Friday, May 14, 2010

PUSD: Perception vs Reality

"PUSD testing scores improve: Teacher layoffs leave some wary of lasting results"

I picked up the Pasadena Star News this morning, and saw this headline.

When I turned to the opinion page, I found another headline:

"The culture of PUSD must change"

The opinion piece is a Guest View by Ross Selvidge who emerged as the leader of the No on CC campaign. First let me state that, while I supported Measure CC, I do not claim there are no valid arguments against it.

That being said, I read through his piece, and just shook my head through the entire thing. It's a smug, gloating indictment of PUSD based on the same cherry-picked data and tired old tropes use during the campaign. No surprise, to be sure, but it's frustrating that the only people who seem to get local media attention with regard to PUSD are the ones who can boil the complex issues down to meaningless soundbites. The local papers have been accused of everything from laziness to outright bias on PUSD issues. It seems that they often pick up the phone to get easy quotes from the same old nattering nabobs of negativism who make a sport of sitting on the sidelines and taking pot shots. So I appreciate the factual tone of headline and the story on the front page today, and it was a disappointment to see such an uninformed and negative opinion piece in the same issue.

The fact is, I am a direct consumer PUSD services. I'm not sure what Mr. Selvidge is, but based on the out-of-date opinions he expresses, I infer that he is not a PUSD customer. It's no surprise, really. Such outdated superficial perceptions are common throughout the community outside of PUSD customer circles. Mr. Selvidge makes this point himself (perhaps overstating it a bit) at the top of his piece when he states that, "PUSD does not enjoy the confidence of a very broad segment of the district."

I don't I agree with some of the other conclusions he draws about the meaning of the vote, but then I don't agree with the conclusions of the campaign on the yes side either. Both Mr. Selvidge on the "No" side and Peter Drier on the "Yes" side have claimed that the result of the election amounts to a mandate, yadda yadda yadda. Pure political spin from both sides as far as I'm concerned.

The fact is, however, Mr. Selvidge himself surely embodies the opinions of a large number of non-customer residents of PUSD. Let's examine some of the possible reasons that there is such antipathy towards PUSD.

1. Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is a tendency for people to prefer information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses, independently of whether they are true. People can reinforce their existing attitudes by selectively collecting new evidence, by interpreting evidence in a biased way, or by selectively recalling information from memory.

2. Complexity

Any complicated issue is hard to understand, much less solve. It's understandable that a smart person like Mr. Selvidge could draw conclusions that are factual, and even logical on some level, but which actually completely skew the issue. For example, the question of how much PUSD spends per pupil: Mr. Selvidge consistently made assertions during the Measure CC campaign that PUSD spends more per pupil than surrounding districts. He does not reveal that he is including categorical funds which are earmarked for programs like feeding poor kids breakfast and lunch, special ed, and low income healthcare. Now you may or may not agree with the fact that these programs are administered through PUSD, but it is not reasonable to include their cost when tallying the PUSD budget. According to a letter from Board Member Ed Honowitz, the PUSD base revenue limit (unrestricted money) in the same year Mr. Selvidge was using to make his point that PUSD had near the highest per pupil funding, the PUSD budget was $5,644 per student, which ranked 41 out of 47 unified school districts in LA County, or in the bottom 15%.

A pessimist would say that he understood this fact was being used to "prove" a political point in contrast with reality, but knew that since it was factually correct, it couldn't be refuted without sounding defensive, and therefore was used for pure political advantage. Giving the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he just really believed the conclusion he reached.

It is not my intent to debate the minutia. My point is that this stuff is hard, and you can make any point you like by cherry picking data and printing up a graph. People need things to be simple, and therefore whoever can make it sound simplest will often win the argument.

The fact is, Edwin Diaz, the Superintendent of PUSD, is an operationally oriented leader. He is far superior to Percy Clark, in my opinion. The district has seen a shrinking budget year over year, in accordance with the reductions from the state. Many neighboring districts already instituted parcel taxes in prior years. San Marino taxes its residents over $1000 a year. The arguments about how PUSD is performing, and weather or not that means it "deserves" the funding is paramount to blaming the victim.

Setting aside the academic debate, it has never been ambiguous that California in general funds public education near the bottom per capita of all states, and roughly 165 PUSD teachers received preliminary layoff notices in March (along with lots of non teachers). Measure CC would have stanched that bleeding, and fit roughly half of those teachers back into the budget.

You can debate weather or not the district is doing well, how much it spends, how it is managed, etc all you like, but what I cannot understand is how people who voted no on CC reconcile their perception of "low quality" of PUSD (an unsophisticated and out-of-date assertion, in my view), with the decision to reduce/withhold funding for teacher salaries. I guess the best light I can see it in is "tough love". What I really think it amounts to is a superficial and uninformed perspective on how the district is being run, combined with a tough economic climate making taxes in general a tough sell.

3. Socioeconomic prejudice

There is a tendency to look at the past through rose colored glasses. Mr. Selvidge reveals this bias himself, stating that if such-and-such happens, "PUSD will be on the path to becoming again the quality and highly regarded school district it once was."

I am only 39 and I have only lived in Altadena for 14 years, so I have no first hand experience with busing, desegregation, white flight and the racial legacy of PUSD.

While all of that is important history, as a direct consumer of today's PUSD, I can tell you that I'm a bit tired of hearing people describe the district in the context of yesterday's PUSD. I've been drawing my own conclusions by visiting PUSD schools and making my own observations since 2003 or so when I started to develop a plan for educating my children (currently in 1st and 3rd grades). I am not blind to the challenges the district faces, especially with regard to serving the kids on the lower side of the achievement gap.

But I have no concern that my children, who are on the high side of that gap, are going to be dragged down just by proximity to underprivileged children. To the contrary, there is ample evidence so satisfy me that the opposite is true for kids on both sides of that gap. I really believe that a rising tide raises all ships. Upon concluding that I could navigate the waters within the district and feel confident that my children will receive first rate educations, I felt it would be small-minded and selfish of me to put them in a more "elite" private school. While I think there are plenty of valid reasons to send one's children to private school, I assert that many people do it out of fear and misunderstanding of socioeconomic groups outside of their own.

While the white flight days are long over, an anti-PUSD bias still remains, as evidenced by the fact that PUSD attendance area has double the national average of kids in private school. I've heard the figure put at 30%. Given the quality of education that can be found inside PUSD (by engaging in it and focusing even a fraction of the energy and resources one would spend to send kids to private school into public education), this is an unforgivable figure. There is far too much "keeping up with the Joneses" in the PUSD attendance areas, and it is based on laughably outdated socioeconomic biases.

4. Creation is Harder Than Destruction

It can be less socially risky, in contemporary society, to be pessimistic about things. It's simpler to stand on the outside of a complex situation and make criticisms than it is to step up and engage in trying to improve it. Consider Mr. Selvidge's closing remarks in his opinion piece. He offers some vague suggestions, "such as emphasizing neighborhood schools in the primary grades, giving parents in those neighborhoods significant influence over the management of those schools and establishing a merit high school," all of which may or may not be better than the systems in place now, or arguably already exist. The fact is, however, it wasn't his job to actually solve these (or any problems). His only goal was to marshal the fears of those voters who share his out-dated perspective on the quality and issues of PUSD. Having succeeded in that fairly simple (given the national and state economic crises) task, his opinion piece is just pointless gloating.

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