Is There Such a Thing at School As a High-Performing Seat?

This morning in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss publishes a reflection on the ongoing financial crisis in the School District of Philadelphia from the point of view of Anne Pomerantz, a linguist and lecturer in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Pomerantz shares tragic details about closing schools, slashing staff, in increasing the size of classes in Philadelphia, all of which make it so much harder for teachers to know and support each child.  She describes how the very words we use shape our thinking about schooling.

Advocating for the use of the term, “schooling” rather than “school,” Pomerantz points to school reformers’ language that diminishes the humanity of our conversation about public education. We continually hear talk about “low-performing schools” as though the school building itself is somehow tainted—which makes us less worried about closing such schools, even though they may be supporting children in myriad ways we never name.

Pomerantz quotes Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, who rejects an even more reductive and de-humanizing way of talking about schooling: “When our discussions are framed around high-performing ‘seats,’ and expanding access to those ‘seats,’ we dehumanize the process and easily lose sight of the true meaning of ensuring Philadelphia’s students a safe, welcoming, and rigorous environment to learn.”


We Like to Believe Our Story About a Generous Society, But the Plot Has Shifted

Let’s just suppose you are watching one of those TV movies for the holidays.  Or maybe you are reading a novel by Charles Dickens or going to the theater to see A Christmas Carol.  Generosity of spirit is a theme you will encounter especially in this season.  Throw an extra crust of bread to Jo the Crossing Sweeper, living in the street; help Tiny Tim.

What if our society were to try out that idea on a scale that might matter?  What if, instead of spending more tax money on schools for children in rich suburbs, we were to fix state school funding formulas to spend even a little more on schools for children in, say, Philadelphia or Cleveland or Dayton or Detroit?  It isn’t something that has been talked about much lately as we continue to focus on punitive policies for big-city school districts—policies like closing “failing” schools, opening privatized charters, and blaming teachers.  Maybe we could consider it as a sort of fresh idea in the spirit of the season.

Interestingly three school finance experts this week have raised the issue of adequate and equitably distributed school funding.   Yesterday in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss features Matthew P. Steinberg and Rand Quinn, professors and researchers in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, writing about Surprising New Research on School Funding.  Noting that the School District of Philadelphia (SDP)  is regularly condemned as a low-performing district, Steinberg and Quinn share, “preliminary findings from an ongoing study of school funding suggest(ing) that the SDP does more, per pupil, with its current resources than its closest counterparts in terms of student poverty and achievement. Indeed, we believe that the SDP, rather than a story of failure, is a story of possibility.”

Steinberg and Quinn explore what they call an adequacy gap, “the extent to which actual spending falls below the level necessary to provide adequate educational services to all students.”  They continue: “Of course, the fact remains that neither the SDP nor its nearest counterparts are even close to adequate levels of achievement…. So our findings should in no way be interpreted as a call to slash funding for any of these districts.  If anything, we see this as evidence in favor of reinstating a statewide fair funding formula, which takes into consideration differences across districts in the characteristics of the students served—such as poverty, English language learners, and special education—as well as characteristics of the district itself, such as local labor market conditions and cost of living, among other student and district factors.”

And in Ohio, Dr. Howard Fleeter of The Education Tax Policy Institute has taken a new, comparative look at school expenditures per pupil.  Fleeter’s topic seems particularly important to me because I have on at least two recent occasions been surprised to be told by members of the Ohio legislature that Ohio’s urban districts are spending more per pupil in some cases than wealthier suburban districts and not getting anywhere near the same test scores.  These legislators have, of course, bought the simplistic notion that expenditure of money can purchase test scores as though this were some sort of market transaction without much worry about the other factors that are likely to affect education.

Dr. Fleeter, however, noticed that standardized test scores across Ohio are highly correlated with the level of family poverty or wealth in our over 600 school districts.  Fleeter writes that his review of poverty data caused him to undertake a new study of Ohio’s school funding, a study whose results suggest that Ohio’s formula grossly under-calculates the amount of money school districts need in order to serve children in concentrated poverty.  It is not surprising then that, in Fleeter’s spreadsheet, the eight districts whose funding would be most significantly raised by increasing the poverty weight in our formula are Cleveland (100 percent of children in poverty), Dayton (94.05  percent poverty), Youngstown (93 percent poverty), East Cleveland (91.81 percent poverty), Lorain (88.31 percent poverty), Akron (86.61  percent poverty), Mansfield (84.35  percent poverty), and Warrensville Heights (83.9 percent poverty).

The narratives we tell ourselves about our society do matter.  We like to feel we are characters in one story—the one about the American Dream of generosity and opportunity and meritocracy—when our lives are part of a much sadder story.  I wonder when we will wake up and realize the plot has shifted.  I am so glad this morning to report on these three researchers—Dr. Steinberg, Dr. Quinn, and Dr. Fleeter—who are trying to show us something about the real story of America these days.

New Book Describes Public Education Under Siege

UCLA education professor and well known education writer Mike Rose (Why School?, Possible Lives, Back to School) and Michael Katz, University of Pennsylvania historian, have edited a new book of short articles, Public Education Under Siege.   Originally commissioned for Dissent Magazine, these pieces are free of jargon and technocratic talk.  They are intended to illuminate the world of today’s education reform for curious citizens.

Categorized into three sections—Perils of Technocratic Education Reform; Education, Race and Poverty; and Alternatives to Technocratic Reform—the short articles summarize what is happening in the world of public school policy today, and the editors connect the dots in what is a poorly understood set of circumstances and policies.

  • How is democracy being abrogated in America’s poorest communities by policies promoters promise will help poor children and families?
  • Is it a good idea that the federal government has seized power from states and local school boards?
  • Where did a fontal assault on school teachers come from?
  • How is inequality the root of much of today’s education policies?
  • Does making parents into consumers in a sea of choice empower them significantly to impact their children’s education?
  • Can systems based on competition really serve all children and promote the kind of egalitarian education system we need?
  • Why should we prefer democratic rather than technocratic school reform?

Here is a taste from a concluding chapter co-authored by Katz and Rose:

“One of the concerns raised in this book is that there does not seem to be an elaborated philosophy of education or theory of learning underlying the current reform movement.  There is an implied philosophy, and it is a basic economic/human capital one: education is necessary for individual economic advantage and for national economic stability.  This focus is troubling, as we have seen, for it distorts and narrows the purpose and meaning of education in a democracy.”

In his own blog post of July 13, Mike Rose describes this new book.  As a university press book, this one is pricey .  If you feel you cannot buy it yourself or buy a copy for a group to share, be sure you request that your local library get a copy .  Every library in America should be circulating a copy of this primer for democratic school reform.