It is still about the poverty!
by Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader
The test scores for the Washington D.C. schools are in and while they are generally disappointing what is more informative is the fact they clearly demonstrate one of the fundamental causes of low academic performance—poverty.
This is not a new or original discovery. Mel Riddile organized data clearly indicating that the U.S. scores on the most recent PISA tests were far more about socio-economic issues than poor teaching. But these numbers from the Nation’s Capitol place an exclamation mark on his assertions.
A quick tour of Washington D.C.
I once heard someone say that zip codes are the best predictors of standardized test scores. Three of the eight wards in the District of Columbia reinforce the validity of that comment.
Ward 3: has a median household income of $97,690 and less than 4% of families with minor children are below the poverty line.
Ward 7: More than one-third (34%) of families with minor children live in poverty, and the median household income is $34,966.
Ward 8: The poorest of the city’s eight areas where two of every five children (40%) have incomes below poverty level and the median household income is $31,188.
A comparison of scores
The elementary and secondary math pass rates in Ward 3 indicate that students scored more than 40 points higher than those in Ward 7 and 50 more than Ward 8. Test results in different subject areas parallel those of mathematics.
But there are other areas that demonstrate the imbalance between rich and poor. Using the city’s own criteria for teaching excellence, the IMPACT evaluation, the vast majority of the higher rated educators gravitate to the wealthier areas. Only 71 of the top 663 teachers in the system worked at 41 schools located In Ward 7 and Ward 8. That represents an average of less than two per school. In the ten Ward 3 schools there were 135 of these educators placing on average more than 13 highly effective teachers per building.
A vicious cycle of failure
These statistics underscore what is already known. Students at poor schools do not perform as well as those at wealthy ones. It also emphasizes that in an era of accountability based in large part on these results, a preponderance of the top educators in a district will migrate to the more well-to-do buildings. School leaders need to recognize this disparity and address it by offering incentives for top level administrators and teachers to work at low-performing schools. These could include both financial rewards and a different and enlightened approach to measuring progress in test results in areas that traditionally do poorly.
Otherwise, the academic story in Washington D.C. will continue to be a microcosm of entire country.