Friday, October 24, 2008

Starve the Schools. Blame the Schools. Bleed the Schools?

The not-too-subtle warrant behind a new study by Richard Innes of the Bluegrass Institute, "How Whites and Blacks Perform In Jefferson County Public Schools," is that after 18-years of KERA, educational problems in Kentucky should now be largely solved - and if they are not, the problem lies with KERA.

Some thoughts on the achievement gap:

The achievement gap was deliberately created and sustained by whites over centuries in America. Slavery, Jim Crow and recalcitrant racism remain America's great historical shame.

So the Bluegrass Institute is to be commended for taking a serious look at the performance of African American students in Jefferson County and the dismal graduation rates that describe their performance. The data remind us of how far we have left to go.

But there is an unchallenged premise in the very first paragraph of the study that bears some comment.

One of the most important tenets of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 is that all children can learn, regardless of race or economic status. However, during the 18 years since KERA’s enactment, serious questions have arisen regarding the performance of Kentucky’s public schools in meeting that goal for all children, especially black students.

This is all true. But a couple of things leap to mind.

First, BGI is quite correct to suggest that viewing students as capable (able to learn) is an historic first that came to Kentucky schools with KERA in 1990 - and it would be wrong on many levels to retreat from that goal. Prior to KERA (actually more like 1995), it was fully acceptable for a third of Kentucky's students to fail - and in many places, more than a third did just that.

Second, the 18 year period since KERA has not seen that problem solved. But seriously, was that expectation realistic? I have no doubt that KERA's goals can be largely achieved in time, but Kentucky sure did spend a whole lot longer digging the hole it's students are in than has spent climbing out of it. Patience and nutruring are indicated.

Let's review the history briefly.

The best thing that can be said about efforts to educate African Americans in antebellum Kentucky, is that it was not illegal to teach a black person to read.

Following the civil war the legislature's first effort provided that only taxes collected from blacks could be used to educate black children; later amended to add...after taking care of paupers. That "progress" accounted for 74 years of Kentucky's history.

In 1874, eight years later, a school system for blacks began - and where schools existed, they were funded at about 1/3rd the rate given to the pitiful schools whites attended.

During the progressive era at the turn of the century, more schools were built and conditions improved, but under Jim Crow laws blacks were legally separated, and socially "kept down."

Testing was employed to measure human potential. The results were interpreted to suggest that blacks were genetically less capable and therefore, not worthy of equal investment. Still, local schools for blacks developed, and for a time, African American teachers were better educated than white teachers - since the brightest and best were precluded from pursuing many other employment options.

Conditions changed - legally, but only in small measure - with the Brown v Board of Education decision in 1954. It was another 14 to 18 years before a substantial percentage of blacks attended school with whites - then only after the federal government withheld funds from (or troops were called in to) schools that refused to desegregate.

Photo: Louisville, 1955, Black students segregated within a desegregated school

There was nothing in KERA that should not have already been achieved under Brown. But that didn't happen, and by that time Kentucky was in it's 162nd year of the achievement gap.

Conditions improved over time but relative to other states, not so much. By 1984, investment inequities reached a disproportionate 8:1 ratio between the rich schools and poor schools in the state. If parents wanted a good education for their child, where they lived mattered.

It was only since Senate Bill 168, in 1998, that Kentucky schools began any real effort to ensure substantially equitable student achievement outcomes. Student data was disaggregated and schools were held responsible, not only for maintaining high average performance, but for the improvement of each subgroup of students. Prior to that time if a third of a school's students failed to perform up to expectations, it was considered the parents' or students' fault. This marked the beginning of a philosophical shift, away from "equality of educational opportunity" toward "equity of student achievement outcomes" - a philosophy also inherent in NCLB.

In the face of 200 years of a deliberately created achievement gap - ten years of substantial progress in an under-funded system seems somewhat understandable. It might even be crazy to expect that the intractable problems of poverty might be solved, through legislation, by the schools alone.

Now, I know it is heresy to not swallow the "KERA Kool-aid" that all it takes to produce better schools is strong leadership, a whip and a chair. But I believe we need a broader more comprehensive approach.

Without having read the indivdual school reports referred to in the BGI study, I have no reason to dispute the findings of Richard Innes' report. His analysis shows:

  • Blacks remain well behind academically in the key subjects of reading and mathematics.
  • In a significant number of Jefferson County schools – 47 out of the 120 schools with usable data on reading and 44 out of 120 for math – the gap between white and black students is widening.
  • Graduation rates remain extremely low for significant numbers of blacks – especially black males – in the majority of Louisville’s public high schools. Using a graduation-rate estimation formula created by Johns Hopkins University, black males in only three of the 19 high schools in the study had graduation rates equal to or greater than the statewide graduation rate for all students. The graduation rate also is low for black females and even for white students in these 19 schools. Two of these schools reported abysmal graduation rates of less than 60 percent, qualifying them as “dropout factories” using the Johns Hopkins formula. In both of these Jefferson County schools, the graduation-rate estimates using the Johns Hopkins formula fell well below 50 percent for whites and blacks of both sexes.
I'm sure he's correct. I particularly commend Innes for this:

Black students do not benefit if achievement gaps in their schools close only because whites also perform poorly.
Those who would close gaps by lowering standards perform a disservice to all students.

But I do take issue with his conclusion that:

...the CATS assessment process holds no consequences for poor performance with student subgroups and really does nothing to deal with gaps."

This ignores the part of the process where the superintendent chews some principals' butts off, demotes them to a third grade classroom, and replaces them with the next victims. I promise, that part of the process counts for something.

Innes reviews the graduation rates for Jefferson County high schools noting that,

...Kentucky’s existing NCLB high school graduation-rate reports fail to provide accurate data overall and do not contain information on how races perform.

This well-documented problem exists nationally, and is being addressed nationally. Using a measure from Johns Hopkins, Innes finds that the graduation rates for far too many schools, well, ... suck.

In his closing, Innes takes two more shots at his point:

Jefferson County Schools face a considerable amount of work to raise academic performance and high school graduation rates to acceptable levels. After nearly two decades of KERA, real improvement – especially for the district’s black students – remains a long way off.

Kentucky cannot afford schools with low and declining graduation rates, and with low academic achievement. Clearly, as KERA approaches 19 years in force, the trends outlined in this report raise questions about whether the public school system in Kentucky is capable of meaningful reform for all students.

There it was. That last phrase. And, Innes could have written that conclusion as early as 1994 by which time he was publicly (Kentucky Post) acknowledged as a KERA "foe."

Would Innes have us believe that Kentucky schools (parents, teachers, kids...) are not capable? Would he cure these bad schools with a healthy dose of leeches, called school vouchers?

None of that speculation should mask what Innes gets right.

In too many cases student achievement gains are lacking and reported graduation rates remain a fantasy. If Kentucky is serious about reaching its goals, the state needs to get serious about its investment. It is going to take a comprehensive approach to meet KERA's lofty goals.


Richard Innes said...

Two points:

First, I hope you don’t believe every label the newspapers apply to people. Back in 1994 anyone who dared to question anything about what was happening with anything in KERA was automatically labeled a “foe” of the entire process.

Actually, at that time I was focused on the now defunct KIRIS test. It took a lot more time and research before I understood that problems with the act’s implementation extended well beyond assessment. Claiming I was a foe of KERA overall in 1994 isn’t correct. In fact, even today, there are certain central goals in the act that I fully support. The problem, as it always has been, is with the specific implementations of those general goals.

Second, there is important information in the new Bluegrass Institute report on the gaps in Jefferson County schools that certainly can be laid at the feet of KERA.

The report examines trends in data between the 2003-04 school year and the most recently available data when the draft was assembled in late summer. If KERA was working effectively, we would hope to see almost all schools with improving trends in math and reading proficiency for all racial groups. We would also hope to see virtually all schools making at least some progress in graduating students of both sexes and all racial groups. However, we found trends of decline, not improvement, in a disturbingly high number of schools.

It’s those unsatisfactory trends during the most recent half-decade of KERA – not the relatively low proficiency rates and low graduation rates – that raise the biggest questions about the reform’s performance. After 18 years of KERA, too many kids are still being left behind, and sometimes, in too many of the schools we studied, more of them are being left behind now than half a decade ago. That just can’t be a “plus” for KERA.

However, I am honored that The Principal took so much time to discuss this new report and appears to agree with much of what I wrote. The ultimate goal is one I think we both share – better educations for all of Kentucky’s children. As The Principal’s interesting historical discussion points out, it’s been far too long in coming. Clearly, we have to find a way to turn still-remaining, long-standing trends around before those better educations will truly be at hand for all students. While we may disagree on the details of how that can best be done, it is obvious that where we are today simply isn’t adequate.

The Principal said...

'94 would have been around the time we first met. We were both arguing to the board of education that KIRIS was broken. I don't think I was considered a foe of KERA...but opposing KERA sure could get a person branded...fairly or unfairly.

Folks-in-charge sure do seem to appreciate constructive criticism more in the abstract than in actual practice.

We can think about KERA in different ways; and that probably gets in the way of communications sometimes.

Despite its weaknesses, KERA, writ large, was a huge boost to Kentucky children. So as a concept - if KERA means reforming the schools to produce better student achievement - it must be supported, monitored, challenged and defended.

But really, KERA is a big honkin' set of laws. We should fix what's broken.

BTW, a mutual friend wanted me to develop a post on your report. I had some time last week.

Thanks for the comment.