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A-F Poverty Bias

October 27, 2012

Friday’s editorial in the Oklahoman praising all things A-F tried to throw cold water on the idea that poverty matters. We’ve heard State Superintendent Janet Barresi do it. We’ve heard State Board of Education member Bill Price do it too. When someone mentions poverty, they usually say they don’t want to hear the myths and excuses.

Ok, then. Maybe facts will be more compelling.

I took the 100 schools with the highest poverty rates (as indicated by free/reduced lunch participation) in the state and the 100 schools with the lowest poverty rates in the state and explored how the grades fell among them*.

Here is the grade distribution of the high-poverty schools:

Letter Grade Distribution of High-Poverty Schools




8 32 46


Here is the grade distribution of the low-poverty schools:

Letter Grade Distribution of Low-Poverty Schools 


46 48 3 2


Ten of the poorest 100 schools made an A or B. Of the most affluent, 94 did.

The Oklahoman used some of the outliers to justify its case:

Those who attribute good school grades to socio-economic factors are off the mark. Several A schools were in rural communities that aren’t concentrations of wealth and privilege. The poverty rate in Canton is higher than the statewide rate. Average household income is 14 percent lower than the statewide average. Yet Canton High School got an A. At Cottonwood in Coal County, the poverty rate is 21 percent; household income is 30 percent lower than the statewide average. Yet Cottonwood received an A.

(By the way, school districts have been hearing about the Cottonwood Miracle for nearly two years now. That’s why the SDE hired the district’s retired superintendent to be the state’s Literacy Director. Unfortunately, she doesn’t come to meetings with school district people, which makes the miracle a little harder to replicate.)

I have said this often, and I’ll say it again. Poverty matters. Students facing all kinds of socioeconomic hurdles (money, family disruption, mobility during the school year) struggle in school. Every school works hard to mitigate those factors. But you can never build on last year’s gains because you likely no longer have last year’s kids. Schools with high levels of poverty also have high teacher turnover.

Nobody in public education denies that all schools should have the same goals for all students. And few reasonable people looking in from the outside would see these statistical anomalies and declare a trend. Yes, it’s possible for high-poverty schools to have high achievement. Yes, it’s possible for low-poverty schools to fall flat. Trends, however, will always revert to form. In this case, predictably and reliably, the inherent bias in accountability systems follows form – and fails.

*Note – I used 2011 Free/Reduced Lunch Data and eliminated schools not receiving report cards.

  1. Kate
    October 27, 2012 at 7:53 am

    Just curious….if it’s not hard to do: If you take out the small schools (because of the small school bias in the SDE’s letter grade formula), what happens to those distributions? By small schools, I mean those who are small enough that their bottom 25% doesn’t get counted three times.


    • October 28, 2012 at 11:36 am


      Thanks for your comment. That would be interesting to explore. I don’t know that I’ll do it as explicitly as I did for poverty, but I’ll see what I can come up with. I’m working on a post for tonight that will discuss several reasons why any accountability measure (not just A-F) might be hard to stomach.


  2. October 27, 2012 at 10:11 am

    Good morning. I’m CCOSA’s staff attorney, and I primarily work in the special education area. Regarding Dr. Brecheen, thought I’d let you know that Dr. Rene Axtell, Asst. State Supt. for Special Ed, has invited her to attend two different meetings with members of the Oklahoma Directors of Special Services group, and Dr. Brecheen did attend and work with us, providing quite a lot of information about her reading plans and what she did at Cottonwood. Dr. Axtell, who came to SDE directly from Mid-Del Schools earlier in 2012, has been an excellent partner with the ODSS group, meeting with us regularly, seeking and accepting our input and bringing in others from her department and other sections of SDE to address our issues. Thanks for all your information. Andrea Kunkel


    • October 28, 2012 at 11:38 am


      Thanks for your comment. I do hope Dr. Brecheen makes herself more available to districts in the future as well. Last year, she was pretty elusive. Thanks to you and CCOSA for all you do to advocate for public schools! I can honestly say you help me stay informed about important issues as well!


  3. WakeUP
    October 27, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    Thank you. Wonderful, simple analysis.
    And THIS is why the idea of GOP cutting PBS is pitiful. When Mr. Romney joked about cutting PBS, it was another example of protect the rich at the expense of the poor. PBS is early childhood education for those who can’t access it and afford. It’s not about Big Bird, it’s about learning the alphabet, categorizing, Reading Rainbow. WHY DON’T VOTERS get that.


    • Union mom
      October 27, 2012 at 7:35 pm

      Governor Romney’s reply was about balancing the budget, not protecting the rich. Placing your child in front of the television to watch Big Bird does not replace placing the child in your lap and reading. Voters get that.


  4. Union mom
    October 27, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    Union district has 13 elementary schools. If you plot out which schools received the one A, the 5 B’s and 7 C’s, it is amazing how it follows the socioeconomic patterns in the district. My children attended the A school and one of the schools that received a C. The staff at each school was exceptional, and equal in their passion for the kids and teaching skills. The difference is the student population they are working with.


    • October 28, 2012 at 11:40 am

      Union mom,

      I appreciate you adding that! If you did this with any of the big suburban districts (Jenks, Union, Broken Arrow, Moore, Norman, Edmond, PC, Mid-Del), I bet you’d find the same thing. We have teachers in B and C schools making a huge difference in this state. Just because their schools don’t get an A doesn’t mean they aren’t great.


  5. Rachel
    October 27, 2012 at 8:43 pm

    More high-poverty schools should be full-service community schools, not charters that only select certain students. Let’s make every neighborhood public school BETTER so we can serve ALL students and make this country better! You can have public-private partnerships in PUBLIC schools that serve all children. Hopefully we will see more of them in the future when we learn how sketchy some of these charter schools are!


    • October 28, 2012 at 11:42 am


      Great comment! I’m afraid as the SDE pushes for the Parent Trigger, control of many schools will shift to profiteers rather than educators genuinely concerned for children.


  6. October 28, 2012 at 9:00 pm

    Thanks for this posting confirming what we are experiencing in Wisconsin. I just posted my take on Wisconsin’s new school report cards. I have similar results and conclusions.



  7. litenotes
    October 30, 2015 at 1:20 am

    I believe rural poverty tracks differently than suburban and urban poverty because the social status of poor students in rural areas isn’t as compromised as it is in urban and suburban areas. I grew up poor in rural Oklahoma, but I rarely felt left out of marginalized by my lack of resources. However, as a school counselor I observed poverty in suburban Norman having much more of a social impact than in rural areas. This social impact causes poor kids to experience more marginalization and identity conflict than it does in non-rural areas.


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