Time for PPS to Take a Stand on NCLB

Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson issued an extremely sharp criticism of the federal No Child Left Behind Act on Thursday.

It’s time for the Portland Public Schools board and senior administrators to do the same thing.

Bergeson wants to replace AYP, reduce state testing to only 3 grades, and focus more on improvement — all good steps. She would also stop funding after-school tutoring under NCLB (called “supplemental educational services”) and transfers out of Title I dollars and equalize the per-student funding sent to each state (which now varies widely with, in general, poorer states getting less).

Monty Neill, Deputy Director for FairTest, offered this analysis:

The steps she proposes — mostly consistent with the Joint Statement on NCLB — would greatly reduce the damage while opening up space for real improvement. Regretfully, she fails to call for development of better assessment (she’s been a staunch defender of the state’s WASL test, including its graduation requirements) though she talks about “screening and diagnostic testing” (not sure what that really means). Her improvement proposals are pretty thin in many ways (see Forum on Educational Accountability documents for far better, stronger ideas). And her suggestions for English Language Learners and students with disabilities may raise concerns and are too slim to be sure what she means – lots of details to figure out there.

See this 3-page memo (32KB PDF) from Bergeson for more details.

Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.

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Why won’t the school board deliberate in public?

The Portland Public Schools board of education’s appointment last night of Martín González was certainly no surprise. Two of the five candidates — Blanton and Stephan — were unqualified, and two of the remaining three — Buel and Moore — were openly critical, one even sarcastic, about the board’s student transfer and school funding policies which have created a second tier of neighborhood schools in our poor and minority areas.

Evidently these two didn’t get the memo that the student transfer policy is the Thing That Shan’t be Mentioned in Public. After all, it solves such a Very Important Problem.

González got this memo, and also the one about keeping all dissent under wraps. As he pointed out in the candidate forum Tuesday, he worked for many years in an organization that makes all decisions by consensus. He as much as said he’s a go-with-the-flow kind of guy. He appears completely unlikely to rock the boat on any significant issues (e.g. the student transfer policy).

For at least five years, this school board has ruled by inertia. It is extremely rare, if not unheard of in recent history, for any significant policy to originate with the board. Instead, they abdicate their policy-making role to staff, discuss it in private and rubber stamp it in public.

When they do have to make a decision — hiring a superintendent, approving or denying a charter school, appointing board leadership — the decisions are made behind closed doors with no public deliberation, and are almost always unanimous (or nearly unanimous). By the time they go before the public, it is a done deal, and any board discussion (not to mention citizen comment) is moot.

If there is dissent, or even difficult considerations arriving at consensus, these are rarely articulated publicly.

The appointment of González shows us two such examples. First, when approving the process for appointing a new member on July 7, the vote was 5-1. Sonja Henning voted “no,” but during board discussion of the issue, she deferred. “I don’t need to say it here,” she said.

After the meeting adjourned and the cameras and microphones were turned off, two of her board colleagues joined her for a discussion that greatly exceeded the length of the official board meeting.

Doesn’t the public have a right to know why she voted “no”? Isn’t public deliberation a fundamental piece of the democratic process?

In last night’s pre-ordained appointment of González, board “discussion” focussed solely on kudos to González and how excellent “all five” candidates were.

Surely, in private, the board had discussed the other four candidates in some detail. Surely they spoke of the fact that two were not truly qualified, that Steve Buel, while arguably the most qualified candidate, spent too much time directly criticizing the board’s failure to act on equity, and that Rita Moore seemed too willing to challenge them on their student transfer and school funding policies. Surely they talked about how much easier it will be to work with somebody who supports the current transfer policy and whose style is non-confrontational.

Yes, it might be uncomfortable to come right out and say these things on the public record, but we all know they’re being said, and we all know important decisions are being made in private.

I’m not suggesting this board is breaking Oregon’s public meeting law. Legally, they can meet privately in non-majority groups, and they can play phone tree, deliberating and reaching consensus out of the public eye.

But even if they’re hewing to the letter of the law, they habitually violate the spirit of open, democratic process.

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

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Not ready for prime time

The school board office has issued a revised agenda for tomorrow’s special board meeting, with the start time changed to 5 pm. The meeting, previously scheduled to start at 7, is still scheduled for an hour, and still has the single agenda item of appointing a zone 4 director.

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

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A PR person or a policy maker?

When David Wynde, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, used his single question last night to ask prospective board members to name a positive thing the district has done during his five years on the board, you can’t help but think of all the irrelevant — often disrespectful — questions asked during the presidential primary debates.

It is not the role of school board members to give warm fuzzies. Their role is to make policy.

I haven’t watched the forum yet, but Beth Slovic has a write-up online in which she takes the analogy to Democratic presidential candidates a step further.

Any reports from those who saw the forum are appreciated here.

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

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Oregonian endorses Gonzalez

In a broadly expected move, and for the expected reasons, the Oregonian has endorsed Martin Gonzalez for school board zone 4.

Citing his familiarity with Portland Public Schools, his life experience and (most importantly) his support for the district’s student transfer policy, the editorial board of the O show that they want the same thing that the school board wants: an ethnic minority who won’t challenge the one policy they most fear being challenged.

It is a demonstrable, shameful fact that neighborhood-to-neighborhood student transfers have increased ethnic and socio-economic segregation in our city’s schools, and, in combination with the funding formula and teacher transfer policy, have left disproportionate numbers of poor and minority students in second-tier schools. This policy also shifts tens of millions of dollars in public investment out of poor and minority neighborhoods every year (261 KB PDF).

I can understand the transfer policy being viewed as an way for disadvantaged students to escape sub-par schools. I’ve even suggested a modification to the transfer policy to allow poor students to transfer out of poor schools. But this can only be a short-term solution until a comprehensive policy to reinvest in our poorest neighborhoods is implemented.

Otherwise it’s nothing but a fig leaf for an effectively classist and racist policy of public divestment from neighorhoods that most need public investment.

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

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Backpedaling on Colton, Small Schools

David Colton’s involuntary transfer has been more or less rescinded, according to Steve Duin’s column in the Oregonian. Duin also reports the outfit that channeled Gates Foundation money to fund the “small schools” implementation has withdrawn Madison’s 2008-09 grant.

Portland Public Schools spokesperson Matt Shelby told Duin that because Madison is “not going down that road toward small, fully autonomous high schools, the money is no longer there.”

Whether this means students will now be allowed to cross over and take classes not offered in the academies they signed up for as freshmen remains unclear. This was the flash point that led to Colton’s involuntary transfer in the first place, and it would defy all logic to continue to prohibit this.

The ability to admit mistakes and take corrective action is a sign of strength and integrity, and was never seen with Carole Smith’s predecessor. Getting it right at Madison would be a very hopeful sign for PPS.

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

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On the fast track

The Portland Public Schools Board of Education office has released notice and agendas for two meetings next week, including a Thursday meeting with one item on the agenda: “Resolution to Appoint Zone 4 Board Director.”

The process, approved earlier this summer, was intentionally left open-ended. But this agenda would appear to indicate the board is ready to appoint one of the five applicants.

With equity as the defining crisis of the current board, an idealist would hope they will appoint the only candidate with direct experience, not to mention the courage and conviction to actually come to the table with practical, immediate solutions: Steve Buel.

No, Buel wouldn’t make the existing board’s life any easier. In fact, you can bet he would make them pretty uncomfortable at times. But they weren’t elected to a social club. The gross inequities in our district simply aren’t being solved by the board’s tack of politely ignoring them, or of speaking in generalities and proposing only baby steps.

Current board members seem mortified of anybody who speaks boldly of the elephant in the room, so you can pretty well rule out Buel.

Safer money is on the appointment of Martin Gonzalez, who is believed to favor “school choice” as an escape valve for poor and minority students. (Never mind that the district’s transfer and school funding policies have actually trapped disproportionate numbers of poor and minority students in second-tier schools with dramatically less opportunity and “choice” than white, middle class students get in their neighborhoods.)

Gonzalez may challenge the board on their policies regarding English language learners, but he does not appear likely to rock their boat with regard to the transfer policy. Plus, he satisfies their rumored desire for a “black or Hispanic male.”

The Oregonian interviewed the candidates this week, and will likely run an endorsement soon. They have been historically hostile to Buel, so it will be interesting to see who they go with (I’m betting on Gonzalez, for the same reasons listed above).

Of course, I’m happy to be proven wrong. Maybe — just maybe — there are four board members who are ready to actually do something bold, and can see the wisdom of appointing a passionate firebrand like Buel to help them really address the equity crisis.

Or maybe they’ll just keep kicking this problem down the road.

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

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School board candidate forum

The Portland Public Schools board of education has arranged a candidate forum, moderated by the League of Women Voters of Portland, according to a letter to the five candidates.

The forum will be next Tuesday, August 26 in the board room at BESC, and televised live on cable channel 28.

Candidates will be given two minutes to give an opening statement, in which they are expected to address two points: “1) While Board members must reside in a geographic zone, they are sworn to represent the entire district. If nominated, how do you intend to balance that? 2) Do you intend to run for election to the seat next spring? Why or why not?”

After opening statements, a League of Women Voters moderator will ask each candidate questions covering the following five topics:

  1. equity among schools,
  2. funding,
  3. K-8 schools,
  4. parent involvement, and
  5. the achievment gap.

Candidates will have 60-90 seconds to give their answers to the questions from the moderator.

After questions from the moderator, existing board members will have the opportunity to ask follow-up questions, or questions on other topics.

With the entire forum is scheduled for one hour, it is difficult to imagine much depth of discussion. But then again, if the rumors are true that they’ve already chosen their man, there’s no point wasting any more time than that.

The Oregonian is interviewing candidates this week, but it is unknown whether they will publish their endorsement before the forum.

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

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Accountability Meets the Corporate Achievement Gap

The Associated Press ran a story on August 12, 2008, citing a report from the Government Accountability Office that revealed that two-thirds of U.S. corporations paid no federal income taxes between 1998 and 2005. About 25 percent of the U.S. corporations not paying corporate taxes were considered large corporations, meaning they had at least $250 million in assets or $50 million in receipts. And, according to the report, about 68 percent of foreign companies doing business in the U.S. avoided corporate taxes altogether over the same period.

How ironic in the age of No Child Left Behind that the GAO – the Government Accountability Office – would be the one that would point out corporate America’s lack of accountability when it came time to paying the bills in this country.

It’s clear to me that we have a Corporate Achievement Gap here. What is the Corporate Achievement Gap? The Corporate Achievement Gap is the difference between what taxpayers paid into the general coffers — for roads and bridges, for schools and fire trucks — and what 25 percent of U.S. corporations did not put in. This gap is an achievement gap because it underscores the potential for achievement if only these corporations would help fill this gap.

But they are simply not doing their part, not shouldering their load, not paying their dues.

Right now, the US federal government pays for between 7 and 10 percent of the total budget for public preK-12 education. The other 90 to 93 percent is paid for by state and local taxpayers.

Imagine, if you would, what kind of impact there would be if the US federal government doubled its current investment in public education from about 10 percent to 20 percent. Imagine the difference this could make.

In his amazing book Class and Schools, Richard Rothstein wrote:

“All told, adding the price of health, early childhood, after-school, and summer programs, (the) down payment on closing the achievement gap would probably increase the annual cost of education, for children who attend schools where at least 40% of the enrolled children have low incomes, by about $12,500 per pupil, over and above the $8,000 already being spent. In total, this means about a $156 billion added annual national cost to provide these programs to low-income children.”

These are 2003 – 2004 data, and they’re probably not completely accurate. But these numbers at least give you an idea of what it might take to actually close the educational achievement gap. They give you the sense that closing the educational achievement gap might actually be something that could be done.

But before we can close the educational achievement gap, we must first close the Corporate Achievement Gap.

Teachers and schools are being held accountable. It’s time to start holding corporations accountable, too. We must demand that they contribute to the health and well-being of the country by paying their fair share.

Note:This article was also posted on Transform Education. –Ed.

Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.

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Equity and School Choice

I think it can be safely said that the goal of PPS Equity is to ensure that all public school students in Portland, regardless of skin color or family background, have access to decent schools in (or near) their own neighborhoods. They shouldn’t have to travel halfway across the city to find schools with a competent principal, good teachers, a library, and programs that include music, art, foreign languages and physical education. (Note: PPS Equity actually has a mission statement now, which pretty well matches this description. –Ed.)

Unfortunately that goal will never be realized as long as the district keeps judging (and demonizing) schools by the relative wealth of their students (that’s essentially what standardized test scores reveal); and if it refuses to shut down the conveyor belt that empties poor neighborhoods of students and money.

The conveyor belt is the district’s transfer policy, a policy that both enables and encourages school choice. Portland Public Schools leadership, including the school board, seems disinclined to address the crisis of school inequity caused in large part by the transfer policy. And I fear that won’t change with the probable appointment of new board member Martin Gonzales. From what I know of Martin, he’s pro-school choice.

I’ve been the recipient lately of some troubling comments that choice and transfer benefit poor and minority students, and that to deny them the right to choose is to “trap” them in “failing” schools. That’s precisely the stance of the pro-privatization and pro-school choice Cascade Policy Institute and it’s co-conspirator, the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

School choice, in short, has become a civil right.

The reality in Portland reveals how wrong-headed that belief is. Choice leaves behind — or traps, if you will — the poorest and darkest skinned students in schools that struggle to provide barely adequate educational programs.

The Flynn-Blackmer audit (232 KB PDF), Steve Rawley’s research (261 KB PDF), and PPS staff’s graphic presentation to a school board subcommittee last fall all show how choice and transfer further segregate Portland’s students by race and by class.

For a public school district to tolerate, and even encourage, policies that create such race and class-based disparities is intolerable.

So what can be done?

First the school board has to acknowledge that many, perhaps half, of Portland’s lower income schools are in crisis. Confronting that crisis requires bold funding measures to restore programs to low income schools comparable to those found in wealthier schools.

Secondly, (and this is my personal opinion), the board must short circuit the school transfer conveyor belt. We already are witnessing limitations on transfers for the simple reason that students who want out of their “failing” schools have no place to go. In time, the transfer system will grind to a halt on its own, choked to death by congestion. How many Lincolns or Ainsworths, after all, are left to accept desperate students?

Lastly, the district and the board should stop using No Child Left Behind as an excuse for inaction. I’ve suggested that the district thumb its nose at the new federal Title I* mandates. It should take a stand, a dramatic stand, hoping that a new Congress will either refuse to reauthorize NCLB or revamp it to help, not punish, struggling low income schools.

School choice (again, my personal opinion, not the official position of PPS Equity) is a pie-in-the-sky fantasy. It’s a self-defeating approach to school improvement, one that will ultimately lead to the total privatization of our once proud public educational system. It already has gone a long way toward undermining neighborhood schools. Choice is at the heart of No Child Left Behind, a law that pushes charter schools and punishes low income schools with mandated transfer options.

It’s time to end them both.

* (I figure that opting out of Title I would cost the district 8% of it total budget.)

Terry Olson passed away in October, 2009. He was a retired teacher and a neighborhood schools activist. His blog, OlsonOnline, was a seminal space for the discussion of educational equity in Portland.

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