In the Canton City School District's Class of 2019, 96% of the students who were educated in our classrooms who did not transfer schools from Kindergarten through 12th grade graduated on time, well prepared for their futures.
That story isn’t heard, though, because year after year, the State of Ohio labels us as a failing district because of our overall results on standardized tests, results which are amassed from students whether they have been in our district for 2 months or 13 years. Those results then become part of the Local Report Card. Last year, the state issued our district an F; this year they gave us a very low D.
School districts all across Ohio receive their Local Report Card grades without any real understanding or even an explanation from the state of how the grades are calculated. So we are left to wonder: How can it be that we are “failing” when 96% of our students who spend their entire 13 years of schooling in our classrooms successfully graduate? And how is it that we and other districts that report similar statistics are in danger of state takeover?
The short answer is that our legislators seem to believe that performance on standardized tests is a leadership and union issue. Legislators, with Governor Kasich, crafted HB 70 to address a problem that to this day, they remain unable to define or to accurately measure. Those behind the HB 70 state takeover legislation, passed hastily and with only one hearing, clearly made no effort to understand the actual issues causing students to under perform on these high stakes tests.
Instead of looking at the nuance of need or the effects of poverty, the legislature chose to assert that the results were based on the district leadership’s lack of planning, or lack of passion, or lack of commitment, which caused children to fail.
Through the lens of our legislators - many of whom have little if any interaction with people living in poverty - a change in leadership is the cure for our public schools. And what’s more, they suggest, – if our schools could just be run like a business, we could turn it around. House Bill 70 was created to solve a complex problem with a simple solution: eliminate local control and anoint an all-powerful CEO, one who often has no experience in education.
In their eagerness to measure school district efficacy, the Ohio Department of Education and the state legislature have created a system in which failure is defined purely by the score a district receives on the Local Report Card, even though the Ohio General Assembly freely admits it does not accurately measure what they want it to measure.
The Thing About Poverty
Neither a secret nor a mystery, the districts that receive Ds and Fs on the Local Report Card are districts that serve people who live in poverty. Independent analysis of the recent report cards found that there was a direct correlation between grades and median income: districts with an A have a median household income of $95,423 while districts with an F have a median household income of $32,658. That is not empirical evidence of a failure in leadership.
I can assure you that these results are not because poor people can’t learn. Quite the opposite - with a 96% graduation rate, it’s clear the students in the CCSD are advancing at impressive rates, despite the many challenges they face.
As a superintendent who has served people who live in poverty for the majority of my career, I have found that school districts struggle with mitigating the negative effects of transiency and chronic absenteeism - factors that are often out of our control.
Although all districts struggle with these issues, in high poverty districts these challenges occur at higher rates and the results are significantly more profound because those same students also carry the added burdens that come with their circumstances. Things like hunger. Exposure to violence and addiction. Persistent housing and transportation challenges.
These are the real areas in which we are in need of leadership, research, policy and support from our legislators and the Ohio Department of Education.
The Problem with Transiency
Student mobility is a major challenge for children and their families, as well as for the staff in the schools they attend. When a child moves and changes schools, she risks trauma; the more frequent moves, the more likely trauma occurs. Consistent data reveal that both events have a negative impact on learning. However, it goes quite a bit deeper than that because there are factors over which the state can provide support; however, to date, they have not.
Let me explain.
When a student transfers school districts, the student’s file takes weeks to be sent from her previous district to her new district. Until that time, we know nothing about the student’s academic history, potential disabilities, transcripts, supports we’re legally obligated to provide, etc. During that time, school districts do the best they can but unfortunately we lose precious weeks that could have been immediately spent providing that student with the quality of education she deserves.
Legislators could be helping school districts in this area. Why does it take weeks to get a student record from one school district to another? Why is this system so antiquated? Why is it I can go to any doctor and she can immediately open up my medical records, review my detailed medical history and address my specific needs appropriately?
Why do educators not have access to a similar system to share student information between school districts when a student transfers? This would allow us to personalize the education of the children we serve in a much more timely manner.
The Challenge of Chronic Absenteeism
In the CCSD, the chronic absenteeism rate of our student population is over 23%, which means nearly a quarter of our students missed the equivalent of 18 or more days of school last year - nearly a month. In grades K-2, chronic absenteeism is at 17.9%.
Those absences are not the fault of a 6-year old child. Instead, it’s an indicator that adults in the home didn’t or couldn’t get that child to school. Changing the school’s leadership and governance structure will not change the reality that when children are not in school, they fall behind. And when they fall behind, the results are always negative.
As a solution, the state directs school districts to provide a “welcoming environment” to resolve attendance issues. As if a welcoming environment fixes everything for a family without transportation, or childcare, or food. Regardless, please understand, if a child in grades K-2 is missing more than 10% of a school year, the fault is neither the child’s nor the school’s. And we can’t simply assume what the issues may be for the adults responsible for getting the child to school on time, every day.
This too is an area in which we need leadership from and partnerships with the Ohio Department of Education and our state legislators: to encourage our parents to make their child’s education a higher priority and to get their children to school each day.
Too many members of the Senate Education Committee have repeatedly stated that there needs to be a “stick” for “failing” school districts and that progress can only come if that stick is raised above our heads as a threat in the form of state takeover.
The Substitute Bill to HB 154 that was being pushed by many members of the Senate Education Committee these past few weeks included the expectation of struggling districts to conduct a root cause analysis. I applauded that portion of the bill. In my opinion, every organization seeking to improve should engage in that process.
That said, my confusion lies in the fact that our legislators have neglected to follow that practice themselves. Instead, they insist on solving a problem they can neither define nor measure. They crafted their solution before seeking to understand what the real problem is. And they use a measurement tool they agree does not measure what they want it to measure. I truly don’t get it.
To quote Lewis Carroll, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” Our children deserve better.
I have dedicated my career to educating Ohio’s children, especially the many who live in poverty. And I urge Ohio’s Legislature to dig deeper into the data the Ohio Department of Education already has. Take the next step and run reports cross-referencing student transiency and student achievement. Run reports analyzing chronic absenteeism and student achievement. And then take a hard look at the correlation of those factors to the overall scores on the Local Report Card. See how many of these so-called “failing” districts actually have good grades when they account for students the district had little role in educating. Then realize that we need to focus on helping those children - and not everyone needs the same intervention nor has the same tools. No standard way exists to improve standardized test results for transient students.
Do the difficult work of actually analyzing data in a way that will help the children of Ohio instead of using results as a way to threaten with a “stick” that is designed to be swung at only the poorest districts. I plead with you to take a leadership role in the fight for ensuring a quality education for all of Ohio’s children. We need it now more than ever.