Category: Reform

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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Monday update

As the school board begins to draw battle lines on the high school redesign, resistance is emerging in expected quarters.

Two weeks ago, the Oregonian editorial board opined against changing the student transfer policy, which has brought a bounty of enrollment and school funding to wealthy neighborhoods in tough times. (As one acquaintance put it, you can always count on the Oregonian editorial board to defend white privilege. I had some words about it here.)

A week ago, in an online op-ed on OregonLive.com (where The Oregonian maintains a half-assed Web presence) Grant High teacher Geoffrey Henderson argued against neighborhood schools, claiming there simply is not enough money to do it. (He doesn’t address how Beaverton, with similar size and demographics and identical state funding, has maintained a very viable and effective neighborhood-based school system during the two decades that Portland’s has been dismantled.)

Last Thursday, The Oregonian ran the op-ed I wrote in response to their editorial. (I joked with my wife that pigs must be flying, because I wrote a strong defense of PPS, and the O published it without rewriting it.) I expected to get some flack for it, and I have. They give you 500 words to make your case, which isn’t enough to get into nuance. I used those 500 words to give the district props for finally addressing the student transfer policy, at least in part, nearly four years after city and county auditors found it to be at odds with their stated goal of strong neighborhood schools.

Suffice it to say, many are troubled with aspects of the high school redesign.

In my high school redesign minority report, I suggested modifications to the ban on neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers to build trust in communities that have historically been hurt by district policies.

The district also missed an opportunity to build trust and demonstrate system planning competence by not fixing the K-8 mess before embarking on high school redesign. And, increasingly, community members are expressing doubts about the magnet school aspect, with concern that it will simply weaken neighborhood high schools. At a recent work session, it was revealed that enrollment at Benson High, our only major high school without an attendance area, would be significantly shrunk under current plans.

The school board is expected to vote on a series of resolutions next month, which will help clarify the process going forward.

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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In the news: teachers take on “Race to the Top” nation-wide; PPS staff recommend hip hop charter

Teachers and their unions are gearing up to take on the Obama administration’s pro-charter, pro-merit pay “Race to the Top” initiative. Paul Abowd writes in Labor Notes reports that teachers from New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles met recently in LA “to bring a vision of education reform that puts educators, not ‘education management organizations,’ in the driver’s seat.”

Kim Melton reports on OregonLive.com that PPS staff are recommending the school board approve a charter high school with a focus on hip hop, modeled on the High School for Recording Arts in Minneapolis.

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

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High school design press conference

Superintendent Carole Smith will announce her recommendation for the high school system redesign tomorrow, 10:30 am on the steps of Benson High School. Advance reports indicate the chosen design will be most similar to the “strong neighborhood schools” model (which was the strongest of the three proposed models), with school choice limited to district-wide magnet schools, charters, and alternative schools.

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

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High school system redesign: an (unauthorized) minority report

Note: The Superintendent’s Advisory Committee on Enrollment and Transfer (SACET) was asked to study and report on the high school system redesign. The SACET report (67 KB PDF) was issued in May, with the full support of 12 of 14 members of the committee. One member supported the report with some questions, and one member, your humble editor, could not support the report.

There was no official mechanism within the committee to issue a minority report, so this report is an ad hoc response to the shortcomings of the SACET report. As a member of that committee, I bear a share of responsibility for these shortcomings, so this report is not intended as a personal attack on any of my committee colleagues who spent a great deal of time and energy on a report that reflects much that I agree with. Rather, it seeks to cover areas that SACET did not cover, and amplify their call for “a plan that has neighborhood schools as its foundation.”

This report refers to the “Three Big Ideas” (592 KB PDF) as presented by the Superintendent’s team. This minority report is also available for download (124 KB PDF) –Ed.

Introduction

The Superintendent’s Advisory Committee on Enrollment and Transfer (SACET) was asked to study and report on the “Three Big Ideas” for high school redesign. The three models were presented in broad strokes, with no analysis to support how the models would lower dropout rates, increase graduation or narrow the achievement gap.

The SACET report took note of these shortcomings, but failed to substantially analyze specific information that was given. The committee also failed to supplement given information with readily available data.

Specifically, SACET did not examine the three proposed high school models in light of:

  1. the clearly stated enrollment and transfer implications of the models,
  2. the number of campuses that would likely remain open with each model, and
  3. comparisons to existing high school models in the district and their successes and failures.

The committee also questioned the urgency of the process, which would seem to indicate a failure to appreciate how grossly inequitable our current system is. We don’t, in fact, currently have a “system” of high schools.

This lack of a central system (along with other factors, such as the school funding formula and allowance of neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers), has led to the statistical exclusion of poor and minority students from comprehensive secondary education in Portland Public Schools.

Therefore, it is of tantamount importance that we immediately begin implementing a system that eliminates race, income and home address as predictors of the kind of education a student receives in high school.

For the first time since massive revenue cuts in the 1990s began forcing decentralization of our school system, we are envisioning a single, district-wide model for all of our high schools. That is a remarkable and welcome step toward equity of educational opportunity in Portland Public Schools.

The focus of this minority report is on the three factors listed above: enrollment and transfer, number of campuses remaining, and comparisons to existing high schools.

Analysis of the Models

Special Focus Campuses

Large campuses (1,400-1,600 students) divided into 9th and 10th grade academies and special-focus academies for 11th and 12th grades. Students in 11th and 12th grades must choose a focus option.

Enrollment and transfer implications This model would more or less keep the existing transfer and enrollment model, and depend on an “if we build it, they will come” model to draw and retain enrollment in currently under-enrolled parts of the district by focusing new construction in these areas (per Sarah Singer).

School closure implications This model would support 6-7 high school campuses, leading to the closure of 3-4.

Comparison to existing schoolsThis model would draw on the “small schools” models that have been tried with varying degrees of success at Marshall and Roosevelt, and which have been rejected by the communities at Jefferson and Madison. It would also use the 9th and 10th grade academy model that has been successful at Cleveland.

Neighborhood High Schools and Flagship Magnets

Moderately-sized (1,100 students) comprehensive high schools in every neighborhood, with district-wide magnet options as alternatives to attending the assigned neighborhood school.

Enrollment and transfer implications This model would eliminate neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers, as well as the problems that go with them: self-segregation; unbalanced patterns of enrollment, funding and course offerings; and increased vehicle miles. School choice would be preserved in the form of magnet programs.

School closure implications As presented, this model would support 10 high school campuses, requiring none to be closed.

Comparison to existing schools This model most closely resembles the comprehensive high schools that are the most successful and are in the highest demand currently in Portland Public Schools.

Regional Flex

The closest thing to a “blow up the system” model. The district would be divided into an unspecified number of regions. Each region would have a similar network of large and small schools, with students filling out their schedules among the schools in their region.

Enrollment and transfer implications Transfer between regions would be eliminated, allowing sufficient enrollment to pay for balanced academic offerings.

School closure implications Most high school campuses as we know them would be closed or converted, in favor of a distributed campus model.

Comparison to existing schools This model would draw on both small schools and comprehensive schools currently existing in our district, but as a whole would be more similar to a community college model than any existing high school model in our district.

Recommendation

It is understood that these models represent extremes, and that the ultimate recommendation by the superintendent will likely contain elements of each.

That said, the Neighborhood High Schools model is the closest thing to a truly workable model. If used as the basis of the ultimate recommendation, that recommendation will stand the highest political likelihood of winning a critical mass of community support.

Specifically, the neighborhood model:

  1. is responsive to high demand for strong neighborhood schools;
  2. supports a broad-based, liberal arts education for all students, but does not preclude students from specializing;
  3. balances enrollment district-wide, providing equity of opportunity in a budget-neutral way;
  4. preserves school choice, but not in a way that harms neighborhood schools;
  5. reduces ethnic and socio-economic segregation by reducing self-segregation;
  6. takes a proven, popular model (comprehensive high schools) and replicates it district-wide, rather than destroying that model in favor of an experimental model (small schools) that has seen limited success in Portland (and significant failures);
  7. preserves the largest number of high school campuses;
  8. involves the smallest amount of change from the current system, causing minimal disruption in schools that are currently in high demand;
  9. is amenable to any kind of teaching and learning, including the 9th and 10th grade academies and small learning communities; and
  10. preserves room to grow as enrollment grows.

This system is very similar to the K-12 system in Beaverton, which has a very strong system of choice without neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers.

The transfer and enrollment aspect of this model is its most compelling feature.

We have learned definitively that when we allow the level of choice we currently have, patterns of self-segregation and “skimming” emerge. These effects are aggravated by the school funding formula and a decentralized system. Gross inequities in curriculum have become entrenched in our schools, predictable by race, income, and address. These factors have also led to a gross distortion in the geographic distribution of our educational investment.

Clearly, in the tension between neighborhood schools and choice, neighborhood schools have been on the losing end. A high school model that includes neighborhood-based enrollment, while preserving a robust system of magnet options, is a step toward rectifying this imbalance.

We’ve also learned (through transfer requests) that our comprehensive high schools are the most popular schools in the district.

As we have experimented over the years with non-comprehensive models for some of our high schools, the remaining comprehensive schools have been both academically successful and overwhelmingly popular. The small schools model, while it has much to recommend, has been implemented in a way that constrains students in narrow academic disciplines, flying in the face of the notion of a broad-based liberal arts education.

There is certainly nothing wrong with small learning communities, but a system that requires students to choose (and stick with) a specialty in 9th or 11th grade is unnecessarily constraining.

A comprehensive high school can contain any number of smaller communities, including 9th and 10th grade academies. Older students may be assigned to communities based on academic specialty, but that shouldn’t preclude them from taking classes outside of that specialty.

The Neighborhood High Schools model clearly does not do everything – our district will remain segregated by class and race. But it would move in the right direction by eliminating self-segregation and beginning to fully fund comprehensive secondary education in poor and minority neighborhoods.

The enrollment and transfer policy could be further tweaked to help reduce racial and socio-economic isolation, as well as to alleviate community concerns that the reduced transfers will lead to poor and minority students being “trapped” in sub-par schools.

To this end, neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers could be allowed, so long as they do not worsen socio-economic isolation. In other words, a student who qualifies for free or reduced lunch could be allowed to transfer to a non-Title I school, and a student who doesn’t qualify for free or reduced lunch could be able to transfer to a Title I school. This is a form of voluntary desegregation that is allowable under recent Supreme Court rulings, since it is not based on race.

Conclusion

All of these models show creative thinking, and, most importantly, a strategic vision to offer all students the same kinds of opportunities, regardless of their address, class, or race. The importance of this factor cannot be overstated.

While none of the models specifically addresses the teaching and learning or community-based supports that are necessary to close the achievement gap and increase graduation rates, they all are designed to close the opportunity gap.

But only the neighborhood model hits the right notes to make it politically feasible and educationally successful: strong, equitable, balanced, neighborhood-based, comprehensive schools, preserving and replicating our most popular, most successful existing high school model, and keeping the largest number of campuses open. The choice is clear.

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

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For the greater common good

I publish this Web site to advocate for the greater common good. I even came up with a mission statement some time back to capture this notion more specifically:

The mission of PPS Equity is to inform, advocate and organize, with a goal of equal educational opportunity for all students in Portland Public Schools, regardless of their address, their parent’s wealth, or their race.

I’ve been troubled by the direction some recent discussions here have taken, as have some readers who have contacted me privately.

Discussions about poverty and race have pushed some into extreme frustration. One reader sent me this link as an illustration of the attitudes she has encountered on this site.

Another reader chafes at what she perceives as an anti-test bias on this site. She cites data showing “65% of PPS 10th grade black students getting a C or better in math but ODE assessments show[ing] only 21% of that population at benchmark.” There’s huge distrust of the district within minority communities, and this kind of data shows why.

Yes, we’ve seen district policy ostensibly aimed at narrowing the “achievement gap” contribute to a two-tiered school system. But that doesn’t mean the achievement gap isn’t real, that the district can’t take real strides in addressing it, or that we shouldn’t have some objective standards by which to measure the district’s progress in doing so.

This is just one example of where teacher-reformers clash — perhaps unwittingly — with civil rights activists, a fight I don’t want to get in the middle of.

The charter school discussion is another fight I’m weary of. It has veered repeatedly into personal territory, with charter parents getting passionately defensive about their personal choices, and charter opponents criticizing those choices with equal passion. From within that melee, I asked a simple question: How can charters contribute to the greater common good?

Besides modeling pedagogy that we already know works, nobody seems to have an answer to that succinct question (though some have pointed out how charters work against the common good).

At the end of the day, I’m not interested in hosting a pissing match about personal choices. I also don’t want to get too deeply into education reform issues, which increasingly seem to pit progressive-minded teachers against civil rights groups (not to mention their strange bedfellows in the market-oriented, anti-union, foundation- and corporate-funded “reform” movement).

I don’t doubt that education reformers want to help all students, and that charter parents would love a system where everybody wanted and got what they’re getting. But these discussions don’t seem to lead to much unity of vision or purpose.

One thing I know for sure: the enrollment and funding policies of Portland Public Schools have resulted in a pattern of public investment and placement of comprehensive schools that demonstrably favors white, middle class neighborhoods and students, to the detriment of the other half of the city. I’m not naive enough to think righting that wrong would be enough for our poor and minority students; I think the district should learn to walk and chew gum at the same time — i.e. address inputs and outcomes simultaneously.

But this is the focus I want to get back to here: what can we do to make our public school system fair, just and equitable for the greater common good? If we’re not working toward answering that question, I fear we’re getting sidetracked… just as we finally see signs of movement in that direction at the district level.

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

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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.

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Towards a Hybrid Model of Teaching and Learning

This is a half-baked idea. I fully admit it. So I need your help. There’s lots of talk these days about “crowdsourcing” through the blogosphere, i.e., tapping into the collective wisdom of large groups of people in order to develop ideas or solve problems. So I thought I’d give it a whirl . . .

My daughter is currently enrolled in a PPS school. We like a lot of what our daughter’s school has to offer, esp. regarding the approach it takes in letting kids pursue things they’re interested in and not pressuring very young kids to “be at grade level.” But we’re also considering homeschooling again.

There’s been talk on this blog recently of the agonizing position that many parents are put in RE: their neighborhood school options. “me” wrote:

“Within just a few blocks from us, I can count at least 3, if not 4 or 5 families who are already talking about having to move or opting out of public schooling if it came to that. Several others have already voted with their feet by going to private or online schools. Flight can happen without having to move at all.”

It might be time for the district to think about committing resources to support homeschoolers here in Portland. As I mentioned in a recent comment on this blog, I’m interested in seeing more hybrid models of teaching and learning. As was pointed out in another comment on this blog, the “hybrid” teaching model I’m looking for is already happening to a limited extent in some schools around PPS. But it happens “only at schools viewed as ‘alternative’ by the district, or at neighborhood schools with the resources/demographics to support partnerships with the community resources (private, or parents) to dedicate that kind of time during the school day.” It was suggested in the same post that “a return to comprehensive schools with larger cohort populations would help that to some degree” because “(i)t’s easier to justify dedicating the resources to provide a diverse curriculum when you have the student population base to support it.”

But I’m thinking of something else. In this hybrid model I’m envisioning, our traditional brick-and-mortar schools would function more as community centers. They would offer classes, similar to what Village Home offers. They would offer childcare and healthcare, too. Parents could take parenting workshops while kids played or took classes, similar to what Continuum Learning Community offers. Kids and parents could form affinity groups and then plan outings around shared interests: trips to OMSI, the zoo, Forest Park for a hike, etc. To make it manageable for working parents, parents could volunteer one day a week to be the chaperone/guide/facilitator for the day. In essence, this would resemble a teaching and learning co-op.

If students were enrolled in a PPS-sanctioned and supported homeschooling facility at least half time, the district would still get state dollars. The students would still be PPS students, albeit in a “hybrid” mode. Maybe this would be a way to mitigate some of the awful effects of “school chance”?

So what do you think gang?

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: high school models unveiled

Portland Public Schools staff gave the school board the first look at it’s ideas for a high school system today, and Willamette Week reporter Beth slovic gives us the first public look.

There’s a lot to like, including the fact that balancing enrollment and opportunity, something I’ve long advocated, is a salient factor in the thinking. Model B looks quite a lot like something I’ve seen somewhere else. Models A and E also have a lot to recommend, and are based on neighborhood attendance.

Kudos to Carole Smith and her staff for seeming to get to the basic truth that we must balance enrollment in order to pay for equity of opportunity.

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

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