Racial disparity data should be a wake-up call

Black students are six times as likely to be suspended as white students. On average, black students are 2.2 grade levels behind their white peers academically. White students are 4.3 times as likely as black students to be enrolled in advanced classes.

The figures aren’t from a struggling urban school district or from a Southern district still shaking off the legacy of Jim Crow. They’re from Bloomington, Indiana, the liberal college town where I live.

They should be a wake-up call for officials with the local Monroe County Community School Corp. – and for the entire community. They should be a relentless focus for school board members and for the half-dozen brave souls currently running to be elected to the board.

The data come from a remarkable reporting collaboration by ProPublica and the New York Times. Titled “Miseducation” and published Tuesday, the project provides searchable data on academic opportunity and achievement, discipline and segregation for 17,000 school districts.

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Segregated schools in a progressive town

The Monroe County, Ind., school board thought it was doing the right thing nearly 20 years ago by approving a redistricting plan that clustered many of the community’s neediest children in a single elementary school.

But times have changed, and maybe it’s time to revisit that decision.

The 1997 redistricting did a number of things, but the biggest was moving students from a large public housing complex to Fairview Elementary, which was already a high-poverty school. The plan prioritized “neighborhood schools.” The housing complex was near Fairview, so that was where the kids would go.

My two younger children were Fairview students at the time, and along with most teachers and parents, I thought the plan made sense. Fairview was a good school, with dedicated staff and engaged families. Those kids needed to be taught somewhere.

But the decision failed to anticipate a couple of trends. One is the way schools with high poverty have been increasingly labeled and stigmatized as “failing.” The other is the way parents with means have been able to use school choice to opt out of neighborhood schools.

At Fairview, 71 percent of Fairview students qualified for free school lunch after redistricting. Today the figure is 84 percent. That’s in spite of the fact that neighborhoods near the school have gentrified. And in spite of the Artful Learning the school board approved in hopes of retaining middle-class families.

Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, and we entered a new era of school accountability. Publicly reported test scores and, eventually, school grades bolstered the idea that Fairview was a “bad” school. Some middle-class families in the neighborhood transferred their kids to private schools or a local charter school. Or they simply moved when their children reached school age. Continue reading

Bennett on reform: Get on board or get left

Education reform in Indiana is like a railroad track, state Superintendent Tony Bennett told a Bloomington, Ind., audience today. One rail is the competition provided by private-school vouchers and more charter schools. The other is new teacher evaluations and limits on collective bargaining.

The cross-ties? Those are accountability, as in the A-to-F letter grade system for schools and state takeover of low-performing schools.

It’s an interesting metaphor; a little clunky, maybe, but good for keeping the conversation going.

“Quite honestly, I see that railroad track as the big divide,” countered Monroe County Community schools Superintendent Judith DeMuth, who joined Bennett and others for a panel discussion sponsored by the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce.

Noting that Bennett admits to being influenced by school reforms in Florida, she said, “In Florida there are haves and have-nots, and I don’t want to see that for my children and grandchildren.”

While Bennett focused on the structural reforms that the Indiana legislature passed this year, DeMuth and Steve Kain, superintendent of Richland-Bean Blossom schools, had other priorities in mind. They said Indiana needs to provide adequate resources for public schools, which haven’t yet made up for the $300 million in funding cuts they suffered two years ago.

And they called for more state support for early childhood education. Indiana boosted funding for full-day kindergarten this year, but not enough to cover the full cost. It’s one of 10 states that don’t fund public pre-kindergarten programs, said panelist Terry Spradlin, director of education policy for the Center on Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University – who, in the spirit of transparent accountability, gave Indiana grades of C and “incomplete” for early childhood programs.

But this was mostly the Tony Bennett show, and the superintendent has in fact become quite adept at selling his views on education, even to a somewhat skeptical audience.

He batted away a question about vouchers providing tax support for religious and political extremism, insisting he’s “pretty agnostic” about what types of schools should get public support. The point, he said, is that low-income parents should have the same choice for their kids that more wealthy parents have. “Why shouldn’t they go where their needs are best met?” he said.

He hailed education reform as one of the few public issues where there seems to be some bipartisanship, with Democratic Secretary of Education Arne Duncan supporting the same charter-school and merit-pay initiatives as Bennett and other Republican state officials.

He insisted that passionate disagreement and debate is ultimately good for education. “We have reached consensus for so long that we’ve gotten complacent,” he said.

He could take an old bluegrass hymn as his theme song: “Keep your hands upon the throttle, and your eyes upon the rail.”