Saturday, June 11, 2011

Q & A with Charlie Kyte, MN School Administrators Executive Director

Introduction: MPR's Midday with Gary Eichten featured a 6/6/11 interview with Charlie Kyte, an 11-year Executive Director for the Minnesota Association of School Administrators-- and former superintendent, principal & teacher-- who is retiring at the end of the summer.  Topic-by-topic, Kyte's answers are available for your review.  Click here for the full audio interview.

Charlie Kyte, MN Association of School Administrators
Q: How good are the schools in Minnesota?

A: That deserves a more complex answer than "they're great or they're bad".  On a national level, MN ranks right up among the top states in the country (with Massachusetts and North Carolina).  MN schools are really pretty good.  We have struggled mightily having our children living in poverty not doing as well as they should.  This is an issue our schools have to address but also one our society has to address.  We've been pretty good at concentrating our poorest people where there's not much opportunity.

On a global level, some of the emerging countries' students (e.g. United Kingdom,  Finland & Scandinavian countries, Asia) are racing ahead of our students.  China, for instance, has so many able children (China's top 10% of students number more than all U.S. students combined) and a system that invests heavily in them.  They (China) don't do such a good job of educating their less able children.  But we've got a real problem there ... on a global level, we need to keep ramping up and doing better.  On a state level, we have to recognize, we don't really have all that many students, and we have to have our poorer students, as well as our best students, excelling.  But don't listen to people who say, "it's all gone to heck in a handbasket," because that's just not true.

Q: What about the achievement gap ... this has been a problem that has been talked about 'seemingly forever' ... why has so little progress been made on the achievement gap?

A: The progress cannot be made by one entity.  The churches, the public schools, and the employers can't step in alone and do this. There needs to be a wider effort by everybody.  Every once in awhile, we'll see a school overcome this problem for two or three years, but trying to overcome the achievement gap on a large scale is difficult.  And I'll just say one other thing: I know of and have worked with a family of very poor means and upper class means ... The difference in opportunity (and messages) is that kids can get is huge ... but this is not an excuse for schools not to do the very best they can with students.

Q: Do you think education policy is largely determined by education fad or research?

A:  Some are and some aren't -- we moved from a time when every teacher in every classroom was creating their own curriculum.  While everybody meant well, it was a hodge-podge.  In the last 10 years, MN has become part of the standards movement ... what students should learn in math, reading and science at each age level.  We're applying those widely so teachers know what to expect of students. That standards movement is a good thing ...  Now we're talking about  broadening the standards across the United States-- trying to equalize them a bit-- this a good thing so long as you are working the standards upward and not going to a common denominator.

On the other hand, there are a lot of things that do come and go.  Some of it is experimentation ... one of the things I get a little frustrated about is I think that schools should be allowed to experiment & innovate more without having so much pressure to determine that thing is absolutely the long-term, right thing to do.  I've watched teachers in my career trying to figure out how to educate kids ... when it works, we just do it and don't even tell anybody about.  When it doesn't, we discard it and try something else.   It seems now that everything we new do has a legislative action attached to it, and a media fro-foo-rah ... and the stakes become too large in terms of whether you're successful or not.

Q: How do our best students do compared to the best students in other countries?

A:  One of the concerns many educators have today is that we have put so much effort into trying to address the needs of our lagging learners & addressing the achievement gap, that we have moved resources & energy away from educating our very best kids.  While we do a reasonable job of that, we think there is potential to have our very best students do significantly better.

We have had an explosion in the number of Advanced Placement courses and college credit in our high schools.  There are some concerned that's not quite rigorous enough, but it's certainly more rigorous than I saw in my days as an educator.  So we're moving towards more rigorous education for students, but there is more to be done here.  We have young men and women, elementary age and middle school age, who could be doing significantly more than we're asking them to do.  I think that is something, that .... as a nation, we've really got to address.

Q: On the other hand, you hear that there is such intense pressure with tests, tests, and more tests, what about that aspect of the situation?

A. There is some stress and pressure, but I'm not so sure we don't over blow that a little bit.  I look at it this way, when I was in school .... I thought it was my job to do the very best I could.  My parents brought me up to work hard, and my expectation, if  I were back running a school district, would be to say that it's every student's job to make the absolute best use of the resources that we as a society are pouring into those schools.  I think teachers get frustrated when they're working hard and the students aren't with them.

Q:  Is more money part of the answer to (education's challenges)?  Question arose after an extensive section on the woes of single parent living.

A.  Yes it is.  You have to make some ongoing investments to keep even, and secondly you need to make some strategic investments.  This last legislative session was an opportunity squandered ... and maybe it will still (work out) ... if there's an agreement to put more money into education, I would just say "put the money where it makes a difference" and all the research says put more money so there's kindergarten for all children and preschool education, and frankly if you could back up so there's a little bit of education when they're in day care, you'd be money ahead.

Q: Caller-- Schools are not designed to teach students to learn but they are designed to teach students what to learn (this is an inherent flaw in the school system)If you want to see what a system's intention is, look at its output.  The public schools are designed (or at least what you can see from the design) that children of color fail.  Those two things need to be taken into consideration.

A: That's actually a good set of comments ... we agree there is some design flaw, and one of the things we (superintendents of schools all over the state) have been trying to do, and we've been saying that we need to be more innovative in how we design our schools, and we need to be more output driven.  We need to be creating circumstances where children want to learn and to learn well.  As a consequence to that, we pushed through a bill that said, let some small group of districts get together, have the rules waived, and let them innovate.  But in the end, that scares people who want to preserve the status quo, and that was one of the things  cited by the governor as a reason for vetoing one of the bills.  We still think that's a pretty good idea, and we don't think our students are going to walk over the fallen bodies of our teachers, they're going to work with our teachers, and maybe, over time, we could bring some of that to scale and do a better job not only with our high potential learners but also with some of those kids who are struggling.

Q:  Government shutdown looms, and at what point will this really start hitting schools in Minnesota?

A: We've already advised our superintendents to have three sets of contingency plans.  One, if this is settled by the end of June and there is an agreement, the plan is to keep operating the way you are.  Second is if we get a mid-term shutdown (say July) and the third plan is if this thing drags on for 5 or 6 months.  Three things come into play here: (1) state Dept of Education has to figure out how much money each school districts get each month in state payments.  Last time we had a government shutdown, the top Dept of Finance people were declared as essential employees.  This year there is question if those people will be considered essential, which could result in some payroll & cash flow issues for superintendents. (2) At MDE, Division of Licensing will not be an essential function of the state, so new licenses or renewals will not be fulfilled, and we might get to the start of the school year where we have unlicensed teachers come next fall.  (3) MDE issues an annual report to each school midsummer on what they can levy to their local taxpayers.  And the school (district) has to have hearings and they send back to MDE saying what they intend to levy.  That might sound good for local taxpayers, but this process is quite complicated and once you close this down, you can't just have people come back and take care of 350 school districts over night.  It takes time. Maybe it's going to take some pain to get the warring partners to work together. 

Q: Caller:  One of my big beefs is that kids don't know all that much about history (or civics).  Examples provided about the lack of knowledge in knowing which nations fought to gain independence and young voter apathy.  We could integrate history into all our classes through an integrated trial like Sandra Day O'Connor has suggested. Is history getting shortchanged?

A: When we started with the No Child Left Behind Act, we overplayed reading and math to the expense of other subjects.  The schools have recognized that and are trying to equalize that back, so we aren't shorting the other subjects dramatically.  But for every (subject) area, the schools are given a fairly limited amount of time to educate children, and there's a lot on our plate-- reference to the bullying initiative that MPR helped highlight recently.

The one comment I'd make about history (applicable at the collegiate and k-12 levels): Too often too many students are encouraged to MEMORIZE rather than to INTERNALIZE.

If you go through school and you just memorize all the facts about the Civil War, take the test,  and then you forget about it, you're right you've forgotten your history. After Kyte responded to Eichten assertion that this has always been the case (fact learning & forgetting) ... Yes, it has always been the case, but we also see really creative teachers who really help students try to live it and help them understand more.

Q: Caller-- How come there is so little consideration given to administratively merging districts (i.e. driving costs down to get more money to instructional level)?

A: Suburban districts really need to be their own "unit" administratively (like Lakeville and Farmington). In western MN where districts are smaller, they're doing quite a bit of that.  More districts are sharing superintendents and HR Directors ... Fergus Falls, for instance, is doing the business functions for 4 or 5 districts.  

Q: Is local control still the gold standard for education in Minnesota?

A: My good friends at the School Boards Association will probably cringe as I say this, because they believe strongly in local control.  I am having my doubts.  Having been my whole career in this business, and while certainly there should be a local voice, I think local control gets in the way of progress fairly often.  Too many communities  & folks in the governing structure want their schools to be what they were, not what they should be becoming.  We need to find some ways to help districts come together to innovate more and be more progressive.  I'm not saying local control is terrible, I don't think we should be relying just on local control anymore.

Q: Should we get the schools out of the business of providing extracurriculars-- specifically athletics like in other countries?

 A: I'll probably have to slink out of here as I say this, but sometimes I think athletics is the tail wagging the dog, because sometimes it gets in the way of doing the right things for schools.  That said, we have built over a 100 years this elaborate intertwining of our k-12 systems and our sports systems in our communities.  The facilities are built and owned by the schools.  In Canada, the sports facilities are owned by the city governments, and education belongs to the schools. But it's not as easy as just waving a magic wand and having all that tradition go away.  (Sports) do offer opportunities to become team players, become competitive in a healthy way, and it helps to keep quite a few students who might otherwise say, forget this history and reading stuff.

Q: Re: teacher evaluation.  Does the education system know how to accurately evaluate teachers? 

A:  I think our record is very chequered.  I can bring you out to school districts like Austin, Albert Lea, and Orono-- where they have people, in a very sophisticated fashion, evaluating their teachers.  I can also bring you to schools I won't mention, where almost no evaluation occurs whatsoever.  It's our opinion as an association, and it's my personal opinion, that says there needs to be a law on the books saying there needs to be a reasonable way of evaluating our people .... This has been a big argument over at the Legislature this year with two competing bills .... one came out of the Chamber of Commerce, and that bill was an overreach, in my opinion, that ultimately would not be legally defensible.  On the other hand, there was a bill that likely came out of the Unions, and to me, seemed like it had a lot of unnecessary negotiation & a lot of cost, and frankly not really one to get the job done when you have poor performing folks.  There needs to be a middle ground, and I'm still hoping the Governor and Legislature can adopt some language that makes good sense.

Now another issue is: should you tie teacher evaluations to teacher performance?  One bill said 50% of an evaluation should be tied to it, while the other said nothing.  While we need to build in some level of student performance, you don't want to define it as a set thing, because it's different for certain subjects and at different ages ...  You also don't want to squeeze the creative teacher out of the system and just get rote type teachers who are just about helping students get good test scores.

Q: Too much testing?

A: Minnesota duplicates a lot of testing.  Many schools use what's called the NWEA test.   This helps know where kids are at, and to correct their learning.  Then we have a one-time state test, which costs about $25 million per year to administer, and helps rank the schools.  I actually said to Gov. Pawlenty when he was in office, "Governor, why don't you take the testing data we already have, pull it uphill to the Dept of Education and analyze it ... get out of the testing business and get into the analysis business ... you can do that for about $5 million a year, still figure out who is doing well and doing poor, and you freed up about 1/2 dozen days so we can educate the kids again.

Kyte's final comment: The great majority of educators (superintendents, principals, teachers, and custodians) they're working hard doing they best they can, and sometimes under real difficult conditions.  If you have children in school, this a time to say to a teacher Thanks-- we appreciate your work .... they would absolutely like a positive reinforcement.