Originally printed May 23, 2011.
To provide some perspective for the Press-Citizen's four-day series on the Iowa City School District, I turned to Peter Hlebowitsh, professor of curriculum and instruction for the University of Iowa's College of Education.
» JCC: Because of your expertise, the Press-Citizen has sought you out often to help explain issues facing the Iowa City School District. If you were to write a column this year, what would you focus on?
PH: Two things. First, I'd try to explain the idea of neighborhood schools. The district is learning that people love their neighborhood schools, not just because they are convenient, but also because of the broader ideas behind them. The idea that neighborhood schools are charged with educating the neighborhood. The community involvement. The shared communal undertaking. The community bonds.
» JCC: What' s the other focus?
PH: Redistricting. I don't think people fully understand what last year's debate was all about. That there's a well-documented correlation between achievement and the family background of a child's peers. That the idea of economic integration of schools is well supported in the research literature.
There's a pretty good body of evidence showing that poor kids who attend school with kids whose parent have higher educational levels and incomes will do better on many levels than poor kids who attend schools with other predominately low-income families.
» JCC: Why is that the case?
PH: For a number of sociological factors. But generally because attitudes and action are really contagious. The research shows that pro-school behaviors -- such as, doing your homework, going to the library, reading independently, etc. -- are more likely to be engaged in economically integrated schools than in high poverty schools.
» JCC: But why are pro-school behaviors more evident in economically integrated schools?
PH: It's because of something the sociologists call "parental connoisseurship." In more economically integrated school, you have more parents who are connected to what the school is doing. Parents who inspect the school more closely. Parents who are more inclined to make sure things are going the way they want them to go.
Those parents monitor for quality, and they agitate for improvement. They affect what gets established as the social norm for the school.
So there really was some good sense behind the redistricting efforts -- because they likely would have given lift to the achievement of low-income kids.
» JCC: The research shows that economic integration benefits the kids from lower-income families, but what does it say about the performance of kids from the higher income families?
PH: I've looked at the research, and I don't see any evidence that the kids from higher-income families are affected negatively. Maybe that would be the case if we were converting a school into a high poverty school, but we're only talking about an economically integrated school.
» JCC: Wouldn't there still be a risk of disconnect for students from lower-income families who are bused past the nearest school to help balance free and reduced lunch rates at a richer school farther away?
PH: The central tendency data suggests that the family background of a students' peers correlates with achievement positively. So such students, on average, should be better off. But whenever we're talking about averages, there's always the danger of falling into the ecological fallacy.
There will be individual cases that will be different than the average. In statistics, we call them outliers. But when the outlier is a specific child, then that's a more serious matter.
It means we have to figure out whether such a situation is likely or not. Whether such an experience would be an exception or the rule.
» JCC: How does a neighborhood school philosophy fit in?
PH: I think the school district learned last year that parents have a very visceral connection to their neighborhood school. It's not only that the school's location is convenient. It's also that parents like the idea of their children living together and going to school together. They like the very American idea of keeping the local school in the hands of the local population as much as possible.
There is power in the community bonds that are created. My wife and I raised four kids in Iowa City, and when I think in terms of the adults that I know, it's clear that I know them mostly through their connection to my children's' friends.
The school district needs to appreciate that power. But it also needs to think about what's in the best interests of the widest population.
And when the state dings the district for some schools being too socio-economically isolated, the district can't just sit on its hands.
» JCC: Why do you think there haven't already been several attempts to create charter schools, magnet schools or other specialty-focus schools in the Iowa City area?
PH: First, because Iowa was a little slow to get on board with charter schools. As a result, we're a little behind other states.
Second, because charter schools are dependent on getting parents to volunteer to have their children attend. And when you have a district that's been as gigantically successful as Iowa City has been, it's tough to break into the market as a charter.
Third, because charter schools require some sort of innovation, some sort of theme or special interest. But wherever you look in Iowa City, the schools are pretty excellent across the board in terms of arts, music, sciences and other fields.
» JCC: Without reliving last year's redistricting debates, what do you think is the best way for the district to move forward?
PH: When all was said and done, there was a lot more said about redistricting than was done. The discussions last year suggest that there seems to be fairly deep satisfaction in the district with the neighborhood schools. But they also show that many people are afraid of the chance that certain kids would pull down the achievement of the culture of their local school.
» JCC: Can we expect any significant improvement on this issue from the current board or from a new board that will require some time to get caught up to speed?
PH: I don't think we should conclude that a new board will be conservative or require time before jumping in. A new board can be pretty aggressive in terms of agitating for change. I'm sure they'll be agitating right now.
It will be interesting to watch what issues the candidates run on and what issues they think will highlight what they believe will get them elected.
Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be reached at email@example.com.