Just Stop Digging!

When I was little, I used to love it when my parents read to me. One of my favorite stories was “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel” by Virginia Lee Burton. Kim and I, in turn, read it to our children and it became one of their favorites. The story tells of Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne, his steam shovel. It describes their work together helping to build buildings and bridges and all sorts of things. At the end, Mike Mulligan agrees to dig the basement for a new town hall, but he has to do it in “just one day”. What happens? Well, Mike and Mary Anne dig that basement “so fast and so well” that they do it in just one day. Unfortunately, they forget to leave themselves a way out. They end up stuck in the hole they have dug. It’s one of those stories where, as an adult, you can see the end coming. As I read it to my children, I remember thinking “just stop digging, Mike!”

I am thinking that same thing a lot recently as I review the recent decisions made by our Seguin ISD Board of Trustees and Administration. The leadership of our district seems to be digging so fast and so well that it too will be unable to get out of the hole it has created. It has indeed been a whirlwind for the last 5 months:

  • The Board hired a new firm to collect delinquent property taxes without a review of the current collection system. Doing so would have shown that the current system is incredibly efficient.

  • After a relatively brief search process, a new superintendent was hired-one with little experience and none working in a district anywhere near the size of ours.

Mike and Mary Anne finished the first corner, neat and square.”

  • A popular Athletic Director was removed without explanation less than a month after the hiring of the new superintendent.

  • An Interim AD was named who does not live anywhere near here and has no prior experience as an Athletic Director

They finished the second corner, neat and square.”

  • The superintendent’s wife was hired to help turn around our failing schools in what was described by one trustee as a “coincidence”.

  • Another trustee, facing serious illness, resigned from the Board. Her resignation was at first described by other board members as a temporary leave.  Four months later, the seat remains unfilled, leaving District 7 voters unrepresented.

  • Three golf carts were purchased for use by high school administration at a cost of $7,000 each.

They finished the third corner, neat and square.”

  • In a unanimous vote, $15,000 was approved by the Board for a “Holiday Party”. The expenditures include $400 worth of giant “Nutcracker” decorations.

  • Our now former Interim Athletic Director has described our community as having a “losing” mindset and the parents of our athletes as lacking passion and involvement.

  • In another unanimous vote, the Board approved $38,000 for board training and travel in addition to what was previously budgeted. This additional amount was approved without detailing exactly how it would be spent or what amount had been previously budgeted.

At this point, let us hope that they have finished digging this hole. But it is unclear that is the case. When the Board of Trustees decided to make a change and hire a new superintendent to lead the district, this community was hoping for change that would see our children excel. Instead, the change is that Seguin ISD has become a district other communities are laughing at while promised improvements in student performance have yet to materialize.

And so I continue to say to myself “JUST STOP DIGGING!”

Together, we can do better.

Bob Stephens

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More Money=Better Results? Maybe Not

Last time, I discussed the large variations in student performance between Seguin ISD campuses.  Some campuses are doing very well.  Others are not.  I also began to discuss some possible causes of the discrepancies, focusing on teacher and administrator turnover.

I want today to focus on funding.  Specifically, is there a correlation between how much is spent to educate students at each of our elementary campuses and how those students perform?  The short answer?  Probably not.

Using data from the Texas Education Agency, I pulled expenditure reports for each elementary campus in Seguin ISD for the 2013-2014 school year (the most recent available).  The per-pupil spending of regular funds (consisting of state and local tax money) varies widely between campuses but does not seem to correlate with STAAR test results.  Here are the numbers:

Jefferson                        $4,244 per pupil per year

Koennecke                     $3,784

McQueeney                   $4,504

Patlan                             $4.149

Rodriguez                      $3,718

Vogel                             $4,720

Weinert                          $3,751

The first thing that jumps out is the discrepancy in per-pupil funding between campuses.  The difference between the lowest- and highest-spending campuses is over $1,000 per pupil per year for 2013-2014.  Keep in mind that the spending levels reflect more than just instructional costs.  They also include maintenance, utilities, janitorial services, etc.  While that may explain some of the campus-to-campus variation, I doubt those services account for even the majority of the difference.  Moreover, the differences persist when ALL spending is included.  When all sources of funds are considered, the difference remains over $1,000 per student.

The second thing evident is that when we compare the spending to the Fifth Grade STAAR Reading Test pass rates, there is no correlation.  Weinert, which is near the bottom in per-pupil spending, has the highest test scores.  Meanwhile, Vogel and Mcqueeney are at the top in spending but the bottom in student performance.  Clearly, something is going on here beyond dollars and cents.

Why is there such a wide disparity in per-pupil funding between our elementary campuses?  It has largely to do with enrollment.  Koennecke, Rodriguez, and Weinert are our largest campuses.  Jefferson, McQueeney, and Vogel are our smallest.  Regardless of enrollment, some costs are fixed.  Each campus has a principal, assistant principal, secretary, attendance clerk, janitorial staff, and teachers for library, PE, and music.  When there are fewer students at a campus, the per-pupil cost obviously is higher because of these fixed personnel costs.

I believe the district should reexamine the attendance map for our elementary campuses.  There is a difference of 191 students between our highest- and lowest-enrollment campuses (2014 data).  That means that our largest campus has 54% more students than our smallest.  Why are some of our campus administrators and teachers being asked to deal with so many more students than others?

There also seems to be a link, at least in Seguin, between campus size and student achievement.  Our largest campuses have the highest pass rates on STAAR tests.  Our smallest campuses the lowest.  This seems counter-intuitive.  Our largest campuses, the ones where the fixed professional staff is stretched thinnest, are outperforming our smallest ones, where presumably that same staff has more time to spend on each student.

Somewhere there is a “secret sauce” that isn’t visible in the numbers.  Our largest campuses, with the lowest per-pupil spending are out-performing our smallest campuses, with the highest per-pupil spending.  While I believe that we do need to spend more money on education in Texas, clearly not everything can be explained by following the money.

We need better accountability from our district’s administrators and Board of Trustees.  The public should understand what justifies the funding differences and why students on some campuses appear to be getting a far better value for our school tax dollars than others.

Together, we can do better.

Bob Stephens

One District. Seven Schools. Different Results

I have discussed in a prior posts the problems Seguin ISD is having with student achievement, as measured by its STAAR test results.  Our students consistently score well below state averages and we have a significant achievement gap between white and Hispanic students as well as between economically disadvantaged students and those from families with more means.  The lagging performance begins from the very earliest grades and persists into high school.  But what about within our schools?  What does the data say about our campuses?  Seguin ISD has 7 elementary campuses, teaching students from Kindergarten through Grade 5.  The fifth grade STAAR tests are the first STAAR tests in which a passing score is required for promotion.  It also reflects the sum total of the child’s instruction at a single campus (assuming the family hasn’t moved).  A look at the numbers shows a huge variation in student performance between campuses.  Here are the passing rates for the Spring 2015, Fifth Grade Reading STAAR Test. (1)

Jefferson                         62%

Koennecke                      80%

McQueeney                     63%

Patlan                              67%

Rodriguez                       79%

Vogel                               66%

Weinert                           88%

As you can see, the variation is huge, with a 26% difference between our highest and lowest performing campuses.  What accounts for these differences?  It doesn’t appear to be related to demographics.  Looking at the populations of white, black, and Hispanic students does not reveal a correlation.  Neither does the number of economically disadvantaged students at each campus.  In fact, with the exception of Vogel, where the passing rate for these students is 57%, the passing rates for economically disadvantaged students at each campus is within 5 percentage points of the overall pass rate.  The numbers also demonstrate that success IS possible in Seguin.  Rodriguez, Koennecke, and especially Weinert, have outstanding numbers, with Weinert’s on par with top-performing schools across the state.

The explanation must rest at the campus level.  There must be some fundamental differences in campus administration, teacher effectiveness, and parental engagement that explains these wide gaps.  The district has acknowledged that turnover among teachers and campus administrators has been a significant challenge in the last few years.  In 2014, there was a 67% turnover rate among campus administrators and a 20% turnover rate among teachers.  I do not have access to the data on a campus level, but a revolving door among the administration and teachers at campuses could well begin to explain the differences.

Whatever the cause, the data clearly demonstrate two things:  First, Seguin ISD schools CAN succeed; second, low student performance starts early and then persists.

It is incumbent upon Seguin ISD to examine the root causes for these discrepancies.  They must identify the causes of success at our high-performing campuses and identify factors contributing to poor performance at our struggling schools.  Continued shuffling of personnel between campuses is unlikely to solve the problems we face.  We must develop an understanding of the WHY before we can decide WHAT to do.

Together, we can do better.

Bob Stephens