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New Report Shows National Progress on 8th Grade Student Achievement

A new report by the independent Center on Education Policy shows that both reading and math test scores rose for 8th graders in public schools across the nation from 2002-2009.  Most states saw gains in both subjects, and every single state saw gains in math.  As the assault on public schools by proponents of distracting and unproven market-based reforms escalates, it is important to look at the facts and understand that committing ourselves to the traditional public school system that educates over 90% of our children is the clear way to improve our nation’s future.

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News Report Claims Students’ Ability to Learn Depends on Their Ride to School

An article in today’s News and Observer makes the spurious claim that “new data” shows Wake County School’s diversity policy harmed the education of minority students.  This claim is based on data claiming that black students with longer bus rides have lower rates of academic proficiency.  Of course, it should be no surprise that the data referred to is an attempt to support this claim since it was formulated for the Wake Board’s response to the NAACP’s Title VI complaint.

What is surprising is that the report does such a poor job of supporting this claim and any trends that can be discerned are far less clear than the article suggests.  As travel distances increased from <1 mile to 2.1-3 miles, academic proficiency increased from 53.1% to 57.3%.  Does this mean that 2.1-3 miles is the magical bus ride length that leads to greatest proficiency?  Students who were bused 10 miles had a 49.5% proficiency rate while students who were bused 7 miles had a 40% rate, so is 10 miles better for academic performance than 7?

Since poverty is linked to lower academic achievement, it is easy to see how students who were bused to different schools for socioeconomic integration could attain lower rates of academic achievement than their middle-class peers who were not.  The only thing this “new data” shows is that there was in fact a socioeconomic diversity policy and that poor students unfortunately often bore a disproportionate share of the traveling to make the policy work.  That’s not exactly breaking news.

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News report misstates law on free lunch data and student assignment

An article in this morning’s News and Observer misleads readers on the current state of the law in regard to the use of data from the federal free and reduced lunch program in Wake County’s student assignment plan.  The article’s conclusion that this data cannot be released for the purposes of student assignment for confidentiality reasons is based merely on an e-mail from a program analyst in the Department of Agriculture.

Thankfully, the final decisions on critical legal issues like these are not made by program analysts from the Department of Agriculture.  Both the Department of Education and the Department of Justice have held up Wake County’s old socioeconomic diversity plan as a national model and no federal agency has questioned legality of the use of the data for more than a decade.  Over 70 school districts use socioeconomic data to assign students and none have been successfully challenged legally.

It should be clarified that there is no suggestion that the use of socioeconomic data in student assignment is unconstitutional.  That possibility is foreclosed by the Supreme Court’s previous decisions.  Unlike race, socioeconomic status is not a protected class under the Constitution.  Student assignment plans that consider socioeconomic status do not take race into account and are therefore constitutional.  Thus, even if this e-mail is correct, socioeconomic status may still be used in student assignment by using census data.  However, this is more cumbersome for administrators than using free and reduced lunch status.

The confidentiality question is more complicated and will need to be worked out by the Department of Education, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Agriculture who are clearly not on the same page.  The e-mail in question concerns the use of free and reduced lunch data for individuals as a breach of confidentiality and then extends this logic to the neighborhood level.  However, it is unclear how they reached the conclusion that entire neighborhoods are entitled to confidentiality of aggregate data that is publicly available.  It is also unclear why they are reaching this conclusion at this point in time after the policy was in effect for so many years.  Contrary to the article’s suggestions, an e-mail from a bureaucrat does not answer any of these complex legal questions.

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English Language Learners: Educational Solutions for the Fastest Growing Population in North Carolina’s Schools

A recent report by the North Carolina Justice Center shows that, within the current budget structure and using programs that are already in place, more can be done to educate English Language Learners (ELLs) in North Carolina.  ELLs represent the fastest growing and lowest achieving demographic subgroup amongst students in the state.  These students will make up a large portion of our workforce in the future, so it is vital for the prosperity of all North Carolinians that educators and policymakers do more to prepare ELLs for higher education and entrance into the workforce.

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Lifting the Charter School Cap: More Charters Require Improved Accountability

In response to the likely lifting of the charter school cap by the incoming North Carolina Legislature, a recent Op-Ed by Tyler Whittenberg of the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project lays out the pitfalls of charter expansion and the accountability measures needed to ensure that the schools run properly.  Charter schools have had at best mixed results for students in North Carolina thus far.  Any expansion must be accompanied by well-reasoned policies like these in order to keep charter schools from exacerbating the very problems they purportedly help solve.