Vision: 2020

Narrowing the Gap – Open Letter from Chris Harmer

The following Open Letter was recently submitted to the Dear JCPS website. 
Topic: Vision 2020
Addressed to: JCPS and members of our community
School(s) Affected: All

Open letter to JCPS and members of our community,

The Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Kentucky Alliance against Racist and Political Repression are asking individual parents, teachers and students, and community groups to join with us and directly contact their JCPS school board members and Superintendent Donna Hargens before the draft five-year plan–Vision 2020– comes out next week. We urge JCPS to make achievement gap reduction a specific part of JCPS’ mission statement, and to develop and include specific, measurable achievement/learning gap reduction measures and goals in the Vision 2020 plan as well.

Why is this necessary? State testing data show achievement gaps are alive and well.  Isn’t it a key goal of U.S.  public education to reduce unearned advantages and give struggling students the additional help they need to break out of the cycle of poverty or other barriers?

Consider the policy that Seattle Public Schools passed a couple of years ago.  It is an appropriate model for a mission statement  for a diverse public system like ours.  See the first bullet that says the job of public schools is to raise achievement/performance of all students while at the same time narrowing the gap between the highest and the lowest performers.  That should be our mission as a district, given that roughly three quarters of our students fall in at least one of the “gap” groups. We can’t fix all the problems of the society that burdens these students through no fault of their own, but if JCPS doesn’t put more resources against mitigating their impacts and the gap, JCPS must own some of the responsibility for perpetuating that inequity.  Education is the best single tool to break the cycle of poverty–if it helps students overcome the gaps.

We need a measurable gap reduction target in the new five-year plan so that JCPS management success is aligned with actual reduction of the gaps. The coalition’s achievement gap work earlier this year shows bar graphs from the KDE’s 2014 JCPS “Report Card” data on achievement. Every student subgroup actually saw higher proficiency levels over the time period, This is a metric of limited value, unfortunately, because  it says nothing about what improvement there was–or wasn’t– for lower performing students who were not close to proficiency. However, JCPS uses it, so we took each proficiency number  and subtracted it from  the proficiency number for the white student group to get an actual “achievement gap” . That is in the second bar graph in that document.  It shows gaps increasing over the first couple of years of Superintendent Hargens’ watch.

The fact that we had to construct a measure ourselves tells you where this is in JCPS’  priorities.

The next data is a screen shot of trends from the KDE “Report card” web page. It shows the four trends that have state targets for JCPS.  JCPS did well on the first three, but on the fourth –” nonduplicated gap group proficiency” — JCPS was at 34%, only 18% of the needed increase up to their 2015 state goal of 51.2%. Superintendent Hargens confirmed in January 2015 that they believed they would reach this goal in the testing in April 2015.

Those numbers will be released publicly to the KDE website the first week in October.  Originally, the JCPS board was to vote on a new five-year plan Sept 28.  We –Fellowship of Reconciliation and KY Alliance against Racist and Political Repression–have asked that it be delayed until after the new state data comes out, so the public can see if the current programs are meeting targets and closing gaps.  The jump all the way to 51.2% seems highly unlikely.  We urge delaying release/public comment till after the data release.  That would result in a better, evidence-based five year plan.

The text of what we submitted during the first public comment period earlier this summer summarizes these points.

Additionally, here’s a link to a JCPS Powerpoint that shows how the assignment target ranges have spread over the years, making it easier to hit school diversity goals. Open it, and go to slide 19. The assignment plan ranges show up in the “challenges” section, on the right.

It appears we are mostly meeting our diversity goals  by broadening the acceptable ranges. Acceptable range for low-income students in our schools today are 25-90% of the student body.  This, in spite of the fact that research inside and outside of Jefferson County shows that low-income students do better when they are not assigned to high-poverty schools.  The original goals for minority diversity were 15-50%.  Today they are also 25-90%.

We are also  intrigued by the parallels with the recent furor over the lack on appointment of an African American to the U of L board, given the history of trying to be proportional to the size of the size of the African American student body there.  If the same standard would be applied to our urban k-12 districts, JCPS would have 3-4 people of color on the board.  If that were the case we might not find ourselves in this current position regarding large and growing achievement gaps.

We also heard today that the Prichard Commission is going to focus a task force this fall on reducing achievement gap state wide.  Maybe now is the time for JCPS to step up, too.

Public schools are for the public good, and that means for greater equity in our society. JCPS needs to commit in its plan/mission to not just move all groups ahead, but to strike the resource balance among its programs–old and new–so that gaps narrow. And it needs metrics to see if it delivers for the parents and students. We urge community organizations to stand up and join with us in moving JCPS toward equity.

Chris Harmer
for Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR
and KY Alliance against Racist and Political Repression

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