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In Education Poverty Does Not Need to Be Destiny

By Terry Ryan and Angel Gonzalez
A shorter version of this post originally appeared on Idaho Education News
The needs of Idaho’s K-12 student population are changing. The Gem State is expected to see net growth in lower income households and net declines in households with annual incomes above $50,000. We are also becoming more racially diverse. As we reported in our 2014 study, Shifting Sands: Idaho’s Changing Student Demographics and What it Means for Education, “the state’s student population will undergo significant changes in coming years. Population and household projections indicate that the future school-age population will be increasingly urban, more racially diverse and from lower income households.”
Idaho is projected to see a decrease in the number of households with annual incomes of more than $50,000, and a significant increase in the number of households making less than $50,000 a year by 2019. These numbers are alarming not only for education and educators, but for everyone concerned about Idaho’s future workforce and quality of life.
It is well documented that low-income students face greater barriers to academic achievement than their wealthier peers. Those engaged in public education work hard to help low-income students achieve at high-levels, but inequality persists and poor kids need better solutions than what is currently available. Despite various school reform efforts over the years education achievement in Idaho is still mostly correlated with zip code.
An analysis of 2014-15 student assessment data for Idaho’s students shows that a larger percentage of students in poorer districts scored below “proficient” or “advanced” in reading and mathematics. To measure poverty, we use the percentage of students who are qualified for federal Free and Reduced Priced Lunch. Graph 1 below shows that both school districts and public charter schools with a high concentration of poorer students perform at lower levels than schools serving wealthier students. No surprise there.

But, digging deeper into the data we see that students in poverty are largely concentrated in a few Idaho school districts. For example, graphs 2 and 3 below show that student achievement in both reading and math in Canyon County’s Caldwell School District is well below the performance of other larger districts across the state.  

Caldwell is one of a handful of school districts in the state with 100 percent of its students qualifying for Free and Reduced Price Lunch. As graphs 2 and 3 depict, students in Caldwell perform well below the levels of students who attend the wealthier districts of West Ada, Coeur D’Alene and Boise. In seeing such data it can be easy to despair and simply say demographics are destiny and education can’t overcome poverty. Jumping to such a conclusion, however, is wrong. Education and schools can lift students out of poverty.
A report, Opportunity, Responsibility and Security, published in late 2015 jointly by the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the left-leaning Brookings organization offers a systemic approach to reducing and alleviating the impact of poverty on children and families. This bipartisan consensus document drafted by a team of both Republican and Democratic policy makers, researchers and thinkers argues that poverty can be reduced and opportunities improved for those at the bottom if government (federal, state and local), community organizations and individuals embrace the longstanding “American values of opportunity, responsibility and security.”
Opportunity, Responsibility and Security highlights ways to reverse the decline of the American family, to reconnect struggling families to jobs that offer middle-class opportunities, and ideas for improving schools and educational opportunities. The recommendations for education include calls for increased investment in early childhood and postsecondary education. Per specific K-12 education reforms the authors call for the following:

Educate the Whole Child to Promote Social-Emotional and Character Development as well as Academic Skills

Much of education reform since 2000 has focused on ensuring students learn the basics through adherence to rigorous academic standards, standardized testing and accountability. The basics – reading, writing and mathematics – are important for life success, but equally important are the “soft skills” increasingly sought by employers and the labor market. These include skills like “managing one’s own feelings and making responsible decisions about one’s personal life. According to AEI and Brookings, “these and other characteristics influence people’s educational attainment, employment and earnings as much as or more than academic achievement tests.”

Encourage Customization and Innovation to Achieve High Standards

To make education more meaningful for all children we need to do a better job of customizing schooling to the specific needs and interests of students. Maintaining strong academic content standards is an import prerequisite for successful customization and innovation, but it is not enough. Idaho is already making gains on this front through its strong support for school choice and for innovations like theme-based public charter schools, magnet schools, innovation academies, PTECH, online learning opportunities, dual enrollment, and other learning options that help parents and children find opportunities that work best for them. These efforts should be expanded and made equally available to the state’s neediest students who currently have fewer learning options than their wealthier peers.

Redesign Teacher Recruitment and Preparation

For learning customization to become the norm we need a new model for recruiting and developing teachers. The AEI and Brookings team reports that “research suggests that high-quality teachers can potentially be identified quite early in their careers and that quality is not closely related to teaching credentials.” Further, they reason, “taking steps to attract and train teachers, assess them early in their careers and weed out those who don’t show the potential for quality will have a significant impact on student’s performance and later success in life.” Idaho’s teacher career ladder could be an important step in this direction if student success and teacher performance are truly connected and rewarded.

Foster Apprenticeships and other Partnerships

Young people can make connections to their schooling and learning by applying what they learn in the classroom or online to what’s happening in the real world of work. The AEI and Brookings team make the case for “expanding apprenticeships and other forms of work-related learning at both the college and high school level.” They go further and argue, “the university of the future seems likely to be a blend of experiences and forms of learning from online courses to workplace-based courses to traditional residential courses.” PTECH in Idaho it a powerful model for moving in this direction.

Close Resource Gaps

Idaho’s students are coming to school with more needs than students just a generation ago and these challenges are likely to grow. Concentrating children in a handful of high-poverty school districts like Caldwell doesn’t work if the goal is to improve children’s life chances. On this front, the AEI and Brookings team calls for “changing incentive structures so that high-performing schools are motivated to actively recruit low-income students rather than passively resist transfers: promoting public school choice across districts; and increasing funding for magnet schools in high-poverty urban areas.” In Idaho, this means moving school funding towards a system that funds education based on the actual needs of students rather than on educational inputs like teacher salaries, technology costs and the like. All schools and especially high-performing charter schools need to be encouraged and supported in expanding their offerings to needier and more diverse student populations, while also recruiting successful gap closing public charter school models to the Gem State.

Poverty is not destiny when it comes to public education. But overcoming the challenges of poverty to improve student performance for all students requires doing things differently. Idaho has made some progress in setting the conditions for alleviating education gaps. Yet, as the report Opportunity, Responsibility and Security makes clear there is much work remaining to be done. Now is a great time to get started, and we have plenty of ideas to tackle.

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