Monday, December 17, 2012

Equity: Thinking Beyond Facilities (Guest Post)

Intra-district equity is about to become a hot topic here in Iowa City, as the school board appears on the verge of approving an equity policy aimed at balancing out socioeconomic disparities among district schools’ student populations. I asked Karen W., who frequently comments here, for her thoughts about how curricular choices might also raise equity issues. This is her response.

The upcoming Revenue Purpose Statement election gives the community another opportunity to revisit the issue of what equity requires with regard to facilities. Certainly every child deserves to attend school in a well-maintained facility that is not overcrowded. And it is hard to argue with the notion that each school in the district ought to have similar amenities (air conditioning, technology, library collections, and adequate playground equipment, for example). Whether equity requires new buildings or upgrading current facilities, and whether equity requires adjusting attendance boundaries to balance student demographics, are issues that need to be publicly debated and resolved by school board members.

However those issues are resolved, I hope that the public conversation about equity in the district doesn’t end with facilities because instructional and curricular decisions can also contribute to inequity within a district.

My husband had a conversation with a recently retired teacher (not from around here, by the way) about seeing more and more job applicants unable to sign their own names to job applications. The teacher, defending not teaching cursive, said that cursive is not needed in a world of computers and that teaching cursive “is a good place for parents to step up.”

Maybe being able to sign one’s own name is less of a hallmark of literacy than it used to be, although I wouldn’t personally gamble on that, so let us consider that a district might have a policy of not systematically teaching phonics or grammar, not requiring “rote memorization” of math facts, or de-emphasizing paper and pencil proficiency with traditional math algorithms. Having those policies does not make phonics, grammar, memorization of math facts, or paper and pencil proficiency with traditional math algorithms inessential to later success in reading, writing, and mathematics. But it does shift the burden to families to recognize that their children may need help in these areas and to effectively provide that help.

So when decisions like these are made, such as not to teach X or to teach X in this way and not that way, I think equity requires us to consider the consequences for children whose parents are either unaware of the need to “step up” or whose parents are unable to “step up” for any reason.

Dan Willingham, a professor of cognitive psychology, wrote about family investment theories and stress theories of why wealthier children usually do better in school than poor children, noting:
Many low-SES kids are not getting the cognitive challenge they need from their homes and neighborhoods, but neither are they getting the support they need.

To compensate, teachers should offer in the classroom what these children are missing at home. Much of this is what we’ve called human capital—academic knowledge and skills—which is the teacher’s bread and butter. It’s also well to remember that some of this knowledge, though important for long-term success, is not academic knowledge. It’s knowledge of how to interact with peers and adults, how to interact with large institutions like a school or a government agency, how to interact with authority figures, how to schedule one’s time, strategies to regulate one’s emotions, and so on. Some of this information is taught implicitly, by example, but much of it can be taught explicitly.

The research reviewed here also highlights the importance of a calm atmosphere in the classroom and in the school. This is obviously a goal that virtually every teacher shares—no one wants a chaotic classroom—but knowing that a child’s neighborhood and home might be noisy, crowded, and threatening makes the creation of a serene, joyful classroom all the more important. Kids in more chaotic classrooms show higher levels of stress hormones. Knowing the consequences of stress for cognition, and the potential long-term consequences to the brain, makes the matter more urgent.
When I look at the following charts, pulled from Iowa School Profiles (click to enlarge), it is hard to imagine that inequity in the district will be adequately resolved by focusing on facilities alone.

How much parental involvement do the reading, writing, and math programs used in the district require for a child to be successful? Do the programs exacerbate inequity within the district? Are there other programs that might make success less dependent upon the willingness and ability of parents to be actively involved with the child’s schoolwork? Are there other ways that the district and the community might more effectively support children to help them succeed in and out of school?

Thoughts about educational equity, facilities, the Revenue Purpose Statement, or district curriculum and instruction are welcome in the comments.


Chris said...

Thanks for that post, Karen.

And yet "parent involvement" is all the rage -- which manifests itself in Iowa City in the endless requirements for parent signatures on homework and daily planners, etc. (some of which affect students' grades), and in the assignment of homework to kids who are too young to do it well without parental assistance, and, as you point out, on the reliance on parents to supplement parts of the curriculum with work at home.

I agree that the more the district makes parent involvement an integral part of whether a student performs well, the more disadvantaged some kids will be. That was the main reason cited last month for why France was considering banning homework:

"The justification for this proposed ban? Inequality. According to a statement from an official at the French Embassy, 'When it comes to homework, the President said it should be done during school hours rather than at home, in order to establish equal opportunities.' Homework favors the wealthy, [French President Fran├žois] Hollande argues, because they are more likely to have a good working environment at home, including parents with the time and energy to help them with their work."

Will Iowa City recognize that homework is an equity issue?

KD said...

Great post by Karen W. Thanks Chris for posting it.

Why isn't there more recognition in the district of "stepping up" by some groups of parents?

I read this blog post which also ties into equity issues. I'm not sure that I entirely understand it, but I found it a bit troubling.

Chris said...

Thanks, KD -- Here is that link in clickable form.

Karen W said...

The P-C has an article this morning on the proposed diversity policy. Looking forward to comments.

My favorite quote, from Iowa City City Council member Jim Throgmorton: “The difficulty is that we cannot control in Iowa City what North Liberty and Coralville do.”

If Iowa City could just force the rest of us in line, there wouldn't be a problem. Right.

Doris said...

Hi, Karen W

I think you are unfairly taking Jim Throgmorton's comments out of context. Here is the full presentation from the newspaper below.

Iowa City Councilor Jim Throgmorton, also a professor emeritus of urban planning at the University of Iowa, said the school poverty disparities involve all of the communities in the school district, not just Iowa City.

“The difficulty is that we cannot control in Iowa City what North Liberty and Coralville do,” said Throgmorton, who has a Ph.D. in urban and regional planning. “Unless we can come up with a unified policy on a regional scale, we can’t achieve too much. ... It’s not obvious to me how the situation could be improved.”

Karen W said...

Doris--point taken--I should probably have read that as an expression of the magnitude of the problem.

Parent said...

Facilities are important. For example, my impression is that ICCSD utilizes mixed-age grouping throughout the district at the elementary level. It reached its extreme at Lincoln which (until recently) combined three grades together. Lincoln had to give up its ELP room and other spaces to finally get to combining two grade levels.

The key question is whether this decision was driven by pedagogical reasons or financial/political ones. My impression is that it is the latter, and it is related to the desire to have small, K-6 neighborhood schools (for some of residents).

This leads to a kind of "age diversity," which is thought to be not harmful, but it also likely increases economic segregation, which is what the diversity policy is trying to address.