Defining equity

7:48 am

The biggest problem with Carole Smith’s “equity administration” is that no leaders in Portland Public Schools are willing to define a base level of curriculum that every child is entitled to, in every neighborhood school.

This is fundamental to working toward equity.

Without this definition, district leaders are free to talk about equity at every opportunity, but can avoid actually taking meaningful steps toward it.

Equity immediately achievable

This much is true: it is immediately possible, with available funding, to offer equal educational opportunity in every neighborhood school, simply by having kids go to school in their neighborhoods.

I’m not talking about cookie cutter schools, or replicating programs like Benson in every neighborhood. I’m talking about every child guaranteed an education with a common K-12 core curriculum, ideally including library, music, art, science, math, language arts, social studies, health and world languages.

This is what our neighbors in Beaverton get, through a combination of an extremely strict transfer policy, relatively large schools, and a clearly defined core curriculum. You can walk into any neighborhood school in Beaverton and find a common level of what PPS calls “enrichment,” regardless of the income level or ethnic makeup of the neighborhood.

Contrast this with Portland, where schools vary dramatically, and race, income and address are the best predictors of the kind of opportunity available to students.

We don’t need 2000-student high schools to do this, but we clearly can’t do it in 600-student high schools with the existing funding formula.

While the size of Beaverton’s schools may rankle many idealists, I personally would rather have a large institution with smaller and more classes than a smaller institution with larger and fewer classes.

Details can vary, of course. But we must have a centrally-defined core curriculum, or we will never see equity. And we need to return to neighborhood-based enrollment to achieve the economy of scale necessary to pay for this.

Baby steps not working

Ask yourself how much equity we’ve gotten since it was declared the “over-arching” goal of current leadership.

So far, the “baby steps” approach has seen continued enrollment drains and FTE cuts in our poorest schools. There has been neither talk nor action on addressing the enrollment drain, i.e. the transfer policy, or the FTE cuts, i.e. the staffing formula.

Our schools continue to become more segregated, with dramatic differences in curriculum between white, middle class schools and poor and minority schools. These differences become especially stark and intolerable at the secondary level.

Poor and minority middle school students are disproportionately likely to be assigned to PK8 schools, where they are more likely to be deprived of libraries (nearly a third of PK8 schools completely lack library staff) and the kind of curriculum breadth available at comprehensive middle schools, where white, middle class students are more likely to be assigned (and which all have at least some library staff).

This pattern continues in high school, with white, middle class students generally assigned to comprehensive schools with broad curriculum, and poor and minority students overwhelmingly assigned to “small schools” with far less opportunity.

District leaders refuse action for fear of alienating middle class

By taking the transfer policy off the table, leaders seem to have convinced themselves that we can’t afford a common curriculum. To speak of it would be to acknowledge that we indeed have the means to solve the equity crisis, but won’t, for fear harming the neighborhoods that benefit when district policy siphons enrollment, funding and opportunity out of North, Northeast and outer Southeast Portland.

This unspoken fear — that we will alienate a few hundred middle class white families if we take bold steps toward equity — is unfounded and ironic, especially considering the number of families I personally know who have pulled their children from PPS, or plan to for secondary school, precisely because they cannot receive a fair shake in their neighborhood schools.

It is unethical to maintain current policy based on this fear. How can we deprive at least half of our students of opportunity to benefit the other half?

I don’t believe there is anybody currently on the school board who has both the conviction and the courage — it takes both — to come to the table with policy proposals that will even begin to address this issue.

Terry Olson is right; we need to start working toward electing three strong leaders to school board zones four, five and six in May. We need bold leadership in times of crisis, and we’re not getting it from the current crop of school board directors.

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Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

filed under: Elections, Equity, K-8 Transistion, Libraries, Program cuts, School Board, Segregation, Transfer Policy

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16 Responses

  1. Comment from Zarwen:

    “Defining equity” requires almost zero effort. Just look up the FTE allocations from 15 years ago. PPS then looked a lot like Beaverton does now. Funny how equity went out the window as soon as the Foundation came along. . . .

  2. Comment from Whitebuffalo:


    Again, well put.

    You’ve got it right: Vision and Guts. That’s what we need.

  3. Comment from mary:

    A starting point for equity could be defining a minimum amount of minutes per day or week a student spends in science, math, and language arts. I was very surprised to learn the district does not have minimum requirements for class time in these very basic areas. The time varies from school to school for both PreK-8s and middle school models.

  4. Comment from Ruth Adkins:

    Hi all, here is my two cents–the Superintendent is already moving in this direction. The district is moving from the nearly totally decentralized model where programming decisions have been site-based (with resulting variation in programming) to trying to find a balance where it is not cookie-cutter/top down but there is a core that is equitably provided across the city.

    One of the first steps toward this model was building counseling into the staffing model for this year’s budget. There will be a proposal for next year’s budget on how to get library staffing equitably across the district.

    Right now the PreK-8 team is documenting what is currently available in every K-8 and middle school and figuring out how we can provide programs/class time to prepare *every* student for high school in a way that is sustainable.

    And, if anyone caught Monday’s board meeting on tv, the High school team is looking at defining a HS core and figuring out how we can provide a mix of programs districtwide (since one approach does not fit all) while still offering at each site and/or in the cluster equitable access to a range of options (small, comprehensive, etc) no matter where you live.

    They are looking at immediate changes for the 09-10 budget as well as long term redesign of our HS, but systemwide, not as a one-off redesign of just some schools.

    In Monday’s presentation, they had a draft proposal for a core (defined as what would be available at each HS site, online, or within walking distance of each site) that would be all current grad reqmt’s PLUS 4 credits of lang, 4 credits of Math; calculus; AP, IB or dual credit; 1 credit art, 1 credit music, & 4 career exploration/proficiency credits. This is just a draft & an interim approach but that is the general direction.

    The HS conversation with students, teachers, parents, and broader community will be happening this fall. K-8 work continues. But I think the Supt is absolutely headed in the right direction.

  5. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Ruth, Yes, the superintendent is headed in the right direction, but what the people, in my understanding, on this site talk about when they refer to equity is not a core curriculum which is spread throughout the district (though that is a good place to start), but equitable offerings in all areas of the city. This is quite different than making sure there is a basic minimum for everyone.

    Look at it this way. If a parent has four children at the dinner table then he or she can’t say they each get an equitable amount of food if they all get a minimum amount, but one child gets extra helpings of each dish regularly. A child who wants more food and just gets the minimum amount is going to question the equity and wonder why the one child gets more each time.

    Now, another way to look at equity is to give each child an appropriate amount based on their needs. The older the child the more food they get say. This could then be seen as an equitable system since each child’s needs are met equally. The key here is that the nutrition needs are directly related to the amount of food, so it is a good measure of whether the system is equitable.

    PPS is more like the first inequitable food system. The offerings and opportunities are determined by the wealth of the neighborhood. Neighborhood wealth is not directly related to the needs of the children. In fact, there might actually be an inverse relationship since poorer students seem to more often come to school without the home backgrounds to make them successful despite the quality of education. I guess you could argue that wealthier neighborhoods should get better education since they pay more taxes. And there is certainly a germ of truth in this. But it is a difficult argument to make when we are dealing with a “public” school system which is charged with the education of “all” children. There is an alternative for the truly wealthy and that is private school. There is no real alternative for the very poor.

    If a parent using the first food system tries to move to an equitable system (say all children receive the same amount of food) then the child who had become used to the inequitable system and always received the most food previously will squawk when his or her food is cut down.

    In Portland the upper middle class, which the last 15 years (since Bierwirth), has become used to getting the larger portion of the good education will squawk if we truly set up an equitable system. It is a tough spot, but a good parent will not be as influenced by the squawking as by the need for equity.

    So, I suggest when the PPS Board and Superintendent talk about equity in referring to a system which gives everyone a minimum that they don’t use the word “equty”, it is being used incorrectly. They should say something more along the lines of we are going to give the poor schools more than they have, just not as much as the upper middle class. I will cheer the improvements, ones I have sought for years. But equity? Me thinks not.

  6. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    To be fair, the topic of my post was that the district won’t “define a base level of curriculum that every child is entitled to, in every neighborhood school.”

    Ruth points out that they are starting to do this for high schools, albeit at a very low level — a level which would be completely unacceptable at Lincoln, Wilson, Grant or Cleveland, of course.

    But I also pointed out that you have to pay for this by balancing enrollment, something that is unofficially officially off the table.

    The transfer policy has become the Thing Whose Name Shan’t Be Spoken.

    At Monday’s meeting David Wynde expressed doubt that John Wilhelmi’s high school team would find funding for what would be modest improvements at our poorest high schools — strongly implying he doesn’t think the money is there.

    And it’s really not — unless you either balance enrollment, or cut programming at the better-off schools.

    Or close more schools in the poor neighborhoods, which this board has shown itself far more willing to do than balancing enrollment.

    How much cutting will the wealthy neighborhoods tolerate to pay for this?

    If you proposed that schools in those clusters should cut back to the minimum level being offered, there would be open revolt at cocktail parties all across the finer — (ahem) whiter — neighborhoods of Portland.

    There would be threats of a middle class desertion of PPS and mortal danger to the budding political careers of our esteemed school board directors.

    Or is the plan simply to keep closing schools in poor neighborhoods as enrollment transfers out?

    Anyway, Buel is right; these are baby steps in the right direction.

    But don’t call it equity.

    I can’t see where Ruth calls this anything but a step in the right direction, but she is calling changes to the 2009-’10 budget “immediate.”

    With all due respect, the only kinds of crises this board treats urgently are fiscal, not educational.

    Make no mistake; the situation at the high schools in our non-white, non-middle class neighborhoods is a crisis.

    We need an infusion of classes and opportunity this fall at Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt. Steve Buel already told you how to pay for it.

    But all we get is baby steps, baby steps.

    My kids aren’t getting any younger.

  7. Comment from Terry:

    Speaking both fiscally and educationally, I understand that PPS is due a $2.43 million windfall from the state’s Common School Fund.

    That would pay for HALF of Steve Buel’s proposal for 12 new FTE positions at the district’s four poorest high schools, plus Benson.

    The addition of teachers to these schools meets Steve B.’s definition of educational equity. It’s a “big” (and bold) step in the right direction. And now that we know that at least half the money is there to implement that step, I say we get on with it.

  8. Comment from mneloa:

    I think the story in last Sunday’s New York Times
    Magazine, ‘The Next Kind of Integration’ is pertinant to the ongoing discussion regarding PPS.
    Particularly the mention of “high concentrations of
    poor kids”.
    Speaking as a parent who has driven her child across town for 8 years…
    And one who’s never been asked why Jefferson
    won’t work. 4 more years of driving because the
    closest REAL highschool is three busses or 10 blocks + 1 bus + 10 blocks.
    It’s not just Portland. Hope you will read it.

  9. Comment from Clarification, please:

    Can someone please tell me the breakdown of funding, cluster to cluster?

    Could it be possible that flight from Jefferson cluster is the fault of those who bought expensive homes there, but refuse to attend schools and contribute in their own neighborhoods?

    Could it be that it has less to do with the West Side schools than implied?

    We need a consistent and equitable curriculum, to be sure, but is it really true that Lincoln and Wilson have pillaged and plundered as much as you state?

    I mean, I thought it was that state funding is abysmal, especially post measure 5; those who have chosen to make up the difference may have contributed to an imbalance, but the district would have been far worse off if they had fled to private or charters as many in the Jefferson cluster have done.

    If I haven’t a clue, let me know. Seriously, as a person who has rented in a cluster I could never afford to live in, and have both benefitted from and been nickeled and dimed to death by my boosters, foundation, etc., I would love some clarification.

  10. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    I don’t mean to imply that west side schools are stealing funding. But schools in predominantly white, middle class neighborhoods have benefited while others have been nearly (or actually) destroyed.

    The funding drain is a factor of out-transfers, which amount to a net loss of nearly 2000 students from the Jefferson cluster alone.

    PPS’ funding formula allows all funding to follow these students out, which leads to program cuts at the schools with high out-transfers, which leads to — guess what — more out-transfers, which lead to more program cuts. We all know where this cycle leads.

    Gutted programs and disproportionate school closures in our poorest neighborhoods, and burgeoning enrollment in white, middle class neighborhoods.

    At a certain point, you can’t blame the families for transferring out, when the “choice” is like being offered a Motel 6 down the street or a Marriott Courtyard across town.

    School board members and their supporters are fond of throwing up their hands and blaming the enrollment imbalance on the “choice” of families and Measure 5, as if they have nothing to do with the policy that doesn’t just allow transfers out of our poorest neighborhoods, but ultimately encourages them.

    Yes, state funding is bad, but other metro area school districts have managed to maintain equity and enrollment without the kind of radical transfer and enrollment policy that has led to such blatant inequity in Portland.

  11. Comment from Clarification, please:

    I agree with much of what you say, but I have a few more comments. I do not know that west side schools have benefitted, but I certainly agree that economically they have been better able to make up the difference. However, I do not think they desired the situation and as flawed as their methods may be, most west side parents have simply tried to maintain their children’s school equal to what it was before measure 5.

    School choice is run amok. There are valid reason for transfers, but none of them amount to the high rates you describe.

    Where are the transfers going? Other than private, that is. There is little room in the Lincoln cluster (50 spots at the high school, plus special programs), but is there more room in Wilson?

    A parent must do what a parent must do. I understand the short term flight, but long term, people must–and yes, this includes the school board– more forward boldly.

    As I said in my earlier email, I have rented in a cluster in which I could never have afforded a house. Last year, I supplemented my son’s high school experience (not clothes, etc.) through incidental and athletic fees to the tune of $1000. Could I afford to do so? Not really. But this is the best balance I could come up with to provide my child with a good education.

    There has to be a better way.

    My parents fled Portland Public Schools in 1972 (both Roosevelt High School Grads), and I benefitted from that decision. I received a balanced and equitable education in Vancouver, Washington. My cousins who stayed in Portland went to private schools. I firmly believe in public education. My parents were able to send me to school without all this: My siblings and I went and we learned. We had band, sports, choir, drama. They never paid extra fees for uniforms; they only provided tennis shoes and socks for sports and a homemade dress for swing choir.

    God, I sound old and grumpy.

    I have one child who just graduated from PPS and I have two more who will enter the system over the next three years. I am tired of handwringing and I commend you for taking on this issue.

    Oh, and thanks for the clarification.

  12. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Clarification, thanks for your comments. I agree with you that people in upper middle class schools don’t ask for the transfer system to load up their schools with kids from across town. All they are doing is trying to get their kids a decent education. But it is
    the school board’s responsibility to educate ALL the children of Portland. They should be unbiased in their actions and care equally about all parts of the city, not just the parts where the political muscle and the support is the strongest. They are not parents worrying about their kids’ school (at least they shouldn’t have that attitude). They are public officials charged with educating the youth of Portland. And in my opinion, it is their failure, for several years, to take this responsibility seriously for ALL children that irritates most of the people who write on this blog and who have campaigned strongly for equity.

    The school board is the wrong place to demand favoritism for a particular part of the city. Sure, try as hard as you can to make your kids’ school better, but don’t do it by destroying the education of less fortunate children. Have some sense of balance, a little compassion, and try to be creative to meet the needs of all the children even though the resources are limited. Kind of like Obama’s speech yesterday in Berlin — we need to pull together to help all the children of the city.

  13. Comment from Clarification, please:

    Absolutely, but where can I find specifics of favoritism in funding? I know Rieke won a reprieve and Lincoln fought boundary changes, but I am serious about wanting to know the breakdown. If you can show bias step-by-step, you can argue more effectively. You can also call a spade a spade without any room for wheedling out of it all.

    Hard facts in the public eye will unravel flattery and backroom influence.

    Show the school board’s clear bias toward their own children and areas and put it in the press point by point: Shame those who protest too much.

  14. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Here’s a study I did last year (261 KB PDF), which graphically details the way PPS policy disproportionately invests in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods at the expense of poorer, less white neighborhoods.

    This study uses 2006-07 enrollment data. I’ve begun looking at the 2007-08 data, and it’s mostly the same or worse for the “red zone” schools.

    The bottom line is that, when compared with where students live, PPS invests disproportionately less — significantly less — in the Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt clusters.

    This discrepancy amounts to something north of $40 million annually, depending on how you calculate it.

  15. Comment from Clarification, please:

    Thank you very much for this; it clears up some things for me and also lets me know that my perceptions were not completely misguided. Wilson has lost money and Lincoln has added a relatively small amount of money due to MLC (forgot that was in Lincoln cluster) and IB/Spanish Immersion.

    Not that the west side isn’t a player in all this, but I have a better grasp now.

    What is so strange to me is why Benson, Grant, etc. are being flooded with students and money instead of improving Roosevelt and Jefferson? In the case of Benson, I think it is questionable that the transfers have served anyone well.

    As I said, both my parents graduated from Roosevelt in the 50s. Even then, my mother says they had the oldest textbooks in the district, but what they did have puts the current curriculum to shame: Latin, drama, debate, etc.

    Transfers should represent a small percentage of student attendance. There are consistently valid needs to transfer, ranging from bullying to specific educational needs. However, ten percent should cover all this easily.

    As for NCLB, once the “underperfoming” schools meet these cumbersome and often unreasonable guidelines, is it feasible to require students to return to their neighborhood schools?

    So,I guess now I know what to bug the school board about.

    Again, thanks for the clarification and hearing me out.

  16. Comment from Zarwen:

    Clarification, you wonder “why Benson, Grant, etc. are being flooded with students and money instead of improving Roosevelt and Jefferson?” The answer is that those schools have been literally “improved” to death. Steve R. can probably give you the links to the documentation of the most recent devastation wrought by the Gates and Broad grants in the name of “improvement.”

    You’re a late arrival at this party, but welcome–it’s nice to have you!