Sunday, November 8, 2009

Test Scores, Busing and Resegregation

I've gotten a good deal of e-mail from in Raleigh during the past few weeks – the result of the article on school resegregation that I published in the News and Observer.

This week, many Wake County residents have been looking at recently released state test scores, on which Mecklenburg County's low income and African American students scored better than their Wake County counterparts.

Some folks in Raleigh are currently pointing to these numbers as evidence that Wake County's economically integrated schools have no advantages over Mecklenburg County's more segregated ones. I don't agree. Here's how I explained my thoughts to one e-mail correspondent.

Dear Sir,

Thank you for taking your time to share your experiences with me. I appreciate it very much.

It has been interesting to watch discussions over the statewide test scores. In my opinion, however, it is quite problematic to base decisions about the pros and cons of busing vs. economic resegregation on district-wide test scores. Here are a couple of examples.

Last year my son's school, Shamrock Gardens, had a poverty rate of 90 percent. On our end-of-grade tests, 64 percent of our free and reduced lunch students scored at or above grade level.

Myers Park Traditional is a magnet school in one of Charlotte's most prestigious neighborhoods. Last year, its poverty rate was 23 percent. On end-of-grade tests, 59 percent of its FRL students scored at or above grade level.

One might conclude from this set of numbers that students in poverty would be better off at a high-poverty school such as Shamrock than a low-poverty school such as Myers Park.

But that is only two schools. Shamrock is currently one of the better-performing high-poverty schools. FRL kids at Myers Park Traditional have tended to have unusually low scores for a low-poverty school.

Another pair of elementary schools suggests a alternate story. At Villa Heights, with 22 percent poverty, 89 percent of FRL students were at grade level or above. At Allenbrook, with 89 percent poverty, only 39 percent of FRL students were at grade level or above. School by school, different circumstances produce different results.

My reasons for opposing economic resegregation are based on my own experience of the challenges that high-poverty schools face. These are numerous and varied, but for the moment I'm going to focus on parents.

I believe the best way to ensure that a school functions well over a long period of time is to have a stable, involved base of middle-class parents – black, white and other. They are the ones with the time, skills and resources not only to provide enrichment opportunities, but also to promote academic excellence through a focus on essentials such as principal and teacher quality. Myers Park has been fortunate to have such a base over many years.

A high-poverty school such as Shamrock lives a more precarious existence.

Only a few years ago, we were pegged as one of the lowest-performing schools in the state, the result of some poorly performing principals and general neglect from the system.

A capable principal, a dedicated staff and a hefty infusion of resources have helped turn us around for the moment. But if we lose any of these things, it would be very easy for us to slide backwards. This has certainly happened to plenty of other CMS schools. I don't believe that a school can simply rely on the system to provide what its students need.

Our parents care about their kids, and most of them do what they can to help them succeed. But few have a clear vision of the level of excellence required to get to college and beyond, because very few of them have been there themselves. They tend to trust their children's schools rather than push them. Even were they to push, they would have a hard time matching the social and political influence that middle-class parents wield.

High-poverty schools also have difficulty providing the same level of enrichment activities as low-poverty schools do. Last year, Myers Park's PTA income was around $100,000. We at Shamrock took in $5,000.

While some of Myers Park's funds went to instructional materials that we get through Title I and other supplemental programs, much of its PTA's time and energy went into extras such as field trips, Odyssey of the Mind, enhanced chess instruction and other enrichment activities. We at Shamrock simply cannot hope to match those efforts.

Given these and other factors, I believe that a school system is much more likely to succeed at providing excellent educational opportunities to all students if it works on improving instruction at economically integrated schools, rather than reverting to economically segregated schools.



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