Use competition to improve student performance



Recently, Gainesville for All director James F. Lawrence praised teachers at Metcalfe and Rawlings elementary schools for “making significant academic improvements.” Sadly, these schools are still underperforming because having great teachers is not enough. There are plenty of “talented, caring teachers” in Alachua County, but many are stymied by unprepared and undisciplined students, apathetic parents, and a school board focused on equity metrics.

Student performance at Metcalfe and Rawlings improved in the 2018-19 school year, based on the percentage of students performing at or above grade level (i.e., scoring 3 or better on the Florida Standards Assessments). In English Language Arts, Metcalfe improved from 23.8% to 28.5% and Rawlings from 24.1% to 30.1%. In mathematics, Metcalfe improved from 31.4% to 49.6% and Rawlings from 40.9% to 42.8%. So despite the improvements, over half the students at each school are below grade level in English and math.

For comparison, the county’s percentages last year were 55.9% in English Language Arts and 58.4% in mathematics. (All data was pulled from the Florida Department of Education’s PK-12 Education Information Portal, using state, district, and school-level data for grades 3-5 only.)

At the county level, overall student performance (K-12) in both subject areas went down last year, after the school board implemented its equity plan. That could be a coincidence, but last year I warned about the danger of focusing on equity instead of achievement. In fact, prior to the 2018-19 school year, Metcalfe was the perfect example of the problem with the school board’s equity focus: Metcalfe had a decreasing black-white performance gap in math, but the gap decreased because white performance dropped while black performance remained unchanged (see graph). (For 2018-19, Metcalfe did not have enough white students to have results posted on the Education Information Portal.)

Since equity plans tend to focus mainly on the gap in performance, it is not uncommon to see top-performing students adversely affected. For example, San Francisco schools eliminated Algebra in eighth grade, in the name of equity. Also, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he plans to reduce inequality by eliminating all gifted programs. The mayor’s only fear is that most of the parents of gifted children will simply put them in private schools. The Labour Party in Britain has a solution for that: ban all private schools.

Private schools are a great alternative to low-performing public schools because competition forces them to produce results. If they didn’t, parents would take their kids (and money) elsewhere. Unfortunately, economically disadvantaged families do not have that option. In states like Florida, with large, county-wide school districts, their options are further limited because moving to another district (county) is often out of the question.

That’s where charter schools offer a great opportunity to improve student performance. They are required to meet the same state education standards but operate somewhat independent of the school board, allowing them to adapt more easily to student needs. In Alachua County, two charter schools, Boulware Springs and Genesis Preparatory, surpass both state and county levels in FSA performance: 66.2% and 72.7%, respectively, in English Language Arts; 67.6% and 66.7%, respectively, in mathematics. They have exceeded state and county performance for three years in a row (see graphs).

Genesis is especially worthy of praise, since 100% of its students are economically disadvantaged. The school’s director, Charmaine Henry, says the biggest contributors to student performance are student behavior and parental involvement. She has found that student success depends on matching ability to instruction because students in classes that are too easy or too hard tend to act out. She has no qualms about holding students back in first or second grade if they are not ready to advance. Her approach may not be for everyone, but it works for the students who attend Genesis. Charter schools stay open when parents continue to re-enroll their children; Genesis has been open for 20 years and had a 14% increase in enrollment last year.

Advocates for one-size-fits-all, centralized control of public education despise charter schools and blame them for siphoning resources away from “regular” public schools. In reality, charter schools give low-income families choices that are taken for granted by families who can afford private schools. Charter schools offer an alternative so kids aren’t stuck attending low-performing schools. Rather than complaining about or prohibiting the loss of students (resources) away from “regular” public schools, we should welcome more charter schools. They offer a faster way to improve student performance, and the competition should help improve the quality of education in Alachua County.

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  • Charter school pick people to attend and kick people out for misbehaving, poor grades etc. They most certainly do not have the same standards as public schools. And it takes parental involvement to get the kids enrolled in these schools. As you say in your piece that’s one of the keys to student success.

    Instead of fixing public schools for everyone what your are suggesting is a further hollowing out of traditional public education for mostly religious and often for profit institutions.

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