the foundation allowance that the District receives for these students would be needed to solve this community’s problem. To accomplish this the budget decisions would have to be made at the building level. If each building was responsible for creating and administering it’s own budget, there would be less problems and more teachers. There would also be fewer administrators and money left to the discretion of the BOE. That’s the problem! AAPS has a structural problem. Financial decisions are being made at too high a level in the

  5. September 24, 2012 at 4:12 pm | permalink

    Some school districts see providing transportation as a draw to keep kids in-district, on the theory that parents may look at charters differently if they have to drive their kids to either school.

    Dave makes some very good points about externalizing the costs.

    I am very concerned about a non-cost item–the fact that we force kids into walking or bicycling unsafe routes to school, early in the morning when it is dark out–roads with no sidewalks, and even no shoulders, AND no lighting. Newport Road is a prime example but there are examples all around the city. What kind of accidents are we willing to tolerate?

  6. By Bob Rorke
    September 24, 2012 at 7:25 pm | permalink

    For 2012-2013 the Board of Education budgeted $188.46 million in expenditures. In 2011-2012 AAPS budgeted $183.62 million to spend in their general fund. In 2010 they spent $ $189.15 million. In 2010 they spent $ 195.08 million. ( extra stimulus dollars were available). In 2009 theBoard of Education spent $186.47 million in the general fund. If the administration and BOE were reducing 10 % per year for five years as Vice-President Stead claims , why is the Ann Arbor Public Schools spending more today than they were 5 years ago? The problem isn’t in Lansing. It is here in Ann Arbor!

  7. September 26, 2012 at 6:14 pm | permalink

    In 2012-2013, the AAPS had several million dollars in unfunded mandates that had to use more and more of the $183.6 million projected revenue (or our source of funding). For example, transitioning to all-day kindergarten cost $1.5 million in primarily new staff. The special education costs are being funded at a much lower % than in the past, requiring several million more of those precious general fund dollars to make up the difference. The MPSRS costs were budgeted to be more than last year since the state had not acted on that legislation when we had to pass our budget at the end of FY12. And the new teacher evaluation system required that we not only purchase NWEA, but also have enough updated technology in place to run the software (another unfunded mandate). And on, and on – to $18.6 million in incremental or escalating costs that we are required to accommodate in the projected revenue based on our foundation allowance.

    Bob should be somewhat aware of these things, but if he is not, I am more than happy to spend more time with him or others to help create a better understanding of more of our current funding situation.

    We are also transitioning to zero-based budgeting – something I advocated for last year, and something Bob was also interested in. This should help address some of the concerns that Bob sort of eludes to, but doesn’t quite articulate. That still won’t compensate for the approximate 10% general operating fund reductions that we’ve been experiencing every year. We have a structural deficit – meaning our funding model is the issue. We can’t ‘spend down’ our way out of this. The fix is in addressing the model.

  8. September 27, 2012 at 12:15 pm | permalink

    Christine, you refer to the transition to all-day kindergarten as an “unfunded mandate” (or at least, you imply that), but isn’t it the case that for a number of years Michigan’s per-pupil allotment for kindergarteners assumed local districts were providing all-day kindergarten whether they actually were or not? In other words, didn’t districts get the same per-pupil allotment for half-day kindergarten students that they were getting for full-day first-graders? That’s the opposite of an unfunded mandate!

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree that education funding is in a bad place, and seems to be getting worse rather than better, but attempts to blame the problem on all-day kindergarten strike me as seriously misguided.

  9. By A2Person
    September 27, 2012 at 6:20 pm | permalink

    Cmadler, purposefully obtuse, I’d say. Yes, what you say is true — half-day kindergarteners were getting a full allotment. But that money was going to the SCHOOL, to provide education for ALL the kids! It’s not like the money was being ciphoned off into greedy pockets or something. And now, with full day kindy, more teachers are needed, and therefore there is LESS in the pot.

    Hence, doing yet more with less and less.

  10. By Bob Rorke
    October 1, 2012 at 9:04 pm | permalink

    Mr. Nelson writes an article spotlighting a transportation problem that effects the youngest of AAPS students at Bryant. While money is always an important function in these matters, who makes spending decisions is more important. If decisions had been made at the Bryant school level, young children at Bryant now walking would be riding a bus. There would be less money for central administration. The Board of Education made the decision to keep their administration and favorite spending programs and make the little kids walk. Blaming others for your own decisions is childish.

    I understand all the added expenses that the BOE has faced as unfunded mandates. They are certainly challenging but they are not the reasons for the structural deficit. The structural deficit is caused by the structure of the organization. Education is a decentralized activity. Yet the Ann Arbor Public Schools
    remains a centralized organization, much like the old Soviet Union. No amount of money will be enough to
    fund such a dysfunctional organization. No effective organization with more than 30 different operating units budgets from the Board table. Effective organizations of this size delegate budgeting to the operating level and the Board reviews the overall annual financial plan. Zero based budgeting is a waste of time unless the budget decisions are made by the right people, who in this case would be the building principals. In the past I have been told by people in Balas that principals were incapable of performing budgeting. I don’t believe this assertion. I do believe the answer is in changing the model of how the Ann Arbor Schools

  11. By A2person
    October 1, 2012 at 9:57 pm | permalink

    I dunno, Bob. I recall from one of the budget forums I attended that completely eliminating the entirety of Balas wouldn’t solve the ongoing structural deficit we continue to face each year due to a combination of underfunding and an un-sustainable teacher pension funding system. I think it plugged a modest part of the hole for a single year, after which we are once again back to cutting zillions.

  12. October 3, 2012 at 12:30 am | permalink

    Christine, I agree with the basic thrust of your remarks regarding school districts being squeezed by unfunded mandates, but it’s not true that “And the new teacher evaluation system *required* that we not only purchase NWEA, but also have enough updated technology in place to run the software (another unfunded mandate).”

    It was the AAPS school board’s choice to purchase NWEA testing, and it was not purchased for teacher evaluation. Here is an exchange from a May 30, 2011 Ann Arbor Chronicle report of an AAPS board discussion [link]:

    AAPS interim deputy superintendent of instruction, Lee Ann Dickinson-Kelley, was on hand to answer questions during the second briefing on the proposed purchase of the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) assessment by AAPS.

    Thomas began the discussion by asking a number of clarifying questions to address public concerns regarding the assessment, and Dickinson-Kelley answered them. He asked how long it would take for students in grades K-2 to complete (20-30 min); whether the test is age-appropriate (Yes); and, whether it replaces the MEAP (No). He also questioned how results will be used, and whether or not they will be useful for assessing teachers. . .

    Regarding its uses, Dickinson-Kelley said the NWEA test would be used to assess students, not teachers. She reported that guidance would be offered to teacher-leaders and principals about how to adjust instructional practice to test results. . .

    Baskett then asked about the connection between the NWEA assessment and the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP). Dickinson-Kelley said that the district’s use of the NWEA tool will prepare AAPS for the replacement of the MEAP with a national assessment by 2013 or 2014, since NWEA uses national instead of state standards.

    Some board members may have approved it in the hope that it might allow the district to use it down the road for teacher evaluation–even though, at that time, the answer was that no, it wasn’t to be used for teacher evaluations. In fact, when asked now, school board members have different accounts as to whether they thought it would/could/should be used for teacher evaluation. Perhaps most critically, NWEA itself says that it was designed for student evaluation rather than teacher evaluation, and that it does not have statistical validity for the purpose of teacher evaluation.

    It was entirely the AAPS school board’s choice (with the enthusiastic support of the administration) to purchase NWEA testing materials. The board may have been misled as to the technological compatibility, because Lee Ann Dickinson-Kelly is referenced in an Ann Arbor Chronicle article as saying that, “AAPS had to identify an assessment process that is compatible with its current technology infrastructure, and the district has identified the NWEA assessment tool as ideal” (Chronicle, 5/17/2011).

    Nine months later, when it appeared that AAPS technology couldn’t handle the NWEA, even for elementary school students, I was told that NWEA had warned AAPS that the state of AAPS technology meant that the district might not be able to handle it technologically speaking, and in fact the need for updated technology for the NWEA test became a rationale for the technology bond. [Note: there were new technology and curricular staff in place nine months after the decision had been made, so I'm not sure who knew what when.]

    It’s not a requirement to have the NWEA. It’s not mandated like the MEAP. Whatever assessment becomes mandated (and there will be one) will probably replace both the MEAP and NWEA. At which point our district will have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on something that isn’t necessary. We have entirely too much testing going on in the schools now, particularly in the fall. Testing time takes away from instruction time.

    I will say, over and over again until I am blue in the face, the district could drop NWEA if it chose to. And if the district doesn’t drop NWEA because it finds it useful, then it should drop some of the other testing and evaluation methods, like SRI, FastMath, other reading assessments. . . and give that time back to the teachers to actually teach.

  13. By Pam Davis-Kean
    October 3, 2012 at 9:29 am | permalink

    I think there is real confusion as to why we have the NWEA. I want to add my frustration that a test that is not required by the state or federal gov’t does not have an opt-out option for parents. My son will now go from taking the SRI, NWEA, to taking the MEAP. The district doesn’t seem to think that it matters if the kids are getting any instruction at all. When I had my meeting with the district to try to get a waiver for my son, they said NO, all because of their goal to make my son’s education experience more fruitful. That fruitful experience has now become about constant testing–with the goal of putting children into ability grouping! It is clear to me that this was meant to have data to use for teacher evaluation. I do not want any child in the Ann Arbor School District to have to be used in this way. Student achievement has never been just the results of good or bad teachers. In fact, replicated research shows over and over again that the schools neither increase achievement or decrease achievement, they only hold the gaps at school entry constant. So, we do need all day kindergarten and a focus on preschool–we do not need to be testing the kids three times a year. As another note, teachers provide more to children than just basic instruction, they are often the other important adults in children’s life that make a difference to their long-term outcomes. When I talk to the college students at U of M you would be amazed at how many students talk about the teacher that changed or inspired them in some way. This is especially true for minority students. I am all for making instruction better–but also for thinking about schooling provides to children and our community at large. I am attaching a link to a talk that was just presented at the Univ. of Michigan by Sean Reardon who is an expert on the achievement gap. [link] You will see that our issues are much deeper than the schools and the schools alone will not fix are achievement problems and testing our kids like crazy won’t solve the teacher problems or achievement problems

  14. By Rod Johnson
    October 3, 2012 at 11:18 am | permalink

    I don’t have anything substantive to contribute to the debate here, but I wanted to express my appreciation to Ruth for her work as an independent, knowledgeable, committed observer of the school system. Thanks, Ruth.

  15. By A2Person
    October 3, 2012 at 5:12 pm | permalink

    Ruth and Pam, Yes yes yes. Just this year I have met two families who left the district for reasons of over-testing and class sizes. The district is just wrong on this. There are beginning to be many examples of school boards and even superintendents pushing back against all the overtesting, but the AAPS seems to have bought into it fully. It makes me sad and angry.

  16. October 3, 2012 at 9:18 pm | permalink

    Thanks Rod!