Johnston Superintendent of Schools Ed Croom is right: Busing poor children out of Smithfield and Selma won’t make Smithfield-Selma High School better. Replacing poor children with affluent children from other communities would only make SSS appear better, which might be the real goal of those pushing busing.
Busing certainly wouldn’t help poor children do better in school. Wake County’s longstanding experiment in busing failed to close the achievement gap between poor and affluent children. Johnston would fare no better.
Dr. Croom is right too that quality teachers matter, though we’re not certain the standard measures of quality – advanced degrees, full licensure – are the right ones. Put another way, the faculty at SSS is largely reflective of the county school system as a whole, and yet test scores at SSS continue to lag. In 2012-2013, the most recent year for which we could find numbers, 88 percent of SSS teachers were fully licensed, compared to 92 percent for all Johnston high schools. And 29 percent of SSS teachers had advanced degrees, compared to 27 percent for all high schools here. Not much difference there.
We’re less certain than Dr. Croom that per-pupil spending plays a significant role in student performance; at least the numbers don’t support that assumption. For at least six years, Dr. Croom says, Johnston schools have been spending more per pupil on Smithfield and Selma students than the county average. So let’s go back six schools years and see what that extra spending has produced.
It’s true that test scores at SSS have been trending up, or at least they were until the state introduced new, harder end-of-course tests. In 2008-09, just 63.8 percent of English I students at SSS scored at or above proficient in the subject at year’s end. By 2011-12, that figure had climbed to 76.8 percent, before falling to 33.4 with a new test in 2012-13.
But if the extra spending was a factor in rising test scores, it did not close the achievement gap between SSS students and their peers in other Johnston high schools. That’s what Smithfield and Selma parents are demanding, and that’s what they have every right to expect.
In 2008-09, on the English 1 exam, the achievement gap between SSS students and their Johnston peers was about 17 percentage points. Four years later, in 2012-13, it was roughly 18 percentage points. In algebra I, the achievement gap was about 22 points in 2008-09; it was roughly 23 points in 2011-12 before ballooning to 33 points in 2012-13.
In other words, while Smithfield-Selma students are improving in the classroom, so are their peers, meaning SSS students remain at a competitive disadvantage, both for jobs and college admission.
We’re not completely dismissive of the notion that money matters; the fact that affluent children perform better in the classroom than poor children suggests that it does. So maybe Dr. Croom and the school board need to rethink how they spend that extra money, which, at SSS, is hundreds of dollars per student per year.
Communities rightly worried
As for Dr. Croom’s critics, namely the Concerned Citizens for Successful Schools, their pro-busing stance suggests they care more about the appearance of school performance than actual student performance. We think that’s misguided, but we get where they’re coming from.
The populations of Smithfield and Selma have stagnated, and the repercussions of that are many and certainly bad.
When a town grows, it has more people to share in the costs of government services. What if, for example, a town needs to replace an aging fire truck? That burden is easier to bear in a town of 20,000 people than in a town of 10,000 or 5,000. The same holds true for replacing aging water and sewer lines, for fixing potholes, for doing many things that government does.
It’s true too, according to various studies, that property values climb when population does. So people in Smithfield and Selma are right to worry that the towns’ stagnant populations are hurting their investments in their homes.
It’s also true that stagnant populations discourage business investment. Who wants to build a subdivision or locate an industry in a community that’s not growing?
No doubt, poorly performing schools have helped contribute to the stagnant populations in Smithfield and Selma. But so too have town decisions that made Smithfield and Selma expensive communities in which to live. We said this recently, but it bears repeating: Affluent people can afford to leave a high-cost town; poor people can’t.
And yet we haven’t seen the Concerned Citizens for Successful Schools lobbying for local government reform. The group should, because Smithfield and Selma would benefit from lower taxes, fees and utility costs and, we suspect, from fewer regulations on businesses.
Time to ask questions
We fully support anyone whose goal is to improve the quality of Smithfield and Selma schools. But the Concerned Citizens for Successful Schools need to ask themselves if that’s really their goal, and school leaders need to ask themselves if it’s time to rethink their standard responses to school improvement.