Category: Curriculum

A response to Carole Smith: Close the opportunity gap and the achievement gap will follow

In an e-mail sent to staff and some community members, Carole Smith expresses great enthusiasm and joy in her work on the first day of school. As a parent, I find this encouraging.

What I find discouraging is how she frames the issue of equity.

“…[W]ith every decision,” writes Smith, “we must ask ourselves about equity. All too often, a student’s family income and ethnicity predict his or her eventual success in school.”

This is true, sad, and terribly unjust.

But this defines equity exclusively in terms of outcomes. It omits two critical facts. The first is that as a school district, we control only a small portion of the inputs that lead to unequal outcomes.

Secondly, by focusing on outcomes, we conveniently avoid the inconvenient fact that a student’s race and income are also extremely accurate predictors of the wealth of curriculum and the level of teacher experience on offer at that student’s school.

The problem with striving for equity in outcomes is not that it’s a bad goal. It’s imperative that we improve things for our poorest students. The problem is that it is impossible for any school district to do this alone. We need a concerted federal, state and local anti-poverty program to make a serious dent in this problem.

“Closing the achievement gap” is a logical fallacy, in fact, and it’s perpetuated by the a breed of “reformers” we’re all familiar with: the Gates and Broad foundations, and our old friend Vicki Phillips. As they have pursued this false, unattainable goal, they have driven public investment out of Portland’s poor and minority neighborhoods and have set up schools for failure. This has led to increased out-transfers and decreased opportunity, and is a logical path to school closures. There can be no question that as a national movement, this is opening the door for more charter schools, and from there it’s just a small step to vouchers.

I don’t believe Carole Smith wants to convert our schools to charters or give out vouchers for private Christian schools. But I do believe her concept of equity is unduly influenced by those who are doing active harm to the institution of the common school.

It is a fundamental truth that we as a school district can never attain equity in terms of “success in school.”

Success, or “achievement,” are terms that boil down to extremely crude metrics (standardized tests and graduation rates), and they invariably have led to a narrower, shallower curriculum with a focus on “core” academics (numeracy and literacy) in Portland schools that serve disproportionate numbers of poor and minority students.

I’ve documented repeatedly how secondary students in the Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt clusters have been systematically robbed of comprehensive high schools (0 remain) and middle schools (3 remain). The predominately white, middle class students in the Cleveland, Grant, Lincoln and Wilson clusters have preserved their comprehensive high schools (all 4 remain) and middle schools (6 remain, including two each in the Wilson and Cleveland clusters).

It’s not hard to see how this reduction in the breadth and depth of curriculum would actually be detrimental to “achievement.”

Instead of tilting at windmills trying to shape outcomes while controlling only a small portion of the inputs that contribute to a student’s success or failure, Portland Public Schools needs to focus on the inputs it does control: equity of opportunity. This we can achieve, with existing funding, city-wide, today. We can end the equity “debate,” and I’ll gladly shut down this blog tomorrow, and start hammering on the state for better funding.

Let’s talk about equity in terms of not being able to tell the wealth of a neighborhood by the wealth of course offerings at the local high school.

Until we first see it in this light, and as a greater societal issue of poverty, it’s hard to take seriously the conflation of “equity” with the the logically false goal of “closing the achievment gap.”

Don’t get me wrong. I like Carole Smith, especially her energy, enthusiasm, and her desire to work with stakeholders to find solutions. She ends her e-mail with a quote from Ron Heifetz: “Solutions are achieved when ‘the people with the problem’ go through a process together to become ‘the people with the solution.’”

It is my goal to help our superintendent recognize the problem of approximately half of Portland as one of dramatically unequal opportunity. If you stand on the eastern boundary of PPS and look west, it’s hard to miss that students on the fringes of PPS (and of society) have been getting a progressively worse and worse deal as we strive to “close the achievement gap,” a process which has systematically widened the “opportunity gap.”

Instead of focusing on crudely measured outcomes, largely determined by inputs we have no control over, we need to focus on the inputs over which we have total control.

I firmly believe that if we first address the opportunity gap, gains in closing the achievement gap will follow.

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

18 Comments

PPS Equity 2007-08 retrospective

The 2007-08 PPS school year heard lots of talk of equity, but no common vision has emerged for what that means or how we can get there.

Things started on a cautiously optimistic high note with the hiring from within of Carole Smith, whose staff started saying the right things about equity.

The school year built to a climax with the mayor’s week at Jefferson in January, but the wind started to come out of the sails with a new budget that brings further staffing cuts at schools in poor neighborhoods. Questions remain about the district’s commitment to “proof points” at Jefferson, such as merging the academies, to say nothing of restoring the performing arts department or restoring AP classes.

Questions about the PK-8 transition bubbled up and led to Smith’s first encounter with an angry mob. She responded with an action team. Some of the biggest holes are plugged, but PK-8 remains in crisis, still short library staff for eight schools.

In the end, we still don’t know: What defines equity? There have been no changes to the policies most responsible for inequity (open transfers and the school funding formula). Worse, the district seems fixed in a mindset that they can guarantee outcomes for children affected by poverty. But this mindset has subjected our poorest children to less educational depth and breadth, and can only accelerate out-transfers of those better off.

The longer they try to deliver “equity” like this, the more inequitable things have gotten.

Ultimately, the only path to equity is equal opportunity and balanced enrollment. That is (like I said in September), we’ve got to define a comprehensive curriculum (including arts, libraries, technology, etc.) and deliver it in every neighborhood school, and we’ve got to talk about the transfer policy in the detail requested by the Flynn-Blackmer audit, issued two years ago this month.

September 2007

Report on transfer policy and neighborhood funding inequity presented to school board

I present the school board and interim superintendent Ed Schmitt the first draft of my report Charting Open Transfer Enrollment and Neighborhood Funding Inequities (261KB PDF). The report details how the district’s transfer and enrollment policy takes significant funding from our poorest neighborhoods — over $40 million in 2006-2007 — and hands it to our wealthiest neighborhoods. The poorest school clusters — Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt — continue with disproportionate program cuts as enrollment and funding flow to more affluent neighborhoods. Schools in wealthier neighborhoods effectively maintain comprehensive programming at the expense of our poorest citizens.

PPS changes policy to allow corporate advertising in school gyms

Before Carole Smith is hired, the school board votes to allow the Trail Blazers to “donate” the refinishing of our ten high school gym floors in exchange for the placement of permanent corporate ads. Dwight Jaynes loves the idea, others do not. Rick Seifert (of Red Electric fame) inspires the nickname Dwight “Burgerville” Jaynes.

October 2007

Smith hired from within

Bucking a trend of hiring administrators from outside of the district, the school board surprises many by hiring Carole Smith from within. Smith wastes no time setting high expectations, saying “Jefferson’s going to be great.”

District low-balls rehired custodians

Opening negotiations with their rehired custodians, PPS offers a 30% pay cut.

District data show transfer policy aggravates segregation

In advance of board discussion on the transfer policy, administrators present data showing the segregation caused by the transfer policy.

City offers million dollar band-aid to district’s 40 million dollar problem

Erik Sten‘s Bureau of Housing and Community Development offers Portland schools a million dollars to to “create excitement.” Excitement fails to materialize.

November 2007

Board dances around transfer issue, takes no action to balance enrollment

The school board finally gets around to talking about its transfer policy, a year and a half after auditors asked for clarification. They artfully avoid answering city and county auditors’ questions about racial and economic segregation caused by its policy.

December 2007

Board rejects all four charter applications

Possibly signaling a new attitude, the school board rejects four charter school applications.

New Administration makes positive rumblings about “Equity”

Carole Smith’s administration starts saying the right thing about equity.

January 2008

Mayor Potter comes to Jefferson

The school board comes, too, and is met with a parade of students speaking eloquently about the lack of rigorous and varied course offerings available to them. The Jefferson High School PTSA presents the school board with their comprehensively damning resolution calling for an end to the transfer policy that has devastated the schools in our poorest neighborhoods. I put in my two cents worth, too, addressing the intolerable inequity created by the board’s transfer policy.

The whole scene is repeated Wednesday, when the City Council meets at Jefferson. In addition to the students and PTSA members, city council candidate and Wilson High parent Amanda Fritz addresses the council about the glaring differences between her daughter’s school and Jefferson. I speak of the school district and city working at cross purposes.

The week wraps up with the mayor’s state of the city address to the City Club on Friday, with club members getting a tour of Jefferson’s half-empty library, and the mothballed metal shop, TV studio and band room.

The entire week leaves the Jefferson community buoyed by a sense of hope and possibility. How could a city like Portland tolerate such glaring inequity?

February 2008

PPS Equity launched

It seems like it’s been a lot longer, but I just launched this site in February.

The last “Celebration!”

PPS holds its last “meat market” school choice fair.

PK8 comes to a boil

Two years after a rushed decision to eliminate middle schools (in some neighborhoods; the west side gets to keep theirs, evidently) parents come together to demand a better deal for their middle-school children.

Custodians stave off 30% pay cut

Custodians and food service workers are made to feel good about taking a 3-year wage freeze.

Ivy charter withdraws application

With the board poised to approve their application on appeal (with some modifications), the organizers of the Ivy Charter School withdraw at the last minute. The other three applications in the cycle were rejected and did not appeal.

Smith’s first budget: where’s the equity?

Carole Smith’s first budget makes a few tentative steps toward equity, but does nothing to balance enrollment or help schools hardest hit by the transfer policy.

March 2008

Smith forms PK8 action team

Two years after beginning implementation, the district decides to start planning for it.

April 2008

Deep cuts to poor schools

As community members start to study the budget, deep cuts are discovered at our poorest schools, putting the lie to the “overarching” goal of equity.

Gates “small schools” make no progress

Touted as a salve for the “achievement gap,” our poorest schools were carved up into academies. New data show these schools continue to have the worst dropout rates in Portland.

May 2008

Jefferson Students walk out, protest lack of progress

Frustrated at staffing cuts, and a continuing lack of breadth and depth in course offerings, Jefferson students walk out, demanding curriculum, teachers, AP classes, language classes, College Center, and
other programs.

School board funds new books for middle schoolers, even as many schools lack library staff

Some parents question the timing and priority of the move.

PK8 team addresses some concerns

PK8 schools get some basic guarantees, but district won’t commit to library staff for nearly a third of PK8 schools. Transition remains in crisis, but at a lower boil.

June 2008

Madison students walk out, decry “small schools”

Protesting the anticipated “involuntary transfer” of a highly-regarded counselor, around 50 Madison High School students walk out, also citing discontent with the “small schools” model that has them constrained in narrow academic silos.

Oregonian covers small schools

In an A1 story in the Sunday Oregonian, reporters Betsy Hammond and Lisa Grace Lednicer write about the failure of the Gates-funded “small schools” to bridge the “achievement gap.”

But it is quixotic to form policy around outcomes, as former PPS school board member Steve Buel has pointed out.

Over the summer

Teachers and students get summer vacation, but the school board never sleeps. They meet all summer, and three of them will be entering the final year of their term (Henning, Ryan and Sargent). Will the transfer policy be addressed in a meaningful way? Will we finally figure out how to talk about high schools, school mergers (closures) and facilities, all in one fell swoop? Will anybody present a vision for what PPS will look like in five years? Stay tuned….

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

7 Comments

Publishers vs. librarians: PPS chooses publishers

In an unsurprising vote Monday night, the PPS Board of Education moved to spend $1.2 million on middle school history materials, the first such adoption in over 20 years.

I differ with some of my activist cohorts on the degree to which standardization is necessary to ensure equity (I’m pleased the district is moving toward more standardization in general, though I have doubts about the kind of “canned” curriculum we’ve just committed to purchasing). But these differences aside, we can agree that something we’ve dealt with for twenty years, for better or worse, does not constitute a crisis for our middle school students.

Nearly half of our middle school students are in crisis, though. In recent conversations with parents from the Roosevelt, Madison, Jefferson and Grant clusters about the PK-8 conversion, it is clear that the lack of full funding for this transition is causing irreparable harm to an entire cycle of middle schoolers at PPS.

This is the emergency situation that needs the school board’s attention and funding, not the curriculum-in-a-box we just dropped $1.2 million on.

At the top of the list of unfunded operational needs are libraries. The budget, as approved two weeks ago, is short three to five full-time-equivalent (FTE) positions for librarians, and does not provide for appropriate middle school materials in the elementary schools that now must serve middle schoolers.

It also does not provide funding to guarantee computer labs, age-appropriate restroom facilities, lockers or white boards, among other things.

Just to start filling these basic needs, based on documentation provided by the district, would cost around $1.6 million. (It will surely be more, as the district gets a better accounting of the state of all schools.) This does not even begin to address the lack of FTE budget to offer any kind of depth in electives, after school programs or arts education.

To fully address the immediate, critical PK-8 operational funding deficit would probably cost many times this amount (I guestimate $3-6 million, which would still not cover the FTE needed to provide real breadth and depth of curriculum in the smaller PK-8 schools), but we’ve got to start plugging these critical holes now.

When I addressed the school board Monday night, I asked them to postpone the 6-8 social studies curriculum adoption for one year, and instead use this $1.2 million to start closing the gap in PK-8 operational funding.

Nicole Leggett and Michele Schultz have together identified several other sources to fully fund the PK-8 transition:

  • Cap administrative wages for one year. (All non-represented district level and principals etc.) Savings: $1.18 million
  • Reallocate Non-Instructional Personal Professional Services Fund. Savings up to $3.63 million.
  • Reallocate to spend Internal Services Contingency Fund. Savings up to $3 million.
  • Spend from the reserve.

The point is that this constitutes a real emergency for our children. New text books, which we have lived without for 20 years, are not as critical as well-stocked, fully-staffed libraries and age-appropriate facilities.

In board discussion before the vote, it was suggested that adopting this new curriculum and staffing libraries can proceed on separate tracks. But we’re not proceeding with libraries, and we are proceeding with this text book adoption.

There is a real disconnect between the school board and the parents I’ve been conversing with. The board does not have a sense of urgency to get the PK-8 transition right. Carole Smith has assembled a smart, experienced team to plan and implement the transition (two years after it began, but that’s not her fault). But they can only do so much without full funding.

What I suspect is that the board is hedging until they are forced to acknowledge the obvious: those who supported the PK-8 transition are now in a minority on the board, and there is significant doubt as to whether this model can deliver a comprehensive middle school education in a cost-effective manner.

With most PK-8 schools having fewer than 100 middle school students, and the superintendent’s staff acknowledging a need for more like 180-200 students to do it right, it’s clear we’re on a collision course with reality.

As much as I’d like to take that strategic issue head-on, we’re not changing course for the coming school year. Meanwhile we have thousands of middle schoolers who will not have access to libraries, computer labs and age-appropriate restrooms in the coming school year.

It’s time to stop asking the children to pay for the mistakes of adults. Instead of sending $1.2 million to text book publishers, we should be using it to hire the librarians we need, and stock their libraries.

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

5 Comments

Common curriculum and equity

These are the remarks delivered by Chief Joseph parent Peter Campbell to the PPS Board of Education Monday, May 14, 2008. –ed.

The mantra behind the common curriculum adoption has been equity. A legitimate case was presented that schools have inequitable curricular offerings, i.e., “good”/rich schools have better curricular offerings than “bad”/poor schools. The solution? Mandate that every school offer the same books and materials to all students.

While that may seem like a practical solution, it fails to recognize how this solution actually gets implemented. Here are the key sticking points:

  1. A common materials adoption does not address the inequity that lies beneath the surface. Low-income kids wake up poor, go to school poor, and go home poor.
  2. Just because you tell teachers to use these materials does not mean they are going to use them. For example, there’s widespread evidence that the recent elementary literacy adoption — Scott Foresman’s “Reading Street” — is not being implemented in a uniform fashion. Some teachers are using some of it, some are using all of it, and some are using none of it.
  3. The fact that teachers choose not to use common materials is no blemish on teachers. Far from it. Most teachers are highly-trained professionals who exercise their professional judgement in selecting materials that match the needs and interests of the children they are paid to serve. In some cases, the common materials address these needs. But in others, they do not.
  4. Too often, a common materials adoption requires that teachers learn how to implement a program. For example, elementary teachers over this past school year have spent an inordinate amount of time learning how to teach Scott Foresman, not teach reading.

So instead of wasting tax-payer money on a feel-good solution that does nothing to address the underlying inequity, a solution that good teachers know when to use and when to reject and that often forces teachers to waste time learning how to implement a costly and ineffective program, I urge you instead to spend our precious resources on site-based professional development. As countless studies have shown, one of the best ways to address the inequities in curricular offerings is to make sure that teachers are getting the kind of ongoing support and training they need. So there’s uniformity in a commitment to high-quality training and support across the district. But leave it to the teachers and the building principals to figure out how to implement the goals of this professional development. In so doing, you’ll be targeting dollars where you get more bang for the buck instead of wasting money on expensive, canned, one-size-fits all materials that gather dust on the shelves.

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.

1 Comment

Remarks to the School Board re. curriculum adoption

These are the remarks delivered by Peninsula parent Nicole Leggett to the PPS Board of Education Monday, May 14, 2008. –ed.

Good Evening, School Board,

I’m Nicole Leggett of Peninsula School. It has come to my attention that schools across the district have need of access to books. But not through another multi-million dollar curriculum adoption. What we need for are librarians to input, shelve, and then be there to check out the vast collections of books, we have already spent valuable resources on. Really we need to put what we have to good use, before you adopt a Social Studies curriculum that lacks sufficient buy-in to prove it’s urgently needed.

In a District with 43% drop out rate, we need to think about proven strategies that work across the varied demographics we have. Access to a library and the additional attention found there works every time. As the Mound of Information submitted to you from the United Librarians supports. 43% drop out rate screams crisis to us parents. Slow this curriculum adoptions process. Or dig into the reserve or levy. Our children deserve to read that book, in the back room, that can’t be checked out or shelved though the new system by Willing Volunteers. Give us librarians to do their job. We can’t fix this gross waste of resource, but you can. Put the Social Studies adoption off for a year. Till you can show it is as supported by staff, parents, and students as the PE adoption seems to be.

The Local Option Levy was passed by the public for many reasons. Not just the new Text Books the District has focused these funds on. Diversify the public’s interest. Go with something we know works. Access to books! I urge you to postpone this adoption. To instead implement an Open Library Policy.

Also, Please explain what K-8 families can expect from Archon, Inc. for the $100,000 that is proposed tonight?

Thank you

Nicole Leggett is a Peninsula K-8 Parent.

Comments Off

Next Entries »