A Tale of Two Schools

September 6, 2014

In September 2014 a story in the Daily Oklahoman newspaper in Oklahoma City highlighted both the high school I graduated from and the one I’ve taught at for 25 years. The context was an article about the number of high school graduates enrolling in Oklahoma colleges who have to take remedial coursework. It included bar charts of the state’s public and private high schools which send over 100 students to college and have the highest and the lowest percentages of students who have to do remedial work.

My alma mater, Putnam City West in northwest Oklahoma City, was ranked among the worst performers, with 50% of its graduates who went to an Oklahoma college having to take remedial classes. That compares to 20% for Bartlesville High School, where I’ve worked since 1989, placing BHS among the top seven schools in the state and in the top five public schools in this ranking.

Remediation rates at my alma mater and where I teach

Remediation rates at my alma mater and where I teach

What makes the schools so different? In a word…demographics. I have heard the junior high I attended, one of two feeder schools to PC West, called “the armpit of the district.” Nevertheless, I received a strong education at PC West back in the early 1980s, which propelled me to many academic awards, scholarships, accolades, and a rewarding career. But the demographics of the families it serves have steadily worsened. While Bartlesville High’s demographics have also declined since the ConocoPhillips merger at the start of the twenty-first century, it still serves a rather different clientele than PC West. Consider this data from the Profiles 2013 report cards for each school:

Demographic Statewide Average Putnam City West HS Bartlesville HS
Students Eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch 62% 83% 29%
Mobility Rate (incoming students) 11% 18% 4%
Suspension Rate (higher is better)
1 suspension per X students
124.4 85.4 280.7

My entire teaching career has been suffused in a never-ending drive to hold schools more accountable for their students’ performance. But Helen Ladd’s 2011 analysis stated:

…a simple bivariate regression of state test scores and state poverty rates indicates that a full 40 percent of the variation in reading scores and 46 percent of the variation in math scores is associated with variation across states in child poverty rates. The addition of one other explanatory variable related to family background, the percent of children who are members of minority groups, increases the explanatory power of the relationship to about 50 percent in reading and 51 percent in math. Clearly the mix of family backgrounds is highly correlated with patterns of student achievement across states.

The blogger at OKEducationTruths analyzed the data on the 454 schools in the data set the Daily Oklahoman was drawing from to identify how much different factors correlated with the college remediation rate. Given Dr. Ladd’s analysis, it is no surprise that in the Oklahoma data poverty factors had the strongest correlations with the college remediation rate.

Bartlesville works pretty hard at preparing kids for college. Teachers of courses with state tests are required to collect, analyze, and act upon data from regular assessments. There are remediation programs in place at each school to help identify and assist struggling students. I don’t know how much of that is done at my alma mater. But I know that BHS benefits greatly from having only about a third as many students who come from impoverished families and a mobility rate that is less than one-fourth of that at PC West.

So I’m not going to dump on my alma mater and praise my own school for their very different college remedial course rates. This is a tale of two schools who serve very different populations, with different challenges. What Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities describes well the tumult public school teachers face in our own time:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

LATER POSTSCRIPT:

On Facebook, former Bartlesville school board member Vanessa Drummond asked a good question: how do the poverty rates compare among the top-performing schools? I expanded upon that with a look at all of the low and high performing public schools:

High-Performing Schools on College Remediation Rate:

School Students Eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch Mobility Rate (incoming students) DISTRICT Adults (25+) with College Degree
Statewide Average 62% 11% 23%
Stillwater 35% 3% 48%
Deer Creek 7% 3% 57%
Edmond North 18% 5% 51%
Edmond Memorial 24% 3% 51%
Bartlesville 29% 4% 30%

Stillwater is the outlier, but it is a town of 47,000 which is home to one of the state’s two leading universities. It is hardly surprising that a district dominated by a university would fare better in college course remediation rates. The percentage of adults over age 25 holding a college degree is illustrative; note that is a district-wide figure versus other school-specific figures. Compare those demographics to those of the low-performers:

Low-Performing Schools on College Remediation Rate:

School Students Eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch Mobility Rate (incoming students) DISTRICT Adults (25+) with College Degree
Statewide Average 62% 11% 23%
Tulsa Nathan Hale 100% 30% 25%
Tulsa Memorial 82% 28% 25%
Lawton 57% 48% 20%
Muskogee 81% 11% 18%
Midwest City 67% 12% 18%
Lawton Eisenhower 44% 12% 20%
Putnam City West 83% 18% 32%

Notice how Lawton High’s lower poverty rate is offset by its enormous mobility rate, although Lawton Eisenhower doesn’t have that excuse. The Putnam City district has a good percentage of adults with college degrees, but it includes three high schools, with PC North serving a much higher socioeconomic status group than PC West or the original PC High School. So we can’t discern the adults in the PC West area with college degrees.

About Granger Meador

I enjoy day hikes, photography, podcasts, reading, web design, and technology. My wife, Wendy, and I work in the Bartlesville Public Schools in northeast Oklahoma, but this blog is outside the scope of our employment.
This entry was posted in politics. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A Tale of Two Schools

  1. Pat Brown says:

    Insightful. Good article.

  2. Great analysis! You really get to the heart of this discussion. It’s not just a single data point. It’s not even the same data point for each school that makes the difference.

  3. claudiaswisher says:

    Granger, don’t I remember you posing the question to Sandy Garrett’s Advisory Board about test scores just measuring poverty in schools…in 1999 or 2000? Again and again, we measure the economic levels of kids’ parents and think it’s learning…

  4. Susan says:

    Great analysis, Granger. Thanks for the insights.

  5. Eleanor Goetzinger, Ph.D. says:

    Great analysis Granger!

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