A couple of weeks ago in these pages, Marc Eisen had some harsh words for the work of the Madison school district's Equity Task Force ("When Policy Trumps Results," 5/2/09). As a new school board member, I too have some doubts about the utility of the task force's report. Perhaps it's to be expected that while Eisen's concerns touch on theory and rhetoric, mine are focused more on the nitty-gritty of decision making.
The smart and dedicated members of the Equity Task Force were assigned an impossible task: detailing an equity policy for me and other board members to follow. Equity is such a critical and nuanced consideration in school board decisions that, to be blunt, I'm not going to let any individual or group tell me what to do.
I am unwilling to delegate my responsibility to exercise my judgment on equity issues to a task force, no matter how impressive the group. Just as one school board cannot bind a future school board's policymaking, I don't think that the deliberations of a task force can restrict my exercise of independent judgment.
Admittedly, the task force faced a difficult challenge. It was obligated by the nature of its assignment to discuss equity issues in the abstract and offer up broad statements of principle.
Not surprisingly, most of the recommendations fall into the "of course" category. These include "Distribute resources based on student needs" and "Foster high academic expectations for all students." I agree.
What the report does not do, because it cannot, is tell me how to balance its goals against competing considerations in specific circumstances. The upshot is that even if I were inclined to follow its directions, I don't know what the report is telling me to do in real-world situations.
For example, I think it is appropriate to try to balance socioeconomic demographics when the board has to redraw school boundaries. But I'm not willing to dive into redistricting schools for the sole purpose of balancing those differences.
Is this consistent with the recommendations of the task force? Maybe, maybe not. I can't really tell.
The challenge for the cash-strapped school board isn't to acknowledge the value of equity in the abstract. It's to figure out how to deliver services in an equitable way when there are legitimate competing interests trying to preserve their slices of a shrinking pie.
Faced with these practical demands, I don't favor a top-down approach to equity that reasons deductively from general principles. When it comes to deciding how to implement equity policies or nearly anything else, I tend to be for whatever works.
To know what works requires more of an inductive, bottom-up approach: Dig into the data and draw the inferences that can be supported by observed results.
The good news is that the school district is putting just this sort of approach into place. It's called the value-added assessment model, and it is a product of the Value Added Research Center at the UW-Madison's Wisconsin Center for Education Research.
While this initiative has received less attention than the Equity Task Force report, it's likely to have a far greater impact on how we spend our instructional dollars.
The value-added approach slices and dices standardized-test scores so as to draw more meaning from them. The assessment starts with regression analyses to determine the impact that such factors as race, family income and parent status and education have on student scores in the statewide standardized tests known as the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concept Examination.
Once those correlations are made, the analysis looks at the makeup of the student population at each school and predicts what the school's performance will be. The predicted results are then compared with the actual results.
One school might have relatively high test scores but lower-than-average performance because the school's demographics suggest that the test results should be higher still.
Alternatively, another school might have relatively low test scores, but is actually doing better than other schools when socioeconomic factors are taken into account.
Better yet, the value-added analysis will track the progress of individual students from year to year. This is where we will get a clearer idea of how our schools are performing relative to one other.
If we find that a particular school is having unusual success in teaching, say, low-income students to read, then we'll want to put our finger on what may be different at that school and see if it can be replicated. If a school seems to be doing a substandard job in teaching math from year to year, we'll want to take a look at that as well.
We all want every student to succeed. Once the value-added assessments give us a better sense of how we're doing as a school district, we can direct our resources in smarter ways to improve the performance of all students. I think that's a pretty good equity policy.
ED HUGHES WAS ELECTED TO THE MADISON SCHOOL BOARD IN APRIL.