Category: Reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stop Pathologizing Children and Start Helping Them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.

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Rethinking Schools: Got Equity?

Forwarded from Lakeitha:

Dear Portland Area Rethinking Schools friends,

This is a reminder for the upcoming “TGI Thursday.” We are depending fully on email announcements these days — i.e., no paper sent out — so please help us get the word out:

Our “TGI Thursday” will be this Thursday, Nov. 6, — 4 pm social; 4:30 to 6 pm — at Westminster Presbyterian Church in the Fireside Room, 1624 NE Hancock, two blocks north of Broadway.

Our topic: “Got Equity? Stories and Conversations.” We’ll be using the Portland Area Rethinking Schools-produced report card to ask ourselves critical questions about how equitable our schools and school districts are — and reflecting on how we can use this information to make them better. It should be a lively and interesting session. — Full details at our website: www.portlandrethinkingschools.org

Also, I’m sure that we’ll want to spend some time discussing the election results and how these might influence the prospects for equity and justice in the schools. — We’ll also hear some brief reports from the recent First Annual Teaching for Social Justice Conference in Seattle, that attracted 325 educators from around the region.

Please send this announcement to friends and colleagues. We are no longer sending out paper flyers, so depend on emails and email forwards to get the word out.

Thanks.

Bill Bigelow
for the Portland Area Rethinking Schools steering committee

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

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Time for PPS to Take a Stand on NCLB

Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson issued an extremely sharp criticism of the federal No Child Left Behind Act on Thursday.

It’s time for the Portland Public Schools board and senior administrators to do the same thing.

Bergeson wants to replace AYP, reduce state testing to only 3 grades, and focus more on improvement — all good steps. She would also stop funding after-school tutoring under NCLB (called “supplemental educational services”) and transfers out of Title I dollars and equalize the per-student funding sent to each state (which now varies widely with, in general, poorer states getting less).

Monty Neill, Deputy Director for FairTest, offered this analysis:

The steps she proposes — mostly consistent with the Joint Statement on NCLB — would greatly reduce the damage while opening up space for real improvement. Regretfully, she fails to call for development of better assessment (she’s been a staunch defender of the state’s WASL test, including its graduation requirements) though she talks about “screening and diagnostic testing” (not sure what that really means). Her improvement proposals are pretty thin in many ways (see Forum on Educational Accountability documents for far better, stronger ideas). And her suggestions for English Language Learners and students with disabilities may raise concerns and are too slim to be sure what she means – lots of details to figure out there.

See this 3-page memo (32KB PDF) from Bergeson for more details.

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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Can PPS get it right at Madison?

The story of “small schools” in Portland Public Schools is one of desperation, hope, good intentions, bad will, and, ultimately, bitter irony.

PPS turned to the model when it had run out of ideas on ameliorating the “achievement gap.” Put aside for a moment the fact that schools are just one small input in the equation that yields abysmal school success rates for children affected by poverty. Under pressure from the federal government to raise test scores, PPS leaders turned to grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to split comprehensive high schools into autonomous schools-within-schools.

Originally conceived as “small communities,” with teachers as leaders and principals as teachers, the “small schools” movement had already gained a toehold in PPS, thanks to committed teacher-leaders like David Colton, who saw them as an opportunity to bring a private school atmosphere to the kinds of students least likely to have access to it.

There was never an intention to constrain students in narrow academic “silos,” to place artificial barriers between small schools, or to introduce more administrative bureaucracy. But this is exactly what happened at the four high schools torn asunder by the PPS interpretation of “small schools.”

Each of the three small schools at Madison were given their own “small school administrator,” at a pay grade ($91,140 – $101,092) one step above vice principal. At least one of these administrators had no classroom teaching experience. Despite an unworkable master schedule within the small schools, students were prohibited from crossing over into other academies to fill out their schedules.

The net effect is that for considerably more money, mostly due to the cost of extra administrators, students at these small schools get considerably less opportunity than they could be getting, if only PPS would make small modifications to their small schools implementation.

The obvious solution at Madison, without backing out of the small schools model entirely, is to allow students to fill out their schedules by crossing over into the other academies. It would also make sense to get rid of the three small schools administrators, and hire a vice principal. Use that money to put teachers in the classroom, and have senior teachers and counselors lead the small schools.

This is what the teachers who originated the concept wanted, but when counselor David Colton helped students fill out their schedules by crossing over into other small schools, he was placed on probation and threatened with involuntary transfer out of Madison.

Colton has the overwhelming support of his students and colleagues, as evidenced by the mass student walkout and the vote of no confidence in Madison principal Pat Thompson at the end of the school year in June.

The situation at Madison could be a watershed moment for Carole Smith. Her initial reflex was to side with administrators against the students and teachers, calling their actions “very disappointing.” Colton’s involuntary transfer is rumored to be proceeding.

But will students at Madison continue to be denied cross-over? There can be no legitimate reason for this. Even school board member Bobbie Regan, at Madison’s commencement exercises, acknowledged that students want to be able to do this.

The only reason to deny students the ability to fill out their schedules across small school lines is for Carole Smith and her administration to save face. Scapegoating David Colton for the problems at Madison, despite overwhelming support for his vision of small learning communities, not iron-clad, top-heavy small school silos, only further limits the educational opportunity of Madison’s students.

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

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The continuing history of racism in Portland Public Schools

Sixty-one years after Mendez v. Westminster, 54 years after Brown v. Board of Education, 51 years after the Little Rock 9, 48 years after Ruby Bridges, 45 years after George Wallace caved to the national guard at the University of Alabama, 28 years after Ron Herndon stood on the school board desk and demanded equal opportunity for Portland’s black school children, and two years after city and county auditors demanded justification for effectively segregationist enrollment policies, Portland Public Schools have become more segregated than the neighborhoods they serve.

The school board refuses to answer the auditors, and shows no intention of changing the policies that have created the situation.

The segregation (or “racial isolation,” as the district calls it) would not be so objectionable, if it weren’t for the fact that schools in predominantly white, middle class neighborhoods have dramatically better offerings than the rest of Portland.

The desegregation plan hatched by Herndon’s Black United Front and pushed through by then-school board members Steve Buel, Herb Cawthorne and Wally Priestley in 1980 did away with forced busing of black children out of their neighborhoods, added staff to predominantly black schools, and created middle schools out of K-8 schools to better integrate students within their neighborhoods.

For several years, things clearly got better for non-white, non-middle class students in PPS. Then the nation-wide gang crisis hit Portland in 1986, with white supremacist, Asian and black gangs wreaking havoc and contributing to a wave of white flight from Portland’s black neighborhoods and schools. This was followed by the draconian budget cuts of Oregon’s Measure 5 in 1990, which ended the extra staffing brought by the 1980 plan.

Under inconsistent funding and unstable central leadership throughout the 1990s, central control over curricular offerings devolved to the schools, and the gravity of a self-reinforcing pattern of out-transfers and program cuts became virtually insurmountable.

The devolution of curriculum was formalized under the leadership of Vicki Phillips in the early 2000s. Her administration pushed market-based reforms and “school choice” as a salve for the “achievement gap,” and used corporate grants to extend reconfiguration of high schools in poor neighborhoods into “small schools” which severely limited educational opportunities available to Portland’s poorest high school students.

(Small school conversions were tentatively under way at Marshall and Roosevelt when Phillips took office, but didn’t become the de facto model for non-white, non-middle class schools until Phillips pushed it through at Jefferson, against community wishes, and finally at Madison, casting aside the designs of veteran educators who had initiated the concept.)

A bond measure whose revenue was intended to restore music education to the core curriculum was instead frittered away in the form of discretionary grants to schools. Principals in poorer neighborhoods continued to put teaching resources into literacy and numeracy at the expense of art and music, while schools in white, middle class neighborhoods continued to offer a broad range of educational opportunity.

The Phillips administration also began to dismantle middle schools in poor neighborhoods, including, notably, Harriet Tubman Middle School, which was created under the 1980 desegregation plan. This move back to the K-8 model added significantly to the resegregation of middle school students.

It also turns out that middle schoolers in K-8 schools, who are disproportionately non-white and poor, get fewer educational opportunities at greater cost to the district. Predominantly white, middle class neighborhoods have, by and large, been allowed to stick with the comprehensive middle school model, which allows them to offer a much broader range of electives, arts and core curriculum at no additional cost.

So in 28 years, we have moved from a reasonable semblance of equal opportunity, with schools’ demographics reflecting their neighborhoods’, to a demonstrably “separate and unequal” system, with schools more segregated than their neighborhoods.

Current policy makers like to blame Measure 5 and the federal No Child Left Behind Act for the wildly distorted educational opportunities in the district, and they generally refuse to examine district policy in the context of the advances in equity that were realized 28 years ago.

PPS has managed to maintain pretty good schools in white, middle class neighborhoods through years of stark budget cuts, but they have left poor and minority children fighting over crumbs in the rest of Portland. Even as the steady march of gentrification makes our neighborhoods more integrated, our schools are more segregated than they were in the early 1980s.

When today’s school board speaks of “school choice,” the “achievement gap” or “equity,” they appear to speak in a historical vacuum. I hope to remind everybody of the context of PPS’s policies, and the continuum of institutional racism they are a part of. These policies are indeed racist in effect, no matter how they are rationalized or how they were originally intended.

And no matter how much they complain that their hands are tied, or how much they claim to be making progress by “baby steps,” the school board has total control over district policy. They could start rectifying this immediately if they wanted to. Yes, it’s hard — ask Steve Buel or Herb Cawthorne about their late-night sessions trying to push the 1980 desegregation plan through — but it can be done.

I know there are school board members who care deeply about equal opportunity. They may even be in the majority, depending on who is appointed to replace Dan Ryan.

But nobody on today’s school board has demonstrated the political courage or vision necessary to stand up for all children in Portland Public Schools.

With baby steps, we will never get where we need to go. Bold, visionary action is required.

Edited January, 2016: For more background on Ron Herndon and the Black United Front, watch OPB’s Oregon Experience Episode “Portland Civil Rights: Lift Ev’ry Voice.”

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

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Madison High counselor tells his story

Approximately 8 years ago Madison High School received a Carnegie Grant through the Portland Schools Foundation with the intent of exploring the promise of small schools.

When I was a counselor at Hosford Middle school I was witness to the success that Hosford had in their creation of three small school communities using the theories and research of Ted Sizer and Deborah Meier. The work they did in creating smaller learning communities was very compelling and held promise for high schools that struggle with getting a large percentage of their students to state benchmarks.

My positive experience at Hosford as well as my experience as a parent with a child at a private school set me on a mission to work with the administration and teachers to restructure Madison High School. I visited schools in Texas, New York City as well as local schools to experience first hand the impact that reform could have on schools and learning.

Monthly and bi-monthly meetings with a team of teachers and administrations led ultimately to the writing of the Gates grant to secure the funds to create smaller learning communities. There were many of us on the staff that felt that by going small we would see academic gains in our students.

Once Madison was awarded the Gates-Meyer Memorial Grant it became obvious that the administration had one vision and that many on the staff had another vision of what small learning communities would look like. It was apparent that structure was going to dictate curriculum and course offerings and that students were to be locked in to communities without access to electives or programs just down the hall.

There were not enough electives, and I found that students had holes in their schedules that could not be filled within the small learning community. Students asking to take a class such as advanced biology in another community were told no and it was suggested they take that that course at a local community college.

Administrators were going through schedules looking for unauthorized crossovers, and I was being written up for insubordination for filling a student’s schedule with something other than a teaching assistant in his or her community when they wanted an elective in another community. I went from having an administrator who had not evaluated me in 5 years to one that scrutinized my every move.

My new administrator is a woman who has never been a teacher, let alone an administrator, and who is long on scrutiny but short on practicality or reason. I went from not having a blemish in a long career to a plan of assistance that in truth was designed to shut me up and stop asking questions about the efficacy of how we were delivering the model for education in our community.

I have a lot of support in my building and the questions that got me in to trouble are being asked publicly and have even come out in the Oregonian. Small schools are supposed to about shared governance, teacher as leader.

Creating autonomous schools work for start up schools but not for conversion schools. Hybrid models, 9th and 10th grade academies, team teaching, project based learning, performance outcome based learning and a lot of collaboration and hard work will get students to parity with their peers on the west side of this city.

Show me one west side school that is embracing some of the notions that are being imposed on the less affluent east side schools. They don’t exist.

I have been screaming for equity for these kids and limiting their choices, taking their school away from them and their community is not serving anyone but the ideologues who are building a reputation on the backs of the students and the families least likely to have the ability to fight this approach or any other approach as they are just too busy making a living and trying to survive.

David Colton is a high school counselor and a former English and drama teacher.

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Madison teachers vote no confidence in principal, small schools

In a move teachers’ union president Jeff Miller calls “extremely rare,” Madison teachers have voted “no confidence” in their principal.

This is another blow against the Gates Foundation’s “small schools” model, which, under former superintendent Vicki Phillips, was implemented exclusively in Portland’s lowest income high schools: Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt.

Evidence continues to roll in showing this model is failing by virtually all measures to achieve its goals, and instead robs our poorest students of equal educational opportunity and accelerates the outflow of students and their funding from these schools.

Yet PPS, under new superintendent Carole Smith, has demonstrated no serious intention of returning comprehensive high schools to these neighborhoods. And there seems to be no thought of shifting the “small schools” model to a “small learning community” model, as proposed by educator and activist Terry Olson.

As with the PK8 transition, another serious mess left by Vicki Phillips, half of PPS high schools remain in serious crisis, and Carole Smith’s administration takes only tentative, superficial steps to address foundational design defects.

At some point the school board needs to assert some leadership. They need to define what constitutes a comprehensive education, and guarantee it in every neighborhood school. Until they take that fundamental step, talk of equity is meaningless and the district remains in turmoil.

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

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Rethinking Schools May 16: “Where’s the Equity?”

Please join Rethinking Schools colleagues from the Portland metro area to explore the tension between mandates and autonomy. What agreements need to be made so that ALL children receive a quality education? What systemic reforms put equity at the center of every decision? What agreements can teachers make to ensure that ALL students read writers from diverse backgrounds and write engaging assignments in all content areas? What systemic agreements ensure that teachers do not shoulder the burden of underfunded or misguided reforms?

When: Friday, May 16th, 4 pm – 6 pm

Where: Westminster Presbyterian Church, fireside room
1624 NE Hancock (2 blocks north of Broadway)

Please bring a friend or colleague or parent, and something to eat or drink to share.

Childcare available, but please call ahead: 503-282-6848.

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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