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

7:19 am

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

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

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

This is true, sad, and terribly unjust.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

filed under: Charter Schools, Curriculum, Demographics, Equity, High Schools, Program cuts, School Closures, Standardized Testing

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18 Responses

  1. Comment from Terry:

    Eloquently written and powerfully stated, Steve.

    I think I’ll send it on to the school board.

  2. Comment from Steve Buel:

    The “opportunity gap” really captures the idea. I just sat through 2+ hours of the Republican convention previously recorded on my new DVR (proving mostly the Republican party does believe in torture) and listened to them extol the virtues of “choice”. Scads of people (most I’ll bet have access to all sorts of choices for their kids’ education) applauded heavily for creating a choice of public, private,and charter schools. This is why we need a serious dialogue in Portland about the issues surrounding equity. Huge numbers of people want options for their own kid, but are unwilling to help guarantee a decent education for all children. We can’t get at this problem without the dialogue. And the school board continues to not want to talk. So thanks for keeping up the pressure. I don’t know what else to do.

  3. Comment from mneloa:

    So well put.
    Thank you.
    All I ever wanted was “equal opportunity” for my child despite our neighborhood and MY lack of
    This system has put parent against parent, school
    against school, instead of a common goal to provide opportunity for ALL our children.
    I’m tired and I’m done with the fight for now, but
    I hope you keep it going.

  4. Comment from ohme:

    As a teacher in one of these disadvantaged schools, I have to comment. We have some of the most dedicated, bilingual, highly endorsed staff I have ever served with. Certainly not the newest teachers, or least experienced. However, the constant pressure on testing and scores wears down even the most dedicated teacher.

    We look west and see schools full of students who have every advantage that most of ours do not: stay home parents, two parents, travel opportunities, English language ability, proper nutrition, proper dental/health care, home stability (not moving every year!). The scores coming from the schools on the west side reflect these advantages.

    Yet, we are required to meet all of the same benchmarks and standards with children who are years behind in social and verbal abilities, that have moved into our classrooms 2 weeks before testing, or who have been in the country for barely a year. If we do not, we are accused of not working hard enough, making excuses, or just not caring. Then we are told to cut art and science to make more room for reading and math in order to meet these standards.

    In addition, we are having to purchase hundreds of dollars worth of materials and basic classroom needs out of our own pocket. It is hard to ask the PTA for money when the parents and students have none to give.

    I love my students and my school, but sometimes I wonder what life is like across the river…and can understand why someone with seniority in the district might find their way across.

  5. Comment from Zarwen:

    You absolutely nailed it on “equity of opportunity,” Steve.

    Once again, my mind goes back to 15 years ago, when such phrases were not even needed–and scratch my head and wonder, how did we end up here?

    Oh yeah–the Foundation.

  6. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Ohme, the irony is that the wealthier schools, even as they are much better prepared to be tested, don’t risk losing any funding if they don’t make the grade.

    This is the most sickening thing about NCLB.

    I don’t think anybody questions that there are some really great teachers in our poorer neighborhood schools. I’ve met quite a few myself. But schools in wealthier neighborhoods do actually have a big advantage in teacher experience.

  7. Comment from ohme:

    I totally agree with you Steve, and your article is eloquent. I wonder what the impact to our schools would be if the district “just said no” to federal funding so we didn’t have to face these sactions. To know that an elementary school can face sanctions because their attendance fell less than 1% below a federal requirement is scary. Considering that for little kids, school attendance is really due parent involvement and responsibility. (with no district programs or funding in place to help with truency.) Thanks for this great site to air our thoughts about what is REALLY happening in the district.

  8. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    We have to watch how this plays out in the low-income schools. Will PPS do what Oregon City High School has done? Sophomores there who are below grade level in reading or math now must — MUST — take a second class in the subject, an intensive skills-based workshop designed to get them up to grade level.
    And what will the equity of access actually look like in terms of a core, common curriculum? If PPS can, in fact, assure us that all students will have the same access to the same high-quality offerings, then that will be fantastic. But the concern I have is that the “common curriculum” will include the basics, and that wealthy schools will have near-exclusive access to art, music, drama, and foreign languages.
    We’ll see . . .

  9. Comment from Zarwen:

    Steve reminds us of a very important point. For practical purposes, NCLB really only governs Title I schools. Title I is determined by the percentage of children receiving free/reduced lunches, i.e., the parents’ incomes. So, if your families are poor, your school desperately needs that Title I cash, so you will do handsprings to comply with these federal laws, no matter how punitive, no matter what the effect on the children. Middle- to upper-income neighborhoods can thumb their noses at NLCB if they want, since the feds have no means to punish them.

    It seems bizarre to me to pass a law that affects only poor children. Perhaps our congressional representatives would do the sensible thing and repeal it if the reality were presented to them in that light.

  10. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Zarwen – good point. But I’m not sure what will happen when the affluent/low-minority schools start “failing,” i.e., fail to make AYP. One of two things could happen: (1) the parents at these schools do as you say, i.e., thumb their noses at NCLB and AYP or (2) they will succumb to the propaganda around NCLB and pull their kids from these “failing” schools. I certainly hope for the former, but I fear the latter. What gives me hope is that once schools like Ainsworth or Forest Park start “failing” to make AYP, where the hell will parents transfer their kids? At that point, nearly EVERY school in PPS will be “failing,” i.e., not making AYP. Consider this will happen in the very near future if the law is not drastically changed: the 2007-08 academic targets were ten points higher than the previous year, and look at the huge increase in the number of “failing” schools. There’s another huge bump of ten points in 2010-11, when 70% of all kids have to be proficient in reading and math. Then, the very next year, it goes up to 80%. Then, the next year (2012) to 90%. So in 4 years, do you think 90% of all students in PPS are going to make AYP? Not a chance.

  11. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    One more thing to add . . .

    That said — in 4 years, there’s no way in hell that 90% of all students in PPS are going to make AYP — we might be able to inform parents and voters and let them know for a fact that — under NCLB — PPS is being set up to fail. People will either get that the emperor has no clothes or the system will collapse. But sitting idly by and letting the feds determine the direction of our schools is NOT the way to go. (Sorry for the shouting, but I’m kinda pissed off about this mess . . .)

  12. Comment from anon:

    PPS isn’t set up to fail. PPS is set up to protect middle class stduents and to concentrate the failures of NCLB on low income students and schools. The transfer policy segregates students by income so that PPS can get federal Title I money, but the low income schools receive all the punishments of the NCLB regs. Without the liberal transfer system the Title I eligible students along with the NCLB sanctions would be less concentrated in certain schools.

    Low income students and schools would be better off if they weren’t isoloated and segregated as a result of the transfer system. But, with the transfer system which buffers middle class kids from NCLB there isn’t a powerful enough incentive for the school board to address problems with NCLB, except to say all our school problems are due to NCLB and those low-income parents who don’t take advantage of the wonderful transfer system. PPS isn’t going to do anything to make the low income schools succeed as long as the current transfer policy is in place. NCLB makes it impossible so why even try.

    As with the Jefferson redesign grant and the Ockley Green magnet grant from the feds, PPS uses low income schools to bring in money to the district, but doesn’t give a carp if the school improves as a result. They use it as an opportunity to shift more money to the general fund. Money that is intended to help low income schools ends up hurting those schools with badly planned reforms and increasing funds for the rest of the schools.

    Closing of the opportunity gap will not happen without changes to the transfer policy.

  13. Comment from Terry:

    It seems bizarre to me to pass a law that affects only poor children.”

    That’s the only leverage the feds have, Zarwen. Since 1965, Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has been about helping out poor kids.

    It’s rewrite in 2002 –No Child Left Behind– takes full advantage of that leverage and attempts to make all public education look bad.

    It’s time to take a local stand against NCLB.

  14. Comment from Zarwen:

    Anon got everything right, but I just want to add that “Closing of the opportunity gap will not happen” as long as the Foundation exists. As long as there are Foundation schools, there will be inequity in PPS.

  15. Comment from mary:

    Thanks for putting equity in the context of equity of opportunity. Every student needs the opportunity for art, music, PE, language and college preparation classes.

    It will be interesting to see how the K-8 reconfiguration will effect transfers. In NE Portland the schools are full. The word on the street is that the easy transfer to Alameda, Laurelhurst or Beverly Cleary is no more. With Madison rejecting title I they are no longer on the NCLB list. Grant is packed full and the guaranteed transfer from Madison to Grant is gone. A guaranteed core curriculum and increased enrollment (not to mention gas prices) will impact transfers. I long for the day that drama, PE, music, etc. are funded publicly. Until then, I think the district will make few changes to the transfer policy.

  16. Comment from Zarwen:

    “Grant is packed full and the guaranteed transfer from Madison to Grant is gone.”

    It probably doesn’t matter any more, anyway, because in the latest “reconfiguration,” a large chunk of the Madison attendance area was rezoned for Grant. So now the kids who would have applied for transfers don’t need to—they are already in Grant territory!

  17. Comment from Marian:


    Actually, the boundary change in the Grant/Madison catchment areas only affected the K-8 grades. The high school boundaries remain the same. Madison didn’t lose any of its attendance area. Rose City was a “split feeder” school, where some kids went on to Grant and others to Madison. Now the kids who go to Roseway Heights only feed into Madison. The remaining K-8 population from RCP was split into Alameda, Fernwood, and Laurelhurst and feed into Grant.

  18. Comment from Zarwen:

    Thanks for the correction, Marian. Glad to know Madison didn’t lose any of its territory. Believe me, I am well aware of what happened to the kids in K-8. It still sickens me how RCP got carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey.