Sunday, November 28, 2004

A tale of two school districts, Part Two

This is the second of two articles outlining the different experiences my family has had in two school districts --- the Northshore School District in the Seattle suburbs and the Alachua County School District in the Gainesville, Florida area. This article presents our subjective experiences; the first article went over community and school demographics and finances.

Central vs. Decentralized Control

First of all, let me say that both schools are filled with teachers and administrators who care very deeply about their students and their education. I can detect no difference in their dedication or the time and effort they expend. What is interesting are the significant differences in philosophy, organization, and management in the two systems. In some cases, my family prefers Northshore; in others (though, I must admit, fewer), Alachua county.

The primary matter of difference between the Northshore and Alachua country school districts is that of central control. Alachua county (and, I believe, all of Florida) has highly centralized decision-making; so much so that I sometime wonder what authority Principals here have. Northshore Principals appear to have much greater discretion. Two examples should be informative:

  1. Our younger daughter's birthday is at the end of September. In Washington and Florida, this is after the cutoff date for admission to Kindergarten. However, in Northshore, Principals have latitude to provisionally admit a student to Kindergarten if they're born before November. There would be an evaluation process beforehand to determine if the child is ready, and there would be a probation period during which the Principal could decide, with teacher input, that it wasn't working out and that the child should wait a year. In Florida, the September 1 cutoff is a hard cutoff, mandated by State law. No exceptions are allowed, even at accredited private schools. Note that there is also a cutoff for first grade; this apparently causes problems for a number of families moving to Florida with young children who have already completed Kindergarten but, under Florida law, must repeat it because they cannot be admitted to first grade. There are some non-accredited private schools around that cater to families in this situation.
  2. Our older daughter is quite advanced for her age. There is some local discretion regarding placing her in higher grade classes for certain subjects. In Northshore, the Principal interviewed our daughter and had her do parts of a standardized test, then he had her evaluated by her teacher and the school counselor. We then met with them and arrived at a solution we were happy with. The whole process took a couple weeks --- just long enough for the folks at the school to feel confident in their assessment.

    Here in Alachua county, while the basic idea was the same, the procedure was far more involved and bureaucratic. We first met with the Principal, and a partial plan was outline for testing our daughter. The Principal wrote down a summary of our meeting on a special multi-part form, she and we signed it, and we got a copy (with other copies for the school, county, etc). Our daughter was then placed on the testing schedule and had to wait for the District psychologist to get to her (I chalk this delay up to the differences in the two districts' financial resources). A set of standard tests were performed (the set of tests that the psychologist gives every advanced student), and the conclusion was reached to pull our daughter out of class for the gifted program (which covers only a couple subjects). This decision was communicated to us via a set of multi-part forms, which we had to fill out, initial, etc. We then had a meeting to deliver these forms and fill out other forms, among other things waiving our statutory right to a 10-day waiting period between receiving our forms and the meeting. We then had to schedule another meeting to discuss other subjects, during which an additional round of testing was arranged. This additional testing took place over a couple weeks, involving some sort of computer-based examinations. Finally, our daughter was placed into third grade for mathematics. The whole process took about 3 months.

Testing, Testing

Another difference between the two school systems is the matter of testing. Both districts test students, but Alachua county tests them every week, for an entire day. That's right, every Friday is just about solid test-taking. Now, on the one hand it's probably good for kids to get used to taking tests, learn some of the associated skills, get over any anxieties, etc. But spending 20% of their formal education in test-taking is excessive (actually, it may be worse than this, as they take tests on other days, too). I presume that this is a response to the high-stakes statewide testing that takes place in Spring for students in every grade. In comparison, Washington only has statewide tests for grades four, seven, and ten. There is much less of a phenomenon of the curriculum being geared towards tests. We much prefer that approach. Tests are not ends in themselves, they are devices used to assess student achievement, abilities, and knowledge. They are a tool to help teachers, students, and parents understand where students stand and in what areas they may need work (and also in what areas they have talents). Eventually, they are used by institutions such as universities as a gross indication of the likelihood of success of applicants. Instruction related to testing should be confined to assuring that each student's test results accurately reflect his or her abilities. Anything more is training, not education.

Of course, I understand the motivation behind this focus on test preparation. High-stakes testing (and by this I mean high stakes for the school) send a very clear message that school performance (teacher and administrator performance) is evaluated in terms of getting as many students as possible above some minimum standard. Test training can be an effective means to achieve this goal, but it is achieved at the expense of real learning, and especially at the expense of students who have no trouble exceeding the minimum standard. The over-reliance on such testing in Florida is symptomatic of its centralized, "command driven" educational system, where such testing appeals to the "educational accountants" in the state and federal capitals.

Gifted Programs

Both school districts have gifted programs in which students wishing entry take standardized tests and are admitted (or not) based on their results. In Alachua County, the gifted program starts in first grade and is a pull-out program for one or two subjects (the precise subjects differ among grades and schools). In Northshore, the gifted program starts in third grade and is a separate class.

At our daughter's school in Gainesville, approximately 30% of the students are in the gifted program! This is true of many of the schools in the district. As a result, my daughter's gifted class has 33 students in it --- 50% more than her regular class. In fact, so many students are pulled out of the regular classes for the gifted program that the regular classes are significantly smaller during those subjects. If I were of a suspicious nature, I might think that the real purpose of the gifted program was to reduce class sizes for students who may need help getting over minimum standards by moving students who can tolerate the larger class out into the gifted class. However, I think it's more likely that this is just a result of an inflexible staffing formula. I don't understand the rationale behind having such a low bar set for getting into the gifted program. (I'm too lazy to try to figure out the probability that 25% or 30% of students in a district with 28,000 students would score in the top percentile or two in a standardized test, but I'm quite confident that it is vanishingly small --- small enough to be considered impossible.)

The Northshore school district, with over 19,000 students, has a total of six gifted classrooms at the elementary level (grades 3-6) holding around 24 students each for a total of 144 kids. Thus, only about 2% or so of students get into the gifted program (figuring 144 students out of 4 grades' proportionate share the total K-12 enrollment).

Curriculum

As might be expected from the rigid rules, Alachua county schools' curriculum is highly structured. Even the gifted classes have students all working at the same pace. In fact, the second grade gifted program follows the regular second grade curriculum: they just complete each week's work faster, and then move on to additional enrichment material.

Our experience in Northshore was with the PACE (Parents Active in Cooperative Education) program. This program requires 80 hours/year of volunteer work from each family. Grades are paired, with first and second, third and fourth, and fifth and sixth grades together. Ofttimes, teachers work with one half of the class while parent volunteers work with the other half. This gives the teacher a great deal of flexibility, at the price of less structure. It is my understanding that regular classes are more structured, but not to the extent of Alachua county.

Which is better? I believe that depends on the child. Some children will benefit from a highly structured program, in which it is always clear what they are doing right now, what they will be doing next, what is expected of them, and there are no distractions from other students doing different things. On the other hand, for some students this is a recipe for boredom, withdrawal into their own internal world, and poor performance.

Conclusion

As you have probably determined from these two articles, we generally prefer the Northshore school district to Alachua county. It is important to note, however, that some of this relates to our own prejudices and our own daughters' learning styles. In many ways, the two districts are equivalent. For example, Northshore uses the Everyday Math textbooks, while Alachua uses Harcourt Math. Both series are, in our opinion, excellent. Initially, I didn't like Harcourt because of the heavy use of color and cartoons (I usually think that attention to appearance is a sign of lack of substance). But the Harcourt books are in some ways superior to the other; we are quite happy with them.

The biggest difference between the two districts is the freedom (or lack thereof) that teachers and principals have to shape the classroom and school to fit the students. To me, when an organization like the Alachua school district removes almost all discretion from a group of employees for how they do their jobs, this indicates a lack of trust in their abilities. If teachers and principals are truly well educated and trained and carefully recruited, then they should be treated as the professionals they are. They should be empowered to use their backgrounds creatively, rather than just used as instructional deliverers.

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