John White and Bobby Jindal have mixed two smart sounding messages in a way designed to punish people for being poor. It sounds good when you say, “poverty is not an excuse for poor performance.” It sounds good when “we refuse to allow poverty to be an excuse for poor performance.” Who could disagree with such uplifting “sounding” messages. You might think these guys are the champions of the poor based on these messages. John White has changed the State Department of Education website to reflect his positive sound message of “Louisiana Believes.” Who doesn’t want to simply “Believe” that belief alone is sufficient to overcome any obstacle? John White puts out SPS (School Performance Scores) that have point totals that go up or down, and “grades” A, B, C, D, F that we can all relate to. We instinctively know than an A is good, and we all want to get one, and an F is bad and none of us want those (although RSD, the state run Recovery School District designed to rescue students from poor performing schools, seems permanently mired in Ds and Fs.) Since RSD does so poorly, could it be that the folks running the RSD don’t “Believe” enough?
When Schools fail to achieve expected gains, without any additional support, John White closes them and declares them failures. He tells us all the teachers didn’t “Believe” in their students and their low expectations led to the low achievement of their students. Could things simply be as simple as that? That would be nice, and if this message and solution was working since we started undertaking this first under Superintendent Picard, then vastly accelerated under Superintendent Pastorek we should see patterns that divorce themselves from the generally accepted, tested and proven theory that poverty has an impact on performance. This does not mean poor people are stupid, or lazy (as some have told when I write on these topics) merely that the very poor lack many of the preparations and support wealthier folks have. Many of our children in Louisiana belong to families that are the working poor; families form one parent homes, families where both parents work multiple jobs. These are not lazy people, but people who often can’t enroll their kids in pre-k programs, take their kids to museums, or buy them all the age appropriate books and toys that would help prepare them for school. These are homes that parents may be working late and unable to help children with homework as often as they should, or at all. This does not make them bad parents, or the children unintelligent underachievers, but it does mean they need help to keep up with their better prepared and opportunitied peers.
When we have communities where poverty is the norm, not the exception, I “believe” performance suffers an add-on impact to lowering performance. Some people have accused me of being socialist for explaining that performance is closely tied to poverty, and not race. Some have suggested I am saying the government should take all the “wealth” from the wealthy and distribute it to the poor. (Technically that would probably make me a totalitarian communist type, but nevertheless, this is not what I am advocating, nor would it work.) If I gave you a test today and you have been poor your entire life, then gave you 50,000 dollars and had you take the test tomorrow, you would not do any better on the test (and possibly worse thinking about all the cool stuff you could spend those 50 gs on. I know I would.) The actual problem is rooted in income inequality over an extended period of time, but that is a complicated problem. This is the second smart sounding message that has been confused. Reformers tout that a good “education” is the first step toward eliminating poverty, so they believe they have to hold everyone “accountable”. . . but themselves. They want the hold the children responsible for getting better without resources, they want teachers to squeeze more performance out of their children as defined by what a standardized test can measure. What they don’t want to do is actually be responsible for addressing or identifying the real needs of children raised in poverty. Rather than focus on addressing the needs of the poor, they would rather tout the benefits of being rich and allow luck and perseverance be the sole determining factors for which kids escape poverty. That’s a pathetic cop-out. Children are not greyhounds, to be raced for our pleasure and rewarded only if they win the race. Children are not horses, some of which will win glory and some of which we be win only a future of Elmer’s fame.
Children are our responsibility and our future and we owe them more than “Louisiana Believes” slogans and “Accountabilty” for them and their teachers. We owe them a real hand-up, not a lecture about how they should do better, how their parents and teachers have failed them. We owe them a future. We own them resources, not virtual schools, which strip communities of resources, not “Recovery” schools like they are crack addicts in need of a detox or cure. We need to push them, not punish them by removing them from their communities and peers.
But before I go into what the data shows, let’s get back to some of the limitations of this data. First of all our poverty indicator is imprecise. Basically poverty as defined in Louisiana for the Department of Education is student who applied for Free and Reduced lunch or foodstamps. It is imprecise at a student by student level for the following reasons:
- Not all families that qualify apply for aid
- Poverty has cumulative impact, students well off most of their formative years and only have a year or two of insecurity may not be as impacted
- Some students may have other mitigating factors such as a teacher in the home, or grandparents that can help students with homework
But when factored in as a general variable or characteristic of population you can tease out some correlations. Take for example this graph of Louisiana’s main school districts and their wealth index (a factor based on taking the inverse of poverty and multiplying it by 200 to put it on the same scale/ratio as SPS scores which also range up to 200 points.) (Click on the image for a better resolved picture, or refer to the excel insert further below.
This graph is sorted by SPS score, from highest to lowest. The SPS score is charted with the blue line. The Red bouncy line is the wealth index. I have built in two dotted trend lines which show how these two indicators are directly related to each other. Notice also how as wealth decreases (and concentration of poverty increases) SPS scores drop off precipitously. There appears to be an add-on impact to concentrating extreme poverty such as in the case of the RSD and St Helena Parishes. I would argue that parishes that show dramatic red lined dips below the green dotted trend line are actually doing much better for their students’, when factoring in the parish levels of poverty. Of course it’s important to understand that the analysis is only as good as the data we can get, and John White’s LDE (as I shall refer to Louisiana’s DOE until he leaves since his version is a corrupt dysfunctional mockery of the DOE I worked in) does not provide much in the way of data because they don’t want anyone to understand what is going on.
The solution is not to simply to pass out wads of cash to the parents of poor children. That would be like claiming to have cured someone of chicken pox by simply applying makeup to cover up the spots. What is important is that we recognize that poverty is a factor in how well students perform on tests which determines how well schools and districts are scored on SPS scores. Simply closing the low performing schools does not “fix” this problem; that is simply applying makeup to chicken pox. According to this chart some districts like Orleans, Jefferson, St Bernard, West Carroll and Winn are doing very well considering their poverty compositions (although Orleans may be benefitting from having much of their higher needs population in RSD schools.)
Notes: I would caution against using this chart to highlight districts such as Zachary or Cameron as outliers without much more research. I’ve been told that Zachary’s poverty numbers may be under reported and I’ve been told by SIS coordinators from Cameron Parish that people in this parish often refuse to claim food stamps to apply for free and reduced lunch, even though many more qualify for them. This may result in showing Cameron artificially more “wealthy” than it actually is based on available data. Another factor possibly impacting Cameron’s lower than expected scores based on their wealth index is that they were severely impacted by two major hurricanes in the past 7 years causing major displacement and massive loss of housing school days and facilities. It also appears that while extreme poverty seems to exert a nonlinear downward pressure on performance as measured by SPS scores, wealth ratings above 100, or 50% seem to have a diminishing impact on SPS scores in the upper range. This would seem to imply that carving wealthier districts from districts below wealth score or 100, (or a district with 50% free or reduced lunch) will have a disproportionate negative impact on the district left behind, the poorer the district left behind becomes, the more their test scores will be impacted. Conversely, while a wealthier district will post higher than average SPS scores, increasing the wealth of such a district over 50% or less than 50% free and reduced has a diminishing effect on increasing SPS scores.
So what does this mean?
The SPS score is an inherently poverty biased measure. Districts with high poverty concentrations don’t stand a chance as all of their students will tend to score lower without massive intervention the state is not currently providing. Louisiana’s Accountability system will catch-up to them and throw them kicking and screaming into RSD, the Recovery School District.
If RSD is such as great thing why are parents in the school districts with RSDs complaining so bitterly about them and refusing to send their students to these schools, except as a last resort?
School districts are learning that the best way to evade state takeover is to increase the wealth percentage in their district either by splitting off into smaller, wealthier districts, by attracting wealthier students, or by disguising their populations by merging school populations in shadow school arrangements. Giving students more and more tests, punishing their teachers when they don’t do any better on them, and closing their schools, is a horribly dysfunctional idea. It’s like taking the temperature of kids when they go to the doctor for treatment for a fever, the temperature tests confirm they have a fever, and instead of giving them medicine or instructions for treatment, the doctor/nurse just keeps taking their temperature again and again with different instruments, and perhaps sticking those instruments in more invasive places. When the children don’t get better the doctor then blames the parents for doing something wrong and in some cases notifies protective services to take the kids away from their parents. . . putting them a Recovery Housing System. Once these children end up in the “RHS” and all we do is take their temperature again and again, telling them will just better if they really try. Would it surprise if they do worse and some die/dropout? The Recovery School District is a Big Government misguided Big Brother infirmary that is slowly killing our children and our communities. By its very nature of divesting itself of community roots, oversight, and harmony it creates discord with our children and the community into which it is forcibly inserted (without any lube I might add.) It does nothing to ensure children are treated, simply tested and tested some more and when RSD ends up as the worst of the worst among SPS scores( as it has done), who takes RSD over, the RRSD?
What if all these resources we spent taking over school districts, firing teachers, and displacing children were used instead to improve the schools in which they already reside – dozens of these schools now lay shuttered and vacant statewide while the children are bussed to campuses clear across their communities. This is done to disguise how poorly we’ve served these children while we hope taking their temperature over and over and telling them to “get better” will finally work. What if instead of just testing children and holding them “accountable” we held ourselves accountable as a society and worked to improve their plight? All this testing and test prep is not helping our students catch up, and it may actually be bringing everyone else down as well. In Louisiana to disguise this fact John White has changed the “grading scale” and intends to change it yet again next year and every year we continue to employ him. John White will guarantee the scores go up, for what they’re worth, but our students will eventually tire teachers just taking their temperatures when they show up for school, and who could blame them?
Kill the RSD, and hand the schools back over to their communities where they belong. The RSD experiment we’ve forced on our children has failed, and miserably so. Instead of spending all that excess funding on bringing in out of state charters temporary teachers, train the teachers we have, provide funding for universal pre-kindergarten, afterschool programs, restore music and the arts and provide tutors and recruit mentors from the community for children. There are thousands of people just waiting to help, if the state will back off and return to a support role instead of the tyrant it has become under Paul Pastorek and John White. Teachers are trying, but they can’t tackle this task alone.
I suppose it comes down to whether you want a solution or simply someone to blame? Bobby Jindal just wants a talking point for his futile presidential aspirations; John White wants to help out-of-state vendors, so they can hook him up for a lifetime of perks and positions once he leaves Louisiana. If you are a citizen of this state, if you care about the students, the children, the teachers, your fellow citizens, out way of life and our future, then you need to kick these guys out and take back our schools. Kill the RSD and rescue our teachers and students before it’s too late.
It’s about time we held our failing leaders responsible. RSD has been in place for almost 7 years and has mostly all new students, and every year it is vying for worst district in the state with two to three times the resources. In my book that deserves an F- and the creators of it should be held accountable.