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The Letter From: What is "Capacity"? (II): In Public Education

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The historic mission of public schools is a quality education for all students regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, social background, disability, or native language. It has been honored in the breach too often, but at least in my lifetime, the trend has been towards greater inclusion and equity.

If "what gets measured gets done," school systems, even in poor and/or urban areas, have the capacity to succeed when measured by the standard developed for the state accountability legislation passed prior to NCLB - average student performance on standardized tests. Most states set a bar low enough for the vast majority of schools to pass yet high enough to produce enough students with the skills required for college and the economy. Many students fell short, but the states decided they could afford the concomitant costs of social welfare, prison, and lost tax revenue.

It worked then.

It won't work now.

The phrase “No Child Left Behind” is relatively new and highly politicized. Yet, it is entirely consistent with the historic mission of public schools. Most Americans agree that the public schools should help all of our children become responsible, fulfilled individuals who contribute to the economy and civic life. I suspect that most hope every student will graduate with important abilities that are impossible to measure – for example, patriotism, sportsmanship, collegiality, a love of the arts. Nevertheless, we know that these higher-order skills will not come to fruition without basic proficiency in literacy and math.

I would prefer to believe that the motivation for these expectations is rooted in civic morals. The fact of the matter is that the business of America is business, and business has finally realized that racial, ethnic and religious prejudices are literally expensive luxuries it cannot afford. Every American student’s intellectual potential must be realized to survive the economic competition we face. NCLB reflects this perspective by assessing the capacity of our schools against the academic performance of each and every student. It holds schools accountable for an ever higher percentage of students demonstrating basic abilities in literacy and math on a path to universal proficiency by 2012.

By this criteria, most of public education lacks capacity.

• Because state definitions of proficiency generally constitute a very low bar, many of the most privileged children attending the best public schools are graduating with mediocre educations.

• Even with this low bar, parents in any group “other than” the white middle class must consider even the “best” public schools unreliable providers of k-12 education.

• The larger the “other” groups, the more likely it is that a school will fail most children.

How is it that schools can meet state accountability standards, but – using the same test data - fail the standards states developed to comply with the new federal law? And what does this say about the capacity schools require?

The difference in performance is simple to explain and important to understand. The states' own systems are based on schoolwide averages. Add up all the test scores, divide by the number of students. If the result exceeds a passing score set by the state, the school succeeds. Under the rules states use to meet NCLB, a set number of students - for both the school as a whole and the particular group to which students belongs - must each have scores the state has established to demonstrate proficiency. If fewer students meet that number for the school as a whole or their group, the school fails.

The first approach obscures a school’s capacity to reach poor performing students. It masks practices that favor some kinds of students over others – practices that may be deliberate or unintentional. The second makes having the capacity to reach poor performers the top priority. It offers policymakers and the public warning of school practices that perpetuate the historic neglect of certain students.

NCLB has demonstrated beyond doubt that while most public schools have the capacity to educate a body of students to an average level of performance set at proficiency they lack the capacity to give each and every student the education we expect and they require, and do a particularly unsatisfactory job with historically neglected groups.

The good news is that the system does what it was organized to do to meet outmoded standards of school success. The bad news is that public education lacks the capacity to do what we need it to do today. Most of the school improvement industry sees the cup as half full.

Next: Defining the capacity schools need to leave no child behind.

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