Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Are you cringing over the low test scores in the Omaha Public Schools, published in The World-Herald today?

See how, for many of the neediest kids in Omaha, the test scores are going DOWN, even after the multimillion dollar bond issues and increased spending of the past decade or so directed at meeting their needs?

It's long past time to put to rest the bogus assumption that more spending on education produces better academic results. Wrong-o!

The new test scores sure show the Charles Dickens "It was the best of schools, it was the worst of schools" character of OPS. But therein lies a real opportunity for improving things for pupils, OPS and taxpayers. Consider:

The newspaper showed a chart with 64 elementary schools listed by their California Achievement Test scores last spring in reading, language and math in Grades 2, 5 and 8. Some of the top schools are doing very well, averaging above the 80th and 90th percentiles.

Look at Dundee Elementary, with 43% of its pupils from families whose incomes are low enough to qualify for free or subsidized lunch. Yet that school still scored in the 90th percentile on the CAT compared to pupils in other schools across the country. That is admirable. OPS should be applauded.

Of the top 32 schools on the chart, only four are doing worse than a statistical analysis of the poverty factor in those schools would suggest. In other words, only in only four of the top half of OPS grade schools are the kids doing worse than one would expect, given their demographics. The vast majority of the top half of grade schools in OPS are beating the odds. That's something to celebrate.

But in the BOTTOM half of the school roll in OPS, 22 out of 32 were doing worse than they should be.

That's the problem -- the major, major problem, and the reason Omaha has egg on its face before the nation. Omaha's African-American students, who mostly populate those troubled schools, score at or near the bottom of the whole country in another nationally-standardized test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

So we have crummy scores in half of our schools, and minority kids are doing worse than they should be even if all other factors were equal, demographically-speaking. On its face, it looks like racial discrimination, for taxpayers are tolerating educational practices that are obviously and chronically negatively impacting African-Americans and other minorities in educational outcomes, compared to whites.

Can you say "major lawsuit"? Can you say "ruinous consent decree," similar to what happened in Kansas City, which caused a judge to nuke their public schools because of a problem that wasn't even as bad as this?

Note that these disappointing scores come despite the fact that most of the bottom 32 schools are "academy" schools, in which Nebraska taxpayers are pouring much more money, per-pupil. If spending levels had anything to do with educational quality, you'd certainly expect to see a better return than that on our investment. Once again, we can see that pouring good money after bad doesn't do a darn thing to help.

But there's a way out of this, as easy as 1-2-3:

1. Form a new private, nonprofit corporation. Put an educational leader of impeccable credentials at the helm -- City Councilman Franklin Thompson comes to mind. Allow that new corporation to manage the per-pupil spending in those 22 OPS schools on a long-term management contract with the Omaha Public Schools board. Pass through the tax funding for those kids straight to the new nonprofit. Declare an educational emergency that negates the union contract and supercede collective bargaining for employees of those 22 schools. Make sure to give Thompson, as the ad hoc superintendent, and the principals he puts in place, hiring and firing power. Most of the existing OPS staff would probably hire on, and salaries and benefits will no doubt be better if management could get out from under oppressive union rules. Cut the per-pupil spending in those 22 schools to the same as the OPS average, saving millions in taxpayer dollars right off the bat. Remember? More spending does NOT mean better academic results! It's a paradox, but if we set out to spend less, and do the simple things like delivering academic basics better because we can't AFFORD the more expensive things that are obviously screwing things up, the kids will be better off! You CAN get more for less!

2. Contract with an experienced private, nonprofit school management firm such as KIPP (the Knowledge Is Power Program, www.kipp.org). Allow them to put in place the simple, firm, effective curricular and operational changes that they have proven work very well for disadvantaged students at other schools all over the country. Examples: academic basics such as phonics for reading and computation for math, tangible incentive prizes for good grades and attendance, better discipline, longer school days and some Saturday sessions. If parents don't want to sign off on that, they should be allowed to put their kids in any private school in the city -- there are plenty of openings -- and the tuition is about one-third as much as OPS is now spending per pupil -- so we'd save beaucoup bucks that way, too.

3. Here's the beautiful part: Nebraska's NAEP test scores for African-American students would zoom high overnight, as if by magic, the very next year, and stay high. We would no longer be the bottom-feeders of the nation for our students of color. Omaha's economic development picture would brighten because we would be free of our current black eye -- the implication that we are a racist community because our minority students do so much worse in school than our Caucasian students. How would this happen, as soon as the 2010-2011 school year? Because we will have removed most of the low-scoring African-American pupils from the test pool in the public school setting, where we KNOW they don't do well, into a private school setting, where evidence from around the country shows that minority students do better. You remove the bottom-scoring one-third from a test pool, and what happens to the average? It zooms sky-high! Bottom line: minority kids not only will do better academically in the long run, but their scores in the meantime won't be counted against OPS, and in the long run will look much closer to what the other kids in OPS can do. OPS teachers will look like geniuses . . . and so will Nebraska taxpayers!

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Susan, thank you so much for these great ideas! I guess we will be stuck with the learning community for awhile. Bad law, politically motivated, but I hope it does some good, in spite of itself.(For $350 an hour in tax money, Kevin Brashier, former Speaker of the Legislature, has advised the learning community that NO improvement can be expected among OPS disadvantaged student for "a decade.")

If we could get KIPP or other successful charter school chains, like Achievement First to operate 22 schools in Omaha, that would be a wonderful thing! KIPP has proven that they can change kids scoring around the thirtieth and fortieth percentiles nationally to the 80th percentile in math and the 58th percentile in reading in four year, not a decade.In four years EVERY single KIPP Kid outscores his or her district average in both math and reading.

The educational establishment, of course, would strongly oppose all this, including the teachers union. But, those entities have long been obstacles to progress in education.Even President Obama and Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education are praising charter schools, but not vouchers, unfortunately. (Teacher's unions are important Obama supporters.)

The highly rated Creighton Prep in Omaha charges $7420 per year in tuition and fees.OPS, according to the Platte Institute, spends over $13,000 per pupil. Even Brownell-Talbott, the elite school, charges less than $13,000 through the sixth grade. So vouchers would save taxpayers money, as would charter school managment of the lowest rated schools in Omaha. According to the website of the National Charter School Association, charter schools nationally receive 62% of the tax monies given to regular public schools. As the Governor of Nebraska recently stated,regarding the racial learning gap, the statue quo won't work anymore.
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