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Executive Perspective                                  Page 48

 

Two Parallel School Systems   

 

BY DANIEL A. DOMENECH

 Daniel Domenech

Many who advocate for the overhaul of our public education system seem to deliberately ignore the pervasive effects of poverty on the academic achievement of students.

The instant poverty is mentioned, we in public schools are dismissed as keepers of the status quo who will use this as the excuse for not embracing whatever changes certain reformers tell us will improve teacher quality, turn around failing schools and take us to the top of the charts on international tests.

Nevertheless, the data cannot be denied. Clearly, we have two school systems in America, one attended primarily by white and Asian middle class students, the other attended by primarily low-income black, Native American and Latino students. The schools in the former districts are among the best in the world, while those in the latter lack key resources. This funding inequity persists despite the fact that all of these schools are located in one of the richest countries in the world.

Perfect Correlation
For several years now, I have written and talked about what I refer to as the “95/5 Dilemma.” This phrase captures the fact that 95 percent of our schools are succeeding. Irrefutable data indicate America’s public schools are the best they have ever been. That is not to say they are as good as we want them to be, only that they have never been better.

Reading and math performance on NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, is the highest ever for 4th and 8th graders. Dropout rates are the lowest, and graduation rates are the highest. College attendance rates are the highest. The annual Gallup public opinion polls tell us parent satisfaction with the school their child attends is the highest. And so on.

But the attacks on our public schools continue because critics point to the schools where children are failing, dropping out and not getting the quality education they deserve. Where are those schools, and who attends them? I always go to the chart that plots NAEP achievement levels against the percentage of children on free and reduced lunch. It displays an almost perfect negative correlation between achievement and poverty: the greater the poverty, the lower the achievement, and vice versa.

A recent study conducted by the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (in which AASA collaborated) concludes the U.S. Education Department’s marquee program, Race to the Top, will not achieve the lofty goals agreed to by the states in return for substantial funding. The reforms advocated by the department, according to the new study, fail to recognize that “the problems reflected in schools have their roots mostly outside the schools’ walls, and that fixing the problems will require a comprehensive approach.”

In essence, the fixes require the education of the total child that AASA has been promoting. The RTTT policy agenda is a mismatch with the policies that close achievement gaps.

Test Data Misused
One example of that is the teacher evaluation component. No evidence exists that an emphasis on teacher evaluation systems will lead to higher student achievement. Yet Race to the Top states have required districts to implement teacher evaluation systems that are convoluted, costly and time-consuming.

Furthermore, using standardized test scores to evaluate teacher performance is a misuse of that data, the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education report points out. Both President Obama and Education Secretary Anne Duncan also have criticized this practice because standardized test data were originally intended to inform instruction, not serve as a tool to evaluate teacher performance.

Indeed, the teacher-quality issue is also apparent in the use of RTTT money to hire Ivy League graduates with minimal education preparation and assigning them to inner-city schools for a two-year commitment. It is not likely the promised achievement gains will be realized under those conditions. The report states: “[E]ven if RTTT were successful in greatly improving existing teachers’ effectiveness and recruiting strong new ones, evidence indicates that individual teachers’ influence accounts for no more than 10% of student achievement, as measured by test scores” (Hamushek, Kain and Rivkin, 1998).

With poverty being such a controlling factor on student achievement, the issue of funding equity is critical and a reminder of why the federal government first entered the education arena — to level the playing field between the haves and have-nots. But RTTT is a competitive grant that diverts money that should rightfully be distributed on a formula basis to “winner” states, while the “losers” get nothing. We want funding for all eligible students with the flexibility to allow districts to provide the wraparound services that will support the needs of low-income students and allow them to succeed.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org


 

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