Monday, July 21, 2014

Issues matter more than résumés

The school board appointed Oliver Townsend Sr. to fill the vacant board seat tonight. On the plus side: First, Townsend has an impressive résumé, including a term on the board in the 1980s. Second, the board did not appoint the incumbent who was voted out just last year, though some board members appeared tempted to.

Still, what a strange process. Although the applications for the position told us about the experience and qualifications of the applicants, they told us virtually nothing about how the applicants stood on important issues before the board. Yet that lack of information is exactly what the board members seemed to find appealing about Townsend’s application. Several board members talked about the importance of making a “neutral” choice, and avoiding candidates who “have some politics tied to them.” The board members also seemed determined to choose a candidate who would not run for reelection, so as not to give anyone a “leg up.”

If the board members were reluctant to impose their own policy preferences on the vacant seat, that’s admirable. But that’s not a reason to impose unknown or arbitrary policy preferences. If the board members were genuinely concerned about not overstepping their bounds, the sensible alternative would have been to hold a special election.

(I don’t know whether any board members talked individually with the applicants. If so, they may know more about Townsend’s politics. But if that’s the case, then their portrayal of the appointment as “neutral” is disingenuous and just for show.)

The whole discussion seemed to highlight the weird way in which school issues are treated differently than other governmental issues. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had impressive résumés; is that all we should want to know about them? But when it comes to school issues, there’s a strange reluctance to admit that people can disagree. The board members sometimes act as if good government is just a matter of getting everyone on board for the “right” solution, and as if education is too important to leave to “politics.” (Wars, the economy, our survival on the planet, fine—but not education!) I find that stance—and the accompanying emphasis on “unity”—just bizarre. The school board is a democratically elected body that governs a public school system funded by taxes. All of its decisions are political, as they should be. School governance requires making choices among conflicting values. How do we help anyone by pretending otherwise?

In 2013, we finally had a school board election in which candidates took clear stands on some important issues. Surprise—there were actual disagreements, and voters wanted to know about them! It turns out that not everyone wants to vote for school board candidates based solely on résumés and platitudes, without any discussion of where the candidates stand on important issues. Why do our board members want to?

Friday, July 18, 2014

Guest post: Equity in Practice

[Always happy to present another guest post by Karen W., from Education in Iowa. This is Karen’s second guest post on the topic of how curricular choices can raise equity concerns; the previous one is here.]

School board and community members debated redistricting and differentiated funding as a means to reaching the goals of the district diversity policy last week.

No doubt redistricting will be required to make substantial changes in the demographics of the district’s schools and differentiated funding might help improve academic achievement, depending upon how it is used.
However, it seems to me that there is something inherently unfair about shifting disadvantaged kids around only to keep doing to them in their new school buildings what wasn't working for them in their former school buildings.

That is, if shifting kids around is all we do, we may achieve something approaching equity on paper—school buildings with less variation in demographics than we had before—but we’ll fall short of equity in practice, which will require not just a disruption in the status quo about which kids are assigned to which buildings, but also a disruption of the status quo of universal curriculum and instruction.

Admittedly, this will be an uncomfortable conversation in a district where we like to say that all of our schools are excellent—without specifying for whom—but if diversity and equity are truly a priority, we are going to have to dive in and have this conversation, not just now, but as a part of the conversation around ongoing decision making about day-to-day operations of the district.

Apparently, it offends local sensibilities to offer comment or criticism without having a detailed solution in hand. Frankly, I have more questions than answers, but in the interest of starting the conversation I offer (without endorsement) the following ideas about what equity in practice might look like.

Equity might look like more art, music, and physical education. But not in math class, where equity might look like more explicit instruction and Singapore Primary Mathematics.

Equity might look more like Core Knowledge reading and less like balanced literacy.

Equity might look like a reduction in special education services (due to improved effectiveness of universal instruction, not through ignoring the needs of students, please!).

Equity might look like increased diversity in extra-curricular activity participation, even at the high school level, which means equity might require reinstatement of 4th grade strings and 7th grade football.

Equity might look like rethinking technology use and internet filtering practices at school.

Equity might look like an acceleration policy that serves kids in regular education classrooms through appropriate subject matter and whole grade acceleration rather than in exclusionary pull-out programs at the elementary school level.

Equity might look more like the low-SES school described by Kitchen Table Math commenter palisadesk here:
However, I’ve never seen the attitude that seems to prevail in upper-SES schools, even in my district, where responsibility for kids’ learning the basics is offloaded to the home. It was hammered into me from the get-go that it was MY responsibility to teach kids the things they needed to learn, not the parents’ responsibility (which in many cases they did not have the resources to do anyway). It helps that the families in general support a more instructivist stance and expect us to be hammering the foundation skills. We allocate 20 minutes daily across the grades to structured practice of math skills. Counting, math facts, metric conversions, fractions, formulae—depending on the grade. Our math results are better than those in some of the middle-class schools, which I find interesting. We are doing something right.

Even so, it is an uphill struggle because many kids need far more instructional time than we can provide, and issues like absenteeism, frequent moves, family crises and hunger do affect kids’ learning no matter how well we can teach them. But I haven’t seen the following in any of my schools for over a decade:

1. movies shown during instructional time

2. “art” projects in reading or math. No dioramas, foldables, posters etc.

3. “discovery” learning. “Guided discovery” is a bit different—in a science activity, students might be led through a series of steps to “discover” something (really, to observe it) and detail their observations, but they aren’t turned loose with stuff and expected to “discover” something.

4. “group” work with the exception of leveled groups for reading and math; when not directly taught by the teacher the groups will have individualized seatwork or follow-up assignments.
And here, in response to another commenter’s hypothesis that low-SES students in high-SES-area schools should be worse off than those in low-SES schools:
I think this may well be true, for several reasons. As Allison explained, the low-SES kids don’t have the outside tutoring/afterschooling etc. that higher-income families routinely provide, and they tend (this is a generalization) to respond poorly to unstructured learning situations, which much “group work” and “exploratory learning” seems to be. They haven’t got the resources at home or school to do artsy projects, may not have access to a computer or the Internet (or even a telephone!) at home, may have other responsibilities after school, not be able to afford field trips and school clubs/sports etc.

A previous school I worked at was in a neighborhood separated by a large city park from a very wealthy area of manicured million-dollar homes. The school for that neighborhood served these very affluent families, who comprised most of the enrollment, but on the edge of the neighborhood, bordering a freeway, there was a smallish public housing project. The children there also attended this school. So you had the very poor and the extremely rich. The school got allocated some extra special education staff for the “project” kids, but both socially and academically those children were isolated and tended to be academically unsuccessful. A top teacher from my school transferred there a few years ago and tells me that the great divide is still present, and the school does not have the kind of supports low-SES kids need.

For example, at my school the library has been kept open after school for parents and children to come in and use the computers for research, skill practice, homework and so on. Even though math facts are taught, many children need much more practice than can be given in class; we recommend some online sites for practice and pay for some sites where children can practice reading skills online (about 40% of our students have internet at home). Teachers also proved tutoring and support over the lunch hour and run academic clubs like math clubs and spelling clubs to reinforce basics in an engaging way.

Upper-income schools don’t, in my experience, provide this kind of thing. Their students are leaving after school for Little League, swimming, horseback riding and gymnastics. Our students are leaving to care for younger siblings or help mom and dad at the bakery.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Distaste for democracy

Our school board members are apparently determined to fill the board vacancy by appointment, rather than by holding a special election. This is a defensible stance, but I think a disappointing one, for the reasons I discussed here. The seat can be filled in only two ways: by the incumbents or by the voters. Letting the voters choose is the more democratic, less self-serving option.

What’s especially interesting is that the board is also apparently determined to choose someone who will not run for re-election. This means that not only will the seat be filled by appointment, but the appointee will not face any democratic accountability for his or her actions while on the board. We’re supposed to see that, somehow, as doing the public a favor.

I know there are arguments to support both of those choices, and reasonable people can disagree. But there seems to be something about school governance that leads officials to gravitate, when given a choice, to the less democratic option. Education seems to touch some chord of discomfort or distaste that people have toward otherwise fairly ordinary features of democracy. Somehow there’s always a good reason for setting them aside.

Good opinion piece by Hani Elkadi here.