Saturday, February 4, 2012

Defining quality education must include equity!

You can't drive through farm country much anymore without seeing a variety of signs with mysterious numbers marking out sections of corn fields. We've raised expectations for corn so high that greater quality and yields are necessary if a farm is to survive. Because inferior seed or the actual soil being tilled can mean lower quality or yield, farmers turn to more resources to help overcome the cruel inequity that could lead to bankruptcy. Every farmer knows that simply raising crop expectations or testing the plants more will not in itself lead to a bountiful harvest. Tending to the inputs while nurturing growth is a crucial part of farming success.
There are many examples of this type of "production cycle" throughout business, industry, the arts, and other professions. The only glaring exclusion is in education and the way we fund our K-12 schools. Here we most often choose to ignore the growing variations with "inputs," turn our backs on aging infrastructure, set higher and higher expectations, measure results at a more frequent pace along the way, and then bemoan the fact that the majority of our "outputs" are inferior while all the while blaming it on the teachers and schools for not effectively "cultivating the crop."
We simply ignore the lessons we see in the world around us. No, let me restate that: we chooseto ignore what we see working in every other facet of life -- strengthening the equity of inputs and providing a climate and culture of resources that promote growth and quality of outcomes. It's something that works everywhere else but is sadly absent in public education.
What is quality? 
Our Michigan legislature is attempting to define educational quality through an appointed committee representing both the House and the Senate. They sincerely believe that to do so will enhance the debate over K-12 effectiveness and reform. But so far, their focus appears to be on what type of exit standards to set that would demonstrate a school was being successful. Little has been mentioned of the quality of inputs on the front end. While goals are certainly important, goals to the exclusion of nurturing and expanding inputs and resources is an exercise in futility, one we've already been experience in the ten years since NCLB came on the scene.
UNESCO's worldwide research in 2005 (Education for All - The Quality Imperative) points to several indicators of a quality education that begin with the quality of the learner:
...learners are central to attempts to improve the quality of education. While this may appear obvious, it is not always reflected in practice. All learning activities designed to offer meaningful learning outcomes should start with the clear understanding that learners are individuals, with different aptitudes and learning styles and with personal attributes influenced by their home and social backgrounds (Lubart, 2004).
It follows that schools need to respond to these conditions of severe disadvantage and be proactive in helping to mitigate their impact on children. An essential starting point is assuring good health and safety, while recognizing that some problems require particular types of educational response (i.e., English language learners and students with disabilities).
The link between health and learning is well established (WHO, 1997). Ill health  affects attendance, retention, cognitive development and academic performance. There is strong evidence that poor nutrition and health in early childhood severely affect cognitive development in later years. Recent studies also reveal negative relationships between health and nutritional status and learners’ school achievement.
It is now widely recognized that early childhood care and education (ECCE) substantiallyenhances children’s school readiness, yet this is not an area of significant investment by governments in most countries, despite evidence suggesting that suchinvestment is a cost effective way to improve education quality.
In addition, a quality education requires what the research defines as enabling inputs that provide for quality teaching and learning:
Effective teaching and learning require wide and equitable availability of learning materials.
Good school infrastructure is important to effective teaching and learning...
Sufficient learning time is critical...
To fully meet the needs of all students by providing a quality education requires a commitment on the part of legislators and policymakers to provide equitable funding and resources so that no matter where a child lives and regardless of the child's socioeconomic, English language learner, or disability status, he/she has a equal starting chance to achieve at a level comparable to children growing up in more affluent surroundings. This is the only way to break the cycles of poverty on a wide-scale basis.
So far, that commitment has not been there.
Why is quality only for the rich?
Most people in the United States believe, at least rhetorically, in education equality -- that all kids should learn and compete on a roughly equal playing field. Yet disparities between the most affluent schools (both independent and public) and schools in poor communities have grown nonsensically extreme. (Weissbourd with Dodge, Educational Leadership. ASCD Vol 69 No 5)
Money alone doesn't necessarily lead to a higher quality education, but the lack of equitable funding and resources certainly handicaps the ability of schools serving poor communities, making it much less likely the students who attend those schools will reach the same academic and economic levels as their more affluent peers.
Weissbourd points out the growing disparity between affluent and poor schools noting that although state budget cuts have hit all public schools, "Low income schools have been hit even harder, with further cuts in basic materials and activities, deteriorating facilities, and even more students crammed into already-overcrowded classrooms."
Let's face it, schools serving students from low-income households, English-language deficiencies, other disabilities, and generally coming to school everyday with "junk in the trunk," have a greater need for more resources that will support quality learning programs and provide equitable opportunities. While many taxpayers seemingly yearn for a tax-free society, they aren't living in reality when they encourage lawmakers to cut more funding for public schools. They've been brainwashed into thinking that money sent from the state capitol merely flows into teachers' and administrators' pockets, but they fail to spend any quality time in a school taking in what's really occurring, and where the needs really are.
Public schools serving a preponderance of high-needs students require more equitable funding to address learning gaps and provide for accelerated opportunities. The areas where more funding and resources are needed include:
  1. Providing for high-quality early childhood programs so that all students, regardless of where they live or their family situation, are ready for school when they set foot in a​kindergarten classroom.
  2. Providing all children with access to ongoing basic health and dental care so they can be in school everyday focused on learning.
  3. Providing extended school days and years to meet academic and enrichment needs for students who are behind and who need to experience more out-of-school learning opportunities similar to their more affluent peers.
  4. Providing on-going rigorous training and coaching for teachers and school administrators to help improve the quality of teaching and learning that targets the gaps while setting high expectations for meeting the same achievement levels as students from more affluent communities.
  5. Employing sufficient numbers of specialists such as counselors, social workers, school nurses, and specialized teachers in the areas of special education and English language learning to address obstacles holding kids back while helping keep them focused on a goal of college and career ready.
  6. Building and expanding modern learning facilities that provide classroom spaces for collaboration, project-based learning, STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), health and physical education, world languages, and the arts.
  7. Providing equitable access to wireless high-speed Internet, mobile technology devices, and the wealth of expanded learning opportunities that students in other more affluent districts enjoy as a result.
Of course, those who oppose equitable funding in public education will shun most of these needs and provide their own brand of educational reform: Teach the poor to not be so lazy, expect more out of teachers for less compensation, set the bar higher for measuring success, and test kids more frequently so we can publish lists that compare and ridicule schools. If they persist, simply close them. In the meantime, quit whining and be thankful for what you have! We'd rather not be bothered by the issue of inequity because we're much too busy running our own kids back and forth to expensive tutoring for all those AP classes, swimming team practice, equestrian competition, or a performance in the district's multi-million dollar theater.
...sooner or later, more of us will have to recognize something more fundamental -- that education equality is at the heart of any healthy, just democracy. What is perhaps most distressing is that fewer and fewer Americans appear to feel shock and anguish that some of our children are left behind, stranded, always climbing uphill while other children are growing up in rarified, precious circumstances beyond any semblance of rational understanding. (Weissbourd with Dodge)
The Citizens Research Council of Michigan and The Education Policy Center at Michigan State University jointly recognized the growing disparity in adequacy and equity particularly when it comes to capitol funding for facilities and other educational resources such as technology:
Educational adequacy depends on a number of factors, including access to financial resources, teacher quality, and curriculum.  Educational adequacy also requires that all children have access to school facilities that fully support their academic achievement and social development. Michigan's current policies fail to provide such facilities for many children, denying them a fair chance to succeed in school. 
The principle of equity requires the state to provide similar services to all citizens, regardless of where they live. Michigan’s current policies on capital funding violate this principle in two ways. First, these policies produce inequity for students, by perpetuating stark differences across school districts in the age and condition of school facilities. Some Michigan children attend school in brand-new buildings, fully equipped with the latest instructional technologies and state-of-the-art facilities for art, music, and athleticsprograms. Other Michigan children attend school in buildings that are more than 100 years old, with leaking roofs and a few aging computers. 
In addition, Michigan’s policies on capital funding violate the principle of equity for taxpayers, by perpetuating inequalities acrosschool districts in property tax rates. 
Where do schools serving poor communities turn next?
Sadly, despite warnings from Horace Mann and others such as those who advocated for desegregation to ensure poor Black students had opportunities to learn with more affluent white kids, we've done little in the past half century to provide for equitable opportunities. Instead, civic leaders have seemingly worked harder to ensure that affluent districts are virtually unaffected by education and school finance reform, while districts serving high-needs communities continued to scrape along and be brow-beaten for lack of progress.
Even in areas where there's a mix of affluent, middle class, and poor districts, little is done to create ties between them that help share resources and provide more opportunities for the students who need them most. And when the leaders of the poor districts raise a red flag, those in the more affluent suburbs bury their heads in the sand. They are all about "equalizing funding" but only if it means more for them, too.
Middle-income and more affluent families, mostly white, have largely walled themselves off in separate school districts, leaving to others the task of educating low-income students, most of whom are African-American or Hispanic. For fifty years, the law and politics of educational opportunity have operated to protect the schools behind those walls. Court and legislative decisions alike have ensured that those schools do not have to share their resources -- whether teachers and principals, funding, or students -- with other schools or districts. (Ryan, James E., Five Miles Away, A World Apart, Oxford University Press 2010)
Poor school districts typically serve communities that have the least clout in our state capitols and even in the courts. There are literally no powerful constituencies that represent urban, poor communities which typically have high numbers of unemployed or underemployed, minorities, and non-English speaking households. Those who do advocate for them are often accused of trying to promote a system of welfare where a disproportionate amount of taxes go to support those who pay the least. The loudest voices -- often amplified by a mainstream media and array of conservative talk shows -- are now congregating on the side of corporate schools that theoretically will whip those poor bastards into shape, and they'll do it for less money (as long as that doesn't mean less money in the pockets of the CEO of those corporate schools).
Poor, mostly minority families do not have the resources or the understanding to effectively advocate for themselves. State legislatures are dominated by suburban district representatives who more often now represent the majority party wielding all of the power. They don't have to debate the issue, they simply control access to the big show and any chance of making a case for more equitable funding. As urban and suburban school districts become even less diverse, the chasm between students attending rich schools and those attending poor ones will grow and further expand inequity of opportunity. And while we quickly dismiss providing any more funding to schools -- poor or not -- we seem to have not problem adding more prisons and warehousing more prisoners at five times the annual cost, despite the fact the vast majority of those in our prison system came from urban districts and poor communities.
The logic fails me.
Without courageous leaders in Lansing and other state capitols willing to step up and address​educational quality that includes equity, our public school system and its outcomes will continue to be divided along economic and demographic lines.


If you would like a complete compilation of my recent blog posts on inequity of opportunity & growing K-12 funding gap in a PDF booklet, it's available free on Scribd at http://t.co/FwJX0tM9