Principal's view: Take closer look before judging schools

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 14, 2007

By Terry Whitesell

For the Salisbury Post

Recently I have read several articles in the Post related to our “failing” local schools. As principal of China Grove Elementary School, I woud like to offer an insider’s view of life in schools under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. My intent is not to deflect criticism of the school system or individual schools but to provide a broader view of some of the shortfalls of NCLB. My aim is to encourage people to take a comprehensive look at our schools before labeling us as failures.

The comparison of school systems and schools on the merits of NCLB is not a valid indicator of what takes place in schools on a daily basis. Under NCLB, schools must make Adequate Yearly Progress in all student subgroups to maintain a favorable standing under the law. Subgroups are formed when there are 40 or more students in a particular ethnic group (white, black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian/Pacific Islander, or multi-racial) or within a certain classification (students with disabilities, limited English proficient students or economically disadvantaged students). The problem with this approach is that all schools are not created equal. Schools are unique to the communities that they serve, which makes the student populations different in each school.

This approach results in significant differences in the number of subgroups at individual schools and creates a bias against larger schools with higher student enrollment and more diversity. Discounting Henderson Independent School, the number of student subgroups at schools in our system ranges from 13 (at seven schools, five of which made AYP) to 29 (at two schools, neither of which made AYP). This bias is also present at the state level, where only three of the 115 school systems in North Carolina made AYP. These systems, Tyrrell, Washington and Watauga counties, have 22, 34 and 38 subgroups, or significantly fewer than the 64 subgroups that we have in Rowan County. It is also important to note that these school systems have three, five and nine schools, respectively.

Taking a closer look at the student subgroups illustrates a second problem with NCLB. All tested students count toward a school’s ability to make AYP in two subgroups per tested area — the subgroup of that child’s ethnicity and that of the whole school. The problem lies in the fact that some students may count in as many as three, four or five subgroups. This only happens for students included in the students with disabilities, limited English proficient and economically disadvantaged subgroups. Clear evidence exists that these students can and will learn. However, it is important to remember these students have limitations, some severe, that inhibit their progress. Students performing below grade level in these subgroups are targeted for remediation in every school, increasing the pressure on these children to perform well. Generally, these are children who struggle to achieve under pressure, so while NCLB elevates instruction for these students it may also hamper student learning in the process.

Stress for students under NCLB isn’t limited to students with exceptionalities. The “one shot, pass or fail” nature of accountability testing puts duress on even the most gifted of students. Students in grades three and up are all too aware that their success for a given school year will be defined by how well they do on the End-of-Grade tests. Regardless of how well children perform throughout the school year, there are factors that may diminish their ability to perform at a high level on test day. It may be as simple as bubbling their answers on the wrong lines or as extreme as enduring a negative home experience. Teachers do their best to motivate children over the course of the year and instill confidence in them that they will do their best on test day. Still, who among us has not gone into a situation where our knowledge and know-how will be tested without feeling a little apprehensive?

Another look at data

Reviewing AYP data from our school district and the state over the past few years does not paint as grim a picture as some Post articles would lead us to believe. As recently as 2003-04, 92.3 percent of our student subgroups (60 of 65) made AYP. In 2004-05, we slipped to 69.8 percent (44 of 63) but that number was still higher than 14 school systems, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Guilford and Durham. Last year, we improved to 75 percent of our subgroups making AYP (48 of 64) in a year where a new, more difficult math EOG was introduced. Again, 14 school systems had lower scores than Rowan-Salisbury, yet we were still assigned a state assistance team. It is being portrayed that our school system was assigned a state assistance team because we are in the bottom 11 systems for progress toward system-wide AYP. In reality, assistance teams were assigned based on the number of Title I schools in year three of school improvement in each district. For our system, 12.5 percent of our schools are in year three of improvement. This equates to two schools. Looking statewide at the number of Title I schools, there are only a few systems that have more than the 18 Title I schools that we have in Rowan-Salisbury. Most have fewer than 10, and some only have one or two. It stands to reason that these systems would have fewer schools in improvement.

A number of other ideas and misconceptions have been suggested in recent days, many of which are aimed at assigning blame for our AYP shortcomings. Rather than pointing fingers, our school system has worked feverishly to find solutions. Communication between the central office staff and school administrators is at its highest level in years, and materials and resources are more readily available. School improvement teams at each individual school were provided with templates, instructions and meaningful data in order to draft school improvement plans. This was the most help provided in these areas in years.

Funding continues to be an issue for our system although for the first time in several years, the county commissioners approved an increase in local school funding. Data available from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction clearly illustrates that our school system is one of the least funded in the state, ranking 97th out of 115 school systems. Our per pupil expenditure of $7,125.75 continues to be lower than the state average of $7,596.15. It’s interesting to note that Tyrrell ($13,168.16), Washington ($10,354.13) and Watauga ($8,327.63) counties rank second, sixth and 41st overall in per pupil expenditure. This evidence would appear to suggest that there is a strong correlation between school funding and student success, regardless of what some of our county commissioners would like to believe.

Individuals can help

In closing, let me say that it’s an honor and a privilege to work in the Rowan-Salisbury School System. The system is filled with dedicated, caring and hardworking teachers and teacher assistants who are always willing to go the extra mile for the students that they teach. Our students are equally hardworking and deserving of recognition for the efforts and successes that they achieve. A majority of our parents are supportive of their children and our schools, and our communities provide abundant resources that benefit our children. Judging the efforts of all of these individuals and groups on one set of criteria is unreasonable and unjust.

I invite everyone who would like to gain a better understanding of what life is like in our schools to visit an area school and spend time working with our children. Class sizes are more manageable now than they were several years ago but we still have classes with 25, 26, 27 or more students. Volunteers are needed on a daily basis to help provide the individual attention and contact that many of our students need. Your involvement will help you realize that AYP scores are not a true reflection of the learning and successes that are occurring in our buildings on a daily basis. We are excited about the opportunities that Dr. Judy Grissom’s leadership has presented and ask for your patience to allow new programs and initiatives to take hold.

If you haven’t already done so, please join us in being part of the solution that will help improve our schools. Our children need you.

Terry Whitesell is principal of China Grove Elementary.