Members of the Ohio Senate Education Committee, who have been holding hearings on a new state school district takeover plan, continue to scapegoat the teachers and educational leaders in the school districts which serve concentrations of our state’s poorest children.
Despite a large body of research correlating standardized test scores with aggregate family and neighborhood income, Bill Phillis reports that twice last week at a hearing convened by the Senate Education Committee, one senator repeatedly asked: “How much time should we give those who drove the bus into the ditch to get it out?” The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell quotes Senator Bill Coley, who mused: “I think its maybe the wrong people are running the show and we need to try something different.”
I guess these guys adhere to the old idea that if we were merely to exchange the staffs of the richest and the poorest school districts in the state, the challenges for students in poor communities would magically disappear. Instead, research shows that economic segregation—where wealthy families are moving farther and farther into the exurbs—has been rapidly accelerating. Our senators must imagine that public school educators can, on their own, swiftly erase the alarming and growing economic gap between children growing up in pockets of extreme privilege and children segregated in our most impoverished city neighborhoods or living in remote rural areas.
There is a lot of evidence, however, that Ohio’s state senators are mistaken when they blame schools and public school educators. The state takeovers are based on a set of overly complex and opaque calculations that yield the school district grades on a state report card. This year’s state report card ratings were released just last week. It is not surprising, given what is well known about the correlation of standardized test scores with family and community wealth, that nine of the top ten report card scorers in Ohio are wealthy suburbs of Ohio’s big cities: Solon, Rocky River, Chagrin Falls, Beachwood, Brecksville-Broadview Heights, and Bay Village—suburbs of Cleveland; Madeira and Indian Hill—suburbs of Cincinnati; and Ottawa Hills—a suburb of Toledo.
In fact, yesterday, the Plain Dealer‘s data wonk, Rich Exner published a stunning story on the correlation of Ohio’s report card grades with family income. Here are his findings: “The latest set of Ohio school report cards not only provided a scorecard for each district statewide – they once again drove home the point that wealthier districts do better on such reports. For example, incomes in the “A” districts were three times higher than those in the “F” districts, and the child poverty rate was 13 times higher in the worst performing districts, cleveland.com found. To get an idea of how closely report card grades from the Ohio Department of Education follow demographic factors, cleveland.com compared those grades to U.S. Census Bureau community data for household income, child poverty and the education level of the adults. In nearly every key report card category, the trends followed census data closely. For example, taking the median household income for each district, the average among those getting “A” overall grades was $95,423. It was $65,307 for B-graded districts, $54,058 for C-graded districts, $44,428 for D-graded districts and $32,658 for F-graded districts. In the A districts, 58.5% of the adults age 25 and older have at least a bachelor’s degree. That share drops to 17.1% for D-graded districts and 16.3% for F-graded districts. There are outliers, of course. They will be highlighted in an upcoming story. But overall, the trends hold true.”
An enormous body of academic research confirms Exner’s finding that those who judge the quality of public schools by their standardized test scores fail to consider the enormous consequences of economic inequality and poverty. The problems have been exposed by research in a number of disciplines.
In an exhaustive book-long analysis in 2017, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University expert on the design and use of standardized testing, demonstrates the many ways standardized-test-based-accountability distorts and undermines the educational process itself and the reasons why standardized tests are an inappropriate way to measure the quality of schools. Koretz explains that school districts serving primarily privileged students and school districts serving concentrations of poor children cannot be held to the same timelines for meeting specific standards: “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)
In Ohio, in a September 4, 2019 report, economist Howard Fleeter explains: “National research indicates that economically disadvantaged students typically cost at least 30% more to educate than do non-disadvantaged students. However… Ohio’s current formula only provides additional funding at less than 20% of the base cost…. Funding is an even lower percentage in districts with less than 100% economically disadvantaged students.”
In an appendix to the same report, Fleeter adds that over the past decade, Ohio has systematically underfunded the very school districts that Ohio’s state senators propose to try to address with governance changes through state takeover:
- “For much of the past 30+ years, funding for economically disadvantaged students has increased at a far slower rate than the foundation level. Even worse, poverty funding has actually decreased by 13% from FY09 to FY18.
- “Since 2001, the rate of increase in the number of low income students has been nearly 3 times as great as the rate of increase in state funding for these students.
- “Funding for economically disadvantaged students in Ohio has become significantly more structured and restricted in the past 15 years as funding has been focused on programs related to the additional needs of these students and away from unrestricted grants.
- “There has never been an objective study to determine the adequate level of funding for the programs needed to serve economically disadvantaged students.
- “The focus on funding programs for economically disadvantaged students has largely ignored the impact of poverty on the social and emotional needs of low income children. These issues need to be addressed alongside – and arguably before – the academic needs of these children.”
The National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel summarize the research: “(W)e need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement. A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities… Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty. While schools are important… policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism…. But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.”
What is the punitive state takeover plan currently being considered by the Ohio Senate Education Committee? The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reports that the plan closely resembles the plan the committee failed to negotiate into the biennial budget passed in July. O’Donnell writes: “The latest plan… is similar to plans floated by the Senate last spring, but which never won enough support to pass… The plan… eliminates the controversial ‘Academic Distress Commissions,’ and CEOs that take over for local school boards today after three years of failing grades on state report cards. In their place would be a new State Transformation Board that oversees improvement efforts across the state, and new School Improvement Commissions… for each district that does not improve. Those commissions would have many powers similar to the Academic Distress Commissions today.” For example, the School Improvement Commissions would still have the power to overrule a school district’s elected board of education. (Here is a detailed description of the School Transformation Plan the Senate proposed last spring.)
Last week, Ohio State Senators Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) and Tina Maharath (D-Columbus) formally called for an overhaul of the way the state calculates the report cards on which the state takeovers are based. Fedor, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, explains: “There are serious flaws in the way we calculate districts’ grades… Report cards don’t reflect the quality of the education children receive nor the progress they make. The current measures are not meaningful for the purpose of assessing the district contribution to learning. They penalize large and high-poverty districts, which they threaten with state takeovers. The State recognizes the report card is flawed and depicts a false narrative for our communities and school districts. The legislature has the power to fix these mistakes, and we need to do that immediately.” Fedor and Maharath explain: “The Progress grade, which represents 20 percent of a district’s total grade, is particularly unfair because the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) uses a formula to adjust for the district’s size that penalizes the grade of large school districts… If a district makes progress, but not as much as the average school district in the state, their grade will be low – not giving credit for actual percentage growth.”
The state report cards not only target the school districts serving very poor children with state takeover but they also feed racial and economic housing segregation by encouraging families to avoid poor and mixed income communities where the schools may be serving their students well despite overall lagging scores. The state report card grades are an example of state-sponsored educational redlining.
And like the legislators on the Senate Education Committee who blame teachers and school administrators for school districts’ aggregate test scores, the state report cards encourage the scapegoating of the dedicated educators who choose to serve the children living in Ohio’s poorest communities.