Monday, August 17, 2015

Response to Janelle Irwin

SaintPetersBlog's Janelle Irwin reviewed my blog postings today and wrote a critical, yet thought provoking response to my contentions.  There were a few things I found a bit unfair, which I will mention here shortly, but for the most part I was glad she took up her case and contributed to the dialogue on this topic.  Despite what Janelle may have taken away from my posts, I believe that she and I are probably equally concerned about the issue of poor academic achievement in St. Petersburg's urban, low-income core, even if we see it as resulting from different causal factors.

First off, a compliment - kudos to you Janelle for raising three kids and choosing to continue your education - that's no easy task no matter how you look at it.  As a an education advocate, I was happy to read this.

In response, I'll start with a minor point, yet one worth mentioning.  Your blog title begins "Dad blogger argues...".  As you mentioned in your post, I am a market research professional.  I also offered up that I am nearing completion of Ph.D. studies.  Any of those would have seemed a more appropriate descriptor.  As a feminist, I would never describe a professional female writing on a subject for which she has professional expertise as a "mom blogger."  I believe if you think about that, you'd agree.  No big deal, I think we're just all trying to improve in this capacity.

As far as the content we disagree over, let's start with this idea of "resegregation."  You appear to be of the belief, as the Times authors are, that by shifting back to the traditional neighborhood or community school model in Pinellas is responsible for lower FCAT performance at the schools listed in the article.  Well you're right.  In fact, I don't disagree with this at all.  Of course increasing the proportion of at-risk students at a school is going to reduce test performance.  Statistically, there's absolutely no reason why we would expect a school that is now comprised of a larger share of at risk students not to see score declines.

The better question is, were we just shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic by moving them around in the first place?  If you took all of baseball's best players and randomly redistributed them across every Major League team, you'd see greater parity.  Did moving a poor Black student to a better performing school have a positive  impact on their personal exam performance?  This would be a good question to ask, but it's beyond the scope of what we're talking about here since we're evaluating schools, not individual students (as we probably should be in the first place).

Second, I was disappointed that you didn't attack my specific assertions as presented by the data.  I hold two political science degrees and taught the subject for nearly ten years.  As a political science student yourself, I would have hoped you would have approached one of your faculty advisers and developed a plan to dispute my data or data assertions.  As I've mentioned before, I welcome this solely because I hope I'm wrong.  I hope the issue is the schools and not some community level factor outside of their controls - because if it is a problem with the schools, it's a lot easier to fix.

Finally, I'll suggest that my reasoning isn't as mind-boggling as you suggest.  Schools are an easy scapegoat.  My principal research areas in my Ph.D. program is community colleges, and it's a phenomenon there as well.  Politicians and community leaders regularly point to community college leaders and questioning why they haven't solved the employment gap.

Is it that large of a stretch to suggest that a child who comes from a home where the parents (but usually parent) are working multiple jobs, shares a residence with several family members or friends who come and go at all hours of the day/night, or is exposed to violence, drug use, or other social ills associated with poverty, might be at a disadvantage before they even show up for school?  A friend who formerly taught inner city once asked me in a state of despair, "how am I supposed to prepare a kid for an exam when they haven't eaten since lunch the day before?"

I've presented data that suggests that three factors account for 75% a school's FCAT performance, and that none of those three factors are things the school can control.  Is it fair to go into a school like Melrose that is seemingly comprised of the largest share of at risk students in the entire state (have to double check this, but they're at least within a few spots), and expect the faculty and leadership of that school to produce exam scores that are on par with the average performance of every other school in the state?  Absolutely not - it's entirely unfair.  Is it reasonable to expect them to grow their scores in a manner that shows statistical improvement over past performances?  Absolutely.  Just not when you're benchmarking against a period in which their students weren't nearly as "at risk".

As you mention, I consider myself a liberal leaning individual.  It's why I cringed when you wrote that I implied that I wouldn't want to send my kid to a school comprised of mostly Black students.  The truth, Janelle, is that I don't want to send my kid to any school other than the public school in their neighborhood.  That includes magnet or fundamental programs.  I don't want my kid to be bused to a magnet program because I believe in the logic and value of neighborhood schools.

What should we do?  That's a bigger question than my research is ready to address, if I'm just being honest.  I do believe that reducing poverty and improving job prospects in these communities will improve the quality of students attending these schools.  You'd essentially be eliminating some of the most important factors that make at-risk kids actually at-risk.  But I don't have the solution that problem, and I don't think you do either.  I don't think our politicians do, or social commentators.  It's truly a plague on our communities that is affecting our schools.  But if you're asking me if we should ax an entire school administration and expect things to all of a sudden turn around, well that's a data question I can answer.

Janelle, things "are that bad" at two schools the Times has written about, as I discuss in my blog.  No doubt about it - they perform way below their expectations.  Go in and make massive changes - my data seems to suggest that they should perform at a certain level given teachers who teach and administrators who lead at a level commensurate with their peers at other schools.  They're not performing at the level, which suggests significant change is necessary.

The situations that "aren't that bad" are for the three others schools the Times calls "failure factories."  Yes, only 13% of 4th graders pass the FCAT math exam at Melrose.  That's not good enough, and we should be ashamed.  But my data tells me that a school comprised of that many impoverished, special education, African-American students would only pass 5% of students if the teachers and administrators were performing "on average."  The 25% of variance we can't explain with the model is why Melrose passes 13% instead of 5%, and a very solid explanation is that the teachers and administrators there are actually responsible for this improvement over statistical expectations.

No, I do not sit back and shrug my shoulders and say "ahh, what can we do?".  Instead, I'm sitting here saying "maybe the schools aren't the problem."  You can call me wrong on this regard all day long, but please don't take me to be someone who doesn't care, or who isn't committed to seeing these students perform better.


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