Wednesday, March 04, 2015

On hot seat with school redistricting,

Businessman Alan Stein tries not to listen to the noise

One of the issues with the state's method of determining school performance is its insensitivity to certain demographic and programmatic changes within schools.

Ashland is mentioned here as a positive example of school improvement, and I have no argument with that. So far as I can tell Principal Schuronda Morton did a great job of elevating the culture and student achievement at Ashland. But along with the demographic change Eblen mentions, is the impact of placing district Quest (gifted) classes at Ashland. 

The same is true for Meadowthorpe, right? ...a school with fair to middlin' student achievement scores, that changes overnight to a top tier school when Quest classes are introduced. …but with a principal who has been under heavy fire from disgruntled parents.

There's nothing quite like adding a few classes of rich kids and/or great test-takers to one's student population to give the school a fresh outlook.

This from Tom Eblen in the Herald-leader:
When I first heard that Alan Stein had agreed to chair the Fayette County Public Schools' redistricting committee, I thought: Has he lost his mind?

"That's what everybody says," Stein said with a laugh. "To some degree that is still a question being asked, mostly by me."

Alan Stein
Stein, a business consultant who brought minor-league baseball to Lexington, is one of the most civic-minded people I know. He championed a school-tax increase. He helped revive Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bluegrass. He is Commerce Lexington's chair-elect.

But few tasks are as complicated and thankless as redrawing school boundaries. No matter what happens, somebody will be angry.

Redistricting is an emotional issue, because it affects children's futures and parents' home values. It can bring out ugly issues of race, class and selfishness. Even at its best, it involves change, and nobody likes change.

The year-long process is coming to a close, so I sat down with Stein this week to talk about it.
In the past, Fayette County school officials redrew boundaries and then sought public comment. This time, the school board appointed a 24-member citizens committee to study the issues and make recommendations.

Although school boundaries must be redrawn every few years because of changing population and demographics, this redistricting was prompted by the planned construction of several new schools.
The school board gave the committee a list of guiding principles to consider. "They're all over the place, and they're contradictory," Stein said.

The committee decided to focus on a few of them: minimize disruption; try to keep neighborhoods together and kids close to home; and achieve more balance in race and income among schools when possible.

One thing the committee did not consider was how redistricting would affect individual property values. "For us, it's a zero-sum game district-wide," he said.

Parents want their children to attend high-performing schools, rather than low-performing schools. Knowing what makes the difference is not rocket science, Stein said. It comes down to school leadership, parent involvement and resources.

"All of these issues of performance in schools have virtually nothing to do with race," Stein said. "It's about poverty. It's how involved can the parents be, how involved do they choose to be and what resources can they bring to the table."

Stein cites the example of Ashland Elementary, which was one of the district's worst-performing schools in the 1990s. Earlier this year, one ranking service rated it as Kentucky's best public elementary school.

Previous redistricting increased the affluence of its student population somewhat. But the main reasons for Ashland's turnaround were a good principal and faculty and neighborhood parents who decided to send their kids there and get involved.

"It's a good example of what can happen," Stein said. "Every school in our district has the opportunity to be successful."

Still, poverty is a big issue, and it is getting worse. A decade ago, 27 percent of Fayette students were eligible for free or reduced lunch. Now, it is 54 percent. By 2020, it is projected to be 60 percent.
"We're losing the middle class," Stein said. "The income inequality in America is just obscene. It's obscene to me, and I'm one of the rich guys."

Some of Lexington's deepest poverty pockets are in minority neighborhoods.

"Most people would be extraordinarily surprised to learn how segregated, unfortunately, Lexington is," he said. "You can see it starkly on our maps."

Stein is proud of how transparent the redistricting process has been, with four listening sessions, dozens of always open meetings and more than 1,000 written comments from the public.

He thinks this redistricting will achieve good results: less overcrowding at many schools, more kids at schools close to their homes and fewer split-up neighborhoods.

When final lines are drawn, Stein estimates that only 4,000 to 7,000 of the district's 40,000 students will change schools, and about 2,300 of those will be going to the new schools.

"We're not going to be as successful as I personally would like us to be in terms of attaining a balance in socio-economic diversity," he said. "But we're going to be a heck of a lot better than what we were."

Stein expects the committee to recommend moving some special academic programs from one school to another to attract affluent families and improve socio-economic diversity.

Parents in some neighborhoods have been especially vocal in the process.

"All of these neighborhoods print up colored T-shirts to show solidarity or whatever; it's almost comical," Stein said. "I wish I had started a T-shirt business.

"But we can't pay attention to the noise. It's going to be there no matter what we do. You just say let's try to do what's right for all 40,000 kids as best we can."


solarity said...

"Still, poverty is a big issue, and it is getting worse. A decade ago, 27 percent of Fayette students were eligible for free or reduced lunch. Now, it is 54 percent. By 2020, it is projected to be 60 percent."

Great example of the wrong-headed thinking currently in vogue throughout the public school system. Poverty has always been with us and always will. 100 years ago the citizens of this country were far poorer in general yet, if you read the literature of the day, there was rarely any effort to blame poor student outcomes on poverty.

Spend any significant time in todays public schools and you very quickly learn that the family trait that most strongly correlates with student performance is parental involvement. Without that, the child is hopelessly lost unless they are one of those relatively rare self-motivators. It doesn't take much money to sit down and study and do homework. But it does take a concerned parent to ensure that it happens.

But since no one really knows how to get uninvolved and uninterested parents to change, we choose not to discuss that issue. Much easier to suggest poverty is the true culprit because that problem can, with minimal creativity, be woven into a tapestry that suggests more money for public education will somehow improve student outcomes.

And since the children of uninterested and uninvolved parents will always be a huge problem and burden for public schools (since there really is no workable solution to alter parental behavior), the obvious solution for interested and involved parents with the necessary means is to "self-segregate" to private schools. Frankly, "public schools" as we now know them are an outmoded and increasingly unworkable methodology for educating our youth. We spend vast amounts of public capital to maintain the charade but behind the curtain most of the thoughtful players recognize, or at least sense, that the game will have to change radically if we ever expect outcomes to improve beyond incremental changes that amount to little more than statistical "white noise". Your entire blog, thoughtful and well-intentioned as it is, amounts (most of the time) to incredibly belabored, inside-baseball discussions on how to best rearrange the deck chairs of a slowly sinking behemoth. I admire the effort but wonder why you bother.

Anonymous said...

If one is a student of history, he recognizes (and appreciates) that the public schools of America have a function (albeit not formally acknowledged)that is just as important as the academic preparation of the children and youth whom they serve. As our country has become more mobile and pluralistic, public education has served a national security function of socializing our youth who will be expected to perpetuate our democratic way of life. My high-performing student, with a stable home life and parental support, will need to know how to interact (and survive) with the kid who is impoverished and rebellious; if I choose to totally shelter my child from face-to-face interactions with peers who are different, I do so at my child's own peril. Sorry, but I do not want to live in a society where social interactions are solely digital and one's main concern when venturing out of his enclave is personal safety.

Richard Day said...


One hundred years ago the country was just digging itself out from under the robber barons and corporate monopolists who (due in large part to a weak federal government) exploited the people and the land, and enjoyed an economic advantage not seen again in history… until now.

The story for schools went something like this:

The elementary and secondary education system was created in the early 1900s to serve a different time when people had different needs. Although the idea of human capital is as old as education itself, the concept of college readiness was hardly a concern when access to college was limited to a relatively few privileged individuals who had the wherewithal to attend. Illiteracy was seen as the state’s educational problem.
There was no concern that high school graduation rates were too low at a time when very few jobs required knowledge workers. Most students would grow up to work on the farm, in a factory, or a business and the dominant model of the school was as a sorting machine.

If an individual student failed academically he was said to have wasted his opportunity and the consequences were seen as the student’s own fault.

But while school failure might relegate a student to a life of manual labor, there were industrial jobs to be had. Indeed, one of the purposes of American high schools from 1920 to through WWII was an attempt to remove youth from the labor market. (Spring, 2010; Harrison & Klotter, 1997).

School reform in the early 20th century was largely focused on the development the American high school (and somewhat separate efforts at vocational education, as with the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917) and were dominated by the prevailing progressive impulse to bring educated elites to the task of improving social conditions in the nation (collect the trash, building safety codes, child labor laws…etc).

The big success of the progressive era was that it brought many more students into the schools. By mid-century, nearly every state had compulsory attendance laws, teachers were required to earn a four-year degree, school administration had been removed from patronage-hungry trustees and placed in the hands of professionals, and most young people were earning the coveted high school diploma (Peterson, 1995).

But the rise of the Cold War following World War II, and concurrent scientific advancements, brought a new urgency to the task of raising graduation standards and “corporate school reform” was born.

I don’t think it’s so much about “blaming the poor” as it is a recognition of the powerful effects of poverty on learning, combined with current teacher accountability systems that assume poverty can simply be overcome by creating some class of super teachers.

Today, if a student fails academically it is seen as the student’s fault. And any teacher who dares to object is criticized for “making excuses” or worse.

Richard Day said...

In my view, what is different today is that the goals placed on schools to achieve 100% success with all students is an extremely (unreasonably) high standard. And teachers rightly complain because they are held accountable for variables far outside their control. A more realistic system would place accountability goals closer to 85% of all student achieving standards, but don’t look for that to happen anytime soon.

Just as superintendents don’t like being held accountable for variables outside their control, neither do (or should) teachers. But for some reason, superintendents seem to gain more sympathy.

As James Coleman found, family background factors (most significantly the educational level of the mother) loom large. But those factors are not determinative of a child’s future. Many (but certainly not all) people overcome the odds when given a fair opportunity to do so.

Some believe schools cannot overcome the disparities present in the larger community. I assume they believe it for at least two reasons. First, that’s about all school folks have told the public since the Coleman Report in 1966. Second, the disparities are real and the effects of poverty on school children are profound.

I remember, as a principal, looking into Sally Vest’s primary classroom and observing a “free lunch student” who was working diligently. (The student’s home situation was something of a mess – I’ll leave it at that.) His reading was about two years behind what we would hope for a seven-year old, but he was able to get some extra assistance and he was starting to catch up. In the next seat was another 7-year-old who read Scientific American, for fun. The gap is real - and it was Sally’s job to make it go away.

Schools can make a significant difference in the lives of their students. As schools intentionally focus on the success of low-income students, those students begin to improve. We always do better when we try. Changes in a school’s culture can also produce needed benefits for children. But schools do not control all of the variables, and changes in school culture alone are not likely to satisfy the promise of a world-class education for each and every child while our funding remains below the national average.

To promise the public that schools can fix long-standing problems of poverty and race without adequate resources is irresponsible.

I can’t say what the future of schooling will look like. Change is certain. But so are schools. I believe there remains a strong place for brick and mortar institutions. Much of my college education happened outside the classroom, in Student Center Board committees, and on the athletic fields, where I learned to work with people who were not like me. I don’t know how to create that life experience online.

As for the blog, I had to chuckle. Except for the ship sinking, I basically agree. A really smart person would write a different blog – make it a lot snappier, lower the reading level to 9th grade or so, pay more attention to social media advantages, do more direct reporting, and chock it full of outrages. Let ‘em.

Thank you for “thoughtful and well-intentioned,” and even the inside baseball and labor reference. I do it because it suits me. One way or another, I teach. I try to cause people to think about important questions. What they think: well, that’s up to them.

In 1973 or so, I listened to Leonard Bernstein’s Norton lectures at Harvard and he convinced me that I was meant to be a teacher. (Good thing, since I had just graduated with an Ed degree.) He pointed out the difficulties we faced as a nation at the time, and said something that stuck with me for some reason. I suppose it appealed to my optimistic nature and thoughts of a brighter tomorrow for my students. He said, “To teach is to believe in continuing.”

Thanks for the comment.


solarity said...

"To promise the public that schools can fix long-standing problems of poverty and race without adequate resources is irresponsible."

Quite the opposite actually. If the last 50 years of social engineering in our schools hasn't thoroughly debunked the notion that money and "resources" can "fix" long-standing problems poverty and race, than I am afraid nothing will ever convince you. A rational man looking at the enormous rise in per student public school spending in the past 50 years as compared to the quality of the output would have to conclude that there is, quite literally, no correlation or possibly an inverse correlation between money, resources and outcomes.

You seem to be a highly educated and articulate spokesperson for the "pointy-headed, ivory-towered egghead" sector of our intelligentsia that refuses to see the forest for all the ideological baggage that blinds their view of the trees. Why spend vast amounts of time rationalizing away the faults of INDIVIDUALS who make poor decisions in life and cause harm to others thereby? Blaming vague socioeconomic factors for the failures of INDIVIDUALS to live responsible lives is a magnificent waste of intellectual capital. Of course we have huge disparities between certain elements of our culture. What society hasn't and doesn't? To suggest that the "robber barons" of yesteryear have something to do with it is absurd. The 19th century industrialists were instrumental in helping to raise the living standard of the entire world. All good things have a cost, but the great industrialization that they helped to ignite was, on the whole, an extremely positive event for almost everyone.

Failure to focus on the individual and acknowledge that a prosperous, fair and generous society rests completely on the shoulders of those who collectively make responsible decisions can only lead to the sort of muddled thinking that yields your statement in quotes above. I have no doubt that you make intelligent responsible decisions in your life every day. Why do you not expect and demand that from everyone else? If an adult brings another life into this world they have an unreleasable obligation to look after it and see that that life is given all the love and care possible. If that parent doesn't care about a good education, so be it. You probably can't fix it and neither can anyone else. But that failure to care for ones own offspring isn't the result of poverty or socioeconomic disparities or robber barons or any other outside influence. It is a highly personal failure of one or both parents. And sadly, neither academia nor the government has a solution that can turn bad parents into good parents. How about we stop stop blaming inchoate and abstract outside influences and focus on mom and dad?

Anonymous said...

I think in the last paragraph of your 9:55 entry you mean "teacher's" fault.