Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Seattle Will Never Be Able To "Fix" Its Public School System

First let me be clear, I do not think the entire Seattle School District is broken. I sincerely believe that some of the schools are very good, including my child's elementary school. My child gets a very good education and is light years ahead of where I was in first grade and is substantially ahead of many of the neighbor kids who go to private schools. The problem with the Seattle School District is some of the schools are not educating the students and for most of those schools, that is a problem that the school district will never be able to fix because the problem is not within the schools walls.

I agree with my friend over at Leaning Straight Up that fixing schools is a better solution than the race based assignment plan that was before the U.S. Supreme Court the other day, audio of which can be found here, thanks to Sound Politics for the link. Where we differ is my contention that I do not care how much you spend on the facilities or staff, the one thing missing from the poor performing schools, the most important factor by far in a child getting a good education is something the district has no control over, parental involvement.

Let's assume we could start from scratch with almost unlimited funds to build a school district where each and every kid would have access to the exact same facilities, staff and programs. If you were to take a tour of each school, look at the facilities, talk with the teachers, see what programs they offer, you could not tell one school from another. Now let’s add the students. For the first school, let’s only allow in kids that come from a two parent household. Now for the second school, only allow in those students from single parent households. Will one of these schools produce better results? Of course they will and luckily for us, the Seattle School District has compiled the data starting on page 145.

I have analyzed the data for six of the eight K-8 schools. I removed Alt. School #1 and New School @ So. Shore because of incomplete data. I choose the K-8 schools because it is a manageable number of schools to do a quick comparison, I have no connection to any of them, in fact I do not know where any of them physically exist. I compared WASL test scores with three factors, percentage of white students (ethnicity), percentage of kids on free or reduced lunch (wealth) and students from a two parent household. For three of the six schools, two parent households was clearly the best predictor in how the students scored. In two of the schools, two parent households was an extremely close second behind ethnicity, in the sixth school, two parent household was a clear second. Ethnicity placed first twice, second once and third three times. Free and reduced lunch was first once, second twice and third three times.

There is no question that based on the 2005 test data for the six K-8 schools with complete data that the higher the percentage of two parent households, the more likely the school will have higher test scores.

Now a little of my own personal observation from my own personal experience. My son’s school, a Seattle Public School, consistently has some of the highest test scores in the district. My son’s school also has 100% PTA participation. Every single family signs up for PTA. Just for comparison, my wife works in a Seattle area school district, her school has a high percentage of free and reduced lunch, high minority population, and she says the average PTA meeting has less than 10 parents present. At our school, it is standing room only. The last meeting I attended, I was not able to stand in the cafeteria, I had to stand in the hall. In addition, each and every family, 100% of the families, also contribute money to the PTA to finance additional programs. Now I know that is not something that all families at all schools will be able to do but here is something they can do and you may want to be sitting down before you read this. My son’s PTA puts on a “math night”. Let me repeat that… the PTA puts on a “math night”….and people actually go. If prior to going last year, Vegas had posted an over under number on how many students would show to math night and that number was set at 10, I would have gone with the under. When I heard the school was going to have a math night, I made all sorts of cracks about the wisdom of having that over say an Xbox night and I can make those types of remarks because one of my college degrees is in math. So here is how it works, the student and an adult “math buddy”, that would be me, go to the age appropriate class and complete 9 math related activities and get a sticker at the completion of each activity. At the end of the night, everyone gathers in the cafeteria where more fun math activities happen and then everyone who has completed all 9 activities get put into a drawing for fun and exciting math related prizes. I am going to guess that close to a third of the schools showed up for math night. Tonight was also the school Christmas Holiday Winter concert. Once again I was standing in the hall and tonight was just for grades K-2. Bottom line is the parents are involved and the test scores show it.

Nice new buildings, I am all for them. Well trained staff, let’s make sure all the schools have them. Lots of interesting programs that keep students interested in learning, super idea. You want to see high test scores, make sure the parents are involved. Unfortunately, in a city like Seattle, where nobody is willing to point a finger at anything other than a nameless faceless scapegoat like “lack of diversity” or “under funding”, there will always be schools that will always be in need of “fixing”.

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