Category Archives: Education

Missouri uses flawed data to penalize poor, minority students

Published as a Op-Ed piece in the St. Louis Post Dispatch on May 28, 2014 

Concerning Normandy’s suit against the Missouri Board of Education, it’s absolutely necessary to point out the elephant in the room: The method for evaluating school districts and thus removing accreditation and ultimately dissolving a district is based on faulty data that discriminate against poor children and especially minority children.

It’s not as if we couldn’t see this coming. What did the state do with the schools and students in Wellston when that district was dissolved? They were merged into Normandy. And now the state wants to dissolve Normandy. What’s wrong with this picture? What district do the vultures want to pick off next?

Elisa Crouch and Walker Moskop’s well-written story on May 18, “The grade divide,” about the struggle to educate children in poverty, clearly revealed the problem that children from low-income families do poorly on standardized tests. Not that they don’t or can’t learn, but that their test scores are low.

Studies show that the test format itself and especially the conditions under which the test is administered increase the odds that children in minorities will get low scores (see “Stereotypes and the Achievement Gap: Stereotype Threat Prior to Test Taking,” Markus Appel, Nicole Dronberger, Education Psychology Review, 2012.) In that study the Austrian researchers tested African-American students in the United States, Turkish students in Eastern Europe and others with “an immigration background” that labored under negative stereotypes. They found that if the tests were presented to such students as having high stakes — and what could be higher than branding an entire school as deficient? — performance went down even further.

I see three problems here: Evaluation of districts is based on faulty, discriminatory data; the state is using that faulty data to penalize poor children by attacking their schools, especially school districts that have a majority of African-American students; that attack has resulted in the dissolution of one district already, the attempted dissolution of a second district and the threat to continue until all school districts with minority majority enrollments and a majority of poor children have been taken away from their constituents and handed over to for-profit (i.e., charter) operations.

This is a racially tinged class struggle. Let’s quit talking about transportation costs and get to the point: This accreditation system is deeply flawed and does not serve the education needs of the children of Missouri, especially children in schools with a large number of low-income students. The decision to penalize the school districts for the ethnicity and social class of their students is unconstitutional. Taking away local control is unconscionable.


Virginia Gilbert covered the education beat for the Post-Dispatch for six years in the 1980s and early 1990s.


Missouri Governor Too Busy with Real Problems to Acknowledge Breitbart

Gov. Jay Nixon has more important things to do than respond to Andrew Breitbart’s latest spurious attempt to influence politics with a fraudulent video smear.

Standing in front of the Old St. Louis Courthouse where the Dred Scott decision supporting slavery was one of the sparks that set off the Civil War, Gov. Nixon on Friday vetoed a bill that would have weakened the Missouri Human Rights Act protections for workers.

He spoke to a crowd of invited guests representing advocates for the disabled, minorities, organized labor and faith groups. Noting that only 10 days remain in this legislative session, Nixon urged the audience to “lock arms and move forward” to block the efforts of those who will “put energy and efforts to overturn” his veto.

“The rights of all are inexplicably bound to the rights of the few,” Nixon said before he signed his veto.

Indeed. Breitbart’s hashed-up video attempts to attack education and the labor movement in Missouri through two clumsily cobbled together videos of an online University of Missouri course on labor. Despite his history of releasing obviously doctored videos that are later repudiated, Breitbart appeared to have some initial success in attacking at least one of the professors with this latest video — Breitbart’s first foray into Missouri politics. It is a case of attacking the rights of an individual to attack the rights of all.

But Nixon did not rise to Breitbart’s bait. “I haven’t seen the video and I won’t comment on something I haven’t seen,” he told this blogger in a brief session with the media after his speech. He gave the impression, although he did not say so directly, that he has more important issues in the state than to give credence to the likes of Breitbart.

Nixon gave a glimpse of his focus for these next few days.

  • Later today he is heading down to southeastern Missouri to “work cooperatively with local folks” to deal with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to blast a hole in a levee on the Mississippi River that would flood 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland to divert the rising river away from Cairo, Ill. He defers to the Missouri Attorney General, who is pursuing the matter in federal court, even after a ruling earlier today by U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh that the Corps’ plan is legal. “I’m worried that [the Corps plan] could scour a new path of the river,” Nixon said. But “it’s important to say we need to be prepared” for the Corps to carry out its plan.
  • By tomorrow morning, he plans to look “analytically” at the legislature’s proposal for redistricting Missouri, which has lost a congressional seat as the result of the latest census. “I’m working on that this weekend,” he said in response to a question. “It’ll be a quick time frame. I won’t drag this out. We need a map that reflects the state. … But I haven’t spent … I need to spend some significant time on it before I can comment.”
  • He’s more or less done talking about the “Puppy Mill” measure that the voters approved last November and the Legislature passed a bill to repeal. Nixon’s “Missouri Solution” brought all sides together — those who want to improve breeders’ treatment of dogs, and agricultural interests who want to protect the right to breed animals — with a compromise bill that passed the Legislature earlier this week.
  • Following the Puppy Mill compromise, he’s working with legislators on an economic development bill that, he said, would be good for both businesses and workers.
  • He’s concerned about “a number of education programs” that some Republicans have targeted for cuts, including money for higher education and special education. On some of these, “the difference between the House and Senate is really small” and he is hopeful of a compromise. This could be seen as an oblique reference to the attempts by some legislators to use Breitbart’s video to cut funding for the University by discrediting two of its professors.

In closing, Nixon said he would take each of the “Fix the Six” measures being presented by anti-labor factions in the state as they come up. The bill he vetoed today was the first to get as far as initial passage. “We are working with leaders across the state” to find ways to entice companies to invest in the state.

“We’ll see how it develops,” he added. “but we are not going to build our economy by going backwards on civil rights or lowering compensation for workers.”

  ——-Virginia Gilbert

On Continuing State Supervision of St. Louis Public Schools

I wrote this initially as a letter to the editor, in July, 2006, when the state used new accreditation standards to take over the St. Louis School District. The newspaper did not publish it. Now, Democrats in St. Louis are calling on candidates to support giving the school district back to local control and my comments on the appropriateness of Missouri controlling local city schools are as fitting as ever.

Before people start celebrating state takeover of the St. Louis Public Schools as the answer to its problems, consider that Missouri is the same state that:
*Required segregated schools in its constitution until the 1980s.
*Fought — at every court level — being held accountable for St. Louis school segregation.
*Resisted nearly every court-ordered state expenditure to remove the vestiges of segregation and to improve the education of all St. Louis children.
*Defeated any chance that state, local and court officials would work together for the common good — an improved education for all children, regardless of their race, residence or socio-economic status.
*Created a statewide testing program and promised it would never be used to punish school districts.
*Promptly tied student test scores to accreditation and state funding.
*Has not addressed in its recently adopted testing program the immediately recognized gap in test scores between white and black students – regardless of their district.
*Has therefore unfairly penalized districts where African-Americans are the majority.

This is the state that elected John Ashcroft as governor and U.S. Senator, thereby validating his efforts opposing the desegregation cases in both St. Louis and Kansas City.

Alongside racial politics, add the animosity between rural, suburban and urban voters, the current situation of extreme partisanship of elected officials that pits Republicans against Democrats in displays of raw power, the common good be damned.

What makes anyone think that state-level educators and a state-appointed board would be any more able to resist politics than locally elected officials?