The biggest problem with a forced consolidation policy based solely on head count is that hammer syndrome sets in. Before you know it, every small school starts to look like a nail.
That kind of tunnel vision is especially troublesome with education policy, because it gives a totally false sense of “progress.” Change for its own sake winds up being confused with improvement, even to the point that actions detrimental to actual student learning are vigorously pursued in the name of advancement.
There’s no inherent educational accomplishment in meeting a meaningless so-called standard of only operating public schools with 350 students or more. But education officials seem satisfied that “something is happening” when small schools are closed.
What gets lost in the consolidation frenzy fog is a definitive itemization of what exactly that “something” is.
The primary assumption — prior to the state constitutional requirement that public schools be efficient and suitable — ought to be that Arkansas children are receiving an education.
So the idea of state legislators focusing so much on how many kids are enrolled in a school, rather than how many are demonstrably learning anything, has always fallen short of the “intelligence and virtue” stipulation for good government.
The first question surrounding any government action toward any school should be, will it improve the student population performance?
Presumably nobody associated with Arkansas public education policy wants to see a well performing school closed, especially one with good test scores and enthusiastic parental and community support.
Yet that’s happened over and over again as a result of the state’s minimum student requirement, and it’s about to happen again in the small town of Weiner.
By educational performance measures, Weiner is a good school. It betters the state average in graduation rate (by 20 points), dropout rate and ACT scores.
Its per student spending is right in line with the state average, it offers all the required courses, and it even exceeds the 350-student threshold — this year. But because enrollment fell below that number for two consecutive years, Weiner’s on the chopping block.
What’s happening with Weiner is a whole lot worse than fixing what isn’t broke. It’s a chronic case of having blinders on about where the real shortcomings in education exist.
Because for every small school teetering on the minimum enrollment threshold, there’s a megadistrict posting horrendous benchmark test scores and leaving many, many more children without the education that the state’s supposed to be providing.
Back when the consolidation issue was being debated, the Rural School and Community Trust prepared a comprehensive report analyzing and comparing performance in large and small districts. At the time, one proposal was to set the minimum enrollment at 700 students.
Of the nearly 450,000 public school students in Arkansas, only 13 percent attend school in districts smaller than 700 students. Reducing the enrollment number to 350 shrinks that percentage even further.
The study revealed that large districts (above 700 students) are more likely to be academically low performing than small districts. If the state’s interested in head counts, there are more than 10 times as many students (over 120,000) attending “very low performing” large districts, in which fewer than 50 percent achieve basic or better test scores, than small districts (fewer than 12,000).
Weiner High School, for example, boasts 160 students in grades 7-12, with an 11th Grade Literacy benchmark score of 67 percent, well above the state’s 51 percent average. How that school winds up in the education establishment’s crosshairs ahead of, say, Pine Bluff is a complete mystery.
Pine Bluff High counts 1,140 students in grades 10-12, and its 11th Grade Literacy score is only 29 percent. Or consider J.A. Fair High School in Little Rock, enrollment 1,169 in grades 9-12, whose 11th Grade Literacy score is all of 11 percent. The score for the entire Little Rock District, representing 26,000 kids, is an anemic 38 percent.
Neither Pine Bluff nor J.A. Fair made Adequate Yearly Progress under state minimum guidelines, either. And both the Pine Bluff and Little Rock districts have dropout rates twice the national average (Weiner’s rate is zero).
Finally, in the dollars and sense category, Pine Bluff and Little Rock spend $8,827 and $9,818 per student respectively, which makes Westside’s $7,858 price tag seem like a bargain.
But why bother with pesky statistics like test scores or graduation rates? Isn’t that what the money supposedly saved from closing small schools like Weiner is for — so we can pour more into those already higher-costing but underperforming megadistricts?
Forced consolidation is nothing but a feel-good substitute for real education reform. Tens of thousands of kids aren’t learning in large school districts, and our plan for improvement is to bulldoze small schools like Weiner that work.
Perhaps one benefit of our new annual legislative sessions will be that such ineptitude won’t have to wait two whole years for a chance to be remedied.