Committee on student assignment: 12/14 recap

This will be an incomplete summary, because I had to depart tonight’s meeting after about 90 minutes and the SFGov TV video stream isn’t up yet.  I was there for the main event, however, a presentation by Stephen Newton, a doctoral student working with Professor Linda Darling-Hammond‘s School Redesign Network at Stanford University.

Entitled “Racial Concentration and School Effectiveness in SFUSD,” the presentation came the closest we’ve seen to really connecting the dots between low student achievement and high concentrations of African American, Latino and Samoan students (AA/L/S) in San Francisco schools. This was a complex, highly statistical presentation, based on a review of SFUSD student data from 2003-04 through 2008-09. Researchers used some esoteric measurements, including “Value-Added/Productivity,” defined as using statistical models to estimate future achievement, then comparing actual achievement data with those predictions; and “Propensity Score Matching,” which matches students based on similar demographic characteristics (like race/ethnicity, gender, english-language learner status, special education status, income status, parent education level, etc.). Some key findings appear below:

  • Did students in schools with high conentrations of AA/L/S students have different academic outcomes compared with similar students in other SFUSD schools? Yes.  Researchers found that in English/Language Arts and in Math, schools with high concentrations of AA/L/S students were less effective. When the student-matching technique was used, researchers found that students from otherwise similar demographic backgrounds achieved at different levels depending on the racial composition of the school they attended. In other words, students of any race who attended schools with high concentrations of AA/L/S students showed lower levels of academic achievement than those students with similar demographic backgrounds who attended schools without high concentrations of AA/L/S students.
  • When a school’s proportion of AA/L/S students changed, did its achievement also change? Yes.  Researchers focused on the change between 1999 and 2008 in SFUSD schools. They found that as the number of AA/L/S students in a school increased, Math and English/Language Arts scores decreased for all students enrolled at the school.
  • Was the concentration of AA/L/S students related to non-academic outcomes? Yes.  SFUSD schools with high concentrations of AA/L/S students had lower graduation rates than other SFUSD schools.
  • Was the concentration of AA/L/S students related to teacher experience and teacher turnover? Yes.  Schools with high concentrations of AA/L/S students had teachers with significantly less experience than other SFUSD schools (average, based on data for 2004-05 through 2007-08, was 10.3 years experience at AA/L/S concentrated schools  vs. 13.4 years for other SFUSD schools). Moreover, schools with high concentrations of AA/L/S students were much more likely to be staffed with first and second-year teachers (3.7%) vs. other SFUSD schools (2.1%). Finally, schools with high concentrations of AA/L/S students were less likely to retain teachers over the period than other SFUSD schools.

None of this is really surprising to anyone who has been following along with the Board as we’ve reviewed reams and reams of data from our own district and nationally over the past year. But it is striking to see a second opinion so closely jibe with our own assumptions, and I think we can now be confident that the patterns we are seeing in the data — that schools with high concentrations of AA/L/S students are less effective for all students who attend those schools, regardless of their race — are real and verifiable.

Some secondary findings from tonight’s presentation are also instructive as we push ahead towards the goal of redesigning student assignment – in delving deep into student achievement data, researchers found that the effect of high AA/L/S concentrations were most pronounced at the high school level, second-most pronounced at the middle school level, and least pronounced at the elementary school level.  In a strange way, this is good news for us:  we only have one high school that is over 60 percent AA/L/S (John O’Connell HS); most of our schools with 60 percent or more AA/L/S students are elementary schools. Still, elementary schools will be the hardest to desegregate, due to segregated housing patterns in San Francisco.

In the ensuing discussion of the presentation, I thought that Orla O’Keeffe, the staff liaison managing the Board’s redesign of student assignment, made a striking statement. She told the Board that our own data and the experience of many of the districts we’ve consulted with on this problem show that choice processes and local (neighborhood) school assignment processes result in segregated schools. The only thing that results in perfectly desegregated schools, Ms. O’Keeffe said, is a process she hasn’t heard anyone on the Board support: assigning children purely based on their diversity to a school in another neighborhood, with no mechanism for parent choice.  As she spoke, I looked out into the audience and mostly what I saw was a vigorous shaking of heads – I don’t know that our audience was representative of the entire community but based on the nonverbal communication I observed, it was pretty much uniformly opposed to a highly restrictive system based only on the diversity of students.

The upshot? At this point (with the caveat that I haven’t yet been able to listen to the parts of the discussion I missed, including public comment) it seems that there is agreement on several points: that we should strive to pick a system that gives us maximum desegregation of schools that now have high concentrations of AA/L/S students; that we cannot afford widespread busing as a strategy to support desegregation; that program placement and program enhancements will have to play a role in attracting families to programs we want to desegregate; and that we will probably implement a system that is different for K-8 and high school.

Areas of disagreement? The role of school choice as a mechanism – Commissioners seem divided as to how much or how little choice families should get under a new K-8 process (I’m reading that full choice for HS is probably an area where most of us can agree).  One Commissioner said we should focus more on outcome than mechanism; I don’t agree with that – I think it’s unrealistic to think that we will be able to convince people to support a system because of its outcome if it utilizes a mechanism that places larger burdens on families (just look at our experience with choice! in theory, it was supposed to desegregate, but in practice it became highly complex and unpredictable, and failed to desegregate schools). Another Commissioner said the data we heard tonight paves the way for us to be able to use ethnicity caps at schools to avoid the kind of resegregation we have observed over the past eight years; I’m not interested in getting dragged into yet another expensive lawsuit over whether we can or can’t use ethnicity in our assignment system. Finally, a third Commissioner said that our dual language immersion programs were failures because they placed (for example) more Latino students in programs that already had high concentrations of Latino students. I don’t think our experience shows that at all – Spanish immersion programs have helped diversify schools like Alvarado, Flynn, Buena Vista and Fairmount.


8 responses to “Committee on student assignment: 12/14 recap

  1. Hopeful Parent

    Rachel – thanks, as always, for keeping us so well informed on this complex topic!

    Some follow-up questions occurred to me; it’s likely that these aren’t addressed in the study, but maybe interesting areas for further inquiry?

    As background, my understanding is that in the SFUSD, parents/families in the AA/L/S communities participate in the choice system at lower rates.
    – Did the study address this factor in its comparison of otherwise demographically similar students in concentrated vs non-concentrated schools?
    – How many kids at AA/L/S-concentrated schools are there by choice, via selection of those schools through the school choice assignment system? How many are there by default, as a result of household non-participation?
    – When they analyzed the students who were demographically matched, did they factor in participation in the lottery system? One could imagine that a household that participated in the lottery system might provide an environment more supportive of academic achievement than one which did not participate. A further question would be whether there’s an achievement difference between students whose households chose a concentrated school vs those who chose a non-concentrated school.
    – Do students who are at AA/L/S concentrated schools by choice tend to outperform the kids who are there by default (whose parents/guardians did not participate in the choice system)?
    – To what extent is the concentration level affected by the choice system — e.g., are lots of AA/L/S parents choosing AA/L/S schools? Do schools become AA/L/S-concentrated as a result of community preference (the aggregate effect of many individual choices), or by default (becoming populated by students from households that did not participate in the choice system)? Does the reason a school became concentrated make a difference in the (apparently deleterious) effect of that concentration?

    I hope, at the bottom of things, that we can identify and address whatever is causing lower student achievement at the affected schools, as well as a remedy for it. (Right now, the answer seems to be “don’t let a school become too AA/L/S”, which seems like a dreadful way to build up historically disadvantaged communities!)

  2. Did the consultants tell you why schools with high L/AA/S populations underperform? If not – Let’s ask the question and start dealing with the answer.

    At some point the board needs to appreciate the realities of its constituency. Yes – birds of a feather flock together – It is human nature and it doesn’t make us all bad people that need to be “saved” by a forced assignment system.

    Build a fair, transparent system that encourages enrollment. Next, find those schools that “buck” the trend and have high API scores despite a high needs community. Emulate those schools. We have the models right here, right now. What is Moscone doing RIGHT to educate its community? Emulate that across the district. Rinse and repeat. Find ways to find the $ to add more resources to help these schools. Bring all SF families in to help with the cause (instead of alienating them by forced assignment or through byzantine assisnment systems).

    At the end of the day – we are trying to educate all of our students, across all races. Remember – Education First.

    Social experiments conducted by the board are not required to educate all of our students.

  3. Frank and Caroline, interesting that you should ask about our communications staffing! I just had a conversation with Gentle Blythe, our spokesperson, about this very issue. Board members are always asking Ms. Blythe about why we can’t make this topic more understandable, and convey more information about that topic. As someone who spends way too much time on the Internet, it’s always frustrating to me that the district’s web site isn’t a better source of information (though I think it’s improved in the past year).
    Anyway, Ms. Blythe just gave me a 2007 report on the public relations capacity of the nation’s largest school districts, and it’s striking to see how much better staffed districts of similar size to ours are. Some examples:
    Boston (enrollment 57,000) employed six people, including a TV specialist, a publications specialist, a media relations specialist, and a staff assistant.

    Portland, Oregon (enrollment 47,000) employed 14 people in their public relations office, including three senior communications officers, a student voice coordinator, four TV production staffers, and a customer service operator (!!)

    I didn’t mention how many people our office employed in 2007: three, including Ms. Blythe, her deputy, and an administrative assistant. That assistant, who was worth her weight in gold and did work far above her job classification, was just bumped out of the district due to classified staff layoffs across the street in the Department of Public Health. At the moment, our public relations office staff amouts to two FTEs.

  4. Is there someone responsible for communications at the District? There probably should be (not that we could afford to hire anyone!)

    Frank, the district has an understaffed PR department, but I don’t think it’s even clear where this kind of communication with school communities would fit into their job. And of course your parenthetical comment about being unable to afford to hire anyone to do that kind of communications sums it up. What classroom resources are we willing to give up to hire that person? And of course “cut the central office budget!” is always the first cry out of everyone’s mouth — instead we’d be looking at taking from classrooms to add to the central office budget.

  5. First of all, thanks for this recap. It’s not always possible for us to go to the meetings — or to sit through the webcast! Your summaries are much appreciated.

    The information presented here is very interesting, and like you said, it seems to confirm existing “gut-feeling” about schools with this kind of racial/ethnic concentration. It would be interesting to see if there would be similar results for schools with high concentrations of White, Chinese, Japanese and Korean students (i.e. Does a high concentration of W/C/J/K students increase performance for all students?)

    I am heartened to hear that you are also concerned about the mechanism. In order to have a strong, positive message about the schools, both the expected outcomes and the mechanisms must be clearly articulated (and articulate-able). The current system is so byzantine that many people struggle to believe that it’s an honest system. The SFUSD has a large trust-gap from most of the communities that it (in theory) serves. The Cobb situation is a great example of this.

    Unlike Prospective Parent, I don’t think that the board and the administration are purposely talking out of both sides of their mouth. There is a complicated balancing act going on, between the macro and micro level. At the macro level, we (of San Francisco) want the District to educate all the children of our community in a way that we can all be proud of. At the micro level, we (of each particular school) want our personal children to be educated in a way that we think will help them succeed. We (as a community) can be proud to attract white students to a traditionally African American school to create a school that has a mixed environment that (according to this research) can help all the students at that school. However, the “we” at that particular school didn’t understand what was going to happen, and now it seems that the Board has punted the problem until after the application deadline, which only adds to the frustration for everyone.

    My understanding is that when the Montessori program was approved in, what, 2004, the Cobb GE program was planned to be wound down. But there was no real discussion about that, and what impact it would have on the existing families, local families and existing teachers. This could have been listed in the Enrollment Guide for a couple of years now. This kind of wait-until-it-explodes method of communication seems to be the one preferred by the District, but it sure seems to be an expensive way to operate.

    Is there someone responsible for communications at the District? There probably should be (not that we could afford to hire anyone!)

  6. Prospective Parent

    I am surprised to find the same Board that is running the Montessori program based at Cobb out of town for not being overwhelmingly African American (a program that actually is composed of the perfect racial ratios these researchers are pointing to for optimal student progress for ALL children) is looking at these stats and talking about desegregation. I thought this board was coming out for keeping the status quo of racially segregrated schools in their reaction to the Cobb dilemma by painting children of other races as the “interlopers” stealing spots from neighborhood children. Looks like the Montessori, if supported, has room for all. The art of talking out of both sides of your mouth seems to be reaching new heights through this Board.

  7. regarding “assigning children purely based on their diversity to a school in another neighborhood, with no mechanism for parent choice…”

    It’s not totally clear to me to what extent this describes the permutations of the assignment process before my time (pre-1996), but the PERCEPTION that that’s the way it worked certain led to the mass middle-class assumption of that time that “anybody with two nickels to rub together goes private or moves to the suburbs.” That’s counterproductive for the schools.

    An important principle to remember when looking at all this is: correlation doesn’t equal causation. (Unfortunately, the Civil Grand Jury will probably get its teeth into this for its next attack on SFUSD, and that’s WAY too sophisticated a concept for those folks, I’m sorry to say.)

  8. What do the parents of African American, Latino, and Samoan students say that they want? Is it a continued opportunity to send their children to schools outside of their neighborhoods? Is it after school care in the elememtary schools in their areas?

    What will win support from thoughout the city for increased school funding? I believe a frustration over a lack of neighborhood schools must be addressed. I favor zones.

    If the achievement gap and overconcentration of AA/L/S students issues are more a high school level problem than a K-8 problem, then it is upside down to emphasize desegregation of K-8 over high schools. The high schools have to be part of the redesign.