Friday, November 4, 2016

Dismantle the boxes

Several schools in our district contain enclosures known variously as (depending on who you ask) “time-out rooms,” “seclusion enclosures,” “isolation boxes,” or “solitary confinement cells.” The nature of these enclosures varies from school to school, but some of them are made of unfinished plywood, are about six feet by six feet, and are built right into the larger classroom. Some of them appear to be poorly lit to the point of being outright dark inside. The photos above show enclosures at Grant Wood Elementary School.

A child can be confined in such an enclosure as part of the school’s behavior management practices. When the enclosure is built right into the larger classroom, children in the class watch as a child in put into the enclosure. The child in the enclosure can hear the class activity going on outside, and the other kids in the classroom can hear a child’s cries coming from inside the enclosure.

There are state-enacted rules regulating when and how the enclosures can be used, though there have been questions about whether our district has complied with the rules. The Gazette had an in-depth set of articles about the enclosures in September; you can read them here, here, and here. The Daily Iowan reports on the issue today here.

I know there are difficult situations when a child may pose a risk of harm to self or others and that the district needs to have a way of dealing with those situations. There is a lot to discuss about how best to handle those situations. But it doesn’t take an extended inquiry to see that the district can do better by its students than these plywood boxes. The district needs to discontinue using them and dismantle them, in favor of creating more humane spaces and practices for dealing with difficult behavior.

School board agenda for Tuesday, November 8

Very brief meeting scheduled for this Tuesday, in Room 113, since the board room is being used an election polling place. But feel free to chime in with any comments on the agenda.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Liberty High curricular and extra-curricular offerings

New information about the curricular and extra-curricular offerings at Liberty High School when it opens next year is here and here.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

U.S. Office of Civil Rights to make site visit to ICCSD

This past Friday (October 28), the superintendent notified the board that the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education will be making a site visit to our district this coming Spring. Here’s the superintendent’s email:
In 2009 the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights pulled some historical District data to review. In 2013 the OCR contacted the District to discuss their analysis of the data. As a result of that conversation, in the fall of 2013 the District signed a Settlement Agreement to address concerns that arose during the data review. Over the past three years the District has been working with OCR to complete fourteen program improvement items outlined in the agreement. The OCR has been able to verify completion of six of these items based on District document submissions. As a normal part of the agreement process, the OCR will be visiting the District this spring to validate completion of the other items. As more details are confirmed I will continue to keep you up to speed on the process.
As of now, this is all I know about the site visit. I’ll post more information as it becomes available.

A bit more background: The concerns that the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) identified in 2013 involved the disparate treatment of African-American children in special education placement decisions. An OCR press release summarized the concerns:
OCR reviewed the files of all students who were initially evaluated for special education. OCR identified several African American students, particularly very young elementary students, who were identified as eligible for special education due to behavior issues and were placed in special education for a large percentage of the school day, and noted that some white students of similar ages identified as eligible for special education for behavior were placed in special education for a smaller percentage of the school day. OCR also identified several students who were found eligible for special education even though the presence of one or more potential exclusionary factors was noted in the file. Further, OCR found several students identified as eligible for special education despite scores that did not appear to be significantly discrepant from their peers.
In the settlement that our district reached with the OCR in 2013, the district agreed to take specific remedial measures designed to ensure that the district does not treat African-American children differently from other children in special education placement. You can read the Settlement Agreement here; the OCR press release about the settlement agreement is here.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

What’s curriculum got to do with it?

As I’ve been listening to people’s reactions to the proficiency gaps we’re seeing in our students’ standardized test score data (including from commenters here and here), I’ve been struck by how seldom people seem to raise the role of curricular choices. I’ve seen comments debating the effect of pursuing socioeconomic balance, and comments about the need for more diverse or culturally sensitive staff—both of which are certainly topics worth discussing. And I’ve seen more general comments about the district’s competence and about accountability—which are certainly relevant concepts too, though they need some definition. But isn’t curriculum kind of an elephant in the room when it comes to proficiency data?

My sense is that many people think of the topic of curriculum as a specialized area in which they are inclined to defer to experts (which is to say, to the professional educators that our district hires to make those decisions). It’s hard to argue with that at some level, but it also seems to me that the board can’t entirely relieve itself of the responsibility to be involved in the issue. Curriculum decisions do come before the board for approval, for example. And even if the board were inclined to defer to administrative judgments on those approvals, everyone agrees that the board is responsible for “holding the administration accountable” for the district’s outcomes. How could we do that if we defer completely to their judgments about what the best choices are?

To put it more specifically: Is it possible that the curricular approaches we have taken unnecessarily advantage the kids who have lots of academic support and help at home, at the expense of kids who have less? I say “unnecessarily” because some effect like that is probably unavoidable, no matter what curriculum we adopt. But it doesn’t seem outlandish to think that some curricula might generate more disparities than others.

For example, when I see how much our schools’ curricula rely on homework, even in the elementary years, and how often my own kids seemed to struggle with it to the point where they asked for parental help, I have to wonder how much harder it must be for kids with fewer resources at home—that is, for example, kids whose parents, on average, can’t help them as much with the math assignments, or just don’t have as much time to read to them, etc. If we are, in effect, outsourcing a portion of our instruction to parents, or relying too heavily on the assumption that kids will get certain experiences at home, aren’t we practically asking for proficiency gaps? I don’t mean to say that homework is the cause of the problem; I just mean to give an example of how curricular choices could conceivably play a role.

I don’t know what the curricular options out there are, though, and I don’t pretend to have any special expertise in evaluating them. But at some point, if we are continually unhappy about the gaps we’re seeing in our students’ proficiency data, how should the board go about assuring itself that our curricular choices are not playing a role in the problem? What is the board’s responsibility on that issue, and how should it exercise it?

Monday, October 31, 2016

School board members and free speech (part two)

In part one, I wrote about how the First Amendment protects the right of school board members to explain their votes, even on the issue of the superintendent’s contract. I also wrote about how there are no Iowa statutes that even attempt to prohibit them from doing so.

Our own school district, though, has the following section in its Board Governance policy:
Members shall not publicly make or express individual negative judgments about Superintendent or staff performance. Any such judgments of Superintendent performance will be made only by the Board, meeting in executive session as appropriate.
I should start by saying that nothing any board member said at Tuesday’s meeting violated this policy. But that doesn’t matter. This is a plainly illegal policy, and the school district should be embarrassed by it.

This policy prohibits public speech on a matter of public interest and concern, which is the kind of speech that the Supreme Court has repeatedly described as being “at the heart of the First Amendment.” Even worse, it discriminates based on the viewpoint of the speaker: Negative speech about the superintendent’s performance is banned, while positive speech is allowed. In First Amendment analysis, viewpoint-based prohibitions on political speech are pretty much as bad as it gets. Policies don’t get much more unconstitutional than this one.

It should go without saying why such a policy is so constitutionally offensive. If the government can prevent the public from hearing viewpoints on one side of an issue while allowing them to hear viewpoints on the other side, members of the public will be deprived of information they need to make informed decisions about policies and about candidates. Such a policy would enable government officials to manipulate public opinion in a way designed to entrench themselves in power.

Moreover, such a policy would make it impossible for board members to do their jobs properly. Any time board members raise a concern about what our district is doing, they can be interpreted as implicitly criticizing the district’s administration or staff. If speech like that were prohibited, discussions at board meetings would become one-sided advertisements for the administration’s point of view. One-sided discussions lead to groupthink, not good decisions. Free and open discussion of issues—including the airing of critical views—is a crucial ingredient of good policymaking.

This is not to say that board members should cavalierly comment on the superintendent’s performance without first thinking through the potential benefits and harms of doing so. But regardless of whether that kind of speech is wise or unwise, the government can’t legally ban it. Our school district—which is responsible for teaching our kids how to become “responsible, independent, lifelong learners capable of making informed decisions in a democratic society”—should know better.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

School board members and free speech (part one)

After this week’s meeting, some people raised questions about whether board members could speak publicly about their reasons for voting for or against the proposed contract extension and pay raise for the superintendent. Are board members free to discuss such an issue publicly?

The succinct answer is: Yes.

Any discussion of limitations on speech has to start with the First Amendment. People do not waive their First Amendment rights by getting elected to public office. Speech about the decisions of a public institution is at the heart of the First Amendment. Not only do board members have a right to speak about their votes on board agenda items, but members of the public have a right to hear that speech. Voters need to be able to evaluate us, and their ability to do so would be impaired if we could not explain our reasons for voting as we do.

The First Amendment prevails over any statutes that are inconsistent with it. But there are no statutes in Iowa that prohibit board members from explaining their votes, even about the superintendent’s contract.

Nothing in the Open Meetings Act, for example, prohibits board members from discussing the superintendent’s contract in public. In fact, the Act specifically exempts discussion of the employment conditions of non-unionized employees (such as the superintendent) from its coverage, which means that the Act has no effect whatsoever on the discussion of that issue.

The Act distinguishes those discussions from the board’s formal evaluation of the superintendent’s performance. However, even the evaluation process is not required to take place in closed session. The Act permits, but does not require, the board to go into closed session for its evaluation of the superintendent:
A governmental body may hold a closed session only to the extent a closed session is necessary for any of the following reasons: . . .

i. To evaluate the professional competency of an individual whose appointment, hiring, performance, or discharge is being considered when necessary to prevent needless and irreparable injury to that individual’s reputation and that individual requests a closed session.
(Emphasis added.) The Act further states: “Nothing in this section requires a governmental body to hold a closed session to discuss or act upon any matter.” In sum, the only way a board can violate that section is to go into closed session when it’s not allowed to.

The Open Meetings Act does not even purport to limit the speech of individual board members; instead, it limits the right of the public to hear that speech in certain circumstances. It is designed to allow the board to choose to go into closed session to discuss an employee’s job performance candidly without having to worry about whether the discussion will needlessly injure the employee’s reputation, and to protect itself against possible claims for defamation. (This is why our board invariably does choose to do the superintendent evaluation in closed session when the superintendent so requests, a practice I support.)

Moreover, nothing any board member said during our discussion on Tuesday qualified as a personnel evaluation of the superintendent. The mere fact that a board member says something that could be interpreted as reflecting (positively or negatively) on the superintendent’s performance does not convert that speech into the kind of personnel evaluation covered by the Act. If so, the board could go into closed session for almost every discussion, since it is virtually impossible to discuss school issues in ways that don’t reflect in some way on the job performance of our administrators.

Finally, any such interpretation of the Open Meetings Act would violate its stated purpose, where the Act actually instructs people how to interpret it:
This chapter seeks to assure, through a requirement of open meetings of governmental bodies, that the basis and rationale of governmental decisions, as well as those decisions themselves, are easily accessible to the people. Ambiguity in the construction or application of this chapter should be resolved in favor of openness.
The only relevant limit on what individual board members can do in public is in the Open Records Act, which provides that certain records “shall be kept confidential, unless otherwise ordered by a court, by the lawful custodian of the records, or by another person duly authorized to release such information.” Specifically, that Act protects the confidentiality of “Personal information in confidential personnel records of government bodies relating to identified or identifiable individuals who are officials, officers, or employees of the government bodies,” subject to some exceptions.

Nothing any board member said at Tuesday’s meeting came even close to revealing any “personal information in confidential personnel records” of the superintendent. No board member discussed any information that wasn’t already in the public record. Again, it would be extraordinary (and unconstitutional) to interpret that statute to suggest that board members can never say anything that reflects in any way on the superintendent’s performance.

In sum, it would take a lot of chutzpah to read the Open Meetings Act and the Open Records Act as prohibiting board members from explaining their votes publicly.

What about the district’s own restrictions on what board members are allowed to say? I’ll take that question up in part two.

Why I voted against the proposed contract extension and pay raise for the superintendent

These are the comments I made at Tuesday’s board meeting about the contract extension and pay raise proposal for the superintendent. The proposal passed on a 4-3 vote, with Directors LaTasha DeLoach, Brian Kirschling, Chris Lynch, and Paul Roesler in favor, and Directors Phil Hemingway, Lori Roetlin, and me opposed.

The contract extension added a year to the length of the superintendent’s current contract, which will now extend through June 2019 instead of June 2018. The new contract increases the superintendent’s salary by 4.6% this year and commits to raising the salary again, by 5.1%, a year from now (though the new contract reduces the number of paid discretionary days by two this year and by two more next year). You can read the superintendent’s new contract here; additional information is here.

I am not in favor of the proposed contract extension and pay raise for the superintendent, for these reasons.

Under the proposal, the superintendent would receive the biggest raise by far of any employee in the district, both in percentage and absolute terms—much bigger than what we gave our teachers and other staff groups, and much more than simply a cost-of-living increase to keep pace with inflation.

As we have said to the public many times, general fund money is very scarce. We’ve said that to families whose busing we’ve cut, to parents who are unhappy with our class sizes, and to teachers and staff who would have liked larger pay increases. There is no reason we shouldn’t say the same thing to the superintendent.

The proposal not only gives the superintendent the biggest raise in the district, it commits to providing him another raise next year—which will very likely be the biggest raise anyone gets next year. This is particularly unwise, since we have no idea how much state funding we will receive next year. Again, we did not commit to future salary increases for our teachers or other staff groups; there is no reason we should treat the superintendent differently.

If we adopt this proposal, we will rightly be perceived as brushing off the very legitimate concerns that members of the public have about, for example, the district’s violations of special education laws and ongoing problems with the district culture. This decision will further undermine public trust in the district.

The superintendent still has a year and eight months remaining in his current contract. I think it’s reasonable to wait until we have more information about how the district is addressing its challenges before considering whether to tack another year onto that contract length.

I am not persuaded that this proposal is necessary in order to retain our superintendent and avoid a superintendent search; nor am I convinced that that goal outweighs the arguments against the extension and raise. Where I work, at the University, the usual practice is that an employee cannot get a retention-based raise unless he or she has a competing offer in hand. If our superintendent does receive a competing offer, we could always revisit his contract and salary at that time and make a more informed decision.

Related post here.

A few quick thoughts on stationing police officers and drug dogs in schools

I was recently asked about why our district does not have police officers regularly stationed in our secondary schools and why we don’t use drug dogs in those schools to detect and deter drug possession. The topic of “community liaisons”—which I think referred to police liaisons in the schools—was on the agenda for our work session on Tuesday, though the board meeting ran so late we had to postpone the work session.

At the moment there is no concrete proposal in front of us, so I can just talk generally about my predispositions on the issue. In general, I prefer a system where police come to a school when they are called, rather than one in which police have an ongoing presence in the schools. Part of my concern is because of nationwide trends toward treating school disciplinary matters as law enforcement matters. (See, for example, this article.) I’d prefer to have a school official, rather than a law enforcement officer, making the initial determination about whether to treat an issue as a law enforcement matter. As for the counseling role school resource officers could play, I’d prefer to see it played by school counselors who are under the authority of the school system rather than an outside entity.

I would also be concerned about having drug-sniffing dogs patrolling the schools. If they are used at all, I would want to limit their use to situations where there is a reasonable suspicion about a particular person, rather than subject everyone to that kind of examination, for the same reasons that I wouldn’t want to have police dogs routinely inspecting people walking around downtown, just at random and without any particularized suspicion. I’d be concerned about what that teaches kids about civil liberties and privacy. There are also concerns about the reliability of drug dogs’ responses.

The issue of school resource officers came up a few years ago, and the board voted down a proposal to pursue a grant that would have partially funded a school resource officer program. You can read about that issue here. I wasn’t on the board at the time, but I wrote about it here.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Proposed changes to the science curriculum

At Tuesday’s board meeting, we heard an administrative proposal to change the district’s science curriculum. You can read the full proposal here. One element of the proposal is to require all ninth-graders to take Foundations of Science; currently some students choose to skip the Foundations course and take Biology instead. That aspect of the proposal has generated some disagreement; Karen W. wrote posted about the issue here and here. I planned to write something about the issue here, but I received an email from a parent, Martha Terry, that I thought made the counterargument to the proposal particularly well. With her permission, I’m posting her email below. Please chime in with your thoughts about this issue in the comments.

I’m writing to express my concerns about the proposed science curriculum changes for ICCSD. I have a 10th grader at West High, and a 7th grader at Northwest Junior High. Both are extremely interested in science. I was not able to attend the board meeting last Tuesday due to another commitment, but I am concerned about what the new curriculum means for my 7th grader, and others in the district.

My understanding is that students entering 9th grade will no longer be allowed to opt out of Foundations of Science III by taking Biology instead. This change will effectively eliminate the science sequence currently recommended “for highly motivated students with high achievement records and a strong desire to pursue science in college,” which is outlined in the West High School Program of Studies, p. 23, beginning with Biology in 9th grade.

By taking Biology early on, students have a chance to take more advanced science courses and AP courses before they graduate. I have heard that students who qualify for Biology may still be allowed to take it if they “double up” on science in their 9th grade year, taking both Biology and Foundations of Science III. I’d like to point out some of the drawbacks of that course strategy below:

First, highly motivated students taking Biology in 9th grade are already doubling up on science that year. My daughter, for example, took Biology and Principles of Engineering, the major prerequisite course for the Project Lead the Way sequence, in 9th grade. If she had had to double up on Biology and FOS III in 9th grade, she would have had to wait to begin the Engineering sequence, thus limiting how many courses she could take in that area. This year, she is taking Environmental Sustainability (a PLTW course) and Honors Chemistry as a 10th grader. She plans to continue to take 2 science courses a year through her senior year. Highly motivated students are already doubling up on science! It isn’t practical for them to “triple up” on science without severely limiting their involvement in humanities, foreign languages, music, and so on.

Second, the science sequence currently recommended for highly motivated students is geared toward their future applications to colleges and study in the sciences. It would be foolish for ICCSD to change the science sequence available to its students, because the expectations of colleges will not be changing. Likewise, the science curricula of other similar high schools are extremely unlikely to change in such a way that students end up taking fewer advanced science courses. Therefore, ICCSD students would feel pressure to take extra science classes in 9th grade to overcome this disadvantage, leading to the consequences I describe below.

Third, the additional pressure to “keep up” with the customary science sequences and college expectations would cause highly motivated students to feel obliged to take FOS III and Biology in their 9th grade year. They would then have to choose what other potential courses to cut from their schedules—and looking at overall graduation requirements and college expectations, Performance Music (orchestra, band, choir) and Project Lead the Way classes would be especially likely to suffer. The district must be aware that such a curriculum change will have consequences.

Fourth, ICCSD is bound by Iowa Code to serve ALL of its students, and this includes highly motivated students. By high school, at the very latest, the district needs to allow acceleration in science, recognizing the differences between individuals in terms of interest in and aptitude for science. As a district, we can’t hold back our brightest students in order to make sure everyone achieves a minimum level of proficiency. Yes, we must work towards proficiency for all, but without penalizing those students who have been waiting for a greater challenge on entering high school. They have already waited long enough.

I’ve been told that the Earth Science component of the new curriculum will be taught in 9th grade, and is the main reason for the requirement of FOS III for all students. I agree that Earth Science is important, but ICCSD needs to explore alternative ways to fit Earth Science into the curriculum, rather than making students who are ready to pursue more advanced classes take another foundation course in 9th grade. The district must look for creative solutions. Perhaps an online Earth Science component could be offered to motivated students, to be completed concurrently with junior high course work, or over the summer before high school. There may be other solutions, as well—I am not knowledgeable enough about the specifics of the new curriculum to know where changes might be made, but I know others in the district are.

I’m a firm believer in lifting up all students through public education. Certainly, our goal must be to raise the achievement of all district students, including those who are struggling to meet minimum standards. But our responsibility doesn’t stop there. We must also challenge and uplift our best students. Not only is it written in the Iowa Code—it’s the right thing to do.

Data analysis is hard

As I said in the previous post, I find the student standardized test score data valuable mostly for what it shows us about the significant gaps between subgroups of students. What I find less informative, though, are year-to-year comparisons and comparisons between our students and students elsewhere. It is too easy to impose preconceived conclusions on those comparisons, when there may be other plausible hypotheses that are also consistent with the data.

For example, at our meeting last week, the board were presented with bar graphs showing that our students’ scores compare favorably to those of students nationwide. Then we saw more bar graphs showing that our students compared favorably to statewide students on a measure of annual score growth.

There is always an air of self-congratulation to that kind of discussion. When our students compare favorably with others, that means our district is doing a good job, right? But actually, that isn’t what it means. Even if our students compare favorably with students elsewhere, it doesn’t follow that our district’s policies and practices are the reason why. We live in a university town where a lot of people are highly educated; that alone could potentially explain why our students sometimes score better than the average student. For all we know, they would get even higher scores if our district made different educational choices; our district might actually be holding the students back! The data neither prove nor disprove that hypothesis.

Moreover, the data also show that our students suffer by comparison to students elsewhere in many ways. For example, the Iowa Assessments data show that on all three tested subjects (reading, math, and science), at every grade level tested (third through eleventh), the percentage of our students who are non-proficient is higher than it is for students statewide (with the one exception of eleventh-grade science). Those differences appear to be largely a function of the scores of our subgroups of students on free and reduced-price lunch, black and African-American students, students receiving special ed services, and students who are English-language learners. Here’s an example of the comparisons (no helpful bar graphs on this data set!):

And our students are often doing even worse, relative to statewide, than they did last year. Here’s what that cohort’s chart looked like last year:

If we let the district take credit for every student success story, we also have to blame it for every unsatisfactory result.

But in fact, the data does not dictate either conclusion, because it is very difficult to evaluate all the potential causal factors that affect our student test scores. There are sophisticated statistical methods, like multivariate regression analysis, that could at least try to do so, but they have their own limitations. In any event, I’m fairly sure that our district is not even attempting such sophisticated analyses on its test score data. It’s probably much closer to the truth to say that our district, when given a new set of test score data, has a tendency to simply eyeball the changes from the previous year and then make assumptions (not dictated by the data) about what those data tell us about the effects of the district’s practices.

For example, this year we’re instituting a weighted resource allocation model, shifting resources toward schools that have more kids in the subgroups that are showing proficiency gaps. Next year, we’ll look at how the proficiency scores have changed. If the gaps are at all smaller, it will be tempting to attribute the improvement to the weighted resource model. But the data would be consistent with other plausible explanations as well, since we can’t possibly hold all other variables constant like in a laboratory experiment. At the same time that we’re shifting resources, we might also be changing disciplinary practices, and trying to diversify the teaching staff, and providing bias training, etc. (And of course we’re usually measuring different actual kids from one year to the next.) If the gaps subsequently improve, it’s even possible that the weighted resource model actually made them worse, but that the other variables more than offset that effect.

If we shift resources and then the test scores go up, we’ll want to assume a causal link. But if we shift resources and the scores go down, we won’t assume that the shift caused the decrease—and if anything, people might even say, “See, the scores went down, so we need to shift resources even more.” My point is just that our explanations often come from sources other than the data itself, since the data is consistent with multiple hypotheses. I don’t think that’s crazy; I think it makes sense to bring experience, judgment, and even instincts to bear in interpreting any data. But it can certainly lead people into temptation, as it becomes fairly easy to use data to justify preconceived conclusions.

In any event, if someone tells you that our district is doing great because the kids outperform their counterparts elsewhere, remember that what you’re hearing is probably closer to sales than to science.

How should we address the proficiency gaps?

I finally have a weekend with some time to blog, and I have some lingering thoughts about some of the issues that the board discussed at this past Tuesday’s board meeting, so I’ll see if I can get a few posts up over the next day or two.

We received several reports about student standardized test scores. These are presented as reports on “student achievement,” but I’m not crazy about that term, since I don’t think standardized tests come anywhere near measuring all the things that go into any meaningful definition of educational achievement. In general, I think school systems are not very careful in the way they talk about data, and I want to at least try to be careful.

I don’t mean to say that the data is not meaningful, though; in fact, I think it is in some ways very meaningful. For me, the most immediately informative aspect of the reports is the glaring gaps between different sub-groups of students. Even though I think standardized tests are an extremely reductive and imperfect measure of the kind of development we want school to cultivate in our kids, the gaps between groups are plainly a sign that something is very wrong. Here is an example:

I selected that chart pretty much at random; many of the charts—for math, reading, and science, for elementary, middle, and high school—show similar gaps. The racial gaps are particularly striking and do not appear to be understandable solely by reference to a correlation between race and poverty. The proficiency rates for black students are almost always lower than those for students receiving free and reduced-price lunch (FRL), the district’s proxy for low-income status, even though of course many black students are not from low-income households and many white students are. So the data are valuable because they remind us of the ongoing and persistent existence of those gaps and tell us some things about just how those gaps vary among different sub-groups.

One big limitation of the data, though, is that they don’t tell us the causes of the gaps, and there are surely multiple causes. It’s easy to generate plausible hypotheses: that poverty affects child development in multiple ways; that the burdens of poverty are not distributed equally among racial groups; that many subtle and un-subtle forms of racism and prejudice affect the experience of minority children in multiple ways; that the tests themselves have racial, cultural, and class biases; and more. But the data don’t help us (much) in generating the hypotheses, and they don’t help us rule any out, and they don’t shed (much) light on how to apportion causality among them or how those causes may interact.

In that list of hypotheses, we have to include the fact that our district itself falls some unknown distance short of the ideal. People are fallible and imperfect. Do our staff members, even with the best of intentions, sometimes treat black children (or poor children, or English-language learners, etc.) differently than white children (or non-poor children, or native speakers, etc.)? Almost certainly they do. Even if you concede that there is some limit on how much district policies and practices alone can reduce those proficiency gaps, have our board members and administrators made all the right decisions to maximize the district’s potential influence in reducing those gaps? I have to assume the answer is no, quite possibly not even by a long shot.

Another limitation of the data is that they don’t tell us (much) about how to fix the problem. If the only gaps were in fifth-grade reading, then at least we’d know what to focus on; but the gaps are persistent across grades and subjects. For ideas, the district often looks to some mixture of social science research, which has many limitations of its own, and our own (imperfect) instincts about what might help.

There is also the problem that some ways of increasing test scores are less educationally sound than others. I don’t want to become one of those districts that cuts all music, art, recess, etc., for poor and minority students in the single-minded pursuit of higher reading and math scores.

Efforts toward reducing the proficiency gaps all require a kind of faith. I don’t mean the religious kind. I just mean that we all know that the problem won’t be solved overnight, and that change takes time. So when we launch into an initiative—for example, funneling more resources toward schools with higher-need students, or doing professional development on implicit bias, or trying to hire more teachers of color—it’s hard to know whether it’s working, and the data don’t tell us (since changes from year to year could be due to any number of causes).

I don’t want to let my skepticism function as an excuse not to try, but part of me definitely wonders: Are our efforts to address the proficiency gaps really going to accomplish anything, or are they all just an elaborate display? Positive changes do take time, but that doesn’t mean we can assume that they’re happening.

The board has two ways to exert influence on how the district functions. One is to set goals, rely on the administration to pursue them, and use ongoing oversight of the administration’s efforts to steer the district in the desired direction. The other is to legislate specific means of pursuing the goals. Given that they are unpaid volunteers, board members inevitably have to rely largely on the former strategy, but our district’s boards have done some of both: directing the administration to pursue the specific goal of addressing the proficiency gaps, but also mandating some specific means (as the current board is doing, for example, with the weighted resource allocation model).

I’d like to see the district make a systematic effort to seek out the parents of kids in the affected subgroups and ask them what they think their kids need from the school system that they’re not getting. I have less faith in the ability of some other group (for example, our relatively non-diverse board) to substitute its judgment for that of the affected families, though that’s unavoidable to at least some degree. I’d also like to see the district’s curriculum review process formally incorporate an equity analysis step, to ensure that the district considers whether some curricular choices might be better than others at serving our non-proficient students. But again, neither one of those suggestions is a silver bullet, and I can’t be sure either would have the desired effect.

Readers, what are your ideas about what the board, as a board, should be doing to address the proficiency gaps?

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

School board agenda for October 25

Some of the items on this week’s agenda:

We’ll discuss the proposed contract extension and pay raise for the superintendent. The superintendent’s current contract runs out at the end of June 2018. This proposal would extend that contract through June of 2019, and would provide sizable raises to the superintendent both this year and next year. Details here.

We’ll hear a report on several topics under the heading of “teaching and learning.” (See the attachments here.) Several of these reports deal with our students’ scores on the Iowa Assessments. Lots of data here, including data on the proficiency rates of the groups that are the particular focus of the district’s strategic plan: students receiving free and reduced-price lunch, students receiving special education services, and students who are English language learners. I’m still making my way through all the information.

We’ll also hear a report on the district’s science curriculum review. Details here. One issue that has generated some comment: Our current practice is to allow some high school freshmen to opt out of the introductory high school science course (Foundations of Science) and to take Biology instead. The science proposal would end that practice and require all ninth graders to take Foundations of Science (though they may be able to double up on science courses and simultaneously take Biology). Karen W. at the Education in Iowa blog critiques the proposal here.

We’ll also hear an update on special education.

At our work session, we’ll continue the process of thinking about how we’ll approach the September 2017 bond proposal and the long-term facilities master plan.

All that and more! The full agendas are here and here. Feel free to chime in with a comment about anything that catches your attention.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Did the board change the facilities master plan?

At our work session last night, our physical plant director presented some ideas about possible changes to the facilities master plan. I’m just posting this to make it clear that the board itself did not adopt any changes last night, and did not even really begin discussing any specific changes.

Not saying that you shouldn’t talk about the physical plant director’s ideas! Please do! Chime in with comments! But please know that the board has only just begun the process of thinking about possible changes to the facilities plan. The ideas we heard last night seem to be at least partially driven by assumptions about projected enrollment that do not reflect the recent changes to school boundaries. For that and other reasons, I expect that board members will have their own ideas about possible changes, and that those ideas will play at least a big a role in the discussion as what we heard last night.

We received the physical plant director’s ideas for the first time during the meeting, and I haven’t yet had time to fully process them. I’ve got a busy week coming up and I doubt I’ll have much time to comment on them, but that shouldn’t stop you. I’ll link to them here when they appear on the district’s website.