Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

John Samuel Tieman: The Score

This week the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published the 2016 scores from the Missouri state test of schools. You would think, since I am a retired school teacher, that I would read these with some interest. Last year I just skipped them, turned to the sports page. I knew what they would say. But this year the Cardinals suck, so I read the school scores instead.

This year’s scores are striking – but not for what has changed. They’re striking for what is unchanging
I don’t value quantitative data in the same way that some educators do. To many in the profession, data is Holy Writ, sacred and revealed. Nonetheless, data is not valueless.

Consider the following scores from the latest 2016 state test in St. Louis. These aggregate numbers indicate the percentage of students who are working at a proficient or advanced level, in essence at or above grade level.

English 36.8
Social Studies 40.9
Science 25.5
Mathematics 25.9

Now let us go back a year to the scores from 2015.
English 32.8
Social Studies 40.3
Science 26.8
Mathematics 21.8

Now let us jump back to 2010.
English 30.7
Social Studies 25.2
Science 19.4
Mathematics 26.5

Individual schools show some variation, some improving, some not. But I don’t want to overwhelm or bore the reader with numbers. For this reason, I have spared the reader the data from the years between 2011 and 2014, which is readily available online. The pattern is unchanging. The same unchanging data pattern is also true of charter schools, and neighboring districts with populations similar to the inner city.

These statistics, and their various iterations, show a remarkable similarity going right back to the 1990s, beginning with the Standards And Accountability Movement. I am not saying that there is no change. I am saying that this data is, indeed, robust in that is shows a pattern. Nothing much has changed.

So what has changed since the 1990s? Teachers have changed in this time. School boards have changed. Administrators have changed. Books have changed. Syllabi have changed. Teaching methods have changed. Various experiments have been introduced, such as Teach for America and charter schools. The changes and experiments are like sling shots to Sherman tanks. And still the numbers persist.

The numbers are even resistant to teaching to the test. I know of at least one school that spent forty-four class days preparing for the state test. It is common for schools to basically drop everything for the month before the test, and do nothing except prepare for that test. A vice-principal once told an art teacher that his class was “insignificant”, because it was not tested. This same vice-principal even told students not to worry about the art class, to concentrate solely on classes that tested. You would think, after all the effort, that the students would at least get better at taking the test.

Let’s put this starkly. For all the time, effort, treasure expended, roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of all students in St. Louis are below grade level in any tested subject.

Therefore, let us consider, in a word, poverty. Today, in St. Louis City, over 40 percent of the children live in poverty.

Schools do not change society. They reflect society. The persistence of these scores is proof. The scores say, in effect, here’s what your children look like. But there is no reform that a school can do for a society when that society is unwilling to reform itself. Until the United States is willing to address systemic poverty, the state scores will reflect a system of poverty.

There are few greater disorganizing factors than poverty. It disrupts individuals, families, neighborhoods, cities, states. Poverty brings with it such obvious problems as malnutrition, as well as a wide range of, perhaps, not so obvious problems including feelings of helplessness, anxiety and depression. All of which comes into the classroom.

I cannot end this essay without mentioning that data, from individual schools, shows some remarkable gains. Data also shows that some of the finest educators work in some of the poorest schools. These are teachers and administrators whose work is frankly valiant.

There is nothing unusual about St. Louis. I could have used data from Kansas City. Or Chicago. Or Detroit. The point is this. The data doesn’t change because the poverty doesn’t change. Since the beginning of the standardized testing movement, almost everything about schooling has changed. Teachers. Administrators. Testing. School boards. Books. Syllabi. Methods. Almost everything has changed. Except the poverty. We live in a society that cares little for its poor, for the children of the poor. It cares even less for the folks who care for the children of the poor.

Copyright 2016 John Samuel Tieman.

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