29 April 2007

Demographic Change and the CSAPs

Colorado's statewide proficiency tests, the CSAPs, may not do much to measure teaching quality, but they are a fine tuned measure of demographic change. The Denver Post makes that point clearly in a front page story today about the travails of the Aurora Public Schools (APS):

In 2006, Aurora didn't have a single traditional "excellent" school. In most grades tested, proficiency rates have sunk or remained flat in recent years in reading and math. The students scored 20 percentage points or more below the state average in almost all areas. . . .

[T]he district has undergone a demographic earthquake: The number of impoverished students has jumped by 35 percent in the past six years, and the percentage of English- language learners has more than doubled - from 16 percent to almost 40 percent - since 1999. . . .

Aurora attracted immigrants surging into the metro area in the late 1990s and early 2000s because single-family homes were relatively inexpensive.

"It was a seismic shift in the population, and it had a tremendous impact on the community," said Jeff Martinez, spokesman for the city of Aurora from 2001 until earlier this year.

Administrators say classes changed overnight. "Teachers didn't know what to do." . . .

"It was overwhelming. You got all these kids and you can't understand them because they all speak Spanish . . . There was no spunk; there was a sense of flatness."

Housing developers east of the E-470 tollway were even considering creating their own school district because they saw Aurora as noncooperative. . . .

Of about 2,000 teachers, only 150 are qualified to teach English-language acquisition. In Denver, more than 1,800 out of 4,250 teachers are qualified. . . .

English-language learners compose 80 percent of the school's population, and Spanish-speaking Fletcher [Elementary] mothers meet school and community leaders for coffee once a month.

Though Fletcher is implementing the district's new Mondo literacy program, only eight of 35 teachers are qualified to teach language learners.

Denver Compared

Notably, both the Rocky and Post noted this weekend that Denver is losing almost have of its emergency room capacity as Saint Antony's moves to the Federal Center, while Children's Hospital, University Hospital and the Veteran's Administration Hospital move to the Fitzsimmons Medical Campus (St. Luke's already consolidated with Presbyterian; Children's promises to retain an branch E.R. facility at St. Joseph's).

But, today's Post also highlights some of the booming high end development expected for the Denver in the city's land use agenda. The plan to remove the homeless from Civic Center park was among the eye catching pieces of that plan.

One suspects that Denver's own gains in the CSAPs lately have been as much a product of demographic change as changes in teaching quality as well. As the Post notes, the Denver Public Schools are much more varied than those in APS:

But even compared with Denver, which has some of the highest-performing schools in the state and some of the worst, Aurora is undistinguished.

Its highest-performing traditional school - Side Creek Elementary on the city's southeast side - has only 66 percent proficiency in third-grade reading.By comparison, one of Denver's highest-performing traditional schools, Bromwell Elementary, has a proficiency rate of 95 percent in third-grade reading. The state average is 70 percent.

Aurora is trying a wide variety of things to serve its students better under a new superintendent whose performance has received mixed reviews. Time will tell. The pace and nature of the transformation look vary similar to that experienced by Lincoln High School in Southwest Denver a decade earlier.

To a great extent, what is going on appears to be that Hispanic populations are replacing black populations in Old Town Aurora (and also Korean businesses which are migrating to South Havanna Street), not unlike what is going on in Five Points in Denver, a neighborhood on the Western side of historically black North Denver which abuts the West Denver neighborhoods that have been predominantly Hispanic for a much longer period of time.

Meanwhile, Aurora's bid to capture some of the more prosperous neighborhoods of unincorporated Arapahoe County was largely thwarted by the incorporation of the City of Centennial which came into being precisely to prevent Aurora from annexing these subdivisions.

The Nature of Social Change

As a teaching point, it is worth noting that what the Aurora Public Schools have seen in the past eight years is the norm, rather than the exception. Gradual neighborhood change is the exception; while long periods of stability, punctuated by brief periods of rapid change are the norm.

My parents vividly remembered attending lectures about this phenomena when my mom was attending graduate school at the University of Chicago four decades ago. Those observations remain valid today -- indeed, the same applies to a lot of forms of social change.

Any social science theory that has gradual change, rather than punctuated social upheaval, as a base assumption, deserves a skeptical appraisal. It isn't true of urban demographics. It isn't true of economic change in particular industries, it isn't true of technological change, and it isn't true of much of anything else unless you look at the pheneomena from such a high height that the law of averages mutes locally dramatic change.

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