Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction just launched a new report card system which allows anyone to compare schools from all over the state. Previously it was almost impossible to make any type of comparison beyond test score data. Now, in addition to test scores, each school is examined on student growth, postsecondary readiness, absenteeism, dropout […]

Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction just launched a new report card system which allows anyone to compare schools from all over the state. Previously it was almost impossible to make any type of comparison beyond test score data. Now, in addition to test scores, each school is examined on student growth, postsecondary readiness, absenteeism, dropout rate and several other indicators. The system isn’t perfect, but it is a step in the right direction.

The system’s rating system is as follows:
83-100   Significantly Exceeds Expectation
73-82.9  Exceeds Expectations
63-72.9  Meets Expectations
53-62.9  Meets Few Expectations
0-52.9    Fails to Meet Expectations

Because the DPI website allows one to download the data as a Microsoft Excel file, we can sort the data and look for correlations. And the strongest correlation found is between the school rate number and the percentage of students in poverty.  

The 20 lowest-rated schools are all from Milwaukee. These lowest performing schools have at least 75 percent of the students living in poverty; most schools are above 90 percent. Of the lowest 200 income schools, only 18 schools rated “Meets Expectations.” Of the top 200 income schools in Wisconsin, only one school fell below  “Meets Expectations.”  It does not matter if a school is city, small town, or rural – the correlation between school rate number and poverty holds.

Consider the West Allis-West Milwaukee School system. The higher income Nathan Hale High School scores much better (73.8) than its lower income cross-town partner, Central High School (60.6). Here is one school system, one set of policies, but two high schools that perform at far different levels.

These results should not be surprising. Poverty seems to trump just about everything else in education in study after study. Even school educational reforms appear to have limited impact. Often buried in the impressive statics of schools that have turned around is the fact that the new formulated schools have often become destination schools with waiting lists where previously the schools were schools of last resort. In other words, reformed schools often attract somewhat higher income students from more stable families.

This might sound cynical, but if you want a successful school, just have parents submit their 1040 income tax forms. Only pick children from the wealthier families.

That does not mean we shouldn’t try other forms of innovations, lowering class sizes, improving teacher preparation, and the like. We just have to understand that few miracles are likely to occur through such efforts. What it does tell us is that educational reform must include whole community reform. We have seen such efforts in the Harlem Children’s Zone efforts. 

So exasperated was cognitive psychologist Richard Nisbett about the relentless negative impact of poverty on academic achievement that he stated in his book Intelligence and How to Get It that maybe we should just give poor families lots of money just to raise the intelligence of their children. Of course, Nisbett is not an economist, and I doubt such a scheme is practical, but it illustrates just how frustrating it is to use educational reform to overcome the negative impacts of poverty.  

We would like to think that education is the first step out of poverty when the reality is that lifting children out of poverty may be the first step on the ladder of education. Concludes Nisbett, “…if we want the poor to be smarter, we need to find ways to make them richer.”

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