School district performance reports matter. They can affect accreditation status, real estate dynamics -- even whether students get to go on field trips.
“We are in an era of testing,” Sabrina Winfrey, the principal of Ingels Elementary School, told a group of parents at her school in the Hickman Mills School District recently. “I would love for your kids to go on more field trips, but right now they need to be in this building learning to read.”
The urgency felt by Winfrey and other principals intensified last week when the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released its annual performance reports. Hickman Mills’ scores of 67.9 points was the lowest of any area school district, though it was enough to retain provisional accreditation.
I’ve been observing classrooms at Ingels Elementary this school year, noting the challenges of educating children in an area of Kansas City marked by poverty and instability. Children move frequently in and out of its classrooms, for instance.
And so I wasn’t surprised when Dennis Carpenter, the district’s superintendent, responded to the state report and its implications with a fiery presentation to his school board last week. In a room packed with some of the school district’s best teachers, he defended their work and blasted Missouri’s accountability system, saying it was biased against high-poverty districts like Hickman Mills and the Kansas City Public Schools.
In those districts, Carpenter said, “you have a concentration of the poorest kids in the area.”
The state has altered either its testing system or its academic standards every year since he’s been in Missouri, said Carpenter, who arrived in 2013. The flux disproportionately affects classrooms of low-income students, where teachers deal with multiple needs and have less time to focus on test preparation, he argued.
“For our kids to hit the bar, it’s got to stop moving,” Carpenter said.
He faulted the state for a one-size-fits-all accreditation system. In reality, he pointed out, Hickman Mills looks nothing like most of Missouri school districts. For the state as a whole, 51 percent of students qualify for free- or-reduced lunches and 27 percent are students of color. All of Hickman Mills’ students are poor enough to qualify for free- or-reduced meals; 90 percent are students of color.
Carpenter said he came to the district believing that hard work alone was the answer to raising the achievement of low-income students to a par with more affluent students. Now, he said, he’s more in tune with research that contends 60 percent of a student’s performance on standardized testing is determined by factors outside of the school building; 20 percent is determined by what goes on in school; and 20 percent is unexplained.
According to the researchers -- educational psychologist David C. Berliner and professor Gene V. Glass -- outside factors include the health of both children and their parents; the rate of violence, substance abuse and mental illness in neighborhoods; and family stress. Students moving in and out of classrooms during the school year -- a rampant occurrence in Hickman Mills -- was also cited as a downward pull.
“Does this mean we don’t have work to do? Absolutely not,” Carpenter said. But, he added, “Working hard in and of itself is probably not going to be the answer.”
Critics will accuse Carpenter of making excuses for an underperforming school district. But a fairly new thread of education research argues that expecting schools to lift student achievement on their own allows policy makers and citizens to ignore larger social and economic factors.
As someone who has spent many hours over the past two months observing what goes on in one of Hickman Mills’ elementary schools, I see concerted efforts to raise student performance.
Elementary teacher Angelica Saddler told her students one morning she was under orders from principal Sabrina Winfrey to get started earlier on reading lessons.
“We need to get started at 8 o’clock, not 10 minutes after,” Saddler said. “Not because I say so but because Dr. Winfrey says so. I have to listen to instructions, too. Am I complaining? No, I am not.”
At a thinly attended parents’ meeting a couple of weeks ago, Winfrey explained the urgency. “I told my teachers, we are in a state of emergency,” the principal said. “We’ve got kids in this building who can’t read.”
Back at the school board meeting, board members told Carpenter they appreciated his attempt to explain the back story to the district’s test scores. In a region where schools are segregated by income and race, it is unrealistic to expect districts to perform at the same level.
But the missing element in the superintendent’s presentation was a clear path forward. There is little reason to think the demographics of the Hickman Mills district will change soon, or that middle class families will return to its classrooms.
That ought to be a challenge embraced by city and state policy makers and the community at large, Carpenter argued. But for now, it’s his problem.
Barbara Shelly is a free-lance contributor for KCUR. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.