Easy A’s

Grade inflation has been a topic of serious conversation in educational circles since I was in college forty plus years ago.

Here’s an interesting take on it from the Dish.

I’m particularly interested in computer scoring of essays.

When Beggrow and her team analyzed the data, they found that professors’ and computers’ scores of students’ short essays were almost identical, the correlation was 0.96 to 1.

When I taught years ago I preferred to ask essay questions to multiple choice questions. Now it seems computers can evaluate them almost as well as human teachers.

And don’t forget that computers can also fairly easily disclose when students have copied their essays wholesale from other sources.

Confession is good for the soul…

…but I don’t demand it. I only demand honesty.

I particularly liked this post on my only regular Internet read, Andrew Sullivan’s Dish.

Its about the remarkable Nelson Mandela who spent 27 years in prison but came out forgiving his oppressors. Then he took over the country, South Africa, but then, unlike many of his African peers, he stepped down from power voluntarily following our George Washington’s example.

I recently heard an apt comment about Mandela. He used peaceful protest as a tactic but did not swear off violence any more than the first American patriots who gave up sending petitions to England over the taxes they resented and opted for civil war. Much the same could be said of Martin Luther King. He was not a pacifist. Had he been he would have opposed Vietnam early on. He did however recognize that peaceful resistance was the only sure way to success in a nation that was sworn to uphold the law and democracy.

But I digress.

As I step up to the School Board in January I will not seek confessions from those who won their new schools by means I disapprove of. I will, however, look for honest answers to how we got to where we are. Calls to forget the past will not cut any mustard with me.

Where are we? According to yesterday’s DNT story we are seven days away from bankruptcy.

The Duluth school district’s fund reserve has dropped to less than $2 million, according to unofficial audit results released Monday.

The balance “once more than $20 million” was $14.7 million in 2010. It’s been drawn down in the past three years to make Red Plan debt payments when expected revenue from property sales wasn’t realized.

Our 1.9 million budget surplus is all that stands in the way of going into statutory operating debt. Granted, my work and the votes of the Duluth public have authorized new revenues which will help us get out of trouble as will new state funding which will also soon kick in. That doesn’t mean the books are closed on how we got to where we are.

As a parent when my children pilfered something from a store I took them back to apologize to the store employees. As a history teacher my first inclination has always been to be honest about American History. Its covered in warts and each of them offers an important lesson. Too many people are inclined to airbrush the warts out for the sake of vanity. Not me. I like the South African example. Nelson Mandela was quick to forgive but not at the expense of truth.

After meeting with Bill Hanson I’m beginning to suspect what I’ve always thought might be the case. I may have drawn some of the wrong conclusions about ISD 709’s finances. It may be true that we did not funnel classroom expenses in quite so clear cut a way as I maintained to the financiers who lent us money to build the Red Plan. If it turns out I was wrong I’ll demand as much honesty from myself to admit my error as I demand of others.

But that will leave me with a bigger mystery. How did we end up with such huge classrooms? The narrative from Red Plan defenders is that this is all the fault of the state of Minnesota. I don’t buy that, at least not as a full explanation.

Just after I won election Claudia and I took a welcome weekend trip to the Twin Cities for rest and relaxation. A St. Paul Pioneer Press newspaper was delivered to our hotel room during our stay. It had a story about class sizes in St. Paul. It was in the body of a story about the School Board’s negotiations with teachers. I clipped it but lost the clipping and then couldn’t find the story on the Press’s website a few days later. What caught my attention was the class size extremes used by teachers to complain that they needed smaller classes. The examples of big classes in the state’s capitol were much smaller than ones we have in Duluth. And yet St. Paul has suffered from the same state public school spending as Duluth. Why are our class sizes so much more dramatic than St. Pauls? If its not what I’ve hypothesized, transference from operation’s funds to banks, what explains it?

I’m pretty confident that the auditors had it right about 709’s books. We’ve mostly stayed within the letter of the law. Now I need to learn how well we’ve stayed within the law’s spirit. Once I think I have the answer I’ll lay it out here.

As Bill Hanson said to me when we met if the School Board requests the accounting I would like to have he will be happy to provide it. I think the School Board of 2014 will seek that information.


Over the weekend I attended the funeral services for Gary Glass’s wife and faithful supporter Fayth Glass.

Fayth had been a stalwart during the Let Duluth Vote days. She had been diagnosed with cancer back in 2010 and I hadn’t seen her since then.

The service was held at the Glass’s church St. Paul’s Episcopal. Gary greeted the folks congregating for the ceremony and it was well attended. I’ve only seen Gary a couple times since the fight for a vote ended. According to an account of her life that Fayth composed for the service Gary had been attending to her closely in her final years.

Before I left had the chance to see some old compatriots. I even helped push former Representative Mike Jaros’s car out of a snowbank as I left St. Pauls.

As in my church the St. Paul’s congregation was split between partisans for and against the Red Plan. Among them was Tom Hustad a pro Red School Board member.

He’d written a letter with Ann Wasson to the editor arguing that I was a dubious choice for the Board. It hadn’t turned the tide. After the service he stopped by to talk to me as a peace keeping gesture.

We had a pleasant conversation and Tom wanted to offer me his congratulations and thank me for supporting the levy referendums. He also spoke up for our new superintendent a little concerned, perhaps, because he helped usher out my superintendent, Julio Almanza. I reassured Tom that I’d met with the new super and we seemed to be getting along just fine – ditto the finance director.

I also told him that although he’d won the argument over the Red Plan I was pretty optimistic we would use the new levies to turn the District around.

The Draft Budget

It came in the mail over the weekend and I need to give it a quick look before today’s Business meeting.

At Mike Miernicki’s suggestion I met with Finance Director Bill Hanson a couple weeks ago. Bill generously gave me two hours to review the basic budget which had been placed as an ad in the Duluth News Tribune. It was preliminary and I wanted to review it as a refresher course on Minnesota School finance which is reputedly one of the most complicated in the US. I’d planned to write an extensive post on the meeting but as my regular readers know I’ve been AWOL.

No excuses. I’ve been keeping pretty busy.