Defining Opportunity Schools
Throughout this report, we have emphasized our goal of celebrating Baltimore schools that are repeatedly breaking the link between income and achievement by leading students from low-income households to achieve at high levels. We recognize, however, that it is possible to define “repeatedly breaking the link” and “achieve at high levels” in a number of ways.
In settling on a definition, we sought to offer an intuitive set of criteria and to set the bar high enough that we feel comfortable claiming any schools that meet our criteria are truly defying the odds for students from low-income households. Our criteria meet these objectives.
The overall state proficiency rate is high, but not insurmountable. The statewide proficiency gap between students from low-income households and others is eight percentage points in fourth grade reading and approaching 20 percentage points in eighth grade math.18
In addition, requiring that schools meet this threshold in at least half of tested grades and in both core subjects ensures that students #MSAgrade4all. are consistently receiving a high-quality education. Requiring schools to replicate success over multiple years suggests that their success is not just a function of statistical noise or one particularly motivated or
high-skilled cohort of students.
For reasons related to this last concern, we decided to omit entrance-criteria schools from the Opportunity and On-the-Cusp lists, despite several making the cut. Entrance-criteria schools are any that require a minimum level of prior student performance or a specific student talent for admission. Although there are many highperforming students from low-income households in these schools, and they deserve recognition for their success, it would be difficult to attribute that success to the school alone, given that the school conditioned acceptance on a particularly high, pre-existing level of skill or achievement.
Finally, we also made a decision to treat combined elementary/ middle schools as two separate schools. This decision ensured that each school received an equal opportunity to meet the criteria.
Proficiency rates used to evaluate Opportunity and On-the-Cusp status were taken from the 2013 Maryland Report Card website and cross-referenced with data housed on the Baltimore City Public Schools Achievement and Accountability Office website. Demographic data was taken from the 2013 Maryland Report Card website, with the exception of special education rates for The Empowerment Academy’s middle school program and Midtown Academy’s middle school program, which were obtained through a state data request and represent school-wide special education percentages (rather than middle school program-specific percentages, which were unavailable due to censored data). Each school’s total student enrollment, percentage
of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch and percentage of special education students were found in the “Students Receiving Special Services” section on each school’s page at mdreportcard.org.
The percentage of students in each racial/ethnic category was calculated using numbers from the “Demographics Data Summary” section. Mobility rates were located in the “Student Mobility” section.
It should also be noted that principals provided their own biographical information.
Checking for other factors that explain Opportunity School success
During the course of drafting this report, we asked other local nonprofits and community members to provide feedback on our methodology. Many questioned whether there are other factors that might explain Opportunity Schools’ success with students from low-income households aside from strong leadership, great teachers and best practices. In other words, are there any advantages afforded to Opportunity Schools that other schools are not afforded?
Although we were unable to control for every extraneous factor affecting student achievement, we did seek to analyze data to address specific concerns. For example, we checked to see if Opportunity and On-the-Cusp Schools enroll a disproportionately small number of special education students. We found that they do not. Of the eight Opportunity Schools, five had special education populations, as a percentage of the total student population, within two percentage points of the school system average in 2013. Of the remaining three schools, one had a percentage of special education students that was substantially higher than the school system average, while two had
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lower percentages of special education students. Among On-the-Cusp Elementary Schools, in a majority of schools (five of eight) the percentage of special education students is higher than the school system average. On-the-Cusp Middle Schools are the only possible outlier.
In each On-the-Cusp Middle School the percentage of special education students is lower than the school system average. However, when compared to the state average, we found that three of the seven On-the-Cusp Middle Schools had a higher percentage of special education students than the state average, and another two were within two percentage points. Weighed together, this evidence suggests that Opportunity and On-the-Cusp Schools do not systematically enroll fewer special education students, and in fact, many enroll more than average.
We also checked Opportunity and On-the-Cusp student mobility rates. Here, we found that only one school has a higher mobility rate than the school system average, although several others are close to the average. This data is only of limited utility, however. While
low mobility rates are certainly good for a school, it is likely that the causation goes both ways: families and students choose not to leave
a school, even when they have other options, because the school is high-performing. In other words, the lower mobility rates found in Opportunity and On-the-Cusp Schools are just as likely to be an effect of their success as a cause.
Third, we compared teacher experience levels in Opportunity
and On-the-Cusp Schools to the school system average to see if that
is a factor. We found that Opportunity Schools, but not On-the-Cusp Schools, employ significantly more experienced faculty than the school system average. However, we know from the research literature that after the first few years in the classroom, increases in experience level do not necessarily equate to increases in effectiveness.19 As with student mobility, we believe that higher teacher experience levels
are just as likely an effect of Opportunity School success as they are a cause. Effective and experienced teachers are drawn to work, and stay, in high-performing schools. We attribute this phenomenon not only to the perceived high quality of these schools, but also to the focus that their principals put on developing and empowering their teachers. This focus, in turn, helps lead teachers to get great results for their students.
Lastly, we requested city data on the percentage of students in each school qualifying for free lunch versus the percentage qualifying for reduced-price lunch; the percentage of students in each school who were fully kindergarten ready according to the Maryland Model
for School Readiness; and for middle schools, the percentage of students who attended each of their various feeder elementary schools. This data would help answer questions on the academic preparedness of students in Opportunity and On-the-Cusp Schools prior to their enrollment at those schools. However, the data was not available in time to include in this report.
Why are there so few Opportunity Middle and High Schools?
Our methodology uncovered only one Opportunity Middle School and no Opportunity High Schools. Middle schools found better representation among On-the-Cusp Schools, but again, no high schools made the list. Are Baltimore’s elementary schools just better schools than Baltimore’s middle and high schools?
This is a difficult question to answer and many of the principals
we interviewed had their own perspectives on this issue. One thing
we know is that a significant number of particularly high-achieving middle and high school students are choosing to attend entrance-criteria schools. As a result, nonselective middle and high schools are starting with student bodies that are, on the whole, lower-achieving than the student bodies that elementary schools enroll. One middle school and four high schools (Hamilton Elementary/ Middle School’s middle school program, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Baltimore City College, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and Western High School) met the Opportunity School criteria but were omitted because of entrance criteria. These four high schools alone enroll 17 percent of high school students from low-income households in Baltimore.
Two additional programs (the middle school program at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School and Baltimore School for the Arts) met the On-the-Cusp threshold, but were also left out due to entrance criteria.
There is also a systemic explanation for the deficit of Opportunity Middle and High Schools. There are simply too few Opportunity Elementary Schools preparing students to succeed in later grades. The dearth of high-quality elementary schools is one possible reason why national data shows that achievement gaps grow across age groups.
In math, for example, the socioeconomic achievement gap among
13-year-olds is larger than the same gap among nine-year-olds. While
the best secondary programs, like those in our On-the-Cusp category,
can overcome these initial achievement gaps, most struggle to do so.
This gap is why we recommend making policy changes that would
allow Baltimore to recruit new secondary school operators to the city
with proven track records of overcoming achievement gaps.20
Baltimore City public schools, FARMS students
Baltimore City public schools, FARMS students