Thursday, September 3, 2015

New District "City High Preview" Displays How Efficient Hoover Is!

Thursday afternoon, a mere five days before the upcoming school board election, the Iowa City Community School District put out a "City High Preview" (click here). 

Methinks something smells foul--it is the timing? Maybe, but it is also the figures themselves.

Compared to a "300-person school," Hoover must be extremely efficient. Hoover's actual costs from 2013-2014 (not including special education, since that's not included in the figures in the City High Preview, and its categorical anyway and not from the general fund) were over $600K less than the 300-student school in administration's comparison. That is to say, Hoover's actual costs in 2013-2014 were $1,509,000, which was $611,012.19 less than the 300-student school. Whereas, the purported savings by having a 500-student school compared to a 300-student school was a a mere $861K (the total amount of the hypothetical 500-student school minus the total amount of the hypothetical 300-student school divided by 300 and multiplied by 500). That amounts to about a $100K savings for KEEPING HOOVER OPEN. How so? The 500-student school had a total cost of $2,672,162.31, divide that by 500 to get the per student amount, then multiply that by 300 to get $1,603,297. In 2013-2014, Hoover had 332 students and it only cost the district $1,509,000. So, that's a savings of almost $100K by keeping Hoover open.

See for yourself!

And for further irony, the 2013-2014 data may be a little higher than it was last year, since Hoover's guidance counselor went from being 0.8 time to 0.6 time (the salary of the person last year, who wasn't fulltime at Hoover was approximately $57K, so multiply that by 0.6, and compare it to $82K from the 300-student school).

Look, a case can reasonably be made that Hoover should close. But this is pretty far from it.

Monday, August 3, 2015

A Primer on the Arguments For and Against Closing Hoover


The Facilities Master Plan calls for City High to have 2 waves of expansions. The first wave is currently under way and it will add a 6 classroom expansion to the 3rd floor. Six classrooms is the equivalent of about 150 in added capacity. The second wave of the expansion will, if the general obligation bond passes, include another 6 classrooms, cafeteria expansion, library upgrades and expansions, and rebuilding of parking and athletic courts and fields if they are displaced by the new classrooms. City High’s total capacity will be about 1590 students after both waves.
Liberty High School will start with a capacity of 1000 students, and if the general obligation bond passes, it will have all its extracurriculars completed and a 500 student addition so that it will be a comprehensive high school with a total capacity of 1500 students.

West High will be updated, but will not be expanded. It has a current capacity of about 1680.

Hoover presently is scheduled to no longer have an attendance area starting in 2019. Hoover students will be redistricted to other schools, teachers and staff reassigned, and the building will be demolished to provide space, most likely, for the displaced parking, athletic courts, and fields.

New Hoover is scheduled to be completed in 2017 under current RPS funds but it won’t open as a stand alone attendance area until 2019. Longfellow, Mann, and Lincoln will use that building as they receive their renovations in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

Describing the Argument for Closing Hoover:

There are two key points in the argument for closing Hoover (I am summarizing largely from my knowledge of the situation, Superintendent Murley’s discussions with the Hoover community two years ago, and e-discussions with Jeff McGinness and Eric Johnson):

1. The district should strive, within reason, to have its three comprehensive high schools to have the same opportunities for all students. Having a greater number of students is correlated with increased offerings (more AP classes, more elective, etc.) and fewer classes that are outside of the “aspirational class size goals”. It would be a significant problem if City High had significantly less capacity than any other high school in the district, as it presently does. The second wave expansion addresses this problem, but the expansion will likely be built over the existing tennis courts, some parking, and/or the softball field. The three comprehensive high schools would have fewer differences between them if instead of moving those displaced facilities off-site to Mercer (or some other off-site location), they were built on the plot of land Hoover currently operates.

2. (a) The district is in the midst of a significant budget crunch because of increasing costs that exceed the amount of state-supplemental aid. The state isn’t giving enough money to sustain current educational practices. Although Hoover is not terrible in terms of its annual operational expenses, it will save a significant amount of money if it is closed. It would most likely save the cost of a principal, building secretary, media secretary, teacher-librarian, guidance counselor, custodian costs, and utilities/maintenance. The district averages for each of those costs will be approximately $650K next year. The actual costs for Hoover have not be distributed to the public, but the administration insists that the averages are sufficiently accurate with respect to Hoover.

(b) Because of recent budget problems mentioned above, the administration believes that opening three new elementary schools (Alexander, New Hoover, and Grant) without closing any will detrimentally impact the annual budget. As a result, the administration would likely recommend either closing another elementary school or stopping construction on another one. Under such a scenario, New Hoover very well might not be opened. Then the administration and board would have to reevaluate how the FMP could be completed given that the New Hoover building was crucial for upgrades at Lincoln, Longfellow, and Mann.

These two reasons are the drivers behind the decision to close Hoover, although occasionally other minor arguments are presented. This “perfect storm” of circumstances is thought to justify the closure of Hoover.

Rhetorically and politically, the first reason is presented as paramount. It is the reason the close-Hoover-plan was initially adopted as opposed to a plan that had fewer annual operational costs but that kept Hoover open. The reason that other plan was able to have fewer annual operational costs, however, was because Liberty High School would have been, in that plan, built to a capacity of 1200 students.

The operational cost argument, however, is the one that is harder to satisfactorily address for advocates of keeping Hoover open.

The Opposition to Hoover’s Closure:

1. Response to the Equity Argument:

(a) Doing the renovations at City High specified in the Facilities Master Plan (FMP) are not necessarily antithetical to keeping Hoover open. There is plenty of evidence of this ranging from the original plan that kept both of them open to the third plan presented in the last round of FMP updates where the Hoover structure remained as a pre-K campus, and the City expansions took place by trying to make an arrangement with IC for the use of parks that are close by City High (at least one as close at 200 meters, and the furthest would be Mercer--which is within that “safe walking distance” that Hoover elementary kids are expected to walk to the other schools).

(b) We know that City’s final overall capacity at the end of the FMP is actually less than the current student population at the school. The opening of Liberty and the redistricting will substantially relieve the current overcrowding and cramping.

(c)  We know that the first expansion of City High will have no impact on the current footprint of the campus. It is going up, not out. The second expansion will expand that footprint, but we don’t have a concrete idea of what that will be. From prior discussion with school administrators and Hoover parents, it was pretty clear that the thought was that the six classroom expansion would probably be around where the present tennis courts are. Thus, it was thought that it would displace tennis courts, perhaps some parking, and perhaps the softball field. Those who maintain keeping Hoover open have two options that they could feasible propose for City and keeping Hoover open:
(i) City could have close, off-site tennis courts and softball fields (perhaps just softball?). They could, for example, be at Mercer. Approximately half of the softball season is played during the summer, so having it off-site poses fewer problems with respect to access that other athletic venues would have.
(ii) City could forgo its second classroom expansion. In which case, it would have a total capacity of 1440. That is 60 students fewer capacity that what Liberty will eventually be, but it is less than the current proposed difference between City High and Liberty (with City High having greater capacity).
(iii) It may be possible to complete the expansion with very little displacement at City High. If so, the Hoover community would be furious if it turned out that most of the Hoover land was mostly left unused.

(d) The closure of Hoover may be detrimental to two population groups at Hoover.
(i) Harming autism classes. Special education costs associated with autism have been concentrated at Hoover for a while. Routine and regularity greatly help with such students. Moving a group of autistic students by closing a school is not ideal. This is, at most, a problem for a small number of students (13 or 14 if I recall) and that it would not be an on-going problem for new students.
(ii) The neighborhood that will be harmed the most by Hoover’s closure is the neighborhood south of Court St. and between 1st and 7th avenue. This is an economically mixed neighborhood, with some more affluent folks and some low-income folks. A large proportion of Hoover’s FRL population come from this area. You can determine that partly by housing prices, knowing a good number of people in the neighborhood, and most easily by looking at the FRL density maps that the district published a year ago. This entire area is, however, within about a mile of other schools. Still, it would likely be a hard walk for younger students and there is a greater risk of having transportation issues. That length of distance can be the no-person’s land in terms of district transportation for poorer folks. Too close to get a bus, but very likely to affect attendance under many circumstances.

Ultimately, those who want to keep Hoover open think that the equity argument may support keeping Hoover open.  

2. Response to Operational Costs Arguments

This argument is one of the more persuasive arguments for closing Hoover. The administration would go a lot further with that argument if they gave real data about how much it costs to run Hoover and how those costs would be saved by closing it. Instead of doing that, the district presents “average” costs for all of our elementary schools that doesn’t apply well to Hoover. Hoover has less costs than most of our elementary schools because some of its staff work less than full-time. For example, the counselor was only 0.6 time last year rather than the usual 1.0 time. It’s hard to quantify the operational savings, which there will be, given this lack. And it is hard to trust those numbers when the administration doubles-down saying the $650K figure is accurate with respect to Hoover when people point out this problem. But, if the accurate figure could add, say, 7 to 10 teachers to ICCSD (say, $500K), then that would be pretty compelling. There are two further points that Hoover defenders make with respect to this argument:

(a) The operational cost argument seems to suggest that many of our smaller schools should be closed. Hoover does relatively well in terms of operational efficiency, and there are many other schools where we would save more by closing them.

(b) Rather than closing schools, there are alternatives for cutting expenses that have not been sufficiently explored by the board or the administration. For instance, if Mann and Shimek were made sister schools with one campus serving K-2 and the other 3-6, then you would be able to have every class within the aspirational class size goals but have 3 fewer teachers (for the 2014-2015 school year) assigned to one of those two schools.  

3. Failure to address transition problems

(a) Hoover parents, even those who support closure, are concerned about the transition period. The administration is not doing an effective job of ensuring that teachers and staff at Hoover will have top consideration for openings available at Grant and New Hoover in 2019. This appears to be a departure, or at least the faculty and staff see it as a departure from Roosevelt’s closure a fews ago.

(b) The administration handles transitions with special needs children very poorly. It will likely do so again with Hoover, and Hoover has the highest special education costs in the district because of it has been an assigned school for some of the highest-need children in the district.

Tilley’s Two Cents on the two reasonable positions for candidates to take:

1. Maintain the FMP as is unless there are significant enrollment, budgetary, or other such changes that would address the reasons for its closure.

2. Commit to reexamining the FMP as it pertains to Hoover. If keeping Hoover open can be done without sacrificing the overall goals of having relatively well-balanced high schools and without forcing future increases in class sizes and/or programming cuts, then keeping Hoover open will be explored.

Under either scenario, if Hoover closes, prospective board members and the administration should work diligently to address the transition problems and to listen carefully as new transition challenges arise. They should also explore other financial options to come up with alternatives in the future so that more elementary schools need not be closed for financial reasons.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Eternal Return: Educational Justice Policies

Proposed Equity Statement--Policy and Engagement, 4/7/2015
Superintendent Directions--P&E, 4/7/2015

The Policy and Engagement Committee is considering a number of proposals that are related to educational justice: (1) An equity policy, (2) directions to the Superintendent about attendance areas, and (3) weighted resource allocation as a remedy for educational justice concerns.

I think the spirit that animates these policies is good (see here). It proposes, roughly, that we want the district to fix the unjustice already in our system (and not make it worse).  I also appreciate that board members, at least some of them, are thinking of a multipronged approach to solving the issue--e.g., boundary changes and weighted funding.

Last October, I wrote an Guest Opinion for the Press-Citizen. I argued that the board had failed to make good decisions that involves value judgments, and I included examples of a couple of policies dealing with educational justice matters. I said that the board needed to have a frank discussion about educational values and its commitment to certain ones over others in order to properly guide the administration. It still hasn't really had this discussion, and I fear that the board will simply repeat some prior mistakes.

Some past mistakes that I fear may be repeated in these policies:

Problem: Relying too much on the slippery notion of equity

Our community has a slippery notion of equity (as I've discussed here) I know that certain board members have a more concrete idea of the concept that is similar to what I mean by "educational justice." But backdooring this conversation won't do. The idea needs to be spelled out. I think the concrete idea being employed by some board members is something akin to John Rawls' difference principle that inequality is only justified if it benefits our most vulnerable students ("least-advantaged" in Rawls' language). And our most vulnerable students (in no particular order) are those who face significant barriers in education including, at least, low-income students, English-language learners, racial minorities, students who qualify for special education, and high-need general education students.

That's a much more concrete notion, and I think it is one that our community would largely support.

Solution: Tell us what you mean instead of using code words like equity. Tell us that you think equality is best, unless it can be demonstratively shown that inequality benefits our most vulnerable students. Lower class sizes for schools with a higher proportion of our most vulnerable students is one way that inequality could benefit our most vulnerable students.

Problem: Not addressing conflicting values

A weighted resource allocation model is primarily intended to lower class sizes and place other academic support in place to help vulnerable students. But the board hasn't amended its aspirational class sizes, which undermine this strategy.

Here's what I've written about that policy:

"In late 2013, the board approved what it called "aspirational class sizes." It gave the administration the directive to keep class sizes below a certain threshold for each grade level. This school year the administration used those figures to determine class sizes. This use of the aspirational class sizes was not accompanied by a clear articulation of how this single value relates to our other educational values.
Should we have the same class-size standard for a third grade class with 18 students in poverty and one with no students in poverty? Thus, the administration decided that it would implement the aspirational class size policy without regard for school demographics. As such, this policy could very well become a mechanism to harm those who are least well off in our district, resulting in further injustice and inequality, and possibly doing more harm than good."
I make the same general point about conflicting values in my more recent piece on discretionary busing.

None of these policies discuss how the implicit values should be ordered and ranked. None of them address how conflicts between them should be decided. Ultimately, the board can decide these matters on an ad hoc basis, but that will do little in the way of actually freeing up the administration to be a creative partner in proposing ideas to achieve the intended goal.

Solution: Deliberate about the values implicit in these discussions. Rank-order them with an aim toward guiding the administration's policy implementations.

Problem: Not having a clear measure for evaluating success

The proposed equity policy indicates that its goal is to reduce the achievement gap. Yet it gives no measure of how that will be evaluated. If we can't determine whether the policy is successful, it will be a bad policy. I think the administration will implicitly take the policy to be about increasing test scores, and I think that would be a mistake. I've discussed this previously:

"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."
Solution:  First, make it explicit that you are going to evaluate the policies in terms of academic achievement, particularly for our vulnerable students. That's only suggested by the proposed wording in the equity policy.  Second, set up a standard to hold us accountable for actually making improvements in reducing the achievement gap.

Dictating too much about how to accomplish the goal

Although a weighted resource allocation policy and an equity policy illustrate a preference for a multipronged approach, I worry that it repeats the mistake of the past by overspecifying the means. Our goal should be to free up the administration to be a creative partner for reducing the achievement gap. With these policies, will the administration experience that freedom? Perhaps, but I'm concerned that it won't.

Solution: Focus on the end desired, and the measure for evaluation. Let the administration find the best means to accomplish the goal. (I suspect it will involve weighted resource allocation, boundary changes, and a host of other strategies, but we shouldn't be heavy-handed about the means at this point.)

In short, I hope we won't make the same mistakes this time. Let's talk about these weighty matters, and let's empower the administration to tackle them.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Secondary Boundaries: Implicit Value Judgments

I've been reflecting on the secondary boundaries offered from the administration in the 2nd and 3rd rounds of deliberation. I have heard a number of criticisms that the maps are driven primarily by an attempt to bring about socioeconomic integration.

I think that is a misunderstanding. Here are some of the value judgments present in secondary maps (alphabetical order):
  • capacity (have balanced use of capacity at junior highs and high schools; e.g., the percentage of capacity used at City High should be relatively close to West High and Liberty High)
  • demographics (have balanced demographic characteristics, e.g., race, socioeconomic status, English-language learners, and special education students)
  • geographic proximity (assign each student to schools are that are closer in walking/driving distance, rather than further away, from that student's residence; this is at the root of the controversy about "islands")
  • pyramid feeders (have a pyramid feeder system from one distinct set of elementary schools to Southeast Junior High, another distinct set of elementary schools to Northwest Junior High, and a third to North Central Junior High)
  • school size (have approximately the same number of students at each of the junior highs and at each of the high schools)
  • straight feeders (have a straight feeder system from North Central Junior High to Liberty High, from Northwest Junior High to West High, and from Southeast Junior High to City High)
Each value judgment mentioned is playing a role in the secondary maps the administration and board is pursuing. I think most of these values are well-founded and based on strong evidence. There is strong evidence that capacity, demographics, geographic proximity, and the size of a school affects academics. We can debate about the relative importance of these values, and we should. BUT, we are missing something that is puzzling to me if that's all we see here.

My question: why are we so committed to straight feeders and pyramid feeders? Many of the most puzzling features of the maps could, at the very least, be minimized if we drew junior high boundaries based on capacity, demographics, geographic proximity, and school size without regard for straight feeding our high schools, and having a pyramid of elementary schools feeding into it. Geographically, we have our current junior highs in strange locations. Two are in the northwest part of the district, and one is in the southeast part, despite the fact that approximately 40% of the district is east of the river, and at least 60 or so percent of the district is in Iowa City. That makes it challenging on its own to balance the four central values with our junior highs. How much harder are we making it with our feeder requirements?

Likewise, I think the puzzling features would be minimized even further if we drew high school boundaries based on the four primary values without regard for a straight feeder from a specific junior high. It's a lot easier to see Twain going to West than to see it go to Northwest. Likewise, it may make sense for Kirkwood to go to Liberty High, but it is rather strange that it wouldn't go to the junior high right next door to it (Northwest Junior High).

One of the reasons this is so puzzling to me is that the pyramid feeder system plus the straight feeder system has no known or purported academic benefit. Yet those two values are the only ones that the board hasn't considered abandoning. The closest they came was when Director Kirschling requested the administration to give maps akin to what I've suggested. The administration never proposed any map that broke the straight feeder system from junior high to high school. The closest they came was the "as the crow flies" map and the "municipality" map proposed in the second round.

The "as the crow flies" map was simply absurd on its face. It looked at geographical proximity in terms of sheer distance without regard for capacity, demographics, or school size, and the geography was considered without regard for geographical boundaries of any type. It violated every single value above except the straight feeder value. 

Likewise, the "municipality" map wasn't really considering the four values of capacity, demographics, geography, and school size versus the feeder models.

I hope the board will request that the administration make separate junior high and high school maps. As it stands, the administration and the board appear to place a higher priority on the feeder system than they do on any of the more important values that pertain to academic matters. Those are the central value judgments being expressed in all of the maps presently considered. I think that's a mistake and the board should reconsider it. At the very least, they should have information that shows how such a proposal would pose few, if any, benefits regarding capacity, demographics, geographical proximity, or school size.

UPDATE (3/20/2015): The board commissioned research about feeder patterns last year (see here). First, I don't see a definitive reason in it to prefer our current feeder model if the alternative is superior in terms of the four-other values. Second, the report applies research that is primarily about student mobility (repeatedly changing schools during high school and the like) and "transitions" (i.e., 8th graders going from junior high to high school, versus 8th graders staying in the same school when the 9th grade is at the same location) to feeder models. On a quick glance, I saw very few studies talking about feeder patterns, and one of the studies that did note advantages to a linear model (which is not our model) noted that its small sample size may affect its statistical significance. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

On the Administration's Proposal to Modify Twain and Hills Boundaries

The ICCSD administration has proposed that the School Board approve revised boundaries for Hills and Twain (starting on page 227). It takes a neighborhood that is presently assigned to Twain, was going to be reassigned to Hills, but under the administration's recommendation would continue to be assigned to Twain. Two primary reasons are offered for this:

First, the administration believes that it will help a relatively low-income area by keeping it at Twain. It is suggested that this will be better insofar as it provided a stable school situation for the community in question. and for properly utilizing buildings at Hills and Twain respectively.

Second, it will keep Hills from being overcrowded, which likely would have resulted in temporary buildings be used at Hills. Furthermore it would keep Twain from having too few students--which would likely have resulted in increased costs and/or hurting peer-to-peer collaboration by reducing the number of teachers at Twain (or both).

I think these reasons are important and should figure heavily in our decision-making procedure. What I don't see, however, is a consideration of whether this change moves us in the right direction toward addressing educational justice concerns arising from socioeconomic imbalances. That is, will it exacerbate Twain's challenges by increasing its population of low-income students? I know the district shouldn't talk directly about FRL rates at this point, but it should at the least be able to answer whether this will make matters worse than the redistricted approved by the board just a few months ago? My guess, based on the demographics of the area in question, is that it will lower the percentage of low-income students at Hills while increasing it at Twain. Perhaps I'm wrong about that?

But if I'm not, then perhaps it would be wise to consider alternatives that would accomplish the administration's goals while also addressing the much more significant worry that this proposal make educational justice worse in our district.

For example, might it be helpful to consider making Twain a sister school with Longfellow. Sister schools would have one of the campuses serve lower grades (K-2/3) while the other campus serves the upper grades (3/4-6). Here are the benefits, as I see them, from making Twain and Longfellow sister-schools:

Distance and Busing: Longfellow and Twain are a walking distance of 0.9 miles and a driving distance of 1.1 miles from each other. Twain and Longfellow already both have a significant number of students who are bused to both schools (Windsor Ridge for Longfellow and a large subsection of Twain's students), so it wouldn't likely be a significant change in that respect especially given the close geographical proximity.  

Educational Justice/Poverty: Based on rough calculations based on last year's FRL rate, the combined FRL rate of the two schools would likely be less than 50%. Next year with Twain's redistricting, it would likely be lower (perhaps not, however, with the Hills/Twain change?).

Class sizes: When you combine the two schools cohorts by grade level, you would be able to reduce the number of classes that exceed or are under the district's aspirational class goals. This year, there were 4 classes at the schools that were over the class size goals, and there were 4 that were well under the class size goals. Under a sister-school system, none of grades would have any classes outside of the aspirational goals. You would have 25 students in first grade classes at Twain, nor would you have 25 students in second grade classrooms at Longfellow. Furthermore, you would haven't 18 students for 5th and 6th grade classrooms as we do this year at Twain.

Here is how the sections might have broken down this past year had Longfellow and Twain been sister schools (the class sizes would be slightly smaller next year given Twain's redistricting):

K: 5 sections of 19
1: 5 sections of 22/23
2: 5 sections of 22/23
3: 4 sections of 25/26
4: 4 sections of 24/25
5: 3 sections of 27
6: 3 sections of 28

Saving Money: Pairing Longfellow and Twain as sister schools this year, would have meant that the district could have had the class sizes outlined above while having two fewer teachers assigned to those schools. Those teachers could have been reassigned to lower class sizes elsewhere, or they could have presented a significant operational cost benefit to the district. And as the budget will be tight again this next year assuming the budget increased as proposed, we need to think of how we can save more money.

Capacity: The district has projected, under their proposal mentioned above, that Twain would probably likely have no more than 240 students. That would put Twain at exactly 62 students under their building capacity next year. Fortuitously, Longfellow was exactly 62 students over its building capacity this year.

Academics: One of the methods that the district's SINA schools and high-FRL schools are using to address educational justice concerns is peer-collaboration. This method has proven to be extremely effective, and having a larger cohort of teachers in each grade level would likely result in improvements here.

So, why not take what the administration has proposed, and be more forward thinking about how to begin addressing, in part, some of the larger problems in our district regarding educational justice and finances.

*I also think that a possible pairing of Shimek and Mann would make a great deal of sense as well. See my Facebook post about that, if you are interested.