Sunday, August 16, 2015

Background on Failure Factories/Inquiry

In August of 2015, the Tampa Bay Times ran an investigative story titled "Failure Factories."  In it, the authors claim that Pinellas County Schools, through either malicious intent or gross negligence, instituted policy changes that led to a substantial decline in the academic performance of five specific elementary schools in St. Petersburg: 1) Campbell Park Elementary; 2) Fairmount Park Elementary; 3) Lakewood Elementary; 4) Maximo Elementary, and; 5) Melrose Elementary.  The five schools each reside in predominantly African-American parts of the city, and are likewise each comprised of a majority African-American students.  The story's narrative suggests that these are some of the worst performing elementary schools in the State of Florida.

The accusations laid by the Times' authors in the piece are substantial and damning.  In a time when perceived race relations are already at a low-point due to ongoing debate regarding allegations of police targeting of Black men, the story's timing is certainly instep with a larger narrative that elicits tremendous emotional response - particularly among those on the far left of the political spectrum.  Riding a wave of sorts, the Times story seeks to combat widely held notions regarding the Black community and Black student performance, namely the belief that comparatively poor academic performance among Black students is principally a function of familial and community level factors, rather than problems with schools or teachers themselves, or worse, systematic, institutionalized racism.

Resegregation, aka the Community School Model
At the heart of the Times' angst is the decision Pinellas County Schools made to discontinue a program of school integration that required students to forgo the schools in their residential community, and instead be bused to schools outside their community for the sake of racial and economic integration.  Without going too deeply here, the idea is, at the very least, a logical one.  Introduce a larger share of middle class, better performing students into lower income schools to improve the school's performance through an osmosis like infusion of diverse students statistically predisposed to perform better due to their family's socioeconomic status.

As a liberal leaning individual myself, I often like to joke that my liberalism has its limits - and those limits are my two kids.  Naturally, middle class families fought the program, many opting out altogether by sending their children to private schools, or moving from the District altogether.  Parents balked, and rightly so, at having their kids bused to a distant school when many of their neighborhood peers were attending the school in their community.  It should be noted that it wasn't merely white, middle class students being bused past their local school.  Many African-American students were being bused to schools in better areas, creating the problem of elementary schools in middle class areas turning down applications from local residents, while low income area schools were only two-thirds full.

Interestingly enough, the busing model was generally opposed by those of all races (source), though African-American community leaders felt strongly that a school of all Black children would receive less attention and funding than a school with a sizable portion of White students.  Given human beings' tendencies towards what sociologists refer to as "causal attribution bias," it's not a stretch to imagine that this was true - that White voters in the county would be less sympathetic to the plight of schools that were overwhelmingly Black than they would schools with a mixed student body.  It's as unfortunate to our human story as it is a strongly weaved part of the human condition.

What the Times is purposely referring to as "resegregation" could just as easily be called a return to the "community schools" model, if one were trying to be more neutral about it than the Times apparently is.  There is a literature in education research that suggests that student success is driven in large part by the community's commitment to its schools.  There are those, including myself, who further argue that spatial proximity has a large impact on this.  Easier to support a school when all of your neighbors send their children there, and you're physically invested, as well as emotionally invested.  You want the school to succeed because it's a part of your community, regardless of whether or not you have children there.  During Pinellas' period of socioeconomic integration, children were bused to schools in other communities.  It's easy to see how, under the assumptions of the community schools model, support for such institutions would consequently be weakened.

The Times' Principal Claims
It's important to summarize here  the Times' major accusations claims so that they might be held to statistical scrutiny, at least to the extent they can be.  As best I can extrapolate from the article, the story's authors make three major claims:

  1. The five elementary schools identified in the story perform considerably worse than they should.
  2. The District is responsible for the poor performance of students in the five identified schools.
  3. Low income Black students in Pinellas perform worse than low income Black students in other communities.
Iv'e dedicated this blog to exploring these three contentions using analysis of available data.  While the Times' story is visually appealing, and tells a cognitively engaging story, it was written by journalists, not statisticians.  Statistics are a lot like religion - a little bit of knowledge can lead you astray, while a deep knowledge usually brings you back.  Before I begin addressing the aforementioned claims, it's necessary that I provide some background on myself as a researcher, and how my experiences and background might influence my perceptions of the data.

About the Author
I imagine that I share something with the authors of the Times article, in that I too want to see all students have the opportunity to succeed, regardless of race, income, or any other identifying characteristic.  In criticizing this piece's claims, I should make it known that I do so merely out of a desire to see that the most accurate portrayal of what's going on in these schools be put forward.  Each of these institutions is comprised of a staff of individuals that form a team, and I would hate to see these teams drug through the mud, or worse, face job elimination, as a result of potentially false assertions.  It's my desire that we get the story right before making rash decisions.

I'm a professional storyteller, I just tell those stories with data.  I've spent over a decade getting paid to do just that, and was fortunate to receive the training and preparation of two separate Ph.D. programs - one of which I may actually finish by the end of next year.  I'm a white male in his 30s, a father, and a husband.  My wife and I are fortunate to earn a very comfortable living.  I mentioned earlier than my politics tends to lean liberal, but if you were to ask, I identify myself as an "extreme moderate."  Not extreme in the sense that I have no opinions, but rather that my opinions are subject to a tremendous amount of variance along the political spectrum - typically averaging out somewhere near the middle, or just to the left.

Above all else, I am a person interested in the truth.  As such, I hope that someone will read my analysis and question it.  Not only question it, but try to debunk it.  I am hardly driven by pride, and if I believe something to be one way when it's not, it is my extreme desire that someone show me the error of my ways.

Finally, I'm a fan of education.  It's the true vehicle of social mobilization - the pathway to opportunity for all.  I'm a former educator, primarily teaching community college in my spare time (in addition to my regular career), but I did teach public high school for a year and then some (the then some was filling in as a replacement teacher at the end of a term).  I want to see these kids succeed, which is why I wan't to find out why they aren't.  

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