In defense of Jefferson: the soft bigotry of high (test) expectations

By Terry Olson of Portland, Oregon. Terry describes himself as "a retired English teacher and reading specialist with an extensive background in school reform." He blogs regularly at OlsonOnline.

Last March, Leslie Carlson and Wendy Radmacher-Willis published a Blue Oregon post entitled In Defense of Neighborhood Schools". It lamented the slow demise of Portland's traditional neighborhood schools, and pointed the finger of blame at the twin district policies of school choice and open enrollment. The impact of the "rise of the magnets" and the district's "liberal transfer policy", they wrote, "are starting to become evident."

The "evidence" was apparent in the closure of several neighborhood schools, most recently Smith, Edwards, Applegate, and Kenton, and the displacement of others, like Brooklyn and Sunnyside, by focus option programs. But the evidence may be even more compelling now with the proposal to radically reconfigure Jefferson High and its feeder schools. I would argue that another misguided district policy figures prominently into that decision- the district's reliance on two standardized test scores to drive instructional policy.

The overreliance on testing data is wrong-headed for a number of reasons. Test scores drastically narrow the definition of achievement, or, as I prefer to say, learning. Secondly, test scores are strongly correlated to school demographics, and not necessarily indicative of, nor dependent on, school learning. And lastly, student performance on standardized tests tells you nothing about the "performance" of a school. To use student assessment data to evaluate school performance is educational malfeasance.

Even so, the district fails to use test data convincingly in determining how well schools perform. Last May I did an analysis of the numbers provided on the district's own website. It turned out that Roosevelt had worse scores than Jefferson, Marshall's scores were comparable, and Wilson, the whitest and second wealthiest district high school, "performed" abominably, if tests are the measure, in educating its students based on the significant drop in proficiency rates in reading and math from eighth to tenth grade. But Jefferson, not Roosevelt, not Marshall, not Wilson, was singled out for radical reconfiguration.

Unfortunately the fixation on school accountability has taken standardized testing to unhealthy and counterproductive extremes. Don't just take my word for it. Here's what Dr. Richard Stiggins of the Portland-based Assessment Training Institute wrote in the nation's leading education journal, the Phi Delta Kappan:

"We are a nation obsessed with the belief that the path to school improvement is paved with better, more frequent, and more intense standardized testing. The problem is that such tests, ostensibly developed to 'leave no student behind,' are in fact causing major segments of our student population to be left behind because the tests cause many to give up in hopelessness -- just the opposite effect from that which politicians intended."

In the same journal, Scott Thompson called high stakes testing the "evil twin" of authentic standards-based reform:

"When academic progress is judged by a single indicator and when high stakes -- such as whether a student is promoted from one grade to the next or is eligible for a diploma -- are attached to that single indicator, the common effect is to narrow curriculum and reduce instruction to test 'prepping.' What gets lost when teachers and students are pressured to make students better test-takers is precisely the rich, high-level teaching and learning that authentic, standards-based reform aims to promote in all classrooms and for all students."

In a subsequent article, he wrote:

"Test-based accountability assumes that higher test scores equal better learning, but researchers have found that it is possible to raise test scores without improving the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom. In fact, it is possible to raise test scores by lowering the quality of teaching and learning."

The bottom line is that the district does little to assess the effectiveness of the "teaching and learning" in its schools, yet it persists in the folly of labeling schools as "high performing" or "low performing". People know little about Jefferson beyond the fact that it is losing enrollment and that it's an "academic embarassment" to the district. That's the perception, anyway. Because its students, largely poor, minority, and disadvantaged, don't do well on standardized tests, Jefferson has become the school to avoid.

As a result, Jefferson is in danger of becoming the first high school in the city to go out of business. And then, as Carlson and Radmacher-Willis said at the end of their post, "There goes the neighborhood!"


  • paul (unverified)


    Aren't Jefferson students voting with their feet? Once the NCLB law went into effect, Jefferson has lost, what, 1/3? 1/2? of its local kids, who've chosen to attend other schools.

    In a district built for 80,000 kids, we now educate 45,000. Some schools are going to have to close. I'm not arguing for or against Jefferson, but the general lament against closing schools is simply unrealistic in a shrinking district.

  • (Show?)

    Paul, are you sure that's "since NCLB"? Portland has had nearly-total school choice for years, and it's my sense that Jefferson has been under-enrolling neighborhood kids forever.

    Of course, the real problem is that the first kids to leave in that system are the high-achievers with active parents. And on down it cycles, leaving behind only the poorest achievers with the least interested parents.

    I'm not sure it's an appropriate solution (now that we've let them establish themselves in other schools) but if we simply required all neighborhood kids to return, achievement at Jefferson would skyrocket.

  • Terry (unverified)

    Right on, Kari! As I point out in my latest post, Portland hasn't needed any help from NCLB to depopulate its poorest schools.

    The district has the authority to adjust its transfer policies to encourage kids to stay in their neighborhoods and attend their local schools. I would argue that it also has the moral obligation to do so.

    The stickier issue is weaning the district from its commitment to magnet and focus option programs and putting resources into all of the schools equally. Otherwise the educational balkanization that we've witnessed in this district over the past decade or so will continue to worsen.

  • Bill Holmer (unverified)

    So let's say I'm a lazy student of a single parent who doesn't give a damn. How exactly does forcing a student who's a "high-achiever with active parents" to attend my school, get me a better education? Osmosis?

  • (Show?)

    How exactly does forcing a student who's a "high-achiever with active parents" to attend my school, get me a better education? Osmosis?

    I'll tell you how. Schools don't run well anymore without parental involvement. First and foremost, parents raise money to pay for art, school supplies, books, music and other programs that are few and far between these days. In the case of some public schools attended by the children of the well-off, parents are raising hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    Secondly, school with parents who have the time, money and wherewithal to volunteer do better. For example, in my son's kindergarten class, parents act as teacher's aides, meaning that the school doesn't have to hire an aide for that class and has more resources for other things. We also paint the halls, maintain the grounds, help in the cafeteria and do numerous other things that used to be the provenance of paid staff.

    In neighborhood schools where the middle class kids have left, these things aren't happening, and I fear those schools (like Jefferson) are much worse off.

  • (Show?)

    "In neighborhood schools where the middle class kids have left, these things aren't happening, and I fear those schools (like Jefferson) are much worse off."

    ...Leslie's exactly right, though I'd correct that to say that it's not just a class issue. Poor kids with active, involved parents are leaving too. Probably some middle-class kids with uninterested, involved parents are sticking behind.

    Socio-economic class is a decent predictor of parental involvement, but it's not 100% definitive.

    In any case, when the involved parents (of any SES) leave a school, bad things follow.

  • Bill Holmer (unverified)

    Dear Leslie,

    You and the other active, involved parents are to be congratulated for your efforts to make your public school better. This definitely improves the school and increases the opportunities for the students who choose to take advantage. However, it won't motivate the unmotivated student, nor involve the disinterested parent.

    My concern is with the authoritarian instinct of some on this thread to force motivated students with active parents to attend a school which in their opinion will provide a lesser education. Some seem to think there's a "moral obligation" to send your kid to a particular school. To be fair, shouldn't kids be equitably assigned to schools based on their IQ's, test scores, and their parents' level of income? Sounds pretty Orwellian to me.

  • Terry (unverified)

    Hey, Bill, I never claimed that going to school with smarter kids will make you smarter (or higher achieving.) But smart kids with good test scores WILL make the school look a whole lot better. And that, unfortunately, is how parents make decisions about which schools are good schools and worthy of consideration for their children.

    Actually, parents are probably more concerned about class than academics anyway. In the South, it's called "white flight."

    Kari hits on an interesting point regarding SES and parental involvement. I think parental concern about education should be a separate factor in determining SES. Supportive parents make all the difference in the world when it comes to success in school.

    That said, the mission of public education is to serve all kids regardless of family circumstance. That means that public schools should serve in loco parentis.

  • (Show?)

    Socio-economic class is a decent predictor of parental involvement, but it's not 100% definitive.

    Good point, Kari, and one I take to heart. There are certainly involved parents at all schools who may or may not be middle class.

    My concern is with the authoritarian instinct of some on this thread to force motivated students with active parents to attend a school which in their opinion will provide a lesser education.

    I don't think anyone here is arguing that we have to force high-achieving kids with active parents to go to a school where they aren't challenged. However, in some school districts, school attendance is based upon the general the neighborhood you live in -- magnet/special focus schools didn't skim the cream of students of the crop off the top and send them all to one school in one particular area. (Which, by the way, has been happening in greater or lesser degree in Portland for at least since I was a student, which I hate to say was many years ago.)

    I am arguing that schools with students from diverse backgrounds--socioeconomic, cultural, racial--are much better for all students and more likely to survive as institutions than those that are allowed to fail because over time, fewer and fewer students want to stay.

  • (Show?)


    Yes, it has accelerated since NCLB. I know that Jefferson had always been underattended, but it's a crisis now. I think they have around 600 students in a building designed for 2000.

    The salient differences since NCLB are:

    1) A district must pro-actively inform students of their right to transfer. This is quite different from a liberal transfer policy which relies on parent and student initiative.

    2) The district must provide transportation, which is vital for any student of modest economic means who wishes to attend a different school.

    This has resulted in a dramatic increase in the proportion of students leaving Jefferson (generally attending Grant). This has also resulted in a de jure ending of the open transfer policy, since all of the transfer slots at the most attractive schools (Lincoln, Grant, Wilson) have been filled by NCLB transfers.

    This has also resulted in additional burdens on the next tier of schools, including my own child's school, Cleveland, which has the highest enrollment it has had in a decade.

  • Tony Larson (unverified)

    Magnets/"Special Focus Options" were devised as part of the 1980 comprehensive school desegregation plan,.. and brought innovative programming to every corner of the district. Inner city youth might attend language immersion at Ainsworth ES, while the Council Crest/Alameda dwellers eagerly sent their children to Jefferson's reknowned Jefferson Dancer's program or Jeff's Television Arts.

    The district's voluntary desegregation program sunset on June 30, 2005. The district is introducing more equitable manners of resource distribution, that allow resources to follow student needs/populations more closely, rather than based on what population had the more "aggressive/impressive" advocates.

    The district "does little to assess the effectiveness of the 'teaching and learning' in its schools", primarily because union reps feel that 21st Century Schools Councils (Site Councils) ought not review achievement data disaggregated by instructor.. as coming to close to being "Personnel Issues, not rightly the subject of site review." It is critical that districts be as transparent as possible, in their every endeavor (barring such as - actual Personnel reviews or real/likely litigation risks).

    "Socio-economic class is a decent predictor of parental involvement", but perhaps with not quite the impact one might intuitively figure. A former Asst. Super for PPS introducted us to the "dip curve"... whereby the hands-on parents occupy both sides of the SES spectrum,.. while the "mushy middle" is the hard pressed population. For low SES,.. sometimes time is all they have to give..and there's nothing wrong with that. Indeed, major kudos. What you give, you give from the heart.

    That being said,. if we reversed the ranking for money and time.. I'll let out a cheer. Low SES centers are beneficiaries of a number of "Hands On Portland"/Church Based or otherwise grass roots oriented service projects that middle/high SES centers just are not. But as these happen off-school hours, sometimes they are hard to see. Another set of caring/competent eyes, ears and HANDS.. more than tops the donation of another Infocus projector. But the issue of cross district, equitable and consistent distribution of resources is a valid and important concern.

    Dr. Edmondson's pre-NCLB enforcement study demonstrated that demographic shifts are not program quality/capture rate-driven. Private schooling floated perhaps one point from 14% to 15% over the (eight?) year study period and Home Schoolers are about 1%. PPS maintains a very high capture rate, for a large, urban, district. We just are not seeing "white flight". What is driving population shift are lower fertility rates (fewer young families generally, not that they're having fewer children) and early age out-migration (as young families seek more housing space for less cost).

    Paul's 5:13 post is correct. The NCLB required the empowering of entiring populations and that is certainly having a significant impact on distribution patterns.

    Further, ADMr declines will continue through the decade. Time to, agai, think critically about our student populations, their distribution and what facilities are required to house the programs employed. A true system of continuous improvement puts every facility on the "hit list".. in an orderly, methodically and TIMELY manner.. get on a schedule and stick to it.

    If you don't need the space.. you don't need the space.. (but we can be sensitive to engage local communities on site transition/co-location issues and other opportunities to site/program/cost share.)

    -Tony Larson

  • Michael Wilson (unverified)

    Teacher quality is the one issue that is constantly ignored in Oregon. Portland's middle schools and especially Jefferson have some of the least experienced teacher in the district and perhaps some of the least qualified. The journal "Education Weekly", or maybe it is just "Education Week" and it is available online had a report a couple of years ago on this issue and Oregon, as I recall, received a "D" for improving teacher quality. As long as this issue is ignored there will be a problem with the quality. When my daughter was going to school there were a couple of teachers that needed to be removed from the classroom, but it was nearly impossible to do so. M.W.

  • Sarah Carlin Ames (unverified)

    Many excellent points made by several commenters, but I did want to clear up one point. Terry made this statement: "The stickier issue is weaning the district from its commitment to magnet and focus option programs and putting resources into all of the schools equally."

    Actually, with the current budget, the school board wiped out some of the last vestiges of extra staffing and funding for magnet schools (additonal staff for Buckman Arts, the language immersion programs). The only inconsistency now is about $100,000 of local tax dollars (matched by the state two-to-one) for shuttle buses to take kids to a few of the magnet/immersion schools.

    The staffing formula for teaching jobs supported by your tax dollars and mine is now much simpler, logical and fair to all. In fact, it offers a little extra support to schools based on the number of low-income kids they serve. The Board also gave the Superintendent $2 million in one-time funding to help give a boost to schools struggling with achievement and those that had lost desegregation funding.

    And then there are the federal Title I dollars, which go to schools were more than 40 percent of the kids qualify for free and reduced meals. Add it all up, and Jefferson has perhaps the best staff-to-student ratio in the city.

    Terry claims the "the district's reliance on two standardized test scores" is driving instructional policy, and in particular the reform of Jefferson cluster middle and high schools. The Jefferson Design Team reviewed a great deal of data about PPS schools -- including those test scores -- and reviewed national research. I'd guess the single most compelling piece of data driving their advice to the Superintendent was this: That 72 percent of Jefferson neighborhood high school kids choose NOT to attend Jefferson.

    There are about 1,900 kids in the neighborhood. Only about 600 of them are attending Jefferson(and dozens of kids transfer in).

    Whatever you think of the recommendations the 22-member Jefferson Middle/High Design Team came up with, the goal was clear: Give students a good reason to enroll right there in their neighborhood schools. Offer a rigorous curriculum, strong school leaders, high expectations and great teachers. Create attractive options within the neighborhood to help all kids succeed. The neighborhood has enough students to support a thriving Jefferson Campus, and the recommendations are designed to draw back those kids.

    The School Board has scheduled a hearing on the recommendations at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday the 17th (that's tomorrow) at Jefferson. All are welcome.

    And here's a bit of a non-sequitur. People argue that Portland's school choice policy allows magnet programs to skim students from neighborhood schools. But a huge share of the transfers are kids moving from their own neighborhood school to another neighborhood school that they think is stronger. Some "neighborhood" schools maintain their enrollment and staffing by drawing from other schools. So the whole school choice discussion is much more complex than simplistically pitting neighborhood schools vs. focus options.

    Sarah Carlin Ames PPS Communications [email protected]

  • Terry (unverified)

    Come on, Sarah Carlin Ames. I know it's your job to defend district policies, but to say that the most "compelling piece of data" about Jefferson is its inability to hold on to (capture) neighborhood students is disingenuous. And misleading.

    Parents choose not to send their kids to Jeff primarily because of its low test scores, which supposedly say something about the quality of its instructional programs. That simply isn't true. The whole point of my post is that test scores are NOT an adequate or even appropriate measure of a school's "performance".

    If you call a school "underperforming" long enough, people begin to believe it.

  • Michael Wilson (unverified)

    Dress the students in uniforms. Make sure the basketball team is well prepared. Have the best dance group in the city. I have all the confidence in the world that those things will filter down to classroom math. The students are being shortchanged by a district that has no intention of making sure classroom teachers know their subjects and can get that information across to the students. M.W.

  • Sid Leader (unverified)

    Interesting thread here... but I was wondering... whatever happened to Whitaker MS, you know... the one where the kids were slowly poisoned by toxic levels of radon and mold because the district had no money or clue as to how to maintain it or clean it up?

    Second question... PPS and Dr. Jack Bierwirth "blew up" Jefferson HS about ten years ago, firing all of the teachers, because the teachers were so so "bad".

    How did Jeff do with all those new teachers and programs?

    Any better?

    My point? You can lead a student to knowledge, but you can't make 'em think.

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