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.