Ohio has a new report card for its public schools. No more head-scratching about such categories as Effective and Continuous Improvement, or Excellent and Excellent with Distinction. At the Statehouse, they have opted for the simplicity of traditional letter grades, A to F, though the early signs are that this approach, too, comes with much complexity.
There is the continuing challenge of how to recognize progress for a poorer-performing district now making accelerated improvement yet still at the bottom rungs. The report card is just one of the areas in public education where lawmakers have been pursuing adjustments, large and small, touting their efforts to improve schools, including a revamping of the way teachers are evaluated and expanding the presence of vouchers and charter schools.
Yet look carefully at the report cards, as the Ohio School Boards Association has, and you will find a clarifying explanation for struggling schools. They are burdened by poverty, in rural and urban areas.
The association has generated a telling set of charts driven by the data from the report cards. What about those districts with a Performance Index Score above 105, including Revere and Hudson, with the Rocky River schools achieving the highest mark at 111.5? They feature an average annual income of $88,810.
And the next group, scoring between 102.5 and 104.9, including Copley-Fairlawn and Tallmadge? The average income is $57,170.
So the line goes, the Performance Index Score tracking the decline in average income, until you reach those districts scoring 90 or below, including the Akron, Canton, Cleveland and Youngstown schools. The average income for this group is $37,383, some districts below $30,000.
Consider the factor of a college degree, an indicator of higher income. In those districts scoring above 105, 49.5 percent of the residents are college graduates. Again, the line follows, the fewer college graduates, the lower the score, those districts at the bottom with around one-quarter, or even below one-fifth, of residents with college degrees.
Look at the percentage of minorities in a district. The top performers have an average 9 percent minority population. The graph line turns sharply at those districts scoring 95 or below, the percentage of minorities ultimately climbing to 66.5 percent for districts at 90 and under.
The association also charted the presence of poverty. The districts at the top have a poverty rate of 13.9 percent, the share steadily rising as the Performance Index Score declines, the schools scoring the lowest at 82 percent living in poverty.
Plunge a bit deeper, and you will find troubling numbers about the achievement gap in the Akron schools. Take third-grade math. This past year, 79 percent of white students scored proficient, compared to 48 percent of black students. In sixth-grade math, the gap was 29.7 percentage points. In fifth-grade reading, it was 27, and 22 in seventh grade.
These numbers do not tell the whole story, some gaps across the 24 categories wider and others narrower. The Akron schools have been mobilizing to do better, the district still one of the strongest of the eight largest city systems in the state.
What the data highlight is the magnitude of the task. This isn’t merely about finding a better way to evaluate teachers. Are all those in the top-performing districts truly so much better, their students competitive with the best in the world?
On Wednesday, Zhenchao Qian, a sociologist at Ohio State University, released a report, “Divergent Paths of American Families.” It points to an accelerating gap between white, well-educated and economically secure families and poor and minority families with a high school degree or less. Those children in the latter are more likely to be stuck, upward mobility far out of reach.
Clearly, the black community must rally to the cause of engaging parents and children. Many already do. At the same time, let’s be honest about the frequently debilitating effects of poverty, starting with the stress, the disorder, the lack of good meals, sufficient sleep and health care, let alone a steady place to live and exposure to learning at home.
Blame or scold negligent parents? OK. Know, too, that many won’t ever respond positively. Their children should not have to pay such a price.
At the Statehouse, the governor and lawmakers recently applauded themselves for adding nearly $1 billion for public schools, admitting, in their own way, that money matters. Unfortunately, the state today spends in real dollars roughly what it spent in 2000 — a lost decade.
The temptation may be to think this is someone else’s problem. Yet see families diverge, as the Qian study indicates, and all of us will face a heavy cost. Spend $27,000 a year housing a prisoner, or add to a per-pupil sum of roughly half that amount?
One leading purpose behind school funding is spending smartly to help narrow the poverty gap, directing ample resources to such things as early education, food assistance, summer programs, school counselors and reading teachers. This pursuit of equity is a huge job, frustrating and necessary. What the report card numbers reveal is that Ohio, like many other states, barely has begun to try.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.