Failing forethought 

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.

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.”

Fighting back
Interim Superintendent Dave Lopez knows his urban district has a
different and more challenging student demographic than his suburban

(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.”

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.

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.”

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

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.

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.

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.

State study
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

“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.”

and OSU researchers discovered that letter grades hide low test
performances of poor and minority students at “A” and “B” schools.

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.

Changing expectations
In some cases, success occurs when students and their families are aided by teachers and administrators who can provide solutions to longstanding problems.

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.

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.

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.

(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.

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