Thursday, June 25, 2009

Proving the Correlation Between Poverty and Academic Success

One of the joys of summer is that I finally have the time to process the various reports that I gather during the school year but don't always have a chance to read; I'm starting off with Report Card on Washington State's Elementary Schools 2009 from the loyal opposition at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.

What they've done is actually quite impressive--a rank order, from 1st to 1,127th place, of all the elementary schools in Washington State. I have some qualms about the methodology--these rankings are completely WASL-driven, which makes them rank in another sense of the word--but if we look at the report more as a discussion piece and less as an evaluative measure, it has some potential value.

(Might as well dispense with the snark right away--I'm a union guy, a teacher union guy, and as such fairly well disposed to not like anything, ever, that the EFF does. That said, I've had pleasant e-mail exchanges with a number of their staffers, and while their beliefs are diametrically opposed to mine, I won't question the sincerity of what they think.)

I think the over-reach, though, can be found right in the introduction to the report:
Previous studies have shown that variations in student results from school to school cannot be accounted for solely by the personal and family characteristics of a school’s students. Many other factors—including good teaching, counseling, and school administration—contribute to the effectiveness of schools. Indicators like low income describe past relationships between a socioeconomic characteristic and a measure of school effectiveness. It should not be inferred that these relationships will, or should, remain static. The more successfully schools enable all their students to succeed, the weaker will be the relationship between the family characteristics of students and their academic success. Thus, this socioeconomic indicator should not be used as an excuse for poor school performance.
Laudable, certainty. The great legacy of the Bush administration will be No Child Left Behind, and I say that with the utmost sincerity--the focus on disaggregated scores, and measuring all sub-groups, and making sure that all kids are coming along--that's what we should have been doing since the beginning. It's never a comfortable conversation, but it's the most important one we can have. That said, in the context of failing schools and failing kids, "excuse" is a loaded word. Poverty and race should never be the excuse for a school's low performance, but to ignore those metrics as even being factors would be a hell of a mistake to make.

And frankly, the report itself backs me up on this. Creating tables in Blogger is nigh-on impossible, but here you can see a spreadsheet that I made comparing the top 15 schools in the state, those that earned a perfect 10 on the rankings, to the bottom 20 schools in the state, those that earned less than a 2.0 on the scale. The interesting pieces:
  • Of the bottom 20, 19 of them are majority-minority schools, where the majority of the students come from minority populations. Only Oakville Elementary breaks even, with 50% caucasian students.
  • On the other hand, in the top 15 schools, white students are always the majority (all at 60%+). In 13 of the 15 the largest minority group is Asian students; in the other two (both from Spokane), the largest minority group is mixed-race students.
  • Each of the bottom 20 schools has higher than 70% of the kids coming from low-income households. 4 of the schools are tribal schools and don't report the percentage of their kids who are low income. Of the 16 reporting schools, the average percentage of low-income students is about 83%.
  • At the top 15 the average percentage of low-income students is 6%. One school (Libby Center of Spokane) has 23% low-income; if you take it out of the picture, the average drops to less than 5%. At two of the top 15 schools, less than 1% of the kids are low-income.
The Fraser Institute, which has been doing these analyses on Canadian schools for a number of years now, is quite explicit in calling the high schools winners and the bottom schools losers.

By their metrics, then, the way to be a winner is clear: be well-off and white. It's also very explicit who the report thinks the losers are. That's a shame.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

By their metrics, then, the way to be a winner is clear: be well-off and white. It's also very explicit who the report thinks the losers are.

Eh, slight over statement here.

The report's intended audience is not students, but the adults. While the obvious focus of discussion is those employed in education, a bigger audience is the adults with the far greater impact on the student--the adults in the household.

Cultures value education to the extent that they see the point of the effort to learn. Mightn't reports as this prompt some cultural change with positive effects for kids?

And with that particular audience in mind, the challenge to not make excuses makes more sense. Who wouldn't want the parents of minority majority (the irony of that phase is a whole essay) schools to see the ranking and set out to change it?

Nothing I read or heard suggests that a noun "loser" applies to anyone as a label.

If the race discussion makes one uncomfortable, then cast the whole discussion in terms of the fact that the large Asian population is pulling up the average scores of the white kids in 13 of the top 15.

8:42 AM  

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