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.


Chris said...

Thanks for that post, Karen. My two cents: If the district really wants to help the kids and families who have the greatest needs, it should make a better effort to seek out those families and listen to what they have to say about what they want for their kids’ education. Maybe that will mean some diversity-driven redistricting, but as you point out, it can’t mean only moving kids from one school to another.

Unfortunately, our district seems incapable of soliciting input from parents and the community without trying to finesse it toward some predetermined end. At the last school board meeting, I lost count of the number of times I heard the phrase “starting with the end in mind” – that’s a little piece of business-school jargon that they should leave behind when they’re soliciting community input. Instead, they should start with an open mind, hear what people’s actual concerns are, and then work to respond to them. If they do that, they might find themselves confronting some of the issues you raise in this post.

ARR said...

Excellent post. I saw the power of "direct instruction" in my own classroom. As a "whole language" teacher, I was wary of the Saxon Phonics/Math programs my district adopted. I quickly saw that systematic, repetitive and explicit instruction was much more beneficial to my low SES students than a more holistic approach. I'm frustrated that we have wasted 2 yrs. debating a poorly written policy, when we could have been discussing real ways to make our schools more equitable-high expectations, teacher training, direct instruction and parental education/resources. I, too, agree with Chris about including in the conversation the very families that would be affected by any changes we make. I am from the Deep South and this kind of authoritarian decision making would never be allowed. Frankly, I'm surprised that it is happening in Iowa City in the year 2014.

Anonymous said...

Chris - you are dead on with "our district seems incapable of soliciting input from parents and the community without trying to finesse it toward some predetermined end."

A majority of the district - including parents from both high and low SES schools have said don't bus kids all over just to make numbers look better, and yet that is where some on our board want to go.

There are real reforms that could make more progress on the achievement gap than just a shuffle of the cards in the deck. Simply moving a child to a different building doesn't do anything for that child - just makes the numbers look better for the district.

Unknown said...

Chris, you and your readers may be interested in these links related to an equity project to be discussed at tonight's ICCSD school board meeting:

Unknown said...

Readers might also be interested in yet another palisadesk comment regarding research about whether kids from low vocabulary homes learn vocabulary from other kids from high vocabulary homes at school (which has been suggested as a benefit from proposed rebalancing of schools):

"Most of the available research suggests that children in school do not learn much vocabulary from each other ( even the conversation of university graduates contains a very low percentage of complex or low-frequency words). Children’s books contain a very high percentage of complex and “rare” words — several times as much as informational TV, adult conversation, or adult general information magazines. Comic books also have a high percentage of advanced vocabulary.

If no active intervention occurs, schooling merely ossifies the vocabulary gap, and does nothing to reduce it. Interactive reading aloud to children, especially preschool children, has shown empirical results, maintained over time, and some explicit teaching protocols and practices are also promising."