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As a recently retired teacher, I reacted with dismay when I saw the state’s list of “low performing schools” published across the media earlier this month. A total of 781 schools statewide, and 58 in San Diego County, were found on this list, which is mandated by the federal government’s Every Student Succeeds Act. My dismay was based on the idea that most citizens would look at this list and make assumptions without the context necessary to understand why such schools might end up labeled as “low-performing.”
Much of the media coverage has failed to highlight the all-important relationship between two demographic factors — poverty and English-learners (i.e., second-language learners not yet proficient in basic English skills) and performance in the classroom. As many classroom veterans know, poverty can disrupt learning by impacting language and literacy development, student health and well-being, access to material resources and opportunities for stable housing. English-learners remain at a reading and writing disadvantage across the curriculum until attaining proficiency in their English skills. At most, some articles hint of such a relationship, but don’t follow through with supporting data to make the case. This relationship is the elephant in the room that many non-educators tend to overlook when evaluating schools.
Yes, such data may be deemed as too boring or lengthy for a public used to 280-max character tweets. Absent such data, however, the average citizen is prone to believe so-called low performance must be the function of crumbling school facilities, the denial of classroom resources, poor teaching or a lack of administrative leadership. Under this interpretation, students are incorrectly perceived as being cheated out of a good education by attending such schools, when in fact the schools’ inclusion on the list more accurately reflects the power of certain demographics to unduly shape their schools’ circumstances.
Having recently retired from teaching in the Sweetwater Union High School District, I took a quick look at critical California Department of Education demographic data belonging to one of the district’s middle schools on the list. What I found was not surprising. During the 2017-2018 school year, 31.6 percent of Mar Vista Academy’s students were classified as English-learners, while 74 percent were deemed eligible for the federal government’s free or reduced lunch program. Those are significant numbers. Compare this data, for example, with Oak Valley Middle School in the Poway Unified School District; this school had a mere 4 percent of its students classified as English-learners, while only 8.5 percent were free and reduced lunch program-eligible. And Oak Valley Middle (or any other Poway Unified middle school) was not on the state’s low-performing schools list.
As a Linda Vista resident, I also examined the data for Linda Vista Elementary School. Again, I was not surprised to see this school, which also made the list, had 68.6 percent of its students classified as English-learners, and 83 percent free or reduced lunch program-eligible. An analysis of other schools on the list would in all likelihood find similar statistics, which is why this important data for each respective school (just a couple additional columns of data) should routinely accompany any publication of the school list. Doing so would provide a public service by making the statistical relationship clear to all.
I further recommend California stop describing such schools as “low-performing.” The term is pejorative, and thus lends itself to simple, knee-jerk explanations. Instead, I suggest employing the term “complexifier schools.” This rarely used word, “complexifier,” recently found its way into the national spotlight, courtesy of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. He used the word to describe his ownership of the Washington Post because the newspaper’s coverage sometimes generated hostility from powerful people. One online dictionary defines the word as “something that makes things extremely complicated.” In turn, the word “complicated” means to “make things difficult to understand, solve, or explain,” and in the context of schools could translate into “family income and language deficiencies make things complicated.”
Schools with high percentages of English-learners and those eligible for the free or reduced lunch program face tremendous challenges. Evaluating these schools without acknowledging how these factors influence learning shortchanges the public’s understanding. This can result in discouraging citizens from delving deeper into relevant data before supporting trendy solutions proposed by politicians, bureaucrats, unions or school boards. Complexifier doesn’t mean impossible to solve — these schools can improve — but the complications laying en route can easily lead decision-makers astray. Learning and teaching are complicated processes, and the existence of “complexifier schools” is a fact that should be woven into attempts to evaluate California schools. Lists are simple and clear, but journalists, state bureaucrats and educators have a responsibility to cultivate a more sophisticated understanding from the public by routinely including relevant demographic data in an easy-to-understand format, while providing informed commentary on the data when possible.
Steve Rodriguez is a retired high school teacher. He lives in San Diego.