Why do schools fail?

Like a majority of the other school districts in California, the Sonoma Valley Unified School District has seen a precipitous drop in academic performance, at least as measured by the conceptually-flawed standards of the STAR and API (Academic Performance Index) testing data.

As the story on page 1 reveals, Sonoma Valley public school students are not doing well on the annual STAR test, or on the California High School Exit Examination.

Two particularly troubling statistics show that only 21 percent of Valley third-graders tested proficient in English and only 27 percent of seventh-graders were proficient in math.

No one appears to be entirely clear on what these figures really mean, but one inescapable conclusion is that the classroom compulsion to “teach to the test,” driven by No Child Left Behind, has paradoxically left many children struggling in its wake.

But that’s hardly the whole story.

Some education officials are now suggesting that the heavy budget hit inflicted on the state’s schools during five years of economic decline is at fault. We don’t buy that. Most learning experts accept the premise that lower teacher-student ratios enhance educational achievement. But we can’t believe whatever class size increases occurred as a consequence of budget cuts can account for the degree of decline.

It is entirely possible that the curriculum change to Common Core standards changed the testing equation enough to be reflected in a downward score trend. But in our minds, that’s still not enough of an answer.

We think the answer lies, to a remarkable (and remarkably obvious) degree in the figures reflected in the Sonoma Valley API score chart we’ve reprinted on page A8. There you will see that the school with the highest API score in the district is Sonoma Charter School, which also has (ironically) the lowest percentage of economically disadvantaged and English-language learner students. (The irony arises from the schools location in the economically disadvantaged Springs, but that’s another story.)

Conversely, El Verano, the school with the lowest API score has the highest percentage of both economically disadvantaged and English-language learner students.

To be more precise, 27 percent of Sonoma Charter students are economically disadvantaged and 11 percent are English-language learners. At El Verano, 89 percent of students are economically disadvantage and 64 percent are English-language learners.

Is there a correlation here?

The obvious conclusion is so … obvious, that we are tempted to conclude it can’t be all that simple. But it just may be.

Teacher-by-teacher, classroom-by-classroom, we have high regard for the instructional staff of the school district. We are also impressed by the educational vision and the exceptional effort being made by district administrators to help our students succeed.

But unless we decide to admit and address the socioeconomic and demographic profiles of our school populations, we may be doomed to failure.

Students for whom English is a second language, whose parents may not speak or read English or even have high school degrees, have a much steeper hill to climb than students from educated families fluent in English.

We fail to understand how the state’s educational goals can be met without addressing economic and demographic realities.