The Greatest War: Empathy vs. Selfishness

Without diminishing the horrific civil war in Syria or the many other violent conflicts around the world, I believe that the greatest war is being fought between those with empathy and those who are selfish. In our own country we see it playing out on many fronts:

  • Health Care: do we empathize with those who cannot afford it or selfishly insist that healthcare is solely a personal responsibility?
  • Homelessness: do we look the ever increasing number of homeless people in the eye and reach out a helping hand, or do we look away and encourage our policymakers to criminalize homelessness so we do not have to see it as we walk down our streets?
  • Education: do we take real steps to improve public education for our most marginalized students to close the achievement gap, or do we siphon public funds to private schools which largely benefit those who can already afford to send their children to such schools?
  • Civil Rights: do we acknowledge and remedy the real discrimination suffered by people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups or do we undo the progress made by over 50 years of civil rights legislation by failing to enforce those laws?
  • Income inequality: do we build an economy that allows everyone to enjoy the basic necessities of life, including food, housing and health care, or do we continue down an accelerating path of haves and have nots?

I have long theorized that most of these problems could be solved if more people empathized with those who struggle with one or more of these challenges. Yet, a recent study showed that an decreasing percentage of college students have empathy for others by dismissing their attachment to others.

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While this presents a challenge for the future in a world that appears increasingly selfish, the good news is that there are methods to increase empathy and many people are working to implement these methods. Roman Krznaric wrote: Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get it a few years ago. In it, he suggests the following methods for increasing empathy.

  1. Stop and listen-Research shows that in employee-employer disputes, if both sides agree to simply repeat what the other side just said before they start speaking themselves, conflict resolution is reached 50% faster.
  2. Ask a stranger (such as a restaurant worker) how their life is going-Barriers to empathy are stereotypes and prejudices we have about others, often due to unconscious judgements based on appearance or accent.  A good way to increase empathy for those whom you do not know is to have a genuine conversation with a stranger at least once a week. Since most of us interact with restaurant and other retail workers who are strangers to us, this is an easy place to start.
  3. Expand your horizons through books and films-As Harper Lee wrote in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” While we cannot do this in a literal manner, Krznaric has established an Empathy Library to provide resources to those interested in teaching and expanding empathy.
  4. Bring empathy instruction into our schools-The word’s most effective program, Roots of Empathy, began in Canada and is spreading worldwide: over half a million children have done it.  The teacher is a baby who visits a class group regularly over a year. The children sit around the baby and discuss questions: What’s she thinking? What’s she feeling? It’s a stepping stone to developing their empathic imaginations. It works by increasing empathy levels, boosting cooperation, reducing school yard bullying and even increasing general academic achievement.

Some may consider this naive, as it is also the case that studies demonstrate that those in power, both in the workplace and by income, tend to be more selfish. One way to combat the ingrained selfishness of the rich and powerful is to demonstrate to them that over the long run, empathy for others will improve everyone’s lives, including their own. For example:

  • improving education for all will provide better workers to improve the economy for all;
  • expanding access to health care for everyone reduces the need for hospitals to provide free high cost charity care in their emergency rooms driving the cost of medical care up for everyone as someone has to pay for this care;
  • providing affordable housing and supportive services for the homeless does a better job of removing the visible scourge of homelessness from our streets over the long term than jail terms when we criminalize homelessness;
  • protecting the civil rights of marginalized groups and individuals helps those people feel welcome in our communities and less likely to commit acts of desperation;
  • reducing income inequality decreases the resentment of those in poverty against the wealthy and generates a healthier overall economy for all.

Increasing empathy starts at the individual level, so I encourage my readers to start today. Find a stranger, open a conversation, and increase your empathy. You will feel better for it and one step at a time, empathy can win the war over selfishness.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

 

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Small Class Sizes=Big Results

As the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Board of Education considers its budget for the coming year, some school board members are supporting an initiative to reduce class sizes in high poverty elementary schools in kindergarten-third grade classrooms. This initiative is supported by at least 4 board members (Anna Moffit, TJ Mertz, Nicki VanderMeulen and Dean Loumos), but 2 board members (Mary Burke and Kate Toews) appear to need more research to demonstrate the benefits of small class sizes.

The STAR (Students-Teacher Achievement Ratio) project is a well-known study of a class size reduction program in Tennessee. The study was conducted with a controlled group of 10,000 students. Classes of 22 through 26 were reduced to 13 through 17 students. In addition, the schools in the study had an adequate number of quality teachers and adequate classroom space. The project found that smaller classes resulted in substantial increases in academic performance of children in primary grades, particularly for poor and minority children.

In the second phase of the Tennessee study, known as the Lasting Benefits Study, it was demonstrated that,

year after year, the students who were originally in smaller classes con- tinued to perform better than the students from regular-sized classes with or without a teacher’s aide.

This graphic shows that the lasting benefits of small class sizes for low income children extend all the way through significantly improved high school graduation rates.

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These results should not be surprising given the benefits of fewer students in a classroom such as:
  • Students receive more individualized attention and interact more with the teacher.
  • Teachers have more flexibility to use different instructional approaches.
  • Fewer students distract teach other than a large group of children.
  • Teachers have more time to teach due to fewer discipline problems.
  • Students are more likely to participate in class and become more involved.
  • Teachers have more time to cover additional material and use more supplementary texts and enrichment activities.

Improved high school graduation rates for low income students, students of color, and students with disabilities should be among MMSD’s top goals. A review of the district’s most recent report card shows that although the district on average meets state expectations, one of the district’s four main high schools (LaFollette) fails to meet state expectations and another (East) meets few expectations. Equally disturbing is the overall graduation rate disparity for children of color, low income children and children with disabilities as follows:

  • 93% of white students graduated compared to just under 58% of Black/African-American students, just under 70% of Hispanic/Latino students;
  • 94% of students who are not economically disadvantaged graduated, while only 62% of those who are economically disadvantaged did so;
  • Just under 92% of students without disabilities graduated, while just under 57% of students with disabilities did so.

Although MMSD has made some progress in closing these gaps, the remaining gaps are cavernous. The school board should consider closing these gaps of the utmost importance and the best evidence is that the most effective way to close these gaps is to reduce class sizes in high poverty elementary schools just as some board members have proposed. Hopefully, this important initiative will pass when it comes to a vote.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

US Education System Earns a C

Education Week is a non-partisan publication which produces an annual national and state by state report card on the health of our education system. Sadly, the 2017 report released today does not bring good news. Overall, for the third year in a row, the report gives the American education system a C grade, certainly nothing to brag about. Thirty-four states including my home state of Wisconsin, which earned merely a C+, fell into the C- through C+ grade range.

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To  come up with that score, the report uses a multifaceted analysis, with 3 broad categories: K-12 Achievement; Chance for Success and School  Finance.

Chance for Success considers many critical factors in the lives of our children which help determine the probability that they will have a successful educational experience, including:

  • Family income
  • Parent education
  • Parent employment
  • English fluency
  • Preschool enrollment
  • Kindergarten enrollment
  • Elementary reading achievement
  • High school graduation rate
  • Young adult education
  • Adult education attainment
  • Annual income
  • Steady employment

School Finance also uses a multifaceted analysis including both equity and spending.

Wisconsin’s score breaks down as follows with its lowest score (D+) being in spending which raises serious questions as to how it will improve in the coming years:

Chance for Success: B (83.0)
*Early foundations: A- (90.3)
*School years: B- (79.9)
*Adult outcomes: B- (79.7)
K-12 Achievement: C (74.6)
*Status: C+ (76.7)
*Change: C- (69.9)
*Equity: C+ (79.2)
School Finance: C+ (79.1)
*Equity: B+ (89.2)
*Spending: D+ (69.0)

Unfortunately, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) means that each state gets to choose its path towards improvement. Given the stagnant lack of significant improvement over many years, skeptics have every reason  to be concerned that any significant progress will be made in the foreseeable future. As the Report Overview states:

The question that loomed over the celebrations hailing ESSA’s passage in December 2015 remains: What will more state control mean for historically overlooked groups of students?
Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s superintendent of public instruction, recalled that when ESSA became law, an influential civil rights leader in his state tweeted that he’d lived through states’ rights and it hadn’t worked out very well, a reference to segregation.
“I took that to heart, I took it as a personal obligation” to make equity for all groups a central tenet of Wisconsin’s plan, Evers said.
Civil rights advocates are heartened by such sentiments, but caution that states have a lot of decisions left to make.
“We’re still kind of in the thick of it,” said Daria Hall, the interim vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, which advocates in support of poor and minority students. “There’s a lot of conversation going on right now, but I don’t think we’re at a point where we can definitively say here’s where that conversation is leading us, for good, bad, or other.”

Wisconsin State Superintendent Tony Evers is running for re-election in April and faces 2 opponents, John Humphries and Lowell Holtz, so there will be a primary in February. Parents, advocates and voters who care about Wisconsin’s education  system should ask all 3 candidates how they intend to improve Wisconsin’s education system given these long standing mediocre results.

Unfortunately, the Wisconsin State Superintendent has no power over the state’s spending on education and does not write the laws that govern our education system, so parents, educators and advocates will need to pressure the Governor and state legislature to demand more funding and less diversion to private school voucher programs and charter schools which have failed to improve Wisconsin’s educational outcomes.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Seclusion & Restraint Surges in Madison

In response to an Open Records request, I recently received the 2015-16 school year seclusion and restraint use data from the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD). As MMSD has not published this data on its website, contact me at through my website if you want a copy of the data.

The use of these dangerous, aversive techniques rose significantly from the previous year, which had increased from the year before that as the numbers below reveal. Even more troubling is the wide variation of use of seclusion and restraint between schools and particularly high use in elementary and alternative schools, as well as among children with disabilities.

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U.S. Senator Tom Harking introduced the “Keeping All Students Safe Act” in 2014

MMSD 2015-16 Seclusion & Restraint Data highlights

Numbers of Students Impacted

  • Elementary School Mean Use on Students with Disabilities: 7.09
  • Elementary School Mean Use on Students without Disabilities: 5.23
  • Elementary School with Highest Use: Orchard Ridge: 16 students with disabilities/33 students without disabilities (lowest numbers were redacted by school district to protect confidentiality)
  • Middle School Mean Use on Students with Disabilities: 5.62
  • Middle School Mean Use on Students without Disabilities: 3.46
  • Middle School with Highest Use: Whitehorse: 7 students with disabilities/ 0 students without disabilities
  • Middle School with Lowest Use: O’Keefe had 0 incidents of seclusion or restraint
  • High School Mean Use on Students with Disabilities: 3
  • High School Mean Use on Students without Disabilities: 1.6
  • High School with Highest Use: East: 18 students with Disabilities/ 19 students without disabilities.
  • High School with Lowest Use: Shabazz had 0 incidents of seclusion or restraint

Numbers of Incidents

  • Elementary School Mean Incidents of Restraint Use Only: 56.29
  • Elementary School Mean Incidents of Seclusion Use Only: 74.6
  • Elementary School Mean Incidents of Seclusion  and Restraint Used in combination: 36.6
  • Elementary Mean total Seclusion & Restraint Incidents: 94.29
  • Elementary School with Highest Use: LEAP (Olson Elementary Alternative Program): 435 total incidents (note as number of students was redacted, this means that 5 or fewer students were secluded and/or restrained a total of 435 times)
  • Middle School Mean Incidents of Restraint Only: 12.38
  • Middle School Mean Incidents of Seclusion Only: 10.38
  • Middle School Mean Incidents of Seclusion and Restraint Used in combination: 6.62
  • Middle School Mean total Seclusion & Restraint Incidents: 16.15
  • Middle School with Highest Use: Sennett: 27 total incidents (note as number of students was redacted, this means that 5 or fewer students were secluded and/or restrained a total of 27 times)
  • High School Mean Incidents of Restraint Use Only: 7.33
  • High School Mean Incidents of Seclusion Use Only: 5.17
  • High School Mean Incidents of Seclusion and Restraint Used in combination: 3.5
  • High School Mean total Seclusion & Restraint Incidents: 9
  • High School with Highest Use: East: 49 total incidents

Districtwide Totals

  • Students with Disabilities Secluded and/or Restrained: 324
  • Students without Disabilities Secluded and/or Restrained: 231
  • Total Incidents of Restraint Use Only: 2,136
  • Total Incidents of Seclusion Use Only: 2,749
  • Total Incidents of Seclusion & Restraint in Combination: 1,369
  • Total Incidents of Seclusion and/or Restraint Use: 3,516

MMSD Analysis

  • 2% of MMSD students experienced seclusion and/or restraint
  • 5.6% of MMSD students with disabilities experienced seclusion and/or restraint
  • Seclusion and restraint use is highest in elementary schools (16.49%)
  • Mean incidents of restraint use in elementary schools was 56.3/building with a range per building of 1 to 436
  • Mean incidents of seclusion use in elementary schools was 74.6/building with a range of 0 to 309
  • There has been a steady increase in use of seclusion in restraint since data was collected for the first time in 2013-14 as follows:
    • 2013-14: 975 incidents of restraint and 1,387 incidents of seclusion
    • 2014-15: 1,266 incidents of restraint and 1,688 incidents of seclusion
    • 2015-16: 1,452 incidents of restraint and 2.064 incidents of seclusion
  • A small number of elementary schools account for the vast number of incidents with 23 elementary schools reported increased use and only 12 elementary schools reporting a decline.
  • MMSD hypothesizes that the increased use is simply due to better data collection
  • MMSD concedes that, “for those elementary schools that have consistently demonstrated increases in the number of incidents of restraint and seclusion, a pattern of over-reliance on restraint/seclusion may be evident.” MMSD plans training and follow up for these schools.

Conclusions

When I helped to pass Act 125 in 2012 to document and regulate the use of seclusion and restraint in Wisconsin schools, one of the chief goals was to reduce the use of these aversive techniques. Sadly, MMSD has gone in the opposite direction, and has failed to:

  1. hold principals of schools with continually increasing rates accountable for these increases;
  2. correlate the increased use of seclusion and restraint with a decreased use of suspension; and
  3. establish clear goals for the reduction and eventual elimination of the use of seclusion and restraint in MMSD schools.

Simply blaming the increasing numbers on better documentation is insufficient in the face of an ever increasing use of dangerously aversive techniques that are well known to traumatize children. In order to reverse this troubling trend, MMSD must insist on better training in the use of Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) and accountability for its staff and administrators who fail to reduce and eventually eliminate the use of seclusion and restraint.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

Inclusion in the Family

We all have telephone calls we receive that we never forget. Two calls which I will never forget came from my brother-in-law and sister-in-law, Jeff and Miriam. The first call informed us that their 4th child, Arielle, was born, which was wonderful. However, they reported that Arielle had a stroke in utero which resulted in cerebral palsy.

Much to the credit of Jeff and Miriam, they were determined that Arielle would get the medical and therapeutic care that she needed, as well as a high quality education. Her 3 older siblings, were very supportive, and the family included Arielle in all their travels and adventures. Although the cerebral palsy weakened Arielle’s right side, she persevered and participated in all the physical activities at school and in the neighborhood park, as well as the many hikes her family enjoyed.

Her mother, Miriam, is a Rabbi, and her father, Jeff, is a Jewish educator. They made sure that she got a high quality Jewish education, including learning the Hebrew language and prayers, and most important of all, Jewish values.

When Arielle was growing, she often needed to use a brace to support her left lower leg. This made her disability visible to others, including some neighbors, who created the reason for the second call that I remember so clearly. Apparently, a neighbor did not think it was appropriate for Arielle to ride a bicycle like all the other children her age, so she called the police. The police, in turn, contacted child protective services (CPS), who contacted Jeff and Miriam, to investigate. Jeff and Miriam called me for legal advice and I supported them in being completely honest with the county social worker to inform them that they wanted Arielle to have all the joys of childhood and that she was perfectly capable of riding her bicycle regardless of the misperceptions of their neighbor. Fortunately, CPS closed the case without further action.

Two years ago, Arielle and her parents moved from Massachusetts, where she had lived her entire life, to Greensboro, North Carolina, which was a challenging change for Arielle. In addition to a significant cultural change, it required her to make new friends and navigate around a brand new school. A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were pleased to travel to Greensboro to watch Arielle receive her diploma with a variety of academic honors, from Grimsley High School.

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Arielle in cap & gown with her parents Jeff & Miriam, and sister Leora, who recently graduated from Washington University.

The graduation took place in the evening. After the graduation, the school held an overnight alcohol-free party for the graduates. Arielle does not drive yet, so her mother took her to the party which started at 11 PM. Her parents assured her that they would keep their cell phones on overnight by their pillows in case she wanted to come home early.

My wife and I were staying in a guest house across the street from Jeff, Miriam and Arielle’s home. I am an early riser and shortly after I wake up, I meditate. While meditating, I relax my eyes and while they are often closed, occasionally they open. The morning after Arielle’s graduation, while meditating, I opened my eyes to see Arielle walking up to her house at around 6:15 AM, after being dropped off by a friend. That is a beautiful inclusive vision that I will never forget.

Arielle has been admitted to the University of Hartford, but she is contemplating taking a gap year before starting college. I am confident that whatever she decides, she will continue as she has done thought her life, to move through life with joy and confidence that she can and will be included in whatever she chooses to do.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Close the Achievement Gap: Increase Intensive Support

As the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Board of Education reviews the budget which its administration has prepared for the coming year, it would be wise to take a close look at its continuing problem with the ongoing racial, disability and poverty achievement gap and focus on how appropriate staffing can help to close that gap. While some improvements have been made, persistent gaps remain.

Students simply will not succeed if they are not in school. During the 2014-15 school year 2,477 MMSD students were habitually truant (meaning 5 or more days of unexcused absence from school) representing 9.8% of all MMSD students. But 1,235 of those students (nearly half) were African-American, representing 26.9% of all MMSD African-American students.

During that same year, MMSD suspended 1,713 students. But, 1,069 of them were African-American representing well over half of those suspended students. 402 of MMSD suspended students had disabilities, representing 10.9% of all MMSD students with disabilities, nearly half of all MMSD suspended students. While the data does not reveal how many African-American students with disabilities were suspended, when one adds the African-American suspended students and the suspended students with disabilities, that number almost equals all MMSD suspended students so it is safe to assume that African-American students with disabilities have the highest rate of suspension in the district.

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That MMSD’s discipline data reveals troubling racial and disability disparities is consistent with national data. But that should come as no solace to anyone, as nobody should admire the data. Instead, we need to apply solutions that we know will work to solve the problem.

While MMSD’s Behavior Education Plan has succeeded in significantly reducing the total number of suspensions, it also reveals another glaring gap for children in poverty. While 48% of MMSD students qualify for free or reduced lunch, a shocking 89% of MMSD suspensions were doled out to low-income students.

Finally, graduation rates also reveal a troubling achievement gap. At the end of the 2014-15 school year, 80.1% of MMSD seniors graduated in 4 years. But only 57.8% of African-American students; 56.8% of students with disabilities; and 62.1% of low-income students graduate in 4 years.

Fortunately, MMSD has a program designed to address the needs of its students with the most intensive needs. The Intensive Support Team (IST) takes requests from MMSD staff to address the needs of students in crisis. As of May 2, 2016, during this school year, there were 455 requests for support to IST. Of these, 411 were served by the team in one of several capacities (consultation, intake/assessment, professional development, short term stabilization), 250 were closed and the rest still active. This means that nearly 10% of referrals were not served and over 1/2 of all referrals are still receiving intensive supports.

Unfortunately, staff cuts were made to this team last year and the administration’s proposed budget does not propose to fill those cuts. The good news is that the budget is still in the discussion stage. School board member Anna Moffit has proposed to increase the IST staff by 3.5 FTE staff to address the unmet need for these students at a cost of approximately $250,000. In an era of tight budgets and state imposed revenue caps, Ms. Moffit recognizes that the money must come from somewhere so she has identified the following reasonable places where this money can be found: reduce spending on Technology Plan; reduce spending on Educational Resource Officers; or utilize funds saved from not filling the position of Special Assistant to the Superintendent ($125,000 dollars).

The school board and our community must recognize that failing to meet the needs of these students has a significant cost both to these students and to society at large. A recent report by the UCLA Civil Rights project from which I extrapolated the high cost of suspensions in Wisconsin, reveals that each suspended student who fails to graduate results in:

  • $19,572 in fiscal costs; and
  • $60,962 in societal costs.

Thus, if the IST is able to help only 5 more students at risk of suspension to graduate, it will have saved our community far more money than the additional cost which Ms. Moffit proposes spending on this worthy program. Thus, her proposal makes senses for educational, equitable, social and economic reasons and should therefore receive the support of the full school board.

Residents of MMSD who support Ms. Moffit’s proposal should e-mail the school board to encourage them to approve her amendment at: board@madison.k12.wi.us.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

The High Cost of School Suspensions

While many school officials choose to suspend students who misbehave either to teach them a lesson or simply to remove a child who may have caused a disruption in school, they need to understand the long term consequences to both the suspended child and to society as a whole which result from these suspensions.

Today, the UCLA Civil Rights Project released an in-depth report on, The High Cost of Harsh Discipline and its Disparate Impact which takes a comprehensive look at the impact of school suspensions on children and society.

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This study demonstrates markedly lower graduation rates for students who are suspended even one time. Nationally, the graduation rate drops by 12 percentage points for suspended students!

The report then goes on to calculate the fiscal and social costs of suspensions which lead to high school drop outs.

The consequences are expressed as the lifetime differences between dropouts and graduates in: incomes; taxes paid; government spending on health, crime, and welfare; tax distortions; and productivity gains. Although the fiscal and social costs are related, the social costs include the aggregate losses incurred by dropouts personally such as their lower income, diminished productivity, and higher expenditures on health care due to poorer health. The fiscal costs are a subset of the social costs and cover only the losses experienced by federal, state and local governments due to lower income tax revenues and higher government expenditures on health and social services, and on the criminal justice system.

The report estimates that the national average economic loss per high school non-graduate due to suspension is:

  • fiscal costs to taxpayers: $163,340/suspended non-graduating student
  • social costs to society: $527, 695/suspended non-graduating student

When one multiplies all suspended non-graduates by these economic losses, the national economic impact is tremendous:

  • overall national fiscal cost to taxpayer: $11 billion due to suspended non-graduates
  • overall national social cost to society: $35.7 billion due to suspended non-graduates

On an optimistic note, the report then estimates the nationwide economic benefits achieved by reducing suspensions. For each percentage point of reduction, our nation would save:

  • $691 million saved in fiscal costs/1% reduction in suspension rate
  • $2.2 billion saved in social costs/1% reduction in suspension rates.

The report examines 2 states, Florida and California, but it encourages educators and policymakers to apply this impact to every other state. Thus, in examining Wisconsin’s suspension rate, while the suspension rate has been going down, in 2014-15, Wisconsin school districts nevertheless suspended 31,167 students, or 3.6% of all enrolled students. Using the report’s data, and applying the national average 12% increase in drop-out rate for suspended students, this means that the total economic impact for Wisconsin suspended non-graduates is estimated to be:

  • $610 million fiscal cost to Wisconsin taxpayers due to suspended non-graduates
  • $1.9 billion social cost to Wisconsin society due to suspended non-graduates

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction provides suspension data by school district, race/ethnicity, gender and disability. For example, in the Madison area, the Beloit School District has the highest rate of suspension at 10.1% (nearly 3 times the state average). Racial disparities exist throughout the state. Statewide, Wisconsin school districts suspended 15.1% African-American students in 2014-15, nearly 5 times the state average. Beloit once again has troubling racial disparities, having suspended 21.8% of its African-American students that year.

Disparities are also troubling for students with disabilities. Statewide 9.5% of students with disabilities were suspended statewide (nearly 3 times the statewide average). Once again, Beloit exhibits disturbing disparities, having suspended 22.9% of its students with disabilities that year.

Thus, the economic impact on the most disadvantaged groups of students is many times higher than for white non-disabled students.

The report concludes with 3 major recommendations:

  1. When federal and state governments create and implement evaluation and oversight plans for schools and districts they should include suspension rates among the indicators they use to determine whether schools are high performing or in need of assistance.
  2. Use the suspension data as part of an early warning system for schools and districts. Thus, as more districts with high suspension rates explore alternatives, we will need data to help them distinguish between effective and ineffective interventions and policy changes.
  3. State and federal policymakers should provide schools and districts with incentives to improve their school climate, such as grants for substantial teacher and administrator trainings, and resources targeted at improving the collection and use of discipline data at the school level.

These are all excellent ideas, and local school districts need not wait for state and federal policymakers to implement local changes to reduce suspensions, thereby increasing graduation rates, and reducing fiscal and social costs to all of us. This report demonstrates that the investments are well worth the money and effort.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

 

Measuring Progress

Recently, a Madison school board member asked me and a number of other special education advocates how to best measure educational progress for children with disabilities. I responded that ultimately, it had to be measured individually, but when examining specific schools or an entire school district, key data points are useful including: suspension rates, graduation rates and reading and math test scores.

As we live in a data driven society, measuring progress is often reduced to examining numbers. While those numbers are often helpful, sometimes it is important to step back from the numbers to examine cultural progress in the way we talk about issues. Right now, the current campaign for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court provides some important lessons.

When Justice Patrick Crooks passed away last year, Gov. Scott Walker appointed Rebecca Bradley to replace him even though she was an announced candidate for that seat (Crooks had previously announced his intention to retire). This was Governor Walker’s 3rd judicial appointment of Bradley since he appointed her to her first judgeship in Milwaukee County in 2012, having then appointed her to the Court of Appeals in May, 2015, just months before he appointed her to the Supreme Court.

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In her application for the Wisconsin Supreme Court position, she was asked to, “List any published books or articles.” She lists 16 publications dating back to 2001. Over the past week, controversial articles she wrote as a columnist for the Marquette University newspaper in the early 1990s have come to light, which she did not list in her application. In these articles she disparages gays and people with AIDS, questions the American electorate’s intelligence for electing Bill Clinton, defends the Marquette University’s Native American mascot (which has since been changed), and asserted that women play a role in date rape.

She initially claimed that she was horribly embarrassed by her college columns, and later offered an apologyoffering assurances that her views on gays have changed since that time.

Of course, ultimately, the voters will decide on April 5th whether Justice Bradley’s college columns should matter 24 years later when they decide whether to vote for her or her opponent Court of Appeals Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg. But, watching this controversy unfold helps me realize how much progress our society has made when it comes to gay rights issues. The sad fact is that in 1992, it was acceptable for Rebecca Bradley to write hateful columns about people who are gay and those who suffer from AIDS in her college newspaper. In 2016, nobody, including her, is defending those hateful writings. They are now considered so universally offensive, that a sitting state Supreme Court judge has publicly declared that she is “horribly embarrassed” and must apologize for those hateful writings. In this particular matter, society has evolved in a positive way.

Of course, Rebecca Bradley wrote other and more recent publications for which she has not apologized and cannot excuse herself as the writings of an immature college student. In 2006, she wrote an opinion piece for MKE Magazine, entitled, Pharmacists are guaranteed the right to exercise their religious beliefsIn that column, she supports a bill that the Wisconsin legislature did not pass, which would have allowed pharmacists to refuse to provide the medicine known as “Plan B” to customers if it did not conform to their religious beliefs and furthermore, did not require objecting pharmacists to refer the customer elsewhere to fill their prescriptions. At the end of her column, she writes:

Rebecca recommends visiting http://www.prolifewisconsin.org and Pharmacists For Life International, http://www.pfli.org, for more info about getting involved.

When this issue was brought to light, Rebecca Bradley declined to weigh in, due to the potential for the issue to come before the high court.

“Justice Bradley believes it is the role of the Legislature to make the law and the role of a justice to apply it,” said spokeswoman Madison Wiberg. “Due to the potential for this issue to come in front of the state Supreme Court, it would be improper for Justice Bradley to give an opinion at this time.”

As an attorney who has been practicing for over 30 years, I am often bemused by judicial candidates when they decide which issues they can comment on, and which they cannot.I do not consider it progress when Rebecca Bradley apologizes for clearly embarrassing writings that she did not reveal in her application for our state’s highest court, but then refuses to comment on much more current writing claiming that it could come before the Supreme Court. All issues, including the issues of gay rights, can come to the Supreme Court. Justice Bradley should not be given the luxury of choosing which of her own writings, especially more recent writing written as a practicing attorney, she can comment on.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting. In the interest of full disclosure, he has publicly endorsed Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg in the upcoming race for Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Seclusion & Restraint in Our Own Backyard

As a leader in the movement to reduce the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint of our school children, I was pleased to see that Disability Rights Wisconsin, Wisconsin FACETS and Wisconsin Family Ties held a press conference yesterday to release their new report: Seclusion and Restraint in Wisconsin Public School Districts 2013-14: Miles to GoThe report reveals both data and stories about the ongoing use of seclusion and restraint in Wisconsin school, despite the passage of Act 125 in 2012, designed to reduce the inappropriate use of these aversive techniques.

In November of 2012, I posted a summary of the key provisions of Wisconsin’s New Law on the Use of Seclusion and Restraint of School Children on my blog. Tellingly, it has been viewed every single month since then, and is my 3rd most read blog post.

To this day, many of my cases continue to involve the use of seclusion and restraint, including in my local school district, in Madison, Wisconsin. As the new report reveals, the number of children subjected to seclusion and restraint in Madison’s schools is actually increasing. In the 2012-13 school year, 248 students were subjected to seclusion and restraint. While in the 2013-14 school year, that number increased to 264. Sadly, these children are subjected to these aversive measures over and over again, which suggests that staff are not receiving the appropriate support to manage student behavior without using these dangerous techniques. In the 2012-13 school year, there were 2,291 incidents of seclusion and restraint (an average of over 9 incidents/student subjected to seclusion &/or restraint). In the 2013-14 school year, there were 2,362 such incidents (just under 9 incidents/student).

Sadly, when asked to respond to this problem, John Harper, Madison’s Executive Director of Student Services, failed to acknowledge the problem and instead fell back on the long debunked argument that these traumatizing techniques “ensure the safety of our students and staff.

When Act 125 passed, I was proud to be a co-author of this landmark legislation. I worked for 12 years along with many others to ultimately secure unanimous passage and the Governor’s signature on this important piece of legislation. Without this law, we would not have the data that this new report revealed.

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Governor Walker signing Act 125

But all advocates know that passage of a law is only a first step, albeit an important one. The law has improved behavioral management practices in many school districts. But, others remained challenged and fall back on punitive and traumatizing techniques. What we need are school superintendents and building principals who declare their schools to be seclusion and restraint free zones and for our legislature and Governor to provide sufficient funding to school districts so staff can receive the appropriate training and support to teach children appropriate behavior rather than traumatize them with the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change, visit his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Education Progress? A Deeper Look

Recently, I received a copy of the Madison Metropolitan School District’s 1st Quarterly Review of its Strategic Framework. It is addressed to the Madison Community and opens as follows:

We are pleased to present our 1st quarterly review of progress for the 2015-16 school year. Our school district is on a mission to close the gaps in opportunity that lead to disparities in achievement and to ensure that every child graduates ready for college, career, and community.

FrameworkImage

However, as I read the review, I noted that it focused exclusively on African-American students and contained very little data, none of which appeared to be from the 2015-16 school year. While I fully support the need for Madison to close the educational achievement gaps for its African-American students, this cannot be done successfully by touting limited and misleading data. Moreover, my long career in educational advocacy has taught me that educational progress for one group of students cannot be achieved in isolation from the rest of the school district. Rather, educational progress must be premised in articulating clear achievable goals, providing necessary support and training to staff and students to achieve those goals and holding administrators accountable when goals are not met.

Thus, when I examined MMSD’s progress in its Strategic Framework from the 2013-14 to this 2014-15 school year, I was troubled to discover that the progress is not nearly as rosy as the district’s 1st Quarter Review suggests.

Here are some key pieces of data that the district does not reveal in its 1st Quarter Review.

District-wide Progress

  • Grade 3: Math Proficiency 45% (up 2% from the prior year)
  • Grade 3: Reading Proficiency 37% (down 1% from the prior year)
  • Grade 5: Math Proficiency 48% (up 6% from the prior year)
  • Grade 5: Reading Proficiency 44% (up 4% from the prior year)
  • Grade 8: Math Proficiency 42% (up 1% from the prior year)
  • Grade 8: Reading Proficiency 39% (down 1% from the prior year)
  • Grade 9: 2 or more Fs 20% (down 1% from the prior year)
  • Grade 11: 3.0 GPA 48% (down 2% from the prior year)
  • High School Completion Rate: 79% (up 1% from the prior year)

African-American Students (click on link and manually change group)

  • Grade 3: Math Proficiency 16% (up 4% from the prior year)
  • Grade 3: Reading Proficiency 13% (up 5% from the prior year)
  • Grade 5: Math Proficiency 12% (up 1% from the prior year)
  • Grade 5: Reading Proficiency 15% (up 5% from the prior year)
  • Grade 8: Math Proficiency 7% (down 1% from the prior year)
  • Grade 8: Reading Proficiency 9% (up 3% from the prior year)
  • Grade 9: 2 or more Fs 47% (up 3% from the prior year)
  • Grade 11: 3.0 GPA 13% (no change from the prior year)
  • High School Completion Rate: 56% (up 2% from the prior year)

Hispanic Students (click on link and manually change group)

  • Grade 3: Math Proficiency 26% (up 6% from the prior year)
  • Grade 3: Reading Proficiency 20% (up 5% from the prior year)
  • Grade 5: Math Proficiency 25% (up 6% from the prior year)
  • Grade 5: Reading Proficiency 18% (down 1% from the prior year)
  • Grade 8: Math Proficiency 21% (up 3% from the prior year)
  • Grade 8: Reading Proficiency 18% (up 2% from the prior year)
  • Grade 9: 2 or more Fs 30% (down 8% from the prior year)
  • Grade 11: 3.0 GPA 35% (up 9% from the prior year)
  • High School Completion Rate: 70% (no change from the prior year)

Students in Special Education (click on link and manually change group)

  • Grade 3: Math Proficiency 20% (up 2% from the prior year)
  • Grade 3: Reading Proficiency 13% (up 4% from the prior year)
  • Grade 5: Math Proficiency 13% (down 4% from the prior year)
  • Grade 5: Reading Proficiency 11% (down 6% from the prior year)
  • Grade 8: Math Proficiency 12% (no change from the prior year)
  • Grade 8: Reading Proficiency 10% (down 3% from the prior year)
  • Grade 9: 2 or more Fs 38% (down 1% from the prior year)
  • Grade 11: 3.0 GPA 18% (up 3% from the prior year)
  • High School Completion Rate: 50% (up 3% from the prior year)

As you can see, the results are mixed and though there is some progress from some students, in many ways the results are very troubling. To be clear, I am a strong supporter of our public schools and will continue my many years of advocacy to make sure they receive the support and funding they need to provide a high quality education to all of our children.

However, it does not help to provide limited data to the public to create a perception that more progress is being made than is actually the case. That is why I have provided this deeper look.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.