Valid email addresses are required to post comments. If your comment is not posted, I will send you an email with an explanation.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

At The End Of The Rope

There's an old expression often used to describe the point at which you approach and acknowledge inevitable defeat. Many public school educators jousting at windmills and toiling at teaching may subscribe to that adage. Public schools, particularly those considered "high need" (low in resources, high in need) are more than disappointed, at least in New York, at the inequitable distribution of state aid as it's constituted in archaic formulas that extend gaps in both opportunity and achievement. The primitive explanation of state aid distribution in New York resembles a card dealer who dispense cards to players in equal fashion. Personally, I've always viewed it in the form of watering plants. If you have a cactus and a tropical plant, two plants with very different needs for water, and insist on supplying each of them with the same amount of water one will die - due to either over-watering or under-watering.

That "end of the rope" expression reminds me of an experience during my first year in education, as an elementary school teacher on an island off the coast of Maine. It was fair to say that the children suffered in some part from the geographical isolation that led to a form of cultural deprivation as it related to assessment of learning designed by test creators operating in far different environments. For example, one question required the children to identify the beginning letter of an object by choosing from among the four selections. The object was a saucer for a tea cup. Suffice it to say that the kids ignored the "S" and were searching for a "P" for "plate because they had no idea what a saucer was, since few if any people were accustomed to serving tea or coffee in that manner.

However, a few months later I came across one of those short "IQ" tests associated with some group like MENSA that appeared in a magazine and quizzed people to discover whether they were super intelligent. Well, one of the questions went like this: "A boat rests alongside the dock by the ocean with a rope ladder descending off the side of the vessel, and each rung of the rope ladder is exactly one foot apart. There are four rungs exposed above the waterline. The tide goes out five feet. How many rungs are now exposed above the water?"

Many respondents would declare that nine rungs would be exposed because there were originally four showing and then the tide went down five feet, with each rung a foot apart so adding them simply produces a sum of 4+5 = 9.

Wrong. As all of the children on the island readily understood, the correct answer is four because the boat remains on the water level no matter how many feet the tide recedes. While this little quiz turned the tables and demonstrated in part the impact of cultural context in test construction and resulting discrimination, it left me reassured that the impoverished children of the island who couldn't identify a saucer were not as limited as the outcome of that national achievement test would indicate.

Reflecting on that experience caused me to continue with the subject of ropes and boats. High Need schools have much shorter ropes that those schools considered Average or Low Need. Imagine two boats identical in size and shape. One boat has a five foot long rope attaching it to the dock, the other has a fifteen foot boat connecting it to the dock. The tide goes out ten feet. The first boat in our example is hanging by its short rope, dangling from the edge of the dock above the water, half submerged in the ocean. Meanwhile, the other boat with the longer rope floats comfortably above the water with several feet of rope to spare.

High Needs schools have suffered from the benign neglect of those decision makers and policy makers who could intervene and support the equitable distribution of financial resources have avoided the discomforting task of doing "what is right" because they appear to be more driven by "who is right," as in those communities that exercise their affluence and connections to the levers of power to sustain a distribution system that maintains the gap and serves as an advantage for their own children and the property values and quality of life of their community.

High Need schools in New York are struggling precariously at the end of their ropes.....

No comments:

Post a Comment