School & District Management

Think Tank Claims Middle-Class Schools Falling Short

By Christina A. Samuels — September 13, 2011 2 min read
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Middle-class schools are underperforming and are forgotten in current policy debates, according to Third Way, a think tank that bills itself as an advocate for moderate political ideas.

The report, released Monday, says that while lawmakers are focused on creating programs to help the lowest-performing schools, “middle-class” schools pay teachers the least, have the highest teacher-student ratios, spend the least per student, and produce an unimpressive percentage of college graduates.

The report defined “middle-class schools” as those where more than 25 percent, but less than 75 percent, of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. According to the think tank, about 26 million children fall into this category, compared with 14 million “upper-income” students, and 8.5 millon “lower-income” students. The median household income for communities served by middle-class schools is $51,739, which tracks very closely with the median income of the nation as a whole ($49,777).

When looking at the achievement level of these schools, though, some differences stand out immediately. For example, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the “nation’s report card,” most students in middle-class schools are able to meet a basic level of proficiency, but struggle to reach a “proficient” level.

In the 2009 NAEP test for 4th-grade reading, 66 percent of students at middle-class schools achieved a basic level of competency, but only 30 percent were proficient. (Compare that with 84 percent and 51 percent at upper-class schools, and 45 percent and 14 percent at lower-class schools.)

The report also looked at other indicators, such as graduation rates. Eighty-four percent of students at middle-class schools graduate with a diploma, 38 percent immediately go to college, and 28 percent earn a degree by age 26. That compares with 91 percent, 52 percent, and 47 percent for students at upper-income schools, and 68 percent, 29 percent, and 17 percent at lower-income schools.

Even the teaching ranks look different at these schools. Though the average teacher at a middle-class and upper-class school have about the same amount of experience—13.6 years and 13.8 years, respectively—teachers at middle class schools get paid thousands of dollars less, on average. A teacher at an upper-class school earns an average of around $54,000, and a teacher at a lower-class school earns an average of around $50,000—both higher than the $48,400 salary for a teacher at a middle-class school.

The report states:

Among parents of school-aged kids in middle-class jurisdictions, there is a strong belief that these schools are educating students at the highest levels. More than seven of ten parents with children in the public schools grade their kids' schools as either an A or a B, and nine of ten parents of school-age children expect their kids to go to college. But that is far from the reality. Middle-class schools are falling short on their most basic 21st century mission: to prepare kids to get a college degree.

The think tank plans to offer suggestions in the coming months that will offer policy solutions intended to help middle-class schools. Do you agree with Third Way’s contention that these students are mostly ignored by policy makers?

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.