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August 07, 2008


Unfortunately, the "no transfer" policy PPS Equity favors also would prevent minority kids from fleeing underperforming schools. That can be described only as "inequitable."

Your premise, blue, is that some schools "underperform".
There we disagree, but feel free to enlighten me.

PPS Equity advocates comparable programs for all schools, even the ones located in the poorest neighborhoods. That of course will never happen unless the district takes the extraordinary step of providing extra funding to schools who serve the least advantaged students, students with parents least likely to be involved in the education of their children.

Unfortunately, district policies, including the transfer policy, impoverish some schools while rewarding others. The data is quite clear on that.

I agree that PPS needs to invest more in the underperforming schools. I also believe they need to make this investment against the gradient of student flight because its not fair to trap good kids in bad schools while PPS fumbles with solutions. You may think that the quality of education offered at Jefferson equals that at Lincoln, and I will respectfully disagree. I am comfortable saying that if you believe that to be true, you are mistaken.

Trueblue, you are correct -- Lincoln is much better educationally than Jeff I imagine. What equity should do is make sure you can attend a decent school in your own neighborhood if you so desire. Ain't the case now.

Jefferson now, with its limited offerings, its understaffed academies and its high principal turnover, is no match for Lincoln. But who's to blame for that? Certainly not the school, its teaching staff, or even its students. The blame falls squarely on district leadership.

But are they called "underperforming leaders"? No. Only the school --meaning its staff and students-- is labeled "failing".

Looking at the issue more broadly, and ignoring the boneheaded small school experiments at the districts poorest high schools, school ratings both locally and nationally come down to reading and math test scores. In other words, a good school --a successful school-- is one with students who do well on tests. A bad, or underperforming, school is saddled with students who don't do well on standardized tests.

Research shows that the wealthier the student, the better the test scores. Lincoln has wealthy students. You would expect them to do well on tests. But that says nothing, absolutely nothing, about the quality of its teaching staff or the programs it offers. So its a bogus comparison from the outset. A good school, in my estimation, is one that helps its students learn, period.

One could argue that Jefferson, before the re-reconfigurations and other district meddling, was a good school. Many of it students and staff have told me directly that it was.

But then it never had the kinds of students who churn out great test scores. In the world of NCLB, a school like Jeff is destined to "underperform". And in the world of school choice, Jeff --and Roosevelt, Marshall, and Madison-- are likewise destined to lose student enrollment, and then the money and programs that follow the students.

So please spare me any future reference to "underperforming" or "faiing" schools. You'd be better off by simply describing them for what they actually are --low income schools.

Me not saying the word "underperforming" won't change the reality, Terry. They are both low income and underpeforming--a not suprising combination. There are many inequities between poor and rich public schools in Portland just as there all across the country. These inequities need to be corrected, but not at the expense of real students who are entitled to get the best education they (or their parents) are willing to fight for, including transfers to better schools across town. I understand that you are willing to sacrifice these students to the greater good of a brighter future and that is where I disagree with you. Lower income, underperforming schools need an even greater investment than the stronger schools and they need that investment to be made against the gradient of students fleeing their inferiority.

My position (and since PPS Equity is my blog, PPS Equity's position) on transfers is not absolute.

My first priority is convincing PPS to provide equal opportunity to every student in every neighborhood school.

The first question that arises when talking about this is "How do you pay for it?"

Well, there are a few things we can do; take your pick:

1) base funding on area population instead of attendance, which would cut programs at schools in wealthy neighborhoods, punishing the students who live there along with the students who transfer there;
2) close schools in poor neighborhoods, and consolidate remaining enrollment in fewer buildings; or
3) have students go to school in their neighborhoods.

So you see that the PPS Equity position does not begin with "end transfers." But you tell me how we pay for equal opportunity in poor neighborhoods without cutting programs elsewhere or closing more schools in poor neighborhoods.

(With a little creative financing, you could achieve #3 without ending neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers, closing schools or cutting programs elsewhere, by luring enrollment back with heavy reinvestment in those schools. But you've got to show me the money... With the awful state of Oregon's revenue stream, and the strings attached to corporate foundation grants, that's a tough one.)

As far as allowing students to transfer out of "underperforming" schools, lets keep in mind that this is code for allowing white, middle class families to avoid sending their kids to school with poor minority kids. PPS statistics support this assertion.

Here's my bottom line: The only "absolutist" principle I advocate is that every student in PPS should have equal opportunity in his or her neighborhood school.

I've come to the conclusion, having studied the numbers, that they way Beaverton does this is fair, equitable, and workable. But I'm open to discussion of other ideas.

I should add that because the current school board has "unofficially officially" taken the transfer policy off the table, we are at an impasse on equity.

They keep coming back to #2 above, or the broad hints that we can't afford equity.

In other words, as long as we have the current board, you're not in any danger of any significant mods to the transfer policy, or any significant steps toward true equal opportunity in our neighborhoods.

I strongly believe that choice #1 is the correct option. We must decouple funding and enrollment to deal with these problems. Choice #2 is unacceptable and choice #3 has problems I have raised before. Is the #1 dilemma built in by law or policy? Does PPS have the power to change it, or does it need a legislative solution?

Though I note, Steve, that your choice of the word "punishing" rather than "equalizing" in describing option #1 seems to reflect a bias on your part toward option #3. I would prefer to describe it as decoupling enrollment from funding. The strict association of funding to enrollment is leading to many problems now and seems counterproductive to where we need to be going.

Perhaps what you insist on calling "white flight" might be described by us white fliers as "voting with our feet".

Mneloa, absolutely right. You don't owe anyone the sacrifice of your kid's education for some lofty and unproven ideals about how to fix underperforming schools at some unspecified future date. Instead, you owe your son just what you are doing, fighting to get him the best education he can get. And any implication that flight from a subpar school is racism is a nasty and undeserved slur on parental choice. Intolerable.

The principle is simple. Every kid in a PUBLIC school system deserves equal educational offerings and opportunity regardless of their parent's income.

Right now in PPS the wealthier the neighborhood the better the quality of education. All surrounding metropolitan districts operate on the above principle of equality. So it must be possible to do within the confines of the state funding. Now, if all children were allowed to transfer to the schools with more offerings and oppurtunities, which is not the case now since some schools are full, then you might have a case. Of course the argument could then be how come the poorer students need to do the extra bussing? They are the least able to transport within the system.

Most of the people I know like the idea best of making sure the offerings and opportunities are equally available for all kids. So a lot of the money would stay in the neighborhood schools. Evidentally (I have been told this) all major cities in America are now running under an open transfer policy. With the state of America's education this might be part of the problem.

The movement should then be the same as in Portland, more kids moving to wealthier schools,charter schools, exiting to the suburbs, or a fleeing to private schools. Portland has prided itself in being able to maintain a large number of upper middle class and middle class students in its schools. But the ramifications have been huge for poorer neighborhoods. In a just and democratic society these ramifications need to be addressed. If the school board, who has the power to address them won't, then who will? The superintendent appears to be making moves in these directions, but the scope of her actions is not clear -- the school board needs to draw on their partners, The Portland School Foundation and Stand for Children and bring them on board in a serious and comprehensive plan to address the problems. The reason these two organizations need to be included is that they have the power to subvert basically any Portland Public School action and it is seen now as being in the best interests of their schools (the upper middle class ones) and their children's education to subvert the actions which move resources and attention to the poorer schools.

Let's focus on a 3-pronged strategy, all 3 of which need to be engaged in simultaneously.

1) Local strategy -- Let's ban the transfer policy and enact a policy to improve/enhance the paltry offerings at low-income schools by requiring the Schools Foundation to give a larger percentage of its community coffers to these schools. Don't make them jump through hoops and make them beg for more funds through the current grant process. And limit the amount of double-dipping that affluent schools can engage in. Maybe ban affluent schools from double-dipping altogether?

2) State strategy -- organize local students, parents, teachers, and administrators and have them apply pressure to Salem to increase funding for PPS. This would be a great way to bring everyone in PPS together -- who can argue with the need for more money for the district? Imagine the likes of Carole Smith and Terry Olson joined arm in arm, fighting for the same thing.

3) National strategy - end the dancing around calling NCLB what it is -- a gross failure -- and build on the success of local and state coalitions to lobby the Feds in D.C. to drastically alter federal education policy

I can't agree that trapping kids in inferior schools by banning transfers is just. Its a non-starter. I guess I need to educate myself better on the legal impediments to funding lower performing schools disproporationately to their declining enrollment. It seems hoping for cooperation from the Foundation is a long shot, since as you observe the Foundation has a history of protecting the interests of upper-middle kids. Its hard for me to get a read on Stand For Children, but that organization may offer more hope for amelioriating current inequities.

I'm not talking about trapping kids in inferior schools. I'm suggesting that we do two things at the same time: (1) improve the "have not" schools and (2) end the transfer policy. If we do the first thing, then the second thing takes care of itself, i.e., there would be no reason to transfer to another school. We can improve the "have not" schools by equitably distributing funds from the Foundation. We may to fight for this change. But it's a fight worth fighting.


Many have been "fighting for this change" for a decade now, with no results. What do you propose doing differently?

Oddly and ironically, I think NCLB gives the fight a new focus by creating a common target for reform. PPS -- like most school districts I know about -- is mired in lots of in-fighting, back-stabbing, and turf wars. And, like most districts, focuses only on the little picture and not at the big picture framing what is and what's not possible. That frame, of course, is dictated by the federal government via NCLB. So those of us pushing for reform can find common cause with those who have been blocking reform by agreeing that a top priority is informing the public about the law and educating people on the issues that affect public ed policy. As I said in my post over on PPS Equity, from the district’s perspective, they can explain the sorts of things that were brought up in last week's Think Out Loud show, e.g., why the heck is Lincoln on the federal watch list? They could explain what the watch list is why it was created. But they could also be critical of it and say why it does not paint an accurate picture. I think the public would be interested in an open, honest accounting of the differences that exist between the low-income and affluent schools and how NCLB exacerbates these differences. Finally, they could urge people to take appropriate action and offer an out-of-the-NCLB-box vision of what PPS would look like without NCLB. For example, the money that is currently being spent on bussing kids from “failing” schools to other schools in the district could be spent on things that would really make a difference for the kids and teachers at these schools. (By the way - I'm waiting for Sarah Carlin Ames to give me this info.

We can still focus on the well-intentioned goals of NCLB, i.e., closing the educational achievement gap. But PPS could take a leadership position on this issue and offer ideas about what it would really mean to leave no child behind. It would mean sticking their necks out a bit. As Smith enters Year 2 of her tenure, I think it would be appropriate for her to start talking about a vision of education in PPS that dreams beyond the constraints of NCLB. Such a vision could inspire the public to take appropriate action, e.g., approve a certain forthcoming bond measure . . . (hint, hint).

By creating common cause, we can generate some good will between PPS's warring tribes. On top of this good will and a newly-articulated vision of education in PPS, we can dig down into the weeds of how to get this done. But no one will be willing to have these serious, detailed policy conversations -- where lots of rich, powerful folks are going to have to compromise quite a bit for the common good -- without this sense of common purpose.

The next move is up to the board to encourage Smith to be both more openly critical and more openly visionary. No visionary action is possible with NCLB in the way. So that's our first target . . .

Perhaps part of the problem is that many of the board members had their "vision" shaped by Broad Foundation trainings a couple years back.

Zarwen, I know you didn't ask me, but your questions are so often excellent I am going to answer it also.

I believe there are things we can do right now. And some things need to be worked on over a lengthy period of time.

1st step is to mitigate the harm.
School Board and Supt. Smith have a press conference and say PPS will no longer emphasize the testing but instead emphasize quality education.
All principals are then told to minimize test prep with a certain formula, either time limits or by creating a test prep curriculum and told that is it.
Ban the discussion with your staff and/or parent groups concerning the test results. Read the newspaper if you want to see the results. We are not spending any money or time dealing with them.
Create written material that tells teachers the tricks to teaching to the test so they have the ability to do that during the allotted test prep time (Icoould be int the curriculu if we go that route).
Tell principals no inservice time is to be devoted to test prep or the test except the one meeting to make sure we are administering the test correctly. Adopt a no comment position on the test results. Or a "we don't think they are valid in evaluating our educational programs".
Put forth a concerted effort to make sure we strengthen our educational quality based upon a predetermined definition of what PPS thinks is a quality education. (See my oped article in The O. for some ideas.)

The second step is to put together educational partners to lobby our congressional delegation to end NCLB. (i.e. OEA, Stand, Portland School Foundation, Portland Business organizations, County and City govt., the State Dept. of Ed. etc.)

I love your pragmatic suggestions, except the last one.
The purpose of NCLB is to privatize education. Why would organizations that are entrenched in the corporate world, like Stand, PSF, Business organizations take a stand in opposition to this, when many of their board members and cronies serve to profit? Change is going to have to come from the bottom.

Anne, they take a stand against NCLB to demonstrate they care about kids and are with PPS efforts to make education better. Otherwise they have to stand for testing. The reason they get away with it is that the district accepts its fate. If it didn't then their positions become untenable.

Steve B.- wanted to add one clarification on what I see in the test-centric curricula and get your take on this.

From what I've seen and corroborated with the PPS teachers that I talk to, students are being taught to concentrate on those things which can be most easily measured. So "reading" is not really reading at all, but rather discrete skills like sound and letter recognition and recall skills involving regurgitation from short-term memory.

Here's a passage from the district's Comprehension Scoring Guide on how to use the DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment) in response to the question, "What is the benchmark level on the Comprehension Scoring Guide?"

--begin excerpt--

Before moving to the next assessment level students are to not only read accurately (90%-100%) and fluently but also to score in the “Adequate” to “Very Good” range on the Comprehension Scoring Guide.

--end excerpt--

Note that "accuracy" has a specific quantifiable value. Note also the expectation that (1) all kids are supposed to be at the same level at the same time and (2) that something as complex as comprehension can be reduced to either "adequate" or "very good" via a generic scoring guide that asks children to do things like recall events from a story, recite key details, answer literal questions, and make inferences. They are given points for each correct answer. Note also that "fluency" is defined as being able to read quickly without making mistakes.

So do these assessments inform instruction? Or do they determine instruction? In other words, are some kids being taught how to read and write based exclusively on these data?

I spoke to the principal at my daughter's school about assessment. She claimed that the DRA and the DIBELS (they use the DIBELS at the school in addition to the DRA) are just one form of measurement, and that they use others. But when I asked her what measurements they used, how often they were used, and how they improved instruction, she had no answer. She just kept insisting that these practices were in place.

I'm reminded of something that Seymour Papert wrote regarding fluency, something that provides a stark contrast to this incredibly mechanized, utilitarian notion of fluency. Papert worked with Jean Piaget in the 1960's and developed complex notions of how children think and learn. He was also a pioneering force in developing links between learning and technology. In "Technological Fluency and the Representation of Knowledge," Papert and his colleague Mitchel Resnick wrote,

What does it mean to use technologies fluently? To be truly fluent in a natural language (like English or French), you need more than phrase-book knowledge; you must be able to articulate a complex idea or tell an engaging story -- that is, you must be able to make things with language. Analogously, fluency with new technologies involves not only knowing how to use technological tools, but also knowing how to construct things of significance with those tools.

Needless to say, these reductive measurements do not determine how well children can construct things of significance. Rather, they tell you how quickly and accurately children can perform Stupid Pet Kid Tricks.

I am no reading expert, but I will give you my take on it, Peter. It seems to me that reading entails several things that schools should teach. One is phonics and being able to sound out words. Pretty critical it seems to reading of any sort. You have no idea the number of kids I get at 7th grade who have a poor grasp of phonics. Two is fluency itself. Reading average faire at or near grade level and being able to understand it. I think you can quantify and measure both, the first better than the second. Also, the testing of the first can be used to fill the holes, though I am not sure how often this is done. The second is not so easily taught and depends a lot on the experiences you create, including reading itself obviously. But I don't see it as an individual instruction matter other than the time allotted to individual students through reading programs. One of the problems with the testing is that it spreads out this type of istruction throughout the school and continues it even after kids can read decently well and need to move on in other ways. That is why I keep suggesting that the testing actually takes time from the kids who really need the help.

The problem with emphasizing testing is that it stops there and then encourages the teacher to move on to test prep instead of the enriching reading experiences and other course work which immeasurably strengthens your ability to read. After you get to a certain level then your ability to read is somewhat segmented into various discipline vocabularies. i.e. I have a pretty good science background and can therefore understand pretty detailed science material, but have a rotten music background and could not understand detailed music material. My ability to read history depends a good deal on my history background etc.

Then we get into the love of reading and its importance on becoming a better reader and a well educated person. Pretty hard to instill that in schools without access to library books, or who are mired under in test prep.

Last comment: Teachers don't all approach things the same and actually shouldn't. How much they use assessment to augment their instruction is a pretty individual thing. Some use a lot and others use very little. There is no real standard which fits all, just like everything else in education -- which we seem to have forgotten in our use of educational researh to try to quantify education -- totally fallacious. Common sense will win out every time.

I'm not a reading expert either. But I read the work of lots of reading experts and defer to them.

Here's what reading expert Stephen Krashen said about intensive, test-centric phonics instruction in elementary education and the source of this craze -- Reading First.

--begin Krashen excerpt--

Reading First was based on the report of the National Reading Panel, a 600-page document that we are told was the result of an exhaustive review of the research on reading. In reading government press releases and publications on Reading First, one gets the impression that the Panel’s conclusions were “scientific,” and that they presented a complete picture of how children learn to read.

In some cases, the National Reading Panel report was simply wrong (e.g., their claim of the necessity of phonemic awareness training and their hesitation over the role of in-school recreational reading), and when the panel did present data accurately and come to reasonable conclusions, Reading First misinterpreted the results. This happened with intensive systematic phonics, the most widely discussed aspect of Reading First.

Intensive systematic phonics is a heavy and rigid phonics program that goes far beyond teaching the basic sound-spelling correspondences, or what we think of as “the sounds letters make.” It requires teaching all major rules of phonics in a rigid order. Reading First adopted this extremist view, but Elaine M. Garan’s careful analysis showed that the Reading First version does not correspond with the panel’s conclusions. Most important, Garan pointed out that the panel’s own analysis shows that intensive systematic phonics had no significant impact on tests in which children had to understand what they read—that is, reading comprehension tests given after first grade.

This severe limitation of intensive phonics instruction was, however, ignored, and intensive phonics is a cornerstone of Reading First. The finding that heavy phonics instruction has limited value is consistent with earlier work by Kenneth Goodman and Frank Smith, who independently provided compelling evidence for the hypothesis that we “learn to read by reading”—that we learn to read by understanding what is on the page. Their conclusions were not armchair speculation, but based on experimentation and extensive analysis of published research. Smith and Goodman are not peripheral scholars far outside the mainstream. Goodman is the former president of the International Reading Association, both are winners of the National Council of Teachers of English David Russell award for Distinguished Research in Teaching, both have taught in major universities and have published influential books and articles in the most prestigious journals in the field. And both were ignored by Reading First.

Smith and Goodman did not dismiss all phonics instruction. They maintained that children can learn the simpler rules of phonics, and this knowledge can be of some use in the early stages of reading, helping children understand what they read. But they maintain that our knowledge of the complex rules of phonics is the result of reading, not the cause.

Watching how my daughter learned to read really illustrated your last point, that "knowledge of the complex rules of phonics is the result of reading, not the cause."
Any attempts we made to teach phonics were fruitless with this girl.
So, based on my experience with Jim Trelease's ideas and my intuition, we just kept reading to her-- a lot. She "learned to read" suddenly, in about two weeks around her seventh birthday. She went from being baffled by letters, to being able to sight read most words in any early reader. I thought that she might not be able to spell well, but that is not the case.

Are there are some children who learn slowly and methodically through phonics, and others, like my daughter, who learn whole words at a time?Prescribing one type of instruction seems overly rigid to me. I also think too much phonics-based instruction can take the joy out of reading.

Intensive phonics and phonics instruction is fairly dissimilar. Can't see how it hurts anyone to know that usually a silent e helps make the previous vowel long, or when two vowels go out walking the first one does the talking. Helps me to this day to pronounce hard words. Just like spelling rules which aren't absolute, but can be helpful, phonics rules, and grammar rules etc. work for some students. And can be helpful. And yes kids learn to write by writing and read by reading, but I use grammar rules all the time when I write -- though not necessarily on blogs where the writing is much more informal.

I think a lot of harm is done by trying to establish educational absolutes. Whole language 100%, intensive phonics, connected math -- little computation instruction, all teachers need to teach in a certain way, etc. etc. I recall ITIP by Madeline Hunter, there was a lot of good there, but schools went nuts, way beyond anything Madeline advocated. We do it all the time in education. Switch to K-8's, small schools, NCLB as the most imporatant thing. Lots of harm alright.

Anne T. - I read a lot of stuff by Kenneth Goodman, the "godfather" of whole language approaches to literacy instruction. Whole language is often mischaracterized by pro-phonics people as being completely without phonics instruction. In truth, whole language approaches do include phonics, but phonics is usually taught in the context of reading an interesting book and is tailored to the specific needs of each kid, i.e., this kid has trouble with this letter combination, while this other kid has trouble with silent "e," etc. The mistake that the pro-phonics people make is they rip phonics out of a meaningful context and drill kids via worksheets on what amounts to "word work." They also do lots of whole class instruction on the same phonics principles, neglecting that some kids already know the stuff and are bored by lots of class-based drilling and simply don't need it. And for the kids that do need more help, they don't get their individual needs addressed via whole class drilling. It's simply not effective. Sure, some kids benefit. But it's a shotgun approach, i.e., some pellets hit the target, but most miss.

In 1997, Congress asked the NICHD to convene a national panel to assess the effectiveness of different approaches used to teach children to read. This became the NRP, the National Reading Panel. On April 13, 2000, the NRP concluded its work and submitted its final report, "The Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read." As Jerry Coles argues in Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation, and Lies (2003, Heinemann), the NRP Report was basically copied and pasted into the reading section of the NCLB legislation in 2001. As Krashen and Elaine Garan note, the National Reading Panel's report -- the foundation for ALL current debates about literacy instruction -- simply did not include studies done on the efficacy of whole language instruction because these studies did not meet the criteria for inclusion in the NRP's report. Yet, ironically, even though the NRP focused mostly on quantitative analyses that dealt mostly with phonics, the report concluded that phonics instruction had very limited value. YET, the NRP's findings were deliberately distorted by a PR firm hired by McGraw-Hill -- Widemeyer Communications. Who is the biggest phonics publisher? McGraw-Hill, the publisher of a comprehensive reading system called "Open Court." It was McGraw-Hill representatives and authors who dominated Gov. George W. Bush's Texas reading advisory board. No surprise that Open Court was the program of choice in Texas. Widemeyer Communications, the Washington PR firm that handled the promotion of Open Court in Texas, was also the firm hired to promote the NRP's report, including the writing of its Introduction, Summary, and video, the three parts that have taken the most flack from critics.

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Perhaps part of the problem is that many of the board members had their "vision" shaped by Broad Foundation trainings a couple years back.

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