Columns » Max Brantley

Schools -- by the numbers



The University of Arkansas’s newish Department of Education “Reform” has been nothing if not predictable for an outfit aided by Walton millions.

It says money doesn’t buy better education. It likes merit pay. It likes charter schools. It doesn’t like teacher unions. It particularly loves standardized tests, because, hey, numbers don’t lie.

The latest from the “reformers” is a massive number-crunch. A headline in the admiring Democrat-Gazette described it as “a new yardstick for education.” It’s really a scrubbed-up version of the same old standardized-test absolutism. The Hoover Institute clones up at UA claim to have devised an index to rate school districts and even individual schools on test scores, after allegedly adjusting for race, income and other factors that skew results.

Their bottom line: Arkansas overall is not as bad as some think — a little above average even. Plus — surprise! — spending doesn’t equal better scores. This latter point is underscored by the example of the well-financed Little Rock School District, four words always good to reinforce prejudices.

So what? Nobody has ever argued that money alone improves student performance, though its absence can be debilitating. Nor does the exercise tell us where Little Rock would be WITHOUT the extra money. Would it, for example, still lure a state-leading contingent of National Merit winners without its rich high school curriculum?

More breaking research news: Race and poverty are the biggest determinants of student performance. Whodda thunk it? But, the authors claim, they have adjusted for those factors and conclude that Little Rock cannot be excused on those grounds. With 100 the supposed national average, the Little Rock district scores 96.6, ranking 198th of 255 districts. The authors take pains to point out that Magnolia scores 101.4, though “Magnolia and Little Rock do not differ very much in their demographic profiles.” Really? Magnolia has a majority white student population. Little Rock’s enrollment is almost 70 percent black. While Little Rock’s population is among the richest and best educated in Arkansas (factors in the index), the school district enrollment base is skewed in a different direction by the large number of economically advantaged students who go to private schools.

Here’s another problem with the authors’ dismissal of the entire Little Rock School District. Of 47 schools, 22, or nearly half, score higher than the national average. The district as a whole is dragged down by the abysmal scores of some others, many of them schools with the largest minority enrollments. So, what, really, does this survey provide new except a nominally objective standard by which the “reformers” can argue to make Little Rock a laboratory for their pet projects — merit pay, union busting, etc.

But here’s something the “reformers” didn’t highlight. Of Little Rock’s 11 magnet schools, 10 beat the national average, some by huge margins. Magnet schools get extra money. Maybe money IS worth something after all.

Here’s another thing the “reformers” didn’t point out. You’ve heard of Meadowcliff Elementary, where Democrat-Gazette Publisher Walter Hussman, a critic of public schools though he’s never had a child in one, secretly funded a merit pay plan last year. His editorial writers incessantly term the experiment a big success. Meadowcliff scored 78.2 in the new index, good for a ranking of 1,084 out of 1,116 Arkansas schools. We await the explanation of how the Little Rock School District is failing, but not the merit pay pioneers at Meadowcliff. Numbers don’t lie, right?

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