You are about to learn something that may change the way you think about Birmingham City schools and other schools in Jefferson County, Alabama. Birmingham City schools continue to get a bad rap for not educating the children of Birmingham. Many believe that Birmingham’s residents are learning more in surrounding school systems than in their own neighborhoods. But what does the data say?
The reported lack of achievement seems to lead many to believe that charter schools and other broad reform efforts are the answer to increasing achievement, particularly in urban areas like Birmingham. But what does the data say?
In reading some research about charter schools, I was struck by this: “a key problem, researchers find, is that parents do not make the sort of informed decisions that would drive bad public and charter schools out of business. The evidence suggests that ‘many parents are pulling their children out of higher-performing public schools in order to send them to academically inferior schools.’ Too often, the authors note, ‘there are waiting lists for bad schools’” (Kahlenberg, R.D. (May 2, 2011). Popular, Bipartisan, and Mediocre: Review of The Charter School Experiment: Expectations, Evidence, and Implications. C.A. Lubienski and P.C. Weitzel (Eds.). Retrieved from this link).
I guess this might be called “jumping on the bandwagon”. So what does the data say? How do we, as school community members, make better decisions about where our children should be attending school?
Many years ago, I became aware of the continuing exodus of students out of Birmingham City schools. Further, I witnessed an increase in students from Birmingham City schools moving into Hoover City schools, where my children attended school at the time. I suppose families of these children had the idea that Hoover City schools would do a better job of educating their children. But do they?
Has anybody actually looked at how Birmingham City students, particularly African-American children and children in poverty perform on tests compared with the schools and systems surrounding them?
Well, yes, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) has done that. PARCA has showed us what the data reveals. PARCA developed a tool for ordinary folks like me to draw meaningful conclusions based on test data in a particular year. PARCA did an amazing job of simplifying the results to show how a school’s test results compare with the rest of their own system and with the state of Alabama. [Note: Yes, test scores are only one measure of success in achievement. However, for now, test scores are the only objective measures we have to measure elementary school achievement.]
PARCA depends on the rest of us to view the results and engage in the conversation that begs to be had.
PARCA’s basis for comparison is the percent of students in that grade, in that subject (math or reading), who scored at Level IV on the ARMT. Level IV is the highest level a student can achieve on the ARMT. It means the student’s performance on the test “exceeds academic content standards”. Further, PARCA breaks down that comparison into subgroups (e.g., children in poverty) who scored at Level IV with their average system percentage and the average state percentage (complete with color codes ranging from dark red to dark green).
I’ve looked at these scores from time to time since discovering them a few years ago. And I continue to be somewhat surprised by the message the data reveals. The message that I see (in shades of red and green) is that no one school system that has any semblance of economic or racial diversity seems to have the magic key to student achievement. And that some schools are affecting more positive results than others.
The pictures and files that accompany this post paint the following picture: many elementary schools in Birmingham City are outperforming elementary schools in places like Hoover, and Jefferson County on test results for their African-American students and children in poverty. And not just by a little….by a lot.
Here is PARCA’s color-coding key, indicating how many percentage points above or below the system and state average the school’s result is. For more information on how to intepret the results, please check out PARCA’s web site.
For example: here is the PARCA-produced graphic showing Hoover City’s Gwin Elementary school ARMT results for white and black children, and children who are and are not in poverty. (Click the picture to view it larger.) What do you see? A lot of red blocks, right? Those red blocks mean that students who attended Gwin last school year performed at a level of anywhere from 1 to 9.9 –light red—to more than 10 –dark red– points below “benchmark” (either the system or state percentage or both).
Now look at Gaston K-8 school in Birmingham City schools. Do you notice how many more green (dark and light) boxes there are? Remember, we’re talking Birmingham City here. The school system that everybody loves to bash. Compared to Hoover City, the school system that everybody loves to hold up as a model for all school systems.
Here are a few more surrounding schools to compare those three to: Green Valley Elementary in Hoover West Elementary in Vestavia and Crumly Chapel in Jefferson County (more green than Hoover and Vestavia in grades 3 through 5)
Granted, I’ve shown you those that make a big statement, but the fact is that the statement IS being made. I’ve published an album full of comparisons of many of the Birmingham metro area’s schools (not school systems), pulled from PARCA’s web site, on the Alabama School Connection’s facebook page. [You can download the PDFs here.]
I encourage you to look through these carefully before you throw stones at any particular school system or any particular school. Make certain you know the facts before you decide that one school is “better” than the other. And remember, too, that test scores are only one measure of success, albeit a very important one.
What these results show is sometimes different than what we hear on our local news, particularly with respect to achievement on state-mandated tests. Birmingham City is doing something right, particularly at the elementary level, in many of its schools. There is always work to be done, more children to educate, higher levels to achieve. But we should stop and celebrate the success that Birmingham is having. We need to congratulate the teachers and administrators and parents and families and children who are working hard and showing positive results.
Earlier, I mentioned that some believe that because Birmingham and other school systems fail on whatever measures they’re using, reform efforts are necessary. While we should always look for ways to improve the delivery of education, the question that begs to be asked is: Why do some schools achieve at a higher level than others? Even within the same system? It can’t be totally a function of demographics, nor race, nor socioeconomic status, as we have example after example of high-performing schools with classrooms full of African-American children and children in poverty (check out Pleasant Grove Elementary in Jefferson County along with the other great schools in Birmingham City).
So what is it? Effort? Community support? Family engagement? Great leadership? Excellent teachers? Motivated students? Of course, it’s all of those things and more.
Do you know how the children in your local elementary school are performing on state-mandated tests? The pass/fail report utilized under No Child Left Behind and Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) paints only a partial picture. PARCA performed a wonderful public service by providing these comparisons for our school community. Take advantage of their generosity and their expertise. Use the tools that PARCA has provided to begin conversations in your child’s school or your local business and organization. Take the step to learn how you can best support your local schools. Schools belong to the community. Our schools are our future. Engage.