Recently a former Arkansas English teacher turned college professor published a Facebook post detailing his analysis of the ESSA school rating system in Arkansas as it correlates to race and poverty. His discussion is tied to a recent controversy in the state-controlled Little Rock School District (LRSD), with Education Commissioner Johnny Key moving to put in place a waiver from Teacher Fair Dismissal Act as state law.
If the State Board of Education (SBOE) grants this waiver, principals in “failing schools” could summarily fire teachers without due process. The state has been in control of the district for almost four years, after removing the Little Rock School Board in 2015 due to the number of failing schools in the district. At that time, the number of failing schools was six (6) out of 48. The district has also been beset in recent years by a surge in charter schools, seen by many in the state as intent to dismantle public education in Little Rock. In 2018, 22 schools are now classified as failing.
Dr. Michael Mills’s post was picked up by the Arkansas Times the next day in a piece titled “What Johnny Key won’t tell you: The truth about teachers and D and F schools: Demographics are destiny.” His post was also picked up by Diane Ravitch and P.L. Thomas. The original post shares a letter Mills wrote to Johnny Key and Governor Asa Hutchinson in response to their effort to do away with the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act. Mills wrote his post as a parent of a child in the LRSD.
Mills’s analysis finds that there are no A-rated schools in the state with majority African American students and with a majority of low-income students. Of the B-rated schools in the state, only three have a majority African American students and majority low-income students, with two of those three schools residing in LRSD. In the C-rated schools in the state, only four (4) have majority low-income and majority African American populations. All other schools with majority minority student populations and majority low-income populations received a D or F rating.
Mills found that the average minority populations of A-rated schools is 19%. In contrast, the F-rated schools are 87% minority. His analysis finds that 48.3% of all African American students in Arkansas were in D or F schools in 2017-18. Similarly, A-rated schools are 42% low income with F-rates schools on average 87% low income. Mills’s breakdown of the data shows the following:
19.05% – Non-White population
77.13% – White population
42.35% – Low income population
23.72% – Non-White population
74.23% – White population
57.16% – Low income population
31.93% – Non-White population
66.35% – White population
68.84% – Low income population
64.52% – Non-White population
34.3% – White population
77.73% – Low income population
87.32% – Non-White population
12.09% – White population
87.10% – Low income population
Mills also noted in his analysis that recent teacher licensure waivers granted under Act 1240 allowed by the state correlates with the D and F school ratings. Act 1240 allows a public school to apply for a waiver allowing it to hire unlicensed teachers, circumventing state law in a way comensurate with charter school allowances for hiring teachers. Districts hiring teachers under Act 1240 are those schools with high poverty and primarily minority student populations.
Since Mills has posted his analysis, Commissioner Key has (for the time being) delayed his request to waive the Teacher Fair Dismissal. It is unclear how Key or Superintendent Poore would even replace the positions should they summarily dismiss teachers from failing schools. His ability to request these waivers was made possible in 2017 state legislation for districts in academic distress. This legislation focused on new accountability systems for schools, but the teacher fair dismissal language was not widely noted at the time except by Senator Joyce Elliot.
Currently Key is in negotiations with the LR Education Association, whom he contends is “spreading misinformation” and “sowing seeds of fear” as noted in the Arkansas Online and the Arkansas Times. He asserts that, despite the increase in the number of schools classified as failing (six in 2015 and 22 in 2018), there has been improvement in the district but that it has not been “consistent or sustainable.” He also argues that comparing schools from 2015 to 2018 is comparing “apples and oranges.”
Finally, it should be noted that the state awarded 175 high performing schools this fall with $7 million in bonus money. This money can be used for facility and staff bonuses, educational materials or equipment, or employment of staff to help improve or maintain student achievement, as noted in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette coverage of the awards on October 29, 2018.
The Arkansas School Recognition Program (based on Ark. Code Ann. § 6-15-2107) awards public schools that achieve high student performance and/or those with high student academic growth up to $100 per student in a public or public charter school. Secondary schools are also evaluated for their graduation rates. The amount is $100 per student for schools in the top 5% of achievement and growth (two separate categories) and around $50 for those in the top 6-10% of achievement and growth. Of the 175 schools awarded in 2018, twenty-eight (28) of them earned both a performance and a growth/graduation award.
Because the high performing schools are majority White and majority low poverty, this means the bonus money is going to schools facing the fewest struggles and needing the least support. The schools in most need of support received no bonus money. This system creates even more inequity within the state.
As Mills writes in a follow-up post (also published in local news) analyzing school performance awards, “The doling out of awards, the carrot if you will, to schools performing exceptionally well on the state measures of achievement may seem like a good thing in theory. Reward schools that are high achieving with cash incentives. Who wouldn’t love that? In practice, though, this law may further widen the already alarming gap between students of different races and levels of poverty.” His analysis goes on to explain that of the $7 million dollars awarded, 3.9 million went to schools for achievement performance and $3 million went to schools for growth/graduation rate performance. He asserts that measures of academic achievement favor schools already at the top and are predicated to favor schools already rich in resources. And this correlates when you analyze how the money was awarded with student race and poverty.
Mills’s analysis finds that African American students in the state received 6.9% of the award money even though they make up 20% of all public-school enrollment in Arkansas. In contrast, White students in the state accounted for approximately 70.2% of the award disbursements but make up only 61% of the student population.
Likewise, using poverty as a matrix instead of race, Mills has sorted schools based on the percentage of students in poverty ranging from Extremely Low Diversity (fewer than 20% non-White students or fewer than 20% students in poverty) to Extremely High Diversity (more than 80% non-White students or more than 80% students in poverty). While money was awarded across this continuum, it is clear the bulk of the money awarded went to schools with low poverty and extremely low diversity.
|Level of Diversity||Description||Percentage of public schools||Percentage of Award Disbursement||Award Amount|
|Extremely Low Diversity||fewer than 20% non-White students or fewer than 20% students in poverty||.75%||3.2%||$223,650.90|
|Low Diversity||21-40% non-White students or 21-40% students in poverty||11%||39.9%||$2,793,438.52|
|Moderate Diversity||41-60% non-White students or 41-60% students in poverty||27.2%||29.2%||$2,041,170.34|
|High Diversity||61-80% non-White students or 61-80% students in poverty||38.8%||20.5%||$1,437,461.32|
|Extremely High Diversity||more than 80% non-White students or more than 80% students in poverty||21.5%||7.2%||$504,242.54|
Finally, Mills further makes the point that the work that teachers do with students cannot be comprehensively assessed using the ACT Aspire test. It sells short the day-to-day interactions teachers have with students as they help students discover who they want to be and how they will contribute to society. Mills concludes this post with a call for “increased culturally responsive teaching practices, inclusive schools zones, research-based reading instruction, modernized buildings, purposeful mobile technology, smaller class sizes, and so on.”
True words, and ones we should weigh heavily as we consider these issues.