Category: BESC

The end of the line

It is with both sadness and a sense of great relief that I tell you this will be the final post on PPS Equity. [Here's Nancy's farewell.]For two years we have documented inequities in Portland’s largest school district and advocated for positive change.  Along the way, we’ve explored how to use new media tools to influence public policy and foster a more inclusive form of democracy.

The reason for this shutdown is simple: we are moving our family out of the district, and will no longer be stakeholders. A very large part of our decision to leave is the seeming inability of Portland Public Schools to provide access to comprehensive secondary education to all students in all parts of the city. We happen to live in a part of town — the Jefferson cluster — which is chronically under-enrolled, underfunded and besieged by administrative incompetence and neglect. We have no interest in playing a lottery with our children’s future, and no interest in sending our children out of their neighborhood for a basic  secondary education. These are the options for roughly half of the families in the district if they want comprehensive 6-12 education for their children.

While there are some signs that the district may want to provide comprehensive high schools for all, there is little or no acknowledgment of the ongoing middle grade crisis. If the district ever gets around to this, it will be too late for my children, and thousands of others who do not live in Portland’s elite neighborhoods on the west side of the river or in parts of the Grant and Cleveland clusters.

It cannot be understated that the failure of PPS to provide equally for all students in all parts of the district is rooted in Oregon’s horribly broken school funding system, which entered crisis mode with 1990′s Measure 5. A segregated city, declining enrollment and a lack of stable leadership and vision made things especially bad in Portland.

But Portland’s elites soon figured out how to keep things decent in their neighborhoods. The Portland Schools Foundation was founded to allow wealthy families to directly fund their neighborhood schools. Student transfers were institutionalized, allowing students and funding to flow out of Portland’s poorest neighborhoods and shore up enrollment and funding in the wealthiest neighborhoods.  Modest gains for Portland’s black community realized in the 1980s were reversed as middle schools were closed and enrollment dwindled. A two-tiered system, separate and radically unequal, persists 20 years after Measure 5 and nearly 30 years after the Black United Front’s push for justice in the delivery of public education.

PPS seems to be at least acknowledging this injustice. Deputy Superintendent Charles Hopson laid it out to the City Club of Portland last October: “It is a civil rights violation of the worst kind… when based on race and zip code roughly 85% of white students have access to opportunity in rigorous college prep programs, curriculum and resources compared to 27% of black students.”

Despite this acknowledgment, the district is only addressing this inequity in the final four years of a K-12 system. We don’t, in fact, have a system, but a collection of schools that vary significantly in terms of size, course offerings, and teacher experience, often correlating directly to the wealth of the neighborhoods in which they sit.

As the district embarks on their high school redesign plan, which is largely in line with my recommendations, predictable opposition has arisen.

Some prominent Grant families rose up, first in opposition to boundary changes that might affect their property values, then to closing Grant, then to closing any schools. (They seem to have gone mostly quiet after receiving assurances from school board members that their school was safe from closure. Perhaps they also realized that they have more to fear if no schools are closed, since it would mean the loss of close to 600 students at Grant if students and funding were spread evenly among ten schools. In that scenario, the rich educational stew currently enjoyed at Cleveland, Grant, Lincoln and Wilson will be a thinned out to a thin gruel. It would be an improvement for the parts of town that long ago lost their comprehensive high schools, but a far cry from what our surrounding suburban districts offer with the exact same per-student state funding.)

There is also opposition from folks who reflexively oppose school closures, many of them rightly suspicious of the district’s motivations with regards to real estate dealings and their propensity to target poor neighborhoods for closures.

Finally, there is opposition on the school board from the two non-white members, Martín González and Dilafruz Williams.

González’s opposition appears to stem from the valid concern that the district doesn’t have a clue how to address the achievement gap — the district can’t even manage to spend all of its Title I money, having carried over almost $3 million from last year — and that there is little in the high school plan that addresses this. (It’s unclear how he feels about the clear civil rights violation of unequal access this plan seeks to address. It seems to me we should be able to address both ends of the problem — inputs and outcomes — at the same time . The failure to address the achievement gap should not preclude providing equal opportunity. It’s the least we can do.)

Williams noted that she doesn’t trust district administrators to carry out such large scale redesign, especially in light of the bungled K-8 transition which she also opposed. It’s hard to argue with that position; the administration has done little to address the distrust in the community stemming from many years of turbulent and destructive changes focused mainly in low-income neighborhoods.

But more significantly, Williams has long opposed changing the student transfer system on the grounds that it would constitute “massive social engineering” to return to a neighborhood-based enrollment policy. Ironically, nobody on the school board has articulated the shameful nature of our two-tiered system more clearly and forcefully as Williams. But as one of only two non-whites on the board, Williams also speaks as one of the most outwardly class-conscious school board members. In years past, she has said that many middle class families tell her they would leave the district if the transfer policy were changed.

(Note to director Williams: Here’s one middle class family that’s leaving because of the damage the transfer policy has done to our neighborhood schools. And it’s too bad the district can’t have a little more concern for working class families. I know quite a few parents of black and brown children who have pulled their kids from the district due to its persistent institutional classism and racism.)

Williams (along with many of her board colleagues) has also long blamed the federal No Child Left Behind Act for the massive student outflows from our poorest schools, but this is a smokescreen. Take Jefferson High for example, which was redesigned in part to reset the clock on NCLB sanctions. Yet despite this, the district has continued to allow priority transfers out. Jefferson has lost vastly more funding to out-transfers than the modest amount of Title I money it currently receives.  If we don’t take Title I money, we don’t have to play by NCLB rules. (This is not a radical concept; the district has chosen this course at Madison High.)

It is hard to have a great deal of hope for Portland Public Schools, despite some positive signals from superintendent Carole Smith. We continue to lack a comprehensive vision for a K-12 system. English language learners languish in a system that is chronically out of compliance with federal civil rights law. The type of education a student receives continues to be predictable by race, class and ZIP code. Special education students are warehoused in a gulag of out-of-sight contained classrooms and facilities, and their parents must take extreme measures to assure even their most basic rights. Central administration, by many accounts, is plagued by a dysfunctional culture that actively protects fiefdoms and obstructs positive change. Many highly influential positions are now held by non-educators, and there is more staff in the PR department than in the curriculum department. Recent teacher contract negotiations showed a pernicious anti-labor bias and an apparent disconnect between Carole Smith and her staff. Principals are not accountable to staff, parents or the community, and are rarely fired. Positions are created for unpopular principals at the central office, and retired administrators responsible for past policy failures are brought back on contract to consult on new projects.

If there is a hope for the district, it lies in community action of the kind taken by the Black United Front in 1980. The time for chronicling the failures of the district is over.

In his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.”

I think this Web site has served to establish injustice. Many of us have tried to work with the district, serving on committees, testifying at board meetings, and attending community meetings. My family has brought tens of thousands of dollars in grant money and donations to the district, dedicated countless volunteer hours, and spent many evenings and weekends gathering and analyzing data.

There is no doubt that injustices exist, and there is no doubt that we have tried to negotiate. It’s time for self-purification — the purging of angry and violent thoughts — and direct action. It’s time to get off the blogs and take to the streets.

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

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Zeke Smith – Closing the Gap Then and Now

The high school redesign process is a mess but I have to wonder if that’s intentional.  Closing the achievement gap isn’t that complicated.  The district has had many opportunities to work towards closing the gap but failed to do so.

Here’s a list of some of the opportunities that the district has missed for better serving low-income and minority students:

  • failure to follow through on recommendations from mediation between PPS and the Education Crisis Team
  • failure to use almost $3 million in 2008/09 Title I funds intended to be spent on improving the educational program for poor kids
  • failure to use at least $500,000 annually in school level Title I funds for the last decade
  • a failed district audit of legally required Supplemental Services for struggling students
  • over two decades of failure to comply with civil rights laws for English Language Learners
  • decades of unchanging disparities in student discipline, special education, and talented and gifted rates

It’s widely believed that Zeke Smith is running the district now.  What does Zeke know about closing the achievement gap?

Zeke was the Portland Schools Foundation’s Director of Community Engagement in 2007 when they identified Astor, Clark, Faubion, Vestal and Woodmere as  Excellence in Education Award winners for being high poverty schools that were closing the achievement gap.  At that time the Portland Schools Foundation reported:

There is remarkable consistency in the research on the essential elements of schools that are closing the achievement gap – it doesn’t happen by chance.  Six key factors need to be in place for schools to make significant gains:

  • high expectations
  • leadership
  • quality teaching
  • ongoing professional development
  • community engagement
  • accountability

What?  Where does it mention equity in access? Is that  the 7th key factor?

It seems to me that the absence of the 6 key factors in this week’s high school resolution was the reason that board members Williams and Gonzalez opposed the resolution.

Show me a resolution that includes a detailed plan for ensuring those 6 key factors are in place and I might be able to get behind it.

SourcedFrom Sourced from: Cheating in Class. Used by permission.

Carrie Adams blogs at Cheating in Class.

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Where’s the Superintendent?

I’ve heard from teachers and central office office staff that Superintendent Smith stays behind closed doors and only her “team” is allowed access to her.  The superintendent is invisible to most people.  When the Superintendent appears at public meetings, she’s always reading from a script.  She presents and announces but she doesn’t just talk.

Last night I decided to write Superintendent Smith to share my concerns about the high school redesign.  I discovered that the Superintendent is also difficult to find on the PPS website.  It used to be that you could find the Superintendent’s link attached to many of her statements.  Now, they all link to the Communications office.

Below is my note to the Superintendent and the response that I received from Sarah Carlin Ames (PPS Public Affairs representative) less than an hour after I sent my email:

Carrie,

I’m helping Carole respond to some of her many e-mails.

You are absolutely right that it’s going to take a multi-faceted effort to truly confront our achievement gap. We know that effective teachers, excellent curriculum and support are all critical, along with a structure that better meets student needs.

We need to keep moving on all of these fronts. I am cc’ing Xavier Botana, our chief academic officer, because I know that he agrees. We have not resolved how to meet the needs of English Language Learners to the standards we should, at any level. We are continuing our equity work and engaging in “courageous conversations” about race, and working to change our institutional practices that fail to educate so many of our students and which consign too many students of color to special education and define too many as discipline issues.

The community school program we have described is important, however.  It allows all students better access to challenging courses, IB and AP, no matter where they live — opportunity we have denied many. It commits every community school to offer programs such as AVID, and to offer on-line credit recovery, credit by proficiency and other support to help students keep up and catch up. It increases the counselor services (not enough, but a start) and commits to working with community partners to offer other wrap-around services on-site. We also plan to incorporate lessons (and perhaps staff and programs) from our small schools into our focus school strategy — so that our focus schools truly meet the needs of different learners, and don’t become boutique schools for a self-selected elite.

There is no one silver bullet in closing the achievement gap — but by offering a community comprehensive school with a broad range of challenge and support in every neighborhood, along with well-designed focus schools, should be a positive step forward in a multi-pronged approach.

Sarah Carlin Ames

PPS Public Affairs

>>> “Carrie Adams” 02/10/10 9:39 PM >>>

Dear Superintendent Smith,

Your introduction to the resolution states:

“Let’s look at Cleveland, Grant, Lincoln and Wilson , our largest schools, and the ones that routinely post the highest aggregate test scores. At those four schools together, 70 percent of white students enter 10th grade on track to graduate. But only half as many - 36 percent - of their black students are on track.”

If those schools have the resources that we’re now saying all of our schools should have and yet black students are not doing well in those schools, maybe there’s a different kind of problem.

Has the district identified why black students at those schools are not doing as well as white students? What is the high school redesign team’s plan to address that?

How does the proposed high school system design address the district’s decades long failure to serve ELL students?

What’s in the high school design to address the over-representation of black and hispanic student discipline rates?

What’s in the high school design plan to close the achievement gap?

Carrie Adams

Sarah Carlin Ames deserves credit for her responsiveness and for working 24/7 but as you can see, my questions still haven’t been answered.

So why is the Superintendent being shielded from the public?   Why doesn’t she speak for herself?  Does the board have so little confidence in her ability to lead the district that they allow the Communications department to speak for her?

Note:  I originally published this post with a different title.  After second thoughts, I feel it was a mistake.  The point of the posting remains….the public needs to hear from the Superintendent in her own words.  We’ve heard enough canned public relations speeches to last for years.  Parents are long overdue for some candor, honesty, integrity and sincerity.

SourcedFrom Sourced from: Cheating in Class. Used by permission.

Carrie Adams blogs at Cheating in Class.

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Executive team takes a beach retreat

Portland Public Schools’ 13-member executive team, headed by superintendent Carole Smith, left today for a two-night retreat at the beach, according to an anonymous tip to PPS Equity.

District spokesman Matt Shelby confirmed that the superintendent’s team will be in Rockaway tonight and tomorrow night. Some will stay at the private home of a team member; others will stay at a rental house.

Shelby wrote in e-mail to PPS Equity that the rental and food are being paid for “by a fund in the [superintendent's] office — established by private donations — designated for organizational development and staff recognition. The only taxpayer money spent on this comes in the form of staff paid time.”

It was not clear exactly what they would be working on. “It’s my impression that it’s some goal setting and defining this year’s budget building process,” wrote Shelby.

The executive team consists of Superintendent Smith; chief of staff Zeke Smith; general counsel Jollee Patterson; chief academic officer Xavier Botana; deputy superintendents Greg Baker, Mark Davalos, Toni Hunter and Charles Hopson; director of community involvement and public affairs Robb Cowie; director of finance Mike Gunter; director of human resources Hank Harris; director of operations C.J. Sylvester; and director of system planning and performance Sara Allan.

Shelby said he requested more information and promised more details later; I’ll post them when I get them.

Friday update: Matt Shelby confirms that this is indeed the house the district is renting. Based on published rates, PPS is spending $850 for the rental, plus a $250 cleaning fee, for a total of $1,100 for lodging. They are also spending an undisclosed amount on food.

Shelby says this will be charged to an account with a balance of $8,000 from a private donation (an inquiry about the source is still pending). “The account has also been used to purchase cards, flowers, etc… during Teacher Appreciation Week and Classified Appreciation Week,” writes Shelby.

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

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PPS Conflict of Interests

I’ve never forgotten my first visit to Whitaker Middle School in June 2001.  It was shortly after Willamette Week broke the story  The Poisoning of Whitaker.  The Willamette Week story exposed a long history of radon poisoning along with other indoor air quality concerns at the school.  For about 10 years, PPS administrators failed to adequately address building conditions or to inform staff or students of the health hazards.

The first thing I noticed when entering Whitaker School (Pictured in the Cheating in Class banner) was that the cove base had been removed from along the bottom of the walls exposing mold.  There was a solid, thick, black line that ran parallel to the walls.  I realized as I got closer that it was a trail of dead ants which ran the full length of the hallway.  It looked as if someone had sprayed for ants but didn’t bother to clean up the dead ants.

It was during that visit that a staff member gave me a sample of what appeared to be a mushroom scraped from the wall in a special education classroom.  The building smelled awful.  I later learned that the smell was probably coming from a squirrel that had died in the basement.

I am not an environmental health and safety expert.  I’m a mom.  A mom who recognizes mold when I see it.  Whitaker clearly had a mold problem.

Still, PBS Engineering and Environmental who had been on contract with PPS for years, had produced report after report stating that there wasn’t an indoor air or mold problem.  They even produced a report the same month of my visit saying that “ventilation of the spaces tested appears to be adequate with respect to the ventilation parameters monitored and the particulate identified in the laboratory reports.”

In July 2001, Whitaker was vacated and later determined to be too toxic to renovate.  After spending $700,000 on maintenance for the vacant building over the next few years, PPS administrators decided to demolish the building.

The PPS board voted to borrow $2.1 million for the demolition in August 2006.

Well PBS may have missed the boat on the mold problem but they weren’t going to miss out on their share of the demolition dollars.  PBS oversaw the decommissioning of several underground storage tanks, hydraulic lifts and water wells.  They also developed erosion control and grading plans.

According to the PBS Engineering and Environmental project website:

“The Whitaker School project is a good example of how PBS incorporates their multi-disciplinary structure into a successful project.  Led by the Sustainable Design Group, all four PBS service areas - Engineering, Environmental, Health and Safety, and Natural Resources – brought this project to successful completion.”  It sure did!

You’d think that PBS would count their winnings and move on but no…they’re still providing services to PPS.  Their annual contract was amended on 10/12/09.  They continue to receive about $450,000 annually.

The Whitaker situation raises a question about potential conflicts of interest.  But that’s not new for PPS.

In 1998, PPS contracted with KPMG to conduct a comprehensive performance audit.  At that time, the district claimed to have solicited four firms to submit bids to perform the audit but only two firms responded.  KPMG’s proposal was incomplete.  The only mention of costs was a handwritten note at the bottom of a letter.  The note estimated costs at $300,000 – $350,000 with formal cost estimates to be sent at a later time.  The district didn’t follow their own Request for Proposals policy.

KPMG came up with 230 audit recommendations.  The most controversial being the recommendation to close 13 schools.  An Oregonian analysis conducted shortly after the audit found KPMG’s numbers to be inflated.  Many of KPMG’s findings are still in dispute today.

Research into KPMG’s background suggests that KPMG might have been motivated by their desire to profit from PPS closures.  KPMG was a partner in a for-profit education management company.  They used public school system audits to gain entry into schools.

KPMG was actively involved in pushing charter school legislation, vouchers and privatization.  It makes you wonder why the PPS board would have approved a contract with a company hostile to public education.

Now we have Magellan.  The Magellan website states:

Magellan K-12 is a specialty consulting firm providing services to education clients nationwide.  The firm is focused solely on the K-12 marketplace and provides Educational Adequacy and Suitability Assessments.  The firm develops educational standards and specifications, architectural programs, site selections, enrollment projections, geographic information systems, economic models, bond programs, and construction implementation plans.

Once again…one stop shopping.  Magellan can identify problems with PPS facilities, make recommendations about renovations and new construction, and manage all projects.

Not surprisingly many of the PPS staffers involved in today’s questionable contracts are the same people who brought us PBS Engineering and Environmental and KPMG.

I agree with the little girl.  There’s a fungus among us.  What do you think?

SourcedFrom Sourced from: Cheating in Class. Used by permission.

Carrie Adams blogs at Cheating in Class.

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PPS buys headsets for administrators, so they can keep talking and driving

Citing a new Oregon law that goes into effect January 1, Portland Public Schools IT administrators have sent an e-mail to staff reminding all “PPS Blackberry users” that they must use hands-free devices when talking on the phone while driving. Users who have lost the headset that came with their Blackberry may get a new one from the district.

Peer-reviewed studies published in both the New England Journal of Medicine and the British Medical Journal show a four-fold increase in the risk of collision when drivers are engaged in phone conversations, and that hands-free phones are no safer than hand-held. Another study, published in the journal Sage, shows that “the impairments associated with using a cell phone while driving can be as profound as those associated with driving while drunk.”

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

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Cheating in Class

A big PPS Equity welcome to Lili Taylor and her new blog Cheating in class: the shit they’re not telling you about the public education system.

Lili started posting last month, and has so far covered facilities concerns, financial waste at BESC, and the high school redesign in Portland Public Schools.

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

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PPS and the philanthro-capitalists

Sheila Wilcox had a problem. She was teaching eighth grade at a newly expanded elementary school, its first year with eighth grade. The building did not have adequate physical space for the middle grades, and the staff had almost no training or advice on teaching a self-contained middle grade class within an elementary school.

This was in 2008-09 school year, a year after Carole Smith, the newly hired superintendent, had formed a “K-8 Action Team,” and several months after that team had held a public meeting. Wilcox went to the team’s Web page and found somebody at the district office to e-mail.

Wilcox said she wrote to Sara Allan, listed as the project manager for the K-8 team, and told her: “I’m stuck out in a portable, I have no computers, I have no books, I’m teaching eighth grade.”

It took a week to get a response, said Wilcox, and she got no answers to her specific questions. She was told the district was trying to work with the K-8 schools to get the best programs in place. But there was nobody from the district working with teachers at her school, and she didn’t know who else to call.

Wilcox had also noticed that the K-8 team’s Web site listed courses her school had never offered and had no plans to offer. When she notified the district, they said it was data from the previous year, and it would be updated. It never was.

Sara Allan led the K-8 action team, along with two senior administrators: Joan Miller, a part-time retired administrator; and Harriet Adair, a full-time area director, supervising principals at several schools. The team held a series of community meetings in the 2007-2008 school year, and claimed to address some serious issues like libraries, algebra and science labs. The team showed competence in things like middle grade scheduling, but never fully accounted for the actual deficiencies of existing K-8 schools, or presented any real analysis of the scope and depth of the K-8 problem.

After a May 2008 community meeting, the K-8 Action Team went quiet. No more meetings were held, and no announcements made.

K-8s hadn’t stopped being a crisis in the community, but they seemed to have dropped off the district’s radar.

How did we get here?

The root of this problem was the rushed addition of middle grades to most elementary schools in the district, a process phased in over the previous three school years with virtually no planning or sense of a unified model. Principals were going it alone with no district support. Some middle schools were also converted, with the addition of primary grades. These schools managed the change relatively well, at least for middle grade students, since there were, in many cases, enough students to continue funding a comprehensive middle school program.

But most of the elementary schools that converted to K-8s have continued to fare poorly, many with largely self-contained classrooms and few, if any, electives. And as it happened, these  “ele-middles” (as coined by parent Lakeitha Elliot) are concentrated in poor and minority neighborhoods.

Middle schools were preserved in some parts of Portland. Eight of the district’s 10 remaining middle schools — Beaumont, da Vinci, Hosford, Jackson, Mt. Tabor, Robert Gray, Sellwood and West Sylvan — are located in majority white high school clusters (Cleveland, Franklin, Grant, Lincoln and Wilson). A total of two, George and Lane, remain in the district’s four majority non-white attendance clusters (Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt).

PPS claims they have not tracked the demographics of middle grade students assigned to and attending K-8 schools, compared to middle schools.  (I requested this demographic information from Public Information Officer Matt Shelby, and Sarah Carlin Ames, Director of Government Affairs. Shelby wrote in e-mail that the district is unable to fulfill my request.)

But it is clear, extrapolating from available data showing middle schools to be disproportionately white and non-poor when compared to the general PPS student population, that middle grade students at K-8 schools are conversely poor and non-white.

Deputy Superintendent Charles Hopson recently told the City Club of Portland that “based on race and zip code roughly 85% of white students have access to opportunity in rigorous college prep programs, curriculum and resources compared to 27% of black students.” Even without the direct, hard data from the district, we can see the same is true about access to comprehensive middle school programs.

The largest stretch between middle schools in Portland is the eight and a half miles between George middle school in North Portland and Beaumont in Northeast. This stretch spans historically poor and working class neighborhoods, and includes all of historically black Portland.

Org chart changes

With the new school year in 2009, the district announced  major org chart changes, including a promotion for Sara Allan, to “Senior Director of Planning and Performance Management,” reporting directly to Carole Smith and supervising a senior management team (three with the title of Director, plus two “Advisor[s] to the Superintendent” and three “Senior Managers”) in charge of everything from high school redesign to data and policy analysis. Harriet Adair, once an assistant superintendent, is now listed as an “Advisor to the Superintendent” on K-8 redesign, reporting to Allan.

Other than Adair, who also advises the superintendent on early childhood issues, it appears the K-8 Action Team no longer exists in any significant, working form.

Its Web page is no longer prominently linked on the district Web site, which has since undergone a redesign. But the page still existed as of publication of this article, listing these objectives to be completed by August 2008:

  • Work to identify critical operational supports for PK-8 schools in the 2008-09 year and develop strategies to fill gaps in the following areas.
  • Staffing
  • Enhancements to facilities
  • Professional development for teachers
  • Student support
  • Design a common districtwide PK-8 model and set of guidelines for grades 6-8 education and define a plan to build the required elements over the next three years.
  • Create a process to engage schools and the community in the vision and the plan.

It’s unclear if any of this work has been completed more than a year after its targeted completion. Allan said the team continues to exist, albeit without any dedicated, full-time staff.

“There’s lots of ongoing planning around how do we continue to make sure that all of our 6-8 programs are very comparable in terms of what opportunities students have,” said Allan. “They’re constrained by the resources that we have available, but there’s definitely ongoing work around insuring that we have consistent programs in all places so that kids are equally prepared for high school.”

Allan also said there is “a lot of work going on analyzing how we do staffing allocations.” Despite this work, K-8s continue to operate on the same staffing allocation as middle schools, which, with their much larger student cohorts, are able to offer dramatically more curriculum for the same money per student.

Just under half of the district’s middle grade students currently have access to a traditional middle school in their neighborhood. Would it make sense to go back to a middle school model for the entire district, or at least make sure that all students have access to a nearby middle school?

“I think the question is, is the structure of the middle school the answer, or is it what’s happening in the classrooms?” said Allan.

She said that by bringing middle grade student populations up to a minimum of 150 students, and with adjustments to the staffing formula, all middle grade students can have access to the same kind of education, regardless of the configuration of their school. That means the district will have to shift funding from middle schools, or  “equalize down”,  in order to provide even a basic middle grade experience in the K-8 schools.

Under the current funding formula, 150 students provide enough budget for about six teachers for the middle grades, enough to basically do self-contained classrooms. Astor, where Wilcox teaches, has around that number of students.

With an adjusted staffing formula, would there be any way to pay for electives like instrumental music and world languages for every K-8 school?

“That is the stuff we’re looking at specifically,” said Allan.

Rebecca Levison doesn’t buy it. She’s a teacher with experience in a self-contained middle grade classroom, and the current president of the Portland Association of Teachers, the union representing the district’s teachers.

There is no way, Levison contends, that the district’s K-8 schools will offer anything close to what is currently offered in middle schools.

The district’s K-8 strategy centers on retaining and building middle grade enrollment up to 150 students. That, combined with an adjusted staffing formula, appears to be the extent of planning to deal with a problem that is well into its fourth year.

It’s not clear if there is any plan to have an adjusted staffing formula in place,  or to increase enrollment for the 2010-11 school year, the fifth year of K-8 implementation.

Choice and equity

Over the years, as the district has experimented with a market-oriented, competition-based student enrollment system, schools in poor and minority neighborhoods lost significant enrollment, funding, and curriculum. Jefferson High School, Oregon’s only majority black high school, had an attendance area population of just over 1,500 in fall of 2008. Approximately 500 high school students enrolled that year, with nearly 1,000 transferring out under the district’s liberal school choice policies.

Then, as now, Jefferson’s course catalog reflected this loss of enrollment and funding. At the former arts magnet school, there were no music classes offered, no advanced placement classes, no chemistry, physics, or calculus, and no world languages other than Spanish.

The district has had no real strategy for dealing with this self-reinforcing spiral of declining enrollment and opportunity brought on by allowing students to freely transfer from one neighborhood school to another. Disproportionately non-white and poor schools like Jefferson were told they had to increase enrollment in order to replace lost courses. But without a reasonable course catalog, these schools didn’t have much in the way of recruitment tools.

Vicki Phillips, who preceded Carole Smith as superintendent, promoted school choice as a tool for equity in spite of overwhelming evidence of the damage it did to schools in poor and minority neighborhoods. Smith’s plan for high schools tacitly acknowledges the failure of this policy.

Under Smith, the district has announced a high school plan that would bring comprehensive schools to all, and significantly do away with the market-based strategy of choice and competition for enrollment pushed under Phillips, at least for high schools.

The plan would implement a high school system based on neighborhood enrollment, with student transfers restricted to guarantee similar school sizes and funding. This would also ameliorate the significant self-segregation that has resulted in schools more segregated today than thirty years ago.

Every student, or so the plan says, will have access to comprehensive neighborhood high schools of about the same size and with the same range of programming, including courses for college credit, instrumental music, choral music or dance, and a choice of world languages. This would be a major upgrade for schools in our poorest neighborhoods, and represents an important acknowledgment of a basic economic reality.

The free market approach to enrollment and funding is a demonstrable failure in Portland, when measured by access to educational opportunity. Unless the district is willing to significantly reduce opportunity for the white middle class, there’s no way they can pay for equity of opportunity without balancing enrollment, that is, by curtailing school choice. This is a significant element of the high school plan. With it, the district appears to be forging a path independent of current trends pushed by Gates, at least for high schools.

But the district appears unwilling to apply the same lesson to middle grades.

Sara Allan’s contention that it’s not the structure of the school that matters, but what goes on in the classroom, also closely parrots the current line being sold by Phillips, now head of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Phillips was the keynote speaker at the Council of The Great City Schools conference held in Portland last month, attended by Allan and quite a few of her administrative colleagues. In her speech, Phillips promoted merit pay for teachers, the latest policy thrust of Gates.

While superintendent in Portland, Philips was responsible for both the transition to K-8 schools  and the “small schools” initiative, funded largely by the Gates foundation, which dismantled every comprehensive high school in Portland serving majority non-white students, and split them into rigid “academies.” These academies forced students to choose a narrow field of study as freshmen, and didn’t allow students to take electives offered in other academies in the same building.

When combined with Phillips’ dogmatic fealty to school choice, comprehensive secondary education was thus eliminated for the majority of poor and minority students in Portland. Students who are white and wealthier are statistically more likely to take advantage of student transfers, so schools re-segregated even as attendance areas reintegrated and gentrified. With funding following students, and with rules in place to allow wealthy families to directly fund public schools in their neighborhoods, access to comprehensive secondary education was preserved for the majority of white students in Portland, even while it was eliminated for everybody else.

To date, we seem stuck with this legacy of Vicki Phillips, despite some positive talk about equity of opportunity: We continue to have a clearly defined two-tiered education system, particularly in the secondary grades, with ZIP code, race and class primary determinants of access to a broad-based secondary education.

Gates’ quiet partner

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has grown to be the dominant voice in the national education dialogue, heavily influencing the federal education policy of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. But even as PPS appears to be taking a non-Gates path on high schools, the district continues to be enamored with  Gates’ biggest private-sector education policy ally: Eli Broad’s education foundation.

In 2003, the Broad Foundation started a residency program to lure management professionals into the field of public education.  Founded by real estate magnate Eli Broad in the 1960′s, the foundation’s mission is “to advance entrepreneurship for the public good in education, science and the arts.”

The Broad Residency in Urban Education promises young MBAs with as little as four years’ work experience a package that might otherwise take a career to attain: a full-time, senior-level management position in a large urban school district (or charter management organization), reporting to the superintendent or top executive, and a salary of $85,000 – $95,000.

For two years, Broad pays half the residents’ salaries. The school district picks up the other half, plus the cost of benefits. After two years, the district is expected to keep the residents in their jobs, or promote them, picking up the full tab for their salaries.

Over the course of these two years, Broad flies its residents to eight quarterly trainings held at various locations around the country. Residents study topics like “Accountability and empowerment of schools,” “Influence using formal and informal authority” and “Initiating and sustaining large-scale change initiatives.”

The Broad Foundation, whose motto is “Transforming urban K-12 public education through better governance, management, labor relations and competition,” makes no bones about its support of charter schools and its desire to weaken teachers’ unions.

This ideology is couched in rhetoric about “student achievement,” especially among minority students, but Eli Broad himself is clear about his goals. Despite studies showing no improvement for students in charter schools, Broad’s strategy relies strongly on promoting them. Broad spoke at the Michigan Governor’s Education Summit in 2004.

“We believe that healthy competition has raised the quality of higher education in the U.S. and can do the same for our K-12 public school system,” said Broad. “Michigan is to be congratulated for being one of our nation’s leaders in providing parents with competitive education alternatives, through public charter schools.”

Also at the top of Broad’s agenda is eliminating seniority for teachers, and instituting merit pay, or, in today’s parlance “pay for performance.”

“Many labor unions have become obstructionist in holding teachers accountable for student performance,” Broad told his Michigan Audience. “We have to start compensating teachers on a performance basis rather than on seniority. I know that some unions don’t like to hear that, but introducing true accountability is essential to ensuring that student performance improves.”

This amounts to blaming teachers for the overwhelming effects of poverty in the lives of students.

“Student performance,” entirely measured by standardized test scores, correlates highly to poverty. Broad’s scheme would almost certainly assure that teachers in poor and minority communities would make less than their colleagues in wealthier schools, only worsening the achievement gap. This puts the lie to Broad’s (and Gates’) stated mission of closing that gap.

This kind of disconnect between Broad’s stated vision and his policy thrust hasn’t deterred Portland, a strongly blue collar town with high public support for organized labor, from welcoming Broad into its main school district.

Portland Public Schools has hosted four Broad Residents. One left after his residency, one is still in her residency, and two hold key strategic leadership roles overseeing the future of our schools.

Sarah Singer came to PPS five years out of graduate school in 2007, and led the high school system redesign planning over the past year or so (newly-hired Chief Academic Officer Xavier Botana appears to now be taking a more prominent role). Singer has two Masters’ degrees, but no prior professional experience in K-12 education. She makes $90,000 a year. (Top of scale for a teacher, with a PhD and twelve years’ experience, is around $70,000.)

The other is Sara Allan, who came to PPS as a Broad Resident in 2005, and worked at first in human resources and as a project manager. The K-8 Action Team was her first high-profile project. As an executive director she currently works part-time (80 percent) and is paid $90,000 a year. Her base salary of $112,500 is twice what many teachers make with an equivalent level of education. She never worked in a school or school district prior to joining PPS, and has no professional training in K-12 education.

District: No Broad Influence on Policy

Despite the Broad Foundation’s overt ideological thrust, Allan insists that Broad is not trying to push it on PPS.

“It’s really not just ‘bring corporate America to the schools’ at all,” said Allan. “It’s really very much a nuanced thing.”

Second-term school board member David Wynde agrees. He and his school board colleagues attended a Broad-sponsored retreat for in Los Angeles in 2003, in which Eli Broad addressed the attendees.

“There was no advocacy about policy content,” said Wynde. “They weren’t pushing a particular policy agenda. What they were pushing was [school] boards learning how to govern and what it meant to be an effective board, which is a good thing.”

Chief of Staff Zeke Smith acknowledges Broad’s political positions. “It would be silly of me to say that Broad doesn’t have any sort of ideological perspective in what they do,” he said, but he discounts that influence in PPS.

“I think they have an agenda in terms of putting people in a district and wanting to see innovation and change in those districts,” said Smith. “I think that’s why they’re bringing business leaders, but I think that’s also why they’re fairly open about what it is that you get. But I don’t think they’re prescriptive about what that is.”

Smith said the people PPS has hired out of Broad’s program bring “significant experience with project management, and that’s not necessarily a capacity that is well-developed inside of districts. So what we’ve gotten from that is people who understand how you take kind of large complicated issues that need a lot of different stakeholders — internal or external or both — to be involved, and put together a process whereby you can actually get to some real action steps and do it with some level of integrity.”

But can’t people with an education background manage complicated issues?

“Most people who work inside of a school district all the way up to the top have made their way to those positions from an education background,” said Smith, “and people value the idea that, ‘Hey, I was a teacher, then moved up the ranks to assistant principal, and then a principal, and then into administration,’ and there’s a lot of skills that they develop in those places; there’s a lot of skills that they’re exposed to through their classical academic training. Project management isn’t necessarily one of those.”

Smith also said it’s not just the corporate philanthropists pushing charters and merit pay. “We’ve actually got people inside of the White House and inside the administration who are probably going to push us more on those discussions and conversations than Broad has,” he said.

Indeed, the policy positions of Broad and Gates have been broadly adopted by the Obama Administration under Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The Race To The Top Initiative promises $4.35 billion to states, so long as they are amenable to merit pay and charter school expansion.

Broad’s foundation has maintained close ties to national policy makers of both political parties; its board of directors is a who’s-who of “reformers,” cozy with the current administration and its predecessors, who mainly tout charter schools and merit pay as salves for what they call “the education crisis.” The bipartisan board is chaired by New York City Public Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and includes former Cabinet Secretaries from George W. Bush (Margaret Spellings) and Bill Clinton (Henry Cisneros). Washington D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, well-known for her extreme merit pay programs, also serves on the board, as does Richard Barth, President and CEO of the KIPP foundation, a nationwide charter management organization with 82 charter schools, and Wendy Kopp, CEO of Teach for America, an organization that brings non-certified teachers to poor and minority schools.

A major thrust of the Broad Residency is the need for better management in the central office of school districts. Most district offices, it goes without saying, are full of former teachers in administrative roles. Teachers, Broad seems to think, can barely be trusted in the classroom, and they certainly aren’t qualified to be promoted into positions in control of large amounts of money.

Broad’s recruiting material spells it out: “Many school districts are the size of Fortune 500 companies. They need leaders and strong managers who understand the complex operations of a large organization—successful professionals with experience in human resources, operations, finance, strategic planning and other critical business areas.”

In Portland, one teacher, who prefers to remain anonymous, claims she overheard former Broad Resident Sarah Singer joke that being “education free” was a major qualification for leading education system redesign. (Singer denies having said this.)

The Teacher’s Union

Teachers and PAT are currently deadlocked over terms of a new contract to replace the one that expired in 2008. The two-year contract they are currently negotiating will expire in  seven months, assuming they reach an agreement by then. A key sticking point is the district asking for more hours and more scheduling flexibility from teachers, while refusing to budge on salary.

“We’ve had a lot of formal conversations,” said Levison, the teachers’ union president, “and there has been absolutely no movement on their side. You can’t ask to increase somebody’s work day while simultaneously cutting their salary.”

Levison was surprised to encounter former Broad Resident Allan at the bargaining table, and questioned her qualifications.

“I don’t think you’re qualified for school administration if you haven’t been in the classroom,” said Levison. “Someone who is working in education needs to have background and experience, otherwise they’re making decisions at the 30,000 foot level.”

Allan acknowledges she is “part of the bargaining team, providing background analysis,” and defends her lack of educaton experience. “The key role my department plays is more about project management, organizing a process rather than trying to know the answer,” she said.

Allan said her role is more one of process rather than policy. “It’s a diverse group of people that are on the bargaining team that all are contributing,” she said, “and so I might be playing a role of packaging and presenting.”

But Levison sees a pattern in the current administration of making decisions that do not take into account the realities faced by teachers, students and families. She cites the scheduling of several school days this year with two-hour late openings, a top-down decision made without input from the district’s scheduling committee, as another example.

“They don’t understand how it impacts teachers’ workloads, how it impacts students, and how it impacts parents,” said Levison.

Teachers are accustomed to tough-on-labor negotiating from the district, but it especially stings coming from a young MBA with no background in the field making a base salary 60 percent higher than the most senior, most qualified teacher in the district.

“There’s a level of anger when teachers are working harder than ever, and they see Broad scholars and senior managers getting raises,” said Levison. “It increases the anger.”

While the superintendent’s office claims the district’s recent central office reorganization cut more than 10 administrative positions worth a million dollars, Levison disputes their figures. She says there is a tendency to create positions for displaced administrators rather than laying them off.

While several “area director” positions were eliminated, none of the administrators were let go or faced pay cuts in their new roles, even with reduced responsibilities. Harriet Adair was an area director last school year, directly supervising principals at several schools. Adair now has no staff directly reporting to her, according to Zeke Smith.

A teacher, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the joke in the schools is that “they put so-and-so in the basement of BESC sorting paper clips.”

When teachers demonstrated en masse at a recent school board meeting, they made an issue of the $15,268 raise administrator Robb Cowie  got when he was promoted to Executive Director of Community Involvement and Public Affairs under the reorganization. The presence of highly-paid Broad staff at the bargaining table has further poured salt in the wound.

“I think there’s absolutely more they can cut,” said Levison. “None of these cuts are going to fill the hole, but when a Broad resident is making whatever they make, that’s an art teacher. That’s a music teacher. That’s a special ed teacher. That’s a special ed teacher and a para-educator.”

Levison is particularly irked at the way the district has dropped the ball on K-8 schools. “To ignore this huge disparity in K-8s and move on to high schools is just criminal,” she said.

Accountability: only for teachers?

While corporate philanthropists tout the importance of teacher accountability for student achievement, there doesn’t seem to be much accountability for their own failed reform efforts.

A commonly voiced perception in the community and in schools is that the K-8 model is a failure and that the K-8 Action Team has gone dormant. I asked Allan, now the person in charge of performance management for the district, how she would rate the performance of the K-8 Action Team.

“We’ve done a fairly lousy job,” she said, “in continuing to kind of engage with the community around this so they know what we’re doing, and they’re seeing it. I think we’re not necessarily hearing from them in terms of the same heightened level of concern as the K-8s have kind of matured a little bit, but that certainly doesn’t take the responsibility off us not to be doing a better job at engaging. So I would give us a bad grade on that.”

She claims some success with the K-8 model, and says there is no plan to go back to the middle school model that has been preserved in the wealthiest Portland neighborhoods.

“We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water,” Allan said.

“We’ve just been doing a big study on how’s student achievement doing at the K-8s versus the old middle schools, and there’s definitely some really good early indicators there in terms of closing the achievement gap,” said Allan. “We’re starting to see that some of our best results are coming out of K-8 schools.”

But this claim of K-8 success seems dubious, with the district unable to account for the demographics of middle grade students attending K-8 schools and with persistent and marked differences in the level of education on offer.

At Astor K-8 school, Wilcox said she and her colleagues had their break room converted to a classroom this year due to lack of space, a violation of their contract. Eighth grade continues to be taught in  self-contained classrooms in portables on the playground, and there is still little in the way of central support for teachers.

Meanwhile, district leaders, fresh from Broad, assure teachers everything is under control in K-8 schools  and demand more teacher flexibility in contract negotiations.

Pay no attention to the men behind the philanthro-capitalist curtain, their anti-teacher ideology and their solid track record of gutting public education for poor and  minority students in Portland. This is education “reform,” and it’s all about closing the achievement gap.

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

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This Week in PPS: teachers rally for a contract

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“More than anything, people just want to feel like they’re respected… If people felt more respected, they might have more sympathy for the district’s ongoing financial difficulties.” –Cheyne Cumming, teacher and PAT organizer

Approximately 1,500 teachers and their supporters took to the streets and marched on the school board Monday night to demand a contract. This Week in PPS, we hear from Portland Association of Teachers president Rebecca Levison, as well as organizer Cheyne Cumming.

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

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Willamette Week donates “surplus” paper to Woodlawn, Boise

When staff at BESC sold (and bought for themselves) “surplus” supplies at below market prices last month, Willamette Week bid unsuccessfully on a kiln and a pallet of paper, with the intention of donating them back to the schools. The buyer of the paper, who paid $100, agreed to give some of it to WW for that purpose, and Friday, WW announced it would be donated to Woodlawn and Boise-Elliot K8 schools.

A Boise-Elliot parent commented on the original WW story that there was no homework for fourth grade students due to a lack of copier paper. A teacher at Woodlawn, which she describes as “yet another inadequately funded PPS Pre-K-8 school,” said she and her colleagues would have gladly accepted the toilet paper, since the school can no longer afford to provide Kleenex to classrooms (even during the worst flu outbreak in recent history).

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

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