Tuesday, April 26, 2016

School board agenda topics for Tuesday, April 26

Sorry for the late post—have been a little under the weather. Some of the items on tonight’s school board agenda:

We’ll discuss a proposed Integrated Pest Management policy that would govern the use of pesticides and herbicides on school grounds. Info here.

We’ll hear reports about the students’ Iowa Assessment scores and about the district’s Comprehensive School Improvement Plan.

We’ll hear a report on the results of the district’s survey of students about their experience of school, including a discussion of how we could improve in creating a more inclusive and equitable environment for students. Info here.

At our work session, we’ll continue our discussion of redistricting. Info here.

The full agendas are here and here. Feel free to chime in with comments about anything that catches your attention.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Where the students are

As the board thinks about possible changes to elementary attendance zones to prepare for the opening of new schools and to accommodate projected enrollment growth, it’s helpful to be able to visualize where the students are. For that reason, I frequently refer to the Student Density Map that the district made in 2014. Now the administration has provided us with updated maps that give us additional information about just how many students live in which areas.

Another way to get a sense of where the students are is to see how many elementary students live within a mile of each school. To me, this was one of the most striking aspects of the updated information that we received. Here is the data in descending order:

This chart reinforces my belief that closing Hoover Elementary would be a mistake. Yes, there are several elementary schools that serve the central east side, and many students who live within a mile of Hoover are in another school’s attendance area. But the fact remains that more students live within a mile of Hoover than almost any other school in the entire district, and Hoover’s number is significantly higher than that of any of the schools adjacent to it. That means that it would be easy to draw an attendance zone that would fill the school without any busing—one that would be not just technically “walkable” but actually walkable. It also means that the closure affects a particularly large number of people. It just doesn’t make sense to close a school that is surrounded by kids and then send them all to more distant schools in less densely populated areas.

It’s also worth noting that when the district recently asked for neighborhood input on elementary school preferences, more people signed preference forms identifying Hoover as their first choice than did so for any other school, by a significant margin—even though Hoover was not listed as an option on the form. It’s certainly possible to read too much into those forms; there were a lot of factors that drove participation more in some areas than others. Hoover residents may have been particularly likely to participate because of the planned closure, but Hoover received more signatures (343) than other schools in areas that will also necessarily be subject to boundary changes, such as Grant (221) and Hoover East (33). At the very least, it’s another indicator of just how many people are affected by the closure and how strongly they feel about keeping Hoover open.

In any event, the chart and the underlying maps are worth a close look. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

A different possible way forward

[I drafted the following and have asked that it be added to the agenda for tonight’s school board work session.]

Dear Fellow Directors,

As I’ve mentioned during our recent work sessions, I have growing doubts about the wisdom of proceeding with our current timeline for elementary redistricting, which would have us complete a 2019 redistricting plan by next month. I just wanted to put some of those thoughts in writing and make an initial proposal.

There are several reasons why I think we should reconsider proceeding with elementary redistricting:

  • We’re drawing districts for schools that we don’t plan to open for another three and a half years.

  • We’re using enrollment projections that were done almost five years before those schools are scheduled to open.

  • There is a board election about halfway between now and when the new schools will open. That means that any redistricting we do will be subject to change by the next board. We can’t count on the next board to agree with decisions that we’ve made, especially if those decisions trigger opposition that is expressed in the voting booth.

  • We don’t know whether the funding for Grant and other capacity additions will materialize. If it doesn’t, much of the redistricting we do will have to be undone by the next board.

  • Proceeding on schedule effectively rules out anything but traditional attendance zones. If we wanted to look at other options, such as paired schools or magnet options, it would take longer than just a month or two to develop the proposal and build community support.

  • It may make sense to open Grant in a different location than currently planned, and to defer opening a school on the planned Grant site until a later year when the area around it will be more developed. We should resolve that question before proceeding with elementary redistricting.

  • Redistricting now could decrease the chances of passing a bond in 2017.

  • It is increasingly hard to see how we can get to four “yes” votes on any redistricting plan by our target May deadline.

These reasons basically boil down to two. First, there are too many uncertainties that could end up altering what we would choose to do with 2019 redistricting. Second, I’m afraid that the whole process is taking our eye off the more important ball: putting the district in the best position to pass a bond that will fund our facilities plan.

In my view, that means revisiting the Facilities Master Plan. Again, it’s possible that we might have better options for where to put the next new school in the North Corridor. That, in turn, could affect when we would proceed with the Garner addition, and/or how large that addition should be. That in turn could affect the scheduling of other additions. It’s also possible (especially after we get updated enrollment projections) that we will find that we need additional capacity in the North Corridor sooner than we were expecting. If it were up to me, we would reverse the decision to close Hoover Elementary, so as not to generate a capacity need on the east side any sooner than necessary. As a result, I would cancel the Lemme addition. Whatever renovations Hoover still needs could be put later in the timeline, enabling us to advance other projects that are more urgent—for example, we might then be able to address overcrowding at Horn. I could go on.

If there’s a reasonable possibility that we’ll alter the Facilities Master Plan after getting new enrollment projections, it just doesn’t make sense to do redistricting first. Moreover, redistricting will divert our energy from the more important task. The importance to the district of getting the board and the community united around a bond proposal far outweighs the value of settling 2019 boundaries now.

Here’s what I would propose:

1. Table elementary redistricting for now. Alternatively, confine our discussion of elementary redistricting to changes that we could make in 2017 to address urgent needs (such as particularly urgent overcrowding concerns) that can’t wait until 2019.

2. Settle secondary boundaries as soon as possible. To do so, we should draw Liberty’s boundary by anticipating what our decision about Grant’s southern boundary would be if it goes forward on its planned site. (It would not be necessary, though, to settle the boundary between Grant and Garner or Penn, since those students will all attend Liberty regardless.) In my view, we should consider splitting some elementary schools after sixth grade—for example, sending “North Lincoln” (or some portion of it) to North Central and Liberty even if we don’t yet know whether they will be districted out of Lincoln for elementary school.

3. Obtain updated enrollment projections as soon as we can.

4. Revisit the Facilities Master Plan using updated projections and with an eye on maximizing the chance of bond passage.

5. Then return to the topic of elementary redistricting. Although it makes sense for the final decision on 2019 attendance zones to be made by the next board, we could play a constructive role by developing concrete options (traditional attendance areas? paired schools? magnets?) that candidates and voters could discuss during the 2017 board election.

I am writing this fairly quickly in hopes of getting it on the agenda for the April 12 work session. I mean it only as a starting point for discussion. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

School board agenda for Tuesday, April 12

Some of the items on the agenda for this week’s board meeting:

We’ll hear appeals and concerns related to our decision earlier this year to cut back on providing discretionary busing to areas that are not far enough from their schools to qualify for busing under state law. We’ll also get an update on our Pay-to-Ride program for people who don’t qualify for discretionary busing. Previous posts here and here.

We’ll vote on approval of the district’s 2016-17 budget. Information here.

We’ll have a work session to continue our discussion of redistricting. Information here; previous related posts here.

The full agendas are here and here. Please chime in on anything that catches your attention.

What would stronger weighted resource reallocation look like?

There has been ongoing discussion in our district about the fact that some schools have a much higher percentage of “high need” kids than other schools do. People have advocated for various ways to help the higher-need kids: some say we should redistrict to avoid high concentrations of high-need kids in any one school; some want to use magnet schools or paired schools to achieve the same end; some want to direct disproportionate resources toward schools with disproportionate need. These are not mutually exclusive ideas; the district could use redistricting, magnets, or paired schools to some extent and then try to address remaining disparities with resource allocation.

Our district has already begun a “weighted resource allocation” plan. So far, the plan has involved allocating certain types of staff support (such as School Administration Managers) toward schools with more high-need kids. As I understand it, the plan has not (yet?) progressed to reallocating classroom teachers (though some ad hoc recognition of high-need schools may have occurred to a limited extent). Since the bulk of our operating budget is spent on classroom teachers, applying the plan to classroom teachers would greatly increase how much resource reallocation we could do.

That said, it’s easy to say that we should reallocate resources, and harder to know what that would actually entail. The goal of this post is to imagine what it might look like if we deliberately tilted the allocation of classroom teachers toward schools with more high-need kids. So I did an elaborate mathematical experiment. To begin, I defined “high need” simply by using the percentage of kids who receive free or reduced-price lunch at each school. This is not a perfect proxy for “high need,” but it’s a pretty good one; we’ve seen big disparities between FRL and non-FRL kids on statewide assessments of reading and math proficiency. (Our district has begun to use a more complex indicator that also takes into account the number of kids in special education and in the English-language learning program. I hope to write more on the measurement of “high need” in a future post.)

Then, I decided to assign a greater “weight” to high-need students, on the theory that the kids with more need should get more teachers. To keep it straightforward, I decided to give each high-need kid the weight of two students and then reallocate teachers accordingly. That means that class sizes in a 100% high-need school would, on average, be half the size of those in a 0% high-need school. And since we don’t have any schools that are 100% or 0% high need, the actual class size differences would not be that large on average.

How would that system change the allocation of teachers in our elementary schools? Here’s what happened when I ran the numbers:

What would the resulting class sizes look like? First, let’s see what they look like now. Here is a chart showing the class sizes in our elementary schools as of October 2015. Green squares indicate class sizes that are below-median for that grade; red squares are above median. I’ve listed the schools in decreasing order of FRL percentage, so the higher-need schools are at the top. (Click to enlarge.)

As you can see, there is a little more green toward the top of the chart than at the bottom, but the pattern is inconsistent and not very strong. (Caveat: I used the class size numbers from the district’s October 2015 report; there have almost certainly been changes since that time, both in the number of students and possibly in assignment of teachers.) Now here’s what it would look like if we reallocated that same number of teachers based strictly on giving high-need students the weight of two students (click to enlarge):

On the one hand, you can see that the pattern is much stronger and more consistent: schools with more high-need kids would get consistently smaller class sizes. On the other hand, you can see just how much it would come at the expense of the schools with the fewest high-need kids. Class sizes would be significantly larger there. In fact, toward the bottom of the chart, I had to start combining grades (that is, having mixed classes of first- and second-graders, or third- and fourth-graders, or fifth- and sixth-graders), in order to avoid class sizes in the forties or worse. Even then some of the class sizes were pretty steep.

There are many, many possible critiques of the method I used here to determine reallocation. FRL is not a perfect proxy for need, for example. Two is not necessarily the right multiplier. “Need” is not a binary concept, but varies on a spectrum. Academic need is not the only kind of need. Maybe what high-FRL schools need is not more classroom teachers but more reading specialists. And so on. There are certainly other ways to conceive of how resources might best be directed toward needs. But any attempt to reallocate resources, no matter what the details, will have to recognize that there are consequences, and that the greater the benefit to high-need kids, the more uncomfortable some of those consequences are at the other end.

Seeing a concrete illustration of resource reallocation raises lot of questions. What is the “ceiling” on how high a class size we can tolerate, even at a low-FRL school? Could any plan like this one ever get the buy-in it would need to become a reality—from the public, the board, and the teachers and administrators? Would this approach to addressing disparities be more or less politically sustainable than a purely redistricting-based approach (keeping in mind that a redistricting approach would entail some additional busing expenses that would also affect class size)? Would it be more or less effective at reducing the proficiency gaps? How big would the benefit actually be?

Is it possible that some families would transfer their kids from schools with the higher class sizes to schools with the lower class sizes, taking some of the edge off of the disparities in both class size and FRL? In other words, could it work as a kind of Small Class Size Magnet School plan? On the other hand, to what extent would better-off families simply opt out of the public schools altogether (which costs the district money in per-pupil state aid) if they felt like class sizes at their elementary school were too high?

How would resource reallocation work in the junior highs and high schools? I assume it would have to operate at the classroom level—that is, courses that enroll lots of high-need students would have smaller class sizes, while class sizes would increase in courses that enroll fewer high-need students. (I’m looking at you, AP courses.) Notice that there is an argument for doing this even if our boundary plan equalizes the FRL percentages at each school, since the FRL percentages might still vary widely from classroom to classroom.

Again, this particular approach to resource reallocation is just one of many that are imaginable. But it’s useful because it provides a concrete sense of how resource reallocation could really hash out in practice. One thing you notice right away is how class sizes change not gradually but in quantum leaps: often adding just one teacher to a particular grade in one school changes that grade’s squares from very red to very green. Since you can’t just add a fraction of a classroom teacher to a school, class sizes are not easily fine-tuned or smoothed out.

I know there are limits to what the school district can do to bring up test scores. It is not within our power to erase all the effects of poverty (and other challenges) on our students’ lives. Though I’ll never agree that “educational achievement” can be reduced to a score on a standardized test, the proficiency gaps we’re seeing are clearly telling us something real about how well we’re serving our high-need kids. In my view, some form of resource reallocation toward schools with more high-need kids (not necessarily this particular variation!) ought to be a part of the discussion of how to address those gaps. But it’s important to recognize that it’s not an easy fix and that it might be hard to achieve significant benefits without tolerating some significant costs.

Finally, I’ll be a broken record: The painful trade-offs that you see when you think about class size would be reduced and even eliminated if our governor and state legislature would provide better school funding. I’m not meaning to excuse the school board from using its funding as wisely as possible, but state funding is the primary factor driving class size. Even just bringing Iowa back up to the national median for per-pupil funding would provide our district with millions of dollars of additional operating funds—enough to turn many red squares green and still have something left over to address other needs. Neither political party is perfect on this score, but in practice, increasing school funding requires electing a Democratic legislature this year and a Democratic governor in 2018.

I’m interested to hear people’s thoughts in the comments. How do you think resource reallocation compares to other possible ways to address the proficiency gaps we’re seeing among our high-need kids?