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?


  1. Michael, I really appreciate these thoughts. As you probably figured, I'm in the camp of people who sees each school being ethnically and economically diverse as a good even separated from its more direct academic benefits. But I see the wisdom in the case you're making for tying measures of progress to academic achievement. More broadly, I applaud the overall case that you're making here. Since I was at the listening post last night, and the work session last week, I do want to offer a couple of notes.

    First, I think its a stretch to say that the Supt. offered a comprehensive plan for resource allocation. He did concretize what was meant by "resources" and outline broadly what some kind of weighted allocation could look like and what it could involve in terms of transfers from schools with more affluent demographics, as well as the limits (availability of classrooms for smaller classes, the need to leave some required positions at the more affluent schools even if the model says they should be transferred, etc.) on such a model. That was helpful. But I feel like the PC article is to some degree conflating the administration's proposal for changes to transfer policy, which was much more specific and could fairly be called comprehensive, with the information given about resource allocation possibilities. We won't know what we're looking at in terms of proposed resource allocation until the board starts looking at next year's budget, in December, and won't concretely know what that allocation would be until April.

    I find this a little worrisome because the new maps seem to do very little for bringing demographic disparities into balance now. For Cluster Two they leave all 4 of the schools South of Kirkwood Avenue (Twain, Wood, Hills, and Alexander) at around 72% FRL population, with the hope that new development around Alexander, and the domino effect from the moves to the East when the new Hoover opens up would provide opportunities for balance later. I fear that this sets us up for making only minimal and ineffective moves now, and then finding that the limits on resource allocation and future redistricting are too constraining to do much later, leaving us little at all to show for this process. Julie Van Dyke made excellent, incisive points about the danger that a funding model vigorous enough to accomplish anything might be yanked or diluted by "me too-ism." The Supt. repeatedly invoked people's desire to not see boundaries change as a shaping force in these maps without explaining why that would be any different in two years.

    I'm happy to see some kind of consensus--amazing for this board--emerging on the idea of a hybrid approach that combines redistricting with weighted resource allocation. And I don't want to let the perfect be an enemy of the good, especially if the good really is a step on the road to better. But, I'm wary of kicking the can down the road, since we might find that this particular road is a dead end, one that we could avoid by adjusting the course differently now.

    One thing that's hopeful: it was good to hear Supt. Murley say explicitly that "the best thing we could do, in terms of providing great educational opportunities for all of our students, would be to bring all of the schools in the district to the district mean" for FRL percentages.

    1. I find this comment very interesting, "The Supt. repeatedly invoked people's desire to not see boundaries change as a shaping force in these maps without explaining why that would be any different in two years." I wonder if there is ever a time when schools are redistricted that people DESIRE to see boundaries change. At some point, the district has to say, we are going to make changes that benefit students even if some people complain. Nobody likes change.

    2. Arial - No, the district most certainly does NOT need to say they are going to move people against their wishes. Even the guru of this balancing push talks about how important that it is that the movements be voluntary.

      Our board is making progress. Slow progress (with more buy-in) is a good thing. It may not be the immediate “perfect” you are pushing for, but it is something, and it has a much better chance for success.

      Part of the reason slow (with buy in) is better and increases the chance of success is that if you try to force me to do something I don't want to do, I will actively and passively resist. If it is within my means, I will simply not allow it to happen. If it is not within my means to avoid it, I will be resentful and not anxious to participate and engage in the new community. That doesn't seem like a great plan for success in our schools.

  2. The board packet is up, and it includes the proposed map for Alexander Elementary and surrounding school's attendance area. That starts on p. 165


  3. Eric: Thanks for the comment. I think we largely agree on the issues here. I'm worried about kicking the can down the road, too.

    I wonder if the administration had wide latitude and a specific goal in terms of making significant progress toward reducing the achievement gap by say, 2022, whether this is the proposal they'd be offering? The cluster-based proposal? Keeping Kirkwood, Hills, Twain, Wood, and Alexander with rather high FRLs now? Would they make additional suggestions for the FMP? Would they be less willing to use reallocation of resources as an ultimate solution? And so on and so forth. I don't know the answers to those questions, but to the extent that it is likely that the administration would have chosen a different proposal than the one currently on offer if it were given wide latitude, then I think the current proposal has problems.

    Good thoughts. I hope this is a conversation the board has or is thinking about tonight and beyond.

  4. Regarding the maps in the board packet: I have a hard time seeing how the collective FRL rate of Hills, Wood, Twain, and Alexander will go down in the aggregate. Those four schools are really just adding in Lemme's high FRL island, and they aren't gaining any low-FRL areas. The only way the FRL rate will go down, unless I'm missing something, is if the transfer students low-FRL rate is great enough to account for the addition of Lemme's island. This is assuming (a) that the transfer students are required to go to their attendance area school (the cost of this, for what it is worth is that you'll have 5-6th grade classes at Hoover that will likely be in the 18-20 range -- too big to consolidate into 1 class but very inefficient use of resources) and (b) that it isn't completely counterbalanced by the Lemme island.

    That sort of thing makes me wonder whether the administration really thinks that this is the best we can do, or is it the best they can do in light of all the limitations that have been added at various points in the process (e.g., clusters, and so forth).

  5. Yeah, really worry that its a shrug, (throws up hands) Oh well, we have wait on future developments (new housing, next school to come online) style map. It really doesn't reduce the aggregate FRL any worthwhile amount, it just spreads it out between those four schools more evenly. I tried to push Murley last night to concretize just how they would do this and whether they would then be willing to violate the seemingly sacrosanct Kirkwood line at Twain's northern border, but the answer, while helpful, wasn't too firm.

  6. One small comment: I'm not so sure the goal should be reducing the achievement gap (however measured) *between schools*. Evenly distributing high- and low-achieving students would automatically do that, even if it didn't improve the education of the low-achieving students at all. Shouldn't the goal be to reduce the achievement gap between *students* at the high and low ends? Or, more precisely, to bring the lower end up?

    More evenly distributing high- and low-achieving students may be one means of reaching that goal, of course. But I get a little anxious talking about a "school's" achievement, since any measure of it is likely simply to reflect an average, which could potentially mask great disparities within the school.

    I certainly agree, though, that "achievement" shouldn't be measured solely by test scores.

    1. Chris: The goal I specified was about the achievement gap (I made you say it!) between schools by bringing the bottom up. Unless I'm misunderstanding you, then evenly distributing high- and low achieving students wouldn't do unless it improved the education of the low-achieving students.

      While I agree with you about using averages to mask disparities within a school, that would likely occur if you talked about the achievement gap being reduced in per student level. And I think the use of non-standardized test results would allow us to suss that stuff our better.

      But the reason I chose "school" (with the bring the bottom up proviso) as the unit rather than "student" (with the same bring the bottom up proviso needed) is not all that significant -- still, here it is: a school, on the whole, can be doing rather well and still have students "at" the school who show little improvement. That is particularly the case, if the students change their school multiple time throughout the year, fail to attend regularly, and so forth. I don't know policy made by the school district can do much about those cases. But really, that issue seems small potatoes to me (so long as you have the proviso about bringing the bottom up).

    2. But I'm thinking that you could bring the lower-achieving schools up simply by redistributing students to move all schools more toward the average. Even if the lower-achieving students did not themselves improve at all, the lower-achieving *schools* would improve, bringing the bottom *school* up. That would mean the higher-achieving schools would show less achievement, of course -- but again, that wouldn't necessarily tell us anything about the performance of individual students in those schools.

      I don't think we're disagreeing in spirit, though.

      Yes, you did make me say "achievement gap," darn it. I don't doubt that there is a real gap in learning between students from low-income families (on average) and other students. But I do hate that phrase "achievement gap," since it seems designed to distract people from the root cause of the problem, which is poverty, and to treat poor kids (and the teachers at their schools) as the problem.

      I know that you're not using it that way. There are certainly good arguments to be made about how schools should deal with the problems associated with poverty. It's just that too many of them slip into the kind of thing you see here, with people arguing that we just need to teach those kids to use their grit! At some point, the whole discussion just plays into the hands of people who don't think the government should alleviate poverty at all.

      Government welfare policy is very capable of addressing the poverty problem directly, if only the political will were there. School policy is much less capable of doing so, yet that's what gets all the discussion. Whatever the merits of a school policy approach, it also inevitably serves to divert attention away from addressing poverty directly. That doesn't mean school policy can't do some good, but that's the main reason I'm so reluctant to use the term "achievement gap" -- not to mention that it almost always leads to reductive and harmful use of standardized test scores.

    3. No real disagreement with you, there. I was concerned about the use of test scores as the only measure of academics as suggested in the P-C piece. That's one of the reasons I highlighted the measurement issue here.

      As I've mentioned to you elsewhere, there isn't a single person in educational measurement (that I've heard of or met) who would suggest that you can measure how good a teacher, school, or district is by the performance of his or her students on a single standardized test.

  7. I'd say from my POV, and I am sure from Michael's as well, that yes, the goal is to reduce the achievement gap between students. Absolutely.

  8. Manipulating numbers-and remember that really means kids and families-has always been the "easy fix." It's the fastest way to show progress. But, as Chris points out, is it really progress? Does it address the real problems these kids face-hunger, lack of medical care, instability, readiness issues? We should be discussing the ways we can change programming, staffing and the home/school connection. My experience as a Kindergarten teacher in a low income area convinced me that this is a multi-layered issue with no easy fix.

    1. Anon 8:12: I appreciate your experience and service. I'm sure you know a great deal more about the on-ground experience than I do. Still, I'm not sure how your comment relates to my post. I was suggesting that we need to have the board set the ends and the measuring stick (which included hearing from teachers in my proposal), and have the district administration implement the best policy for achieving that. If they ideas or implementation are bad, then we look elsewhere.

      Furthermore, I'm not sure what you mean by "manipulating numbers"? I don't know anyone who is advocating that.

      I know people who thinking that programming and staffing alone are insufficient because part of problem is (a) what counts as normal at some schools (e.g., not caring about school, reading, and so forth) might not be normal at another school, which is related to a school's socioeconomic position,, and this does affect in-class performance, (b) the knowledge that the board and public have to make issues of particular matters at certain schools -- i.e., they tend to know more about schools and be attunded to the problems of those of affluence than those without, (c) the inability to keep teachers healthy (physically and psychologically) and able to care for themselves when they have extremely challenging working conditions and impossible goals to achieve -- which tends to increase teacher turnover and burnout at less affluent schools,and I could go on. Nevertheless, all of these issues would likely continue even if you had programming adequate food, proper medical care (and if you qualify for free lunch, then you should qualify for state child health insurance), and so forth.

      Of course, as I've argued elsewhere, I don't see why the reallocation of resources and socioeconomic integration should be seen as mutually exclusive. They aren't.

  9. If the district does succeed in reducing FRL disparities between schools, I do think it will still need to find ways to assess how kids from low-income families are faring -- as opposed to simply declaring "mission accomplished" and assuming that those kids will reap benefits from the new district lines. Even if redistributing students does help "achievement," it's not a magic bullet that will make all equity issues disappear. We've used FRL disparities between schools as the proxy for inequity for so long -- I agree that it makes sense to start thinking of other ways to assess whether we have an equity problem.

    I do wonder whether the district will ever get around to thinking about curricular equity issues.

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    1. Ask and you shall receive: https://www.facebook.com/tilleyedtopics