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Ken Chilton

 

I used to play high school football. I was considered a "smart" player. That meant I knew the playbook back and forth, and I could hand the ball off with the best of them. Unfortunately, my knowledge did not translate into lots of points. I lacked the other critical skills needed to excel in football — speed, a strong arm and great instincts. I was proficient in knowledge but limited in applied skills. I believe a similar problem affects our public schools and the public's perception of them.

The Times Free Press recently highlighted the struggles of 5 iZone schools in Chattanooga. In a nutshell, the schools are not achieving performance gains that administrators expect. As blame is placed on teachers, principals, the superintendent and the school board, two larger, more important questions are neglected. One, are our schools a reflection of our society? And two, are TCAP results the best measure of progress?

According to the 2015 data, the focus on iZone schools is misplaced. Overall, the percentage of HCDE schools that experienced gains in TCAP math and reading proficiency was unimpressive. While the majority of K-8 schools in HCDE showed slight gains in TCAP math scores in 2015, about two-thirds of K-8 schools showed declines in TCAP reading scores in 2015. What does this mean? Is the sky falling? Are we failing our students and the future workforce of the region?

The problem with us researchers is that our answers are often hedged by the qualifier "it depends." In a perfect world, we want 100 percent of students to achieve proficiency in math and reading. In the real world, we know that's impossible. Sadly, we really cannot say with confidence if things are better or worse. Based on what state educrats and politicians have deemed important criteria for success, HCDE schools are not demonstrating big gains.

Despite the proclamations of systemic failure, we don't have enough longitudinal data to really know what is or is not working. The standards and the tests used to measure success change frequently. Consequently, it's difficult to compare apples to apples. So, when scores change in one year we tend to mistake one data point for a trend by touting success or placing blame. Yet, most of us don't know what proficiency means.

As a public, we also confuse "proficiency" with "performance." Good tests can be used to predict future performance. For example, students who score 30 or higher on the ACT typically succeed in college at rates higher than students who score 18 or lower. We cannot say with much accuracy whether a student who is proficient on a TCAP exam in the eighth grade will be college ready when he or she graduates. The tests are not designed to do that.

Statistically, low-performing schools should regress towards the mean. If you are out of shape and start a 5K training program, it's easier to jump from a 50-minute 5K to a 30-minute 5k than from a 25-minute 5K to a 19-minute 5K. The benefits of a new training regimen are pronounced when you are way below average. As you get closer to average, the amount of effort and training required to get additional gains increases.

TCAP is the playbook we want our kids to master. That's great. Just remember, administrators at major universities don't consider TCAP scores when doling out scholarships.

Unfortunately, we're not seeing big jumps in the percentage of students who are deemed proficient in some iZone schools. Critics lament that it must be the teachers or the administrators fault. This reaction is a tremendous problem, and education leaders are partly to blame.

Educators are under immense pressure to show improvement. Resources, careers and jobs are on the line. But, is it realistic to expect big jumps in proficiency from one academic year to the next, to the next and to the next? No, it's incredibly unrealistic. And, it sets up a series of public expectations that are crushed year after year.

These unmet expectations contribute to the false perception that public schools are broken and thus are undeserving of additional tax revenues. Consequently, administrators say the fixes are working. We are seeing progress. The school atmosphere is improving and will positively impact scores soon — setting up another cycle of false expectations.

Keep in mind, the schools and teachers have no control over the student for 17 hours per day. And the environments in which many of our public school children spend their remaining 132 hours per week are often harsh. The poverty rate for white households in Hamilton County grew from 8 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2013. For African American households, the poverty rate grew from 27 percent to 32 percent during the same time frame. Rates of childhood poverty in Hamilton County have increased from 17 percent in 2000 to 25 percent in 2013.

Many of these impoverished children disproportionately attend urban and iZone schools. None of the reforms implemented by Tennessee legislators or HCDE have stemmed growing rates of poverty. Our schools are a reflection of this trend. Superintendent Rick Smith is right when he says accountability "rests with all the community."

Researchers have found that parental involvement is a potentially better predictor of student outcomes than teacher quality. Socioeconomic status is highly associated with both parental involvement and student outcomes.

I fully support higher student expectations, but the annual TCAP gnashing of the teeth suggests that our expectations are out of whack with reality. None of the education reforms implemented in Tennessee address the underlying root causes that threaten the viability of our public schools — inequality.

Dr. Ken Chilton, who headed the Ochs Center for two years, is teaching at Tennessee State University.

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