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.