Integration is key to sustaining early childhood gains

Improving outcomes for the youngest children in our poorest schools is probably the single most important thing our community can do right now to give city students a chance at success.

I am often told by educators that the research is clear on this point: Children who do not move from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” by the third or fourth grade are very unlikely to ever catch up in school or acquire the skills they need to engage in lifelong learning.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Luckily for Rochester children, ROC the Future—which describes itself as a “community-wide alliance to align efforts and resources to improve academic achievement for Rochester’s children”—has been advocating and keeping track of progress on several fronts since 2011.

With release earlier this month of ROC the Future’s annual report card, the headline on the Democrat and Chronicle story read, “Kids report shows progress, problems.”

First the good news.

The report (find it here) notes that ROC the Future’s most significant accomplishments to date include “developmental screenings and quality preschool education for 3-year-olds, along with improving K-3 attendance” and a continued “focus on achieving grade-level reading by 3rd grade.”

In addition:

  • In Rochester in 2013 “72 percent of births were to women who received early prenatal care, up from 63 percent in 2000, though still below the region-wide figure of 78 percent.”
  • “The preschool years are critical to healthy child development. Enrollment in a quality pre-kindergarten program can make a big difference in children’s readiness for school. In 2014, 67 percent of Rochester’s 4-year-olds were enrolled in publicly funded pre-K, the highest level in the region and up from 31 percent in 2001. If we add in 4-year olds attending the federally funded Head Start program, the participation rate exceeds 95 percent…By the end of their pre-K year, 64 percent of pre-K students were considered ready for school in 2015.”
  • “Rochester has put a bright focus on school attendance in recent years, and its efforts are paying off , though chronic absence still remains too high. In 2014-15, 30 percent of students in kindergarten through 3rd grade missed 10 percent or more of the school year (18+ days) and so were considered chronically absent. This was a decline from 37 percent the previous year.”

Now, the not-so-good news.

“Missing school, along with other factors, puts students at high risk of academic failure. The story told by state test results remains disappointing, with 7 percent of Rochester’s 3rd graders meeting state standards on the reading exam, 9 percent of 4th graders passing math, 4 percent of 8th graders passing English and less than 1 percent of 8th graders passing math.”

And then there’s the really bad news.

While about half of city high school students graduate on time, “many are not ready for college academics.” ROC the Future reports that of RCSD graduates who enrolled at Monroe Community College, 27 percent were considered college-ready in math, 45 percent in English, and just 18 percent were proficients in both subjects.”

This the same pattern we’ve seen for 40 years: Modest to encouraging gains at the early levels seem to fade as students enter middle school, and then disappear altogether for too any high school students.

This is precisely why integration across racial and socio-economic lines is so important. As children become more susceptible to peer pressure and simultaneously more independent of parents, children who are surrounded in school by others who expect to fail are far more likely to expect failure themselves—and far less likely to make education a priority. Put those same children in a school where many of their peers have higher expectations—and the adults in the room share those expectations—and those same students do much better.

Richard Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington D.C., and he has written extensively on the racial and socio-economic integration for decades. In a 2014 interview with the PBS documentary series, Frontline, Kahlenberg explained that there two fundamental purposes for public education:

“…to promote social mobility so that a child, no matter her circumstances, can, through a good education, go where her God-given talents would take her.  The second purpose is to strengthen our democracy by creating intelligent and open-minded citizens, and related to that, to build social cohesion.”

Central to the attainment of both purposes is the interaction among students in the classroom. Kahlenberg says not only are “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional, they are non existent. A public school education, he says, must give every student access to the same resources, the same opportunities in the same environment.

Public education is supposed to be the great equalizer. Integration, it turns out, is not just an amenity. It is central to equality of opportunity and to the success of the very students most likely to drift toward failure after middle school. Integration, it turns out, is the surest way to add staying power to the improvements we’re seeing with early childhood initiatives in Rochester.


Size may matter, but poverty matters much more

With nearly 30,000 students, is the Rochester City School District just too big to deliver the quality education city students deserve and are entitled to by the NYS constitution?

That’s the questions asked by an Oct. 1 WHEC TV 10 story—“ Should the Rochester City School District be broken into smaller districts?”

The story reacts to a 2013 report by the Center for American Progress, “Size Matters: A look at school district consolidation.”

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Honestly, the report offers very little useful guidance. It concludes that districts with fewer than 1,000 students generally lack the economies of scale to provide the range of educational services families expect in the 21st Century, while very large districts may experience “diseconomies of scale”—being just too large and too top-heavy to respond to the changing needs of families and students.

Both observations sound about right intuitively. The Center concludes that the optimal size for a school district is 2,000 to 4,000 students and reporter Berkeley Brean suggests that if you divide the RCSD into four smaller districts (using quadrants defined by the river and Main Street) you’d get closer to that optimal number, with maybe 7,000 students in each district.

Channel 10 did not push this “size matters” theory too far. Superintendent Bolgen Vargas said tinkering with governance isn’t a solution, while board members Willa Powell and Malik Evans (off camera) both said the big problem is the high concentration of poverty. Brean didn’t disagree.

I don’t want to make too much of the story or the report, except to say (again, I know) that this community has a decades-long history of ignoring the evidence and focusing on solutions that are both impractical and implausible.

I cannot say for certain, but I believe that dividing the school district into smaller districts would run into constitutional problems. New York’s Big 5 cities and their school districts have been locked into the same footprint since the state constitution effectively outlawed annexation in the 1920s.

The cities levy the taxes for municipal and educational purposes, so if there were four smaller districts, none would have taxing authority and the city would have to devise a formula for dividing up the school tax levies (you can only imagine the ultimately pointless fights that would provoke).

Here are a fqwew questions that point to the impracticality of slicing and dicing the school district.

  • What makes anyone think that four quadrants would produce four approximately equal student populations? I’m guessing students are not evenly distributed.
  • Would we need four school boards, four superintendents and four administrations?
  • What if the NW quadrant doesn’t have enough high school space, or if the southeast has too many primary schools?
  • Are students only permitted to attend schools within their quadrants? If so, what do you say to a parent in Charlotte whose extremely gifted musician daughter is no longer eligible to apply to the School of the Arts?
  • On the other hand, if students can travel freely out of their quadrants, what is the point to all of this?

The change to four smaller city districts is just another in a long line of flawed ideas as remedies for terrible academic outcomes. The problem is that every proposal ever enacted in the name of school reform in Rochester has left the poorest kids in the poorest schools in the poorest neighborhoods and blamed failure on parents, teachers, central administration, and of course, the students themselves.

Collectively, our community has spent 40 years running away from the evidence that points in another direction. If we do not deal with the concentration of poverty in city schools, we cannot reverse the outcomes.

That’s what Willa Powell told TV 10, and she is right.

Nearly 50 years ago, James Coleman was charged (as required by the 1964 Civil Rights Act) with reviewing educational outcomes all across the country. In the most comprehensive study ever done to that point, Coleman and his team reviewed outcomes in every region and all types of schools and neighborhoods. They looked at how student performance is impacted by the quality of teaching, the availability of teaching resources, the quality of facilities and more.

Their report, “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” found that all those factors effect students performance—but not decisively.

Here is what James Coleman concluded in 1966 (italics mine):

Finally, it appears that a pupil’s achievement is strongly related to the educational backgrounds of the other students in the school…Analysis indicates, however, that children from a given family background, when put in schools of different social composition, will achieve at quite different levels. This effect is again less for white pupils than for any minority group other than Orientals. Thus, if a white pupil from a home that is strongly and effectively supportive of education is put in a school where most pupils do not come from such homes, his achievement will be little different than if he were in a school composed of others like himself. But if a minority pupil from a home without much educational strength is put with schoolmates with strong educational backgrounds, his achievement is likely to increase.

Fifty years of further research and actual experience have confirmed those observations, again and again.

What are we waiting for?


“Town Hall” Update Meetings Scheduled

Great Schools for All scheduled three meetings for further community discussion of GS4A’s current work and proposals. The topics will focus on:

  • Proposals for legislative changes
  • Expanded summer-learning opportunities starting in 2016
  • Broadened GS4A leadership and support

These meetings differ from some recent GS4A updates in that:

  • They are held at different times of day and at different locations. GS4A hopes this will permit more overall discussion
  • They are shorter; each meeting will last about 90 minutes
  •  The material presented at each meeting is the same. Of course the discussion will vary with the audience

The meetings are Thursday, November 5 (day and evening) plus Saturday morning, November 14, 2015 as described on our web site. Please come. No registration is necessary.

Too often, ‘school choice’ is no choice at all

Another Sunday brings another article advocating for school choice in Rochester from our friends in the  suburbs.  Writing in the Oct. 2 Democrat and Chronicle, business columnist Pat Burke again decries the lack of progress in city schools and calls for a more competitive model to ensure that all urban children receive the education guaranteed to them by the state constitution.

His solution, as always, is more charters and school choice. Here is what I want to know? Why is the solution always choice as long as families and students never have the right to choose a school outside the city?

Let’s review some statistics that we have heard time and again. These are from the Bush center (Yes GW Bush) cited in the Atlantic. The report has a nifty interactive map on how American school districts rank against countries and districts around the world.

To understand the percentages, remember that 50 percent is the worldwide average—so half the students are above and half below that mark. Here are three suburban districts as examples:

School District Math Competency Reading Competency High Need Students
Brighton          65%            82%      8%
Fairport          59%            72%      9%
Pittsford          76%            86%      3%
Rochester          13%            28%        83%

Just eyeballing the statistics it is obvious that RCSD students are among both the poorest and poorest achieving in the world in Math and Reading.  You can draw your own conclusions about the other districts, but I wonder if teachers are better in Brighton and Pittsford and if they would be just as good in Rochester?

The achievement gap between children of top earners and those from poor families has increased 40 percent in the past two decades.  Children living in poor neighborhoods who not reading at grade level by third grade are nine times less likely to graduate from high school on time.

However, here is what the research tells us works. (See: “We Already Know How to Close the Achievement Gap” Jim Shelton, Sept. 29, 2015 Education Week)

  • A secure start to life through parental education and access to high quality pre-school at an early age
  • Money invested in nurse/family partnerships. The Rand study cited in the article found that every dollar invested in nurse visits produced $5.70 in benefits.
  • Intensive tutoring in social and cognitive skills and math for at risk youth.

But the key to figuring out ways to aid poor families was the finding that place and poverty are linked. 

Children growing up in poverty and with others in poverty have significantly worse life outcomes than their peers. In the Moving to Opportunity experiments, cited in Shelton’s Education Week piece,  children under 13 who moved to less poor neighborhoods earned 31 percent more as adults

Unlike our competitors in Canada, Finland, South Korea and other progressive countries we choose to warehouse our poor kids in schools where everyone else is poor which condemns them to low achievement because of where they live and the income of their neighbors.

So when advocates talk about choice and competition, what choices do they think poor children should have?  Only the 700 best students chosen for the urban-suburban program have the right to move. The rest have no choice but to stay. If they had the option  to go to school with middle class kids that would be a real choice. Or if our suburban districts  would take 100 kindergartners by lottery—not by the draft—that would offer a real choice for poor city families. And what if the charters would promise to educate every kid they took in, agreeing never to throw them back to the public schools when they present too big a challenge? That, too, would give poor families a choice.

Competition and choice will not wipe out decades of neglect, discriminatory housing practices, biases and prejudice. The business capital model that views urban schools as competitive markets in which some schools rise and others fall based on their test scores is a short term fix not favored by any of our global competitors. The only viable solution is our continued efforts by GS4A and other organizations that are intent on creating magnet and regional schools and enhanced opportunities for children mired in poverty. It really is our only choice.

Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.

Replicating success

Soon the Great Schools for All coalition will propose legislation to enable school districts in Monroe County to collaborate across district lines. What forms might these collaborations take? Of course, we will be seeking projects that promote learning in socio-economically integrated classrooms. But which classroom? Which buildings? Which students? From which districts?

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

Here is something to consider: Join the call for a change in the state’s charter school legislation to permit (if not require) charters to have socio-economically diverse student bodies, with students drawn from several school districts. Presently, charters must give preference to students from the district in which they are chartered, which generally means that city-based charter schools are high-poverty schools with all the usual problems.

Such an amendment might also require that failing charters be replaced with schools far more likely to help students succeed.

We already have an example. The Genesee Community Charter School (GCCS) is a stand out on the local charter landscape with its students consistently performing as well as students in many suburban districts. Contrast this with the performance of students at the Urban Choice Charter School where less than ten percent of third graders met or exceeded state learning outcomes on Math and ELA tests. While I am not a fan of standardized tests and especially not a fan of using test scores to justify closing schools, a compelling case can be made here. Because the charter system was established as an alternative to failing schools, I believe we should have a very low tolerance for failing charters.

GCCS’s history of solid performance and unique curriculum will attract suburban families. Twenty six percent of GCCS’s students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch (FRPL) which accords with the established claim that in schools with a cap on FRPL students, all students thrive and students living in poverty have a markedly higher performance. The school’s curriculum is based on the model of expeditionary learning which focuses on active, inquiry-based pedagogy; and a school culture that teaches compassion and good citizenship. At GCCS, Students learn hands on about local and global history with all grades studying the same period at the same time. A change in the charter law would make it much easier to replicate success stories like GCCS.

Where would you suggest we begin to build inter-district relationships? We welcome your innovative ideas about cross-district pollination. And we encourage you to ask your legislator to support legislation to would bring down barriers to collaboration.