Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Equity Emergency, and other 10/22 Highlights

By now, those of you following the Hillsboro School District have probably noticed the Argus article about the "Equity Emergency", a term I coined to reflect that sad fact that practically in the shadows of one of the world's most successful hi-tech companies (Intel), we have two elementary schools rated in the 5th percentile statewide.  Superintendent Scott and his staff presented a number of mitigating factors (high poverty among attendees, new staff getting acclimated, etc.), and promised to work with the school staffs on an action plan.   That sounds like a noble effort, but we can't lose sight of the fact that ultimately we have several schools where students are receiving a subpar education.    A few key points about this discussion that may not be quite clear in the newspaper article:
  • We need to call a bad rating a bad rating, and not use evasive or obfuscating language.   Some staff members seemed to take offense that I said the low-rated schools offered an "inferior" education.  But if 5th percentile (==> 5 out of 100) isn't inferior, then what is?  I realize these ratings don't take everything into account, being based on standardized test scores in key subjects, but they represent a key component of a child's education.    I know we have a lot of sincere staff who are trying really hard...  but ultimately, what matters to the children isn't the intentions, it's the results.   
  • The variance in educational quality in different neighborhoods is one of the key educational equity challenges of our generation, and we need to treat it as one of our primary challenges.   We usually think of this as being an issue with inner-city schools.   But what these ratings have shown is that that is not the case, and we need to think hard about what we are doing to improve educational equity for real.   I find it utterly ridiculous that the staff offered up a report on "progress in the Equity area" at the board meeting, where the district was patting itself on the back for how many people it had sent to diversity conferences and classes, while this real diversity crisis was sitting in our backyard and directly affecting children's lives.
  • We are not criticizing the students.   I'm especially frustrated by sentiments like those expressed in an open letter by one of the low-rated school princpals, that we should not worry about the low test scores because of the students "ability to speak two or more languages, their musical talents, their ability to dance and connect with rich cultural traditions from around the world".  It's precisely because the students have so much potential that we cannot let our district cheat them out of the basic education in English reading and writing, and basic math, that will enable them to succeed in modern society.
  • I applaud the staff's efforts to turn around the situation-- but no parent should be forced to bet their child's future on them.   This is an example of the situations when school choice is really important.   I'm sure some subset of students is thriving at the low-rated schools, and many parents will be encouraged at the turnaround efforts.   But if any parent wants to transfer their student to a better school, they should be offered the opportunity.   My proposal to enact this as written policy was voted down, based on Superintendent Scott's statement that it's already the district's practice to work with any parent who wants a different school.   So if you have a child in a low-rated school and want another opportunity, be sure to contact the district office, and let me know if you feel like you are not being offered viable alternatives.
 Aside from the discussion about the school ratings, there were a few other interesting items that came up.   (BTW, I've actually been pleasantly surprised by the level of coverage we've been getting in the Argus lately, with articles about most of the major issues we discuss.  Is it my imagination, or have they stepped up school reporting since the new correspondent, Luke Hammill, came on board?  Good work Luke!)

  • Double Dipping.    As you may have seen in the Argus, this is the practice of a staff member retiring in January, starting to get the generous state retirement benefits, and then also being hired by HSD on a contract basis to fill in for the rest of the year.   Sounds like a win-win, right?   The staff member is gone anyway, and they are the best fill-in contractor for the position they held, so why not?   Well, here's why not.   If we continually hire recent retirees when they have 'retired' in January, then many employees will game the system and retire in January to receive the double-dipping windfall.    In other words, even though it seems like a win-win in an isolated case, creating the expectation that this will be allowed results in long-term costs overall.   Many thanks to fellow board member Wayne Clift for spotting this on the "consent agenda"; I'm disappointed that we didn't have enough votes to stop it this time.
  • The Budget Committee.   We appointed the new Budget Committee as well.  You may have been surprised to see that I voted in favor of appointing my former election rival, Rebecca Lantz.   I have to say, though I don't agree with her on much, I am impressed at her willingness to continue to volunteer her time and effort for the district even after losing her board position.  
  • Moving Funds Out Of The ESD.    We also voted to remove the majority of our district funds from the Education Service District, a monopoly provider of education services created by the state, and instead purchase the relevant services on the free market or provide them locally.   This seems like the right decision to me.


  1. Two district schools receive a low rating from the state. You conclude this is because the students are receiving a "subpar education."

    I wonder on what evidence besides the rating you are basing this conclusion? How much time have you spent in the schools you are criticizing?

    If Intel was releasing a product deemed to be inferior, and one of the suppliers of the components were known to have severe quality control issues, where would you begin addressing the problem, and what would your solution be? I doubt your first action would be to criticize the assemblers of the product, but that is effectively what you are doing with your "inferior education" pronouncement.

    While you acknowledge the role of poverty on the performance of different schools, your post seems to downplay that role. Consider: The ODE lists that greater than 95% of students at the two schools are "economically disadvantaged." At Lincoln Street, this would be nearly all of the 589 students who attend there.

    Compare this to only 6% of students at City View considered economically disadvantaged. With a listed enrollment of 190, this comes out to about 11 students. There are reading groups at WL Henry and Lincoln Street with more impoverished students than that.

    Given the poverty is shown to play an adverse role in every imaginable factor that correlates to high test performance, from the number of books in the home to the number of words heard when learning to talk, it's astonishing that you could gloss over this all-important factor, and instead place the responsibility mostly on the staff of the lowly rated schools.

    Advocating for the opportunity to attend a more highly rated school is a solution that is realistic only for families with the means to transport their students, and for whom child care near the school is not an obstacle. Furthermore, it's never explained how equity is improved for students who remain at the lowly rated school.

    There's an equity emergency indeed, but it isn't with the instruction being given at W.L. Henry or Lincoln Street.

  2. Hi 'fan', and thanks for your comment.

    One issue that was mentioned in the meeting & the Argus article, but may not be clear in my blog post, is that we and other districts have schools with similar demographics to Lincoln Street and W.L. Henry that are rated much higher. (City View is not the best school for comparison in this respect.) So I'm not discounting the effects of poverty, just pointing out that we cannot accept this as an excuse for low-performing schools.

    If you have specific information showing the state ratings are invalid, I would be interested to hear it.

  3. I have no specific information invalidating the state ratings. I think the methodology is sound, though the page explaining it doesn't say if the four factors used in determining "like schools" were weighted equally. Regardless, those factors are among the four that present the most challenges to performing well on tests. If they aren't the top four factors, they are the top four that districts can reliably measure.

    One number I wish the state listed was the number of modifications claimed for the tests. While these are intended for students who have legitimate special needs, one creative test coordinator at a school can rustle up a lot of modifications that increase the chances of performing better. It isn't supposed to be this way, but it happens. This is one of many problems with drawing conclusions based solely on the results of high stakes tests.

    Which brings me back to my original point. You proclaimed an "equity crisis" based on the poor performance of two schools in the district. I repeat my initial question: is there any additional evidence upon which you are basing this conclusion, and how much time have you spent at either school?

  4. Actually, during my school board campaigns this year & in 2009 I canvassed my neighborhood (which happens to be in the Lincoln Street area), and heard a number of complaints about Lincoln Street Elementary. So, although I haven't directly spent time in any of the low-rated schools, I wasn't too surprised when the low rating came out.

    In any case, I think a state rating in the 5th percentile is sufficient evidence to show that the school is in serious need of improvement, and that students attending that school are not receiving the education they deserve from our district.