Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Facebook Page

I created a Facebook page, which will largely publish my blog posts, shorter reflections, and other interesting posts/topics I read. You can follow along (Tilley's Topics in Education), if you are so inclined.

Perhaps the biggest benefit will be that it will protect my personal Facebook account from annoying my friends and family about school politics.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How to Take Socioeconomic Status into Account in Redistricting?

At last night's Policy and Engagement Committee meeting, the ICCSD administration informed the committee and the community that they had received a cease and desist order concerning the Diversity Policy from the State Board of Education based on feedback from the USDA. See the Press-Citizen report (here). In the USDA letter, it becomes clear that it is illegal to use free and reduced lunch status to, for example, create density maps for the purpose of redistricting. A necessary part of redistricting.

As I have argued previously, the particular provisions in the policy are (a) not being implemented currently and (b) would have required substantial revision in order to be workable. So, I'm not sure what losing the Diversity Policy really means at this point. Still, I believe it would be best for the Board of Education to think more about the end goal they want to create (reducing the achievement gap, reducing barriers to education in target populations, improving the academic success of all students particularly those who are least advantaged, or some other such goal) and to let the administration work out the details of how to realize that goal. I argued for that previously (here). Not only do I think that would work better, but it also exemplified how the board and administration should interact. See this Press-Citizen opinion piece about that (here) and this blog post on the topic (here).

But, like many others, I also strongly believe that socioeconomic status must be taken into account in order to deal with the challenges we face as a district (see here for an argument about that). Other approaches considered independently of socioeconomics (e.g., using English-Language Learner status, race, and/or standardized test scores) have significant problems that I won't go into here. I'm happy to talk about that in comments or later, if need be.

But this made me wonder how to address socioeconomic status without using free-and-reduced-lunch status? Here's my tentative answer:

First, take the average household income data that is readily available. Unsurprisingly, there is a strongly positive correlation between household income and FRL status. This is a graphic from the 2013 Dejong-Richter report on demographics in the ICCSD. We may need a slightly more fine-grained analysis of average household income (that is, smaller blocks and also taking into account great wealth, too).

Second, take the student density maps (here). If the average household income was as fine-grained as this density map, then you could easily draw pretty good redistricting lines that would take into account socioeconomic status. 

Third, I don't think it is wise to specify exactly how socioeconomic status should be equalized through redistricting. As I mentioned above, I think we should characterize our goal in terms of an educational outcome, and then give the administration latitude to realize that goal. 

But how might such a method work: first, you take the density map. Let's say that the block with 234 students on the density map is going to Grant Wood. Then we could multiply 234 by $50K. And let's say that the block  with 37 students near Shimek is districted to that school. Then, we multiply 37 by (at least) $100K. Now, we can see what we'd need to do with redistricting in order to bring the average household income closer together at those schools. In fact, this method could very well be a significant improvement over using FRL status, since it would take into account the uber-wealthy and some low-income persons who choose not to apply for FRL.

Of course, I'm assuming that the average income information would basically be true for the population of families with school age children. I think that assumption probably holds well enough presently for us to use something akin to this approach as a tool in the overall approach that the administration would take. I think the assumption may not apply in all circumstances, and that's another good reason for the board to focus on goals and allow the administration to use this tool among others to accomplish those goals.

Now, don't hear what I'm not saying. I don't think this should be the only means for redistricting. Nor do I think that it is a cure all for what ails our district. Rather, socioeconomic considerations need to be in the administration's tool belt for addressing the barriers that low-income persons disproportionately face, which is exacerbated at school with high concentrations of poverty.

What say you? Is this approach sufficient to take socioeconomic status into account? Or do we just have to use FRL status? 

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Value of Debate

I am a competitive person, and a first-generation college student. I grew up in a small town in Texas where sports are all encompassing, and I was no exception to this trend. As a young person, I thought the only value in academics was what it could do for me: get me a good job, keep my parents and teachers happy, and so on.

For me, that only changed because of academic debate. I was initially drawn to academic debate because it spoke to my competitiveness. I liked winning debates as much as I liked winning athletic competitions. I enjoyed developing new argumentative strategies as much as liked successfully executing a trick play in football. I relished the thrill of the clever argument as much as hitting a 3-pointer.

In order to win arguments, I had to become a better critical thinker and researcher. I had to respond quickly, accurately, and efficiently to arguments. I had to do in-depth research on a topic to anticipate every possible objection so that I was ready to defend my view against those objections. Because I had to defend perspectives other than my own, I learned to see issues from multiple viewpoints. I became comfortable with people disagreeing strongly with my views and positions. I often had strongly held opinions that were fundamentally reoriented by the unforced force of the better argument. I learned how to debate about facts and figures, but also about differences in values and ethics.

As I repeatedly engaged in these processes in over 300 intercollegiate debate rounds and later coached my college team and a high school debate team, these academic features became second nature to me. They formed me and my approach to academics. Academics were no longer merely a means to a good job, a way to keep my teachers happy, or even for winning a debate. Rather, it was part of what it means to be a life-long learner and a citizen. That's why I think debate is perhaps one of the most valuable activities for people of all ages. Other practices can develop those traits, but debate is what did it for me.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Enrollment Numbers for 2014: What do they mean?

The Press-Citizen is reporting that enrollment numbers for the ICCSD have been released. I've not seen the district's report on those numbers, but I do have last's year's projection (here) and the projection from two years ago (here).

I'm still processing what the numbers mean, but here are some preliminary thoughts:

First, the initial projections from two years ago are closer to what we actually have compared to last year's projection. The totals seem to align relatively well with the moderate projection from two years ago.

Second, the difference between what actually occurred and what was projected was primarily because a number of schools saw a decline in total enrollment from the 2012-2013 school year till now. The projections from two years ago only projected one of our schools (Kirkwood) to have a slightly declining enrollment. Interestingly, it had some of the most explosive growth of the two-year period.

Third, I think it is probably more helpful to compare the projected numbers from two years ago to the present numbers rather than the numbers from last year to the numbers this year. Otherwise, you could have had explosive growth last year (like we had at Kirkwood) that isn't properly accounted for in the decline.

Fourth, it is interesting to see which schools are meeting or exceeding the rather high projected growth compared to those that did not see much growth.

UPDATE: As as a result of some careful inquiries, I discovered that I made a mistake in my spreadsheet calculations. I had originally intended to "curve" the projection based on the overall decline. However, I curved the result the wrong way, and a reader pointed that out to me. I have since decided that it is somewhat misleading to curve the data, and revised the data. The percentage change (positive or negative) is calculated with the following equation: [1 - (the projected enrollment from the Spring 2013 Dejong Richter report / Actual enrollment figures from 2014-2015 school year)]. One of the wonderful benefits of presenting information publicly is that mistakes can be caught. I appreciate that greatly, and please let me know if I make a mistake about in judgment, values, or data!

For my money, I'd say that being within 2.5% of the projection is pretty accurate, and I'd call anything in that range "about right."

A change greater than 2.5% but less than 10% seems significant.

A change greater than 10% seems rather dramatic.

With those percentages in mind, we had 6 elementary schools that were projected about right, and West and Tate Highs were projected about right.

Only 5 elementary schools saw a significant or dramatic increase over their projections: Twain (the only dramatic increase, very dramatic!), and Borlaug, Kirkwood, Van Allen, and Wickham. Borlaug, Van Allen, and Wickham occur on top of pretty large projected growth.

However, lest someone think that the growth in North Liberty and north Coralville is greatly out of step with the projections, you can see that it is not:

The remaining 8 elementary schools, and the 3 junior highs saw a significant or dramatic decrease with Hoover, Lincoln, Lucas, and Mann (all dramatic by my categorization) showing the greatest percentage declines.

My evaluation of the information:

What are the likely reasons why that might be?

Could Hoover be declining because of its pending closure, or is it because of SINA changes (or perhaps both)? Might the prospect of redistricting have had an impact on Lincoln and Coralville Central? Are escalating FRL rates having an effect at Mann and Lucas respectively? Is the soon-to-be-completed Alexander Elementary School driving growth in what is currently in the Twain area? Or are the Twain, Wood, and Kirkwood areas just the only place where housing is available for low-income families?

If these figures are reflective of trends rather than a one-year aberration, should we rethink the locations of certain expansions in the Facilities Master Plan? Do Longfellow and Mann need expansions in addition to their renovations (that is, they should definitely be renovated with building updates and AC, but must we add seats at those schools?)?

It still seems as if the north Coralville and North Liberty areas are growing about as expected. Penn was the only school in that area that wasn't "about right" and considering the entire area collectively, they are about what was projected two years ago.

I will need to hear more about the assumptions made in the budget blueprint last year to evaluate how much these figures, if they are a trend, will have an effect on the budget.

Thoughts? Questions? Concerns? What do we need to think about in relation to this new information?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Trend for In-School Assessments

One of the interesting and positive results (there are many negative results, though!) of how the ICCSD has responded to No Child Left Behind is a more concentrated focus on student learning for all of our students. Many of our teachers in targeted schools have regular meetings with a group of their fellow teachers and other staff in order to find the best way to reach all their students, to identify specific skills that will be measured among the many that are being taught, and to bounce ideas off of the colleagues. This practice has allowed teachers to quickly see results of their efforts, to determine whether students with barriers to education are, in fact, learning, and to make adjustments on the fly. These all seems to be a very good, and show that good outcomes can come from bad policies.

As I reflected on this fact for these schools, I was struck by the sense that this broad-based individualized approach to assessment at these schools seems to make standardized assessments superfluous at these schools. If the teachers are measuring each student individually on a regular basis, and they are using that information to more effectively teach students; then it seems that standardized assessments that are summative, that take a long time to get results, that have little impact on what actually takes place in the classroom (except for that week of testing) are doing very little that isn't already occurring in a much more useful format in the approach used in targeted schools in the ICCSD.

This good outcome is a testament to the quality of our teachers, and also to administrators who are willing to protect our schools from the excesses of certain state and federal policies so that we can better reach all of our students. They'd brought about a good outcome from a bad policy, and it's important for us to continue supporting those practices that move us closer to the goal of making all of our students life-long learners.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

On How the School Board Should Function: Facilities Master Plan, Diversity Policy, Aspirational Class-Sizes, and More

Holly Hines wrote a piece in the P-C recently describing what I see as the fundamental problem our school board has.

"Lucas Elementary parent Michael Tilley, who blogs about education issues in the district, said he thinks the School Board has taken on roles that should be left to district administrators, such as the superintendent, and vice versa, when it comes to setting policy and cutting the budget.  
 He said board members seem too focused on the details of policies they create rather than the goals of the policies themselves.
"I'm not sure that they're functioning well in the sense of getting accomplished what needs to be accomplished for our community," Tilley said."

To expand a bit, you can read what I've written about this topic previously:

In one post written about 10-months ago, I identified the problem as a case of the tale wagging the dog: see here. In that particular case, I illustrate the phenomenon with respect to the Facilities Master Plan. My conclusion in that post:

"I'd much rather see them discuss how we should prioritze our values than debate minor financial or logistical issues in board and committee meetings. Is achieving equity of student achievement our highest goal? Or is it low student-teacher ratios? Or is it minimizing tax payer expenses? Or is it protecting a particular geographical area of town? Is primary or secondary education more important? How should we order these values, once we have determined what they are? Those are the types of questions the board should be discussing publicly at board and committee meetings. They can be spurred by the practical issues at hand, but we can only truly deal with disagreements about these matter if we are clear on where the disagreement lies. Furthermore, if the administration knew clearly what the board thought (as the representative of its stakeholders, the community), then the administration could more effectively achieve its goals by knowing how to implement those goals."

In another post, I explain that the board missed the boat on the diversity policy. They focused on specifying percentages to be achieved, implementation, and time-frames rather than articulating a goal and holding the administration accountable for meeting the goal. As a result, we didn't do much of anything with regard to the Diversity Policy over the last 18 months, and the administration wasn't held accountable. Here is what the goal should have been:

"So, the spirit of the DP -- the DP as it should be understood rather than the particular requirements specified in the document itself -- is to (a) stop reinforcing and making the achievement gap worse (as a wise person has said about our budget, maybe we can get out of the hole if we just stop digging!) and (b) attempt to restack the deck in favor of all of our kids, particularly our at-risk children."

In a third post, I go into greater detail about how the Diversity Policy should have been structured with a clear goal, clear standards of evaluation for the administration that go beyond mere increases in test schools for students with certain barriers to education, and strong accountability to make positive moves toward achieve the goals according to the measures. Here is what I said there:

"Ultimately, I think this sort of approach is more in line with the spirit of the Diversity Policy that I've discussed elsewhere, and it is also closer to the intended model of policy governance for our school board, i.e., the Carver model. Specifically, it focuses on ends, delegation of implementation/means of the policy, and monitoring of success."

These are but two examples I've written about on the blog, but I could give a similar account with respect to how the board has handled the budget, class-size issues, and turning the diversity policy into aspirational goals. Here is what I've written about the "aspirational goal" language in class-sizes and the proposal to use that for the DP (in a comment on another P-C article):

"I'm most concerned about the application of the aspirational goals. I've been disappointed by how the aspirational class size goals have been implemented (in practice, it still seems like the squeaky wheel still gets oiled), and I was disappointed in the administration's proposal based on something akin to aspirational goals for Cluster 2 redistricting. For example, in the board's decision to keep the Breckenridge island (a concentrated FRL group currently assigned to Lemme--a low-FRL school--but that under the administration's proposal to the board was reassigned to the high-FRL school Alexander), the administration's proposal made the FRL goals "aspirational" while following the letter of the island language. Superintendent Murley's argument was that they tried to eliminate islands when they could, but apparently, they didn't try to reduce FRL disparities when they could (i.e., in the Breckenridge situation specifically)? I'm glad the board saw fit to make that change, but what if Paul Roesler didn't suggest it at the last minute? 
My hope is that the board and the committee will think about crafting a sustainable long-term goal for addressing the achievement gap, and let the administration determine the best means to accomplish that goal while holding them accountable for achieving it. It seems to me that we've been too focused on specifying the means for accomplishing our goals (e.g., specific numerical targets, removing islands, etc.), and that the administration focuses too much on using the specified means rather than doing what they think is in the best interest of all the district (i.e., reducing the achievement gap by bringing the bottom up)."

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Doing better by the diversity policy

The P-C reported that Superintendent Murley outlined a plan for a comprehensive strategy for resource allocation at last night's listening post. I have been told from attendees that this strategy would be in addition to redistricting efforts, and that he, at one point, said something to the effect that a balanced free-and-reduced lunch rate would be optimal academically.

I'm pleased by this development, and here are few ways that I think we do better.

First, I think we need to articulate our ultimate goal for how we'd like the school district to look. I think this goal should be tied explicitly to academic matters. I know that some will disagree with me on this matter, and I sympathize with some of these criticisms. For instance, I know some (I am one of these people) who think that the social consequences of lacking socioeconomic and racial diversity in a individual school can be just as problematic as any academic consequences, and they would support such diversity even if there were no negative academic consequences to lacking it. I'm in that camp myself, since I think the goal of education is not just vocational, but is also there to help form our students into good participants and citizens in our society.

Still, I think it is important to tie the goal explicitly to academic concerns. Doing so will be helpful for people like me who think education is more than just what we know (but also about what we believe, what we love, and how will live) and people who think it is just about knowledge acquisition. In other words, I think we will have a much stronger case for whatever changes we need to make if it is tied explicitly to academics.

Here is a goal I might suggest: the ICCSD should reduce the achievement gap between schools that have greater barriers to education (high proportions of low-income students, high proportions of ELL students, high proportions of high-need general education students, and so forth) in comparison to those that have fewer barriers by improving the academic performance of those schools that have greater barriers.

I was concerned that the resource allocation model wasn't clearly tied to an academic goal at least as it was discussed in the P-C article.

Second, we need to be clear about how we measure success of this goal. One of my fears is that we will simply measure academic achievement in terms of whatever standardized test scores we are using. I think that's a recipe for making it look like we are educating our children, when we may not be. So I would propose instead that we use many evaluations -- including both quantitative data such as surveys of relevant teachers and affected parents, number of learning objectives in which a students have shown progress and/or mastered over the course of the year (as evaluated by the teacher), and also standardized test scores AND qualitative data drawn from focus groups of teachers, staff, and parents, interviews, and so forth. The qualitative data will be important for asking the right sorts of questions in any surveys. Measure our achievement of our goals in this way will help us avoid the trap of assuming that because a student who came in barely speaking English and who didn't do well on the standardized test score in English didn't improve. It would avoid the trap of merely teaching to the test. In short, we need to think critically about how our measuring techniques might affect the methods we use to achieve success of that goal.

I mention these measures not as a finished list, but as something that I think would be more valuable than merely using test scores. Still, I was concerned that the P-C article made it seem as if standardized test scores would be the only academic marker used in the resource allocation policy.

Third, we should (a) give the administration wide latitude to put together a comprehensive plan that will achieve this goal according to the selected measure, and (b) hold the Superintendent accountable for achieving (or at least making significant progress toward) that goal within a given time frame. The latitude should be wide so as to include the suggested elements in the P-C article linked to above, redistricting, and even possible changes/additions to the Facilities Master Plan (e.g., perhaps an addition at Kirkwood or a 4th Junior High School). I think there are two benefits to this third point. I think it gives a diversity initiative the highest chance of success. Whatever knowledge I have of these issues, it pails in comparison to people who focus their lives and careers on it (teachers, principals, district admin staff), and rather than inadvertently hamstringing their imaginations and/or means of achieving the optimal result, we should free them up to accomplish our good goals. On the flip side, giving the administration wide latitude means that failure to achieve the goal cannot be blamed on the community's failure or the board's poor decision making. The failure would be in the imagination of the administration, or in its execution. You wouldn't have a situation like last Spring where the budget problems the district faced were sometimes blamed on the community's input, the board's poor decision making, and/or the administration's failure.

Ultimately, I think this sort of approach is more in line with the spirit of the Diversity Policy that I've discussed elsewhere, and it is also closer to the intended model of policy governance for our school board, i.e., the Carver model. Specifically, it focuses on ends, delegation of  implementation/means of the policy, and monitoring of success.

As always, I'm open to criticisms and objections. What am I missing? Thoughts? Questions? Concerns?

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Should we stay (with more resources), or should we go (on a bus)?

The Iowa City Community School District has been having more meetings about redistricting, the diversity policy, magnet schools, and attendance area. I've been doing some preliminary evaluation of data from the 2012-2013 school year as a way to give community members insight into the relative costs of various proposals that are currently on the table.

I have previously expressed my support for the spirit of the diversity policy (here), and I am strongly committed to that same spirit. I am not committed to the specific percentages, guidelines, time-frame, or any particular strategy for accomplishing the spirit of the diversity policy. I'm open to various possibilities, but I am not open to continuing the status quo, nor do I simply want change for change's sake. I want meaningful change that is intended to address the structural problems harming our educational system for our least-advantaged students. 

A few months ago, I offered a survey (here) mainly as a way to help our community think about the various possibilities related to redistricting. I identified to dominant strategies that could have some effect on reducing burdens that our community has directly and indirectly places on low-income students. 

Strategy One (from the survey): "Allocating additional resources to a school over a long period of time (especially more teachers to have a better student to teacher ratio) is the best way to remove educational barriers to learning that disproportionately affect low-income students, which results in the district having no need, or at the least, very little need for boundary changes."

A number of respondents expressed sympathy for this approach. I wanted to crunch the numbers to get a better indication of the actual costs associated with using this method as the primary vehicle for removing those educational barriers.

Relevant assumptions and limitations:
  • You would need class sizes at or below 15 students at the Kindergarten level (17-19 is recommended for the average Kindergarten classroom), 19 students for 1st and 2nd grade, and 23 students from 3rd-6th grade. (It may be that class sizes would need to be lower than this to truly make a difference, but I needed to make an assumption that seemed reasonable.)
  • I only considered increased resources at 3 schools: Kirkwood, Twain, and Wood. We have some others elementary schools that are well above 50% for their FRL rate, and they may have to be included if current trends continue.
  • Class sizes for those three schools and others for 2012-2013 can be found here (see page 165 in the pdf file).
  • Based on the official class sizes for 2012-2013 at those three schools and the suggested class sizes above, you would need 4 more teachers at Kirkwood and Twain, and 3 more teachers at Wood.
  • Any changes to increase resources at those three schools would be budget neutral, i.e., there would be tradeoffs with other programs or funds.
  • The tradeoffs would come from the 11 elementary schools that have FRL rates lower than 30%.
  • The cost of reassigning a teacher (salary and benefits) would average at least $75K. Teacher salaries for 2014-2015 can be found here (page 158 in the pdf file), and the information there suggests that the assumption is a fair one. I am, however, open to other figures if they are more compelling.
Given these assumptions, the strategy one model (i.e., the increased resources model) would need to reassign the 11 teachers (or an equivalent amount of resources to affect a similar outcome) from the 11 elementary schools with FRL rates lower than 30%. Thoughts, questions, or concerns about just using Strategy One?

Strategy Two (from the survey): "Boundary changes that achieve socioeconomic integration for all our schools is the best way to remove educational barriers to learning that disproportionately affect low-income student, and there would be little or no need to allocate additional resources to particular schools since they would be balanced socioeconomically."

A number of respondents expressed sympathy for this approach. So, how does the number crunching work for this model?

Relevant assumptions and limitations:

  • There would need to be extensive changes to the attendance areas at Twain, Wood, and Kirkwood in order to use this method. 
  • I used the number of buses in 2012-2013, which are here and here. The total number of buses at all levels of 102.
  • The per bus cost is difficult to calculate. We are charged a lump sum from a 3rd party for our busing services, divided between the general education fund and other funds. Approximately 2/3 dollars spent on busing is not from the general education fund, leaving only about 1/3 of the cost coming form the general education fund.
  • Our primary concern is with general education costs, as it has the most significant impact on the classroom, and it was the reason behind the budget cuts last Spring. See here for my discussion of that.
  • The total general education costs for busing in 2012-2013 was a little less than $4 million.
  • That figure divided by 102 results in a cost of just a little less than $40K per bus.
  • The number of students transported in buses varies considerably, with some carrying as many as 75 students as evidenced here.
  • The number of buses at Kirkwood, Twain, and Wood vary (see here). Twain had 4 in 2012-2013, Wood had 1, and Kirkwood had 0. 
  • I only considered increased resources at 3 schools: Kirkwood, Twain, and Wood. We have some others elementary schools that are well above 50% for their FRL rate, and they may have to be included if current trends continue.
  • Any changes to increase resources at those three schools would be budget neutral, i.e., there would be tradeoffs with other programs or funds.
  • The tradeoffs would come from the 11 elementary schools that have FRL rates lower than 30%.
 Given these assumptions and guidelines, I estimated that Strategy Two (redistricting only) we would need between 3-5 new buses. At least 2-3 at Kirkwood, at least 1-2 additional buses at Wood, and probably no additional ones for Twain (given that they already have 4). At a cost of $40K per bus, that would be the cost equivalent of about 0.2 teachers taken from each of the 11 elementary schools with FRL rates under 30%. Thoughts, questions, or concerns about just using Strategy Two?

My Commentary:

I appreciate that people offering both of these strategies are dissatisfied with the present state of affairs. Our system is unjust and disproportionately burdens low-income students. That needs to be addressed, and I think our community has the political will do to so now.

Still, I think there are significant challenges that we have in using either of these methods as the only overall solution. There is no realistic way of getting Wood and Twain under 50% FRL given the constraints that the administration placed on the process and approved by the board (the cluster constraints, mainly). Furthermore, given that so many students, with a high-concentration of poverty, live around Kirkwood, it poses its own challenges for both models. 

Can you fit more teachers there without redistricting? Are other resources able to improve academic achievement as well as lower class sizes? How much are we harming low-income students if we redistrict them to a school that is significantly further away from their closest school?

In light of these challenges and more, I think it would be best to pursue a hybrid approach of these two strategies -- leaning more to the redistricting side of the equation unless there are significant overriding reasons to not do so. To not do so, would have bad results (i.e., increased class sizes) for a majority of our school district's students. Despite what common sense may suggest, it is significantly more costly to pursue Strategy One exclusively rather than Strategy Two exclusively.

Furthermore, the communal context may dictate that you take different strategies with different schools. Twain's already heavy bus load may make it such that redistricting is more attractive there. Kirkwood's capacity limits may mean that we will have to redistrict some of its students to other schools, while increasing its resources? Perhaps Alexander will spur real estate development, which would help reduce the ultimate need for more resources at Wood and Alexander? Perhaps the administration needs more latitude to accomplish the goal of addressing injustice in our system, while we hold them accountable for the results.

Thoughts, questions, or concerns about my commentary?

Monday, July 7, 2014

Some Questions about New Maps

The administration will be presenting various proposals to the ICCSD Board of Directors. The maps can be found near the end of this document. Here are some questions I had about the maps.


Does the administration believe that keeping the cluster model is best for reducing the achievement gap? What was the reason for keeping the cluster idea?

Which aspects of the map and proposals are modular?

Is the FRL rate at Twain (in the non-magnet option), Wood, Hills, and the new South Elementary significantly better than their current, extremely high, FRL rate?

In 2019, will the North Elementary School and Lemme have extremely low FRL rates? If so, is this a concern? It isn't prohibited, but if you get too many schools like that it will result in some schools being well north of 50% FRL in our district.

Which parts of the proposal are revenue neutral, and which are not? For those that are not, what are preliminary estimates of how much will be gained/lost?

Paired Schools:

Can we keep the option to pair Wickham and Kirkwood after 2019? Why or why not?

Were options to use paired schools considered for Cluster 2? If not, why not?

Can some redistricting occur along with paired schools?

How were upper campuses versus lower campuses selected? I wonder whether having Kirkwood as the lower campus would decrease participation in after school activities for the students living near Kirkwood, and I know that most after-school activities take place in upper grade level. 


Why were Lincoln and Twain chosen as possible magnets? 

What alternatives are there beyond those two particular schools?

What happens to a school if one or both magnets fail?

Have we ruled out school-within-a-school magnet options? If so, why? (basic question stolen from EDJ)


If islands are acceptable for FRL reasons, then why was the Lemme island which constitutes the bulk of its FRL percentage eliminated?

Questions that Directors should consider:

What modifications to the maps would get you to support the maps that ultimately result?

*I will update as I think of more questions, or if good ones are provided in comments.

Friday, June 27, 2014

On Resignations, Civility, and Rational Debate

Recently, the president of the ICCSD Board of Education resigned her position. She did so for "personal reasons," and many individuals have speculated that the caustic nature of our civil discourse was a significant contributor to her resignation. I am hesitant to speculate about her motivations, but I do know that all of our directors put in a substantial number of hours in service to the district and there is a great deal of conflict that often comes with the position. So, it is reasonable interpretation.

I also agree that the caustic character of our community's disagreements about education is unfortunate. It inhibits rational debate and deliberation about controversial topics. And for my money, I believe it is much more important for someone to engage in public discourse and argumentation properly than for that person to have the correct opinion about a particular subject matter.

So, how should rational deliberation take place? The best place to start is to understand what happens when real communication has taken place (I'm channeling my inner J. Habermas, in case you can't tell). If I've successfully communicated something to Person B, here's what must have happened:

  1. I said something that meant something.
  2. I presented something that I believe to be true.
  3. I presented something that is about our shared world together.
  4. I wanted to reach an agreement with Person B about my statement.
As such, an attempt at communication can fail is for any one of these four reasons. Now, for two people to participate in rational debate, it is necessary for both interlocutors to assume that the other is trying to communicate in this way. Otherwise, one or more of the parties is just trying to manipulate the other.

What do I mean by that?

If someone is incapable of uttering meaningful sentences, then there can be no rational deliberation. If I believe that Person B is not presenting what she takes to be true, but only what is political expedient, then there can be no rational deliberation. If I believe that Person C only makes a certain claim because of his geographical location, then there can be no rational deliberation. If my goal in making my claim is to make another person look bad, then there can be no rational deliberation. If I assume that there is always a malicious ulterior motive lying behind each of Person D's statements, then there can be no rational deliberation.

If you say you support rational deliberation, then you should engage in public and private argumentation in accord with these assumptions. You must assume that people are presenting ideas and thoughts they believe to be true. You must assume that they are trying to convince you that their view is right. If you can't do those things, then you are inhibiting rational deliberation.

So, I encourage all of us, for the sake of rational deliberation and rational debate, to assume the best about our interlocutors. Particularly those with whom you disagree. Assume that they are presenting what they think is true. Assume that they are expressing their view to convince you or other participants in the dialogue.

But what if your interlocutor is violating these four assumptions? Does that mean that the nature of rational deliberation changes? Does that mean we can stop assuming the best about their arguments? Does that mean that we should respond like for like?

I'm not naive enough to think that everyone is really interested in rational deliberation in this sense. Some people will be trying to manipulate the system. Some people will use strategic means to reach a desired outcome without going through a legitimate deliberative or democratic procedure. In such a case, there is no rational deliberation, since the other person is violating one or more of the assumptions, but at least you aren't the reason why there is no rational deliberation. In that circumstance, we would do well to engage their arguments, to engage in the dialogue assuming the best about them, even if we are wrong.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Raises for ICCSD Administration: A Proposal

I've argued previously (see here) that we have our budget problems primarily because (a) we rely too heavily on grants that expired, and (b) that our cost of living raises have tended to far exceed yearly state supplemental aid (allowable growth).

On the May 13 board meeting, the board approved, on a 5-2 vote, that central administrators were not to receive a raise for the upcoming school year. Now, the administration will be proposing tonight an interpretation of that vote which (a) gives six central administrators (the superintendent, the two assistant superintendents, CFO, COO, and the head of HR/communication) no raise next year, but (b) gives other administration employees a significant raise. As the board meeting tonight, the administration is proposing to increase the budget category for administration from this year to next year by approximately 2.66% (see the Press-Citizen's article on the matter here). There is reason to think that this number is artificially low, since (a) six of the highest paid administrators are not receiving raises, and (b) there was some attrition that was not filled.

It is important for the board to find out tonight what the actual proposed raises are for all administrators.

Furthermore, the school board should modify these proposed raises.

Here would be my modified proposal: 

(a) accept the part of the proposal that the six administrators will receive no raises for next year.

(b) set the raise for a given year (2014-2015 in this case) for all other administrators, including the other central administration employees and building administrators (e.g., principals) at no more than the average of allowable growth of that year and the prior four years. 

2015 will have a 4% allowable growth, 2014 had 2%, 2013 had 2%, 2012 had 0%, and 2011 had 2%. The State Board of Education provides these figures here. The average of that five year period was exactly 2%. With this figure in mind, set the raises of all employees who have not yet negotiated contracts at no more than 2%, which would be in line with allowable growth rates over the past 5 years.

There are three major benefits to this approach: first, it stops digging an even larger budget hole. We will have to pay the piper again if we continue on this trajectory. Do we want more budget cuts? Second, it is sustainable, and our current trajectory is not. It isn't a cut or 0% raises, so it is a policy that we could keep well into the future, and it isn't paying more than we can handle. Third, it will give people a strong motivation to support future allowable growth increases from the state.

I urge the board to adopt this modest proposal, and I believe it close enough to the proposal before the board tonight such that it fits the spirit of the both the board's proposal to stop all raises for central administration and the administration's proposed raises.

UPDATE: If you want to see how much just tying administration to no more than 2% raise. Take all the administrator's salaries (see page 156 of the board agenda for tonight) and see what the total would be with, say, a 2.66% raise versus a 2% raise. And realize that the difference will actually be more than that for my modified proposal, since six of the highest paid central administrators will not be receiving 2% raises this next year.

UPDATE 2: The modified proposal would save approximately $40,000 next year compared to the administration's proposal based on my rough calculations. Although that seems like a small amount, (a) it is enough to, for example, save 7th grade football, and (b) it will be compounded and grow exponentially as future percentage raises are applied to it.

UPDATE 3: My $40,000 is under playing the savings. The proposed raises tend to be 3% and 4% depending on the position.

UPDATE 4: Based on a more precise calculation, the amount saved is a little over $59,000. Here is the spreadsheet I used to make the calculation.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

What's the purpose of the Diversity Policy? What motivates my support of it?

I recently asked readers to participate in a survey about redistricting and socioeconomically integrating our schools in the Iowa City Community School District: here. You can still participate, too! I noted in the post that I see the survey as a guide for having a conversation about the implicit motivations and purposes underlying the policy. What follows is a reflection on some of these matters. I should also say upfront that despite some concerns about how the redistricting matter was handled two board meeting ago, I was pleased to see that the school board was talking publicly at the last board meeting about these motivations and purposes (although I think casting a larger vision would be better, more below on that). More specifically, the board is willing to consider options that fulfill the spirit of the diversity policy even if it means violating the letter of the DP. See the Press-Citizen article about that decision: here.

So, what is the spirit of the DP? And what is the letter?

The "letter" of the DP is the actual language and prescriptions used in the document itself: included here. The actual language used specifically states a goal. The goal, as stated, is to provide an "equitable learning environment" (see my post here on our inability to talk about "equity") and that the policy should result in "greater diversity and enhanced learning."* The means for achieving this goal are also stated in the letter of the policy: at each level (elementary, junior high, and high school), the policy specifies an acceptable range of (a) free and free lunch rates (i.e., the percentage of students at a particular school who are approved for free or reduced lunch) and (b) utilization rates (e.g., the percentage of the building's capacity that is filled). There are specific requirements that are and were supposed to be met (we are already, arguably, in violation of the DP with some of those requirements, and the board has specifically approved violations of it), and a specific date for being fully within these acceptable ranges.

So much for the the letter of the DP.

What about the spirit? I believe is it expressed, partly and vaguely, in the stated goals of the policy. That is, the goal is to increase equality, diversity, and academic outcomes for students across the district. Were I to express it, I would say that the purpose is to promote justice and just outcomes, and I have a very particular idea about what 'justice' means (see here). 

So why is the current system unjust? In other words, how does our current practice in the ICCSD reinforce and exacerbate injustice?

Here's my answer: in the status quo, there is a very strong correlation between socioeconomic status and how one fares in terms of education and in life more generally. There are exceptions to this general tendency, but it a very strong correlation.     

Here is a helpful quote from a former teacher about the cause of the achievement gap (the difference in average academic achievement between low-income and higher-income students):
"These "at risk" kids have a myriad of social/physical needs that need to be met before they are ready to learn-Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Lack of stability, hunger, inadequate medical care, etc will always affect a child's ability to learn. Many, many studies show that family income and parental education are the strongest predictors of student success. Many studies also show that the first 5 years are the most important and once a child falls behind, they DO NOT catch up. We will see more and more "at risk" families as the income gap widens and we have more non-English speaking parents."
So, there is good reason to think that the deck is already stacked against low-income students. 

But how exactly does our school district exacerbate this problem: 

(1) There are cultural/social ways that our district has indirectly increased the achievement gap by not effectively countering the effects of having the deck stacked against these kids. Here are some of them: the socioeconomic makeup of a school has a significant affect on teacher workload and burnout, and teacher burnout and/or turnover reduces achievement, and an increased workload makes it easier for students to fall through the cracks. It also affects resources at the PTO/PTA level and therefore the ability to supplement needs (how much is, say, donated to Kirkwood's PTO compared to, say, Shimek's?). There are also strong correlations between income levels and (a) the political capital of parents, (b) volunteer time, (c) the level of support from the entire community (how many articles do we see in the local paper about things going on at Grant Wood as opposed to, say, Garner?), and the (d) knowledge of the educational system we find ourselves in so that they can make a difference. These things individually might have little effect on the achievement gap, but they indicate how our current system makes it even harder for these schools and kids than it has to be.

(2) The injustice is built into our building plans, particularly in the past (some parts of the FMP are designed to address these inequities, although it will continue to exacerbate other aspects of it). We have tended to target affluent areas for new schools, and allowed our older building to deteriorate and not be updated. This results in (a) overcrowding in schools, particularly in schools that are less affluent, and (b) not having things like air conditioners in our older schools, (including all schools that have a high concentration of low-income students). These differences in structural/building conditions also have an affect on academic achievement, which tends to increase the achievement gap. 

So, the spirit of the DP -- the DP as it should be understood rather than the particular requirements specified in the document itself -- is to (a) stop reinforcing and making the achievement gap worse (as a wise person has said about our budget, maybe we can get out of the hole if we just stop digging!) and (b) attempt to restack the deck in favor of all of our kids, particularly our at-risk children.

So, what means should we use to accomplish this goal?

Here is where I think the administration's expertise should come into play. Once the "spirit" of the DP has been articulated, give the administration the task of accomplishing that task and then hold them accountable to it -- even if it means that people ultimately lose their jobs over it.

Basically, as I understand it, there are two general system-level strategies for reducing the achievement gap. The first is through increased resources  including student-support services (food, medical care, counseling, parental coaching, tutors, and so forth) and lower teacher-to-student ratios. Consistent use of these means can have an affect, but the cost is that (1) it takes more money (and remember those budget problems?), and (2) we often don't have the capacity to reduce teacher-to-student ratios in those schools (we tend to build new schools in affluent areas!).

The second strategy is through socioeconomic integration. The benefit of it is that it reduces the need for lower teacher-to-student ratios at particular schools. The cost is that the means of integration may be unpalatable to a lot of people (most importantly to some people who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of said integration) and it simply may not work in our district.

As for me, I think we cast the vision of what we want the outcome to be -- i.e., we want justice. We want our school district to remedy rather than further entrench the injustice already in the system. We want a comprehensive plan from the administration on how to best accomplish this outcome. Finally, we will (or we should) hold the administration accountable, given their expertise on the matter, for how well they achieve justice -- or, at the very least, make significant progress toward it.      

*Technically, the language states this policy (the DP) "will result" in these outcomes. I assume that the board members don't think they can establish a matter of fact by pure fiat, so I interpreted it charitably as "should."

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Value-disagreements regarding strategies for reducing the achievement gap: a survey

-----------Survey: here---------------

Recently at a work session on redistricting, the ICCSD board of directors agreed, in general, to a timeline for addressing redistricting and its diversity policy by this fall for the 2015-2016 school year. For a report about that work session, see here. The work session seems to have established a reasonable timeline for making decisions so that appropriate adjustments can be made for the 2015-2016 school year, but I was concerned that the board was setting itself up for another stalled effort. As a whole, the board was concerned with the impact that the final maps would have on academic performance, and they suggested that the administration should look at providing new maps without having to adhere strictly to the letter of the diversity policy. That is, the board seemed to indicate that it would tolerate flexibility on the use of islands, the specific numbers involved, and so forth.

But, unfortunately, as a group, the board did not give the administration much direction concerning how it should adjudicate between value-disagreements implicit in the construction of a new map. When will attempts to socioeconomically integrate schools harm rather than help improve, educational outcomes, particularly with regard to the achievement gap between minority or low-income students and those who are not? I realize that the administration will be able to see what the board, as a whole, finds unacceptable, but it is not clear at all whether they have given sufficient information for the administration to use in constructing maps that would satisfy the board's collective goals.

From the evidence available, it seems as if the board simply does not know what could possibly be satisfactory to them as a whole. That's a big problem, and it is a result of a bigger problem about the lack of quality deliberation about values that I've mentioned a few times previously: here and here.

So, I thought it may be helpful for our community to work through some of these value-based disagreements.

With that in mind, I wrote a survey, here, that I am encouraging people to consider and to take. 

The primary value of the survey is not that it will provide data to inform our decision making about these values -- I think that's unlikely -- but the primary value is that it will help us have good conversations about these value disagreements with the goal of eventually reaching a consensus about our value-laden goals. A survey like this would have been much more fruitful for discussion and for research at the community engagement meetings over the Spring semester.

In short, my point is that if we don't know where we are going, then there is no way to determine (a) how to get there, (b) whether we've arrived, or (c) whether a particular strategy is useful for getting us there. 

I think these survey questions would be helpful for the ICCSD board of directors to consider as I think their collective answers would be helpful for giving better direction to the administration as it constructs maps that must, in the end, satisfy at least a majority of them. 

My guess is that it would be more successful than relying on clairvoyance on the part of the administration.

UPDATE: Here are survey results for all respondents: link. Do not expect these results to tell you what our community thinks. The results are not representative of our community, as it only includes a small snap shot of highly motivated people who read my blog or are connected to me through other mediums. As I mentioned above, the primary value of this survey is to find out what you and I believe and to talk about it publicly with others. I hope the results are helpful to that end.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Why It Was Wrong to Postpone Discussion of Redistricting

The video contains the discussion and vote on the decision to postpone the redistricting discussion that was to take place at the May 13, 2014 ICCSD Board Meeting. Directors Swesey, McGinness, Kirschling, and Board President Hoelscher voted for the motion. The remaining board members, Directors Lynch, Fields, and Dorau, voted against the motion.

After watching it unfold, I made a number of snap judgments about why the vote was made and how it was planned, and I was also concerned about the decision to conduct the work session and the public board discussion over the summer. Making big decisions over the summer is a bad policy. But since I have no hard evidence to support my snap judgments, I'm doing my best to leave them in the past.

Nevertheless, I still strongly believe that the decision was wrong -- both on the merits of the argument made, and because it was just flat wrong.

The merits of the argument:

The argument for no discussion is nonsense. Here's my best reconstruction of the argument:

(P1) We got the maps last night (Monday). 
(P2) We need more time to prepare. 
Therefore, we should postpone discussion. 

First, the conclusion doesn't follow from the premises. Simply because one person or one group of people are not prepared does not mean that a fruitful discussion cannot happen. Furthermore, the discussion could very well have informed our board members who were not ready for the discussion. There is no requirement that unprepared board members speak in a discussion, and it was clear that a goodly number of audience members felt prepared to discuss the issue.

Second, both premises for the argument are, at best, misleading. The changes between the third iteration of the map and the final one presented to the board were minimal, and the third map was released on May 2, 2014 a good ten days before the board meeting and there was extensive feedback and discussion on the Engage Iowa City website, which was promoted by the administration.

In short, the case for postponement given the stated reasons was extremely weak. They are so weak that it makes me curious about why the decision was, in fact, made -- that is, what goal did the four board members actually have in voting for the motion. I don't know, and I'm hesitant to speculate.

Why the decision was just flat wrong: 

The decision to postpone was disrespectful to other board members and members of our community who came out to speak. I'm not saying that the words used by Swesey, McGinness, Hoelscher, or Kirschling were rude or injurious. In point of fact, I believe focusing too much on the words used, the tone, and so forth miss what it means to truly respect someone. That is to say, respect requires treating people as agents capable of making their own decisions (as autonomous agents), and so long as the exercise of that freedom does not interfere with the autonomy of another or subvert the common good, then we should do what is in our power to cultivate such respect. We shouldn't treat people as a mere means to accomplish our goals.

Given that the item was on the agenda, Lynch, Fields, and Dorau as well as concerned citizens who wished to speak had a fair and legitimate expectation that they would be able to speak on the matter at hand. The President even states that community comments on agenda items will take place when that agenda item comes up on the agenda. And we know that a large number of people wanted to speak*, but the postponement denied them the opportunity without good cause. In this context, it did not treat those who came to speak with the inherent dignity they possess. It treated them merely as a means to accomplish the goals of some board members.

Note also that I'm not saying that the move was procedurally invalid according to Robert's Rules of Order. Rather, I'm saying that they used those procedures to act wrongly toward their fellow board members and toward the community members who wished to speak on the subject. 

If the goal was not to have the item on the agenda, then a decision should have been made at the prior board meeting. 

If the goal was simply to have a work session and vote on it over the summer (a bad policy, in my opinion, but still reasonable), then the motion should have been proposed after the presentation and after interested parties were given their opportunity to speak.

Based on these considerations, the four board members who voted for the motion should issue a public apology to the community and to the other board members.

(*I have asked for the number of people who signed up to speak, but apparently the speaker cards were not returned to Board Secretary)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Polarization and Value-Disagreements

Some concerned community members (here and here) have complained about the atmosphere and level of discourse at the last Cluster 2 redistricting meeting. Based on the discourse leading up to the meeting, I expected it to be inflammatory. I expected both those opposed to the particular redistricting lines (I expected this contingent to be the largest) and those in favor of economic integration by means of redistricting to be geared up for a fight. Although I hate the following sort of either/or thinking, I need to say it in order for you to understand what I'm arguing for: if I were presented with 'we can have the second map with its economic integration, or the status quo', I'd choose the second map in no time flat.

I also confess that I like to argue (surprise, surprise, I know). So I was looking forward to the Cluster 2 meeting. I knew going in that I shouldn't expect much in terms of a good, value-based debate. I've written about this particular problem previously. As such, I expected participants to focus on factual disagreements (this course of action will destroy the neighborhood v. it will not; balancing FRL rates will not reduce the achievement gap v. it will likely make a significant contribution toward reducing it) and challenging ambiguous concepts (a mile walk isn't truly walkable v. many people walk that distance to school regularly OR FRL rates are a good indicator of economic integration v. they miss many salient features), rather than substantive deliberation about underlying value-disagreements.

Admittedly, it is hard to deliberate about values and ends, particularly with people we barely know in only about an hour. Still, I did think that it would be possible to work with my table to find middle-ground solutions that, for the most part, would allow us to support each of the most important underlying values of both sides in the argument. So, I went into the meeting with the goal of getting our table to discuss ways of accomplishing economic integration at the same time as preserving, at least, a small perimeter (say, 0.3 miles or some such) around a school.

Our table of six began the discussion at the either/or level. At least 2 people, me included, took the position that the second iteration of the Cluster 2 map was better than the status quo, and we'd choose it over the status quo, whereas at least 2 people seemed to take the opposite view. After realizing we weren't going to get very far with this fundamental disagreement, we started entertaining concerns that could be addressed while still accomplishing each of our goals. I'm not sure what we ultimately accomplished, but I was relatively pleased with how the table was able to identify the benefits and the challenges of the Cluster 2 map while looking for ways to improve upon it without sacrificing economic integration. I believe it also allowed us to see, albeit darkly, what our value-disagreements really were.

In the absence of quality, value-based deliberation, I think this sort of middle-ground thinking is about the most we can hope for. I believe it is better than continually reiterating one disjunct of the either/or: either this particular proposal or the status quo. We truly have nothing to talk about if that's our approach. Furthermore, it allows us to see what is valuable and good in our interlocutor's position, even if we ultimately think that position misguided. People who disagree probably have noble intentions, just as we do, and they are most likely no more evil than the rest of us.

Of course, I also recognize that there comes a time, and it should happen very soon, when a decision needs to be made. I think Nicholas Johnson's post gives insight into how that decision ought to be made with deliberate expression of the values and goals embodied in the policy, and with a clear awareness of which ones are most important in our social context.

Postscript: Here are three reconstructed, value-based arguments that I heard last Thursday at the Cluster 2 meeting. Note that none of them interact with the others except at the level of supporting different final conclusions about redistricting. Furthermore, I believe that the relevant factual and conceptual elements in each argument can be sufficiently established and clarified (respectively). I have my own opinions about the relative weights of these values, but we would do well to address them as expressions of a difference in values rather than as an expression of malfeasance.

Policies should respect individual choices and personal preferences. Many families have made choices about where to live based on the school currently associated with that area, and I would not choose to redistrict us now because of the disruption it would cause us. So, I will continue to support the view that it is wrong to redistrict my family.

Socioeconomic imbalances in our schools result in great differences between our schools in terms of academic resources, parental involvement, teacher-workload, and so forth. Any difference is only justified if the difference benefits those members of our society who are least well off (i.e., the poor and those with special needs). The differences resulting from socioeconomic imbalances benefits those who are most well off and harms those least well off. Therefore, we should redistrict to better balance socioeconomic levels.

Being able to walk to work, to school, and to shopping is a crucial value in order to promote environmental sustainability. It is good to promote activities and ways of life that help our environment rather than harm it. Since redistricting in the manner suggested does not help our environment, we should not do it.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Budget Cuts: Short-term symbolic gestures and long-term sustainability

There has been significant discussion of the impending budget cuts for the Iowa City School District (ICCSD). A summary of the budget cuts are found here. I don't have much to add to the discussion about these budget cuts. The district is in a difficult situation -- partly its own making and partly the result of years upon years of the state not providing increases in the budget that matched or exceeded cost of living changes.

As I understand it, these budget cuts are a result of two major factors: first, the ICCSD has been giving raises to teachers and staff that regularly exceed the increase offered by the state in a given year -- referred to as supplemental state allocation (SSA) or "allowable growth". Second, this trend had not resulted in programming cuts because the ICCSD was receiving various grants to compensate, and those grants have been eliminated. 

Because of this situation, I don't see a great alternative to what the administration is proposing right now. My only suggestion is symbolic in the short-term, but gives a pattern for long-term sustainable growth. That is, I'd suggest that the administration make an immediate change for its non-union employees (to include central administration employees at the very top and on down) to only receive a cost-of-living raise equivalent to the mean of the allowable growth percentage for the last five years. From what I understand, there was a 4.5% cost of living adjustment across the board in the ICCSD last year, and I'm suggesting based on the last five years, assuming my figures are correct, something more like a 2.1% cost-of-living raise. I realize that this change will be rather minimal in its budgetary impact now, and it probably would be insufficient to save any of the programs slated to be cut. Nevertheless, it is a good symbolic gesture to the community and it creates a more sustainable pattern for future raise increases. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, I think it could provide some justification for adopting a similar, sustainable model for all teachers and staff. 

To be honest, I really hate to express that view -- our teachers and staff deserve better. They deserve raises that approximate, at the very least, the annual cost-of-living increases. But I don't see a way to accomplish that in a sustainable way without more regular and larger increases in allowable growth rates. That's why I think it is probably best to tie cost-of-living adjustments to the allowable growth rate in some fashion. Of course, I am completely and utterly ignorant about how negotiations with the respective unions tend to go, so my suggested model may be fraught with challenges from the beginning. 

A slight variation of this model -- and perhaps one that benefits employees in the ICCSD that are least well off -- is to have employees that receive salaries above the median (or those above the 75% mark?) salary for all full-time district employees receiving cost-of-living adjustments equal to the mean of the allowable growth percentage for the last five years minus 1 percentage point, and the amount of money saved by that change could be used to further boost raises for those at or below the median (or those at or below the 75% mark). I think this proposal would be more just and fair than a set percentage for all, but I suspect it would be harder to implement.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Operational Efficiency #7: Ten Tentative Conclusions

Based on my previous posts, here are ten tentative conclusions that I've drawn:

1. It is important to think critically about operational efficiency, particularly the way the data is presented and the conclusions drawn from it. Board members and citizens have, in some cases, drawn erroneously conclusions based on a misunderstanding of what the data indicates.

2. Bigger schools do tend to do better in terms of operational costs than smaller schools, but there are a significant number of exceptions particularly as schools reach 300 students or if smaller schools used mixed-grade classrooms effectively.

3. We need to pay better attention to when new administrative help is needed to run a larger school. There are some elementary schools where an Assistant Principal is hired, and more that have School Administrative Managers. At whatever point we decide that this extra help is needed, it will cut against the operational efficiency of a school. Financially, it may make more sense to stop just before reaching this point. It would be helpful if there was greater clarity about when the decision to add more school administrative help occurs and on what basis. I think this is a good reason that operational efficiency is more mixed between 300-student schools and 400+-student schools.

4. If a school has at least 300 students, the number of exceptions to (2) grow a great deal. The likely reason is that if a school has 300+ students, then it likely has a sufficient number to fill two classes in every grade in a sustainable way. Nevertheless, the cost of having 300 person schools is that class sizes will sometimes be lower and sometimes be higher than we might prefer, and having these types of schools likely means that the district shouldn't respond unless the class sizes are grossly out of line.

5. If a school has fewer than 300 students, then it probably makes the most sense financially (a) to share some administrative and support positions with other smaller schools and (b) to have mixed-grade classrooms (with appropriate training and support for conducting those classes well). If mixed-grade schools are unacceptable for academic reasons, then that is a significant mark against having schools with fewer than 300 students.

6. We should control for the use of special education and at-risk funds. The "total cost to operate" a school can be useful, but it is seriously and egregiously misleading when it is compared to the per student general education allocation. Furthermore, the use of special education and at-risk funds is largely a function of board and administrative decisions (e.g., the location of Hoover's autism special education classes), and it is deceptive to compare the overall operational costs at such schools with schools that need few resources in those areas. There are various ways to control for these costs, as I discussed previously, and we should pay attention to how its done. We also need to make it clear to the administration and the board that this needs to happen when it's not done.

7. We need to be skeptical of the ability of new schools to offer a savings, even over some of our least efficient schools, at least in the first five years of the school's existence. Sometimes the total cost per child information has been used to make it seem as if they do better than they do. But that has been because of a low proportion of special education and at-risk funding at the school.

8. The $500K figure for opening a new school is not the amount that would be saved by closing a school. That figure depends on the relative operational cost of a school and other factors. The $500K figure is useful because it tells us that we need to prepare for our newer, likely to be inefficient, schools.

9. The operational efficiency of a school depends on much more than simply its size. The demographics, income levels, administrative decisions, and so forth play a much greater role than is often presented to the public.

10. Before proposing the closure of a school on operational efficiency grounds, we need to consider ways to have it become efficient (which doesn't just mean expanding it.).

Prior Posts in the Series:

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Operational Efficiency #6: Won't we save $500K by closing a school?

Over the next couple of days, you very well may hear ICCSD administrators or school board directors assert that it will take $500,000 to operate our new elementary schools beyond the instructional costs. This figure is based on the projected salary of a principal, librarian, guidance counselor, building secretary, media secretary, custodian care, and utilities cost. The estimated new cost to the district is around a half a million dollars. The way that this figure ought to be used is to address the inefficiencies of our new schools when they come online (see my earlier post comparing our smallest schools to our newest, bigger school for some evidence of this fact). That is, since they will likely hamper our ability to be more operationally efficient in the short-term, it is a good idea to accumulate some unspent spending authority sufficient to, at least, cover the new cost to the district of operating a new elementary school.

As I mentioned last post, spending authority is the amount the district is allowed to spend in a given year. If the district does not spend the full amount, they are allowed to carry over the difference between their total spending authority and how much they actually spent as a one-time rainy-day type fund. We will need those extra funds when our new schools come online, and it is a good idea to prepare for it in the coming year(s).

Some, however, go well beyond this use of the $500K figure. They argue that, since each elementary school costs approximately $500K to operate beyond instructional costs, that we'd save $500K just by closing schools and consolidating those students into other school. I have heard this argument used by school board directors and local citizens, but it simply doesn't bear up under scrutiny.

I've heard that argument applied to Hills. It is said that if we just closed Hills and moved those students to another school that we'd save $500K. Unfortunately, Hills has only $250K that it spends on non-instructional expenses. Some of those -- media, custodial care, and utilities costs -- would likely be needed at other schools to accommodates those students were Hills closed. With regard to Hills, the $500K figure is actually more like $200K. 

What about another school? The $500K figure has been tossed out with regard to Hoover's planned closure too. In fact, the operational cost saving was presented as one of the justifications for closing Hoover. But the figure doesn't apply to Hoover either. In order to show this with the 2012-2013 data, I assumed that the 364 Hoover students were distributed to the surrounding schools -- 100 to Longfellow, 100 to Lemme, 100 to Lucas, and 64 to Mann. Doing this would save the district money on by eliminating the need for Hoover's administration and most of its media services (staff) but it probably wouldn't significantly affect utilities or custodial costs. The bigger schools that would be needed to accommodate the Hoover students would probably make utility and custodial costs a wash. Under this scenario, I examined how much the district would probably save. The total amount spent on administration and media services at Hoover in 2012-2013 was approximately $275K. So, one might think that the district could save that much by closing Hoover, but that wouldn't quite be accurate either since Hoover is significantly better in terms of operational efficiency than 3 of the 4 schools that its students would be moved to (Longfellow is the exception). Thus, by my calculations and assuming that every Hoover student was moved to one of these other schools, the district would save approximately $191K. Of course, if a few students opted to switch to another neighboring district (e.g., West Branch), a private school, or home school because of the change, then the amount saved goes down even more. 

So, to make a long story short: use the $500K figure the way it was intended. It doesn't tell us how much we'd save by closing a school. It tells us what we need to save to pay for our (likely to be inefficient in the short-term) new schools.

Prior Posts in the Series:

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Operational Efficiency #5: But shouldn't we close Hills for the sake of operational efficiency?

Given the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) is concerned about budget shortfalls and saying that "Nothing is off the table" with regard to budget cuts, I've been discussing how the ICCSD calculates, analyzes, and evaluates operational costs. This post is the fifth in my series; links and short descriptions of prior posts are at the bottom.

Numerous school board members have previously expressed how costly it is to run Hills Elementary. It is the smallest elementary school in the ICCSD  at an enrollment of 101 students for the 2013-2014 school year, and it had an enrollment of 108 students in the year I have been examining (2012-2013). Furthermore, as many may have surmised, no matter how the numbers are parsed, Hills currently has the worst operational efficiency in the district. It is also something of an outlier compared to every other school in the district. 

Still, the way the district ordinarily presents the operational costs is misleading. Likely because of generational poverty within the boundaries of Hills, it has, proportionally, some of the highest special education and at-risk funding in the ICCSD. So, if you hear district administrators' say that it costs  $10,000+ per student, they aren't controlling for these funds as I've suggested they should.

Nevertheless, that doesn't mean that Hills is operationally efficient by any measure. When I control for these costs and evaluate the amount of funds provided for ordinary school operations from the general education budget (see my prior post for a discussion of what I mean by this), Hills, at best, has a per student operational cost of $5,964. It is slightly more than $1,000 per student compared to the next most expensive elementary school in the ICCSD.

Based on this information, the operational efficiency argument for closing Hills seems well supported. And that is the conventional wisdom. 

There are a few things that still concern me, however. First, the $5,964 figure is still slightly below the $6,018 allocated for each student in the 2012-2013 school year. In other words, it is Hills' need for special education and at-risk funds that results in it "losing" money.

Second, it could very well be the case that closing Hills Elementary would result in the district losing significantly more money than it loses by operating Hills Elementary. How so? In the 2013-2014 school year, the ICCSD is losing 91, 52, and 10 students to the Mid-Prairie, Highland, and Lone Tree school district's respectively. That's a total of  153 students, and losing those students costs the district over $900K a year. I'm worried that we could see a significant number of the Hills community follow this trend taking their kids to other school districts. The only way closing Hills really saves money is if a sufficient number of those families decide to send their kids to another school in the ICCSD rather than sending them to another school district. Otherwise, closing Hills could very well result in a net loss to the district.

Third, the ICCSD has not sufficiently attempted alternatives to closing Hills. My previous post comparing two of our other small schools, which are well over a 100 students larger than Hills, suggest that if Hills had another 100 students, it could probably be run, especially with combined-grade classes at least as efficiently as some of our other schools in the district. The district should consider ways to make that happen. I wonder what a public Montessori, or a progressive public charter, like this one might do to help Hills. I'm not sure if it would improve the situation, but it important to consider these possibilities and to try something before making a decision that could have significant unintended consequences. An attractive Hills Elementary could be an effective way to draw back a number of families who have left the ICCSD for those other school districts.

Fourth, this post has only been an evaluation of the operational efficiency argument for closing Hills. It is an important one, but there could be academic and social reasons for keeping it open that trump this argument. 

Previous Posts:

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Comparing Seven Schools
Part 3: Comparing 2 of our smallest schools to our newest, larger school
Part 4: A deeper discussion of the rationale for controlling for special education and at-risk funding

Friday, April 4, 2014

Operational Cost #4: How to control for special education and at-risk funding?

I've been doing a series on operational costs in the Iowa City Community School District  (ICCSD). Part 1 gave an introduction to my methodology and general approach, Part 2 discussed 7 of the ICCSD elementary schools arguing that 4 smaller ones were significantly more efficient than the larger ones, and Part 3 compared the newest school with two of the smallest schools in the ICCSD -- and the newer school didn't fare so well.

A concerned reader has argued that I am distorting the numbers. The problem, according to this reader, was that I was inappropriately controlling for special education and at-risk funding. As I argued previously, there are three separate funding categories for general education, special education, and at-risk funding. The state allocates a certain amount per student for general education purposes (that figure was $6,018 for the 2012-2013 school year), a different amount for special education depending on the needs of the students in the district, and another amount for at-risk funding (which is only funded at 75%, so 25% comes from the general education budget). The reason I wanted to control for special education and at-risk funding is that it is misleading to compare the $6,018 figure to how much a school costs to operate in general. It doesn't take into account the sources of those funds.

Why is it important to take into account the source of funds? The primary challenge our district has financially is not the ability to raise funds. Rather, it is a problem in being allowed by the State of Iowa to raise funds. In other words, the primary limitation is related to spending authority. The idea behind spending authority is that it ensures that all students in the State of Iowa basically get the same type of education -- and wealthier areas don't get more funds simply because they are from a wealthier area. And that's a good thing.

For the most part, ICCSD's special education funds and 75% of its at-risk funds come from sources that don't count against the spending authority related to the $6,018 figure. Furthermore, they are not a true measure of how costly it is to operate a school. Rather, they are a measure of how costly it is to operate that school given certain decisions about special education and at-risk funding that the district has made.

But why should we control for these funds? It turns out that special education and at-risk funds aren't equally distributed at all in our district. I know what you are thinking! Surprise, surprise! So, to really compare our schools apples to apples, we need to control in some way for this variance.

Now, my well-informed and well-meaning reader was concerned with my method of controlling for these other funding sources. In short, I had zeroed out special education funds and at-risk funds for all 19 of our elementary schools. This concerned reader argued that this isn't the best way to control for those sources and it advantages the smaller schools. I thought there was something to my interlocutor's point, so I crunched the numbers a bit more.

In my first attempt, I took the mean of all 19 elementary schools special education and at-risk funds, and I put that amount in for each school. Under this way of controlling for those external funding sources, larger schools tended to fare better. They had a larger base to distribute that average over and they did quite well because of that. Here is the graphical representation of the data:

A few notes: first, we need to be clear that the cost per student here is a way of representing the total cost to run a school and it should not be compared to the $6,018. So, it loses some of what warrants the zeroing out strategy I used previously. Second, this approach is arguably problematic because it acts as if special education and at-risk costs should be distributed evenly across the district. But doing that would result in smaller schools having a disproportionate number of students with special education or at-risk needs.

Thus, I came up with another way to control for the external funding sources. I took each of our 19 elementary schools enrollment as a percentage of total enrollment, and I allocated exactly that percentage of the total elementary special education and at-risk funds to each school respectively. Here is the graph for that data:

As one would expect, the result was representationally, virtually identical to my initial portrayal in Parts 1-3. So, you don't have to click back, here is that graph:

In other words, if you allocated special education funds and at-risk funds in our district according to enrollment, the comparative operational costs rankings for all of our schools would be all but identical. I think there are good reasons for (a) distributing those funds by school enrollment rather than acting as if the best way to control for those costs is by equally dividing it, and (b) there is a good reason for zeroing them out, particularly since it doesn't skew any comparative evaluation of our schools and the benefit is that it gives us a pretty good comparison of how much each elementary school costs our general education fund. The only caveats that I should make here are twofold: first, at-risk funding does affect the general education fund and it is a bit misleading to not include 25% of it here. Nevertheless, we still need to find some way to control for that with something like my second graph. Furthermore, our district has a so-called special education deficit. That means that we spend more in special education than we receive from the state. So, I could see how it would be helpful to distribute those excess funds across all schools as well. But once again, that graph would give the same comparative rank of our schools as the 2nd and 3rd graphs above.

In short, I thank the concerned reader for bringing a possible oversight to my attention; but my considered reflection is that it my initial portrayal along with my 2nd graph above (understanding the limitations of both) gives an accurate picture of the comparative operational costs of our 19 elementary schools in 2012-2013.