Saturday, October 29, 2016

How should we address the proficiency gaps?

I finally have a weekend with some time to blog, and I have some lingering thoughts about some of the issues that the board discussed at this past Tuesday’s board meeting, so I’ll see if I can get a few posts up over the next day or two.

We received several reports about student standardized test scores. These are presented as reports on “student achievement,” but I’m not crazy about that term, since I don’t think standardized tests come anywhere near measuring all the things that go into any meaningful definition of educational achievement. In general, I think school systems are not very careful in the way they talk about data, and I want to at least try to be careful.

I don’t mean to say that the data is not meaningful, though; in fact, I think it is in some ways very meaningful. For me, the most immediately informative aspect of the reports is the glaring gaps between different sub-groups of students. Even though I think standardized tests are an extremely reductive and imperfect measure of the kind of development we want school to cultivate in our kids, the gaps between groups are plainly a sign that something is very wrong. Here is an example:

I selected that chart pretty much at random; many of the charts—for math, reading, and science, for elementary, middle, and high school—show similar gaps. The racial gaps are particularly striking and do not appear to be understandable solely by reference to a correlation between race and poverty. The proficiency rates for black students are almost always lower than those for students receiving free and reduced-price lunch (FRL), the district’s proxy for low-income status, even though of course many black students are not from low-income households and many white students are. So the data are valuable because they remind us of the ongoing and persistent existence of those gaps and tell us some things about just how those gaps vary among different sub-groups.

One big limitation of the data, though, is that they don’t tell us the causes of the gaps, and there are surely multiple causes. It’s easy to generate plausible hypotheses: that poverty affects child development in multiple ways; that the burdens of poverty are not distributed equally among racial groups; that many subtle and un-subtle forms of racism and prejudice affect the experience of minority children in multiple ways; that the tests themselves have racial, cultural, and class biases; and more. But the data don’t help us (much) in generating the hypotheses, and they don’t help us rule any out, and they don’t shed (much) light on how to apportion causality among them or how those causes may interact.

In that list of hypotheses, we have to include the fact that our district itself falls some unknown distance short of the ideal. People are fallible and imperfect. Do our staff members, even with the best of intentions, sometimes treat black children (or poor children, or English-language learners, etc.) differently than white children (or non-poor children, or native speakers, etc.)? Almost certainly they do. Even if you concede that there is some limit on how much district policies and practices alone can reduce those proficiency gaps, have our board members and administrators made all the right decisions to maximize the district’s potential influence in reducing those gaps? I have to assume the answer is no, quite possibly not even by a long shot.

Another limitation of the data is that they don’t tell us (much) about how to fix the problem. If the only gaps were in fifth-grade reading, then at least we’d know what to focus on; but the gaps are persistent across grades and subjects. For ideas, the district often looks to some mixture of social science research, which has many limitations of its own, and our own (imperfect) instincts about what might help.

There is also the problem that some ways of increasing test scores are less educationally sound than others. I don’t want to become one of those districts that cuts all music, art, recess, etc., for poor and minority students in the single-minded pursuit of higher reading and math scores.

Efforts toward reducing the proficiency gaps all require a kind of faith. I don’t mean the religious kind. I just mean that we all know that the problem won’t be solved overnight, and that change takes time. So when we launch into an initiative—for example, funneling more resources toward schools with higher-need students, or doing professional development on implicit bias, or trying to hire more teachers of color—it’s hard to know whether it’s working, and the data don’t tell us (since changes from year to year could be due to any number of causes).

I don’t want to let my skepticism function as an excuse not to try, but part of me definitely wonders: Are our efforts to address the proficiency gaps really going to accomplish anything, or are they all just an elaborate display? Positive changes do take time, but that doesn’t mean we can assume that they’re happening.

The board has two ways to exert influence on how the district functions. One is to set goals, rely on the administration to pursue them, and use ongoing oversight of the administration’s efforts to steer the district in the desired direction. The other is to legislate specific means of pursuing the goals. Given that they are unpaid volunteers, board members inevitably have to rely largely on the former strategy, but our district’s boards have done some of both: directing the administration to pursue the specific goal of addressing the proficiency gaps, but also mandating some specific means (as the current board is doing, for example, with the weighted resource allocation model).

I’d like to see the district make a systematic effort to seek out the parents of kids in the affected subgroups and ask them what they think their kids need from the school system that they’re not getting. I have less faith in the ability of some other group (for example, our relatively non-diverse board) to substitute its judgment for that of the affected families, though that’s unavoidable to at least some degree. I’d also like to see the district’s curriculum review process formally incorporate an equity analysis step, to ensure that the district considers whether some curricular choices might be better than others at serving our non-proficient students. But again, neither one of those suggestions is a silver bullet, and I can’t be sure either would have the desired effect.

Readers, what are your ideas about what the board, as a board, should be doing to address the proficiency gaps?


Amy said...

It occurs to me, Chris, that without seeing a sort of heatmap of proficiency scores across the state, it's difficult to get any purchase on what's going on. Several weeks ago Steve and Kingsley were making excuses at me about how we have these teachers who roll in off the prairie after a lifetime of blinding whiteness and how this is difficult to overcome, but for all I know Le Mars is doing much better than we are at teaching kids who aren't middle-income white kids with Northern European last names.

My limited view says that the district's administrative stance when it comes to bias is shrugging and mealymouthed excuse-making and zero intention of actually doing a damned significant thing that isn't forced on them by the state. A few weeks ago I notified Steve and a principal about an incident that needed immediate attention, and as far as I could make out, it was up to the principal to figure out what, if anything, to do. Which is nuts. District policies regarding respect in the treatment of low-SES and minority children should be quite plain, as should penalties for ignoring those policies, and training provided. And these things should be uniform across the district, not left to individual principals to make up as they go along. It should be made aggressively clear that the district does not intend to tolerate, in any form, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, ageism, classism, or any other form of bigotry. Which it certainly does do now. And that would be Steve's job as superintendent, not Kingsley's job as Our Official Black Guy.

I tell you what, man, you're going to have to forward Steve an awful lot of criticisms from me. Really need to get that cc: list up and running, tho.

Anonymous said...

Amy, it seems to me that if Murley had the knowledge and ability to make changes he would - but he doesn't. Technical educational improvement is just not in his skill set. He is a buzz word, rah-rah sort of guy with little actual competency.

Were he in Texas, he would be classified as all hat and no cattle.