Mississippi's state accountability model is designed to measure the instructional effectiveness of schools and districts in the state. It includes students' scores on language and math tests as well as attendance and graduation rates. Schools and districts are given a letter grade from A to F according to their performance. Schools ranked A or B are considered high performing and receive adulation. Schools and districts that receive D or F grades are labeled academic watch or failing and may lose accreditation or be taken over by the Mississippi Department of Education.
Schools that receive high marks presumably are moving students forward, while schools that receive low ratings are defined as inadequate or failing and threatened with a state takeover. On closer inspection, however, the connection between the educational progress of students and a district's letter grade is tenuous.
The tests used to determine a school's or district's letter grade cover language arts and mathematics in elementary and middle school. The tests cover algebra, biology, history, and English in high school. High school graduation rates and academic growth from year to year complete the determination of a school's or district's letter grade.
Though the accountability model is often used to assess the performance of superintendents, principals, and teachers in a school or district, it actually correlates most with the income status of the students taking the tests. Put another way, the current Mississippi Accountability Model primarily measures the difference in test performance between more affluent students and less affluent students. It does not accurately assess the quality of instruction taking place in a district.
The 2015 - 2016 Mississippi Accountability Study determined that the correlation coefficient of letter grades with percent of economically disadvantaged students is 0.86. A value higher than 0.80 is considered a strong correlation. In other words the current Mississippi School Accountability Model reflects the percent of economically disadvantaged students in a district more than it does anything else.
Poverty has been shown in numerous studies to result in smaller vocabularies and lower language skills in young children. A 1995 study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley showed that, by age three, many children of low income families had heard 30 million fewer words than children of more affluent families. A smaller study in 2014 by Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek supported this finding.
Severe poverty can, in addition, cause neuroendocrine damage in children as a result of stress frequently associated with childhood poverty. This neuroendocrine injury frequently produces lifelong health and achievement challenges.
Poverty also presents day-to-day barriers such as a lack of backup transportation when a child misses a bus, difficulty finding someone in the household to help with a homework assignment, uncertainty about where one will sleep when a caregiver is unable to pay the rent, and an inability to afford basic school supplies such as paper and pencils.
The question that arises is: What can be done to lessen the impact of childhood poverty? The data suggests that we talk less about failing schools and more about implementing programs that prevent or reduce the damage frequently associated with childhood poverty.
A few possible solutions include:
• The State of Florida has had encouraging gains from a requirement that its 100 lowest performing elementary schools add an extra hour to their school day and use that time for reading instruction.
• Some charter schools (KIPP, Nashville Prep, and most of Boston's "no excuses" charter schools) add 400 to 500 hours to the school year with positive results.
• Attracting high performing teachers, academic coaches, and administrators to under-served areas as the Barksdale Institute has done helps; intensive tutoring of students identified as high risk shows promise.
• The Harlem's Children Zone in New York sees benefit in high quality pre-K and after school programs, academies for expectant mothers, and in school based health care facilities.
• The early childhood education program in 31 low-income New Jersey districts receives high marks.
All of these endeavors cost money, and in most high-poverty school districts their low tax base hobbles their ability to raise money.
If our state wants to remain competitive in worldwide commerce, it will have to make a commitment to educate all of our children, not just those who are easier to teach. Mandatory kindergarten should be a top priority. Another priority should be an aggressive expansion of pre-K, especially in high poverty districts.
Also, if our state is committed to reducing poverty and improving educational attainment, it should consider higher funding for childcare for all children under the age of three.
The state should continue to encourage its universities and colleges to graduate high-quality educators. It should lend support to efforts by high poverty school districts to attract and retain high-performing teachers and principals. It should provide adequate resources not only for basic courses in its schools but also for enrichment programs.
These reforms will not eliminate the achievement difference, but without their implementation a high poverty state such as Mississippi will be destined to remain at or near the bottom of most education and economic rankings. We should not let our demographics determine our future.
George Schimmel is a Northsider. A cardiologist, he is a former member of the Jackson school board.