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?