Flawed models

Akron Beacon Journal - January 30, 2014
   

Akron Beacon Journal editorial

Ohio’s large urban school districts have a hard time countering a general perception that their schools are uniformly low-achieving. To prove otherwise, school officials hold up their high-achieving schools as evidence the districts are up to the task of meeting high academic standards. Inevitably, the high achievers acquire the status of models for replication.

School officials are correct, of course, to tout the high performers, but the effort comes with its own pitfall, unfortunately. The question often arises: If the large urban districts can and do produce highly rated schools, why can’t they replicate what works in the model school in their other buildings? If Akron’s Miller-South, say, consistently rates Excellent or better, why doesn’t Innes or Jennings?

It is a difficult question that puts many an urban superintendent on the defensive. The findings of “Misleading Measurements,” a study released last week by Policy Matters Ohio, offer an illuminating perspective on the vexing issue of raising academic improvement in urban schools. The study shows why even within the same district presenting high performers as models for reform is unfair and a flawed approach.

In each of Ohio’s Big 8 districts, the study compared districtwide demographic factors — average building enrollment, racial composition, disability and economic status — with the profiles of the highest-achieving schools, both traditional public and charters, over a two-year period. The analysis revealed that in all eight districts, the top schools for the most part did not reflect the profile of the district as a whole. In effect, these schools serve a population distinct from the general body of students.

Consider the chart below for the Akron Public Schools, which shows 86.7 percent of students as economically disadvantaged. Research finds that poverty adversely affects academic potential. Further, a high percentage of minority students fall into the poverty category. In a district where poor and minority students are a majority, the chart shows the top schools enroll fewer minority and economically disadvantaged students and fewer students with disabilities.

Special schools such as the STEM and the visual arts schools and Early College High School are the district’s pride, for good reason. But here, too, the Policy Matters study indicates how the top performers differ markedly from the whole. Admission is limited, class sizes small, the students and teachers often self-selected.

The implications of such differences are significant for school improvement policies. Educating a large number of students living with disabilities or in poverty presents varied challenges, whether it is providing early learning opportunities or programs to erase academic gaps. It simply is not enough to demand that schools scale up best practices from model schools without considering basic differences in student demographics and meeting their related needs.

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