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A Comment on Austin's Diagnostic Audit from the Broad Foundation

by Susan Ohanian

I can't deconstruct the whole diagnostic audit about which this Austin American-Statesman reporter seems delirious with joy [see below]. Her ecstasy seems to come from the fact that the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation kicked in $19,000 for the audit. (Austin taxpayers were stuck for the other $19,000.)

This "diagnostic audit" is offered by the Broad Foundation "to a select group" of large urban district that have not been Broad Prize finalists. In other words, you're lucky to have been singled out by Broad for an audit operating under the Broad Prize Framework, so cough up your $19,0000.

The diagnostic team consisted of three represenatives from RMC Research Corporation, two representatives of The Broad Foundation, and one Broad Fellow from Houston Independent School District. They collected "data from 270 individuals and 75 documents to develop a report on the district's alignment with practices outlined in The Broad Prize Framework for School District Excellence." [emphasis added]

So this isn't a report about excellence; this is a report about "alignment with practices outlined in The Broad Prize Framework for School District Excellence.

Austin serves over 86,000 students in 81 elementary schools, 18 middle schools, 16 high schools, and 9 specialized schools.

What may be my favorite line in the whole report appears on page 3: The team found that AISD has considerable strengths, particularly in the areas of strategic planning and financial resource systems. Challenges were primarily in the areas of teaching and learning.


For this Austin needed to pay $19,0000? The answer is always We need better teachers. We need better students.

A couple of other things jump out--and they just might have national importance. Maybe the nation isn't listening to Texas the way it once did, but the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has a way of insinuating itself in districts across the country and certainly what Broad wants, Arne Duncan delivers.

The Diagnostic Audit of the Austin Independent School District notes that most teachers interviewed in Austin indicate that they use the 9-box planning tool. OK, I admit ignorance here. That 9-box planning tool scares the stuffing out of me. . . makes me breathe a sigh of relief that I'm no longer teaching. I was never able even to write a behavioral objective. According to the Austin website, this animal is used for "Effective Planning for Rigorous Instruction."

I'm just not cut out for smearing rigor onto children.

From The Diagnostic Audit of the Austin Independent School District

Focus group respondents note that there is no common definition of rigor being promulgated by the district other than passing the state assessment. Teachers and administrators report that the district is avidly promoting the concept of rigor, and note that they have been given professional development on concepts such as depth of knowledge revealed through an analysis of the student expectations embedded in STAARS. They have also been trained to identify action verbs from the TEKS and use those verbs in classroom questioning strategies. Professional development and other forms of dissemination of expectations of rigor are being offered but as yet, implementation of the new expectations is uneven and emergent. Respondents recognize that the district is strongly encouraging common understandings and implementation practices, and that having the same expectations for rigor is a part of the reduction of variation being promoted district wide.

Reduction of variation being promoted district wide?!!!

Holy cow!

The following is printed in italics in the report, which indicates it is a recommendation of the audit team on how Austin could do better.

Practice in this area will improve when the strong approaches for understanding lesson planning, rigor, and proficiency being promoted by the district are fully implemented in the district and when all teachers are instructing at the appropriate level of rigor. The district is also advised to consider a more robust definition of rigor based on the achievement of higher performing districts. Additional professional development in this area, along with monitoring for support and fidelity, may be warranted. The district should provide anchor tasks to all teachers to promote teacher and student understanding.

As if there weren't already enough monitors in the hallways checking classrooms for

  • allegiance to reading blocks

  • allegiance to math blocks

  • time on task

  • And don't forget, the David Coleman Fiction Police will be arriving any day.

    Now we'll have hall monitors checking on fidelity to rigor. I say "we" because don't think for a minute this is limited to Austin.

    I put the definition of 'rigor' in Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? Of course, I'd like you to read it there. But you can also check it out in the dictionary.

    And ask yourself if you want rigor inflicted on anyone you love. Or even on people you feel neutral about.

    School District Governance

    Starting on page 30 of the audit report, we get advice from the Broad-financed auditing team that definitely has implications for every school district in the country: advice for the school board.

    The report notes:

    The desire to represent constituents sometimes serves to slow decision-making and progress. Some fractiousness among board members has been evident throughout the past several years. Many board meetings last well into the night, and by most accounts, board decisions are not made efficiently. Many focus group respondents feel that board members do not have the best interests of the district as a whole in mind, but rather focus on the narrow interests of their own parts of the community. They perceive that when school-specific issues are raised, some trustees acquiesce to the board member representing that portion of the Austin community while others become combative. However, the board has been able to take action on a variety of important issues, including issues that address personnel, budget, student achievement, and accountability. The board clearly supports the provisions of the strategic plan though for some, the plan is not a driver of decision-making. The board does not routinely engage in self-reflection or evaluate its own performance and effectiveness. . . .

    The board and superintendent have a generally productive working relationship with each other. The superintendent acts quickly and aggressively pursues changes and strategies to improve district performance, while the board takes a slower, more deliberative stance. Both the trustees and superintendent are aware of the tension that these differences in style cause and have had multiple discussions to address ways to make more rapid yet thoughtful decisions. The board and the superintendent are supportive of each other and are dedicated to finding the best ways to work together.

    OK, that's the description of the relationship of the board and the superintendent as it is now. Here's how the Broad Foundation-funded auditors recommend that it should be:

    To improve [Broad Foundation audit]ratings in this area, the board and district leaders should continue to engage stakeholders in constructive, substantive dialogue and actively seek public support for decisions that are made. The board and superintendent should continue to take positive, proactive steps in communicating with each other to resolve any disagreements that are likely to emerge before the issues are introduced in formal board meetings.[emphasis added] The leadership team should continue to participate in board training retreats such as those offered by PELP and ensure that decisions that are made are consistent with previously agreed-upon values reflected in the mission, vision, values, and underlying principles for the district.

    Yikes. No dissident viewpoints allowed on the board.

    AND what is this about "resolving any disagreements. . . before the issues are introduced in formal board meetings"?

    Surely working behind closed doors is illegal--even in Texas. For the benefit of Austin readers--and anybody else about to go through one of these diagnostic audits from the Broad Foundation: Open Meetings 2012 Handbook: Attorney General of Texas.

    Check out your state. You're sure to have one. I learned that in Vermont, "the open meeting law is found in every town clerk's office."

    Go to Best Practice District Governance Documents provided by the Broad Foundation and you find:

    The Setting and Implementing Board Policy -- New York City Department of Education

    In 2002, the New York state legislature changed the law regarding the make-up of New York City's board of education. As a result, eight of the 13 members of the board are appointed by the mayor, rather than being elected by popular vote, and the remaining five members are appointed by the city's borough presidents. New York's new board--now known as the Panel for Educational Policy--is responsible for setting educational policy consistent with the mayor's reform objectives.

    Doesn't it figure that it's easier to get a rubber-stamp of policies when you don't have the mess of school board members elected by popular vote?

    Chicago stopped having an elected school board in 1995, when Mayor Richard Daley got control of the city school system. Los Angeles, Boston, Baltimore, New Haven, Philadelphia, and Cleveland also have appointed boards.

    The Broad Institute for School Boards provides training programs for elected school board members-- conducted in partnership with the Center for Reform of School Systems (CRSS). It is an annual intensive one-week summer residential learning experience modeled after the Harvard Kennedy School's program for new mayors and new members of Congress. The Institute aims to train new board members to become effective policy and reform leaders in urban school systems, including an annual Alumni Institute, as well as a long-term partnership program called Reform Governance in Action. Here is a press release describing one of these by-invitation-only Institutes. Note the faculty from this 2006 Institute:

    Rod Paige, former U.S. Secretary of Education

    Ramon Cortines, newly appointed deputy mayor for education, youth and families for the City of Los Angeles, and former superintendent in New York City, Los Angeles (interim), San Francisco, San Jose and Pasadena

    Arlene Ackerman, former superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, and current Christian A. Johnson Endowed Chair at the Teachers College of Columbia University

    Russlynn Ali, director of The Education Trust West

    Don McAdams, founder and president of the Center for Reform of School Systems

    Are you seeing a pattern yet?

    The Center for the Reform of School Systems partners with the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation's Broad Institute for School Boards to train school board members at the Houston-based Center for the Reform of School Districts.

    Cathy Mincberg
    President and CEO
    Former member of the Houston Independent School District Board of Education ( 1982-1995), Mincberg's role in bringing Rod Paige to power is referred to in this 2004 New York Times piece Education Secretary's Allies Depart Under Cloud in Houston . Providing the hatchet for Vicki Phillips' tenure as Portland Public Schools Superintendent, Mincberg then served her own tenure in the top spot from 2005 to 2009, before moving on to the CEO spot at KC Distance Learning.

    Here is the Center for the Reform of School Systems board of directors, who bill themselves as "some of the best and brightest minds in America today."

    Dr. Donald R. McAdams
    Chairman of the board
    Member of the Houston Independent School District Board of Education from 1990 to 2002. He has the "implementation of charter schools" on his resume. Author of What School Boards Can Do: Reform Governance for Urban Schools, foreword by Rod Paige.

    Dr. Felipe T. Alanis Ph.D.
    Associate Dean of the Division of Continuing and Extended Education at the University of Texas at Austin and former Texas Commissioner of Education

    Rafael Anchia
    Representative of House District 103 in the Texas House of Representatives

    Paula Arnold
    Managing Principal of Arnold & Langrand Communications and former member of the Houston Independent School District Board of Education

    Leslie Blanton
    Secretary of the board
    Here you can read the life of a philanthropist. And here.

    Dr. Carl Cohn
    Distinguished Leader in Residence at the College of Education at San Diego State University and former superintendent of San Diego Unified School District and Long Beach Unified School District

    2001 winner of Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education

    2008 Appointed to 16-Member Council to Advise on State Standards, Assessments and Accountability Systems
    "Their work will be invaluable as we move forward in strengthening and improving No Child Left Behind." --Margaret Spellings

    2009 Vice Chair, SMHC [Strategic Management of Human Capital] Task Force If SMHC's position on teachers as human capital doesn't give you chills, then check your pulse. The saving grace here is they don't seem to have updated their website in a few years.

    Kelly Frels
    Former Managing Partner of Bracewell & Guiliani law firm with vast experience representing school districts and other educational bodies

    Represented Houston Independent School District when Hispanic Education Committee accused board of holding secret meetings to appoint Rod Paige superintendent. In a closed session on January 20th, the board of trustees of the Houston Independent School District voted to ask one of its members, Rod Paige, to consider being a candidate for appointment as general superintendent. Then in an open meeting on Feb. 3, with all nine members present, the board resolved to "select and offer to employ Paige as the next General Superintendent."

    It's unusual, I'll grant you that."--Michael Casserly, executive director of the Washington-based Council of Great City Schools, Houston Chronicle

    Frels was lawyer for the Houston Independent School District when whistleblower Robert Kimball's lawsuit was settled

    Dr. W. Robert Houston
    Professor of Education at the University of Houston and Executive Director of the Texas Center for University School Partnerships and the Institute for Urban Education

    Co-author with Donald R. McAdams of Bush's Education Claims Ring True, Newsday, May 10, 2000.

    Vidal G. Martinez
    Principal with Franklin, Cardwell & Jones law firm and former Assistant U.S. Attorney in Houston with the Civil Division of the Department of Justice

    Dr. Rod Paige
    Former U.S. Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush

    I can think of no individual who knows more about the specifics of innovative leadership and its effect on student achievement than Secretary of Education Rod Paige. Three years ago when we were thinking about starting an education foundation, everyone I spoke to told me to talk to the best superintendents in America. And person after person told me that we needed to talk to Houston Superintendent Rod Paige. We were looking for leaders like Dr. Paige. We wanted to invest in his vision for a better education for our children, not just in Houston, but across our nation. . . .
    --Eli Broad, News conference to announce the creation of The Broad Prize for Urban Education at the U.S. Capitol, March 15, 2002

    Present and applauding:
    U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige
    U.S. Senator Thomas Daschle (D-SD)
    U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA)
    U.S. Senator Tim Hutchinson (R-AR)
    U.S. Senator Paul S. Sarbanes (D-MD)

    Carri Baker Wells
    Director of Operations in the San Antonio office of Linebarger Goggan Blair and Sampson

    Meanwhile, back in Austin, the board discussions criticized by the Broad diagnostic audit for going on "late into the night" involved a controversial partnership with IDEA Public Schools to run an in-district charter school.

    One would hope that the issue of charter schools would not be approved without lots of discussion.

    As noted above, in Houston, the Hispanic Education Committee accused the board of holding secret meetings to appoint Rod Paige superintendent.

    And in 2004, Houston got caught again trying to have a secret school board meeting.

    Austin isn't Houston but certainly people involved in the audit are aware of the school board secrecy history, not to mention the law.

    Instead of telling the audit team to go fly a kids, in the district response to the audit the Austin board said it will work at

    1. Clarifying roles and responsibilities between the Board and the Superintendent;

    2. Working with the Superintendent to better establish in advance the decision-making criteria that the Board will use as it takes action on issues and topics requiring Board approval; and

    3. Improving overall Board effectiveness and cohesiveness by refining the Board meeting and Board/Superintendent communication processes and protocols.

    Here's the local rah rah press account of the audit, which is just lifted from either the Broad Foundation or the district press release with no consideration of the deep issues involved. The newspaper is not accepting comments.

    School district receives high marks with prestigious education foundation

    By Melissa B. Taboada
    Austin American-Statesman
    March 29, 2012

    The Austin school district, one of two districts in the nation honored with a review by the prestigious Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, is on the right path, the foundation announced Thursday.

    "Austin is a pretty impressive school district," said Shelly Billig, vice president for RMC Research, the education consulting company that helped conduct the review. "You can see why Austin is on the rise."

    The foundation annually offers the $1 million Broad Prize, considered the gold standard in educational attainment for urban school districts. While Austin was not considered for the prize, the foundation chose it and Guilford County schools in North Carolina for the diagnostic audit.

    Fourteen other "promising practice" districts were considered for the audit, the first time the foundation has conducted it. The districts show the potential to qualify for the prize in the future, foundation officials said.

    The audit cost $38,000; Austin district paid $19,000 for the audit, and Broad matched the amount. "We looked at that as clearly an honor," school board President Mark Williams said. "It wasn't something we had to do, but we took advantage of it to put us up against that high bar."

    Auditors reviewed 75 documents, interviewed 270 officials, teachers, parents and students, and visited 30 classrooms. Broad officials said there was no area in which Austin performed at the lowest rating, which would have signaled a call for change. The report reveals that Austin's particular strengths are in the areas of strategic planning and finances and that challenges lie primarily in some aspects of instruction. For example, it states teachers do not consistently provide challenging and engaging activities for all students or differentiated instruction.

    The audit praises Superintendent Meria Carstarphen as an "expert in instructional leadership, educational trends, finance, and organizational development."

    However, the report said the school board needed improvement, citing debates in December that went late into the night regarding a controversial partnership with IDEA Public Schools to run an in-district charter school.

    Again, good for the school board for debating the issue!

    — Susan Ohanian




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