For the greater common good

6:30 pm

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.

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

filed under: Assessment, Blog, Charter Schools, Equity, Reform, Transfer Policy

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58 Responses

  1. Comment from Stephanie:

    Steve – I re-read your post and you did say this…

    While negative reinforcement isn’t very good for changing attitudes….

    So I am seeing a place where we agree. Again, I will post something specific to behavior but did want to say I saw this. It is semantics as well because positive and negative reinforcement are often misunderstood and misused by definition.

  2. Comment from chbmom:

    Hi all… since my last post… my son’s school has made huge strides in making sure my son has all the help he needs. I do appreciate that. However, I do believe it was only because I blew my whistle so loud they had no choice. My question.. had I not made my case to the school and school board would the principle of his school take him in personally everyday, and CALL me everyday to let me know how he was doing? The point is to remove the policy .. it makes zero sense. I know they want students to succeed, I know they don’t want students feeling bad, or less then others… But what about the cases where parents can’t, or don’t understand how badly this can affect their child??

  3. Comment from Stephanie Hunter:

    Keep blowing your whistle. It is exhausting but will hopefully be a model for others and also policy change. I have been lax on putting together a post on behavior yet unfortunately. I am glad things are working out better for your son and hope you can get consistent support. Keep us posted!

  4. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Stephanie, this is a pretty complicated issue to address in short posts on a blog. But I will add that I was single-handidly responsible for eliminating corporal punishment from PPS and also was fully responsible for initiating the district drug and alcohol programs. At the same time I believe children should have the right to attend orderly classrooms and schools where disruptions are kept to a minimum. I also see this as an equity issue. You shouldn’t have to go to schools where there are a lot more disruptions just because you live in a poorer neighborhood. Until we deal with this issue in a meaningful, sensible, and serious way then there will not be equity.

  5. Comment from Stephanie:

    I just got done trying to teach positive behavior supports to people who want to keep calling my class “the restraint training” and just don’t get it. So this is fresh for me as I nurse my headache from a class full of adult “disruptions” constantly questioning (I mean constantly) why they can’t just restrain children having behaviors and skip the warm fuzzy stuff.
    You are right about equity being at the heart of it and I reviewed the discipline data in PPS high schools and that tells a tale in itself. I posed a question to a group of folks about how behavior is handled. I asked specifically if a fight at Lincoln is handled differently than loitering at Jefferson? I don’t know the answer but I see inconsistency in the younger grades and kids that are poor, disabled, and non-white ARE treated differently and held to standards that are not age appropriate nor have they been taught yet or in the right way what the expectation is. I have no data and only have observations to go on and I am just curious.
    Do you see any hope of a consistent district wide curriculum that addresses behavior? A lot of other districts have done this and why hasn’t the largest in the Northwest? An across the board approach would actually define the expectation. In my daughter’s classroom I know they have tried a few things and seemed to have settled on losing a stick that represents something. I am not sure how it is implemented but know that the positive stuff works way better than losing a stick.
    Learning environment is important but kids are also distracted by hunger, what is happening at home, and interpersonal relationships. Class sizes that are too big, boring classes, teachers that don’t care…I am just having a hard time understanding the connection between poorer schools and more disruptions. There was a sub at my table this weekend talking about kids that just don’t want to learn and it sounded like a similar argument about disruptions. Is it more disruptions or the wrong learning environment for these kids in particular? Is it that we call poor kids disruptive and the other kids energetic? Help me understand this disruption thing and poor schools because I am just not connecting and see it as everything BUT that they are poor schools. Perhaps you addressed that by saying it is related to equity? I am not understanding.

  6. Comment from Stephanie:

    I am just delirious from this group I had today. I should not be commenting on anything right now. Steve, we should just get together sometime and talk about behavior and perhaps you can give me some tips on pushing for a district wide consistent system?

  7. Comment from Nancy R.:

    Just finished reading a profile of Steve Barr, “Mr. Green Dot Public Schools,” in this week’s New Yorker (5/11/09 issue). Man, and I thought the Urban Mamas had potty mouths. Big-ass agenda, big-ass union busting, and big-ass security guards who like to pepper spray students.

    Worth a read, esp. when it comes to Barr’s meetings with Arne Duncan, and talk of Duncan’s desire to commit billions of dollars of education stimulus $$$ to taking over at least 4,000 of the lowest performing schools nationwide in the next few years, and going Green Dot on them.

    (For more, check here and here

  8. Comment from Stephanie:

    Nancy – I will get to these links I promise but I know they will spin me into a different direction so I am putting on blinders.

    I did want to note that the board is reviewing a discipline policy draft tomorrow night. I won’t be able to pull anything together to speak tomorrow night but I think I can make it by 8pm to hear that part of the discussion and chime in next time. I have strong feelings on this and believe that any policy on discipline must also address the underlying issues to challenging behavior in any student no matter where they go to school or where they fall on the equity spectrum. Why are we suspending children in a district that will refuse them eligibility for a 504 plan because they see a naturopath? Are poor schools really disruptive or is this in the eye of the beholder and really it is an inequitable and inconsistent discipline system combined with a medieval way of educating children that need more engagement, higher standards, people that care enough to give them a hard time about not showing up, and mentor relationships to learn.