On my street, and probably on yours, the kids went back to school this week, changing the rhythm of the neighborhood and evoking that peculiar sense of possibility that marks the end of summer.
Years after we’re out, school still shapes life -- personally and as a community. But as the news reminded us this week, the actual experience schools provide for students remains far from equal. And the process for making schools better remains mired in uncertainty.
Just check out the district-by-district results released for last spring’s MAP tests. The Missouri Assessment Program measures proficiency in English, math, science and social studies. Several troubled districts continue to score at levels so low that any parent should have doubts about sending a child there.
In Normandy and Riverview Gardens – districts that have recently lost accreditation -- extensive efforts are underway to improve schools. But the MAP results don't show whether these efforts are working. This year’s test is different than last year’s, state education officials caution, making comparisons invalid.
Nor will next year’s test provide clear answers. As education reporters Dale Singer and Tim Lloyd explained: “More changes are coming because lawmakers said Missouri could no longer use Common Core or take part in a consortium with other states that provided tests using those standards. Work groups are formulating new standards, with the results due this fall. Meanwhile, new tests still based on Common Core but using different questions, are being devised for this coming spring.”
Assistant state education commissioner Sharon Helwig acknowledged that constant change was not ideal. Milena Garganigo, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning for the Clayton school district, explained why: “When the target keeps changing, it’s hard for us to figure out what we’re aiming for.”
Constant change hits districts like a tornado, explained Kelvin Adams, the St. Louis Public Schools superintendent who has brought a sense of stability and focus to the district. “It’s constantly keeping us on our toes. We’re not complaining. No excuses. No excuses. Period. Zero. But it makes it more difficult,” he said.
Left unsaid: Common Core has been a hot button political issue, drawing criticism from both left and right – too hot for Missouri legislators to resist even though their actions added another layer of uncertainty to an already difficult situation.
Legislators did manage to resist dealing with most other education challenges, including how to fully fund the formula for state aid. They passed a bill on school transfers, but it was heavily criticized for giving a boost to charter schools and for failing to fully address the needs of students and failing districts. This summer, Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bill.
As a result, students in Riverview and Normandy still have the right to transfer to neighboring districts, though some missed their opportunity due to the confusion. The districts themselves remain stretched to the breaking point between their obligation to pay for transfers and their need to fund school improvements. Normandy in particular is a case study in frustration, with district residents expressing outrage at shifting rules and insufficient resources.
Recently, some school districts in St. Louis County stepped up to volunteer support services to Normandy and Riverview – significant help, to be sure, but hardly sufficient to resolve the deep challenges at hand.
Schools not only shape us and our communities; they offer the best chance we have to break cycles of poverty and racial disparity. But first, we have to break our own cycle of ineffectiveness.
That won’t happen if we leave the task to failing districts alone. That won’t happen until those of us who live in outstanding school districts understand that school problems anywhere shape life for us all.