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September 27th, 1999

The Editorial Page Editor
"Letters to the Editor"
Times Picayune
New Orleans, Louisiana

Re: Article reporting school "scores" for the New Orleans metropolitan area.

Sir:

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 evaluating schools.

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 student performance.

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 properly applied.

#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 the city.

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 identify them.

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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