The Narrative Of School Failure And Why We Must Pay Attention To Segregation In Educational Policy

Our guest authors today are Kara S. Finnigan, Associate Professor at the Warner School of Education of the University of Rochester, and Jennifer Jellison Holme, Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin.  Finnigan and Holme have published several articles and briefs on the issue of school integration including articles in press in Teachers College Record and Educational Law and Policy Review as well as a research brief for the National Coalition on School Diversity. This is the first of a two-part blog series on this topic.

Imagine that you wake up one morning with a dull pain in your tooth. You take ibuprofen, apply an ice pack, and try to continue as if things are normal.  But as the pain continues to grow over the next few days, you realize that deep down there is a problem – and you are reminded of this every so often when you bite down and feel a shooting pain.  Eventually, you can’t take it any longer and get an x-ray at the dentist’s office, only to find out that what was originally a small problem has spread throughout the whole tooth and you need a root canal.  Now you wish you hadn’t waited so long.

Why are we talking about a root canal in a blog post about education? As we thought about how to convey the way we see the situation with low-performing schools, this analogy seemed to capture our point. Most of us can relate to what happens when we overlook a problem with our teeth, and yet we don’t pay attention to what can happen when we overlook the underlying problems that affect educational systems.

In this blog post, we argue that school segregation by race and poverty is one of the underlying causes of school failure, and that it has been largely overlooked in federal and state educational policy in recent decades.

Unionization And Working Poverty

Our guest author today is Ian Robinson, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and in the Residential College’s interdisciplinary Social Theory and Practice program at the University of Michigan.

Poverty is (by definition) a function of inadequate income relative to family or household size. Low income has two possible proximate causes: insufficient hours of employment and/or insufficient hourly wages.  In 2001, there were four times more poor U.S. households in which someone had a job than there were in households in which no one did.  The same is still true today.  In other words, despite levels of unemployment far above post-World War Two norms, low wage jobs are by far the most important proximate cause of poverty in America today.

Perversely, despite this reality, the academic literature on U.S. poverty pays less attention to such jobs than it does to unemployment. A recent article, published in the journal American Sociological Review, both identifies and makes up for that shortcoming. In the process, its authors arrive at some striking conclusions. In particular, they find that unions are a major force for reducing poverty rates among households with at least one employed person.

Why Stop In Early Childhood? Two-Generation Strategies To Improve Educational Outcomes

In education research, it is now widely accepted that ages 0 to 5 are crucial years for child development. In addition, there is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that children perform better behaviorally and academically in families with stable employment and rising incomes, families with stable employment and those where parents themselves are improving their own educational levels.

Although it’s clear that increasing parents’ human capital protects and enhances the investments made in their children, "few programs have addressed the postsecondary education and training needs of low-income parents" (p. 2) through comprehensive, family-(child- and parent-) centered strategies.*

I learned about some remarkable exceptions at a recent New America Foundation discussion on innovations in child care and early learning. Four providers from around the country were asked to describe their programs, all largely focused on helping parents achieve the kind of economic stability needed to support their children’s educational attainment.**

Do Value-Added Models "Control For Poverty?"

There is some controversy over the fact that Florida’s recently-announced value-added model (one of a class often called “covariate adjustment models”), which will be used to determine merit pay bonuses and other high-stakes decisions, doesn’t include a direct measure of poverty.

Personally, I support adding a direct income proxy to these models, if for no other reason than to avoid this type of debate (and to facilitate the disaggregation of results for instructional purposes). It does bear pointing out, however, that the measure that’s almost always used as a proxy for income/poverty – students’ eligibility for free/reduced-price lunch – is terrible as a poverty (or income) gauge. It tells you only whether a student’s family has earnings below (or above) a given threshold (usually 185 percent of the poverty line), and this masks most of the variation among both eligible and non-eligible students. For example, families with incomes of $5,000 and $20,000 might both be coded as eligible, while families earning $40,000 and $400,000 are both coded as not eligible. A lot of hugely important information gets ignored this way, especially when the vast majority of students are (or are not) eligible, as is the case in many schools and districts.

That said, it’s not quite accurate to assert that Florida and similar models “don’t control for poverty." The model may not include a direct income measure, but it does control for prior achievement (a student’s test score in the previous year[s]). And a student’s test score is probably a better proxy for income than whether or not they’re eligible for free/reduced-price lunch.

Even more importantly, however, the key issue about bias is not whether the models “control for poverty," but rather whether they control for the range of factors – school and non-school – that are known to affect student test score growth, independent of teachers’ performance. Income is only one part of this issue, which is relevant to all teachers, regardless of the characteristics of the students that they teach.

Income And Educational Outcomes

The role of poverty in shaping educational outcomes is one of the most common debates going on today. It can also be one of the most shallow.

The debate tends to focus on income. For example (and I’m generalizing a bit here), one “side” argues that income and test scores are strongly correlated; the other “side” points to the fact that many low-income students do very well and cautions against making excuses for schools’ failure to help poor kids.

Both arguments have merit, but it bears quickly mentioning that the focus on the relationship between income and achievement is a rather crude conceptualization of the importance of family background (and non-schooling factors in general) for education outcomes. Income is probably among the best widely available proxies for these factors, insofar as it is correlated with many of the conditions that can hinder learning, especially during a child’s earliest years. This includes (but is not at all limited to): peer effects; parental education; access to print and background knowledge; parental involvement; family stressors; access to healthcare; and, of course, the quality of neighborhood schools and their teachers.

And that is why, when researchers try to examine school performance – while holding constant the effect of factors outside of schools’ control – income or some kind of income-based proxy (usually free/reduced price lunch) can be a useful variable. It is, however, quite limited.

What Are "Middle Class Schools"?

An organization called “The Third Way” released a report last week, in which they present descriptive data on what they call “middle class schools." The primary conclusion of their analysis is that “middle class schools” aren’t “making the grade," and that they are “falling short on their most basic 21st century mission: To prepare kids to get a college degree." They also argue that “middle class schools” are largely ignored in our debate and policymaking, and we need a “second phase of school reform” in order to address this deficit.

The Wall Street Journal swallowed the report whole, running a story presenting Third Way’s findings under the headline “Middle class schools fail to make the grade."

To be clear, I think that our education policy debates do focus on lower-income schools to a degree that sometimes ignores those closer to the middle of the distribution. So, it’s definitely worthwhile to take a look at “middle class schools’” performance and how it can be improved. In other words, I’m very receptive to the underlying purpose of the report.

That said, this analysis consists mostly of arbitrary measurement and flawed, vague interpretations. As a result, it actually offers little meaningful insight.

No Excuses In Anti-Poverty Policy As Well

Much of the current education debate consists of a constant, ongoing argument about the role of poverty. One “side” is accused of using poverty as an excuse for not improving schools, and of saying that poverty is destiny in regard to educational outcomes. The other “side” is accused of completely ignoring the detrimental effects of poverty, and of arguing that market-based reforms can by themselves transform our public education system.

Both portrayals are inaccurate, and both “sides” know it, yet the accusations continue. Of course there is a core of truth in the characterizations, but the differences are far more nuanced than the opponents usually communicate. It’s really a matter of degree. In addition to differences in the specifics of what should be done, a lot boils down to variations in how much improvement we believe can be gained by teacher-focused education reform (or by education reform in general) by itself. In other words, some people have higher expectations than others.

I have previously argued that the reasonable expectation for teacher quality-based reforms is that, if everything goes perfectly (which is far from certain), they will generate very slow, gradual improvement over a period of years and decades. This means we should make these changes, but be very careful to design them sensibly, monitor their effects, and maintain realistic expectations (for the record, I think we are, in many respects, falling short on all three counts).

But the thing that I find a little frustrating about the whole poverty/education thing is that, while nobody should use poverty as an excuse in education policy, it’s not uncommon to hear education used as an excuse, of sorts, in discussions about anti-poverty policy.

Would The New York City Layoffs Hurt Poor Schools More?

As first reported by the New York Times, the New York City Department of Education released a dataset this past Sunday, which lists the number of potential teacher layoffs that would occur in each school absent a budget infusion.

Layoffs are a terrible thing for schools and students, and this list is sobering. But the primary impetus for releasing for this dataset appears to be the city’s ongoing push to end so-called seniority-based layoffs, and its support for seniority-ending legislation that is now making its way through the state legislature. One of the big talking points on this issue has always been that layoffs that take experience into account would hurt high-poverty schools the most, because these schools tend to have the least experienced teachers. As I discussed in a prior post, Michelle Rhee is making this argument everywhere she goes, and it was one of the primary themes in a new report by the New Teacher Project (released last week). Although I have not heard city officials use the argument since the database was released over the weekend, similar assertions have very recently been made by Mayor Bloomberg, former Chancellor Joel Klein, and current Chancellor Cathie Black.

I find all this a bit curious, given that the best research on the topic finds that the argument is untrue (including a study of New York City, and a statewide analysis of Washington [also here]). Now, it is at least possible that, if layoffs were conducted strictly on the basis of seniority, higher-poverty schools could end up bearing the brunt of dismissals. This is almost never the case, however – layoffs in almost every district proceed based on a variety of criteria, among which seniority is only one (albeit often the most important).

It is fortuitous, then, that the city’s dataset provides an opportunity to test the claim that the “worst-case scenario” – over 4,500 layoffs using current New York City procedures – would hurt high-poverty schools the most. Let’s take a look.

PISA For Our Time: A Balanced Look

Press coverage of the latest PISA results over the past two months has almost been enough to make one want to crawl under the bed and hide. Over and over, we’ve been told that this is a “Sputnik moment," that the U.S. among the lowest performing nations in the world, and that we’re getting worse.

Thankfully, these claims are largely misleading. Insofar as we’re sure to hear them repeated often over the next few years—at least until the next set of international results come in — it makes sense to try to correct the record (also see here and here).

But, first, I want to make it very clear that U.S. PISA results are not good enough by any stretch of the imagination, and we can and should do a whole lot better. Nevertheless, international comparisons of any kind are very difficult, and if we don’t pay careful attention to what the data are really telling us, it will be more difficult to figure out how to respond appropriately.

This brings me to three basic points about the 2009 PISA results that we need to bear in mind.