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.