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Youngstown schools must raise expectations

It’s no secret that Youngstown’s school district has struggled to provide a first-rate education. State exam scores have consistently been among the lowest in Ohio. Its most recent report card indicates that just 12 percent of graduates go on to complete an associate degree or higher. Because of these academic troubles, the district has been under formal state supervision through an Academic Distress Commission since 2009.

Vocal advocates, however, have blasted the intervention policy and clamored for a return to full local control. In response, lawmakers recently enacted provisions that give Youngstown a way out. If, by 2025, the district meets a majority of goals in an academic improvement plan, the commission will cease to exist.

But here’s the rub. The district gets to create its own improvement goals, leaving open the possibility that it could set ridiculously low targets in an effort to escape accountability. Unfortunately, in their initial draft, district officials succumbed to that temptation. On state math exams, for instance, they proposed a target of fewer than 20 percent of Youngstown students meeting grade-level proficiency standards. The district didn’t even bother to set goals for proficiency on state English exams after third grade, choosing instead to tie reading benchmarks to a diagnostic test that isn’t directly linked to state standards. Post-secondary readiness targets based on the ACT or SAT and industry credentialing are also M.I.A.

Whether intended or not, such low — or absent — expectations send dangerous messages to educators, students and parents. One could easily interpret the math goal to mean that district leaders believe it’s acceptable when 80 percent of students fall short of state academic standards. Or that the district isn’t worried about whether high school students are prepared to take their next steps in life.

Those types of messages are not only degrading and demoralizing, they also have real-world implications for students. A recent literature review by my organization cites a number of studies finding that students perform better when adults hold them to high expectations. And one hallmark of the nation’s finest urban charter schools is a fervent belief among their teachers that all children can learn. The other side of the coin, of course, is that educators who expect less of students tend to get just that — lower achievement.

To be sure, there are praiseworthy elements to Youngstown’s improvement plan. They include an emphasis on the “science of reading” — explicit instruction in phonics during the early grades — and a goal that encourages career exploration in middle school. Yet even those well-meaning strategies could wither in the face of low expectations.

Recent news reports indicate that district administrators, having received critical feedback from state officials and the local community, are reassessing these goals. Those revisions are necessary if Youngstown is to create a culture of high expectations for its schools and students. Getting out of state oversight remains a commendable objective. But that shouldn’t happen through shortcuts that harm students.

The children of Youngstown deserve every opportunity to achieve the American Dream — to pursue rewarding careers, to engage in civic life and to raise a family of their own. Fulfilling those aspirations starts with excellent schools, places where educators and students are challenged to do their best each and every day.

Aaron Churchill is Ohio

research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

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