Helen Ladd, Professor of Public Policy at Duke University, and her husband, Edward Fiske, former education editor of the New York Times, reviewed the recently released letter grades for schools and here explain what they mean.
In a nutshell, we need to figure out how to break the link between poverty and achievement in our schools. A crucial first step is to support policies and programs that directly address the particular challenges that poor students bring with them to school.
The most striking pattern that emerged from the letter grades from the NC Department of Public Instruction was the near-perfect correlation between letter grades and economic disadvantage. The News & Observer reported that 80 percent of schools where at least four-fifths of children qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch received a D or F grade, whereas 90 percent of schools with fewer than one in five students on the subsidized lunch program received As or Bs.
The fact that, on average, students from disadvantaged households perform less well in school than peers from more advantaged backgrounds has been documented at all levels of education.
What can we do? Ladd and Fiske say there are three possible strategies:
1. Reduce poverty directly. That will be politically difficult and take time, even though it is the best response.
2. Ignore the problem. This is the approach of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.
They write about this approach of denial:
Policymakers often rationalize their denial of the relationship between poverty on achievement because they sincerely believe that schools should offset the effects of low socio-economic status. Others fear that setting lower expectations for some groups of students – what President George W. Bush called the “soft bigotry of low expectations” – will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But in both cases, simply wanting something to be true does not make it true.
Still other policymakers cite examples of schools serving low-income students, such as some of the Knowledge as Power Program (KIPP) charter schools that have managed to “beat the odds” with disadvantaged students. Consistent with such exceptions, according to The News & Observer, about 5 percent of North Carolina schools where at least three-fifths of students qualify for subsidized lunches, received As or Bs as letter grades, some of them charters. But such successes are often largely attributable to these schools’ success in attracting students from the high end of the ability or motivational spectrum, or to substantial supplemental funding from foundations, or to extremely hard work of their teachers. Absolutely no evidence exists that the few success stories can be scaled up to address the needs of large proportions of disadvantaged students.
3. A third – and far more preferable – approach is to acknowledge that while we are not going to be able to eliminate poverty any time soon, we can find ways of targeting the specific ways in which poverty hampers learning. Put another way, we can address the particular challenges that disadvantaged children face as they pursue their education.
Fortunately, we already know a lot about these challenges. A wide body of research has demonstrated how poor health care – both physical and mental – and the lack of quality early childhood education translates into low cognitive performance. Research by one of the authors, Helen Ladd, and two colleagues has shown that quality early education programs reduce the need for spending on special education later on.
Other research has documented how poor children often have limited access to the language and problem solving skills that serve as springboards to future learning. We know how family poverty also translates into limited access to books and computers at home or to the enrichment that comes from vacation travel….
The challenge for policymakers is to look for ways to minimize the impact of the particular challenges that many disadvantaged children face. We should, in short, look for ways to provide children from low-income families with the same sort of education-enriching experiences and resources that middle-income children take for granted.
They give examples of valuable interventions such as school-based health clinics, early childhood programs, after-school and summer programs, and other “wraparound” services.
The message of the letter grades, say Ladd and Fiske, is that the relationship between poverty and low school achievement can no longer be denied.