One of the myths of American public education still perpetuated by both traditionalists and even some reformers is that suburban districts provide higher-quality teaching and curricula than their big-city peers. Certainly this is true in some cases (as evidenced by Contributing Editor Michael Holzman in his comparison of Rochester, N.Y., with the district in nearby Greece). But in many cases, suburban districts are doing only marginally better than big city peers in improving student achievement, and doing terribly by kids from poor and minority backgrounds. This is particularly true with places such as Fairfax, Va., often considered the nation’s premiere suburban district, as well as Montgomery County, Md., both in the D.C. suburbs. And particularly in the case of aging suburbs that are increasingly becoming urbanized (and have never dealt well with poor and minority kids to begin with), they can as atrocious in condemning kids to low expectations as failing urban counterparts.
This has been made clear by Dropout Nation last month in its collection of profiles on the Ferguson-Florissant district near St. Louis, which has garnered attention as a result of the senseless alleged murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police officer Darren Ferguson. Readers were shocked by the high levels of suspensions meted out in Ferguson-Florissant and the fact that few of its students were being provided college-preparatory learning; this latter fact especially stood out in light of Missouri’s decision in June to end implementation of Common Core reading and math standards.
But the question some raised was this: How well is Ferguson-Florissant doing compared to St. Louis’ perpetually-failing traditional district? So your editor took a look at data from the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights database and Missouri’s state education department. What was learned is that in many ways, a child attending a school in St. Louis is better off than their peers in Ferguson. More importantly, the failings of both districts call for both the expansion of school choice and a return by the state to implementing Common Core.
In 2011-2012, 855 young black men and women attending schools operated by Ferguson-Florissant school district were labeled as being developmentally delayed, emotionally disturbed, suffering from an intellectual disability (also known as mentally retarded), hampered by a specific learning disability like dyslexia, or suffering from a speech or language impairment. This means that 9.2 percent of black kids in the district were condemned to its special ed ghettos.
Certainly this is nearly double the 5.9 percent of white peers in Ferguson deemed special ed cases in the top five categories. But it gets worse. The percentage of Ferguson-Florissant’s black children condemned to the top five special ed categories is just three-tenths of a percentage point higher than the 9.5 percent of kids in St. Louis’ perpetually-failing traditional district labeled in the top five special ed categories. Ferguson-Florissant’s percentage of white kids labeled as special ed is just slightly higher than the 5.7 percent for their Caucasian peers in St. Louis.
This means that a black kid in suburban Ferguson-Florissant has a one-in-10 chance of being labeled a special ed case, a rate no different than for peers in St. Louis. Given the high levels of over-diagnosis of kids as special ed cases — as many as 75 percent of kids considered to be suffering from Speech Apraxia (the most-commonly diagnosed speech disability) are not actually suffering from that while many kids diagnosed as mildly retarded are simply illiterate — far too many kids in both Ferguson and St. Louis are being denied brighter futures.
It gets worse. Ferguson-Florissant meted out at least one out-of-school suspension to 11 percent of black children condemned to its special ed ghettos (including kids covered by Section 504 of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act); that rate is double the 4.9 percent of black kids condemned to special ed in St. Louis who were suspended once from school. Ferguson-Florissant also subjected another 13 percent of its black special ed kids to two or more suspensions, a rate higher than the 6.6 percent rate for peers in St. Louis.
Meanwhile Ferguson-Florissant meted out one or more in-school suspensions to 28 percent of black special ed kids, while St. Louis only subjected 8.5 percent of black kids in special ed to such discipline. Put bluntly, if you are a black kid condemned to special ed in Ferguson, you have a one-in-two chance of getting suspended at some point, while the chances of harsh school discipline for a peer in St. Louis is a (admittedly not great) one-in-five. As for the use of restraints and seclusion (or as prison inmates would call, solitary confinement)? Ferguson subjected three special ed students and four kids in regular ed programs to such discipline in 2011-2012. What about St. Louis? Big fat zero.
But if Ferguson is running neck-and-neck with — and in the case of harsh discipline for special ed kids, moving far ahead of — St. Louis, it is trailing behind the big city in providing opportunities to take college-preparatory math and science courses needed for success in higher education, in career, and in being a knowledgeable player in society.
Thirty percent of black high schoolers in St. Louis took Algebra II, double the 15 percent rate for their peers in Ferguson; 33 percent of St. Louis’ white students took Algebra II, also double the 18 percent rate for peers in Ferguson-Florissant. Nineteen percent of black high school students in St. Louis, along with 18 percent of white peers took chemistry, another key college prep course; that better than the respective rates of 7.3 percent and 14 percent for Ferguson-Florissant black and white peers. Meanwhile 27 percent of black high schoolers, and 37 percent of white peers in St. Louis took chemistry, a better rate than the 24 percent of Ferguson’s black high-schoolers and 27 percent rate for white high school peers.
But let’s not get it twisted: St. Louis isn’t doing better for black and white kids than Ferguson in every area. That’s not even close to reality. As with Ferguson, St. Louis does little to provide black kids (or even white kids) with opportunities to take calculus and other math and science courses needed for success in higher education. Just 3.5 percent of St. Louis’ black high schoolers and 10 percent of white peers took trigonometry, statistics and other forms of advanced math, lower than the 9.3 percent and 13 percent of black and white peers in Ferguson. A mere 17 black students and two white students took calculus, abysmal levels similar to those of Ferguson-Florissant kids.
As for Advanced Placement courses? St. Louis is doing better than Ferguson. But not by much. Four-point-two percent of St. Louis’ black high school students and 6.6 percent of white peers took A.P. Science; just 10 black high school students in Ferguson and two of their white school mates took the science course. One-point-three of black high schoolers in St. Louis took A.P. Math, barely higher than Ferguson’s 1.3 percent; 6.8 percent of St. Louis’ high school students took AP Math, double the three percent of Ferguson’s white kids. Sixty-eight point two percent of St. Louis high school grads took the ACT in 2011-2012, a slightly higher rate than the 67.9 percent rate for Ferguson-Florissant; but St. Louis’ students garnered an average score of 16.5 on the college-prep exam, 1.5 points lower than that for Ferguson.
Where Ferguson does have an advantage is in its graduation rate, with 78 percent of its students in its original Class of 2012 graduating on time, versus St. Louis’ 67 percent graduation rate. But as Dropout Nation noted last month, Ferguson-Florissant’s high graduation rate may be a result of its overuse of suspensions and expulsions, which lead to kids being pushed out of the district and end up in St. Louis and other surrounding school systems. Just as importantly, it doesn’t mean that more of Ferguson’s kids are heading to higher ed. Ferguson’s rate of graduates heading to higher ed institutions of 67 percent is only a percentage point higher than that for St. Louis. The suburban district also trails its big city counterpart in placing vocational school grads into jobs, with only 35 percent of Ferguson-Florissant vocational ed kids getting jobs versus 59 percent for St. Louis.
Put simply, when it comes to improving student achievement, especially for black children, suburban Ferguson-Florissant often does little better than big-city St. Louis on many measures. In fact, especially for kids trapped in special ed ghettos, Ferguson may be a worse district to which to be condemned than St. Louis. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted earlier this week, Ferguson-Florissant (along with another suburban district, University City) could end up being subjected to state intervention if their performance on Missouri’s accountability index continues to dive below the 75 points required to stay in good standing.
The fact that Ferguson-Florissant has managed to retain its state accreditation while St. Louis was rated unaccredited until the 2011-2012 school year says less about the district’s performance than about the slipshod approach Missouri has taken to overseeing its public education system. This was made clear in June as state education officials allowed the failing Normandy district to be rated as accredited despite its increasingly-woeful performance.
But Missouri offers few options for kids to escape failing or even mediocre traditional district schools — and shuts them down when possible. The state’s move to essentially accredit Normandy shut the door on kids from that district being able to transfer out of it into better-performing districts. Even more shocking was Gov. Jay Nixon’s decision that same month to veto legislation co-authored by his arch-nemesis, Rep. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, that would have allowed for kids in failing districts to attend higher-quality public and private schools in the area shows the callousness of state officials when it comes to providing kids with high-quality educational options.
At the same time, the fact that both Ferguson-Florissant and St. Louis struggle to provide all kids with college-preparatory curricula they need and deserve exposes the shamefulness of the decision of state legislators and Nixon to halt Common Core implementation. By deciding to roll back the college-preparatory standards, politicians in the Show-Me State have shown in deed that they have no concern for the futures of children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds who will soon make up a majority of students in traditional public schools. Common Core opponents in Missouri and the rest of the nation may be cheering what they consider a victory for their ideological and political goals. But one wonders if they can look children, especially with skins of tan and brown, in they eye and say that they did the right thing? If they can, that says plenty of terrible things about their lack of concern for children.
What reformers in Missouri need to do now is push another school choice measure through the legislature next year; centrist and liberal Democrat reformers, in particular, must hold Nixon’s feet to the fire, reminding him that opposition to choice means that he won’t be re-elected in 2016. At the same time, reformers and Common Core supporters must mount a campaign to get legislators to reverse their decision on halting implementation. This means rallying chambers of commerce and others, as well as working over the next couple of years to back legislators who understand why comprehensive college-preparatory learning is critical to the Show-Me State’s future.
For our kids, just being in suburbia is no guarantee of high-quality education. This means that we must engage in aggressive systemic reform to help every child everywhere — especially in Missouri — attain the learning they deserve.