Bailey on K8s

Note: this is Scott Bailey’s response to questions from PPS Equity about his positions on K8s. –Ed.

  1. PPS shifted to a K-8 configuration, but has never had a K-8 education plan.
  2. The reconfiguration was poorly planned, done too quickly, and so was poorly executed. Let me qualify that by saying given the task and the timeline, I would guess that line staff were overwhelmed and did the best they could with not enough resources. The responsibility lies elsewhere.
  3. And yes, there was no, and still is no, education vision for K-8s, it’s just a configuration.
  4. As is obvious, there are substantial problems with enrollment, with some K-8s being overcrowded and some under-enrolled. Those schools that are under-enrolled either have an under-populated catchment area or lose middle grade students to other schools. As a result, they are hard pressed to offer adequate electives, and so the latter are in no position to retain more students. Adding to the imbalance in the Northeast is that Beaumont, after losing one of its feeder schools, has to recruit from other schools in order to remain viable.
  5. K-8s, if properly implemented, do have some advantages over middle schools, in that they can be a more intimate atmosphere, and there is one less transition, which can be important for many kids. If the teaching staff is consistent, there will be teachers who know the kids all the way through 8th grade—potentially important relationships that can be maintained. If parent involvement is done right—and I mean specific programs to welcome all parents into the school community, good school-parent communication, education on what to do at home to help your child succeed, and inclusion of parents in decision-making at the school—then K-8s can be a great community. I think it’s tougher to do that at a middle school, and tougher for parents to work at school improvement, with only a three-year span. Finally, if a K-8 school intentionally links the big kids with the younger kids in positive ways, it’s a real plus.
  6. On the down side, especially if you don’t have the population, you won’t be able to offer the electives. Socially, at any school, there are some kids who don’t mix well due to personality dynamics, and if you only have one class in that grade level, you’re stuck. And there is often less diversity at a K-8 because of the narrower catchment area.
  7. The research seems to say that there isn’t a clear advantage of one over the other. I think it’s much more important to look at how a school is managed, regardless of the configuration.
  8. An important question that you raise, and that was raised in the workshop at the CPPS Parent Leadership Conference, is how do we measure success with this whole experiment—and by extension, at what point would we pull the plug. I think it’s important to remember that many of the middle schools that got dismembered were not working very well. I think the root problems are still with us, however—we don’t have an educational vision for the middle grades, the curriculum is often not challenging enough or engaging enough, the suspension rates for children of color are way out of line, etc. These are issues regardless of the configuration.
  9. So where do we go from here? Building on the last point, we need a clear evaluation of whether students will be getting a better education after full implementation of the K-8s than before. If not, then we need to carefully map out some better options. I think that part of the challenge is to “reinvent” middle grade education—this is a time when students are very active, and so there are great opportunities to involve them in project-oriented learning, and connect them with the greater community. This is also a time when parents may need some guidance shifting from hands-on to a different level of involvement, that focuses on building skills like time-management.
  10. The school choice policy that we have is clearly part of the issue in K-8s as well as high school. I think it’s clear that if we allow unlimited transfers, it can make it very difficult for a school that loses families to recover. Maybe we need to limit neighborhood school-to-neighborhood school transfers, to prevent schools falling below a certain population. On the other hand, that might lead to more families jumping ship to private schools or charters. I think we need to get the issue on the table for discussion, however, because it doesn’t serve anybody when a school’s population slowly drains away.
  11. The optimum solution, of course, is to improve our neighborhood schools. I have worked on and will continue to work on key factors like improving procedures for hiring and evaluating principals. I’m hoping that the current round of negotiations with teachers leads to a joint committee which will work on improving teacher evaluations. I’ve played a major role in laying the groundwork for building system supports for parent involvement. I think there are management systems that can be introduced that will help shift the Central Office to supporting schools as opposed to imposing on them. I was a founding member of the Community Education Partners, which is pushing PPS to address the suspension/expulsion rate for children of color, so far getting very little traction. This is an issue I bring up at every gathering I’m at, as one important priority among the many issues of equity that need to be addressed in PPS. And then there’s the vision thing for middle grades.

Scott Bailey ran for the Portland Public Schools Board of Education zone 5 seat in 2009.


Is Poverty Just an Excuse?

In the effort to fight the “poverty is no excuse” crowd, education researcher Dr. David Berliner reviews a half-dozen out-of-school factors that have been clearly linked to lower achievement among poor and minority-group students: birth weight and non-genetic parental influences; medical care; food insecurity; environmental pollution; family breakdown and stress; and neighborhood norms and conditions. Additionally, he notes a seventh factor: extended learning opportunities in the form of summer programs, after-school programs, and pre-school programs. Access to these resources by poor and minority students could help mitigate the effects of the other six factors.

Here’s the link to the full policy brief. (712 KB PDF document)

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.