Posts Tagged ‘Poverty’

Same Straw Man, Different Day

December 14, 2013 10 comments

At first glance, today’s column in the Oklahoman seems like a minor departure for our state superintendent. She acknowledges the effects of poverty on learning. She uses a more conciliatory tone than she does in interviews and on the campaign trail.

Too many children come to school hungry, tired and ill-prepared to learn. More than half of Oklahoma kids in poverty are living with a single parent, many of whom are holding down two or more jobs just to make ends meet. Many of these children don’t have the benefit of an adult helping them with their homework, much less the use of books or a home computer.

That’s why the column is worth a second read. In spite of the subtle differences, the message remains consistent with everything she has ever said. She still believes Oklahoma schools are using poverty as an excuse rather than trying to help children.

Is poverty, then, good enough of a reason to hold these children to low expectations that essentially relegate them to a lesser education?

This is Janet Barresi’s standard Straw Man argument. What she doesn’t understand, having never spent a year teaching children in a high-poverty school, is that every teacher, principal, and staff member works to overcome these obstacles. At the end of the year, no good educator is satisfied with the results. Students take tests, and eventually, scores from those tests are converted into accountability measures.

As reflected by the A-F school grades released last month by the Oklahoma State Department of Education, there is often a correlation between students’ academic achievement and their income level.

That certainly isn’t the case universally. There are numerous cases of high-poverty schools that had exceptional performances. One such example is Southeast High School in Oklahoma City. Despite having 87 percent of its student body eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, the school earned an A overall. In the Putnam City district, Tulakes Elementary School — where more than 83 percent of students are on free or reduced-price lunches — earned a B-plus.

Barresi points to the outliers. Yes, they should be congratulated. Yes, we should delve heavily into exploring what works for them. We should not, however, accept the faulty logic of overlaying anecdotal evidence across every school in the state. If we do, then we should assume that every A school in the state is better than every B school in the state. I would argue differently. I have – repeatedly. A high-poverty school with a high grade has probably worked harder to get it. The B+ earned by Tulakes is probably more impressive than some of the higher grades earned by other schools.

It would be folly to deny the effects of poverty, but that should not, and cannot, allow for its acceptance. Poverty is a factor, not an excuse. We do no favors to children in low-income families when we hold them and their schools to a lesser standard of education. If we lower expectations for some students because of their economic condition, we in effect set them up for a future of closed doors and missed opportunities.

This is a matter of civil rights. A destitute child doesn’t warrant a good education any less than that of kids in comfortable suburbs. Schools alone can’t break the cycle of poverty, but providing a solid education for children in poverty can be a huge step toward giving them a pathway to a different future.

Nobody is arguing that a poor child deserves less of an education. Here she jabs again at her fictitious enemy. The calamity of it all is that she and her enablers know that poverty impacts achievement, but their solution continues to be blaming schools, rather than addressing poverty in our society.

Poverty creates a tremendous challenge for students, teachers and administrators. It will take a tremendous effort, but Oklahoma educators are more than up to the task.

If Barresi truly believed this last line, she wouldn’t continue insulting the profession and its professionals. She tells us in emails that it’s not her fault we aren’t doing our jobs. She calls out the “liberal education establishment” and those who would protect the status quo. She curses and pledges to block teachers from losing “another generation of Oklahoma’s children.”

Lost in this discussion is the picture of what working with students in poverty really entails. Schools not only struggle to meet their academic needs; they also lack the resources to attend to their physical, psychological, and social needs. Students in poverty don’t just lack adequate food and clothing. They are more likely to experience trauma in their home lives that interrupts the learning experience. Few schools have access to mental health professionals or social workers to regularly meet with children. Counselors are tied up managing the state testing program (in the schools that can still afford counselors).

Educators in schools with high poverty levels know that two things are true simultaneously. First, we want all students to succeed. Second, we know that no matter how hard we work we won’t always be successful. Understanding this balance between having high expectations and placing results in context is the key to remaining sane. It is not a lowering of expectations. It is not some Schrödingerian illusion in which two contradictory states exist simultaneously.

Having high expectations does not contradict with the understanding of the effects of poverty on learning. Not at all.

It’s time the state superintendent acknowledges this fact. What educators could use is more support, rather than two throw-away sentences at the end of another misleading opinion piece.

About the District Grades

November 18, 2013 Comments off

Thursday night, Oklahoma superintendents received notice from the State Department of Education that districts grades had posted. Again.

As you’ll recall, a week earlier, the SDE had attempted a simultaneous release of the school and district grades. They came close, but decided to hold back the district grades for corrections. I haven’t looked district-by-district at the grades, but there appear to have been very few changes.


Nov. 6

Nov. 14



















I’m all for the SDE taking the time to get the grades “right.” I just find myself questioning what took so long. What did we not understand on November 6th – six months after students tested – that we had a better feel for on the 14th? Is it the data or the formula?

Never mind. Neither answer reassures me.

I ran correlations between the district grades and free/reduced lunch rates and found a similar, but slightly smaller relationship than what exists with the school grades.

Comparison to Poverty


2013 District Grades


2013 School Grades


2012 District Grades


As I said last week, district grades hide things that site grades reveal. It makes sense that the relationship between poverty and performance is stronger at the site level. On the other hand, the formula we are using this year shows the relationship more clearly than the one we used last year.

Add to that the number of districts whose overall grade is lower than any of their school grades, and we have more evidence of just how flawed the system is.

High schools seem to be performing better than elementary and middle schools, even though they’re teaching the same students those elementary and middle schools have prepared for them. The people tasked with calculating the grades seem to have problems understanding what it is they’re supposed to do with the data. Worst of all, the current testing company can’t get scores right (writing re-scores have still not been delivered).

And at the end of the day, we’re still just identifying which schools and districts teach high concentrations of poor kids. Congratulations, Oklahoma. Money well-spent.

District Report Cards: Poverty Still Matters

December 7, 2012 8 comments

Yesterday, with little fanfare, the Oklahoma State Department of Education released district A-F Report Cards. Predictably, most districts fell into the B and C range. You can view district (and school) grades here.











The same criteria were used for districts as for the school report cards. Accordingly, the distribution of grades was similar. For the most part, districts with high poverty did worse than districts with low poverty. For the sake of being thorough, though, I spent a few minutes matching the districts to their free and reduced lunch participation rates. Running a simple Pearson regression test, I found that there to be a moderate, negative correlation (-0.44).

What this means is that districts with higher percentages of poverty tended to have lower report card GPAs. The tendency is not an absolute, but it shows the extent to which poverty predicts student performance. For further illustration, I have plotted school performance below, and included a line of best fit.


The distance from the trend line shows you how much a district over-performed or under-performed based upon statistical expectations. The dots to the far right represent the 13 school districts earning a 4.0 GPA (one of which got a B – yes there are penalties assessed for things like not testing enough students, leaving your name off your paper, or forgetting to write in cursive). Those districts range in free and reduced lunch participation from 36 to 87 percent. Yes, it is possible to have high achievement with high poverty. However, the schools and districts achieving this are outliers.

And yes, having outliers is a good thing. Maybe we can learn from the districts with high poverty and high achievement what the secret is to defying the sociological tendencies we all know to be true in education. Maybe poverty is but one variable explaining some of the variance in school scores. Maybe unemployment, mobility, parent education level, and family structure explain some of this as well.

I can accept any of that. What I can’t accept is the premise that these letter grades tell you how qualified or how effective the teachers in any of these districts are. Poverty explains a lot – maybe not everything, but enough that our leaders should be paying more attention to it.

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