Tuesday, January 19, 2016

APS's Half Billion Dollar Pitch

A Whole Lot More of the Same?
Does the mill levy target the real problem?

ELECTION - FEBRUARY 2, 2016 -- 31 Albuquerque Polling Stations Will Be Open

MeanMesa has lived in Albuquerque for quite a while -- the U-Haul rolled in here on the day the jets were crashing into the World Trade Center. After spending this much time watching the Albuquerque Public School system and talking to the parents of students enrolled in it, three puzzling conclusions have emerged.

1. Educational outcomes for New Mexico -- including those for Albuquerque -- have been consistently dismal when compared to similar figures for the rest of the states.

2. Plenty [perhaps not "all" or even "most"] of Albuquerque citizens are less than impressed with the performance of the system -- not exclusively any specific part of the system -- but with the entire, apparently self-sustaining, dysfunctional performance of all the parts.

3. Apparently contradicting item 2 [above], most Albuquerque citizens relying on the system to educate their children harbor a strangely stoic acceptance to APS's institutional inertia which leaves them uninterested with the prospect of introducing really far reaching, in depth, systemic improvements to it.

These are pretty broad assertions, so it makes sense to spend a little time with each one -- especially in the light of the $575 Million bond proposal.

MeanMesa encountered three attractive, bright faced high school girls distributing the following card to front doors around the neighborhood. It spells out the pitch -- quite professionally -- from APS and the School Board to encourage Albuquerque voters to approve the mill levy question on the upcoming ballot. If any of the blog's Albuquerque followers haven't received one of these yet, be patient.

The APS Mailer
Perhaps surprisingly, MeanMesa has no particular problem with the goals stated on the cards justifying the expenditure of this money or the mill levy proposal, itself. The local school infrastructure can definitely benefit from some serious attention. Even before the voter campaign, MeanMesa had firmly decided to cast a "yes" vote on the proposal.

The assertions made [above] at the beginning of the post are pretty broad, so it makes sense to spend a little time with each one -- especially in the light of the $575 Million bond proposal.

1. Educational outcomes don't improve much when the APS budget is increased.

When the discussion descends to specific complaints about APS policy of a certain teacher's classroom techniques or the like, the bigger picture becomes blurred. It's natural for parents -- and tax payers -- to single out their "personal issues" with the way APS is handling their child's education or handling the APS budget for, say, building maintenance and so on.

However, MeanMesa thinks the real story here needs to address the "bigger picture" -- the picture in which APS can be considered more as a monolithic institution, and, importantly, what might possibly be done to change this "big picture monolith" into one with improved performance.

Now, although New Mexico -- and particularly, Albuquerque -- residents have demonstrated this unusual "acceptance" of the current performance of APS, when we "switch the parameters," we might understandably expect a better "return" from this 30% "chunk" of the State's budget. For example, if 30% of the same expenditures were dedicated to the highways in the State, we could, once again, very reasonably compare the condition of New Mexico's State highways to state highways conditions found in other states.

It turns out that we -- as common citizens -- know a great deal more about the very material "performance" of something like highway spending than we know about the rather abstract "performance" of education spending.

MeanMesa thinks that THIS is at the root of the problem. We literally do not know what a "reasonable expectation" of APS performance might look like. Further, we have a very visible reluctance to compare APS's performance to that of similar school systems in other states -- i.e. as noted in Albuquerque's very "agitated reluctance" to acknowledge the results of standardized testing.

Interestingly, this may perhaps not be the result of a conspiracy to confuse Albuquerque parents and taxpayers, but instead, the understandable result of school system which has lost track of its primary mission and the necessity of performing at a level with is competitive with national results. There is not much reason to expect the increased spending made possible by the mill levy funding to alter this much.

Student achievement does, actually, require suitable infrastructure, but improvements to infrastructure are not the central element required for better achievement.

2. What explains Albuquerque parents' "general malaise" with APS educational outcomes?

Albuquerque parents with a child attending school in the APS system cannot compare a child's educational progress with that of a child in, say, Minnesota. The parent's appraisal of this progress is individual; it is based on this parent's observation of the child last year compared to this year and generally not on a comparison of the child's progress with national [or international] educational outcomes.

Reviewing data presented on charts showing this comparison, even though the picture painted by such data may show a disastrous situation, will never provoke the same concern as the more subjective impression created at the family's dinner table. This appraisal unavoidably leads Albuquerque parents to the state of simply "hoping for the best" instead of very reasonably "demanding the best" -- or, at least, insisting on some outcomes which are consistent with the very public, material levels of spending.

Parents with children in APS have an intuitive feeling that things are not going along particularly well at all. This is a general impression. When the "educational professionals" respond to this, they predictably dive into minutia and specifics. The experts begin to explain things, not with the goal of actually explaining them, but instead, with the goal of establishing a sort of "counter argument" with the intention of allaying such parental fears about the system's deficient performance and introducing a suspicion that, as parents, they were not really sophisticated enough to understand "the causes."

When these perhaps overly general parental concerns have been relegated to such specific causes and otherwise ameliorated by these "descents into mitigating minutia," parents are supposed to feel "quite reassured" because these "intuitive" suspicions of theirs were not really well founded at all. This has apparently worked for quite a while, but now, the days of such an approach may, thankfully, seem to "be numbered."

The mill levy proposal may have placed all these considerations "on the table" in a very visible way.

The carefully crafted phenomenon patiently developed to this end is "institutional self-fortification." Any challenges which reasonably require significant changes are met with "tweeking" -- and that "tweeking" tends to serve a very institutional interest. After one of these "tweeks" [a minor adjustment to policy or, perhaps, a tiny bit of "unfinished business" with some APS staff member] has been instituted by the institution, practically everything roars back to "normal" almost immediately.

Far from being something similar to being "responsive to the concerns of the community and parents," making these continuous "adjustments" leaves APS's direction in a state so chaotic that it makes even the old adage, "run by committee," look very attractive, indeed.

3. What has caused the unusually tacit acceptance of APS performance by Albuquerque parents?

Amazingly, while still harboring these "uneasy feelings" concerning their children's education, Albuquerque parents are apparently loathe to insist on trying alternatives which are appreciably different from the status quo.

While there may be all manner of compellingly persuasive explanations for this anomaly, it's factual presence is a material player in resolving this. While MeanMesa might prefer to presume this opinion is a mere, confused, geriatric exaggeration, too many conversations with actual parents of actual APS students firmly suggests otherwise.

APS has endured these "contradictions" quite well. Even when the top leadership of the system plunged into an embarrassing scandal, there were curiously few voices agitating for any system-wide changes in philosophy. For the rest of the time Albuquerque parents remained silent, convinced that "only the educational professionals" had any business being so critical.

Within the political structure of the APS and the School Board, this "situational acceptance" offered only the most tediously perilous, temporary sort of job security for the system's leadership and employees [teachers].

APS political conditions entered into a "hyper-dynamic" state as the mill levy's half billion dollar price tag emerged into the public light. Would the "hypnotic" trance of the city's citizens hold in the face of such a big investment?

MeanMesa Suggests a Solution
We can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs.

Can anyone who isn't an "educational professional" actually offer any sort of a "path forward" from this institutional morass?


MeanMesa acknowledges that the full collection of "difficulties" both causing and resulting in APS's current problems will fill a long list -- a very long list. Still, as has already been mentioned in this post, formulating "fixes" to isolated, perhaps unique, "hot spots" no longer really even appears to be sufficient. This is a challenge which can be met only by much wider "adjustments," and it turns out that the balloting process for this mill levy offers an unexpected opportunity do do exactly this.

The advertisement encouraging Albuquerque voters to approve the mill levy proposal included an abbreviated accounting of precisely what the money is intended to purchase. [Interestingly, the amounts listed in the accounting were presented at the resolution of pennies, for example, "Student/Teacher furniture -- $464,996.25" and "Educational Technology -- $9,299,924.92." Although a mere curiosity, this represents the "public school" spending mentality. It may well be evidence that the mill levy's designers were concerned about the psychological impact that "rounding" the account figures might have had on already suspicious Albuquerque tax payers.]

Nonetheless, the title of this section of the post speaks to a "solution." Let's get to it.

Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) is a school district based in Albuquerque,New Mexico. Founded in 1891, APS is the largest of 89 public school districts in the state of New Mexico. In 2010 it had a total of 139 schools with some 95,000 students, making it one of the largest school districts in the United States. APS operates 89 elementary, 27 middle, and 13 high schools, as well as 10 alternative schools. [WIKI]

The school district employs roughly 9,500 teachers. Although there are plenty of problems, current APS teachers represent a major cause of the state of the system.

MeanMesa's "solution" can be expressed in a single sentence -- allocate part of the mill levy proceeds to:

Increase the salaries of APS teachers by 25%.
All of them.

[The salary increase would probably be unnecessary for the abnormally generous salaries already  being paid currently to APS institutional "administrators."]

Naturally, such a proposal merits a bit of explanation. Here's how it would work.

1. APS union teachers enjoy a significant, negotiated tenure. MeanMesa has no interest or appetite for union busting, but among those 9,500 APS teachers, there are more than a few who should, well, probably be employed in another career. A seventeen year old APS student lives right here in Galactic Headquarters and attends a near by APS high school. MeanMesa gets a first hand look at the caliber of school work, home work and general study materials "flowing" through this student's education.

The over all picture is not a pretty one.

There is, apparently, absolutely nothing which is the least bit exciting or engaging occurring in these classrooms. Even after carefully considering all the justifications for such a monstrosity, the conclusion remains the same. None of this student's teachers is "personally bothering to inject any life energy" into the education of this fellow. The grades are exemplary. The course work is horrifyingly inept.

2. These teachers are "here to stay." Not only the union contract's tenure provisions, but also the comparatively dismal pay scales offered by APS make this almost a certainty. 

Neither MeanMesa nor most other parents of Albuquerque APS students is prepared to barge into APS schools with a battering ram to start eliminating the dead weight among the teaching staff. For one, MeanMesa, although realizing the definite need to do this, would have no idea where to start.

The historical performance of APS, the parents and the teachers' union shows the level of "umbrage" and "outcry" necessary to remove and replace a tenured teacher. On the infrequent occasions when this actually takes place, the details are consistently institutional. There are "personnel matters," and they are usually more or less confidential.

3. However, there remains the possibility that the existing system could move dramatically to alter the current moribund inertia which is so depressing and troubling. Happily, MeanMesa's suggestion incorporates a few "temptations" for both the "organized labor hating" Round House and City Council Republicans and the "tenure and job security loving" union teachers. [This parking lot scrap has pretty well buried interest in educational outcomes.]

Just think of it as mixing anti-union ideology and organized labor with the free market while not committing suicide with "right to work" laws.

A "tit for tat" negotiation with the union would offer a significant increase in pay for the return benefit of a three to five year "vacation" of the union contract's tenure provisions. The higher pay rates would be actually competitive with other school district rates. They would attract better class teaching professionals. With the union's agreement to hold the tenure provisions of the contract in abeyance for a pre-determined period, existing APS teachers would have to actually compete with the new blood being drawn in by the increases in the negotiated pay scale.

The pay increase would be permanent, and the contract tenure provisions would return to force when the "experimental period" was complete. Hopefully, when the entire system "returned to normal," the APS teaching staff would have attracted enough new blood to positively influence the educational outcomes.

Those would be the "educational outcomes" which have been so shockingly low and shockingly static for far too long.

And, Finally, There Is Also This
Even the election's manipulation is confusing.

MeanMesa usually has a "gag reflex" whenever the idea of actually posting an Albuquerque Journal editorial comes to mind, but in this case there must be an exception. Spend three minutes with the following link.

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