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?