Poverty matters, schools matter
Can schools help kids succeed despite the obstacles of poverty? Here's some new back-and-forth on one of the big questions about schools - and a local example from Pinellas to chew on as you're thinking about it.
First, from this New York Times op-ed by Duke professor Helen F. Ladd and former NYT education editor Edward B. Fiske (the St. Petersburg Times reprinted it a few days ago):
So why do presumably well-intentioned policy makers ignore, or deny, the correlations of family background and student achievement? Some honestly believe that schools are capable of offsetting the effects of poverty. Others want to avoid the impression that they set lower expectations for some groups of students for fear that those expectations will be self-fulfilling. In both cases, simply wanting something to be true does not make it so.
And here's the comeback from Peter Meyer at the Education Next blog:
No matter how often serious reformers repeat it – and I have heard it often – the status quo ante brigades that Ravitch and Ladd and Fiske and Weingarten represent so well refuse to hear it: poverty matters, class matters, parents matter, kids matter, and, what these new establishmentarians keep denying, schools matter. No serious reformer that I know of, as Ladd and Fiske assert, “den[ies] a correlation [between poverty and educational achievement].” In fact, it is these reformers’ very embrace of those challenges that distinguishes them from the new establishmentarians and allowed them to, yes, “beat the odds."
Here's the local example that's hard for us to stop thinking about:
In 2009, the St. Petersburg Times took a look at high-poverty schools to see how many were making significant progress, at least by FCAT standards. The story, which was anchored by Blanton Elementary in Pinellas, said this:
It's commonly assumed there is an iron-clad correlation between poverty and academics. Poor school? Bad school. But in Florida, a growing number of high-poverty schools are defying public perception.
Nearly 1 in 4 elementary schools across Florida with poverty levels above 70 percent have improved as much if not more than Blanton in the past five years, a St. Petersburg Times review of FCAT scores shows. Many of those schools — from Wimauma in south Hillsborough to Tangelo Park in Orlando to Arlington in Jacksonville — have 20 percent more kids reading and doing math at grade level than they did in 2003.
Many still have minimal parental involvement. Many still have overall scores that are below average. But some of them are now in the same league as schools with humming PTAs and swarms of soccer moms.
Since the story, Blanton's scores have continued to improve even though its percentage of free/reduced lunch kids has continued to climb. (It was at 86 percent last year, up from 76 percent when we did the story). Last year, 78 percent of its students were at grade level or above in both reading and math.
Blanton was in the news again recently, in this moving story by Times reporter Rebecca Catalanello. The story makes it clear the school doesn't just focus on academics.
Maybe that's why it's doing a lot better than some people expect it should.