Last Saturday, May 3rd, Ken Witt managed to get a guest editorial published in the Denver Post. In it, he began WNW+Miller’s PR spin, using carefully worded phrases that hid what WNW has actually been doing while painting an image of failing District that WNW is trying to ‘rescue’.
We decided we would do a point-by-point response to Witt’s editorial. Since it was published in the Denver Post and is copyright protected, we cannot post the original in it’s entirety here. So what we have done instead is summarize each paragraph of his editorial and then make our specific comments / observations right below it. As we worked our way through the editorial (17 paragraphs!), we found ourselves keeping a tally on the the various types of problems his editorial has. We have included that in our observations as well.
Witt: He says has gotten many letters questioning WNW’s vision and priorities. He also stated that he was speaking for himself, and not for the Board.
Our comment: We sure that all three of them, Witt, Newkirk and Williams, or ‘WNW’, have gotten a lot of letters and emails. Since their actions have infuriated the JeffCo public enormously, we also have no doubt that the vast majority of these letters have been negative about WNW and their efforts to radically alter the JeffCo School District.
One additional point – while Witt did say he was speaking only for himself, he made no reference to the fact that the Board is strongly divided. Not stating this can leave uniformed people thinking that the entire Board basically agrees with him. Let’s chalk that up as Mislead #1.
Witt: Let’s find some things we can agree on.
Our comment: This is a standard rhetorical device which can be used for good or ill.
Witt: All students at Jeffco should be able to go to a school that prepares them for life, be that college, a tech school, or straight into the job market.
Our comment: Agreed. In fact this is what JeffCo was doing pretty well before WNW took over the Board. The District has also had a strong tradition of constantly innovating and working on doing things better and better.
Witt: Every student is different and a cookie-cutter system school system will not work for many children.
Our comment: This is absolutely true. It is also why JeffCo is not a ‘cookie-cutter’ district. JeffCo has 132 Neighborhood schools (93 elementary, 22 middle, and 17 high school), 10 Option schools, 16 Charter schools, and 19 Special Schools and Programs (you can find all of these on the JeffCo School website). School programs include International Baccalaureate (“IB”), Advanced Placement (“AP”), STEM, Vocational/Technical, GT, ELL, Special Ed, and others. It has online courses, Concurrent Enrollment courses, and ‘schools within schools’.
Prior to WNW getting elected, JeffCo was on the path of continuing to expand the different offerings. JeffCo has not been sitting still. Perhaps what WNW experienced decades ago seemed like ‘cookie-cutter’ to them, but it is not what JeffCo is and has been doing for several years. Let’s call this one Mislead #2.
Witt: Teachers are essential to good schools.
Our comment: We would go further. Highly trained, experienced, and supported teachers are the basis of any good school. Just having teachers, especially if they are inexperienced, have minimal training, or are not backed up with tools, resources, and help, will not help a school system be successful. Indeed, the opposite will occur – the District will go downhill…fast! Just look at DougCo as an example. That is why JeffCo is very fortunate to have the very kind of highly trained, experienced, and motivated educators it has. No mislead here, but rather an overly simplistic statement we will call Oversimplification #1.
Witt: If you agree with me on paragraphs 3-5, then you probably agree with us that change is needed!
Our comment: Our short response is. “NO!” At least not the radical teardown approach Witt, Newkirk, and Williams (and Miller) seem bent on taking with JeffCo.
The sentence Witt used is a classic example of the deliberate use of a fallacious or false argument to try and persuade the unwary. His conclusion is that anyone who wants to have a good, accessible public education system, that supports a variety (and diversity!) of learning styles and conditions, and is staffed by teachers, must therefore agree with WNW that his kind of change is needed. This is a non-sequitur argument and therefore, fallacious. His argument presumes that JeffCo does not meet any of the initial requirements, which we disagree with strongly! In fact, if you look over our comments on the three paragraphs above, you will see that our contention is that JeffCo has met all three of those requirements and, up until WNW took over, has been steadily working towards improving upon them. This is Logical Fallacy #1 and Mislead #3.
Witt: So what needs to be changed?
Our comment: We will give you our answer, and it matches the answer given by education experts and JeffCo residents: 1) More teacher training and increased compensation so they can afford to live in JeffCo and one day send their children to college, 2) Broader access by at-risk children to full-day kindergarten, especially if their families are unable to afford to pay for it and, 3) increased support for JeffCo’s special programs and schools to help cope with growing diversity of JeffCo’s student population.
Witt: Increased goals for 3rd grade reading and 4th grade math.
Our comment: Laudable goals…so long as you put the money towards the programs that will help achieve it! Otherwise, it becomes one of the ‘unfunded requirements’ that WNW scream about when it is done at the State or Federal level.
Witt: Better test scores in 3rd and 4th grade will help the high school scores, which are too low.
Our comment: True, but the evidence shows that just improving lower grade test scores does not necessarily translate into better high school scores on a one-for-one basis. There is a significant drop-off after 4th grade, especially during junior high years that needs to be addressed. Besides, if the only focus is on improving 3rd & 4th grade test scores now, what happens to next year’s 5th to 12th grade students and the years after that? Improvements must be made not only to the elementary level, but also to middle and high school levels as well. This is where increased teacher training and experience, backed up by a focused, well thought-out and proven support effort from the District, will make the difference. This is Oversimplification #2
Witt: We owe it to JeffCo students to do better.
Our comment: We will always owe our children our best, most thoughtful, and thoroughly tested and vetted efforts. We will also always owe them our resistance to quick fixes that don’t, fads that fade, and noble phrases that hide personal agendas. We call this Platitude #1.
Witt: To achieve this, JeffCo needs good teachers that will stay. Instituting a Pay-for-Performance model needs to be adopted, and eliminate broad band pay scales that treats teachers equally.
Our comment: Simple solutions to complex problems always sound so good, but generally they are like cotton-candy; they look big and bright, and the first bite is delicious, but then it quickly gets sticky, contains mainly air, has no vitamins, leaving you ill-nourished, poorer in the pocketbook, and often nauseous.
That is why JeffCo did a major study over the last school year, carefully looking at teacher compensation structures. The results of the study were presented to the Board at the February 6th General Meeting (see the presentation here).
The team concluded that there was no correlation between ‘Pay for Performance’ and better student results. What did make a difference was teacher experience plus having degrees in the field that they are teaching (i.e., a history teacher has a B.A. in History, a math teacher has a B.S. in math, as well as teaching certification.) One way to to organically gain more experienced teachers is to help new teachers with increased District and School support (i.e., coaches, mentors, additional professional development) plus an increase in initial pay so they can afford to stay and master their craft. The goal is to help them get through the first three to five years when they are still mastering their classroom skills.
This actually makes sense in so many ways. No one becomes a teacher in order to make a lot of money. You become a teacher because it is what you are called to do. At the same time, you need to earn enough so you can put your own kids through college, and can spend summers improving your mastery of your subject and improving your teaching skills, instead of trying to make ends meet by selling shaved ice or painting houses.
Of course, implementing this means actually having to pay attention during the presentation and actively thinking about what it is telling you, instead of preparing sound-byte rebuttals that justify a dismissal of the presented facts. This one is Oversimplification #3 and Mislead #4.
Witt: In order to give teachers more time teaching, there should be less testing and assessments. We are getting teachers the tools they need and we promise to actually pay attention to data in order to determine what is most effective.
Our comment: Let’s see if we understand this. Give teachers more time by reducing tests and assessments. Then use the data that the tests would have produced, but now do not (because the tests have been eliminated) to determine what really works.
Huh? This does not make sense. If you want to have a data-driven model and verified results you need tests and assessments, otherwise all you have is uninformed opinion. Illogical Reasoning #1.
Witt: Sometimes something sounds right, but the evidence says differently, such as the efficacy of expanded free full-day kindergarten. JeffCo has never done a study on this in JeffCo, and the proposal is not fair because parents who could afford to pay for full-day kindergarten would get it free as well as those who cannot afford it.
Our comment: Okay, first of all almost every national study shows that if you want to raise elementary school scores, full-day kindergarten is the most cost-effective measure a school district can use. This was pointed out to WNW in the April 3rd meeting. Witt and Newkirk demanded to know if any of the studies had been done in JeffCo, and when told “no”, they then said they doubted that those studies could be applied to JeffCo.
This is nonsense so ludicrous as to boggle the imagination. By this logic, a nationwide traffic safety study that shows that using seat belts and airbags in cars saves lives should be ignored in Jefferson County because the study was not specifically done in Jefferson County. WNW’s attitude assumes that JeffCo is somehow magically different from the rest of the country when it comes to how and when children learn best.
Even so, JeffCo Kindergarten teachers and PTA members responded to the challenge! At the May 1st meeting, in a ten minute comment period (the maximum Witt would allow them), five of them presented the Board with a detailed analysis (FFDK Report) of JeffCo’s full-day vs half-day kindergarten impact on at-risk kids. The results were dramatic. Both statistically and anecdotally, the available data shows that adding in free full-day kindergarten raises the level of proficiency of at-risk children so dramatically that the difference between them and non-risk children almost disappears. Additionally, more JeffCo statistics showed that these gains continue through at least 3rd grade.
Witt’s response was that an unasked-for presentation during a ten minute comment did not suffice. But he also did not ask for a more in-depth presentation, or direct Dr. Beck to conduct a follow-up, or take up the presenters on their plea to at least consider offering a sliding fee-based kindergarten.
WNW has repeatedly stated that to them (WNW), fairness is the same amount of money being spent on all kids, regardless of their circumstances. In this case, WNW would rather not give poor children additional help if it meant some not-so-poor children would be helped too. This is like now being against seat belts and airbags because it would help protect bad drivers as well as good ones!
In short, WNW is against free full-day kindergarten because…? We are not sure! Their explanations are so full of contradictions, misstatements, and factual error that their real reasons are hidden. Mislead #5 and Ignoring Facts #1.
Witt: The District started open negotiations with JCEA and JCAA, but JCEA walked out, so now there must be closed negotiations with a mediator.
Our comment: Witt is trying to imply here that JCEA really did not want open negotiations and so declared an impasse in order to get out of them. What he ignores is the fact that in those open negotiations JCEA repeatedly asked the District negotiating team for responses on JCEA’s proposal for a contract extension, but WNW refused to give the District negotiating team any guidance on this. In short, JCEA was asking, “How about agreeing to a contract extension?” and the District negotiating team, because WNW would not give them guidance (and they have the votes to do it, regardless of what Dahlkemper or Fellman might want), would have to say ‘we have received no instructions on that.’ So finally, JCEA declared an impasse because WNW would not let the District respond to JCEA’s proposal! This one is definitely mislead #6.
Witt: WNW has $11.7 million set aside for total comp increases, including PERA retirement and increased health costs, but “I” (Witt), want to give starting teachers more money and begin Pay for Performance.
Our comment: A lot of misleads here. First, the original place holder was $4 million higher. WNW reduced it to the current $11.7. Second, WNW wants to deduct from any actual pay increase the employer portion of PERA. Third, Witt does not explain that PERA is the Social Security replacement for all state employees, including teachers. PERA payments by the District (and employees) are like the employer and employee FICA deductions. By wanting to have the employer PERA deductions count as part of the employee pay raise, it is a very sneaky way of trying to offer a lower pay raise! Imagine if you employer offered you a 2.5% raise, but then counted the company’s portion of FICA as part of the 2.5%! The same thing for the health care cost increases. Those are employer costs that WNW is trying to pass on to the employees as part of their ‘raise’. Paying starting teachers more is great, and the District study we referenced in paragraph #11 gives specific targets, but again, Witt chooses to ignore actual evidence on the Pay for Performance issue. So that is Misleads #7, #8, and #9 and Ignoring Facts #2.
Witt: He says that WNW was elected to “approach education…differently”, and that they value feedback from the community. That the community has told them we want “clear academic achievement goals, accountability for results, broad choices in public education, genuine transparency, and a commitment to local control….”
Our comment: Those all sound good, but he leaves out a lot! For example, the public Budget Forums held at six different high schools on three different nights the 526 people attending gave their top three priorities as: Keep class sizes small, Increase employee compensation, and Maintain electives. In the on-line 02132014_Community_Survey_Results1 done by JeffCo in February and filled out by over 13,000 people, the same top three priorities were given, and free full-day kindergarten was the fifth highest priority. In a question of where to place educational emphasis (question #4), Early Literacy Instruction was given the highest priority with 71% agreeing or strongly agreeing. On the other hand, 78% did not want to expand charter schools, and 61% opposed expanding option schools.
These results are very different from the list Witt gives. What are his statistics to back up his claims? Because the JeffCo community surveys and outreaches come to very different conclusions. Mislead #10 and Ignoring Facts #3.
Witt: Jeffco is big and diverse. Building a great school district takes respect, openness, patience, and commitment to students and families.
Our comment: We agree, but would also add ‘and a firm commitment to the truth, with a willingness to set aside preconceived ideas when the facts indicate otherwise.’
But even on the items Witt mentions, WNW has sadly fallen short. The disrespect they have shown Dahlkemper and Fellman, Cindy Stevenson, teachers, the public, and our students has got to be seen to be believed. Hidden conversations that play fast and loose with Colorado’s Open Records Act, the speed with which WNW moves to push money towards their favorite causes while starving other parts of the District, all brings into the question just which students and families WNW is committed to. It certainly does not appear to be to all the JeffCo students and families.
BTW- if you were keeping score, the final tally on Witt’s editorial is:
10 Misleading Statements,
3 cases of Ignoring Facts.
1 case of Illogical Reasoning,
1 Logical Fallacy
Keep Fighting, Jeffco!
<Update: We have now posted a version of this response in the comment section of the Denver Post editorial. We are looking into submitting an editorial ourselves, but that may not be possible. If you are interested in submitting an editorial for us under your name, please contact us.>