A panel of experts gathered recently to dissect a study by JSU’s Mississippi Urban Research Center (MURC) that reveals the state’s new educational grading system gauges poverty rather than its intended purpose of improving educational outcomes.
Meeting inside the 101 Downtown Campus, thought-leaders claimed there’s a connection to the study and the “F-rated” Jackson Public Schools District, which is facing a potential state takeover.
In general, data on Mississippi’s Accountability Grading System show the state’s accountability system fails miserably when it comes to highlighting weaknesses, closing achievement gaps, increasing equity and guaranteeing quality education.
Dr. Melvin Davis, executive director of MURC, said the state’s grading system is flawed because it overlooks the inverse link between poor district performance and those on certain meal plans.
“Multiple regression analysis suggests that 60 percent of accountability scores can be explained by poverty,” specifically among students receiving free or reduced lunches, he said. As the percentage of those receiving such benefits went up, scores decreased.
A deficiency of resources impacts schools and students. On the plus side, MURC’s study shows an uptick in performance when school districts spend more on instruction and less on general administration and operations.
These better-performing institutions also have a higher percentage of qualified teachers and stellar math and language scores. In contrast, struggling schools with a significant number of students receiving meal support continue to lag behind their counterparts. Socioeconomics play a significant part.
With JPS having been maligned as a failing institution, guest panelists warned against an inequitable evaluation system that’s punishing a number of school districts with low ratings.
Dr. Earl Watkins is chief executive officer for Leading2Leap LLC, a school improvement and leadership development company. He said reforming public education is complex. “It’s more than adding a better teacher, a better principal and extra dollars.”
He called on looking beyond the A-B-C-D-F grading system when calculating an accountability score. He urged a more equitable approach and said problems also are due to a lack of first-rate Pre-K schools. “We must mitigate the issue of undermining quality. … Wherever we have a high-performing district we have an engaged community.”
State Sen. Sollie Norwood called for facilitating programs that would transform youth into “functional independent citizens.” He said when it comes to the A-B-C-D-F grading system “we can’t compare all districts based on that one set of standard because the playing field is not level.”
He said an “A” in Jackson or Madison is not the same as in “A” in the Delta. “And, it’s not going to get any better unless the community is engaged. We need to come up with an evaluation and standard for the Department of Education.” Norwood said decision-makers can’t simply change a test and avoid looking at its impact down the line.
Rosaline McCoy is critical of the current accountability model. She’s president of the Jackson Council PTA-PTSA, and said, “There’s a sense of institutional racism with the way it’s structured. It’s designed for certain schools and districts to fail.”
She said change toward academic progress requires help from everyone, including pastors and deacons. However, she said, “Parents have the most influence on our children. A lot of us don’t know how to be parents … and we depend way too much on someone else to do it. … Sometime parents just need a little coaching.”
The Rev. Kenneth Thrasher, president of the school board for Hazlehurst City Schools, advocates technological advancement to secure a better future. His district, for example, is stifled due to a lack of widespread internet accessibility.
He’s also unimpressed with the state’s new accountability model, which he said would unfairly label his district as failing. “The people who are making the rules, who are doing these formulas should factor in the entire populace,” he said.
Also, Thrasher said schools under the new formula won’t attain its prescribed level of success overnight, whether the state or governor controls them. When evaluating, he said, “We must look at every component of society.”