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.

We know what to do, but will we do it?

I am running out of patience. Like most educators I am by nature an optimist. I have thought and written about the issues of poverty and education for a long time and I find myself restating the same points I have made in the past.

Ten years ago I reported in City newspaper (The Schools Problem? Concentrated Poverty,” March 30, 2005) on data from the 2003 International Reading and Literacy study on how our students were doing compared to students in other countries. This study found that U.S. schools with a student poverty rate below 25 per cent finished first in the world in literacy. The same study found the U S schools with student poverty rates between 25 and 50 percent ranked fourth in the world in achievement.

Most of those parents of students in those schools graded those schools highly. However students enrolled in high poverty schools scored well below international standards. I went to point out that 50 years of studies have showed us that despite pockets of success in urban schools due to a cadre of committed people, poor students invariably achieve better if they attend schools in which the poverty rate is under 40 percent. I doubt these data have changed much.

Then in a City article a few years later (“The Testification of Schools in America,” October 11, 2011) I wrote about what the top scoring countries had done to improve their education systems and found that our international competition provided poorer schools more staff development opportunities and support, smaller class sizes, subsidized day care and myriad of social services that helped diminish the effects of poverty. They also provided support for weaker schools from stronger schools by pairing those schools and sharing faculty and resources: think Brighton High School or Pittsford Sutherland sharing faculty, resources and students with Monroe or Edison.

But instead of following the lead of the countries that are out-performing us, when Rochester’s schools are in trouble we compare the apples of suburban schools with the oranges of city schools, set up “Choice” incentives that encourage competition not cooperation, and apply punitive accountability standards that label schools as failures and deny that market forces, politics and discriminatory housing practices have anything to do with low student achievement.

I concluded that article by asking that the education and business communities work together to follow the lead of our international competitors by creating partnerships between the haves and have-nots. This is at the heart of what GS4A is trying to do.

In an article two years later in the Democrat and Chronicle, I asked why advocates of school choice did not include more equitable regional solutions in their school choice plans (which turn out to be about choosing among city schools, not offering interdistrict choices).

After that article a group of like-minded advocates that became GS4A held two community discussions on the issues of regional solutions to poverty and education. And people from business and the suburbs did respond. Many advocates from outside Rochester have allied themselves with us and other groups in the community and are engaged in discussions on changing Monroe County schools. We are thankful and grateful to them.

Still, as I review my notes, articles and files from the last two decades I find myself saying the same thing. And as I talk to my friends in the suburbs I hear the same arguments from them that the problem with the city is that parents do not take personal responsibility for their kids and that their great grandfathers pulled themselves out of poverty and up by their bootstraps and these city folks can too. And when I answer arguments of these people who say it’s the parents’ fault I find myself feeling sorry for the children who are mired and low performing schools…. Even if it is somebody’s fault.

I’m tired of making the argument that we are once again at a tipping point. We have been making this argument for the last 25 years. And through it all, the clock continues to tick on yet another generation of city kids. No I take it back. It’s not a clock: It’s a time bomb.

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





Parenting only one factor in student learning


Hardly a week goes by without someone writing a letter to the paper to say that what is really wrong with the Rochester City School District is poor parenting. The writers imply that city kids will achieve if their parents did a better job of raising them. To me there is an implied and not so subtle message in these opinions: The writers are better parents. If city parents did as good a job as them then the kids would do better in school.

I wish I had their confidence. I know that I have been and continue to be an imperfect parent in helping raise my two children now 20 and 17. As a principal I ran a school of over 900 kids but I am still never sure when to nag or back off my own kids. It remains a tough job and my wife Linda and I are luckier than most because we are blessed with the resources of a job, house and decent income, unlike many city parents.

I wondered what  the research on parenting and schools tells us about this issue. So I took a deeper look and referred to the best resource I know on the topic:  educational researcher John Hattie’s Visible Learning: A Synthesis of over 800 Meta-analysis relating to Achievement.

Here is a quick and simplified tutorial: A meta-analysis takes the results of multiple studies on a topic and synthesizes them by assigning a value up to 1.0. The higher the value the more effect: a value over .40 could be regarded as making a difference while values of less than that would have to be considered more carefully. While a meta analysis is not perfect, it does provide context and is considered one way to make educational research coherent for practitioners.

One of the highest effects on student achievement, one controlled by teachers, is known as “formative assessment” (.90), which is feedback given to students that informs them what they have done incorrectly and/or what they need to change to make it correct. For example an effective teacher will point out where a math student made the error in a formula or what they could do to make a piece of writing clearer to their audience. On the other hand the effect of homework has been found to be .29 and would indicate that it has a much smaller effect on student achievement. Hattie’s work is fascinating and it is easy to lose yourself in reading the effects and the studies.

So how much can we blame parents for their kids’ achievement? Would kids do better if they were parented better? Let’s see if the research backs that up?

• The highest effect across all variables related to parents and achievement was parental expectations and the home environment which included stimulation for children — like reading to them, trips to museums, vacations and enrichment activities that are part of middle class child rearing. It was .80.
• The link between achievement and socio economic status is .57.
• Parental interest in schoolwork including homework had a moderate effect of .38.
• Parental supervision of things like cell phones, TV and video games has a low effect of .18.
• Parental monitoring of student grades — using opportunities to check on their kids’ progress — has a    close-to-insignificant effect at .12.
• Controlling parenting actually had a negative effect on student achievement at -.09.

Hattie’s work and his analysis help provide some clarity and show us that there are many variables contributing to effective schools and student achievement. He writes that parents can have a significant effect on their children’s achievement in terms of encouragement and expectations, however lower socio economic parents struggle to understand the language of learning and are disadvantaged in the methods used to encourage their kids to achieve. He concludes that many poor children are asked to live and work in two worlds. And that is one more than many of us have had to manage.

Jeff Linn teaches educational administration at the state College at Brockport and he is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

Let’s move beyond our poverty stereotypes

I work downtown at the SUNY Brockport Metro Center and just got back to my office with a sandwich from a local establishment. My server looked tired. She told me she was taking care of a sick relative’s children and her own child while continuing to work both her jobs. She figured she had gotten about 9 hours of sleep the past three nights. She is working, but poor and she got me thinking of how she would be characterized by some if she missed a teacher’s conference or school event. Would she be accused of not caring about her kids or their education?

It is challenging for us to consider our biases and stereotypes associated with complex issues like poverty and education but all of us stereotype. And make no mistake, stereotypes run both ways-city to suburbs and suburbs to city: The east side is rich. The west side is working class. The city is poor.

These are generalities (perhaps a softer word for stereotypes, because language does matter.). But as we strive as a region to provide more equitable schools (not equal – that language thing again) it may be helpful to address some sterotypes associated with poor children that may surprise.

Yes the Rochester City School District is the poorest in our region with almost 84 percent of children qualifying for free and reduced price lunch. And Pittsford , Brighton, Penfield and Victor all have 10 percent or fewer children in this category. But districts like Lyons, Mt. Morris, and Bath all have higher than 50 percent poverty rates. Indeed the majority of the region’s poor people (59 percent) live outside the city.

You are right if you believe that African Americans and Hispanics are far more likely to be poor than whites. In our region the poverty rate for blacks is 34 percent and for Hispanics it is 33 percent. The rate for whites is 10 percent.  So if you think of a poor student as being a black kid from the city you are not wrong.

But back to my lunch server. As a city mom she is obviously hard working and cares about her kid and her relatives’ kids. But what are the chances of her making it to a parent teacher conference or school events? I often hear that the problems of urban education can be solved if the parents just took more responsibility. You know the problems—fights at the bus station, the no-shows at school open houses, and the parents who don’t sign up to check their kids grades daily on the school website. The popular narrative is that these parents don’t care as much as we do.

This narrative may be the most damaging stereotype of all when it comes to building broad support for countywide magnet schools that strive for a mix of 60 percent middle class kids with 40 percent poor students.

Parents and children living in poverty, like my sandwich-making friend, experience class-specific barriers associated with participating in schools. They often work multiple jobs (with no vacation time), struggle with transportation, and have no one to watch their kids even if they wanted to participate in the school community.

So while it is true that low-income parents visit their school less often than middle class parents, it is also true that they are active at home—making their kids do homework, limiting TV time and reading to them. And anecdotally I have found this to be true. As a principal I made multiple calls to poor and working class parents asking them to come in to talk about their kids. I often made those calls to their places of work. And they always told me that if they came in they would lose wages or in some cases be fired. But they all cared and asked me what they could do.

Other stereotypes assume the poor are substance abusers, poor communicators and ineffective parents. But they too have been discounted by the research.

As middle class parents we provide our kids with vacations, art and sports camps, rides to everywhere and time spent together. We have our own stereotypes: soccer moms, deadbeat dads, uber parents, and the like. We sometimes bristle when someone puts us in that box. To move forward as a region we must also bristle at stereotyping the poor city kids and their parents who love them as much as we do our children.

Jeff Linn teaches educational administration at the state College at Brockport and he is a member of the GS4A leadership team.