Audio: Jonah Edelman (and me) on “autonomy and accountability”

Johna Edelman, head of Stand for Children, addressed the City Club of Portland last Friday on the topic of improving education in Oregon, even as we face budget cuts.

He identifies three ways to improve things: teacher and principal quality, autonomy within a framework of accountability, and time.

Edelman had some good points about teacher pay and training, and the need for good and supportive principals. He also made valid points about our antiquated agrarian school calendar.

The autonomy bit raised some red flags with me, of course, since I’m very well versed in how that’s worked out in Portland. But first, here’s what he has to say about it (1 min. 32 sec.):

If you don’t have audio, here’s what I think are his salient points: accountability equals test scores. “When I say free [principals and teachers] up, I mean free them up to help students reach high academic standards set by the state and then hold them accountable when they don’t.”

Edelman doesn’t let the fact that Portland Public Schools principals in poor neighborhoods have not always made the best choices deter his optimism: “…when schools are freed up from bureaucratic rules, and given the autonomy to decide how to make maximum use of time, people and money, educators can do a far better job of providing the personalized, rigorous, engaging education that meets the diverse needs and taps the diverse strengths of students.”

At this point, I threw away the question I was going to ask him about the role of Stand in Portland school board elections, and decided to ask him how we can assure that with autonomy, poor schools don’t just become test prep factories (2 min. 13 sec.):

Edelman points out that we’re not as bad as Washington D.C., where they do 52 days of test prep (so maybe we should be happy with that?). And while he makes a valid point about special ed and ELL money from the state not fully following students, he completely missed my point about PPS principals in poor neighborhoods cutting non-core programs (music, library, etc.) to focus on “academic achievement”.

I’d like to invite Jonah out to a tour of our second-tier system in the Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt clusters to see just how well autonomy has worked for the invisible half of Portland, the half that doesn’t always get the things other parts of town take for granted, like college prep, world languages, boutique condo schools, music, art, chemistry, civics, calculus literature and libraries.

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

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On condos, schools, and social engineering

Monday night’s vote by the Portland Public Schools board of education to lease space in the Pearl condo district for a PK-2 school raises an interesting question: is it responsible public policy to use public schools as a tool to promote real estate development? Or, more cynically, why do we see the need to invest in a new school in anticipation of need, when so many existing neighborhoods, particularly those with high concentrations of poor and minority students, are currently underserved?

PPS administrators and school board members seem to want in on the dreamy social engineering mentality made popular by former city commissioner Eric Sten, in which public investment in the form of roads, parks, streetcars, and now schools, are used to subsidize commercial real estate developers. The brief history of this kind of development in Portland tells us that promises of affordable housing are rarely (if ever) met.

More importantly, if we wanted to use our precious education investment in this way, why get in on it when most of the housing in the Pearl is already built, and it is inadequate for growing families? Even worse, why enter the condo market craps game after the bottom has fallen out?

Ruth Adkins, in remarks at the school board meeting and in an e-mail to the “Get involved with Jefferson Schools” e-mail list, justifies the move: “We are trying to plan for and help shape future growth…” she writes. She also claims that this move will not distract the district from its other work.

But those of us following the K8 debacle know that PPS has a proven inability to walk and chew gum at the same time. There has been no public progress on the K8 transition for nearly a year, and, other than a mention from Ruth Adkins from time to time, there has been no serious talk of restoring a middle school option to the broad swath of Portland that lost it in the rushed and ill-conceived K8 transition.

More than anything, this move shows that PPS is inept at perception management. Even if the district were able to follow through on its other commitments, to approve a five-year, $1.5 million speculative gamble at a time when we’re seriously talking about cutting the school year for lack of money looks really, really insensitive.

It also sends an inconsistent message regarding small schools, as Martin Gonzalez pointed out in his dissenting comments Monday night. Sonja Henning also opposed the move, and gave a withering critique of the “exponential track” this project was put on. Henning remarked that connected people can “pick up the phone” and get this kind of project done, while other citizens have waited “10 or 15 years” and gotten nothing (a replacement for the razed Whittaker school comes to mind).

PPS Chief Operating Office Cathy Mincberg appeared shaken by Henning’s remarks, and jumped in to insist that the idea originated among district and city staff, an assertion contradicted by the fact that wealthy white Pearl residents have been advocating for a school for at least a year.

In an annual budget of half a billion dollars, a quarter million really isn’t much money. But given the fact that the Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt clusters — serving the poorest, least white parts of Portland — have had comprehensive secondary education virtually eliminated in recent years, spending any money trying to “shape future growth” in a neighborhood that is overwhelmingly white and wealthy indicates a serious problem with priorities.

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

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Stop Pathologizing Children and Start Helping Them

We need to stop pathologizing the development of children and start concentrating on where they are as opposed to where we think they should be with regard to norm-based benchmarks. The fact that a disproportionate percentage of low-income minorities are not “at grade level” means they are not achieving on norm-based standardized tests at the level of their affluent white peers. Is that really so surprising? We need to give them more of the advantages that their white peers take for granted, not fewer.

Here in PPS, starting in pre-K, kids engage in a curriculum and a school experience that has doing well on the 3rd grade tests as its primary objective. Teachers are focused on regularly measuring kids’ progress through a set of norm-based benchmarks; those kids that are not “at benchmark” are flagged and given additional assistance.

The rationale is that focusing on their measurable skills and providing remediation when necessary will help these kids and will serve as the primary means through which the achievement gap will be closed. But what is not considered is that additional assistance takes more time for both the teacher and the student.

This is time away from other things (e.g., art, music, etc.). The underlying rationale is that low-income minority kids are too far behind and don’t have time to do anything else. So, to “save” them, they are denied art, music, recess, PE, etc., and given a heavy dose of skills-based exercises, most of which are to practice for the test and to close the measurable gap.

In PPS, you hear folks like Jonah Edelman from Stand for Children say that things are not as bad as they are in D.C., “where they do 51 days of test prep.”

But I make the distinction between explicit test prep (a la D.C.) and implicit test prep (a la PPS).

Implicit test prep = a curriculum and a school experience designed to raise the measurable achievement of all students.

Under this test-centric regime, it’s logical that non-tested subjects are given short shrift. But it overlooks the fact that kids, esp. very young kids, need a broad base of experience including art, music, and free, unstructured play (i.e., recess) to develop to their full potential.

Ironically, it’s low-income minority kids that need this broad-based experience even more than their affluent white peers because they are less likely to have these experience outside of school, whereas affluent white kids are more likely to be exposed to art, music, etc.

We also need to take into account that standardized tests are an extremely poor measure of what kids know and can do, and they — at best — only measure a very narrow band of who are they are and what they are becoming. What about attitudes towards learning? What about curiosity? What about tenacity? What about inter and intra-personal communication skills? Creativity? Critical thinking? None of these things are measured, and therefore none of these things count.

Sure, there’s a lot of lip service paid to these things, as well as “teaching to the whole child” and “differentiating instruction” to accommodate their various levels of development. But the fact is that all kids are expected to be at the same place at the same time. If they’re not, then something is said to be wrong with them. We don’t take into consideration the fact that all kids — all people — develop differently and at their own pace.

But we also don’t take into account that not all kids are good at the same things. To hold academic skills up as the holy grail automatically guarantees that a large number of kids are doomed to fail. They are good at other things, but they are never allowed to show they are good at these things or develop their capacity in these other things because these other things simply don’t exist as possible options. Not good at math and not a quick, accurate, fluent reader? Then you’re f*&#$’ed. It’s as simple as that.

If we stopped pathologizing kids’ development and instead focused on where they were, not where we demanded they be via some arbitrary set of standards, we’d go a long way in acknowledging the broad continuum of development that characterizes all people as they learn anything. We’d also be more likely to acknowledge the need to focus on developing the full potential of kids, not just enlarging their craniums and improving their test scores.

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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In the news: another teacher on budget cuts, PPS board to consider lease in Pearl

Portland Public Schools teacher Caryn Cushman challenges Ted Kulongoski’s call for teachers to work (more) for free, and the PPS board of education considers a lease for a new school in the Pearl district tonight, a move questioned by PAT president Rebecca Levison, among others (I questioned the idea when it was first floated a year ago).

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

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In the news: Teacher on K8s, state funding cuts

In a letter to the editor in today’s Oregonian (not published online), Portland Public Schools eighth grade teacher Sheila Wilcox gets to the point about our state funding cuts and PPS’s “already underfunded experiment in K-8s”:

As a teacher in a K-8 school in Portland, I am extremely dismayed at the talk of more unstable funding for education. Already, I am teaching eighth grade in a portable classroom on my school’s playground.

The building is poorly insulated, and the heating system is inadequate. My students have next to no access to technology (our mobile lab will be used for testing for the rest of the year), no music, and our library is the worst I’ve seen in my 13 years with the district.

I have tried to speak with several district officials and have been put off or dismissed altogether. How sad that our already underfunded experiment in K-8s will be shortchanged this school year, once again.

The still unfinished K8 transition gives students less while costing us more (much like the rigid Gate’s style academies we seem stuck with, despite the model being repudiated by the Gates foundation). The district seems to have lost interest in K8s, distracted by both the budget and the coming unveiling of the high school plan.

Also in today’s paper, Betsy Hammond writes that Oregon is alone among states discussing a shortened school year (despite most states being in fiscal crisis). Oregon is unique for both its unstable education funding, and its unwillingness to protect education from such draconian cuts.

A national shame on our Democratic Party-controlled state house and governor for failing to avoid such immediate cuts, and, most importantly, to address the long-term inadequacy and volatility of our revenue model.

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

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Money race begins in zone 5

Scott Bailey is off and running, already having raised over $3000, including a $400 loan from himself, a $1000 contribution from Robert Arnott (this Robert Arnott?), and $1055 in donations of $100 or less. He’s spending at a good clip, too, including $575 for a logo, $1000 to Kari Chisolm’s Mandate Media (presumably a down payment on a Web site, which, to me, seems a tad exorbitant for “management services”), and another $40 to Chisolm’s company for a domain name (something that can be had on the open market for $10-$15, including hosting and several e-mail accounts).

We can assume that the usual suspects (Portland Schools Foundation and Stand for Children donors) will show up on Bailey’s balance sheet before long.

Pam Knowles hasn’t yet reported a dime raised or spent, though her Web site is up and running. (Hold on… you can have a political Web site in this state without putting a cool G in Kari Chisolm’s pocket? Oh, wait… maybe she’s not a Democrat.) I’m sure we’ll see the Portland business community lavishing Knowles with cash soon.

Incumbents Trudy Sargent (zone 6) and Martin Gonzalez (zone 4) have yet to register campaign finance committees with the state; perhaps they’re waiting to see if any opponents show up before bothering.

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

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Run, Lakeitha, run!

I took some heat for for encouraging Sonja Henning to run for re-election in the face of election filings from über-establishment candidates Scott Bailey and Pam Knowles. I hadn’t even considered a Draft Lakeitha Elliot movement (thanks change seeker and Terry for hitting me upside the head with the clue-by-four).

At this point, I’m ready to throw my support to a real community candidate, no matter how quixotic the run may (or may not) be. We need somebody at the candidate forums telling it like it is for working families. And you never know, Terry may be right; Knowles and Bailey might just cancel each other out in the voting.

I can’t think of anybody who has a better understanding of the problem, and who is more likely to tell it like it is than Lakeitha.

If you agree, why not leave a comment here to encourage her to run?

Run, Lakeitha, run!

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

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The numbers paint a picture

2008-2009 PPS student migration

 

Percentage of enrollment gained (or lost) due to student migration (compared to cluster population)

Student population vs. enrollment

Availability of comprehensive secondary schools correlated with race and poverty

cluster # comp. high schools # comp. middle schools % non-white by residences % free/reduced meals by residence
Jefferson 0 0 67.48% 61.39%
Roosevelt 0 1 67.6% 72.30%
Madison 0 0 61.95% 61.77%
Marshall 0 1 57.96% 72.79%
Wilson 1 2 24.57% 20.80%
Lincoln 1 1 21.60% 9.30%
Franklin 1 1 35.05% 38.52%
Grant 1 2 32.85% 23.17%
Cleveland 2 2 27.16% 30.15%

Note: teacher experience and student discipline rates also correlate highly to race and poverty; that is, average teacher experience is lower and discipline referral rates higher in schools serving high poverty, high minority populations. Data for the current school year are not yet available for these factors.

Data source: Portland Public Schools.

This report is available in PDF format (240KB).

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

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Anniversary thank you

This month marks the one-year anniversary of PPS Equity, and the two-year anniversary of my first blog post on education and tax policy in Oregon (warning: salty language). Thanks to all who have contributed to the discussion here. I continue to be overwhelmed by your intelligence, honesty and thoughtfulness, and all the support I get in the community.

Someday, maybe, there will be no need for this Web site. Until then, I intend to keep it running. Thanks for all the support, and please keep the discussion rolling!

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

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In the news: Madison small schools are history

Beth Slovic reports today on Willamette Week’s blog that Madison High School will eliminate it’s autonomous, autocratic academic silos and return to a single high school in the fall, saving the district money while increasing opportunity for Madison students.

That leaves just Marshall and Roosevelt in the “small schools” category, with Jefferson having previously abandoned the disastrous experiment.

We’ll have to wait and see if any middle schools are reconstituted in the Madison and Jefferson clusters, the only parts of town stuck exclusively with K8 schools for the middle grades. Like “small schools,” K8s cost significantly more money to operate while providing significantly less opportunity (and high school prep) to their middle grade students.

At Monday’s school board meeting, the business agenda included money to purchase portables for Madison feeder schools Rigler and Scott, which don’t currently have room for eighth grade. Wouldn’t it be more prudent to invest that money into re-opening Rose City Park Elementary and converting Gregory Heights back to a middle school? Given the community uproar surrounding the decision to merge those schools into a single K8, it’s difficult to argue the community would be upset to have their old configuration back.

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

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