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Change The Game

If you’ve read my series of blogs beginning on December 26th, “My Thoughts On The AdvancED SACS Report“, you’ve heard me lament the fact accreditation isn’t based on results for children.  Its focus is on “process”, pronouns and sweeping in late into the game after financial incompetence was already discussed and publicly stated by me for almost two years.  Apparently, regular accreditation reviews just didn’t catch what this mom with a calculator quickly realized was a deceptive budgeting practice.   My advice to the accreditors – (1) rethink the financial “standards and indicators” you review and (2) send in financial professionals, not just educrats, to look at the books.

My blog posts covered the tortured logic of “The Circle of Trust”.  It showed no matter the mistakes or misinformation of the educrats in writing, reviewing and implementing policy, it is always the board’s fault.  If I ask too many questions, it’s pestering, suspicious or distrustful.   If I am misled by staff, that’s on me too.  Rigid policy is extremely important in accreditation and, as it turns out, in insulating bureaucracies from real accountability and responsiveness.  It has the added bureaucratic benefit of sanitizing the bad decisions made every day.  Remember, “it’s policy”.  Unfortunately, policy is no replacement for human discernment in the life of a child or a community.  We have been victims of policy.

I understand your frustration with the board.  As the most consistent “no” vote, I experience this frustration more than most.  For what it’s worth, if the board cannot agree to a drastically new approach to the delivery of education and governance of our district, the board should be removed.  I believe all the members of the board and most of the DCSD administration want better results for children.  But, they want other things more.  Board members and administrators can be removed and the game remains.  Rearranging or replacing the chess pieces won’t result in improved outcomes.   The game itself is rigged.

The only way to truly affect change is to change the game.

My fellow citizens, along with the challenges presented by probation, comes opportunity.  We can either leverage that opportunity to fundamentally change and reinvent education in DeKalb or things will remain the same.  The board or administration can be removed but the deep systemic problems will continue, and possibly worsen in the short term, despite the false hope this action might give.  The persistent and intractable problems that have plagued DeKalb for more than a decade will erupt again.  Look at the outcomes where accreditation and various state actions have temporarily given relief and hope; only to see the systems plunge right back into the same quicksand.  But there is a way out.

Here are my solutions:

  1. Consent Decree – The current or newly appointed DeKalb Board must enter into a consent decree with the State that contains provisions for addressing the “required actions” in the AdvancED report. This decree must do more than offer a weak promise to implement yet another plan and another round of stakeholder engagement meetings.  It must demand that DeKalb reinvent the way public education is delivered and governed.  The consent decree must demand that we push governance and autonomy to each individual school or cluster of schools.  This approach is called The Portfolio Strategy.  Using the Portfolio Strategy approach:
    •    The district can meet the required actions listed in the AdvancED report and ensure that the district retains accreditation;
    •    Design a new governance system that minimizes the risk and footprint of financial malfeasance;
    •    Eliminates the governance, policy and advocacy conflicts that entangle all layers of the district and;
    •    Provides a robust and authentic community engagement process that yields results to meet the unique demands of a diverse set of communities.
  2. Georgia needs to adopt a model for accrediting schools and/or districts based on the merits of their work.  Accreditation should not be linked to anything but results for children and prudent financial management for the taxpayers.  The state of Texas does this and we can too.  Check out the value the Texas Education Agency adds to their systems.  The state continually monitors and works with their systems and does not cede their oversight role.  It is a transparent system based on student results and financial stability.  Read how Texas determines accreditation for schools and districts.  And, it has generated results.  Read the news on their graduation rates.

The Texas model has worked.
•    Number 1 with Asian students with a graduation rate of 95 percent. (Georgia 79%)
•    Number 1 for white students with a graduation rate of 92 percent. (Georgia 76%)
•    Tied for 1 with a graduation rate of 81 percent for African-American students. (Georgia 60%)
•    Has the 3rd highest graduation rate for all students with a rate of 86 percent. (Georgia 67%)
•    Number 2 for Hispanic students with a graduation rate of 82 percent, behind only Maine. (Georgia 58%)
•    Number 2 for children with disabilities who graduate at a rate of 77 percent. Only South Dakota had a higher rate.  (Georgia 30%)
•    Number 2 for economically-disadvantaged students who graduate at a rate of 84 percent, behind only South Dakota. (Georgia 59%)
•    Number 26 for limited English proficient students who have a graduation rate of 58 percent. Those who become proficient in English are removed from the limited English proficient category. (Georgia 32%)

The Portfolio District

According to the Center for Reinventing Public Education, “A growing number of urban districts including New York City, New Orleans, Chicago, Denver, Hartford, and Baltimore are pursuing the portfolio strategy. The portfolio strategy is a continuous improvement model for districts that aims to dramatically affect student outcomes at scale. The strategy, built around 7 key components, creates diverse options for families in disadvantaged neighborhoods by opening new high-performing, autonomous schools; giving all schools control of budgeting and hiring; and holding schools accountable to common performance standards.”  Most recently, the Cleveland Plan has been set in motion to reimagine and improve public education.  Click here to read about their plan.

The Portfolio District strategy acknowledges the realities and complexities of a large, diverse community.  The strategy allows the district to jettison the notions of “one size fits all” and “top down” implementation of policy, procedures, curriculum, hiring and more.  This model removes the intractable governance issues by changing the function of the district from a unit responsible for all policy, budgeting, curriculum, HR decisions, etc. to a purely supportive role.  Schools and communities around the district are given autonomy and then held accountable for their results.  The district would simply be a conduit for funding and could provide other services at the request of individual schools.  Innovative districts around the nation are using this strategy.  You can read more about it by visiting the website of The Center on Reinventing Public Education.

The Portfolio District strategy also establishes a partnership with the community, business leaders and foundations.  This public-private partnership helps guide the implementation of the strategy; ensuring that all communities receive the choices and support they need.  This partnership is critical to reestablishing credibility with the citizens and parents.  It will provide for authentic stakeholder engagement that will yield the results each community wants; rather than the false hope of surveys, task forces and commissions long ignored.

Parents, teachers, citizens, I hope that you will join with me in asserting your ownership of the school district.  For too long, the bureaucrats have controlled and affected your communities while your voice carried little authority to demand change.  The mantra of accountability sadly has held almost no one to account.  Don’t let this opportunity leave us with false hope.  Let’s leverage this situation to bring about meaningful reform in DeKalb and our state.

Please join me in asking The State Board of Education and Governor Deal to return power to the parents and the school communities.  If we don’t make this structural change now, I fear that we’ll limp along with ambiguous plans to “do better” or with a new board that either plays the same game or gets rolled by the educrats.  You deserve a seat at the table that determines how your school is run.  You know what is best for your child and you should have a governance system that allows you to use the tools, strategy, calendar, schedules, budgets and staffing models that work best for your specific community.

Please request that the State Board and Governor decree that DCSD must take immediate steps to begin converting our district into a Portfolio District.  Ask them to study the Texas model for accreditation.  If you agree with my approach, let them know.  Let’s use this opportunity to take back our schools, empower parents and give every child in DeKalb the education they deserve.  

(22) comments
  1. I like the seven key components and the idea of restoring power to the head of the school. This plan is definitely worthy exploring. Thank you, Nancy for continuing to look for solutions instead of just making excuses like other members do. The challenge will be whether all board members can look past their own self-interests to do what is best for all the children in DeKalb.

  2. I like how this sounds. Do you think this is something that the rest of the board will “get on board” with, along with county office? This takes a lot of the financial decision making away from them. Will this take away the county mandates of “this program will be used by all” i.e. America’s Choice? I have always been frustrated by models that don’t meet the needs of my students. The concept that each cluster has its own autonomy sounds like a step in the right direction. On Long Island, NY, each town has ownership of its schools, and the community investment in their schools is outstanding.

    Thank you so much for continuing to be forward thinking! I appreciate all that you do for our kids.

  3. I particularly like your comment, “if the board cannot agree to a drastically new approach to the delivery of education and governance of our district, the board should be removed.”
    Nancy please come share your GREAT ideas to our fellow citizens. There is no RSVP but I am sure the organizers would like to know you might be interested. You can reach me @RestoreDCSS

    Special Community Wide Meeting
    Tuesday January 15, 2013, Session One 5:00 pm-6:30 pm, Session Two 6:30 pm-8:00 pm. Hairston Crossing Library Meeting Room, 4911 Redan Road, Stone Mountain, GA 30088

    Topic for Discussion: How should the DeKalb County Community respond to the recent AdvancED/SACS report on the DeKalb County School System?

  4. This is a good plan. Your assertion that the people change the super., board, administrators, teachers, etc. but the game remains the same is exactly right. Any good coach would not continue with a losing game. We have been losing in DeKalb for over a decade. I think this is a good choice if you can get consent out of this current board. I do believe that their egos will get in the way of being reasonable. The portfolio idea should be given a chance. As you know many on the BOE do not understand how educational institutions function. If I were still on the BOE I would readily sign a consent agreement with a portfolio strategy. It seems to address the main issues SACS has with DeKalb. It also appears to hold people in the schools accountable. It would seemingly eliminate a great deal of the finger pointing. If I understand it correctly it would be easy to see who the responsible parties are in each school. After awhile one would run out of excuses.

    It is time to send ownership of the schools to the people who pay for them. The educrats have failed us in DeKalb. Good job Nancy.

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  6. Well said Nancy! I heartily endorse your suggestion of making DeKalb a Portfolio District. I would go one step further and suggest that Dekalb make a portion, if not all, board members elected at-large. A big part of the dysfunction of the system seems to stem from the fractiousness created by members focusing exclusively on “their” district. I realize that the Voting Rights Act privileges district elections, and in many cases quite rightly. In DeKalb, however, the demographic makes it unlikely that at-large elections will result in a re-segregated board. I agree that SACS sometimes focuses on the wrong things, such as rigid adherence to board policy. However, they are currently the only recourse stakeholders have when their school system ceases to function. Like you, I believe results should be privileged over process. Unfortunately, those currently writing education policy seem to have other priorities, although Heaven only knows what those priorities might be. Thanks for having the bravery to advocate for true change.

  7. Nancy, as you may know, I don’t have much respect for Mark Elgart and his phony, private, money-grabbing organization. SACS stands for, in my opinion, Still Advocating for Cronies and Superintendents. I have said many times that SACS serves as a “union” for the superintendents. When the superintendents and their staffs don’t want to the accountable to the elected school board members, then they actually threaten to call SACS after the school board members. I have actually heard this, Nancy. A SACS evaluation of a school system is normall a mile wide and an inch deep, if that deep. A school system only gets in trouble with SACS when the elected school board members start asking questions.

    I have watched this phony process play out many times, and I have writtens dozens of articles about SACS and its phoniness. The so-called “standards” of SACS are invariably capriciously and arbitrarily applied.

    Keep up your good work, Nancy!



  8. Thank you.

  9. I absolutely advocate the paradigm of local control versus the ineffective and inefficient top-down, omnibus strategies deployed by DeKalb County Schools and the State of Georgia. An individual school’s administrators, teachers, parents, and community can provide logical, financially sound, effective decisions based on the needs of their students for curriculum, textbooks, materials, staffing, extracurricular programs, vocational education, and even the food served in the cafeteria … and should.

    Thank you, Nancy.

  10. At Large BOE Elections – I understand where you are going with this, but you assume the smart and informed are in the majority. DeKalb is balkanized into various cultures and interests and they should get a seat at the table. Don’t forget that Dr Walker is an at-large rep. If all seats were at-large we would have 9 Dr Walkers up there.

    This is why we don’t elect senators and representatives at large. If we did, they would all come from the single largest majority.

  11. I have been an advocate since 2009 of a more decentralized structure for DeKalb Schools. When I discovered the horrible neglect of Cross Keys HS, I could not understand how those outrageous conditions were possible in our community. I came to understand they were enabled by a highly political, corrupt and distant bureaucracy. I referred to the system structure and its governance processes as “constitutionally unsustainable” and have been fighting ever since to advocate where ever possible for this most ignored community at Cross Keys.

    So I am definitely one who is looking for fundamental change in the governance of public education in DeKalb. When Dr. Atkinson took the helm, she described herself as a proponent of the “inverted pyramid” organizational approach to governance. That is, a governance process that puts the Admin and Board at the bottom and the schools, teachers, and students at the top. This sounds very good and in many ways mirrors the goals and methods of the “Portfolio” district model you describe, Nancy.

    For me to understand how we’d take these concepts, both of which are appealing, from ideas to implementations, require a local narrative. I have not heard that narrative for Cross Keys from Dr. Atkinson regarding her strategies.

    At least for me, I need a story that illustrates how these models would work in practice. You know the Cross Keys HS situation vis-a-vis our system governance as well as anyone. What would the narrative be for Cross Keys community in the “Portfolio” district approach if it were to be implemented?

    P.S. Thank you to you and Don both serving our community!

  12. Please see our video and pass along to whomever you can. We are encouraging the county to come together and show up on Thursday at the state BOE hearing. Thank you Nancy for offering an idea for the entire district rather than what we have been hearing out of Dunwoody as simply wanting their own system. We need to all work together.


  13. “It is time to send ownership of the schools to the people who pay for them.”

    There is probably general agreement on that. Were a dozen folks to read that and then be asked “who are these people” most would respond “parents”. They need to borrow Nancy’s calculator.

    It seems everyone from SACS to School Supers to the Portfolio’s “pupil-based funding” focus on spending and except for the incessant calls for more we never hear anything about the revenue side of the ledger. Perhaps there is some opportunity for reform there and taking a lead from “pupil-based” would be a very good start.

    In any event what we have now is broken and to paraphrase the educrat’s excuse when rolling out new, unproven programs “We have to try something”.

  14. Me thinks you doth protest too much.

    Finger pointing at SACS shows that you really just want to hold onto your position. It won’t matter. You’re going with the rest of the board.

  15. We have alot of teenagers dropping out of school in dekalb county.. We have schools with no ap classes and books , all the money dekalb have stolen and put to waste is sick. I,m pissed as a tax paying resident and a shame of being a part of dekalb county. have two students who r now going to dekalb county school. and they r not happy. u got coaches for sports playing failing students, and students who r good students cant play or even make the team. SACs need to check everything going wrong in dekalb schools, coaches, teachers and staff members, We had more staff members and teacher doing wrong not just board members. and half of them r related to the board members. with high paying salary. oops , most of the money goes to school there kids or who they know attend.(board members).:((((

  16. mdiamond You brought up a, to me personally, a very interesting point. Board members granting rights to attend a schools outside their assigned district. GHSA has very clear rules about eligibility. However, even if they were granted special favor because of their athleticism and a DKBOE member wanted them on a “special” team GHSA should have HAD to grant a special wavier. GHSA and DK Athletic Director have as far as I know silent on the issue. I have official asked but have received nothing but silence. Buford, the 2012 AAA Champions played and ineligible player and was forced to forfeit games. Someone in that system had some integrity.
    NJ, DKBOE where are these waivers? GHSA where is fairness to the game, you have a copy of SACS report. My oldest son played on the Lakeside football team and he is very upset he had to face teams stacked by the DKBOE. Its not the big issue, I get . But its so unfair and whats the point of having a winning record or a championship banner if you had to cheat to get it. Buford reported themselves and went on to win the AAA Championship. They earned it but that does not seem to matter to the DKBOE. I doubt they would ever be able to do the right thing when no one is looking and isn’t that what athletic should be teaching. I say they all DKBOE members need to be replaced. If you think you are a whistleblower then petition the governor but then act like a DKBOE member not a politician. http://www.change.org/petitions/governor-nathan-deal-and-georgia-state-board-of-education-review-sacs-findings-if-accurate-replace-the-dekalb-county-school-board

  17. Did you see the editorial in the Wall Street Journal about SACS and college accreditation by Hank Brown today? Nancy, you are dead on about the scam that SACS is. Mr. Brown was a university president and former senator, so if anyone doubts the validity of her statements on SACS, this guy really knows what he’s taking about and corroborates everything stated.

  18. The Wall Street Journal
    The Rise of the Accreditor as Big Man on Campus

    Accreditors are supposed to protect students and taxpayers by ensuring that federal aid flows only to schools with “educational quality.” But accreditors increasingly interfere in institutional decision-making and use their bully authority to tie the hands of colleges and universities.

    For decades, these accreditors have effectively guarded the status quo, focusing on process and resources rather than on educational excellence.

  19. Folks —

    Will still encourage you all to lobby Mike Jacobs, Fran Millar, Tom Taylor and anyone else you know at the Gold Dome to change the GA Constitution to allow charter school systems for cities. We all know local control would be better for our kids. Hyper-local, city-level control would be best.

  20. Local control is the answer whether it’s independent charter schools, independent school districts or the portfolio district.

  21. Could it be too local? If not, why not an IEP for all students, not only for, but especially for the gifted?

    Tongue removed from cheek…

    We certainly need to change the game, but not just the “control freak” game, we need to change the entire system: non-educational operation; education administration; curricula development and delivery; in-class operations; teacher education, OJT and post employment training; evaluation and compensation; classroom materials production and management; financials with quite a bit more emphasis on revenue sources and yes, locus of “control”.

    The current trend in thinking seems to be that the optimal locus of power should be driven by {pupil, voter, money} with parents believing they represent all three. But in fact the system is currently driven by {administrator, accreditor, teacher} which is indistinguishable from {money, money, money}. I personally think we will just re-create our current reality until we drive it by {pupil, money, voter}.

    My $0.02

  22. I need to study the portfolio district model further, but my initial reaction is positive. This sounds like it would essentially turn each school or feeder system into a public charter. I always felt that charter status for each school or feeder should be the rule, rather than the exception, with any school failing to meet the terms of its charter falling back under the direct supervision of the district.

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