Opportunity to Learn in the Little Rock School District, Arkansas

Argue, Sarah Ellen (2016). 'Opportunity to Learn in the Little Rock School District, Arkansas' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.


abstract
Problem Statement
In Dupree v. Alma School District No. 30 (1983), the Arkansas Supreme Court found Arkansas’ school funding system unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the state constitution.  The court found no legitimate state purpose and no rational relationship to educational needs in the state’s method of financing public schools.  The ruling rejected “local control” as a possible justification for the disparities of funding and educational opportunities in the state’s school districts.
After the 1983 court decision, the state revised its funding statutes, but plaintiffs challenged the revised system.  In Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee (2001), an Arkansas trial court declared the state’s education funding system unconstitutional:
The school funding system now in place… is inequitable and inadequate under… the Arkansas constitution…  Too many of our children are leaving school for a life of deprivation, burdening our culture with the corrosive effects of citizens who lack the education to contribute.
The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s finding in 2002 and charged the state with providing adequate funding to allow students to achieve the expected outcomes.
Students in Arkansas continue to be deprived of an opportunity to learn.  In 2015, only 32% of fourth graders were proficient in reading or math. Of eighth graders, only 27% were proficient in reading and 25% were proficient in math (Kids Count Data Center, 2015).  These proficiency rates are based off of the state test – when the proficiency gap between it and the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) is considered, the measurement of our states’ student preparation is worse (Foundation for Excellence in Education, 2013). 
Purpose of the Study
Arkansas’ constitution guarantees an adequate education to its citizens; its courts have enforced that guarantee; its legislature has committed to funding the formula.  It is now time to be clear about what inputs are necessary to obtain an effective education. Opportunity-to-learn (OTL) standards help define the resources necessary.  
This study assesses the opportunity to learn for students in Arkansas in order to answer the following research questions:  How do Opportunity to Learn standards have the potential to improve student capability?  Which OTL standards contribute the most to student capability development?  Which schools in the LRSD provide the best opportunity to learn? 
Theoretical Framework
This study uses the Capabilities Approach as a theoretical frame to consider what students should be able to do and be if given a true opportunity to learn.  The overarching goal of the capabilities approach put forward by Amaryta Sen (1999, 2009) and Martha Nussbaum (2003, 2011) is to provide a philosophy and methodology of assessing well-being--in terms broader than traditional quality of life markers like household income or national GDP.  In the case of addressing inequitable and inadequate educational opportunities like those experienced in Arkansas, I will examine indicators beyond the school funding formula.  
If students are to have full opportunity to choose what they want to do and to be, they must have the freedoms essential to making those choices.  Sen argues that expanding individual freedoms is both the means and the end of development.  Identifying characteristics of an effective education will expand students’ freedom to do and be all that they choose as adults.  
Nussbaum’s list of Central Capabilities defines what a dignified life requires.  Nussbaum does not argue that each person must be educated, rather she argues that each person must have the opportunity to choose to be educated.  In other words, individuals must have the opportunities to develop their capabilities.  This study attempts to identify and measure what educational opportunities are necessary in order for students to fully develop their capabilities.  
Methods
Structural equation modeling, in which observed variables are used to measure latent variables, is used to measure the opportunity to learn in the Little Rock School District.  In this case, the latent variables are the OTL standards and the observed indicator variables will be determined in Spring 2016.  Using this model, the Little Rock School District, the largest school district in Arkansas, is able to identify the particular opportunity to learn available to their students (as measured by this model) and improve that opportunity to learn with strategic, targeted efforts at the areas in which they are weak. 
Using OTL indicators developed by Jeannie Oakes and researchers at UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (2006), this study assesses eleven indicators that predict student success.  Clear standards provide students the notice and possibility to prepare high-stakes, performance-based assessments (Smith & Day, 1993).  How resources are used is as important as the amount of resources available to a school (Hanusheck, 1997).  Increasingly, research shows a relationship, although sometimes weak, between physical traits of school buildings and students’ ability to achieve (GAO Report, 1995).  Research indicates that each additional dollar spent on more highly-qualified teachers had a larger impact on student achievement than did any other any other use of school funds (NCTAF, 1996).  Evidence shows that students’ academic achievement is closely related to the rigor of the curriculum (Chubb & Moe, 1990).  An atmosphere that produces fear in students are not conducive to learning (Barton, Copley, & Wenglinsky, 1998).  In order to show educational improvement, the assessments used to measure growth must match the content being delivered (Messick, 1989).  Native language instruction has a positive impact on children learning English (Green, 1998).  Transparent reporting is necessary to ensure that stakeholders receive information that can be used to identify and replicate best practices, recognize and correct deficiencies, and continuously improve performance (CCSSO, 2011).  Research clearly shows a relationship between parental and community involvement and student success (Redding, Langdon, Meyer, & Sheley, 2004).  Research on early childhood education is abundant shows that PreK has positive impacts on future academic success for students, as well as economic gains for the nation (Lynch, 2007).  
Results
This study began in January 2016 and results will be available in August.  Preliminary analysis indicates that assessing opportunity to learn is indeed more nuanced than evaluating a school funding formula.  

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