Saturday, November 21, 2015

Equity and the Redrawing of School District Lines

Portland is redrawing its school district lines. In many ways I feel bad for the committee; talk about a thankless job! Of course, people are upset, including our family. Our actual neighborhood school (Richmond) does not exist anymore (it was turned into a magnet school), so we were already going a bit out of the way to our reassigned neighborhood school. Now, due to other schools bursting at the seems, we'll be sent to a different school. People in my community are both annoyed to be moved and also irritated that a school just blocks away from our house is not open to us.

The school my kids will be switched to is a lower-income school. But, honestly, that is not the biggest issue for people in the neighborhood. I know many people who have lived in areas where they aren't comfortable sending their kids to the local school. I find this both totally understandable and abhorrent; if these school are not good enough for your kids, why are they okay for someone else's? Which is not to simplify that decision or put myself on a pedestal. I would also be faced with the same quandary. Not to mention that many low income families jump at the first chance they get to go to a better school. Why would someone ever choose not to pick the best for their children? I bring this up just to say that my neighborhood is probably not immune to this type of thinking, but I really don't think that's the case. We just don't want to switch schools. If we had to move to a higher-income school, we'd also be annoyed. We either want to stay where we are or get to walk a few blocks to the school we can only go to if we lottery into it.

My wife has become involved with this issue, and in hearing other communities' complaints it is easy to realize our situation is a good one regardless of what happens. (Which I predict will be us grandfathered in to stay at our current school, but having to go to a different middle school.) And some of the most heart-felt complaints really have nothing to do with how lines our drawn, but just on what tough schools they are having to send their kids to. As much as my current hope is that we'll get to go to the school 4 blocks from my house, there is part of me that wishes PPS would try something much more controversial; the reimagining of how a public school should be constituted.

Above is a link to a fantastic "This American Life" that looked into the school equity issue. In it the narrator makes a compelling argument that we know how to solve this issue: busing. The narrator herself was bused into a richer school as a child and, although admitting that it was tough at times, said it gave her opportunities she never would have had. She references various studies that show that poor students can thrive in richer schools, without the richer students learning less. The problem, she says, is when you have a school that is majority poor. To bring in a racial angle, she cites statistics on how poor blacks are much more likely to attend majority-poor schools than poor whites are.

Speaking from a teacher's perspective, these results support what I have seen. First of all, although poor students are often great students, they are more likely to struggle than their higher income peers. I did my own research on it at my school and found that about 50% of the low income students (defined by qualifying for free or reduced lunch) were doing totally fine. But the other half really struggled and made up almost all of my school's failing students (despite being only around a third of the population). Also, since my school is around 30% low income, I have seen that although these are often the tougher students, the school itself can still be a strong school and lift up most. I'm not sure we could do that if it was 50% low income or, as many schools are, 100%. How it works as a teacher is you get a baseline of your kids working, and then you put out the fires your tough kids might potentially start. This is probably the case no matter the income (at least at middle school!), but for me it is usually about 3-5 kids I have to check in with on a consistent basis. That is a manageable amount. But what if it was over 1/2 the class? I've experienced classes that have tipped to the "dark side." This was totally due to my weak early-career classroom management skills and had nothing to do with my students' income. Regardless, once most students weren't working, even the majority of good kids stopped working.

If we accept this is true, what do we do? It's easier to say we should move low-income kids somewhere else, but busing high-income kids to tougher schools is obviously tricky. Besides the fact that it can lead to those families choosing private schools or moving to another town, there is another reason why they wouldn't want to; like my family, they don't want to switch communities. This a more-than-understandable objection. Forgetting about equity for a moment, neighborhood should matter. This is mostly why my community is irritated; we don't want to switch communities. Is this as bad as going to a dangerous school? Of course not. But in trying to improve public education, we should make sure we are not working to disrupt community.

So here is a proposal. What if every school has to have at least 30 percent of their students at an income level that qualifies for free or reduced lunch? If a school was below this level, lottery slots would open up that lower income families could apply to. This would not solve the entire issue, but would enable many more low income families to get good educations without making people that were happy in their neighborhood have to leave. I honestly can't see an issue with this other than it not being radical enough. Does anyone have other ideas communities should consider?

Friday, November 13, 2015

Three Things I'm Trying This Year that I'm Happy About

None of these are exactly pedagogy busting. But I'm happy with how all of them are going.

Partner Discussions
I have tried various discussion protocols over the years, but I've been having a lot of success with a fairly simple one this year. Instead of having students independently write their answers to questions at times, I have them answer them verbally to each other. I usually put about six questions up on the board, place an "L" or "R" next to each (for left and right, as in who should answer it), and let them go. As we all know, middle schoolers love to socialize, and this allows them to do so in an on-topic kind of way. I particularly like using them when the class needs a little more energy or a break from too much quiet work.

Vocabulary Activities
I have always done some vocab activities, but as I've tried to integrate more primary sources into my curriculum, I have found them increasingly necessary. There are so many types and I think I will go into more detail of successful ones in a future post, but most of the activities really do help preemptively prepare kids for some tough readings. I don't think I've ever done one and thought, "They really didn't need that." Instead, I'm usually thinking, "I can't believe they didn't know that word!" Besides helping them with the reading, I like that these activities tend to be fun and interactive. It makes for a nice balance to a class that will end with them trying to interpret a difficult ancient text.

No More Class Pencil Sharpeners!
Perhaps it's just me, but I have been involved in a 15-year war with my students over the pencil sharpener. When I first started teaching, I felt like at least once per day a student would find it a great idea to grind their pencil while I was talking. Eventually, I got them to stop this, but then they would just stand by the sharpener waiting for me to stop talking. Which after a few seconds led to me just telling them to do so while the class waited. To make matters worse, they are so hard on electric sharpeners that it seems to take forever. So this year, after a student seemingly sharpened their pencil for 20 minutes, I just tossed it into the trashcan. Since then, when they ask me about it, I tell them to bring their own handheld sharpener in the future and offer them a pen. And it seems to be working. Free at last!