There are a myriad of changes being made to the Camden School District, and a host of both positive and negative responses being written. But one theme runs through all of these choices. The District simply doesn’t understand that test score data is more reflective of a student’s background and special education status than a student’s learning at school. By insisting on ignoring this, the schools district will punish those who serve Camden’s most vulnerable students, while rewarding those who exclude them.
Sadly, the evidence that the school district doesn’t understand its own test score data is piling up. First, consider the insistence by the district that it is the misallocation of resources that is the problem. I.e. that it has plenty of money. Inky reporter Julia Terruoso rightly points out that if you control for special education students, Camden’s school district falls right in line with spending patterns in the rest of the state. The intuition here isn’t hard. Special education students are more expensive, and Camden has more of them.
But that basic understanding seems missing from so many of the decisions being made. Pynes Poynt Middle School is being closed (technically, it is “not having an incoming class” but we all know what that means), while Uncommon Schools are being brought in to the district, despite Pynes Poynt serving a high population of special ed students, and Uncommon Schools having a pattern of not serving the most vulnerable population in previous schools. More importantly, Jersey Jazzman shows that an unbelievably high rate of charters “gains” in places like Newark and Camden come from not serving special education students. Again, the intuition isn’t hard. Special Education students are more expensive, and also have lower test scores. Removing them from the population does wonders for that school’s budget and scores.
No one knows this better than the “No Excuses” schools. The core ideology here of holding everyone to the “same standard” leads to failing to serve these special needs students. There is a tremendously high turnover at “No Excuses” schools; see this article otherwise complimenting Mastery’s turnaround at Gratz in Philadelphia. The school eliminated 29% of it’s population of the first year.
By bringing in schools that eliminate the most expensive and disadvantaged students, the Camden School District is fundamentally misunderstanding its own criteria. The latest and most relevant education research shows that test scores are a much better representation of where a student is from, and their special needs, than it is of school “failure.”
Here’s the story that is being told by Camden’s test scores. It should be one that is familiar. It is a story of a poor and vulnerable population, caused not only by de-industrialization, but also by prejudicial practices that made it very difficult for minorities to move into the surrounding suburbs. Camden’s suburbs excluded low-income families, even paying Camden to build its “fair share” of affordable housing in the city so that it didn’t have to serve these populations. Essentially, the suburbs dumped their problems into Camden; everything from its physical waste, to its low-income populations.
And now, we’re watching a school district that is doing the same thing within Camden. It is creating a bifurcated system. A Charter system with support from the state and new buildings, which will serve those in Camden with fewer special needs or behavior problems, and a public system that has its funding and staff slashed and receives the students who have been kicked out of charters for behavior problems (or, at its ugliest, the week after funding for each student was received, or the week before critical testing, as I’ve heard rumors of in other districts).
Until the Camden School District understands basic research on what test scores mean, its policies will continue to have the same fatal flaw. It will reward those who exclude Camden’s most vulnerable populations, while punishing those who try to educate them.