With Education Commissioner Johnny Key assigning blame for low-performing Little Rock School District schools on LRSD teachers by moving toward seeking a waiver to the Arkansas Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, I would respectfully ask that he step back and consider the larger issue of disproportionate resources distributed among our public school students. I’m speaking here as a parent of a LRSD student but really want to speak on behalf of other public school parents who don’t share the same privileges and resources that many of us have.
The state of Arkansas has a law that allows for the disbursement of award money to schools that “experience high student performance, student academic growth, and for secondary schools, high graduation rate.” The amount is around $100 per student for those in the top 5 percent of achievement and growth (two separate categories) and around $50 for those in the top 6-10 percent of achievement and growth.
This year, the Department of Education gave almost $7 million to 175 schools having received these performance, growth and graduation awards. Twenty-eight of these schools earned both a performance and a growth/graduation award.
This award structure is nothing new, as it stems from the carrot-and-stick approach taken by the No Child Left Behind law passed in 2001. The message was simple then: Your school performs well, you get money. If your school performs poorly, your school loses money. The recently reauthorized education legislation (Every Student Succeeds Act-ESSA) took away the stick and left the carrot. This seemed to be a wise move from the Obama administration, as it never made sense to punish schools already lacking in resources and morale because of low test scores.
The doling out of awards, the carrot if you will, to schools performing exceptionally well on the state measures of achievement may seem like a good thing in theory. Reward high-achieving schools with cash incentives. Who wouldn’t love that?
In practice, though, this law may further widen the already alarming gap between students of different races and levels of poverty.
Consider this. Let’s say I worked at a factory, and management told me they would pay me a bonus if I could produce more widgets than anyone else and then pay me another bonus if I can increase the number of widgets than I produced last year. Sounds like a great motivation, until we extend the metaphor further.
What if I worked in a factory that had a faulty machine press or an outdated operating manual or lack of adequate training to operate the machine press? How would I overcome these difficulties to earn that incentive money? What if there were another factory on the other side of town with updated machinery, modernized facilities and resources to help better create widgets?
Which factory do you think will have the better chance of producing the most widgets?
Before answering that, consider that this is a flawed metaphor. The truth is that our teachers do not build widgets. Teachers help students discover who they want to be or how they will contribute to society and then help them learn the varied skills to make that reality a possibility. They give students opportunities for creativity and problem solving and help them plan for a world that is ever-changing. Unfortunately, all of this is not comprehensively assessed using the ACT Aspire test, which is the primary measure for awarding schools letter grades and financial incentives.
But still, the question lingers: If one group has better access to resources than another, how is any comparison truly fair?
Out of the nearly $7 million awarded by the state, $3.9 million went to schools for achievement performance and $3 million went to schools for growth/graduation rate performance.
Measures of growth performance generally make sense: Improve based on what was expected, and you have shown growth. Many schools can benefit from this model in general terms because the model is essentially a measure of a school’s impact on student learning and on measures of student engagement (e.g., graduation, promotion).
Measures of overall academic achievement, however, will invariably favor schools that are already at the top. It’s not likely that a school in the bottom 50 percent will ever have a chance to actually get into the top 10 percent of schools with high academic achievement measures, even if they can increase their growth.
This, of course, all hinges on the quality of school facilities, the level of culturally responsive teaching specific to the students in the school, research-based reading instruction, the presence (or lack thereof) of a media center and appropriate resources, purposeful mobile technology use, and so on.
Did you know black students only had a 6.9 percent share of all award money given out this past year, even though they make up 20 percent of all public school students in Arkansas? To put that into perspective, if we were to achieve true parity representative of the black student population, their portion of the award money should have increased by nearly $1 million (6.9 percent share is $479,478.52, but a 20.2 percent share is $1,415,101). White students account for approximately 61 percent of all Arkansas public school students but received 70.2 percent of the award disbursements. Frankly, I don’t see how this in and of itself isn’t a violation of the Lake View decision regarding equitable funding.
Here is the breakdown of the students representing the awarded schools in 2017-18:
Demographic (# students awarded, Percentage) Approximate Portion for Demographic
White students (58,112, 70.20%): $4,914,189.76
Black students (5,670, 6.85%): $479,478.52
Asian students (2,313, 2.79%): $195,596.79
Latino students (12,344, 14.91%): $1,043,859.42
American Indian (618, 0.75%): $52,260.62
Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (1,490, 1.80%): $126,000.53
# Two or More Races (2,230, 2.69%) $188,577.97
And here is the breakdown of all public school students in Arkansas (2017-18):
Demographic (# public school students in Arkansas, Percentage)
White students (292,716, 61.08%)
Black students (96,886, 20.22%)
Asian students (7,863, 1.64%)
Latino students (62,385, 13.02%)
American Indian (3,072, 0.64%)
Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (3,917, 0.82%)
Two or More Races (12,419, 2.59%)
This inequity bears out when we group not only by race, but also by poverty. So, let’s put schools in one of five categories, based on the percentage of students in poverty. This can go from Extremely Low Poverty (fewer than 20 percent students in poverty) to Extremely High Poverty (more than 80 percent students in poverty). Using these categories, we end up with the following breakdown for award disbursements:
Extremely Low Poverty (fewer than 20% students in poverty)
Makes up only 3.1% of the population but received 11.7% of the award ($818,919.78)
Low Poverty (21-40% students in poverty)
Makes up only 15.2% of the population but received 32.76% of the award ($2,293,084.90)
Moderate Poverty (41-60% students in poverty)
Makes up 31.1% of the population and received 30.03% of the award ($2,101,857.20)
High Poverty (61-80% students in poverty)
Makes up 36.1% of the population but only received 18.31% of the award ($1,281,859.20)
Extremely High Poverty (more than 80% students in poverty)
Makes up 14.6% of the population but received only 7.2% of the award ($504,242.54)
I was thinking about this lopsided breakdown while reading a recent editorial that appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which celebrated this annual disbursement. The editorial writer lauded Don Roberts Elementary in Little Rock for being the school for earning the most award money ($183,681). Notably, this is partly because the awards are given based on how many students a school has. Roberts is the largest elementary school in the LRSD (second largest in the state behind the eSTEM Elementary Charter School). Roberts also has the distinction of being in the top 5 percent for both academic achievement and growth.
The Democrat-Gazette editorial writer said we need to “bottle what’s going on at Roberts Elementary, Cabot, and Bismarck” because of their academic rankings.
Let’s keep in mind, Roberts Elementary, Cabot School District, and Bismarck School District have black student populations of 20.65 percent, 2.49 percent and 1.33 percent, respectively.
I know firsthand that Roberts Elementary is a great school, with fantastic teachers and a strong parent-teacher organization. I know because my son attended that school and had dedicated, certified teachers and access to innovative programs like EAST. However, I’m also cognizant of the smaller non-white population that Roberts Elementary has compared with other LRSD schools. So, my question is what should we bottle up? What are the characteristics of these majority white schools that we could bottle up and apply to schools with more minorities? The answer to that rhetorical question is not simple.
Minority students are much more likely to received harsher discipline than their non-white counterparts, and non-white students often face systemic underrepresentation in gifted programs, lack access to innovative programs, and are even less likely to have certified teachers in their classrooms. They also don’t receive the same resources, like updated textbooks or purposeful mobile technology.
This may be why black students are vastly overrepresented in D and F schools. Did you know 48.3 percent of all black students in Arkansas public schools were in D or F schools in 2017-18? Nearly one out of every two black students is in a D or F school. Addressing this staggering inequity should be the highest priority of the next legislative session.
Here’s a full breakdown of the number of public school students in each demographic that attended a D or F school in 2017-18:
7.1% of all white public school students (20,710)
48.3% of all black public school students (46,782)
6.4% of all Asian public school students (500)
11.5% of all Latino public school students (7,150)
7.3% of all American Indian public school students (224)
1.4% of all Hawaiian/Pacific Islander public school students (53)
11.3% of all public school students of two or more races (1,402)
It’s unfair to blame lack of achievement on the failure to just do what others are doing. Schools do not operate on a level playing field, and the game often seems to be rigged against teachers and students who are doing their best with what they’ve got.
If we’re going to bottle anything, let’s bottle culturally responsive teaching practices, inclusive schools zones, increased accountability for administrators, research-based reading instruction, modernized buildings, purposeful mobile technology, more school counselors, smaller class sizes, transparent enrollment and retention policies for all publicly-funded schools, and so on.
Scapegoating hardworking teachers does not help. Having the will to provide resources and a long-term commitment does.
Oh, I’d like to have my democratically elected school board back in Little Rock. That would be awesome.
Dr. Michael Mills is an associate professor in the UCA College of Education. He is speaking as a parent of an LRSD student, and his views do not necessarily reflect those of UCA.