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."


  1. So you're running for school board, right?

  2. Thank you for your post. I don't agree with everything you say, but I do appreciate you contributing to the discussion. You mention PTO disparities in fundraising in your post and I've seen it brought up elsewhere too. Is there somewhere to find how much each school's PTO raises? I think real numbers could help people understand the disparity better.

    1. arial, Thanks for the good word. The best way to find out the actual disparities would be to contact PTA/O treasurers and ask for documentation. I'm not planning on doing that myself, but I do know that we at Hoover (not the most affluent, nor the least affluent) were able get commitments of a few thousand dollars in something like a day to fund a project Hoover is doing next year. I simply can't imagine that happening that quickly at Kirkwood, Twain, or Wood? It could be that my assumption is false, however.

  3. Arial - Along with the numbers, you might want to make sure you get some additional context.

    One of the schools that has raised a ton of money in the last few years was at the very bottom of the district for technology a few years ago and had to buy all their own Smartboards (the school had only 1 and wasn't eligible for any of the Microsoft money). They had a huge push for a technology fund. Also they have one of the smallest playgrounds in the district and have been raising money to work on that.

    That being said, I do fully acknowledge some schools do have a huge advantage in fundraising. It would just be a partial picture if you ignored the fact that they also have different things they have to pay for.

    1. I would be happy to consider any additional context. Do you know where I can find the PTO fundraising numbers for each school? Also, I was under the impression that all elementary schools in the district have to use PTO money for playgrounds, but maybe that is incorrect.

    2. Anon 9:39: Thanks for your comment and qualification. I agree that the ability to raise funds for things a school needs is a great thing. The only worry is that school located in less affluent areas don't have that ability. In other words, I think the issue you point out supports my overall point. That is, if we rely on such networks then it will benefit schools located in more affluent areas but not our schools located in less affluent areas. That's one way that the deck is stacked against our low-income students, since they tend to be concentrated in such schools.

  4. Further support for your position, Michael--during a state DOE review of our District (maybe it was Federal?) in 2007 or 2009, we were mandated to reduce our pockets of "racial and economic isolation" around Roosevelt and Wood, whenever we go through a redistricting process. People sometimes get the impression that the DP was entirely voluntary, but the District/Board are also reacting to external DOE pressure to deal with our pockets of high racial and economic isolation. DOE's are understandably very uncomfortable when the appearance of segregationist outcomes (if not practices) exist....

    1. Dan: I'm not familiar with the report. It's before my time (newbie here!). Do you have a link to it, or to an article about it?

  5. One thing people can do is tilt their giving toward the ICCSD Foundation, instead of toward individual PTOs. The Foundation can funnel money toward schools that need it most.