Why Do Parents Avoid Schools With Low Performance?
After the County Office of Education and its consultants decided to add Oak Grove MS and Ygnacio Valley HS to the proposal for NUSD, critics of our campaign suggested that Northgate-area residents have avoided those schools because of the presence of “too many brown students”. The raw racism behind those offensive criticisms has tended to obscure the reasons why parents of all backgrounds have avoided schools with low performance. It is not just students from Bancroft Elementary who seek transfers away from OGMS. Students from other elementary schools feeding into OGMS also often seek transfers to other middle schools. Is it always “racism”, or do families have legitimate concerns?
The data on OGMS are particularly stark. Under previous assessment systems, student achievement at the school fell from 9th from the bottom of all middle schools in California, to 3rd from the bottom. Think of all of the schools serving disadvantaged and at-risk students in urban and rural areas of California, and consider how the state as a whole ranks near the bottom of all 50 states in student achievement. So OGM essentially ranked near the bottom, nationally, in student achievement.
The situation remains grim under the new Smarter Balance state tests for the 2015-16 school year (the most recent currently available on the State’s Dataquest website). Only 20% of the students at OGMS met or exceeded grade-level standards for English Language Arts, and only 7% met/exceeded grade-level proficiency for Mathematics.
First, let’s clarify what the standardized tests can and cannot do. They CANNOT tell you how “good” a school is or how “good” a teacher is, and they CANNOT tell you how “smart” a student is. They are designed to see whether students have mastered grade-level standards established by the State of California, which now uses Common Core standards, but previously, since 1999, used rigorous standards with goals that were often similar to those in Common Core. If students are performing well above grade level, the tests will not necessarily show that. If a school serves a large population of students in poverty, or students with low English proficiency, the test scores may show low proficiency levels, even if those students are making solid gains each year. (The test score data is offered with demographic data about the student population being tested.)
So what does that all mean for families seeking a good education for their students, when they consider a school such as OGMS? And what does it mean for the teachers they must rely on for that education?
Typically, when 80-90% of students in a school are performing below grade level, it is not because the students are generally only six months to one year behind. Teachers may encounter such students in almost every school, and they have numerous strategies for helping students catch up. However, when a school produces test results showing so many students who are so far below proficiency, year after year, it is almost always because large segments of the student population are several years or more below grade level. In such schools, there are too many students trying to read an 8th grade social studies text with 3rd grade reading proficiency or trying to tackle algebra without understanding fractions.
Students who are many years below grade level present enormous challenges to teachers, who must adapt their instruction to multiple students with deficiencies of varying degrees, spanning years of instruction in multiple subjects that his/her students were unable to master. Although there are curriculum materials available that attempt to help middle school students with early elementary-level skills, those materials can be expensive for a district like MDUSD, which struggles to provide adequate materials to all students, and which plans to cut the budget for all materials even more next year. Moreover, any teacher using those materials must have training on the additional curricula, and must figure out how to integrate the different curricula into the same classroom periods with the same groups of students. It is a daunting task for almost any educator.
The challenge of students struggling far below grade level is more common than our district likes to admit, and more common in MDUSD than in the County or State. The figures below, from the State’s Smarter Balanced Assessments for 2015-16, show how widespread under-performance is among MDUSD students in poverty and English Learners, compared with such students in the County and State.
|Percent of Students Meeting/Exceeding Grade Level Standards|
|ELA – Literacy||Mathematics|
|Economically Disadvantaged||English Learners||Economically Disadvantaged||English Learners|
|Contra Costa Co.||30%||11%||19%||10%|
|State of CA||35%||13%||23%||12%|
When students performing at low levels are concentrated in certain schools, as they are in MDUSD, what are the implications for students in that school’s attendance area who are performing at or above grade level? How likely is it that a student performing at or above grade level in one of those schools will receive the same attention and intellectual challenges as s/he might in a class where all, or most, students had mastered grade-level standards? Will that student, with grade-level skills, have the same educational opportunities at every school, regardless of how many students and teachers are struggling with basic standards?
Parents understand these challenges and naturally seek out schools where fewer students are struggling to gain basic proficiency. Educators understand these challenges as well. One of the understandable reasons why teachers resist being judged on the basis of single-year standardized assessments is that they have no control over which students they will receive each fall, and they have little idea how far behind some of those students may be or what it will take to move the entire class forward.
The difficulties MDUSD faces in managing Northgate-area schools are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the district’s inability to provide better schools for all students. It is all part of the same failure in central office leadership. Rather than blaming parents who are seeking the best for their children, or teachers who are trying to do their best for their students, shouldn’t we look to the school district leadership that manages our schools – particularly the schools where, year after year, decade after decade, students are allowed to move through the system while learning so little? Who will hold the administrators accountable for the injustice done to the students in those schools? How long will the race-based diatribes against NUSD supporters be used to deflect attention from what is NOT happening in so many low-performing MDUSD schools?
We’ve seen clearly during the NUSD campaign that MDUSD’s leadership feels that Northgate schools will always be “good enough”. But what about the other schools that our parents have been criticized for “avoiding”? When will years and years of rhetoric about “closing the gap” actually turn into academic gains in those schools, where the most vulnerable students are waiting for action by the district?