John Thompson: The A-F Report Card is just the start of the conversation about school quality

Dr. John Thompson taught for 19 years in the inner city.  He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post, School Matters, Living in Dialogue, and elsewhere.  His book, Getting Schooled: Battles Within and Without the Urban Classroom, is under consideration at a major press.

d9fde7cdf32e181059ae2cd2d74411681The Oklahoma City school system is 88 percent low-income and it earned a “D” in the new A-F School Report card.  The state also earned a “D” for improving outcomes for low-performing students.  Since it is far more difficult, systemically, to improve performance of poor students, did Oklahoma City do better or worse than the rest of Oklahoma in helping students who struggle?

Jonathan Willner, an Oklahoma City University economist, asks whether schools are being graded on their effectiveness or on the zip codes that they serve. He ran a multivariate analysis of family and economic data of 1,676 schools.  He predicted the grades that schools would receive based on their demographics.  He predicted with 70% accuracy which schools would earn a “B.”

Willner projected that more than 85 percent of the 84 OKCPS schools he studied would earn a “C.”  The other 12 were projected to earn a “B.”

In the actual report card, however, nearly 23 percent of OKCPS schools earned “As” or “Bs.”  Another 36 percent earned “Cs,” while nearly 42 percent earned “Ds” or “Fs.”  Nearly half of the schools that were projected to earn “Cs” (34), received “Ds” or lower on their report cards, while eight schools that were projected to earn a “C” received an “A” or “B.”  So, for every school that received a grade that was higher than anticipated, four scored lower than expected.  It thus seems that the OKCPS was dealt a tough hand, but played it poorly.

But, the story is complicated.  There were two types of schools that produced higher than expected outcomes.  First, a very few neighborhood schools received higher than anticipated grades and almost all were geographically close to Northwest Classen, the district’s only “no majority” high school.  Its middle school feeder (Taft) and some nearby elementary schools also have more racial and socio-economic diversity and earned higher grades. As the Brookings Institute has shown, those schools have less extreme poverty than other neighborhood schools.

On the other hand, every other neighborhood secondary school received a “C” (two) or a “D” (10.)  More than 80 percent of the city’s neighborhood secondary schools earned grades that were lower than anticipated.  Conversely, nearly 50 percent of Oklahoma City’s selective schools earned grades higher than projected, and none were graded lower than their projections.  Unionized magnet and enterprise schools were twice as likely to earn better than anticipated grades than nonunionized charters.

Selective schools do not worry about chronic absenteeism or disciplinary disruptions.  Schools that serve all comers, however, struggle to maintain respectful learning cultures. That creates a pattern of self-fulfilling prophecies.  As the top students are admitted to selective schools, they leave a greater critical mass of challenging students in neighborhood schools.  The “creaming” of more motivated students results in more negative school climates and that prompts even more of their easier-to-educate students to choose selective or suburban schools.

This suggests a reason why the OKCPS, as a whole, earned a “D,” even though Willner’s projections indicated that a “C” should have been the most likely grade.  Oklahoma County has ten other school districts.  Parents have access to a full array of educational choices that are within commuting distances, so a relatively few families attend struggling OKCPS schools. Consequently, a disproportionate number of students come to class with the burdens of generational poverty, trauma, and/or severe disability.

I am not surprised that the report card did not produce easy answers.  For nearly twenty years, I talked with my high school students about their shuttling between schools.  Some benefited by their transfers to magnets and/or lower poverty schools in the city and suburbs. Others found that schools with higher grades were less able to help with the problems that they brought to class.  After years of such discussions, I cannot say whether educators in “D” schools did a better or worse job of tackling the toughest challenges.  Similarly, data in the report card is far too primitive to answer the key questions.  By using that data to inform conversations involving students, parents, and educators,  however, we might get some answers to questions that have long baffled policy-makers.


The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

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