Monday, October 4, 2010

Our View - Why school boards need to address poverty rates

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 6, 2010.

"In discussing the difficulties of making high-poverty schools work, it is important to draw a distinction between the problems associated with concentrations of school poverty and beliefs about the ability of poor children to learn. Many people confuse the first with the second. Evidence suggests that children from all socioeconomic groups can learn to high levels if given the right environment. High-poverty schools, however, do not normally provide the positive learning environment that children need and deserve." -- Richard D. Kahlenberg, "Turnaround Schools That Work: Moving Beyond Separate but Equal" (2009).

In the week since the Iowa City School District announced that its redistricting committee would be bringing "Scenario 2" for public forums, we've heard a number of questions such as:

• "Why are they focusing on tearing down 'good schools' rather than on building up 'bad schools'?"

• "Why don't they focus on improving the performance at the underachieving schools rather than messing up what seems to be working at other schools throughout the district?"

• "Why do they want to bring down schools that are performing in the top 90th percentile so that all the schools in the district wind up performing in a mediocre 70th percentile?"

Although we understand why many parents are concerned about so many boundary changes happening so quickly, we still agree that the time has come for the district to call for a districtwide boundary change. With eastside elementaries facing capacity issues and with west-side schools continuing to experience growth, major boundary shifts seem inevitable.

And after reporting the test scores and other data for the various elementary schools for the past few years, we agreed with the board's decision last year to take one step toward addressing an "achievement gap" between the schools by including "demographic considerations" as one of the criteria used for redrawing those lines.

But we also think it's necessary to have those demographic considerations (specifically free and reduced lunch rates) be balanced against three other criteria:

• keeping neighborhoods together when possible,

• using building space efficiently and

• not adding to the district's operational costs.

That way, it would be impossible for the committee or the board to recommend any large-scale "forced busing" plan that would severely disrupt neighborhoods and send transportation costs through the roof.

Balancing poverty numbers

"Scenario 2," at best, is a good starting template for showing what happens when school officials try to balance those criteria for the Iowa City School District. The scenario would help make school boundaries a little more geographically coherent, but it also includes some features that seem "unfair" and that smack a little too much of "forced busing" -- especially when it comes to reassigning the sections of Lemme to Wood and reassigning sections of Wood to Lemme.

It is a fair question to ask why the scenario includes such a busing swap between Lemme and Wood yet offers no similar busing strategy to increase the lunch-assisted rates at Wickham and Shimek. But after acknowledging that unfairness, it's still important to keep in mind that we're talking about relatively short distances between the eastside schools. While there has been a lot of talk about students "having to be bused across town," the busing distances involved in the proposal having nothing in common with massive distances that some families have been forced to travel in large metropolitan areas.

"This is a 15-minute town," Peter Hlebowitsh, UI professor of teaching and learning, said of Iowa City. "It really isn't overwhelmingly onerous to get your kid from one school from the next."

Hlebowitsh agrees that changing the demographics is a "necessary" step if the district wants to keep addressing the "achievement gap." But he also said changing demographics is not a "sufficient" step and that the district must still place an emphasis on preschool, after-school and summer learning opportunities.

Noga O'Connor, a visiting assistant professor of education at UI, goes even further when discussing what the education research says about the benefits of improving the balance of demographics.

"Even if we change nothing else -- not hiring more teachers, not providing additional teacher training, not making curricular changes -- we still will see results," she said.

O'Connor said studies show that students from higher-poverty schools will perform better when moved to a more mixed environment, and those students will not bring down the performance of the "strong students" already there. Although a school's overall scores may dip for a while, the performance of individual students -- and the district as a whole -- will be improved.

Luckily, the Iowa City area schools with high concentrations of poverty aren't suffering from inadequate facilities or lesser quality teachers. If anything, the district has been throwing everything it has -- including some of its more energetic, creative and idealistic teachers -- into working to help disadvantaged children not get left behind.

And when good teachers have a few students who are academically behind or challenged by severe poverty, they can work with the students individually to help them catch up. But when those numbers start ratcheting up to more than half of the class, then even the best of teachers face a struggle.

As education scholar Richard Kahlenberg writes, "Research has long found that integration is not a zero-sum game: low-income students can benefit from economically integrated schools and middle-class achievement does not decline so long as a strong core of middle-class children are present."

Endogenous effect

Not everyone agrees that benefits of improving the balance of poverty numbers would outweigh the social costs involved with so utterly disrupting longstanding school communities in the Iowa City area.

Gerard Rushton, the UI geography professor who has been working with the district on enrollment projections since the 1980s, said he is concerned that implementing the boundary changes proposed in "Scenario 2" would be undermined by the "endogenous effect." That is, the decisions made by the board to solve a perceived problem may, in fact, actually cause or worsen the problem.

District officials, for example, have proposed changing the boundaries because they want to create a better balance of poverty rates. But the changes may not have the desired effect, Rushton said, because they could trigger a new round of "white flight" in which more affluent families decide to open enroll out of the higher-poverty schools to which they've been reassigned -- especially if those newly assigned schools are "in need of assistance."

And even if the poverty rates were evened out successfully among the schools, Rushton said that implementing Scenario 2 would still undermine the benefits that are supposed to come with successfully balancing out the rates.

After all, educators focus on lunch-assisted rates only as a means of improving the educational environment offered in a school. This is because:

• Recent court opinions have upheld the right of districts to use socio-economic factors -- as opposed to race -- as a means of determining what students go to what school.

• Because there are the strong associational links between behavioral problems -- including poorer academic performance -- in schools with a high concentration of children who live in poverty.

• Because there are strong associational links between academic success in low-poverty schools and higher rates of parental involvement. (A 2008 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, for example, found that low-income parents are four times less likely than more-affluent parents to be members of PTA and only half as likely to volunteer in the classroom or to serve on a committee.)

Rushton said he thinks the process should include a fifth criterion asking the committee to recognize the value of the traditional communities and educational structures that have been built around schools for decades. If those long-standing ties are severed by sending families to other schools -- even to nearby ones -- then all that collected institutional memory gets lost. Suddenly every school has to start over at square one when it comes to finding out the best way to involve parents in the educational process.

"The costs are not just in the schools where you are increasing the percentage but also where you are reducing the percentage," Rushton said. "You are going to have to adapt to that new composition. And that will take a lot of work. That will take a lot of effort. ... So it basically becomes a non sequitur."

Moving forward

Our community has long recognized that high-concentrated poverty harms children. And many in our community recognize that ending high-poverty, concentrated schools is a must.

Because the research shows that dispersing poverty rates helps poor children without hurting middle-class and affluent children, we think the school district does need to include "demographic considerations" when redrawing boundary lines. It's not an issue of being "politically correct," it's an issue of helping to improve the learning environments for the district overall.

"It's the starting gate analogy," Hlebowitsh said. "It's not that poor kids can't learn or are less capable, but they do have to run a lot longer to make it. ... There are real deprivations with poverty. It's not just an abstract idea."

"Scenario 2" meets the board's criteria in that it would bring down lunch-assistance rates in the high poverty elementaries of Hills, Kirkwood, Mann, Twain and Wood. Unfortunately, it does so by dramatically increasing the rates at Horn, Longfellow and Lincoln and while not changing the single-digit rates at Shimek and Wickham.

"Scenario 2" is far from a perfect balance of the board's four criteria. But it does represent a large step in the right direction precisely because it views improving socio-economic rates to be as important as the other three criteria.

As the redistricting committee and the board address the public's concerns about the scenario, they should not lessen the importance of improving the balance of poverty rates throughout the district.

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