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Commentary: Evaluating performance, transferring students

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 17, 2013: Of the 521 school districts in Missouri with recorded accreditation status reported by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 97.4 percent are fully accredited. That’s all but 14. Of those, 11 have received provisional accreditation, and three are currently unaccredited. Those three – in the news for the last couple of weeks on account of the June Missouri Supreme Court ruling regarding student transfers from unaccredited districts – are Normandy and Riverview Gardens in the east, and Kansas City in the west.

Determining whether a district is accredited, provisionally accredited, or unaccredited is a function of how its Annual Performance Report pans out. As anyone can see in a matter of minutes on the DESE web site, the Annual Performance Report is a complex account of MAP scores and other district statistics.

The APR also allows districts to calculate something called a GAP bonus, which reckons with the numbers of minority students, the numbers of students who are called Limited English Proficient, and the number of students who qualify for free and/or reduced price lunch. Status points are also awarded for positive trends in attendance and graduation rates.

The 507 accredited districts are of course not all alike. However, they are sufficiently alike to warrant the state’s approval while factoring in a variety of measures where possible. At the very least, unlike the unaccredited districts as a group, the accredited districts do not have to be concerned this summer with financing their own students’ education in another district, perhaps one where state representatives and parents are publicly fretting about or downright dreading the arrival of other people’s children.

I have had a look at the 14 provisionally accredited and unaccredited districts. All figures are from the DESE website.

Six of these districts are tiny — Calhoun, Gilliam, Gorin, Malta Bend, Spickard and Swedeborg, enrolling between 26 and 146 kids. They are almost entirely all white. A significant majority of these districts live just above the poverty line: 68 percent of their students receive free or reduced price lunch. Remember though, in all of these six districts put together, we are talking about 385 enrolled students in 2012.

By contrast, the remaining eight districts enrolled 58,764 students in 2012, or about 7 percent of the total K12 population in Missouri in 2012.

These eight unaccredited or provisionally accredited districts are Caruthersville, Hayti, Hickman Mills, Kansas City, Jennings, St. Louis City, Normandy, and Riverview Gardens. They are concentrated in the Bootheel, metropolitan Kansas City, and metropolitan St. Louis. Caruthersville is about half white, half African American. Kansas City has a significant Latino population (26 percent), and is 61 percent African American.

The vast majority of the students in the larger districts are African American. The percentage ranges from 70 percent in Hayti to about 98 percent in both Normandy and Riverview Gardens.

The population of students in these districts receiving free or reduced price lunch ranges from 75 percent in Caruthersville to 92 percent in Riverview Gardens and Normandy. Across all eight districts, the median percentage of children receiving free or reduced priced lunch is about 88 percent. These numbers reflect the percentage of kids living in or just above poverty.

Here in the St. Louis region, the highest numbers with respect to racial segregation and economic hardship are concentrated in the two unaccredited districts (I’ve rounded to the nearest whole number):

Normandy: Total students 2012, 4207; percentage of African-American students, 98; percentage of White Students, 1; students getting free and reduced price lunch, 92 percent. Riverview Gardens: Total students 2012, 5929, Percentage of Arican American students, 98, Percentage of White students, 1;  students getting free and reduced price lunch, 92 percent.

For perspective, I also had a look at data on the districts of Francis Howell, Mehlville, Clayton and Ladue. I chose Francis Howell and Mehlville because that’s where Normandy and Riverview Gardens, respectively, have decided to send students who opt to transfer out of their districts this fall. I chose Clayton and Ladue because the percentages of their students scoring Proficient on MAP tests are among the highest in the state, two to three times as high as the percentages at Normandy and Riverview Gardens. I rounded to the nearest whole number, and did not include the numbers of students who are Asian or Hispanic at Ladue and Clayton:

Francis Howell: Students enrolled in 2012, 16,998; percentage that are white, 86; percentage that are African-American, 7: percentage receiving free and reduced lunch, 18. Mehlville:  Students enrolled in 2012, 10,647; percentage that are white, 83; percentage that are African-American, 9: percentage receiving free and reduced lunch, 30. Clayton:  Students enrolled in 2012, 2,516; percentage that are white, 65; percentage that are African-American, 20: percentage receiving free and reduced lunch, 15. Ladue:  Students enrolled in 2012, 3,922; percentage that are white, 66; percentage that are African-American, 15: percentage receiving free and reduced lunch, 12.

These numbers are data, and do not prove causation in any direction. The data simply provide some contextual facts: There is a strong correlation among extreme segregation by racial identity, poverty, region, and lack of stable accreditation. Are these three districts unaccredited because they are poor and black? Are they poor because they are black and unaccredited? What does being in or near a city have to do with all this? Why do the districts that are mostly African American and mostly poor have the hardest time earning accreditation?

Education is a subfield of anthropology – it’s all about how we raise our children. Formal schooling, however, is all about sociology — the patterns and systems people construct in groups.

There are poor white rural districts that are accredited. There are middle class suburban districts that are accredited. There are wealthy, somewhat diverse districts that are accredited. But the data show that majority of Missouri districts that serve high concentrations of poor people who are African American are least likely to meet state-issued academic prescriptions and standards. Again, correlation, not causation.

And I have not considered other easy-to-measure variables that create the environment in which children are schooled: teacher salaries, teacher experience and turnover, housing and food security, district finances and so on. Attendance rates, disciplinary incidents and anything else about student life are a function of factors mixed into schools before any child or teacher ever walks in the door to learn or teach a single lesson.

Nevertheless, we have to at least consider the possibility that it’s the systems and structures of the accreditation process that are ill-serving the students, teachers, administrations, and larger communities in the 14 districts I am talking about here. Could it be that these systems are not designed to capture and assess the competencies of children from low-income African-American communities? I have heard too many teachers observe that while they knew their students understood the material, their understanding “just doesn’t show up” on the tests.

We also have to at least consider the possibility that the values of extremely wealthy individuals who scorn and loathe the very idea of public education are finding their way into the laws, policies, and organizations (like the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, for instance) that are undermining quality public education in our most vulnerable districts.

Facing educational reality in Missouri means making room in all districts for the hard, messy, and necessary work of embracing and applying what we know about teaching and learning. Children who are engaged, motivated and supported in meaningful, caring relationships with adults and trusted peers will construct knowledge they value.

The children in unaccredited and provisionally accredited districts can and will succeed on the standardized tests, as long as we remember that such tests measure the least important kinds of learning (as education scholar Alfie Kohn written over and over again) and that we have far more urgent lessons to impart that these tools can’t even begin to measure.

These districts can and should center all instructional design and assessment on the needs, culture and competencies children and teachers bring to school. Then, for a change, let the tools catch up with the humans.

Inda Schaenen writes and teaches in St. Louis. Beginning this fall, she will be serving as an instructional coach in Normandy School District.

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