School Choicer vs. Flynn-Blackmer

by Steve, September 23rd, 2007

Portland Talented and Gifted advocate Margaret DeLacy stopped by today and picked a few nits with Flynn-Blackmer.

For those of you just joining the discussion, Multnomah County Auditor Suzanne Flynn and Portland City Auditor Gary Blackmer published an audit of Portland Public Schools’ open transfer enrollment policy last June, titled Portland Public Schools Student Transfer System: District objectives not met (230 KB PDF).

The salient points of this audit were:

  • the transfer system does not mitigate racial and economic segregation, and in fact contributes to it via a “skimming” effect
  • the system is increasingly complex and not transparent
  • open transfers are at odds with other district policies such as strong neighborhood schools and investing in poor performing schools
  • in light of these conflicts, there is no clear rationale for allowing such radical policy.

DeLacy wants to ding the authors for confusing the reason students transfer, though this is not a focus of the study.

She also constructs a straw man: “…high achieving students are being pushed out of local schools by a lack of instruction appropriate to their needs. Forcing them to stay there without addressing this issue merely makes the problem worse by further reducing any incentive for the local school to improve its instruction.”

Nowhere in Flynn-Blackmer do they recommend a course of action such as this. My own recommendations to the school board, which will be released tomorrow, as well as my writings on the topic here, clearly state that we must equalize educational opportunities before we curtail neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers.

I can’t argue with DeLacy’s critique of the way testing is used, but she imagines “high-achieving students who transfer to a school with more high-achieving students would prove to be more successful in the long run.” Why? Well, “These schools simply offer more advanced classes.”

She doesn’t stop to ask why that is, or wonder if it might be better if all schools had equal educational offerings. But here comes the real zinger.

DeLacy believes lower-achieving students are better off at their lower-achieving schools. That’s right. “An analysis I did of Jefferson test scores a couple of years ago showed that it was doing a better-than-average job with lower-achieving students, so I would be surprised if they got a better deal elsewhere,” writes DeLacy.

Which leaves us with what we have: a segregated, two-tiered system, with advanced academic offerings in middle and upper middle class neighborhoods, and “special” schools with reduced offerings in our working class and poor neighborhoods, under continual federal sanction with No Child Left Behind. Evidently this is just fine with DeLacy.

Missing in her analysis is any place for high-achieving poor and minority kids. Or maybe there’s just not a place in her world view for them.

Ultimately, DeLacy concludes that Flynn-Blackmer “was not a properly conducted analysis and should not be used as the basis for making policy decisions.”

Evidently she reaches this conclusion simply because she dislikes hearing its unassailable central points, which she somehow fails to address: the PPS transfer system contributes to racial isolation, it is overly complex and not transparent, it competes with strong neighborhood schools and investing in poorly performing schools, and there is no policy rationale for it.

All of our children will do better if they all are offered a full range of academic and extracurricular opportunities in their neighborhood schools. It is incredibly cynical to argue that poor kids do better in poor schools, and rich kids do better in rich schools, so let’s just keep it that way. Or am I missing something in DeLacy’s argument?

36 Responses to “School Choicer vs. Flynn-Blackmer”

  1. Comment from howard:

    Good points Steve. Dr. DeLacy also makes TAG procedure much larger than it needs to be. About 10% of students are talented & gifted. I have a hunch that the majority of them are already attending Portland’s most popular clusters and have educated and saavy parents advocating for them every step of the way. The TAG students who benefit least in DeLacy’s system are the TAG kids in unpopular schools underserved as TAG students while the DeLacy types are squeaking their wheels for all the TAG benefits they can get for their genuine or borderline TAG kids.

  2. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Well now. There are so many ways to go on this post I can hardly make up my mind.

    1st — maybe the most critical factor in deciding how good a school is is the behavior of the students. Yet PPS doesn’t deal with the problems that poor student behavior causes in their schools in any way which directly affects the behavior itself. This is critical in making those lower economic middle schools work since their behavior is almost always much worse than upper middle class schools.

    So I say, let’s deal with it. There are ways to turn things around, but PPS won’t do it.
    Before anyone jumps all over me for stereotyping poor kids remember two things: 1) I worked in a poor school for 10 years. 2) The suspension rate at George Middle School was 34% last year. It was 2% at Sylvan. Where would you want to send your kid? (P.S. the answer is not to manipulate the suspension rate but to fix the problems.)

    2nd — The whole concept of TAG is messed up. Qualifying should be based on having extraordinary skills and interest in specific areas, like art, math, writing, music, science etc. (We already have sports TAG).
    Then we should have special advanced and interesting workshops in these areas to truly encourage kids. If more show up in higher economic areas then so be it.

    3erd — I am not sure I personally would tout anything Blackmer did. When I have dealt with him he was, in my opinion, pretty incompetent. Though I think the conclusions of the study seem to make sense.

  3. Comment from marcia:

    Sports TAG???? I don’t get it. I only know that my daughter was TAG and never really saw anything come of it…IT WAS a BIG so what? STill is…As a teacher, I can tell you that in our school we have asked for assistance in offering TAG programs, and have been sent workbooks….We looked at them and said…WHAT???? There ya go..the big SO WHAT?

  4. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Marcia, in essence any athletic team is a program for the athletes who are better and more interested in those sports. 12 players on the varsity basketball team are in essence the basketball TAG. I am a big believer in the arts and sports for kids. Healthy ways to build self-steem and learn huge numbers of life’s lessons as well as keep kids engaged and interested in school. I like this model for TAG.

    Any teacher worth their salt is already offering things in their classes which challenge TAG kids, they just don’t have the time and expertise to really focus there. The in-class model doesn’t work beyond primary school (and isn’t too good there) because there isn’t the time nor structure to really focus well.

  5. Comment from Zarwen:

    And THAT is why programs like Winterhaven and ACCESS were launched–so that TAG children could all be served together in one setting. Makes a heckuva lot more sense than trying to spread scarce resources thin to provide duplicate services at some 70 schools, and I think this is partially what Dr. DeLacy was getting at in her post. Consolidation of services.

    I started to write a post on this topic 2 nights ago, but it got too long, and it was getting late, so I bagged it and went to bed. If I can find the time, I will take it out again and try to clean it up and make it fit to post.

  6. Comment from paul:

    Winterhaven was NOT created as a TAG program. ACCESS is much more selective than TAG–you have to score in the top 1% I believe to get into Access.

    Fact are that the District is violating federal guidelines by not providing TAG services. Students should not be forced to transfer out of their local schools to receive special services, whether they be TAG, disabled access, wheelchair access, etc (all “duplicate services”, right?)

  7. Comment from Zarwen:

    Winterhaven may not have been created as a TAG program on paper, but in the pre-lottery days, at least 75% of the children admitted qualified as TAG. It may have been more, as not every parent wishes to have their child(ren) tested. The parents who founded WH were mostly parents of TAG children who weren’t receiving appropriate services in their neighborhood schools. It’s an interesting coincidence that the district launched ACCESS at about the same time that Winterhaven had to change to lottery admissions.

    I stand by what I wrote about consolidation of services. This is nothing new; for example, the district has for decades housed a program for deaf children which serves families both inside and outside PPS. No one is forcing anyone to go there, but I still think it makes more sense to put all the deaf children in one school, along with their specially-trained teachers, equipment, etc. We have to be realistic about how many of everything our tax dollars can buy.

    The District could help themselves out of the TAG hole they’ve dug if they allowed more grouping by ability rather than age. Since I have already posted on that topic in the past, I’ll stop here rather than repeat myself.

  8. Comment from Steve:

    The problems with consolidation are many. We have one TAG child, and will probably have two when we get the other tested. We looked at ACCESS, and had many, many concerns.

    They have very limited course offerings at the middle school level. They have little or no extracurricular opportunities. There are issues with the administration of the program, and problems with the fact that it is a predominantly white program co-located in a highly poverty-affected school. If you have any doubts about TAG being a program designed by educated white parents for their privileged children, go visit Sabin.

    In many ways, I feel much more comfortable with my bright children in an average school. We have had issues with teachers not “getting it,” and not providing challenging work, but this year things are much better. And our children are learning about the real world problem of dealing with other types of people. They’re going to have to face that sooner or later; why not do it sooner?

    A lot of the whining I hear from the TAG advocates seems to indicate they want to be able to drop their kids off and have the school provide everything for their kids. Our approach has been to provide enrichment in the arts and academics at home and in the community. (I was just teaching my third-grader fundamental algebra last night, and we enjoy going to the symphony and theatre together.)

    The bottom line is that TAG testing is culturally biased, and kids identified as TAG are significantly more homogeneous economically and racially than the general student population. With that in mind, I’d much rather have my children learn and grow in a heterogeneous environment, working with teachers and administrators to provide additional resources and instruction, and continuing our participation in their education.

    I know that my kids are going to do just fine in whatever setting, as long as we stay involved in their education.

    And hey, if you think TAG parents have it bad, I could tell you horror stories about special education at PPS. It ain’t pretty.

  9. Comment from Wacky Mommy:

    Well, this should lively things up a little.

  10. Comment from Steve:

    I just re-read what I wrote, and maybe I came on a little too strong. I don’t mean any offense to any parent who is just trying to get the best education they can get for their children.

    But there is a certain sense of elitism, particularly on the TAG e-mail list, that really turns me off. Are we all in this together or not?

    And it also irks me that TAG parents can be so well organized, and be a force in the district, yet special ed kids, who are treated far worse by PPS, don’t have a place at the table.

    You might say “Their parents could organize, too,” but the truth of the matter is, their parents have their hands full just taking care of the basics.

    Sorry if I offended anybody with my comment above.

  11. Comment from Hyacinth:

    Steve, don’t apologize.

    When someone is wearing an unattractive dress, the responsible thing is to keep the truth to yourself lest you offend that person unnecessarily.

    But, when someone’s actions are harming a large proportion of our children, the responsible thing to do is to tell the truth. If someone is offended by the truth in that case, they might want to look inward and not blame you for saying it like it is.

    I’m all for working together so that every child gets the education they need. But if a group of parents wants to create a public school system that provides only the best ONLY for their kids, they should be prepared to be called out for such an offensive position.

  12. Comment from Terry:

    And our children are learning about the real world problem of dealing with other types of people. They’re going to have to face that sooner or later; why not do it sooner?”

    Well said, Steve. My son was in a pull-out TAG program and he hated it. It didn’t bother me at all that he dropped out. The education he got in his “regular” neighborhood schools was good enough to get him in to med school.

  13. Comment from Zarwen:


    I was not offended by your comments; I just want to remind you that I was a PPS teacher for 8 years. I know a great deal about both TAG and special ed. in the district—-from the inside. And I spent 2-1/2 of those years at Sabin. I remember thinking, when I heard that ACCESS was going to be sited there, that it would be a mistake. There was an article in the Tribune last spring about problems with the program, so maybe my prediction was correct.

    I had hoped I made my point with my example about the deaf program (above), but everybody is still talking about TAG (sigh).

    The post I was working on that I never posted addressed the issue of parents (and others) who expect schools to be all things to all people. But I suggest being conservative about using the term “whining.” There are folks out there who think the NSA is a bunch of whiners! One parent’s whining is another parent’s activism. Eye of the beholder and all that.

  14. Comment from Steve:

    Thanks, Zarwen. I appreciate your experience and insider perspective on all PPS issues, including TAG. Also your sage advice on the use of the term “whining.”

    As Wacky Mommy would say, “duly noted.”

  15. Comment from paul g.:


    I don’t want to pull rank here, but I’ll be interested in how you feel four or five years from now. It becomes increasingly difficult for teachers to provide challenging work as the gaps widen over time. Inevitably, in my experience, teachers teach to the broad middle, shortchanging both the students who struggle and the students who are bored.

    If TAG students are identified in a culturally biased manner, then fix the identification system, but don’t abandon our efforts to allow our best and brightest to excel.

    It’s just not good enough for me to be told “Ok you have it bad but some other group has it worse.” Does that really satisfy you?

    It TAG “elitist”? Yes, on a fundamental level, it is–any program that discriminates among students on the basis of academic ability identifies some as higher level achievers and some as lower level achievers. To me, that is the human condition.

  16. Comment from Steve:

    Point taken, Paul. We’ll see in a few years how I feel.

    All I can say is that if they had had TAG when I was growing up, I probably would have been identified as such, with my two educated white parents and all.

    But I didn’t do too bad, coasting through the “teach[ing] to the broad middle” with a B average without spending any time studying. Of course, I had strong music, theatre, and journalism programs at my junior high and high school, which kept me interested and gave me a place to apply myself.

    At any rate, I turned into a civic-minded, gainfully employed professional without having been identified as TAG. That’s the experience I’m going on here, but I fully acknowledge that my perspective may change as my children enter the secondary grades.

  17. Comment from Steve:

    One thing I touched on above that I want to expand on. While my schools didn’t have “TAG” programs, my secondary schools were loaded with opportunities to pursue the arts and advanced academic topics (I took physics, calculus, chemistry, fifth-year German, etc.). There were also lots and lots of fully-funded extracurricular programs.

    There was also a vocational ed. program, which kept a lot of guys at the other end of the academic spectrum engaged who otherwise would have dropped out.

    In short, all the kinds of “extras” that have been (and are being) cut from our schools across the district, but especially in our poorest neighborhoods.

  18. Comment from Zarwen:

    Since we’re waxing autobiographical here, I’ll join in and say that I can identify with Steve in terms of background and ability, but with one more important factor: BOREDOM. I was absolutely bored spitless in elementary school until I got into the upper grades, where history and advanced math were taught (back then—I doubt very many elementaries provide such opportunities now!) Had I been a boy, I think I would have gotten in trouble a lot; the societal pressure on girls in those times was what made me behave.

    Also, like Steve, I was able to attend a high school that had all the goodies. Looking back now, it seems like I went to private school, only private schools seldom offer varsity sports. (Steve, you pointed out, correctly, that it’s the goodies that keep students engaged. Yet you criticized TAG parents for wanting to “have the school provide everything for their kids.” Did I miss something?)

    Based on my unchallenging elementary experience, my husband and I determined that we would not allow such a thing to happen to our son. As a former PPS teacher, I had a wealth of information about schools all over town. We visited several, looking for the most challenging curriculum we could find, and duly agonized over where to apply. We were fortunate to “win the lottery”; but if we hadn’t, we would have kept trying, and we would have continued supplementing his education at home.

    Paul’s point that “teachers teach to the broad middle, shortchanging both the students who struggle and the students who are bored” is well taken, but needs to go a step further: since NCLB, the “broad middle” has narrowed down to those who can be helped enough to score well on a standardized test. Check out Terry’s post today (and my comment) on this topic.

    Maybe some other day I can finally post my thoughts about consolidation in a complete and coherent manner.

  19. Comment from Steve:

    There goes Zarwen again, keeping me honest! :)

    I sure didn’t get “everything” from my schools. (And I was thinking of elementary school when I wrote the bit about folks expecting that.)

    My 10-12 high school was where the big extras kicked in, but even that didn’t keep me fully occupied. I had to (temporarily) turn to rock and roll to keep my interest in music going due to a lazy band teacher, and I worked half-time throughout my junior and senior years. I partied quite a bit, and still managed to survive to become a productive member of society!

    (Holy crap, now this is starting to sound like a MySpace blog.)

    I guess the point is that in the secondary grades, if all our schools offered a full slate of academic options, why would we need to isolate “TAG” kids?

    We called it “A.P.” back in my day, and kids in A.P. English would have lunch and be in P.E. with kids in the voc. ed. program, and kids from all across the academic achievement spectrum played together in the band.

    Why should it seem so pie-in-the-sky to want something we took for granted in our society so recently?

  20. Comment from Buzz:

    Whether or not you believe in TAG isn’t really the point. The fact is, the state requires schools to provide instruction at the appropriate level and rate for each student. PPS is doing a miserable job at meeting its obligation for level and rate instruction, which has resulted in unchallenged kids, unhappy parents, formal complaints to the district & state DOE, and at least one lawsuit.

    Though I can speak only for myself, I believe many of you will agree with the following points:
    1) Students should attend schools close to their homes, when possible.
    2) Schools should provide a range of programs and services that meet the needs of their students.
    3) All students deserve to learn every day at school.

    The sad reality is that many bright kids don’t learn much at all at school because of PPS’s failure to offer consistent, coordinated, and organized services. Note the words – consistent, coordinated, organized – these are the missing elements. Right now, the educational experience of your bright kid is totally hit or miss, depending on the teacher(s) your kid has.

    Consider this scenario: a second grade classroom; two kids don’t know how to read and can barely write their names; two kids read at the 8th grade level and write multi-paragraph stories; the other 26 kids fall all along the spectrum between these two extremes. (BTW, I am not making this up. My kid was in this class.) So what does the teacher do? She has four reading groups in the class. That’s right, four groups for a span of perhaps nine grade levels. Maybe a few of those 30 kids were placed at the appropriate reading level, but a heckuva lot weren’t.

    The obvious solution to the 2nd grade scenario would be to re-group the kids with those from other classes so that everyone would be in an appropriate reading group. This isn’t an elitist concept, it’s a practical one. Grouping creates efficiencies for the teachers and better meets the needs of students. Of course, the kids need to be re-assessed frequently and re-grouped as necessary. And they don’t need to be grouped this way all day or for every subject. The key to this model is that it is a *system* , rather than letting each teacher run his or her classroom like a one-room schoolhouse.

    I know that some schools do have school-wide reading time where students are re-grouped. I’ve heard that some schools do this for math too. The problem is, PPS doesn’t *mandate* this practice. The district is simply failing many, many kids by leaving it up to teachers and/or principals to figure out how to work with classes with such extreme ranges of levels. If all schools did some grouping for core subjects, then maybe more bright students would be challenged. And maybe fewer parents would feel the need to seek transfers to the so-called “better” schools.

    So are you curious about what happened to that 2nd grade class? The answer is: nothing. The teacher wouldn’t consider other grouping options, and the principal was spineless. A sad story, but true

  21. Comment from Wacky Mommy:

    Buzz, excellent example, thanks for your insights. I was reading 8th grade level by 4th grade, so off I went into the 8th grade class for reading. It worked for me. I was fortunate to be able to stay with the same reading teacher (the late Art McGraw, Harvey Scott School, woot!) for four years, which was also a gift.

    I am liking hearing everyone’s thoughts about TAG.

  22. Comment from Zarwen:

    THANK YOU BUZZ! It’s nice to hear someone other than me advocate for ability grouping. Consolidation on a small scale! Every day, I observe children stratified by age at school, yet it is perfectly OK to group them by ability in sports. I concluded long ago that age-grouping is bizarre and counterproductive.

    And Steve, your HS experience sounds a lot like mine. You are right, gifted children do not need to be “isolated” in hs IF there are sufficient advanced courses to challenge them. Elementary school is where TAG children get shortchanged. And Buzz is not exaggerating about his child’s class. I taught classes like that every day for 8 years. Hence my thoughts on consolidation, which will have to wait until a future post.

  23. Comment from Steve:

    Buzz, thank you, you make excellent points and I agree with you right down the line.

    It’s not just TAG students or special ed kids getting a raw deal. All our kids are getting hoodwinked out of a clear possibility of a better education.

    It all starts with funding, which is what I wrote about when I first started analyzing the problems with PPS leadership last February (warning! salty language!)

    The reality is, until we as Oregonians do something about our inadequate and unreliable state revenue stream, our schools are going to be inadequately funded.

    Could PPS do better with what they’ve got? Absolutely. That’s what I’ve been talking about here for several months, and what my colleagues at the NSA have been talking about for much longer.

  24. Comment from doug:

    We need to clean house up at the Pink Palace. From what I hear, there are so many “consultants” walking the hallways up there that you can hardly move through the crowded hallways. This is money that should be going into our classrooms, not some snake oil salesman’s pockets.

  25. Comment from Lisa Richardson:

    Hi all,

    Steve, I agree with what you say in your post. However, I can’t help but think that throwing money at issues will do no good (I know that is not what you are suggesting, but your comment got me thinking). Before we increase funds (especially in a controversial way), we must do better with what we have got.

    We’ve seen funding inequities come up in more than one post. Before we add money and potentially increase the discrepancy, I think something must be done to ensure that the additional funds will be spent in a responsible and equitable way.



  26. Comment from Steve:

    Lisa, with all due respect, we need to get stable, adequate funding and work on funding equity. They are both very, very critical issues, and I’m not holding my breath on PPS getting the equity part right.

    Funding is largely a state issue, and with both houses and the governor’s mansion controlled by Democrats, we have an opportunity to get this right.

    Honestly, this is where the discussion should begin. What we’re seeing at PPS is like rats on a sinking ship fighting over crumbs.

    I’ll probably write a post about this when we get closer to the next session in Salem, but I propose a partial repeal of Measure 5 on non-owner-occupied property, and a rebalance of corporate income taxes.

    The tax slashing orgy of the ’90s not only devastated our revenue stream, it shifted the tax burden disproportionately away from businesses and onto individuals. (If anybody had any doubts about the motives of the anti-tax “Libertarians,” this is a good object lesson.)

  27. Comment from Lisa:


    You are absolutely right. If we can do both, that will be the best solution. I’ll look forward to the post with more info in the future. Thanks for your thoughts and feedback.


  28. Comment from Margaret DeLacy:

    I have a hunch that the majority of them are already attending Portland’s most popular clusters and have educated and saavy parents advocating for them every step of the way. The TAG students who benefit least in DeLacy’s system are the TAG kids in unpopular schools underserved as TAG students while the DeLacy types are squeaking their wheels for all the TAG benefits they can get for their genuine or borderline TAG kids.”

    Margaret replies:

    Ad hominem attacks are the refuge of politicians who have run out of other arguments. I would like to correct some of the unfair allegations and misrepresentations that have been made about me. After that, I will shut up.

    First, I no longer have any kids in PPS–TAG or “other”. I am not seeking any benefits for my “genuine or borderline TAG kids” Calling me a “type” merely confuses me. I have no idea what “type” I am. I don’t approach other people as “types” either. I prefer to approach them as individuals with individual views.

    Second, I don’t think that the audit’s conclusions are “unassailable” because I don’t think they were based on sound data or logic. They systematically confused cause with effect. I absolutely think it would be better if all schools had stronger (not “equal”) academic offerings. ( I don’t say “equal” because I think there is room for some variability among schools, for example in the languages they offer). I just don’t think that restricting choice is the way to get there. That shows disrespect for individuality. Yes, the current transfer system is opaque. The solution is not to shut it down but to make it better and more accessible.

    Third, I have spend twenty years advocating for better instruction, more rigor, and more advanced classes in all our schools. I have served on more PPS committees aimed at doing just that than I can even remember. No one has ever before accused me of lacking concern for low-income and minority TAG students! Usually, they complain I am way too persistent on the topic and they are sick of hearing about it.

    Fourth, it was Steve, not I, who assumed that “lower achieving” translated to “black,”–an assumption I don’t make at all and wouldn’t make under any circumstances because it isn’t correct. Black students do not constitute the majority of lower-achieving students in PPS.

    Fifth, I most specifically never said, nor do I believe, that lower-achieving students are black, nor that they should be forced to remain in low-achieving schools. The claim that I did requires a rhetorical device that draws the most ridiculous and far-fetched possible conclusion from a comment and attributing it back to the author. I’d call it the “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” method of argument.

    I actually said I thought lower achieving students (uncharacterized by race, income or ethnicity) were probably getting more services in Title 1 schools, which may relate to some of the Blackmer findings that they were less likely to leave. This was an observation, not a goal. I don’t confuse “what is” with “what should be” and no one has the right to do so for me.

    I do think that this observation is important and has been widely neglected by everyone. We should honor schools that actually have done a good job with low-achieving students. The parents of those students also deserve this information. Unfortunately, under our current regime, schools that serve low-achieving students well often experience savage community sanctions such as reconstitution. This is terribly unjust to the many hard-working teachers who have gone way beyond their job descriptions to help these students. Furthermore, it does not help recruit excellent teachers to work with these students.

    If pointing out that some Title 1 schools used to do a good job with low income students before the district started meddling gets me called a segregationist, so be it. We have few enough things to celebrate in PPS. Many so-called “strong” schools do a poor job for our low-achieving students and I think this matters and we need to recognize and address the problem, not run away from it. Those students shouldn’t just be written off because they are in so-called strong schools. At least they have NCLB on their side. High-achieving students stuck in so-called weak schools have no one on their side.

    I also believe that schools such as Jeff that were doing a good job for many low-achieving students should also be encouraged in the future to build equally good services for high-achieving students who at the moment are not well served there. I just don’t think this will happen by corralling all the high-achieving students in that neighborhood and taking away their choices. Instead, I think they should open programs to attract such students such as Honors, IB or early college programs. Similar “Honors ” programs are being created by Universities to attract students at the same time similar programs are being eliminated in High Schools. Instead, our High School students are increasingly being forced into a one-size-fits-all system where they are sorted into small groups only by age and are no longer allowed to choose their classes. The idea now seems to be that since this hasn’t worked too well, we should do the same thing across the entire district and keep every student in a rigid age/grade program in a designated school. We could end up with a situation where even the low-achieving students stop learning anything. Remember Whitaker? The middle-school students there were treated to regular screenings of Sesame Street during class.

    I support allowing ALL students to make up their minds about what they want to do. I think it is arrogant to assume we know what’s best for them. So often, education policy seems to be more about exercising power to over other people’s choices than about actually providing services that they want. Most often, the people most constrained by this power grab are those with fewest options to begin with.

    I never said nor do I at all agree with Cynthia Harris’s claim that “black students are different.” In fact, the Jefferson survey showed that members of the Jefferson community, black, hispanic, white, mixed race, and of other races, want what most families want for their children–a greater range of higher level classes, more challenging curriculum, and more academic options. I am appalled that the district has chosen to ignore this evidence and dismember Jefferson instead. Shutting down the right of these families to go elsewhere does nothing to provide better education for them. It just lets everyone off the hook. Neither does rearranging the organization chart for the school. Neither does making every school smaller when it comes at the expense of providing higher-level classes (as it has across the city). It’s all just an expensive diversion from what really matters most: developing challenging classes with high-quality curriculum and instruction and making sure we hire and retain great teachers.

    Our district administration isn’t capable of creating quality in our schools by fiat, any more than the Communists were capable of creating good tractors. They’ve certainly tried to “fix” Jefferson over and over again, and each time things have deteriorated. Similar meddling at Marshall has ruined that once outstanding school. It takes the “feedback loop” of competition to bring real quality about–there are too many factors at play for most top-down interventions to work–even well-intentioned interventions supported by rich donors.

    The crux of this discussion is over “pull” vs. “push.” I believe that the best way to ensure that neighborhood schools provide stronger programs is to support other options for families if they don’t. After many very frustrating years of advocating for stronger programs, I simply don’t believe that neighborhood schools will create them if families aren’t allowed to vote with their feet. They may create programs that they call by impressive-sounding names–but eventually the families will discover that the name doesn’t mean much in terms of real curriculum and instruction. I also think forcing families to go to schools they don’t want to go to is likely to result in more segregated neighborhoods (by income) instead of less segregated schools. I grew up in DC and witnessed this process at first hand, but I am not an expert on the evidence here, so maybe someone else can provide pointers to some research in this area.

    The advocates on the other side believe that the best way to ensure that neighborhood schools provide stronger programs is to force families who can’t afford private schools to go to school only in the neighborhoods where they can afford to live, while “equalizing opportunities” among the schools. They feel they are so wise, sincere, democratic and fair that they should have the power to limit other people’s options.

    “Equalizing educational opportunities, ” Steve’s stated goal, means giving a fast-food education to all children. They all get the same bland meal, created by management. This meal does not allow for individual differences in interests, skills, or career goals. It also does not provide any nourishment at all for children who range between two and five years beyond their age-based grade level. The average classroom teacher pitches most instruction at the level of the student in the 30th. percentile. Studies have found that teachers almost never provide appropriate differentiation for gifted children in mixed classrooms. This is not too surprising because they haven’t been trained to do so and their classrooms are so large that they only have one to two minutes for each student. “Outliers” as one child I know was called by the staff, are mostly ignored unless or until they become troublemakers.

    Many schools only want these “outlier” children for their ADMw payments. They don’t want to provide them with additional services. Serving TAG children properly when they are sprinkled one-by-one in classrooms becomes expensive. Principals often see this (incorrectly) as a zero-sum equation in which providing any “extra” services to gifted children takes away services from someone else who is more “deserving”. They feel, with Steve, that since these children are white and middle-class they don’t really need to learn. Instead, they treat these children as unpaid teacher’s aides.

    If the parents who are advocating for high-achieving children are so effective and powerful, why are their kids doing so poorly? The bottom line is that we don’t have adequate instruction for our 5,000 TAG students anywhere in the district and most of our neighborhood schools are completely uninterested in making the painful changes that would be needed to provide an appropriate level of instruction. I spent last year going to meetings for TAG parents. These parents in all our schools, rich and poor, told us their children are not learning. Our district curriculum and course offerings are inappropriate for them. In fact, the numbers show quite clear that the current situation poorly serves all high achieving students. Why are children who “exceed” making much lower gains than other children throughout Portland?

    Take a look at

    Why am I the only person in the district writing about this?

    “Equalizing opportunities” means simply reducing choices for everyone in place of addressing this problem.

    It is true that the children who are most harmed by our current situation are under-served TAG children in struggling schools. I don’t spend days putting together the data about this problem and sharing that data online because I think we should ignore it! In fact, they are not only benefiting least, they are not benefiting at all. They are simply being warehoused–and discouraged from leaving because principals don’t want to lose their “test scores,” as one admitted to me. How can creating a system with even fewer exits serve them? It just serves the status quo. It is incredibly naive to think that if we hand schools even more high-achieving students as prisoners they will serve these students from the goodness of their hearts. I tried unsuccessfully to gain those services for my own children and other children for many years–even before NCLB made it even harder.

    It’s true that I don’t support uniformity. I support respecting diversity–all sorts of diversity–and serving a diverse array of needs and goals. I also support respecting the decisions of individual families about what is best for their own children. Many of those who support uniformity engage in a divide-and-conquer dialog that implies that the only people interested in providing better instruction to all high-achieving students are white middle-class parents–so we can ignore their views.

    We end up in playground arguments trading insults about who is more racist and who is more selfless while the children themselves lead lives of quite desperation. Let’s talk about what it would actually take to provide real learning for these children in terms of curriculum, instruction, and programs instead of questioning other people’s motives.

    This is my last post on this blog. I’d rather spend my time doing something more constructive.

    Margaret DeLacy

  29. Comment from anon e mouse:

    “more rigor”….oohh. how I hate that word. Rigormortus, do you mean?

    And secondly, I just want to make the observation that even if all the schools provided equal curriculum, instruction and programs, people would still transfer out of many neighborhood schools because of other reasons….maybe they don’t like the principal…maybe there are lots of fights in the hallways…major behavior problems…drugs.., …..or just plain ol’ class perception, (don’t want my kids going to school with “those kids” for instance)….Lots of things drive the flight from neighborhood schools.

  30. Comment from Steve:

    Margaret DeLacy complains about perceived ad hominem attacks and logical fallacies, then spends dozens of paragraphs giving a clinic on throwing out red herrings. I give her a D-. Hardly TAG-caliber work.

    She seems to have difficulty getting to the point, so I’ll make it easy. Let’s forget about how Flynn and Blackmer arrived at their conclusions for a moment, and focus just on the conclusions, which I maintain are unassailable.

    1. Open transfers increase racial isolation. Statistics on this are clear. Many schools have less diversity than they would if everyone attended their neighborhood school. Unassailable. For example, Jefferson is 68.4% black; students in its attendance area are 47.9% black. If you disagree, show me how these statistics are wrong.

    2. The system in not transparent. Dr. DeLacy concedes this point.

    3. Open transfers are at odds with other district goals such as strong neighborhood schools and investing in poorly performing schools. Again, statistics are clear here. Open transfers have caused massive divestment from our poor and working class neighborhoods and from “poorly performing” schools all across the district. Unassailable. If you disagree, show me how these statistics are wrong.

    4. The district has not articulated a rationale for this policy in light of these problems. Unassailable. If you disagree, show me the PPS document where justification for this policy is laid out.

    Waving your hands about how the transfer policy has kept middle class parents in the district is not an argument. It’s another red herring. Show me statistics. This one always comes up, yet nobody can ever back it up.

    If you think individual choice trumps equity, come out and say so. It’s a valid position, and a very trendy one these days. I just happen to disagree.

  31. Comment from Zarwen:


    I hope I won’t offend you if I weigh in with the opinion that you and Margaret are speaking at cross-purposes. I believe you have both made plenty of valid points, it’s just that they aren’t really addressing the same issues. For me, the Flynn-Blackmer audit is the red herring, so I was glad to see you set it partially aside for purposes of your last post.

    You are, of course, correct about the racial segregation issue, but Dr. DeLacy didn’t even address that point.

    As far as coming up with statistics about how the transfer policy is keeping middle class families in PPS, that is not possible, simply because you can’t prove a negative. It’s impossible to compile statistics on what someone would NOT do, IF such-and-such situation didn’t exist, etc. So I’m inclined to agree that it’s better to leave that one off the table because it is unprovable either way.

    As far as individual choice trumping equity, for me that depends on the definition of “equity.” For some people that means everyone gets exactly the same thing, no matter what. You can make the case that it’s “equitable,” but you can’t make the case that everyone’s needs will be met, because children are individuals and have different needs.

    Hence my own definition of “equity”: everyone gets what they need, which will be different from what others need. Trying to serve every need in one location is not cost-effective, hence my support for “consolidation” on a LIMITED basis and NOT based on shoving numbers of children into a building for the sake of the bottom line. Rather, consolidation would take the form of providing designated services that require major allocations of resources (such as certain special ed. services) in 1-2 locations per cluster, depending on the numbers of children who need the services. No one would be forced to leave their neighborhood school if they didn’t want to, but everyone could get “special services” within their cluster, and the District should provide transportation for that purpose. Keeping services within clusters would also help keep transportation costs down.

    Some TAG and focus option services could be allocated on this basis too, although certainly more could be done within individual buildings, as many people have testified higher up on this thread.

    Of course, I have a lot more ideas on this, but I think this post is long enough already.

    Buzz made the best point earlier when (s)he said that “consistent, coordinated, organized” is what PPS is lacking here—which, imho, serves to feed the lack of “equity” all over town. PPS could have saved a lot of $ over the last 3 years, and maybe even avoided a lawsuit, if they had taken a “consistent, coordinated, organized” approach.

  32. Comment from Steve:

    No offense taken. I take issue with Dr. DeLacy disagreeing with the conclusions of Flynn-Blackmer, yet refusing to address them point-by-point. She’s either being intellectually lazy or just plain disingenuous.

    She shows her hand a little bit with her full-throated defense of “choice.” I suspect she’s a free-market ideologue, a very trendy and safe position in today’s neoliberal education “reform” environment.

  33. Comment from Diane Hanfmann:

    Gifted children are no less deserving of an equal opporunity to learn than any other student group. Do we weigh down the faastets runner of the track team so his speed will
    more closely approximate the speed of less swift pacers? Do we have the concert pianist wear ski mittens so that person’s ability is not so far above the
    mean? Call me elitist…whatever. I still would be
    willing to fight for your child’s opportunity to learn and appreciate your support for that to happen for mine. Perhaps the parents of gifted kids become loud when their children learn nothing or not enough as a result of going to a place called school.
    One poster believes 100% of all children are gifted.
    I am having trouble figuring out how 100% of the population of children can be in the top 2 or 3 %
    of scoreres on an iq test. It sounds like this poster must know alot more about statistics than I do. I am willing to be enlightened.
    Ms. Delacy, I appreciate your years of hard work and devotion to the cause of ending the wasting of our best young minds!

  34. Comment from megs:

    ..”ending the wasting of our best young minds!”
    I have to agree on this. I can’t tell you how many former TAG kids I know who dropped out of school, and are now working menial jobs…or are not doing anything… pursuing other interests like drugs and alcohol…I think in part this is due to the lack of opportunities and challenge they had in school at PPS.

  35. Comment from Zarwen:


    Boredom is any child’s enemy, but it the brighter the child, the more noxious it is. The parents who founded Winterhaven did so because their children were getting bored and therefore getting in trouble(!) at their neighborhood schools. I’d like to change No Child Left Behind to No Child Left Bored!!!

  36. Comment from Diane Hanfmann:

    My apologies for my numerous typos!
    I like to call NCLB No Child Is Different as that title
    reflects the flawed thinking of the act as well as the reality of how it plays out in our nation’s classrooms. What a travesty it is that our nation would turn its back on its best and brightest while
    “leaving no child behind”. I am a strong believer that it must become the parents who self-educate
    and organize to insist the gifted are provided an equal opportunity to learn in a place called school.
    IMHO, the political correctness of equity issues, the
    stomping of excellence, and the misguided egalitarian notions make it a dangerous time for the gifted. Ms. Delacy has taken such admirable stances
    on behalf of this population of learners, who seem
    to be easily extraneous to what goes on in an education system geared to mass produce mediocrity. I occasionally try to follow her state complaint for an update. So far, I see it remains unresolved. Am I correct? Thanks.