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Equity and Excellence, Part One

April 25, 2011
Martha Infante, David Cohen, 4/21/11

Martha Infante and David B. Cohen

On Thursday, April 21, 2011, I delivered prepared remarks for a meeting of the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity and Excellence Commission, convened in San Jose.  Some of the Commissioners heard from speakers and engaged with us in a question and answer session in the afternoon, prior to a larger, public Town Hall event held later in the evening.  My colleague in Accomplished California Teachers, Martha Infante, was one of the speakers in the public portion of the event that evening, and her remarks can be seen and heard online (see this prior InterACT blog post for more).

My own remarks, as delivered, can be found here (PDF).  However, in this blog post, I am publishing a prior draft that includes much of what I wanted to say but had to cut due to time constraints.  Today’s post covers the first half of my planned remarks, and a subsequent post will pick up the second half.

I very much appreciate the invitation to speak to you this afternoon.  I would like to start by thanking to Department of Education and the Commission members, Representative Honda, Albert Beltran Jr. from the Congressman’s staff, and all who helped bring this event to San Jose.  My name is David B. Cohen, and I am a National Board Certified English teacher, completing my ninth year at Palo Alto High School, and my seventeenth year of teaching overall.  I also help to direct a network called Accomplished California Teachers, an organization affiliated with Stanford University and dedicated to the promotion of teacher voice in education policy.  My remarks today, however, represent my own opinions and not necessarily those of any organization or institution.

Later this evening you will hear from my colleague, Martha Infante, a distinguished social studies teacher from Los Angeles, and also a member of Accomplished California Teachers.  Our hope is that if you consider our remarks in tandem, they will illuminate some clear inequities in California public schools, and suggest the principles that might guide policies that reflect a true commitment to equity and excellence in public education.

We do not come here with unrealistic expectations that all of the inequities our students experience can be addressed through a commission, or even necessarily through education reform efforts.  I come from a district where the mean family income is over $140,000 and where more than 75% of the adults have four or more years of college education.  When my students and I start off the school year with various “getting to know you” activities, it’s common for me to hear about expensive summer educational programs and families traveling abroad.  Each January, when we return from winter break, I expect to see a certain number of slings and casts due to the percentage of families vacationing at ski resorts.  I do not mean to suggest that all of my students come from backgrounds of privilege and wealth.  Our community includes families of limited means, some crowded into small apartments they work overtime to rent, and some who have benefited from subsidized and affordable housing programs.  But on average, students in my district generally have access to economic resources and opportunities that give them significant advantages in education and in life.

But, which inequities experienced by children can be addressed in the arena of public education?  Certainly not those of parental education or income.  Not inequities in family wealth, privilege, or access to health care.  But we can, and we must, aim for equity in our effort, equity in civic commitment to meet the needs of every student.  We can ask communities, policy makers, and voters to show an equitable determination to provide the schools, teachers, and resources necessary for excellence.

When I see quality education taking place – be it in a school, home, summer camp, house of worship, the YMCA, anywhere – I consistently see four elements in place: expectations, relationships, access, and support.  I am fortunate to work in a school and community that can foster each of those elements. I’d like to describe what they look like in practical terms, and ask you to consider these questions: what does it take to establish and maintain expectations, relationships, access and support?  How can we promote equity for schools and communities that currently experience so much inequity?

When I say expectations, I mean both the explicit and implicit assumptions about the setting and the people in it.  In Palo Alto, we have a civic expectation of investing for success.  We expect to pay more for quality education, and we expect results.  We consistently vote to create or extend local property taxes and bonds to support our schools.  Then, our district’s educational foundation kicks in – this year it was an extra $3.4 million.  That’s over $300 per student, reflecting our community’s expectations that music, art, science, enrichment activities, instructional aides and extra counseling are essential parts of an excellent education.   The expectation of excellence is felt system wide, and acted upon daily, by students, parents, teachers, classified staff, administrators and board members.  When it comes to educational expectations, we cannot compensate simply by putting slogans and pennants on walls, adding “College Preparatory” to a school’s name, determining one course of study for every student, extending the school day and inviting motivational guest speakers.  Expectations run much, much deeper, and equity demands that we demonstrate expectations, not just talk about them.

Expectations also show through when schools are committed to fostering strong relationships.  Better teaching occurs in schools where people work together effectively, and that work depends on relationships.  Better learning occurs when teachers know their students well – as people first, then as learners.  Accomplished teachers know how to use that knowledge to foster respect and trust, and then to improve instruction.  

Relationships help create stability and promote an atmosphere that leads to success.  Among my current colleagues, there are many alumni of our district.  Many of our teachers, classified staff and administrators have had their children attend our school, and many of our students are the siblings, cousins, children, or even grandchildren of our alumni.

My school also builds strong relationships by hiring a strong staff.  We have the ability to choose from a broad applicant pool when hiring teachers.  The district offers an environment where people want to work, mostly because we can be effective, but also because we earn 15-20% more than we would in many other nearby districts.  We often hire teachers away from other districts in the region after they’ve built up some experience.  Once hired, we tend to stay, and we haven’t experienced layoffs in the past decade.  That kind of stability promotes relationships within the staff, and among staff, students, parents and the community; unfortunately, we’re building our stability off of the instability in other districts.  To promote relationships in an equitable way, stop the layoffs.  Help schools to hire people they will want to keep, and then support schools becoming places where teachers want to stick around for a long time, and where that’s possible for them.

Teacher-student relationships are also fostered in my school through an innovative (and expensive) teacher advisor program that matches students to faculty members who provide basic academic advising and counseling at a students-per-staff-member ratio of roughly 25:1 for freshmen and 70:1 other grades.  I monitor the academic progress of 67 advisees, meeting with them in small groups or individually, providing guidance as needed, calling or emailing parents when necessary.  Yet statewide, California has the worst student-to-counselor ratio in the nation, around 800:1.

Relationships are further improved by maintaining reasonable class sizes, smaller than most California high schools.  I know you’ve probably heard news reports and studies which question the importance of class size.  I’m unconvinced.  Smaller classes are one of the main selling points for schools at every level.  I’ve seen studies that examine marginal differences in student loads, then collect very limited data  – usually test scores – that measure what I consider the least important outcomes in my classroom or in my own children’s school experience.  We all know that if you equalize every other factor, virtually every parent in this room would prefer to have their child in a class of 22 rather than 33, and that’s because so much of education depends on relationships between teachers and students, and among students.  My school is managing to keep most classes under 30 students, while I’m hearing reports of high school classes surpassing 40 students elsewhere in California.  Keep in mind that the effect of increased class sizes for high school teachers should typically be multiplied by five.  Adding five or six students to each of our classes is the same as requiring us to take on one more class, in terms grading, parent communications and meetings.

If we can’t convincingly prove that class size is one of the most significant factors in promoting productive, healthy relationships in schools, we either need better questions or better designs for studies.  The equitable solution here is not complicated, but it requires honesty, and a show of commitment to promoting healthy relationships in all schools.

Continue to Part Two.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. April 25, 2011 4:48 pm

    Nicely done (or half-done), David.

    The late Tom Green, a true education scholar wrote a classic piece on Equity and Excellence, where he wondered which was most important–and which should come first. If you’re going to push for ground-breaking excellence, will there necessarily be some left behind? If you’re going to insist on equity, does that mean that you’ll necessarily be holding some students back from higher achievement?

    In the end, he decided that equity was “nested” in excellence–you can’t say you’re reaching for excellence unless equity was part of the program. So–pursue excellence first, but don’t fool yourself into believing that you’ve reached excellence if there is no equity. A pretty simple observation, but a powerful one with deep and wide ramifications for ed policy.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      April 25, 2011 5:00 pm

      Thanks for passing that along, Nancy. I agree completely, and would add another “nested” idea – that our first responsibility in teaching is to the individual student and we have to keep that in mind first. Our mindfulness to that commitment will drive systemic improvement and better outcomes for all.

  2. Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez permalink
    April 26, 2011 8:40 pm

    Thank you for addressing the issue of equity. In a meeting today I listened to a teacher, who teaches very high-income students, complain about inequity when it was mentioned that our district would like to keep class size a tad smaller in some of our low socioeconomic schools. She felt this was incredibly unfair. I was sick to my stomach thinking of all the things that were unfair about my colleagues, who teach in PI schools, situations. They have been given such heavy loads – and to think that some educators have no idea what they are going through.

  3. Lee Barrios permalink
    May 3, 2011 5:26 pm

    Excellent commentary on the concepts of equity and excellence. In response to questions of class size importance, I “keep it simple” and find it is effective to give this example:

    I’m a language arts teacher (writing, grammar, literature etc.) If I have 130 students who write one literary analysis, editorial, or anecdote, relatively short pieces compared to research papers, I have to spend at least 10 minutes responding to and grading each. That’s 1,300 minutes (21 hours). A little more than the 10 minutes it takes to run 130 scantron tests through the grading machine!!! How many pieces of writing per week do you think I will assign?


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