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On anniversary of Leandro, time to intensify assault on low-performing schools

Twenty years ago this month the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously that all North Carolina children have a fundamental right to the “opportunity to receive a sound basic education.” And yet, on this anniversary of the still-ongoing Leandro case, it remains clear that North Carolina will not meet that legal promise of equity in education without an all-out assault on low-performing schools.

The General Assembly has written into law a definition of low-performing schools: “those that receive a school performance grade of D or F” and do not score above the “expected growth’’ standard. In education parlance, “growth’’ does not mean a larger enrollment, but rather it is a statistical measurement of students’ scores compared to past performance.

Here are some factors we know about the grading system: About 23 percent of the state’s schools received a D or F grade last year. Of them, more than nine out of 10 had enrollments with a half or more of students from low-income families. The grades, therefore, may well tell you more about the composition of a student body than a school’s education performance.

In its recent session, the legislature considered, but did not make, a change in the calculation of grades – 80 percent based on test scores, 20 percent on “growth.’’ Thus, some B or C schools may not be educating middle-income and upper-income students as well as they should, but they do not get tagged as low-performing; and some D and F schools may well lift up at-risk young people but their grades do not reflect their full performance.

Despite the grading system flaws, the state’s legal definition gives an indication of the scope of the challenge in addressing low-performing schools – nearly 500 schools, or about one in five, fall into the category. By its own definition, the state is falling well short of the high court’s constitutional mandate.

Demography, too, adds a dimension: slightly more than half of the state’s public school students come from lower-middle and low-income households; and among today’s school-age children, about half are whites, about a fourth are blacks, and a fourth Latinos and Asians. From decades of research, we know that school desegregation is an effective method of addressing low-performing schools.

Arraying school enrollments with a substantial mix of low-income students, whatever race or ethnicity, and middle- and upper-income students works to elevate the educational attainment of the poorer students without diminishing performance among more affluent students.  But, of course, a resegregation dynamic has taken hold, with most school districts lacking the capacity or the will to persevere in socio-economic integration.

Over the past two decades of both state and federal policies, North Carolina has had an array of approaches to low-performing schools, as the Public School Forum has documented here. Last year, the General Assembly authorized the Innovative School District to take over five low-performing schools that could be operated by for-profit charter-school entities. Earlier this year, the State Board of Education adopted a specific policy, under a 2010 law, which provides four options for dealing with  recurring low-performing schools. Notably, the board has begun authorizing a few persistently low-performing traditional public schools to implement the “restart’’ model that gives them flexibility afforded charter schools.

The experience of KIPP schools, the Harlem Children’s Zone and post-Katrina schools in New Orleans offers lessons.  But to heed those lessons, North Carolina education policy makers, state and local, will have to face decisions on permitting all-day schools, year-round calendars, the hiring of dynamic principals, and incentives to teachers to work in rural districts.

A policy brief issued last month by the nonpartisan Education Commission of the States illuminates the multifaceted challenge posed by educational inequities, posing three dozen “key questions” as indicators for policy makers. And it asserts, “Educational equity means that all students receive equal access to the same educational pathways. While this is a laudable goal, simply leveling the playing field is not enough. States should strive for equity in educational opportunities, providing all students with the unique supports they need to succeed.” 

Though he does not address low-performing schools specifically, Eric Hanushek of the Stanford’s Hoover Institution published a paper in EducationNext that makes the case that boosting student achievement has significant economic payoff for states. Along with two European scholars, Hanushek, who sees a weak link between increased spending and student achievement, nevertheless has arrayed statistical analyses to suggest “up to $76 trillion in gains’’ in gross domestic product over the course of the lifetime of young people born this year.

“Realizing these gains will require a sustained commitment on the part of a state’s political leaders,” says the EducationNext paper. “But if we are to achieve prolonged economic growth in our nation, we have no choice but to strengthen the skills of our people.” 

Take your choice of rationales: the Education Commission’s ideal of equity, the EducationNext finding of economic growth, or the state Supreme Court’s constitutional mandate issued 20 years ago. Together or separately, they make a case for North Carolina to summon the will for an ambitious assault on low-performance in its schools.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.