Researchers contend that crushing poverty is more significant than failing public schools or bad teachers.
Two years ago, a Stanford University study documented the new “income achievement gap.” The report showed family income is the “biggest determining factor in a student’s academic achievement.”
The same year, writer Joanna Barkan published a report in Dissent Magazine surveying decades of social science research.
Again, Barkan’s work showed that non-school factors like family income, poverty, hunger, lack of health care and parents’ education levels played greater roles in a child’s educational achievement than public school teachers.
But Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Baressi contend that any child, regardless of living conditions, is able to learn.
“We realize challenges occur in a child’s home life,” Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz said. “But Governor Fallin believes great teachers and great schools can help them overcome those challenges. To argue otherwise is to give up on public education.”
However, curtailing poverty and increasing family incomes might be more difficult than the governor and state superintendent think.
Two weeks ago, the Oklahoma Department of Education released its A-F grades for the 2012-2013 school term. As a district, Oklahoma City — with 91 percent of its students on the free and reduced meal program — received an “F.” The number of students enrolled in the free and reduced meal program illustrates the poverty level of a school district.
In comparison, more affluent districts like Edmond and Choctaw showed program participation levels at 27 and 38 percent, respectively. The statewide average is 53 percent. In stark contrast to OKC, 16 of Edmond’s 23 schools received “A’s” while Choctaw’s district posted two “A’s” and no grade lower than a “C.”
Although pleased with his district’s academic showing, longtime Choctaw Superintendent Jim McCharen understands that poverty and a troubled family life can result in poor grades for students.
“It’s huge. It’s a big factor, perhaps the most important factor,” he said. “Can I make a difference with a child from an impoverished situation? We do our best, and we believe we have some influence on that. But there are some kids who come to school and their mind is not on learning. Some of them are wondering if they’ll have a meal tonight. Maybe they don’t have books or a computer at home. Maybe they saw stepdad beat mom the night before and now they have to concentrate on a test. There are some things out of a teacher’s control.”
OKC Interim Superintendent Dave Lopez knows his urban district has a different and more challenging student demographic than his suburban counterparts.
(out-of-school issues) are factors, not excuses,” he said. “We should
not look at our students as victims because of where they come from or
their family life. Despite the challenges, whether from an economic or
racial standpoint, it shouldn’t limit our expectations of these
Still, 38 OKC schools failed and 18 others received a “D.” Only five schools — including Classen High School of Advanced Studies and Classen Middle School of Advanced Studies — received an “A.” In contrast, a review of eight suburban districts — Edmond, Moore, Norman, Yukon, Mustang, Choctaw, Putnam City and Mid-Del — revealed only one school failed and 10 received “D’s.”
However, Lopez — a firstgeneration high school and college grad from his family — was quick to point to other OKC successes at U.S. Grant High School and Pierce Elementary as examples of reversing course. Grant, which two years ago was a failing school, missed an “A” this year by one point. Pierce, meanwhile, received a “B-” despite having 90 percent of its students on the free and reduced meal program.
“These are but two examples,” Baressi said during a Nov. 6 state board of education meeting. “Raising the bar challenges school districts and educators to meet higher expectations to spur student achievement. There is no valid reason that children in Idaho and Iowa, on average, are more proficient readers than ours. There is no reason that kids in Kansas and Kentucky are doing significantly better in math.”
One explanation might be that three of the states — Kansas, Idaho and Iowa — have lower overall poverty and child poverty rates than Oklahoma. The Sooner State has an overall poverty rate of 17.2 percent and a child poverty rate of 23.4 percent, according to povertyusa.org.
In March 2009, Arizona State University Professor David C. Berliner published his report Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success, which illustrated that non-school issues are more prevalent than most political and education leaders would like to believe.
“Our nation, perhaps grown weary of hearing the same old claims about U.S. children being made unequal by the economic and social systems of our society, has turned to a callous policy that allows us to officially ignore the inputs or OSFs (out-of-school factors) that unquestionably affect achievement. Schools are told to fix problems that they have never been able to fix and that largely lie outside their zone of influence,” Berliner wrote.
Among the most significant issues are poor urban neighborhoods riddled with high crime and low expectations for academic success.
is indisputable that neighborhoods independently have significant
effects on achievement, often by weakening parental influences
associated with student achievement. … Schools whose attendance
boundaries include dysfunctional neighborhoods face far greater
challenges in nurturing student achievement than do those that draw
students from healthier neighborhoods,” Berliner wrote in his report.
In addition, a 2008 University of Michigan research report suggested living in a low-income neighborhood may have a greater effect on inequality in test scores than coming from a lowincome family.
Researchers at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University reached similar conclusions as Berliner in the report Oklahoma School Grades: Hiding “Poor” Achievement. The OU-OSU study found that out-of-school factors had a more substantial impact on test scores than in-school influences such as teachers and counselors.
“More than 70 percent is due to non-school causes. Of course, schools do affect test results, but the effect size is routinely found to be between 20 and 30 percent,” the researchers wrote in the report released in October. “Thus, composing school letter grades from student test performance alone will frequently give false credit or blame to schools for effects that are mostly unrelated to what they do.”
OU and OSU researchers discovered that letter grades hide low test performances of poor and minority students at “A” and “B” schools.
“High scoring, affluent students in those schools produce averages that give the appearance of school effectiveness for all, essentially masking the especially low performance of poor and minority children,” the report’s authors wrote.
Still, Oklahoma’s top education chief believes single test scores are the best method to measure academic achievement.
In some cases, success occurs when students and their families are aided by teachers and administrators who can provide solutions to longstanding problems.
Richard Caram, state Assistant Superintendent of School Turnaround, admits poverty plays a significant role in educational achievement, especially at the high school level, where the stakes are generally higher.
“Children from less affluent or poor families have money barriers to overcome to attend college,” he said. “Sometimes, households don’t see that as an option. You can’t change a family’s income, but you can change what they expect of their child. We can help them open some doors so they can become first-generation college graduates.”
But Caram asserts that getting to college will require an increased level of academic rigor.
“There is no reason it should be any different for Edmond students than it is for Oklahoma City students. Students anywhere can meet those high expectations, but they need to know what the expectations are. Despite the (out-of-school) barriers, we have to show them ways of being successful,” he said.
In some cases, success can be quicker than expected for individual students and entire schools.
“The (student) population didn’t change. The parents didn’t suddenly start making $60,000 a year. Instead, the leaders dug in and found out what they needed to do. It’s no different than a business when the leader takes that company into the toilet or pushes it where stock is selling at $45 a share.
“But the longer we wait, the more we lose.”
Report cards for each school district and individual schools can be found at www. ok.gov/sde.