The Education Project
September 27th, 1999
The Editorial Page Editor
"Letters to the Editor"
New Orleans, Louisiana
Re: Article reporting school "scores" for the New Orleans metropolitan area.
I am disturbed by the implications of your article, and the data provided. I am also angry that the State
Board of Education, prodded by the legislature, has chosen a biased, unfair and pointless tool for
Two subtle questions loom within the State Board's figures. #1: Does poverty correlate with school
"scores"? Yes, sadly, "poverty" correlates with school "scores". It is clear from the data that there is an
extraordinary relationship between school "scores" and "poverty"
#2. Is Poverty a cause of poor school performance? This is a misguided question, because they do not
measure school performance. 90% of the "score" is based on standardized tests. Yet, unfortunately,
many factors render standardized tests unreliable for the purpose of evaluating schools, using tests
designed to evaluate students.
What is "School Performance"? It is rooted in the obligation of a school to provide each individual
student the maximum opportunity to learn. The State Board, irresponsibly, equates student performance
with school performance. It is irresponsible because schools can not guarantee success, the public
should not be trained to expect success from schools faced with the factors which correlate to poor
To test this thought, I propose a mind experiment. We know that "poverty" correlates to school "score",
but can the school affect student performance? Take two elementary schools, with similar school
student counts, but one "scoring" unacceptable and the other "scoring" admirably. What would happen
if we transplanted the two entire schools: the school building, the principals and teachers and staff, the
equipment and textbooks, the chalk and the school bell. Leave where they are the students, the families
and the PTA. If the State Board is right, the "scores" for the two schools will be the unchanged. The
children in "poverty" will walk to their new, neighborhood school, and, magically, by the end of the
year, their test scores will rise.
This is lunacy.
I suggest two alternative questions, where, with some effort, the statistics are available and can be
#1: As poverty is related to student scores, evaluate how the elemental issues of poverty effect to
individual student's performance -- move from correlation to causation. Knowing those factors, work
to eliminate them.
#2: Since poverty is so clearly related to school scores, what is it that causes subtle and not so subtle
variations in students' scores between schools with similar "poverty" levels, rich or poor? I suggest that
we consider these, among others, as possible explanations, for the State Board's data: class size; the
proportion of disruptive or special education students; special admission policies; or, the degree to which
principal and teachers over or under emphasize "teaching the test". Take advantage of the variations and
improving learning opportunity.
Instead, the State Board and its mignons will descend on the "unacceptable" performers, creating more
plans, to follow years of plans and curriculum changes. The bureaucracy and the implementation will be
stunted and unfunded. Sadly, as the plan now stands, in a few years, when the schools are closed, or
when parents are given the choice to leave these schools, we will face several disasters. If closed, or if
parents are vouchered in or out of the school system, we will not have alternatives with space and
funding. And, horribly, we will leave 50% of the student population in those poor schools, for reasons
which range from disinterested parents to interested guardians unable to transport their children around
It is good to suggest, and then evaluate, what factors affect student performance and school performance.
Oddly, we don't ask those closest to and most responsible for education -- teachers. Ask any inner city
teacher, regardless of skill or interest in their job, what those factors are and within minutes they would
Parents who don't read to their children; class size; more than one or two B.D. or L.D. children in the
classroom; excessive reporting and testing, including preparation; and parents or guardians who are not
interested in their children's education, with or without cause, and whether due to their own illiteracy or
because all parents work multiple jobs, or for no reason at all.
Sadly, these problems, so clear to teachers, do not present an easy solution. Their evaluation can't be
pounded into a desk at the legislature or on a campaign trail; the public, collectively, is unwilling to
commit the resources to a solution; and the solution is not within the school system.
Ideally, the public would fund more classrooms and teachers to reduce class size; it would fund
extensive literacy programs; it would fund an expansion of welfare oversight to require parents to learn
and to take an interest in their children's learning. The list is longer, but competes with a limited public
interest. We suffer the consequences. Our city's children grow up uneducated, and a proportion of them
turn to alcohol and drugs. A proportion commit crimes and we pay to build jails; our insurance rates go
up; we can't attract industry and our tax base slides.
s/ John Ruskin
New Orleans, Louisiana
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