Poverty and race may still be two of the strongest predictors of a school’s performance, but the results of a recent analysis are being used to argue that it doesn’t have to be that way.
In a report released at a news conference here last month, the Education Trust identified some 4,500 public schools across the country that educate large numbers of poor or minority students and yet are also among the top performers in their states.
The Washington-based research and advocacy group says the list shows that children traditionally deemed at risk of academic failure are capable of holding their own among students with far more advantaged backgrounds.
“For too long, too many people have believed that poor and minority children simply cannot achieve at the same level as white and middle-class students,” said Craig D. Jerald, the senior policy analyst at the Education Trust who wrote the report. “That’s simply not the case.”
The roster of “high flying” schools, as the Education Trust calls them, was made possible by a new federal database that includes test scores from roughly 80,000 public schools in 47 states. State education departments provided the data on student achievement, which then was compiled for the federal Department of Education by the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit research group in Washington.
Because states use different assessment systems, the Education Trust’s analysis of the data cannot be used to compare the schools in one state with those in another. Instead, the study looked for schools whose performance was in the top third of their states and where more than half the students were black or Latino, or where more than half the students were poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches under federal guidelines.
The Education Trust also simultaneously unveiled a new feature on its Web site that allows visitors to generate their own state-by-state lists by plugging in different levels of poverty and concentrations of minority students. The organization plans to use the database to examine qualities common to such successful schools.
‘Got to Believe’
Some researchers, however, cautioned against making too much of the new list. The schools were identified based on one year’s test scores, and studies have suggested that scores can fluctuate widely from one year to the next, especially smaller schools’.
And while the schools identified by the Education Trust serve some 1.3 million students from low-income families, that number pales in comparison with the estimated 17 million such students in the country.
“What they need to do is not obfuscate the fact that poverty is a huge obstacle to achievement,” said Tom Loveless, who directs the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “It is very difficult to get high-poverty schools up to high levels of achievement.”
Difficult, but not impossible, says Teresa Wood, the principal of Garfield Elementary School in Selma, Calif. One of the schools identified in the Education Trust report, Garfield contends with a more than 90 percent student-poverty rate. Many families at Garfield, part of the 5,000-student Selma school district, are new arrivals from Mexico who work in the local vineyards that hav
e made the San Joaquin Valley the raisin capital of California.
Ms. Wood says the fact that the 260-pupil school is outperforming many far more affluent schools in the state is the result of a highly focused improvement plan begun two years ago. Among other strategies, the school launched an after-school program that tailors academic enrichment to students’ specific needs. Staff members also squeezed the school’s daily schedule to increase instructional time.
And Ms. Wood said she became a more astute user of performance data as a way to track students’ progress and address their weaknesses.
“The staff has got to believe,” the school leader said. “If they think these kids can’t learn or won’t get any better because look where they live—if they have that attitude, then we’re not going to make it.
“But I’m so fortunate that I don’t have anyone on my staff who holds that belief.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2002 edition of Education Week as Group Cites Needy But High-Performing Schools