In Defense of Dr. Jonathan Willner (and Math)
About two weeks ago, the Oklahoma Policy Institute published a guest blog by Oklahoma City University professor Dr. Jonathan Willner titled, Public school grades – what’s really being graded? Using multivariate regression analysis, Willner demonstrated that variables such as single-parent families, free and reduced lunch rates, student mobility, education attainment levels of adults, and median household income are adequate to predict 57 percent of all school report card grades.
His research echoes the point of my first post in April about Reward Schools, my calculations when school report cards were finally released in October, and the correlations I demonstrated between poverty and district report cards in December.
Facts, of course, are never good enough for the Oklahoman, which this week ran a rebuttal to Dr. Willner’s research. The editorial starts with the tired complaint that critics of the A-F grading system have wasted too much energy “explaining away bad grades rather than improving school performance.”
At this point, it’s probably good to remind my readers that the husband of Superintendent Barresi’s short-tenured chief-of-staff writes editorials for the paper. Meanwhile, Dr. Willner is chair of the Department of Economics and Finance at OCU.
It’s also good to remember that improving school performance is a misplaced focus. Those of us derisively called the Education Establishment by the corporate education reform movement are actually in the business of improving student performance. We’ve been using the 2012 test results to inform our work with students since preliminary data came to us in May. We spent the summer revising curriculum, making hiring decisions, and building master schedules to prioritize the needs of our students.
We didn’t wait until October when the report cards were released. And when they were released, we didn’t change our course. When we howled about the report cards, it was the process more than the product. As I’ve written many times, district leaders with good grades were among the most reasonable voices in the room when superintendents gathered to express their concerns.
As usual, the Oklahoman misses these points along with Dr. Willner’s:
If public schools don’t exist to educate children, regardless of family background, then many citizens may wonder why we’re pouring billions of taxpayer dollars into the public school system. We know your students are doomed to fail, but here’s a few million anyway, just for kicks?
Nobody who supports public education and despises the arbitrary nature of this accountability system is giving up on poor children. We just don’t accept the premise that the A schools are necessarily doing a better job than the B schools. We understand that when it comes to teaching students in poverty:
- More intensive basic instruction is often necessary;
- The fruits of teachers’ labor often leave for another school in the middle of the year;
- What works for one group of students may not work for another; and
- Past performance doesn’t always predict future results.
An irony in the dismissal of Dr. Willner’s well-reasoned blog is that these are the same people who think you can use statistics to evaluate teachers, principals, and schools. Still, they would have us disregard a more sophisticated use of statistics demonstrating the real impact of socio-economic factors – especially poverty – on student performance. The Oklahoman continues with the nefarious refrain that merely mentioning poverty means we want to doom students to failure.
Nothing could be less true.
Instead, we mention poverty because we know that it’s harder to teach a population of students that come from difficult backgrounds. And we know that teachers get paid roughly the same whether they’re in a suburban enclave or an urban or rural school with universal free lunch. We also know that recruiting and retaining teachers to high poverty schools is tough. And we know that those dismissing poverty as a salient issue in education policy also show little regard for the poor in all other policy discussions.
I applaud Dr. Willner for his time, passion, and intellect. His points (unfortunately) need to be repeated too often in this state.