Saturday, January 14, 2012

Setting High Standards for All But Ignoring the K-12 Opportunity Gap

It’s widely understood that before you can deal with any addiction, you first have to admit you have one. The same can be said about methods of funding K-12 education in Michigan and in other states. Our legislature has become addicted to doling out whatever funds they might have (after raiding the school aid fund for other than K-12 purposes first, of course) by holding up a fistful of dollars and getting all school districts – regardless of capability – to jump equally as high to get a few of them. It’s a scene quite common and even comical when one wants to entertain oneself with a pack of puppies. It must have been “fun” for them this past year since some, including Governor Rick Snyder, are already talking about playing that very game again this year. House Speaker Jase Bolger hinted to that prospect as did Rep. Mike Shirkey from the Jackson area.

But Lansing’s addiction to these inequitable methods of school funding continues to widen the gap between the wealthiest (a.k.a., Bloomfield Hills and others) and those at the bottom. My district is one of those at the bottom with the sixth lowest property values, highest poverty rate in the Kent and Ottawa County region, and highest percentage of limited English speaking students in Michigan. Yet Lansing’s unwillingness to admit to its addiction of handing out more money to districts that already have more money continues. Our elected leaders are unwilling to admit to their “sickness” and address the funding needs for kids who need the additional supports most.

This past Friday, economists, elected officials, and policy wonks gathered in Lansing, Michigan to update revenue projections of the past and forecast revenue for the future. Before the ink was even dry on their predictions, legislators and educators started positioning themselves on what to do with large unexpected projected surpluses. My inbox was exploding with news and recommendations from associations (MASA, MASB, and the like) and the mainstream media began reporting out interviews of anyone and everyone running to the bright lights.

None discussed the need to address the growing funding gap between rich and poor school districts, and the resulting lack of equitable opportunities for disadvantaged kids to achieve the same goals as every other child in Michigan. Of course not, since that would not be self-serving panning to their respective constituencies.

It’s ironic that the legislature and governor would tout the term “best practices” while at the same time they employ some of the worst practices in public school funding. Purposely ignoring the needs of disadvantaged students, who by the way are expected to achieve the same goals as students from more affluent areas, is not what I or any person of intelligence would consider to be a best practice.

“The hierarchy of bureaucracy and the power of the status quo are such that, in our country, poor children and communities are treated differently compared to those children and communities from upper class backgrounds.” (Orfield, 2005, as cited in Rios, Bath, Foster et. al., Inequities in Public Education, Institute for Educational Inquiry, Aug 2009)

Released just this past week, Education Week’s Quality Counts 2012 highlights the growing gaps in providing adequate school funding and resources to the neediest kids.

“In the area of school finance, an analysis of school funding disparities among districts once again finds large differences in many states… This analysis also shows that (only) six states fund property-poor school districts at equal or higher levels than wealthier systems (emphasis added)” (Education Week Editors, Equipping U.S. Schools for the Global Fast Lane, Quality Counts 2012)

Here are some of the highlights (lowlights?) about Michigan from the Quality Counts 2012 study:
  •  Average to below average in most of the thirteen indicators that contribute to a child’s chance for success with an overall rank of 31st out 51 states and DC. Family income, parent education, parental employment, and adult outcomes in education, income and employment contributed to this low ranking.
  • Virtually in the cellar in 4th and 8th grade reading and math achievement gains as measured by the NAEP from 2003-11.
  • Ranked 32nd in the poverty gap on the reading and math NAEP, a measure that compares those who are eligible for the National School Lunch Program to those who are not. The state average gap was 26.2 for reading and 25.2 for math. It can be assumed that in districts with significantly larger lunch program eligibility, that this gap is comparably bigger.
  • Ranks relatively high on standards, assessments, and accountability proving that it’s politically easier to wield the stick than it is to provide the carrots necessary for all students to achieve regardless of disadvantages. However, the study reports that Michigan and most other states provide no incentives to put the best teachers in schools working with kids having the biggest disadvantages.
  •  In the area of equity and spending, Michigan ranks a dismal 42nd in wealth-neutrality thereby demonstrating that funding decisions in this state do not consider the greater needs of disadvantaged students, i.e., those attending schools in poor neighborhoods, with limited English language skills, and other special needs. The state also ranks 31st in the nation for per-pupil spending with only 25% of the students attending schools funded at or above the national average.  While Michigan ranks high (5th) in percent of taxable resources devoted to K-12 schooling, it’s clear from all the other indicators that much of this spending goes to districts in more affluent areas that already receive inequitably higher funding. There’s no real effort by the state to distribute K-12 funding on a basis that provides equity of opportunity.
Equity of opportunity is the missing key ingredient to improving public education in Michigan and across the U.S. “…the key driver of education-development policy in Finland has been providing equal and positive learning opportunities for all children (emphasis added) and securing their well-being, including their nutrition, health, safety, and overall happiness.” (Pasi Sahlberg, Finland’s Success is No Miracle, Education Week Quality Counts 2012)

We are constantly being compared to other countries and the way the data is communicated, it makes public education out to be a failing enterprise. But it’s not public education that’s at fault, but rather it’s a lack of understanding and willingness to eliminate once and for all the inequities that hold us back:

“…about 31% of American students of all races and ethnicities (about 15 million out of some 50 million public school students), attend schools that outperform students in 54 other nations in mathematics. These are schools, however, that have few poor students… In American schools where more than 25% of the schools’ students are poor, however, achievement is not nearly as good.” (Berliner, David C. Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success, March 2009. Retrieved 1/10/12 from

For a recap of how my district (Godfrey-Lee Public Schools in West Michigan) fares in Michigan’s inequitable school funding scheme, see my post from last week titled: K-12 Funding Perpetuates the Inequity of Opportunity. In it, you will see a comparison of our district with the other 18 in Kent County, along with a quick contrast with one of Michigan’s wealthiest and highest achieving districts, Bloomfield Hills (in Republican-dominated Oakland County, just a Sunday drive north of many of the poorest school districts in the state).

“To be blunt, money does matter. Schools and districts with more money clearly have greater ability to provide higher-quality, broader, and deeper educational opportunities to the children they serve…. Clearly, money can be spent poorly…or, money can be spent well and have substantive positive influence. But money that’s not there can’t do either (emphasis included). Sufficient financial resources are a necessary underlying condition for providing quality education.” (Bruce Baker, Does Money Matter in Education? Albert Shanker Institute, 2012)

My purpose is not to make excuses for our teaching staff or our students. Like other educators, we’re working hard with the declining revenues provided by the state to address the needs of every one of our kids, but it’s insanity to believe that every school and every district can sustain an effort that provides an equal chance for every student to achieve the same NCLB-driven requirements let alone college and career goals, when the inputs to the system are inequitably distributed. It’s not only insane it’s immoral and borders on criminal.

“(NCLB) was purposely designed to pay little attention to school inputs in order to ensure that teachers and school administrators had ‘no excuses’ when it came to better educating impoverished youth…. The occasional school that overcomes the effects of academically detrimental inputs – high rates of food insecurity, single heads of households, family and neighborhood violence, homelessness and transiency, illnesses and dental needs that are not medically insured, special education needs, language minority populations, and so forth – has allowed some advocates to declare that schools, virtually alone, can ensure the high achievement of impoverished youth…. Our nation…has turned to a callous policy that allows us to officially ignore the inputs…that unquestionably affect achievement.” (Berliner, 2009)

Michigan has an opportunity in 2012 to change this and utilize its growing resources (Michigan revenue projection: We've got $633 million extra, Detroit Free Press) to improve equity of opportunity for kids, regardless of their zip code.

The question is, do our elected leaders have the will?


Since its inception, a number of NCLB's critics have claimed that the law was flawed because it was not designed to address the conditions under which children learn....this crucial aspect of educational reform must be addressed if sustainable gains in learning are to be made. Put most simply, if we want to bring about significant improvements in learning outcomes for students, we have to do more to address the context in which learning takes place (emphasis added). 
Accountability is essential, but only if we have done what it takes to provide educators, students, and parents with the support they need to succeed. Such an approach makes far more sense than holding students and schools accountable by simply issuing reports about their progress (or lack thereof) as we do now in states across the country. Labeling a school as failing or denying students a high school diploma when we know that we have not done the work necessary to help them improve is neither fair nor effective. It takes more than pressure or humiliation to improve failing schools....many underresourced schools simply lack the capacity to meet the needs of the students they serve (emphasis added). ~ Boykin, A. Wade and Noguera, Pedro. Creating the opportunity to learn: moving from research in practice to close the achievement gap. ASCD 2011.

Related reading: Business tax cut means inflation-adjusted revenues for School Aid Fund will hit lowest level since Proposal A How Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder and the state legislature put the screws to our kids in 2011