Old Adages

As always, lots going on in the ICCSD.  I’m still trying to process the BoE work session I attended on Tuesday.  I’m cautiously optimistic, although many of my allies are devastated.  I’ll try to write that up later in the week or on the weekend, but until then I want to post this editorial that I wrote that was published in the Press-Citizen today. First though, a (very) little context, not only for the editorial, but also for the board work session and for what I hope to offer on this blog in the coming weeks.

That context could begin at several points, but I’ll start with the Board’s decision to reject the administration’s proposed redistricting maps at the end of last spring.  Those maps made some hopeful moves towards economic desegregation, but they also, I think, put too much of the burden of transitioning to new schools on lower income families.  To some degree, the shape of those maps reflected the mandates of the Diversity Policy, although in several instances Superintendent Murley had been unable to meet those mandates and had asked for waivers from compliance.  They also reflected a number of limitation and specifications on how those goals were met, based on a series of public forums and an online discussion board.  The earliest entries on this blog reflect some of the discussions at the forums for Cluster Two, here on the Southeast Side of Iowa City, and some of the complaints I was complaining about there helped shape those last two maps for the worse.

So, where we are now: The board asked the Superintendent to come back with new maps that “improved educational outcomes.”  Michael Tilley here asked residents of the district to take a survey not aimed at articulating public opinion, but aimed at pointing those taking it towards articulating more clearly how they weighed the values inherent in making boundary decisions which might improve educational outcomes.  I intended over the summer to write some posts arguing out my own responses to those questions, but never did. I still intend to do that, but in the context of the newest maps, which I heard described at the work session, but still haven’t seen.  Those maps, and the Board’s evaluation of them based on yet another set of public input forums will have to be the subject of a future post.  In general, I’m pleased to note that the Board and the community at large seem to have recognized that we have a problem with minority achievement, achievement by children from families of lower socioeconomic status, and educational equity in the district.  I’ve advocated for this to be addressed largely by redistricting schools so that our district isn’t socioeconomically segregated, working towards the goals set out in the Diversity Policy.  [Michael Tilley has a very thoughtful take on the spirit and letter of that policy here.]   Others have advocated that this be addressed largely through sending “additional resources” to those schools with high concentrations of poverty.  Michael  Tilley (again!) does yoeman work here, making it clear that, especially in a district that’s recently faced huge budget cuts, this would be a transfer of classroom teachers, from the schools with the wealthiest demographic to those with the poorest, and he quantifies just what the scale of such a transfer would be, and offers thoughts on how the two approaches might be mixed.

So, in that context, a Ed Barker, a former ICCSD high school principal argued in the Press-Citizen last week that “If the schools aren’t broken, don’t fix them. Tweak them.”  I responded with a long comment, that I turned into a guest editorial that came out today.  I think of this, in some ways, as an argument trying to establish some very basic principles for the best  way to solve these problems.

For the sake of completeness, and because I love to embed links in text, I’ll add a link here to information about capacity, demographics, and planned renovations for the schools in the ICCSD. As always, I welcome questions or comments about any of this.

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Reading Ed Barker’s recent guest opinion (“If the schools aren’t broken, don’t fix them. Tweak them.”), I feel compelled to point out that old adages are great for starting conversations and anchoring short essays. They’re not so great as a basis for educational policy.

I’d respectfully ask the former West High principal to spend a week shadowing a teacher in one of our very high poverty schools (say one of the two where nearly 80 percent of the kids are on free and reduced lunch) before deciding the current system, where the real estate market determines a school’s demographics “ain’t broken.”

Can students get a good education at these schools? Yes, many can. But only because the teachers and staff shoulder tremendous, unsustainable burdens. I’d love to see what those teachers and staff could do for all the kids in their charge if we didn’t insist on economically segregating our schools.

I understand the temptation to try to just approach this by throwing money at the problem. But, here’s what happens when you try to “just add a few teachers” to the high poverty schools:

• First, you have to add enough to make the class sizes meaningfully small, say 15 to 17 at the kindergarten level. But since we get a fixed percentage of per-pupil funding to hire teachers with, this also means that we have to spend less on teachers at other schools across the district, meaning that class sizes there will go up significantly.

• Then, you have to keep doing this forever. Schools with high concentrations of families in poverty don’t just shift back on their own. In fact, they go the other direction, as No Child Left Behind policies encourage parents of means to seek other schools.

Are we really prepared to formalize and institutionalize a two-tiered public school system, with one tier for poor schools and another for affluent schools just because we’ve always done it this way?

Whole bodies of educational research show that kids perform better in economically balanced schools. This isn’t just moving the numbers around, its creating conditions where teachers have the time to give each student what they need, and its leveraging the fact that kids learn a significant amount of the basics of language from each other.

Children can enter kindergarten with as many as 30,000 words or as few as 3,000. Statistically, children in poverty are very likely to come in with the lower mark, and if three-fourths of a given class comes in with that lower mark, then social distribution and the teacher both have a lot more work to do.

Poverty creates barriers to educational success. Children who come in hungry, who come from families without a strong tradition of literacy, who don’t have the resources at home to find private tutoring or pay for private music lessons, whose parents are too busy working time-consuming low wage jobs to help with schoolwork or volunteer with school face serious hardship compared with other kids.

As Barker points out, we do have award-winning high schools, and high achieving students, but too many of our students from impoverished backgrounds and too many of our minority students are allowed to fall through the cracks.

Do all kids face barriers of some kind? Yes. But if a teacher doesn’t have a class where three-fourths of the kids are dealing with problems created by socioeconomic status, then all the kids are more likely to get the help they need with their personal challenges.

Are some kids able to just vault over these socioeconomic barriers? Yes, but when you insist on concentrating kids who face these barriers in the same schools, then vaulting over those barriers just becomes harder.

Do all kids in poverty face all of these barriers? No. No person or family is simply a marker for their socioeconomic status. But, statistically, many do face some combination of the problems above.

Are magnet schools or paired schools necessarily the answer? I don’t know. I’m glad that the School Board is proceeding cautiously on this and studying the idea to see if either of these approaches can help provide incentive-based desegregation and better educational opportunities.

I don’t know if those specific ideas will be appropriate for us, but I’m glad to see the board studying the problem rather than relying on old adages and comforting homilies to guide them as they begin the redistricting process.

Even more, I am glad that we are having a vigorous public conversation about the need to economically desegregate our schools, and that at least some, perhaps even all, members of our School Board seem to understand how critical this work is.

There currently are huge disparities between the economic populations of the schools in our rapidly growing district, ranging from 4 percent of the kids qualifying for free and reduced lunch in one school, to nearly 80 percent in two others. Did I mention that the district is rapidly growing? These disparities and the problems they create won’t fix themselves.

As difficult as it seems to find a solution now, it only becomes more and more difficult the longer we wait. We’re finally moving towards making the facilities that our kids are educated in equitable, and this process of expansion and new construction requires us to redraw boundaries anyway. There is no better time than now to redraw those boundaries in a way that better serves all of our students. It’s not going to get easier if we ignore it.