Sunday, November 29, 2015

The "Demonstrable Improvement" Racket

Andrew J. Smitherman (1921 Tulsa Race Riot survivor) was a student of government, especially when the forces of government, e.g.  Its laws are used to restrict and/or confound the rights of the people.   At the turn of the last century, he fought the Oklahoma government, where “guardianship laws” were passed to “protect” native and black inheritors of oil rich land.  Even when these children had nurturing, knowledgeable parents the courts were enabled to appoint a “guardian” to oversee their affairs.  Too often these same guardians ultimately ended up stealing the assets of the very wards they pledged to protect.  An argument could be made that there is no comparison between the historical unethical legal maneuver to divest minority children of their rightful inheritance (Smitherman called it the Guardianship Racket) and the Receivership law.  However, in my estimation, Receivership comes close as the latest in a long line of “rackets” to undermine public education.

While there are 25 Buffalo Schools that have been identified as in one or two year receivership,  five “persistently struggling”  schools are targeted as the first to be required to show “demonstrable improvement” this year or face take-over by an outside receiver.  So, what constitutes “demonstrable improvement”?  It takes a score card and maybe an attorney to understand the bureaucratic strategies, which define “demonstrable improvement.”   Since the law went into effect in July 2015 the State Education Department has issued publications, held a number of workshops, webinars, and conducted phone conferences with impacted Districts to explain this hastily constructed assessment.   SED identifies “demonstrable improvement” as being comprised of three elements: a) “Performance Indicators b) Years of Identification (as a persistently struggling or struggling school) c) the superintendent (receiver’s) successful use of receivership powers to implement the school’s plan.”

The Performance Indicators are comprised of a series of data  points or measures, such as scores on the ELA and Math tests (the percentage of students whose scores improve, to be more precise); number of serious incidents that occur at the school, attendance/suspension rates; test scores of specific subgroups in the school population.  There are also measures of teacher attendance/absenteeism or teachers teaching out of their certification area.  These are only a few examples, however some of these indicators are grouped under the heading of Level 1 and some are deemed Level 2.  Level 1 indicators are those that are selected by the State, which the schools must accept.  Level 2 indicators can be selected by the schools, although it does become a bit confusing when the State acknowledges that there are some schools for which they cannot identify a requisite number of Level 1 indicators. In the case of that scenario, the District must identify enough Level 2 indicators to make up for the discrepancy.

In any event, the indicators must be ones that the schools have not been successful in attaining.   The State has set baseline measures for each of these indicators.  If the school has obtained proficiency for any specific indicator, attendance as an example, attendance cannot be chosen as a Level 2 indicator.  The final number of indicators to be met is ten; 5 determined by the State and 5 by the Superintendent Receiver and the school’s Community Engagement Team.  Each indicator has a weight of 10% leading to the sum total of 100 percentage points.  A school will achieve demonstrable progress if they score 67% or higher at the end of year one (2015-2016).  Of course, if they don’t achieve the minimum percentage, they have not demonstrated improvement; UNLESS, there are extenuating circumstances which prevented this achievement.  The Commissioner will have the power to determine the next steps in this case.  Which brings me back to one of the other components the State identified as indicative of “demonstrable improvement”;   the “superintendent’s use of receivership powers to implement the school’s plan”.

I haven’t seen the criteria that the Commissioner will use to evaluate this “measure”.  How will the State determine that the Superintendent used his receivership powers to implement the plan?  Are the actions of our Superintendent, e.g. to request that the Commissioner impose changes to the union contract ample and sufficient reasons to judge this criteria?  Or is the State looking for something more dramatic or confrontational?  Or perhaps, more collegial and collaborative?  Since I have not been able to find a definition for this particular “measure” of “demonstrable improvement”, we’ll have to wait and see. 

I must come back to the analogy of “building the plane, while flying it” as it has never been more apropos.  The “persistently struggling” schools have one year - THIS YEAR - to show “demonstrable improvement”.  Take special note that this is the same year that the State is defining and refining while implementing the foregoing, untested plan.   This convoluted plan sets the stage for outside receivership.   I urge the readers to go to   and download the PowerPoint presentation that explains “demonstrable improvement” and how the State plans to get there.  I can’t fully detail it in this short article.  A local news broadcast boasts of “holding people in power accountable.”   Major decisions will be made, based on the outcomes of “demonstrable improvement” gains in the schools, but who will evaluate and hold the State Education Department accountable for its actions?

As for the analogy to Andrew J. Smitherman’s fight against the Guardianship Racket?  There is much to learn from the battles he waged against an unjust system:  educate the public, identify the harm suffered by specific people and the population in general; plan and execute the resistance.  And finally, Persist. 

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