Issue Continues With Purchase Cards

An accountability group of citizens has watched the Suffolk Public Schools and its finances. One of the areas of concern has been that of showing what staff is purchasing with their purchase cards.

For over two years, we’ve written emails and spoken to the board at its regularly-scheduled meetings. The board chair insists there is not an issue.

But there is.

Here’s a visual called, SPS Accounting for Expenses: ACH Payments vs. Purchase Cards. Through this, I’d like to show the difference in the type of information that is provided in the board’s financial reports.

If you will, please look at #1. This is the vendor column and shows to whom an electronic payment was made.

#2 shows what was purchased – and you’ll see there is a short description.

#3 provides you with the amount; the cost.

#4 takes us to the purchasing card part of the financial reports. You see the vendor here, and then in #5, the amount.

At #6, you’ll see there is no description, thus you cannot tell what was purchased. This is what we have been asking to change for the past couple of years.

At #8, you see a $26,000 purchase for a roofing company, but we have no idea what the service is for. We don’t know if it is a replacement roof, a fix to leaks in roofs – or something else. We also don’t know where the service occurred.

If you look at #9, you’ll see there is a total of $329,285.15 for which purchase cards were used – and we’re not seeing the receipts. This monthly total is not unusual, by the way.

I continue to urge the board members of SPS to consider letting their constituents know what is purchased with the purchase cards. I for one, would certainly appreciate it.

A Broader Picture of Student Achievement in Suffolk Public Schools

Last night, the school board of Suffolk Public Schools heard an update related to student achievement. I want to add a couple of thoughts about the content of the presentation as I am concerned about the lack of what is needed to improve student learning.

One of the pieces of data not presented to the school board is that of subgroup achievement. In fact, persistently missing from staff reports is the achievement of the subgroups of students for which schools are held accountable. Subgroup achievement is often why schools in the division do not get accredited and it is important to monitor.

Let me show you what I mean.

If you look at #1, you can see this visual shows SOL Pass Rates by Subject – over a nine-year period.

At #2, you can see this part of the report is for reading.

If you will look at #3, you’ll see a column for subgroups, whose performance is part of the accreditation process and why you might want to consider monitoring subgroup achievement.

In Column #3, find the row for black students. Look across the row and you will see a red swarm. It is the same for economically disadvantaged, English learners, and students with disabilities. SPS has a nine-year pattern where achievement for these student groups has been problematic – and it’s not getting better.

But not to worry, right?  In the achievement presentation, staff shared almost 60 solutions the division will implement.  I want to alert the board that these actions will not turn the achievement pattern around.

Let me show you one of the ways I know.

Please look at the visual, Where’s the Meat?  At #1, are the interventions planned by the school division.

At #2, there are three parts of the teaching-for-learning process: curriculum, instruction, and assessment. I went through each of the suggestions from the earlier session – and all are related to either instruction or assessment. At #3, you can see there are no checks at all under the curriculum category.  And therein lies the problem.

In the set of interventions given to the board, none are related to curriculum and this is what must be dealt with first – as all interventions should be aligned to the curriculum.

Please know that even though the solutions are mostly directed to teachers, this is not a teacher problem.

The curriculum is in the hands of central office staff – and it’s a big job. Curriculum is the most comprehensive and complex work a central office tackles, but the central office has to tackle it.

The curriculum has to be right or the school division will continue to have patterns of red in its achievement results. Staff in a school division  can work as much as they want on instruction and assessment, but if they do not work on the curriculum piece, the work is in naught. And it’s the students who lose out. You already see this in your nine-year pattern – and in many of our division’s schools.

A most important role board members play is that of ensuring student achievement for all students – and not just those who are easy to teach.  We need the board to reassess what is going on (or not) in the area of curriculum.

You see, SPS has a staff that can do this work, but nobody is setting the expectation. The board would be the natural entity to direct the superintendent to get this important work done. We can only hope.

Setting Achievement Bars

With the end of the school year comes time for district and school staff to determine how well students have learned.  School Boards do this also.  If you want to measure student achievement at higher levels, one way is to look at how your state sets its achievement bar on the state tests your students take.  By law, the state tests must measure what it is the state determined that students will learn.  I know, I know – that is a novel concept.  But let me share with you what we’ve learned and how that impacts student achievement in your school, district, and state.

I’ll use an example from Michigan here.  Michigan gives its state test in the fall of each year.  One of the things the state determines is what constitutes proficiency for each test – in other words, how many questions a student must answer correctly in order for a student to be considered proficient.  In 7th grade, a student has to answer only 34% of the questions correct in order to be deemed proficient.  Do you think that’s a problem?  I certainly do.  If we have students who we report as proficient when they are performing well on only about one-third of the test, how are we preparing them for high school?  For college?  For work?

Look at the graph on the left.  The blue line on the graph shows the percentage of questions a student must answer correctly in order to be proficient in mathematics on the MEAP test for grades 3-8.  The bar is set lower than most would like.  (I have yet to talk with an educator in Michigan who thinks the bar is just right or too low.)  This can be an issue in terms of school improvement because we can have 90% of our students proficient, but if the bar is so low, what does that really mean the students know?  Are they really showing proficiency?

District staff, building-level staff, and school board members can step up to the plate here and raise the bar.  How do you do that?  In addition to keeping a check on the percentage of students who are proficient on the MEAP test by the state’s standards, you can raise the bar and add another measurement that reflects your own higher standards.  The red line represents a bar in which a district says that to show success on the MEAP test, students must answer 75% or more of the questions correct.

So consider raising the bar and expecting more from the students for whom you are responsible.