Take away the poverty and urban schools perform as well as others

Take away the poverty and urban schools perform as well as others

The popular education blog Eduwonk included a post today stating school reformers like former NYC superintendent of schools Joel Klein, current superintendent of Louisiana’s (mostly New Orleans) Recovery School District John White and J.C. Brizard in Chicago are behind a movement that is improving urban schools. The blog entry pointed to New Orleans and New York as some of the movement’s success stories.

According to the Department of Education’s NAEP Data Explorer, which produces charts and figures that analyze National Assessment of Educational Progress scores along hundreds of variables, there is no statistical difference in the 2009 results that compare non-eligible fourth-grade large-city and national scores for math and reading.

Non-eligible refers to the student population that relies on free and reduced school lunches, a leading indicator of lower-economic status. The eligibility requirement is set at (PDF) 185 percent of the federal poverty line, or a household income of $40,793 for a family of four.

However, when comparing total scores, the national results are much higher, generally due to the larger concentration of low-income students in America’s largest cities.

Countrywide, the percentage of students living in households that qualify for the subsidized lunch program is 65.3 percent according to 2010 U.S. Dept. of Agriculture data. For cities likes New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, figures jump significantly.

A spokesperson with Chicago Public Schools, which includes charter, neighborhood and struggling ‘turnaround’ schools, told The American Independent 86 percent of the system’s pupils qualify for the lunch program. A representative from Los Angeles Unified School District told TAI 79 percent of the roughly 700,000 pupils in the system qualify. New York City Department of Education, the nation’s largest public school system, ranges between 87 percent for fourth-graders and 79 percent for eighth-graders.

With poverty serving as an underlying condition for lower test scores in urban areas, the push for programs that address matters outside the classroom would be apparent. But while many high-profile in-school reforms have taken place, there’s a relative dearth of tackling poverty as it pertains to education.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) told an audience at the Center for American Progress last week that “we’ll never have a society where every family has everything they need.” Klein of NYC wrote in an Atlantic article the mantra that education cannot be improved until poverty is fixed “lets the school system off the hook.”

NAEP scores demonstrate large cities are competitive with the rest of the country in educating its students that are, at least by the government’s definition, out of the lower rungs of poverty. What stands urban schools apart, however, is the poverty. And with President Obama’s signature education policy prescription, Race to the Top (RTTT), placing greater emphasis on in-school matters, public recourse for addressing the obvious effects of poverty on child academic performance are hard to find.

This despite a large-scale study at the University of Minnesota determining a child’s exposure to pre-K academic instruction increases the likelihood of high school graduation, college completion, avoiding incarceration and finding a well-paying job. Separately, an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report that examined over 20 countries concluded (PDF) socioeconomic factors outside the classroom are the most significant variable in a student’s success.