Monday, March 19, 2012

What does equity mean?

I promise this won’t become A Blog About Redistricting. As KD pointed out in the comments to the last post, the redistricting issue has been talked to death, and seems to have distracted attention from other issues, including issues about educational philosophy, about how the kids are being treated, and about what the kids are learning, which are more the focus of this blog. But before returning to those issues, I want to add a few thoughts to my last post about the idea of building a new school on the far east side of Iowa City.

One issue that arose in the comments is how the creation of a new neighborhood school would affect Twain Elementary, which has a particularly high percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunches (“FRL”), an indicator of the number of low-income students. Twain is not the only school with relatively high FRL numbers, but it’s a good example of one, so the potential effect of a new school on Twain raises broader issues about how our community will treat the educational needs of lower-income kids.

It can be challenging to talk about that issue, especially in terms of a particular school. On the one hand, people might reasonably point out that a school with a higher concentration of low-income families faces certain challenges that other schools don’t face, and might reasonably ask the community to address those challenges. On the other hand, pointing out those challenges can lead people elsewhere to perceive the school as having more problems than it actually does, and those perceptions can then make it harder to address the challenges it has. Anyone who has contact with Twain – families, teachers – agrees that there are a lot of good things happening there.

The district’s latest boundary proposal would try, at least a little, to lower the FRL percentage at Twain, by shifting some children from higher-income areas into that attendance area. As an effort in that direction, it seems as good (or as bad) as any. The Twain families, at least judging from the comments of their PTO president, seem to think it would be good for the school. But the petition to build a new elementary school on the far east side appears to have been triggered by those proposed boundary changes.

I strongly sympathize with people’s desire to have their elementary-age kids go to school close to home. I certainly don’t think wanting a neighborhood school makes you a bad person. I love that my kids can walk to school without crossing a street. But it remains true that the concept of neighborhood schools is inherently in some tension with the goal of making a school like Twain more socioeconomically diverse (because our neighborhoods, alas, are not socioeconomically diverse). It’s hard to see how building a new neighborhood school in a relatively well-off area can do anything but undermine the effort to reduce the concentration of lower-income families in the Twain attendance area.

Maybe the community is so fond of neighborhood schools that it’s unwilling to use boundary changes to address the challenges represented by high FRL concentrations. If that’s the case, then I think the community ought to address those challenges in other ways. And whether we have sufficiently addressed them should depend on what I would call (for lack of a better name) the Indifference Test: Assume that the demographics of the high-FRL schools are unchanged. What would it take to make people indifferent between a high-FRL school and another, equidistant school with a different demographic profile? How many additional resources – diverted, necessarily, from other schools – would it take before people would start to say, “Hey, maybe my kids would be better off at Twain”? Very small classes? More teachers available to give one-on-one help? Newer, higher-tech facilities? Free after-school care? How much would it take before the number of families asking to transfer in equaled the number asking to transfer out, and the number of families looking to buy houses in Twain equaled the number avoiding it?

We may not have the collective will to significantly reduce Twain’s FRL numbers through redistricting. But if we can’t satisfy that Indifference Test, then we’re really resigning ourselves to the idea that the quality of a child’s education should depend on what part of town he or she lives in, or on how much money his or her parents have. If we fall short of satisfying the Indifference Test, it means we’re choosing to give the kids in better-off neighborhoods a better education, just because we can. Judging from the reaction to the redistricting proposal, we’re nowhere near satisfying that test now. When the petition comes along that proposes that kind of solution, I’ll be all ears.


julie vandyke said...

"When the petition comes along that proposes that kind of solution, I’ll be all ears."

Make that petition and work towards that goal instead of waiting for someone else to do it...

Chris said...

Julie – If your point is that I’m an imperfect messenger, I plead guilty. There is a limit to the time and energy I’m willing to put into school advocacy, and I reach my limit much sooner than you reach yours. Again, I’m not making any apologies for putting only so much time in, in my own way, and no more.

But the merits of the message are independent of the messenger.

Chris said...

I should add that all of the arguments in this post apply – with even greater force – to the idea of building a third comprehensive high school. Anything that puts a large part of the district off on its own, sheltered from the problems of other parts of town, ought to be accompanied by a real commitment to address those problems as if they belonged to all of us. It shouldn’t just be a matter of whether capacity concerns justify the expense (which, in any event, they may not).

Unknown said...

"But it remains true that the concept of neighborhood schools is inherently in some tension with the goal of making a school like Twain more socioeconomically diverse (because our neighborhoods, alas, are not socioeconomically diverse)."

Why is socioeconomic diversity even a goal?

Chris said...

Billy – I’m sure there are arguments that we should pursue socioeconomic diversity for its own sake, but in this post, all I mean by it is “not creating a heavy concentration of low-income families in one school,” because I do think that putting a lot of economically struggling families in one school puts a strain on the school’s resources that other schools don’t have to deal with. Isn’t that why people aren’t indifferent about whether they’re assigned to Twain? Again, maybe people aren’t willing to solve that problem by increasing the socioeconomic diversity of the school, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem, or that we shouldn’t address it in some other way.

Chris said...

Here's an argument that no amount of resource reallocation would have the same effect as redistricting would have.

KD said...

I agree with the spirit of this post.

As far as my comments on the other post, there is no doubt that the business of the school board does include redistricting and growth issues. I guess where I grow tired of the debate, is people wanting something very specific and not being willing to compromise, like I thought many of the people in the third high school debate were. Some of the voices in the third high school were quite specific in what they thought the district should be providing...I'll be turned me off a little.

I think I followed most of the talk about the third high school from the start....which happened long before the redistricting consultants were ever hired. I was never a big fan of Lane Plugge. However, from what I could tell he did spend considerable time developing plans to manage future growth. Nothing he presented was 100% satisfactory to those wanting a third high school. Not sure if i have said it already, but the eastside elementary debate is sounding a little like the third HS debate.

I understand the desire to have a third high school...I think it is unrealistic that it can happen without some sort of sacrifice or reallocation of resources though.

LAB said...

This is an interesting topic, and does in fact tie in with your coverage of PBIS and similar problems with certain public schools.

We live in a "good" middle class school district with only a small percentage of students receiving FRL. Due to the oppressive, authoritarian nature of this school (and other schools in our immediate area), we were advised by several people to consider seeking out a "high poverty" school for our kids. The point was that uptight suburban schools like ours crack down on every little thing kids do because every student is expected to be perfect (don't want anyone bringing down those test scores!). It was suggested that teachers and administrators in some "high poverty" schools might be more flexible with students, especially those with special needs. Schools with more FRL kids are used to, well, different kids. They know their student population is varied and has varied needs, and this can supposedly lead to a more forgiving, supportive environment. I don't know if this is actually true in practice, but it's something to think about.

We attempted to move into the city to put our kids into an urban neighborhood school with high FRL. Alas, until things improve in real estate, we can't sell our suburban house. Naturally, the whole reason we bought this suburban house was so our kids could go to "good" schools. The irony!

Jason T. Lewis said...


Thanks for this post. You bring up a lot of interesting ideas. I've noticed as this redistricting discussion has gone on, there has been a lot of numbers referenced, supporting many different ideas. I fear that numbers sometimes obscure the kids and teachers in the actual classrooms. We as a community should not let that happen.

As for the socioeconomics (a word I don't like because of it's connotation), it's also imperative that we remember that research shows that balancing the FRL numbers doesn't only help the FRL student; balancing the FRL number has shown to provide a more positive educational experience for ALL the kids in the classrooms. So, balancing the Twain numbers would help 100% of the kids in the Twain classrooms, not just the aforementioned 71%.

And in talking with the teachers and administrators at Twain, reallocating teachers or resources is not what our schools need. Twain has great resources, both in manpower (personpower?) and facilities, and families should want to send their kids there.

I'll use the few suggestions you referenced in your post to highlight:
1. Very small classes? Yep, Twain classes are really pretty small. I don't have the numbers in front of me, but I'd guess they're nowhere near some other school. I know there are 22 4th graders this year.
2. More teachers available to give one-on-one help? Yep. My daughter has received one-on-one help from teachers in and out of the classroom. She fell behind a little in reading early on and Twain's staff recognized it in kindergarten, put her in a reading recovery program and now, as a second grader, she's reading books on the 5th and 6th grade level.
3. Newer, higher-tech facilities? Absolutely! Our library computer lab has about 20 new-ish iMacs. Every classroom has a computer and a smartboard. Twain's technology is one of the best in the district, as far as I know.
4. Free after-school care? Well no, but 3 out of 4 ain't bad.

I should also point out that in discussions I've had with many parents, they have indicated to me that they themselves were FRL kids when they were young. I was. That's why the word "socioeconomics" seems so slippery. It indicates "other," when that's not always the case. We've all worked very hard to become the people and parents we are no matter what our income level, and no one begrudges anyone the opportunity to advocate for their position. It's my hope that I can be a positive voice in this process.

I have more to say on this and will have a piece running in the Press-Citizen tomorrow. But suffice it to say that, while there will never be a perfect solution for everyone, considering equity and equality in all the classrooms is extremely valuable...for all the kids in all the classrooms.

Chris said...

Jason -- Thanks for chiming in. For better or worse, we both seem to be acknowledging that most people will not support being redistricted unless they think it is good for their own kids. So I can understand why you want to make the point that Twain has a lot of strengths, and that people should see it as a place where their kids can get a better education than they might in a less economically diverse school.

I’m easily persuaded that there are a lot of misperceptions about Twain, but at the same time I think it would be a mistake to assume that people’s resistance to the redistricting proposal is based entirely on misinformation or that people are being irrational about their own preferences. For one thing, it puts you in the position of arguing that a 71% FRL rate is so high that we should do something about it, but that no one should be deterred by a 54% FRL rate. Second, if people really do put a high value on having a neighborhood school, I don’t think that you can ever empirically prove that kind of value judgment wrong, or that they should want something else instead.

I guess I see the appearance of the petition as just one more indication that this community is unwilling to depart significantly from the neighborhood school model to balance FRL numbers. My only point in this post is that if people are going to insist on having more neighborhood schools, they should be prepared to pay a price that would make up for the effect that that has on the ability of a school like Twain to address the issues that go along with having a high FRL rate. I don’t think the price is being fully paid in the current situation, or would be fully paid under the scenario envisioned by the petition.

Just a mom said...

My daughter attends Twain and it is a good school, with great staff!
My son attended Irving Weber School when it was first built. He is now 21. I can honestly say that Weber or Twain or whichever school they are all created equally great! I could go on in detail, but mainly I just want to say the idea of building another school when we have viable buildings makes sense. When will Iowa City start walking the walk and not just talking the talk? Unless there is money falling from the sky, let's use the buildings we have and be a COMMUNITY. Thanks for listening!

Just a mom said...

Oops...that should have read...
building a new school when we have viable buildings DOESN'T make sense. Again, just my opinion. Thanks.

Chris said...

Just a mom – Thanks for commenting! I agree about using viable buildings. I think we can all agree that we wish we had more space, and that eventually we will exceed our current capacity; it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should start the process of building a new elementary school. Sometimes, when you don’t have as many resources as you would like, “making do” for a while, or looking for less expensive, more temporary solutions, is what you do.

I still think that the ultimate measure of whether we’re doing right by a school is people’s willingness to send their kids there. It’s hard to say, “This school is so good you would naturally choose it for your own kids,” while simultaneously saying, “so we’re going to use redistricting to make you send your kids there against your will.” Anyone who is convinced that Twain is the best choice for their kids is already free to transfer in, yet many of its seats are unfilled. Any realistic solution has to involve recognizing and grappling with people’s actual preferences, whether they appear rational or not.

I think a more forthright argument would be to say, “This might not be the school you would choose, but it’s not so different that it should concern you very much, and you should be willing to sacrifice your first preference for the sake of the greater good.” Even then, though, it’s hard to force the solution on an unwilling group, given that people can still open-enroll out of the district or choose a private school. The more coercive the solution is, the more people’s resistance is likely to undermine it. Diverting more resources toward the school isn’t just an alternative to bringing down FRL numbers; it’s a possible way to persuade people to choose the school, which might work to bring down FRL numbers.

Chris said...

LAB – That’s an interesting point, and there's probably something to it. On the other hand, sometimes it seems like lower-income schools bear the brunt of the most authoritarian, education-as-solely-job-training trends (as described, for example, here and here). When I complain about our school’s approach to discipline and behavior, our district usually responds that those practices reflect district policy that applies district-wide; I think that’s overstatement, but it’s true that PBIS, for example, does appear to be a district wide program.

Chris said...

KD – I agree about the need for compromise. The worst possible result would be one that gives one part of town everything they want (either because they’re a numerical majority, or because money talks) while completely ignoring another part of town’s concerns. The best possible result is some kind of collective compromise. I think it would be completely reasonable to insist that any plan to build new schools should be accompanied by a commitment to address the needs of schools like Twain. That would be true even if the argument for a new school was completely compelling, which I’m not convinced it is.

Chris said...

Here is Jason Lewis's Press-Citizen piece about the petition.

Allison said...

A compromise might include taking high school redistricting off the table. You might find tremendous support for some or all of the current petition if that were to happen.

Chris said...

Allison -- Thanks for commenting. I was thinking of a compromise between people who want new schools and people who want to alleviate the effects of FRL concentrations. The latter concern seems to remain unaddressed (and probably worsened) by the compromise you’re suggesting.

Chris said...

I agree with a big part of Jason Lewis’s piece – that proposals to address building and capacity issues should also address the effects of the high FRL rate in schools like Twain and Grant Wood. But I think he and others who are making that argument are leaning too much on two ideas: (1) that assertions about what “research shows” can ever persuade anyone if they’re not accompanied by careful, methodical discussion of the underlying research and how it shows what it claims to show, and (2) that the quality of a child’s school experience is susceptible to empirical measurement and does not depend significantly on non-empirical value judgments. As anyone who has read this blog for a while knows, I can’t agree with either of those premises.

So far, the argument that the proposed redistricting will benefit all the affected kids does not seem to be persuading the families who would be transferred from Longfellow to Twain. It may succeed, though, in persuading people in the rest of the district not to feel bad about making a relatively small group of families change schools against their will to alleviate this genuine problem. That would put Twain in the position of hoping that most people will evaluate the proposal differently than they would if they themselves were affected by it. Is that something to hope for? It’s a double-edged sword, after all: it’s easy to dismiss the concerns of Twain, too, if you happen not to live in that attendance area.

Arguments based on appeals to self-interest only make it easier for people to act in self-interested ways, and not to imagine themselves in someone else’s shoes. It’s hard to see how that can help Twain.