Behind the Rankings Lies the Real Problem
The following post was written by Steve Strieker, a veteran Social Studies teacher in Janesville, WI. This has been reposted, with Strieker's permission, from his blog "One Teacher's Perspective."
Thrown under the school bus this week by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) were 76 Wisconsin schools, which "Failed to Meet Expectations" as calculated under the state's newfangled school accountability system.
DPI's new school report card system is pay off to Arne Duncan's Department of Education so most Wisconsin schools can avoid federal sanctions imposed by the poorly-designed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation.
Trying to spin this federally-mandated school accountability farce, the well-meaning State Superintendent Tony Evers stated, "These preliminary report cards provide valuable information for parents and educators as a foundation for helping all of our schools improve and I encourage looking beyond the score or rating. Whereas, the majority of schools meet or exceed expectations, detailed report cards provide data that will help them get even better."
Beyond the politics and in educational reality, the scarlet letter slapped on the bottom-ranking Wisconsin schools will do little more than feed the school reform beast and the standardized testing craze. Predictably, additional erraticism will be heaped on these struggling school communities as public educators and school leaders will be required to shoulder yet more ineffective accountability and test-improvement measures. Further foretelling will be the diversion of precious public education resources to create an array of unproven or marginally successful (and falsely-marketed) options for parents and students.
Like a clever distractor on a multiple-choice test, DPI's high-stakes accountability system diverts Wisconsinites' attention from the correct response. As professional researcher Gene Glass computed, DPI's own school report card data proves what Social Context Reformers have been trying to highlight for years: Poverty is the eight ball for public education.
Even an amateur's analysis of the state's school report card data is telling:
- A supermajority of Wisconsin's public schools with over 70% economically disadvantaged students were graded "Failed to Meet Expectations."
- Almost all below-standard schools had at least 45% economically disadvantaged students.
- In contrast, almost all graded schools with less than 10% economically disadvantaged students were considered by DPI's measurement to surpassed expectations.
Social Context Reformers must not be shouted down by the "no excuses" reformers who will surely shame Wisconsin schools graded below expectation by showcasing the few schools with high poverty rates and high-test scores. My own school district landed one such school with an over 50% student poverty rate in the "Significantly Exceeds Expectations" category. By all accounts, this is a good school--but notably it serves my school district's Talented and Gifted (TAG) students. Select students and added resources certainly make a difference in this anomaly. What would the school's achievement scores look like without the TAG kids? I suspect similar to other non-TAG schools with high poverty rates.
Wisconsin's school report cards add to the mountain of national data showing that money matters in public education. Social context reform initiatives, like A Penny for Kids, move Wisconsin students forward more than any accountability, choice, or test-training initiative ever would. Standing atop this heap of evidence, educators must remind legislators, parents, school leaders, and taxpayers that reforming public education does little to reduce poverty, yet reducing childhood poverty does much to reform public schools.