Monday, September 23, 2013

Bifurcated Constituency

The September 18, 2013 edition of This Week Hilliard ran a story titled "Board Developing Goals to Evaluate Marschhausen," in which I am quoted as saying that we have a "bifurcated constituency" here in our school district. The story said I pulled that phrase from a book I had a recently read, but actually it was of my own choice of words. The book I mentioned is The Diverse Schools Dilemma by Michael Petrilli.

So what did I mean?

The short answer is that our school district serves two broad sets of students: those who are economically disadvantaged, and those who aren't. Petrilli describes the different needs of those two sets:  the parents of economically disadvantaged children want the schools to concentrate on basic reading, writing and arithmetic, while the affluent parents want enrichment programs for their kids.

The huge urban and the poorer rural districts therefore need to devote most of their resources to the basics. The small number of ultra-affluent enclaves can spend their money on fantastic enrichment programming.

But the suburban districts - like us - are increasingly being caught in the middle, with both a significant population of economically disadvantaged students, and a sizable fraction of kids from affluent homes - plus the whole spectrum between. That sets up a tension as to how scarce resources should be allocated.

If that's a sufficient answer to the question of what I meant by "bifurcated constituency," you can stop here. But I hope you will read on.

Petrilli is the executive vice president of the Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank which originated in Dayton, and is now based in Washington DC. Petrilli wrote this book for parents who had decided to move back into the urban center and wanted, like him, to have their own kids attend the public schools. Petrilli's wanted his kids to grow up understanding how to navigate in an America with ever-increasing cultural, racial, and economic diversity. He discovered some pretty interesting stuff in his search for the best school to meet that goal.

It is well accepted that there is a strong correlation between poverty and academic performance. Here is a chart showing data published by the Ohio Department of Education, depicting 100 public school districts in the central Ohio region:
click to enlarge
This chart shows clearly the correlation between poverty and academic performance, but we should be cautious about drawing conclusions. It's possible that there a direct cause-and-effect relationship here, but there are certainly other factors in play. In other words, we can't assume a simple solution - that simply raising the standard of living for folks in poverty will also raise the academic performance of their children in school. I suspect that such an effort would have little effect, yet be cripplingly expensive for our economy. Unfortunately, a good deal of public policy seems to develop based on such faulty conclusions, because they play well in the political area.

I won't pretend to understand all the reasons for this correlation between poverty and performance, but I have spent a couple of years volunteering as a reading tutor at Sullivant Elementary of the Columbus City Schools, as part of the Columbus Tutoring Initiative (more on this later). Over 90% of the students at Sullivant are classified as Economically Disadvantaged (ie the family income is below 185% of the Federal Poverty Guideline). The Performance Index for this school, a measure used on the State Report Card, is 54.5% - extremely low (our district has an overall Performance Index of 103.6%).

Another factor regarding Sullivant, which is not published on the State Report Card, is that fewer than half of the parents have completed high school. This is what I believe is the root cause of the high levels of poverty - the parents don't have enough education to secure jobs which provide a living wage. But it's not the poverty that leads to low student achievement - it's that parents with little education are unlikely to model good learning behaviors for their kids, or help them learn basic skills prior to starting school.

Because these parents don't read well, they don't typically read to their kids. Nor do their kids see their parents curl up with a good book just for personal enjoyment. One second grade student I worked with bragged to me about his skills with some video game he played with his dad, which put him in high esteem with his peers, yet he could barely read the lowest level books.

Most of these parents want their kids to do well in school and have a better life. They just don't how to contribute to the process. So they count on the teachers in the public schools to make sure their kids learn the basic skills necessary to make it to high school graduation, learn a trade, and if possible, get into college.

Contrast this to kids who come from from homes higher on the economic ladder. Those parents have been able to qualify for high-paying jobs because they have more education. When they have kids, they read to them. We had a rocking chair in our kids' room, and we sat in that chair with a kid or two on our lap every night reading nursery rhymes and Dr. Seuss books (thirty years later, and I can still recite the opening couple of pages of Cat in the Hat).

So I don't think it's poverty that leads to low academic performance of children - it's that poverty is usually an indicator of the parents' level of education, and it's that which determines what kind of head-start a kid gets in life. The primary role of the public education system is, in my opinion, to lift kids out of that environment, and help them become self-sustaining members of our society.  It's a matter of national survival as far as I'm concerned.

Back to the "bifurcated constituency" here in Hilliard.

Our school district is home to a broad spectrum of families. Some folks are very wealthy - just take a spin up Riverside Dr after the leaves have fallen and check out all the multi-million dollar homes along our side of the Scioto River. Some of the most expensive homes in Franklin County are in that stretch of a few miles. The property taxes alone on on the mansion built by the late Don Ettore are $116,000 per year!

While that kind of property is rare, there are thousands of homes in our school district valued at several hundred thousand dollars, occupied by owners well up the economic ladder. That's good for all of us.

At the same time, a quarter of our students are classified as Economically Disadvantaged. Some are students with roots going back many generations in this country, others are recent immigrants. Regardless of the cultural background, the students in this category tend to have parents who are unable to support their kids' academic development because of a lack of English language skills.

It shows up on page 9 of our State Report Card, the section titled "Gap Closing."  This section breaks out performance data, expressed as the percentage of students in each subgroup who achieve the Annual Measurable Objective (AMO) for the subject area. For 2013, the reading goal is to have 83.4% of the students be Proficient or better, and for Math it is 78.5%.

The subgroup breakdown for our district is:

Asian/Pacific Islander
Economically Disadvantaged 
African American*
Limited English
Students with Disabilities

*I believe the category "African American students" includes those students who are recent immigrants from Africa. Such students usually fall into three categories: African American (because no other racial category fits), Economically Disadvantaged, and Limited English. We don't have clear data for African American students who are not recent immigrants, but I assume that the performance correlation for this subgroup is not to race, but rather to economic status.

So while our Overall achievement is above the goal, the categories I've shown in bold are all below goal. Because so many of these subgroups are below goal, our overall rating for Gap Closing was a "D" - one of two "D"s we received on our report card.

What was the other "D"?  Ironically, it was in the Progress category for our Gifted Students (see page 7).

The needs of these two categories are diametrically opposite, a situation Petrilli found when he was investigating schools for his kids to attend in the Washington DC public school district. The Economically Disadvantaged students benefit most from being taught basic skills, regardless the grade level, but critically important at the primary level.

Meanwhile, the more affluent parents select a school district based on the quantity and quality of enrichment opportunities: gifted programming for elementary students, college level curriculum at the high school level, successful athletic programs, and superior performing arts organizations. They assume that their kids will breeze through the basic curriculum, and want them to have access to much more.

So it becomes a matter of resource allocation. Since 86% of our operating budget is used (appropriately) for the compensation and benefits of our team of teachers, staff and administrators, what decisions should we make about reconfiguring our team to address the issues pointed out on our State Report Card?

One reaction could be to simply disregard the State Report Card. I don't know what repercussions this might have, but typically the way the State gets school districts to comply is by threatening to take away funding. I've suggested on more than one occasion that we should just declare our district to be a charter school, and escape from most of the mandates which apply to a public school district. That's not as crazy at it seems - I bet we could run one building as the state-mandated K-12 public school, and sell the rest to a new charter school corporation, staffing the new charter school with the same team of teachers (who could continue to organize as the HEA if they want). The trick is how to do local funding, since only a public school district can levy local taxes.

That not being a very likely scenario, we might decide that the only way to bring up the performance of the Economically Disadvantaged students is to assign more teachers and other professionals to work with these students. Then we have another choice to make: do we create these new positions by passing additional levies to fund the additional compensation and benefits costs, or do we eliminate other programming and services so that the total personnel costs remain the same?

And if we decide that we're going to reallocate personnel, what programming and services are we willing to eliminate? Since we couldn't mess with basic, state mandated curriculum, the only candidates for elimination would be the enrichment programs I listed above.

But if we do that, at what point does our district become unattractive to the most affluent, and therefore most mobile members of our community. And if they start leaving, what happens to overall property values?

It's not hard to imagine. It would be a repeat of the "White Flight" that has all but destroyed most urban school districts around the country, although today it would be more accurate to call it the "Flight of the Affluent" as the upper income strata are now occupied by families of all racial and cultural backgrounds.

Hilliard would begin to look like South Linden, the Hilltop, Franklinton and many other Columbus neighborhoods which were once home to working class families, but are now mostly rental properties occupied by families living below the poverty line. Once well-maintained homes would fall into disrepair, further driving down property values, and employers would seek better places to base their operations. Income and property tax revenues would fall, diminishing the ability to fund city services and the schools.

It's a death spiral that results in communities that look like Whitehall or Groveport, once well-funded suburbs that have been suffering since the closure of DCSC and Lockborne Air Force Base.

So what's the solution?

I don't see that there is a single magic bullet. But that doesn't mean there is nothing to be done. Rather, I think we'll have to do a little of a lot of things. Here are few ideas:

  • I do think we have to take a look at the richness of our high school course offerings. There are some classes we offer for which very few students sign up. But it's not a matter of saying "let's discontinue X and reassign the teachers to Y," as teachers are licensed in fairly narrow subjects, meaning the teachers of X aren't likely to be licensed to teach Y. This is a transition best done over many years as teachers retire, when we can replace an X teacher with a Y teacher rather painlessly. But if we're going to do this, we need start thinking it through and planning now.
  • I think we need to explore ability-based grouping of students in the elementary levels. This is often called 'tracking,' and was the norm when I was in elementary school 50 years ago. At some point, the education community decided that it's harmful to low-performing students to be segregated from high-performing students.

    I recognize that I'm not a professional educator, but I think this is an experiment in social engineering that hasn't panned out. Petrilli rightly points out that this kind of segregation happens in the upper grades automatically: high performing students take the honors and AP classes while the low-performing students take less challenging electives.

    I've spent hundreds of hours in elementary classrooms over the past four years. One key thing I learned is that it's very challenging for our elementary teachers to deal with a classroom of 25 students who have performance levels ranging from barely able to read to some  who I suspect are the geniuses who will change our future. What "expert" determined that the notion of an elementary teacher sitting down to work with a small subset of students at one ability level while the rest of the kids are supposed to "work independently" makes any sense?

    Perhaps both the lower-performing kids and the higher-performing kids are best served by grouping kids by ability, allowing the teacher to spend all of her/his time with all of the students. It seemed to work for my generation.

There are no doubt many other things we should look at. But here's one that requires no money, no levy votes, and no bureaucracy:

I've been a volunteer in the Columbus Tutoring Initiative for the past four years. The first two years were spent at Sullivant Elementary, as I mentioned above. I had the privilege of working with the same student, Nicholas, for both years, as both a first and second grader. He started out not wanting to be in the program, as it meant giving up his mid-day recess once each week. But over time, it became an important part of the week for both of us - a mixture of both fun and serious work. He started out barely able to read, and by the end of second grade, was reading ahead of grade level.

I won't pretend that Nick's progress was solely due to my work with him. On the contrary, he had the benefit of talented, effective, and caring primary and intervention teachers at Sullivant, and they did all of the heavy lifting. But beyond the practice work we did together in these one-on-one situations, my fellow tutors and I were just ordinary folks modeling fluency with our language and a joy of learning.

Last year we brought this program to our own Beacon Elementary, and will be returning there this year as well. In addition, we're starting up a program at Hilliard Crossing Elementary. Both will take place on Wednesdays at lunch, beginning with an orientation session on 10/9, and kick-off with the kids on 10/16.

I invite you to donate one Wednesday lunch time each week through April to serve with us. The more kids we can help via these programs, the more who will have successful school careers, through high school graduation and beyond. In the coming years, we hope to expand to more of the Hilliard elementary schools.

We must break this cycle of poverty, which is perpetuated by the failure of kids to complete the education necessary to find self-sustaining jobs in our evolving economy. And they can't read to learn until they learn to read. This reading program makes a difference.

Will you help us be part of the solution?

For information on the Beacon Reading program, click here.

For information on the Crossing Reading program, click here.

Please do it soon.


  1. A noble cause and effort, although it's sad that we pay educators comfortable salaries and give large vacations and still have to have outsiders come in and provide a crutch. Be nice if I could sublet my job like that.

    1. I think your analysis may be a little myopic here. The common thread with most of these challenged kids is that they don't have parents who are particularly literate, and that it's the role typically played by parents which is being sublet to the teachers.

      Why don't you to come in and help us with this program, then make your judgment?

  2. You've got to reward achievement. And you have to give the people that pay the bills what they want. Without them, their is no HCSD as we know it.

  3. Paul, I think you're making a bit of a circular argument to say that the children of semi-literate parents don't perform well academically. That's just another symptom of the broader issues: unsafe neighborhoods with a lack of male role models, absentee fathers, metal illness, and drug abuse. In these neighborhoods, the fact of the matter is for three generations or so, people who cant take care of themselves are raising children.

    1. I think that's what I'm saying - that generational poverty perpetuates itself unless we break the cycle. I'm not sure where I read the study, but there is an argument that says that it's far cheaper for society to invest in the education of these kids now than it is to process them through the welfare and criminal justice system later. And because of their home situation, the kind of education they need must focus on the basics. This is especially true of kids from low-income households who first enter our district as middle and high school students.

      I think one could also argue that we're better off having these few thousand kids in our schools than in Columbus City Schools, who spends much more per kid - much of it our state income tax dollars - and yet has generally worse outcomes.

  4. And the way we measure achievement is just so ridiculous. I'm pretty sure my dad would test in the Forrest Gump range on these standardized tests. He stopped helping me with homework in 6th grade, haha. But he also has an intuitive understanding of mechanical systems that is more practically useful than the skills of most engineers I know. He could make a living anywhere in the world with just a toolbox.

    But there is now way you could convince him to try hard on some pointless test. He would tell you that's what the people in the office are for, haha.

    What kind of world would we live in if everyone had the type of personality that "tested well"?

    1. Sorry - I just found this in the staging area.

      Lake Wobegon?

  5. Perhaps tangentially related, I came across this comment regarding a book by Tyler Cowen on how America is splitting into the haves and have nots:

    Cowen correctly points out the huge pitfall in online education. "Online education can thus be extremely egalitarian, but it is egalitarian in a funny way. It can catapult the smart, motivated, but nonelite individuals over the members of the elite communities. It does not, however, push the uninterested student to the head of the pack." The remaining 85% stagnate albeit with access to cheap fun and cheap education. Many of the 85% will live quite well as they benefit from the near free services but others will fall by the wayside.

    But maybe it does not have to be this way. Cowen himself points to a potential way out. Education has typically failed to motivate. And even the best online courses are probably even worse than most classroom teachers. "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink." There are however a few coaches who have demonstrated the ability to motivate. [...] I never met Coach Fitz but I certainly met mine as a lazy 8th grader on the football field in the form of a 5 foot 4 inch Woody Hayes disciple named John Short. Could this be bottled and taught? The future for your kids and the rest of us American 85 percenters may depend on motivators like these.

    What the end of average will look like to colleges.

    "It will be a brutal age of good schools and also mediocre schools undercutting each other in terms of price and thus tuition revenue. If it costs $200 to serve a class to another student, how long will it be before an educational institution undercuts a competitor charging $2,000 for those credits?"

    1. Interesting points.

      Close to 30 years ago, I heard Alvin Toffler say that technology would separate the haves and haves-not, and in particular the access to information.

      An interesting example of that came up in a conversation the other day. While the district technology folks have done a pretty good job of blocking access to certain website, it only works on the devices logged into the district network for internet connectivity. The kids who have more expensive 4G etc enabled devices with data plans can get to whatever they want. So should we take the restrictions off the district network, since it's only restricting the kids without their own devices?

      These days of cheap money is distorting all kinds of things in our economy. I think post-secondary education is one of them, with kids being lured into paying so much for a college education - because they can borrow the money - that the ROI is questionable.

      At some point, rational pricing has to return. It will probably happen when the QEx is finally wound down, and interest rates return to some degree of normalcy (I'm sure after a spike to the high side). Hopefully students will start to make value decisions again, and stop drinking the "any degree is better than no degree" kool-aide.

      That will cause the colleges to compete of quality, and one would hope some of the institutions not delivering good value would either get their act together, or go out of business.