The Hot Air Is Blowing From The Superintendent’s Office

Did you feel the hot air blowing from Jamestown’s superintendent of schools office? Jamestown has had a problem for many years with high failure rates on state standardized tests (ELA 77%; mathematics 78%) and a low graduation rate of 71 percent. The superintendent, however, says, “Problem solved!” “Great improvements” are on the horizon. He even goes so far as to say, “I’ll be very surprised if the numbers don’t improve dramatically over the next few years” (P-J, Jan. 17, 2020). Did you catch the word “dramatically”?

And to what does he attribute this forthcoming bonanza improvement that gave him “goosebumps”? Incredibly, he makes this claim after one six-week literacy summer school session (LEAP) and Success Academy, where no academic data were provided and only dubious attendance results given! His statement is deceptive and borders on unethical because it gives false hope. At this point, it is nothing more than hot air.

LEAP. From the district’s own data, 396 elementary children (grade levels not given) attended the Learning Enrichment and Academic Progress program where they learned only 28 “sight words” on average during slim 28-minute sessions. Sight words? Were they not taught the crucial skill of decoding? Cost of the program was $476,508. This works out to more than $17,000 per word learned. Enrichment activities were included. Such activities, however, contribute nothing to academics, the primary purpose of schools. Was the cost worth the low-level gains? We are told nothing about the curriculum used or what supplemental books were read. Mathematics, with its high failure rate, was not addressed.

In contrast, children in a Direct Instruction (DI) kindergarten literacy program learn to decode and read 500 words over the school year, approximately twelve and one-half words per week. Extrapolating these data to LEAP, district children would have learned 75 words — not the low 28 — if Direct Instruction had been taught in the LEAP program.

SUCCESS ACADEMY. We are given sketchy data regarding the “primary” goal of improving attendance. According to Principal McElrath, 68 percent exceeded their previous yearly attendance percentage. No range for the number of added days was provided. When percentages are used, adding just one day qualifies as “exceeding,” but is it meaningful? About academics, not a single piece of datum was provided. It’s difficult to understand, then, how Apthorpe can make claims about “dramatic” impending improvements and cite Success Academy. It is all hope and mirage because it lacks any substantial data support.

Dr. John Hattie, Director of Mellbourne Educational Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia, is an international expert on evaluation of teaching and learning. The computation and use of effect sizes allow us to see the “magnitude of differences” between influences on achievement. Effect sizes can be compared and ranked so we learn what has the greatest effect on achievement and what has little effect. Effect size 0.40 is the benchmark where real-world differences and real-world change start to be seen. Anything ranked below the benchmark requires careful scrutiny. Choosing influences with high effect sizes is of direct concern to Jamestown students because of high district-wide failure.

Summer school has an effect size of 0.23, well below the benchmark. In general, going to summer school does not make much difference, Hattie says. But he adds: “It is difficult to ignore even these small gains if they are critical to students who may be already marginal.” Enrichment activities included in LEAP have an effect size of 0.16 on achievement. In other words, almost no effect. Again, was all the money spent worthwhile when it did nothing to raise achievement levels? The conclusions regarding summer school effects are based upon 105 research studies.

Direct Instruction has an effect size of 0.59! It is powerful and includes mastery learning with equally strong effect size (0.58). A failing district would be wise to consider such powerful resources for regular education. The current curriculum in literacy is too weak to reduce failure rates. Same with mathematics. As we learned, summer school also is weak. Summer school does allow some children to keep from falling back, but it is not the “dramatic” panacea which Apthorpe touts. And spending mega bucks on enrichment may be pleasurable, but let’s be real here, it adds nothing to academics.

Apthorpe recently released this statement: “It’s very important to the board and I [sic] that we generally get the community’s input” (P-J, Jan. 28, 2020). Does he mean it, or is this more hot air? This article contains critical and valuable input — if he opens his mind.

Deann Nelson is a Jamestown resident.