Schott Foundation’s New “Loving Cities Index” Rejects Decades-Long, Test-and-Punish School Policy

Here is Dr. John Jackson, President & CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, announcing the Foundation’s new Loving Cities Index: “Considering the social and political moment, the public, private and philanthropic sectors must go beyond the normal separate silos approach to shift from a standards-based agenda where we only analyze shortcomings to a supports-based agenda where we focus on the resources needed for all students to overcome obstacles created by inequity and achieve high outcomes.”

What is our social and political moment that makes Schott’s new initiative so important?

Last month in Parkland, Florida, there was a tragedy—a school shooting in which 17 adolescents and adults were killed by a former student with a semi-automatic rifle. An outpouring of grief has turned the attention of the nation, as it should, to the insanity of the absence of restrictions on the possession of guns.

One cannot compare tragedies, of course, but it is essential that this latest tragedy not totally displace concern about another calamity happening right in front of us, but invisible nonetheless because we choose not to see it.  This one also involves students at school.  Last week, on the 50th anniversary of the release of the Kerner Commission Report, Linda Darling-Hammond and the Learning Policy Institute published a brief reminding us that economic inequality, residential segregation by income and race, and inequitable school funding improved briefly in the decade after the Kerner Report, but began once again to rise after 1980:

  • “U.S. childhood poverty rates have grown by more than 50% since the 1970s and are now by far the highest among OECD nations, reaching 22% in the latest published statistics.”
  • “In most major American cities, a majority of African American and Latino students attend public schools where at least 75% of students are from low-income families… For example, in Chicago and New York City, more than 95% of both Black and Latino students attend majority-poverty schools….”
  • “Today, about half as many Black students attend majority White schools (just over 20%) as did so in 1988, when about 44% did so.”
  • “In most states, the wealthiest (school) districts spend at least two to three times what the poorest districts can spend per pupil…. Furthermore, the wealthiest states spend about three times what the poorer states spend.”

Half a century ago Jonathan Kozol named these same problems that kill children’s spirits and block their opportunities “death at an early age.”  Today these circumstances affect several million young people as our unequal society awards high honors to wealthy suburban high schools for producing National Merit Scholars and brands the schools in our cities’ poorest school districts with “D”s and “F”s on so-called school report cards issued by state governments.

In a must-read book published last fall—The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better—Harvard’s Daniel Koretz describes the catastrophic mistake in the test-and-punish school reform that has reigned for the past two decades: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130) Policymakers “acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (p. 123-124)

Our society has chosen to blame and punish our poorest schools—shutting them down, moving the students around to other schools, instituting privatization—instead of investing to support the teachers, make classes smaller, enrich curriculum and provide more counselors, along with trying to do something to alleviate poverty itself.  The Schott Foundation’s Loving Cities Index calls for a cross-sector effort to overturn today’s public policy that tests, punishes, and brands schools and teachers and children in our poorest communities.

What makes the Schott Foundation’s Loving Cities Index so important?

The Loving Cities Index Report redefines the problem of children left behind: “(T)wo facts remain true at a systems level: the public school system remains the primary institution of education for over 90% of students in America; and parental income remains the number one predictor of student outcomes—not type of public school, labor contract, or brand of assessment.  For far too long, efforts to improve educational outcomes have focused narrowly on the role of schools, classrooms and teachers, while ignoring the large and growing body of research that confirms what parents and families have long known—at the district level, health, housing, and parental employment opportunities are all intimately linked to high school and college attainment…  (A) Stanford University analysis of reading and math test sores from across the country found that, ‘Children in the school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty score an average of more than four grade levels below children in the richest districts.'”

The Loving Cities Index project encourages bridging services across schools and communities: “(T)he U.S. public school system continues to be our best hub to link families and students to the supports needed to thrive from birth… Providing students an opportunity to learn from birth is as much—if not more—the responsibility of mayors, county commissioners and city council members as it is superintendents, school boards, principals, teachers, and parents.”

The report continues: “A  new day requires that we no longer promote the false narrative that the American public education system is a failing proposition, which inaccurately places blame and policy focus on regulating principals, educators, students and parents… A new day requires that we take a more student-centered approach and commit to improving living environments as well as learning environments.”

The project begins with 10 cities judged on 24 indicators representing supports necessary for academic and economic success…”Ideally, we believe cities should achieve a  minimum of 80% of possible points for indicators of healthy living and learning to be considered a model Loving City….”  Today, with 52%, Minneapolis and Long Beach are the highest scorers, with Buffalo at 50% a close second.

Schott’s Loving Cities Index rates cities by CARE indicators–health resources and physical environment (prenatal health, in-school support staff, clean air, healthy food, health insurance, parks, and mental health), and rates schools by COMMITMENT indicators—school policies and practices fostering the development of each student’s unique potential (preschool suspension alternatives, K-12 suspension alternatives, school-to-prison alternatives, K-12 expulsion alternatives, anti-bullying, and early childhood education).

In a preface to the report, the Rev. Dr. William Barber, leader of Repairers of the Breach explains: “A large and growing body of research shows a clear connection between economic and racial inequality and opportunity gaps in areas like housing, health care and community involvement… The Loving Cities Index provides a frame to align policy-makers, philanthropy, and community members around a supports-based agenda, recognizing that the standards-based approach that has dominated education reform… for decades has failed to provide students an opportunity to learn.”