Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Parents and educators pack the Sumter board meeting

The review by the Sumter Item of Monday's Sumter County board of trustees meeting was interesting for what it said and what it didn't say. After reading numerous emails from parents and educators in the area throughout today, I went back to re-read the Item's coverage before offering commentary.

The comments of parents and educators continue to be enlightening, and they're attracting the attention of other educators around the state.

A little research into the ideology and reach of the Broad Foundation and the Broad Superintendents Academy sheds a great deal more -- and very valuable -- light on the matter.

The Item's coverage begins,

More than 160 teachers, nurses, principals and other members of the community came out for Monday's meeting of the Sumter School District Board of Trustees.

Some may have been there for the student and staff recognition, but given the response during public participation, many were there to share solidarity as six people came up to speak about SWEET 16, financial questions and communication concerns. One state teachers' association leader said she was there to represent those fearful of speaking out.

Per board policy, the members could only receive information Monday.

"Within 48 hours, the superintendent will respond in writing to every individual who addressed the board," said Shelly Galloway, spokesperson for the school district.

Correspondents explain that, perhaps as a matter of board policy or custom, anyone hoping to speak to the board was required to complete and submit a personal information card in order to be added to the speaking order.

From the dozens of emails that have addressed this school district and its issues alone during the past week, I've seen clearly that education professionals, in particular, feel intimidated and are fearful of retribution for speaking out, even to some mid-level administrators in the district. It stands to reason, then, that being asked to submit a personal information card before speaking to a public board might add a layer of anxiety to the situation.

And, by board policy or custom, only 15 minutes is allowed for public participation on the agenda. I'm sure that accommodation might be made if many more citizens ask to speak to the board at these meetings.

But it sounds as if this sort of meeting, or its agenda, is not designed to encourage input from the public. It clearly isn't designed to yield answers to citizens' questions, as it appears that none were given. Helpfully, the Item quotes the district's public information officer's explanation that speakers are given responses in writing later.

If 200 interested citizens packed a district office to hear questions put to their publicly-elected board of trustees, whose policy is only to hear questions and concerns but not to respond except in writing, and except directly to those who speak, then I imagine that the nearly 200 interested citizens may have left the building feeling unsatisfied.

Except that this isn't exactly what happened.

However, Randolph Bynum, vowing his committment to the Sumter district, said after the regularly scheduled meeting that he was not approached beforehand and some of the information shared was not factual.

Obviously, I believe in a free press. But if the board's policy is to respond to questions and concerns only in writing and only directly to those who raised them, how came the superintendent to answer those concerns to a reporter after the meeting? If policy might be bent to speak to the reporter, might it just as well have been bent to offer a response to the gathering of 200 interested citizens?

On one hand, it's a small thing. Reporters ask some questions and publish some answers. On the other hand, only six speakers reportedly addressed the board, so written responses will be sent only to six individuals -- not to the 200 interested citizens who packed the district office in hopes of hearing questions asked and answered. A little more information, freely shared, might go a long way toward resolving questions in a circumstance as charged as this seems to be.

For this service, from this perspective, we should thank the Item for asking the questions that it did. But in reporting the superintendent's view that "some of the information was not factual," without pursuing to learn which information was accurate and which was not, the report leaves citizens as much in the dark after the meeting as before the meeting.

The onslaught of public participation, he said, appeared to be an effort to incite those fearful of the unknown.

"Incite" is a loaded word. Its definitions include "to stir up" and "to persuade (someone) to act."

Respectfully, the comments of dozens of parents and educators suggest that the implementation of a complex new teacher evaluation instrument has done much "to stir up" feelings about the new direction it represents. If that's the case, citizens may have needed little persuasion to act; drawing attention to the time and date of the meeting may have been all that was necessary.

Barney Gadson was the first person to speak and only one in support of SWEET16, Systematic Way to Ensure Effective Teaching 16, the instructional assessment the district has implemented to help design professional development.

"As my grandmother once said, if you keep doing what you've been doing, you keep getting what you've been getting," he said. "We want all children to have the best education possible, and we want to help the teachers be better, which in turn helps the students and the community. I support you and what you're doing, and so does the group that follows me. Press on."

The Item doesn't identify the speaker as an educator or parent, as it clearly identified the remaining speakers; the information might have been helpful to understand his perspective. Readers are often more skillful at discernment than is credited.

Parent Nicole Williams, however, said she is not impressed by the instructional evaluation tool. Williams said she and her followers could not find SWEET 16 being used in any other states.

"I think most of us can agree if I take various parts in cars and put them together into a Frankenstein vehicle, I can put 'Cadillac' on it, but I can't use the safety standards for the vehicle," she said. "Where is the research that backs it?" She wondered if SWEET16 would benefit teachers.

She also is concerned about the board being "good stewards of finance resources." She gave a couple of examples of the district's spending on fabric and dry cleaners asking how those "improve the education" for the students.

Williams's observation that "Sweet 16" doesn't exist outside Sumter County is valid, so far as internet search engines can tell. Her concerns, and the concerns of another parent who spoke, about district finances ought to be easily proved founded or unfounded by posting finance policies and line-item budget reports, with details, online. After all, we're talking about public revenue being expensed by public employees. Aren't budgets and budget reports considered public documents?

The Item reports,

Jackie Hicks, president of the SCEA, said she was speaking because many teachers were afraid to speak, something she said is currently prevalent in the district.

She quoted one teacher as saying, "This year has been horrible. My love for teaching has been tested. The extra busy work has interfered with planning interesting activities for the students. The amount of work I take home has affected my family. The extra money has affected my finances. At the beginning of the school year, teachers were heard and dared to be vocal, but more and more I'm seeing silence take over. I'm tired, disappointed and hopeless."

She also voiced members' concerns about the Broad Academy's involvement with Sumter County, the four furlough days and no raises for teachers in three years.

Superintendent Bynum is a graduate of the program that identifies and prepares leaders to go into urban school districts and improve education. Some area teachers and community members are distrustful of the Broad philosophy and it could come into play locally.

But the report didn't mention what many -- many -- correspondents have characterized as the most charged moment of the meeting, with words like "prolonged applause and a standing ovation" after hearing a teacher's perspective as part of Hicks's remarks.

Last week, two Republican presidential primary debates were held in South Carolina, and in each of them, comments by former Speaker Newt Gingrich earned standing ovations. Multiple media outlets during the course of the week highlighted the ovations as unique in the history of presidential debates, and coverage of the candidate and the primary race uniformly featured references to them.

So it's striking that after a meeting that drew a packed house, during which the single instance of a standing ovation occurred -- and "sustained" applause appeared to release pent-up emotions of crowded parents and educators -- in response to a teacher sharing the pained perspective of another teacher aloud, that event didn't rate a mention in the next day's edition.

Perhaps it's enough that the article included Hicks's report that 75 percent of her members in Sumter County had "contacted her office with complaints."

Two months ago, a poll showed that 75 percent of Americans agreed with President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw American troops from Iraq. In today's political and social climate, it's difficult to unite 75 percent of a group to take an action or agree with a policy. But the Item's coverage suggests the decision to withdraw American troops from Iraq, and the decision to implement a complex new teacher evaluation instrument, accomplished the same difficult goal. That's significant.

The report returns to additional observations that bend the board's policy on answering speakers' questions directly in writing rather than aloud in its public forum.

Bynum did have a few thoughts after the meeting as did Chairman Addison.

"Quite a few things were untrue and had no factual basis, especially the finances pieces and the SWEET 16 not being researched," Bynum said.

Again, neither the Item nor the superintendent identified which concerns raised by speakers were true or untrue, but he emphasized the general topic of "finances pieces" and "'Sweet 16' not being researched."

If research exists to support "Sweet 16" in the form that the administration has implemented it, it seems clear and obvious that education professionals and parents would appreciate to see and study that research. They seem not to be asking for research that supports the model in any component parts, because "Sweet 16" is a package and has been delivered to education professionals as a package, not as a collection of component parts from various schools of thought in teacher evaluation.

In the interest of answering many questions, the administration might consider posting its supportive research online in a prominent space on the front page of the district's website, making it easily accessible to all.

"I'm sure every parent and every teacher knows if a student doesn't understand it the first time, you reteach it. What extra research is required? ...

Whether the superintendent intended to mean that education professionals didn't understand the presentation of "Sweet 16" in its initial delivery and must be re-taught, or that parents don't understand the model and must be re-taught, the impression is clear and unfortunate in its condescension.

Even if he was referring to "reteaching" as a routine instructional strategy in a classroom, and meant to say that this strategy is one of the fundamental elements of the "Sweet 16" instrument, the reference is misleading. Re-teaching as an instructional strategy is an old one; even student teachers are familiar with it.

Again, "Sweet 16" is a package and was delivered to education professionals as a package. Thus, it's reasonable to expect that the package has been tested and researched, unless this is, as many parents and educators believe, simply a complex and stressful experiment being imposed without input from parents and educators in Sumter County.

He also thinks the teacher associations should have set up a meeting with him beforehand instead of bringing their concerns first into the public forum.

"That piece tonight was choreographed to incite people that have a fear of the unknown, although SWEET 16 should be known to everybody and comfortable by now," Bynum said. "In my opinion, if they were serious about their concerns for the district, they would have scheduled a meeting with me and my cabinet. The goal was to use a public forum to help increase membership."

Responding to the reference to a "fear of the unknown," one correspondent posted the following comment today:

First of all, I was not there because of the fear of the unknown. My fear is very well known and established through the accounts of daily life at school told by my own children. Mr. Bynum, DON'T YOU CALL MY KIDS LIARS! Second, his repeated remarks about setting up meetings with him beforehand and/or meetings with him and his cabinet that would not be public forums...that,in my opinion, validates exactly what we are hearing from the teachers....that they are NOT TO CONTACT THE SCHOOL BOARD! We as parents are the public and the school board and Mr. Bynum and his CABINET serve the public taxpayers. DO NOT TRY TO SQUELCH COMMMUNICATION THAT WE DESERVE TO HEAR! This is not about a Fortune 500 company with a private board of officers! HOW DARE YOU??????????? This is about our children! I hope everyone reading The Item article can read between the lines and see what he is really saying. And one last thing....Who is the EVERYBODY that should know and be comfortable with Sweet 16 by now???? Surely he is not referring to the parents/taxpayers because it is news to us! We need people to contact the school board and stand firm behind our teachers. Our kids are liars and our teachers ARE NOT LIARS! WE NEED TO BE INCITED AND EXCITED!!!!

As this comment is reflective of several dozen that followed publication of the Item's report, it would appear that a great deal is known, and that citizens are reacting to what they know more than to what they don't know.

He said another piece "confounds" him.

"Some people who never wanted me here in the first place are trying to drag out all types of information to alienate or subvert initiatives in place," Bynum said. "Broad's Superintendent Academy doesn't have a brain washing instrument. You don't come out of it after 10 months and want to destroy every school you enter or alienate teachers. It is the finest superintendent academy in the country. Superintendent graduates who have been in place three or more years, their districts outperform districts of similar size of non-Broad graduates. Lastly, Broad had absolutely nothing to do with SWEET 16."

It is reassuring to learn that the Broad Foundation and its programs did not develop the "Sweet 16" instrument; but the question left by that knowledge is amplified by it: Who did?

Finally, the claim that Broad Superintendents Academy certificants "outperform" their counterparts who do not hold Broad certificates has been examined by Education Week magazine, as reported in its June 7, 2011, edition.

There is little or no independent research evaluating the impact of Broad Academy graduates on all the districts where they are placed. The foundation itself looks at five measures of student achievement for academy superintendents who have been in place for three or more years, including students’ academic-proficiency levels, achievement gaps, and graduation rates. The foundation then compares those measures with those of demographically similar districts in the state and with state averages.

Based on its calculations, 65 percent of graduates who have been serving as superintendents for three or more years are outperforming comparison groups on raising state reading and math test scores, closing achievement gaps, and raising graduation rates.

Education Week examined a small slice of performance in six districts with long-serving Broad superintendents: reading and math scores on standardized tests for 3rd graders and 8th graders. In most cases, the results on that measure were mixed, even within a district.


  1. The SCEA has posted President Hicks's comments to the Sumter Public Schools Board of Trustees on its website.

  2. Dear Anonymous,
    Just wanted to let you know that this quote ("But the report didn't mention what many -- many -- correspondents have characterized as the most charged moment of the meeting, with words like "prolonged applause and a standing ovation" after hearing a teacher's perspective as part of Hicks's remarks.") isn't quite true. See, in this day and age, there is print reporting and video reporting.
    It just so happens that there are many instances where The Item combines its print AND video reporting.

    Here is the link to the video that clearly shows the applause for Mrs. Hicks: .
    So, no, The Item didn't skip over this fact. In fact, we showed CLEAR evidence that Mrs. Hicks did get applause after her speech.
    Thanks for reading,
    Patrick Enzor