Education Gap Goes Beyond Educators

July 28, 2013

Some of the state’s school districts are eagerly anticipating, while some no doubt are dreading, the imminent announcement of this year’s school grades from the state Department of Education.

The high performers will be ballyhooed, as the state has every reason to do.  But after a year-long study of last year’s state grades, I am convinced that context for the grades is as critical as the grades themselves.  And unfortunately, the state won’t even mention that part.

So here it is:  Schools are not playing, nor are they judged, on a level playing field.  And it’s going to take more than educators to fix those differences.

The grades for the just concluded 2012-2013 school year come as Arizona approaches an important crossroads. With the impending arrival of the new Common Core Standards, which will replace the state’s AIMS testing in 2015, we can either rise from the ashes of statewide student achievement or be left in the dust.  Why not take a new approach to teaching the new standards?

But “rising up” entails facing up to some disquieting realities, rather than pushing them under the rug.  The fundamental issues are so entrenched that they are not going to magically go away, or even change much, from one year to the next.

The dynamics are best captured in this one simple graph, which state officials are not going to tell you about but that provides what Thinking Arizona believes is the most telling view of elementary school performance for the 2011-2012 school year:

Thinking Arizona graphic by Tony Bustos

1. Many Students Are Poor

You’ll notice that there are many more dots on the right of the graph than on the left.  Dots on the right are schools in which most students are impoverished or close to it, as measured by those who qualify for a subsidized lunch.  Dots on the left are schools low in poverty.

The graph clearly shows a majority of students in a majority of Arizona’s schools are poor.

Our “education problem” is as much or more a poverty problem.   If most schools were on the left side of the graph, the education problem would quickly disappear.  That’s because of this:

2. Poverty Affects Education

The downward slope of the dots shows poverty’s detrimental effect on education.

The red line, drawn from analyzing the results of 1,000 Arizona elementary schools, shows that the expectable state rating is 148 for schools that have 10 percent of their students in poverty.  The expectable rating slides to 112 at schools where 90 percent of students are below the poverty line.

The higher number would earn an A in the state grading system.  The lower number would get a C.  The downward slope of the red line is the tilt in the playing field.

3. Some Excel But Some Fail

Some schools exceed expectations.  Some fall short.  Dots above the red line are schools that do better than expected for any socio-economic level.  Below the line are schools that do worse.

The schools on the left of the graph that do slightly better than expectations deserve the commendations they receive.  The schools to the right – the ones operating in tough economic circumstances – that rise far above the line should be celebrated.

The principal of one of those, Stephen Trejo of C.E. Rose Elementary in Tucson, doesn’t mince words about the accomplishment of these schools:  “It can be done.”   He’s managed to do just that.

The trouble is that many don’t.  Many of those that don’t are on the right side of the graph.  Even when they’re given an allowance of sorts, as represented by the sloping red line, they still don’t get over the bar.   The differences, district by district.

4. This Is the Future, Folks

The disquieting part of all this is that, unless we do something differently, the graph forebodes the future.

The annual report from the National Center for Education Statistics suggests a strong correlation between a person’s success in school and his future success in life.

The children living in poverty who get less of an education are going to do what?   The most able will somehow rise above their challenging circumstances, but pity many of the students who attend schools on the lower right side of the graph.   An insufficient education isn’t going to help them escape their sentence to a permanent underclass – for the cycle of poverty is destined to repeat itself.

The consequences are driven home in the opening chapter of Tucson education consultant Debbie Arechiga’s book, Reaching English Language Learners in Every Classroom.  Arechiga turns to education scholar Pedro Noguera who notes that achievement gaps bode ill both for students and “for society as a whole, since the costs of large-scale underachievement are very high.”

The cycle of poverty weighs heavily on individuals.  And by the large numbers of those affected, it weighs heavily on the state.

Unless we do something differently.

That by itself is a politically charged statement.  The bleeding hearts reflexively want to boost up the laggards.  The hard heads reflexively want instead to encourage the leaders in the belief that all the others will somehow follow.  And if they don’t, well so be it.

At stake here is the very premise of public education.  Its role always has been to prepare young people to contribute to society.  The question at hand is whether everyone deserves an equal opportunity to pull themselves up by the bootstraps.

Put another way, can the playing field be leveled?   What must be done to lessen the slope of the red line?  Or does one not even try?

Left alone, the situation won’t get much better and easily could get worse.  The coming Common Core Standards will present a stiff challenge to all schools, but the consequences are likely to fall most heavily on those who are struggling the most.

Solving Big Problems With Tiny Breakthroughs

The solution isn’t going to come from some Big Bang that makes everything better.  The real world doesn’t work that way.  The real world takes real work.

Progress needs to come from thousands and thousands of tiny breakthroughs made one at a time.  Test scores will not skyrocket.  Each student’s scores will be boosted by multiple stimuli that separately may be too subtle to measure.  But when they’re added together, they need to be enough to matter.

The additional impetus has to come from four major sources:

1. Educators themselves.

2. State policy-makers.

3. Community organizations.

4. And finally, a huge but under-tapped resource, parents.

Most in these four groups put all the responsibility at the doorstep of educators.  A fair amount of that is as it should be.

Educators have to explain why so many schools do worse than some with similar circumstances. They have to figure out how to milk more out of the existing system.  They need to do some soul searching as to whether they can whip the Common Core Standards without some significant changes to the same old same old.

Responsibility doesn’t stop with the schools, however.

Much as elected officials like to point the finger at educators, part of the onus is on the state.

The state’s approach to education is centered on the belief that letting parents choose where their children go to school solves all problems, end of discussion.   Except it turns out that the choice between a traditional school and a charter school isn’t necessarily a good one.  A just-completed national study shows that charters – which make up a higher percentage of schools in Arizona than any other state – are dragging students down, not boosting them up.  Thinking Arizona’s report on the study.

The State Needs to Help

The state makes no special effort to take on, much less ameliorate, the problems of students who are poor. That’s unfortunate given that a majority of students in the state are poor.

Arizona is plagued in part by the not-so-small issue of state funding, which ranks among the very lowest in the country.  As one for instance, while some states are raising their investment in early childhood education, Arizona has pulled back.  We as a state need to honestly look at what, if any, forms of spending more will produce more.

Responsibility does not stop with government either.

Witness, for instance, the good deeds done by La Casa de Cristo Lutheran Church in Phoenix.  The church has made all the difference for Campo Bello Elementary, one of the few schools on the right side of the graph that has raised itself far enough above the line to get an A from the state.

What would happen if La Casa’s efforts were duplicated by community organizations throughout the state?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, are parents and surrogate parents.  Too many aren’t doing what they should to help schools educate their children. Changing that is a whole new effort onto itself.

They say where there’s a will, there’s a way.   We as a state need to put away our indifference to school differences, and get on with fixing them. The red line can be moved upward, its slope can be changed, but first we need the collective will to make it happen.

– Richard Gilman






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  1. Nina Seifert Bishop on said:

    Educate not only your children but their parents as well. Get rid of charter schools; they do not perform better than traditional public schools. Keep out pretend teachers from Teach for America. Students excel when they have a stable school environment. Invest in training your experienced teachers instead of hiring pretend teachers; respect them, support them and pay them well to keep them in your schools. Oppose Common Core and inBloom student data mining. Refuse the state test; it undermines quality instruction time and feeds into corporate privatization of public schools.

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