Response from The Education Trust to Education Weeks’ Quality Counts 2007: Demographics aren’t destiny, what schools do matters

Publication date: Mar 16, 2007

Not long ago, the Education Trust got a call from a high-level official in one of the nation’’s largest school districts. The request? “”Please come help us get unstuck. We created a Commission on Closing the Gap. Its members worked for more than a year, collecting all sorts of data. But now we’’re stuck and need help figuring out what to do.””

Because this is a district whose leaders we respect, we said, ““Sure. Send me what you’ve done to date, and then let’s schedule a day to think and talk about next steps together.””

When we received their work product, the problem was immediately clear. It’’s a problem we’re seeing a lot these days. They’’d focused on all the things they can’t change, and not those that they can.

With researchers and analysts at their beck and call, this group had done what many have before it, and what many academics do all the time. They had collected all kinds of data on the many things that are or might be correlated with the underperformance of certain groups of students. For example, they had produced endless tables on the percent of local babies born at low birth weight, those born to undereducated moms, those living in families getting public assistance, and so on down the line.

Then, of course, they felt overwhelmed, depressed… …and stuck.

Now, please don’’t get us wrong. In a country as rich as ours, it is an outrage that we allow so many children to live in poverty or grow up with inadequate health care. And all Americans, educators and otherwise, should be pressing policymakers to DEAL with these problems.

But our main job as educators is a different one: it’s about teaching those children, no matter their background. And this Commission–had it thought to ask principals in its own highest performing, high-poverty schools for advice–would have been told that in no uncertain terms.

Indeed, just a month before we received that telephone call, a terrific principal in that same district had been unequivocal in her testimony to a rapt audience of congressmen and congressional staff. “Some of our children live in the most dire circumstances,” she said. “But we don’t dwell on that because we can’t change that. We focus, instead, on what we can do to take these children where they need to go.”

Principals at high-performing, high-poverty schools all over the country say exactly the same thing: We focus on what we can change, not on what we can’t. They want to be judged not by the characteristics of the students coming in, but by what they do for them.

Though we’re certain that the editors didn’’t intend this, the most recent edition of Quality Counts appears to have made the very same mistake as the district that got stuck. On the one hand, this issue took some important steps forward by including, for example, indicators on pre-school participation and on postsecondary results. After all, what we do at all these levels matters. And it’s right to remind policymakers, like the Casey Foundation has in its annual Kids Count reports, that if they are serious about developing their states’ young talent, it is insane to ignore the huge contribution that better health care and better family supports can make.

That said, the masthead, if we’re not mistaken, says Education Week, not Sociology Week. Yet the researchers created a “Chance for Success Index” that essentially said to states: If you have large numbers of poor or undereducated adults, just forget it. In so doing, Quality Counts diminished the critical role of educators and public schools in preparing young people to become contributing citizens despite the obstacles they face outside of school.

Many indicators used in the Index cannot be directly affected by educators or education policymakers – —at least not in the near-term. And the overlap between some of these out-of-school factors is so strong that they come close to being counted twice. Thirty-three states received the same score for both the Family Income and Annual Income indicators. Thirty-four received the same score for both the Parent Education and Adult Educational Attainment indicators.

This means that states with relative socio-economic advantage but less successful schools are ranked higher than states with more successful school systems despite socio-economic disadvantage. Maryland, for example, ranks 5th on the Chance for Success Index but 25th on the school-system-focused K-12 Achievement Index, whereas Texas ranks 48th on the Chance for Success Index but 16th on the K-12 Achievement Index. Is Ed Week’s message to committed Texas educators: Pull up stakes and move to Maryland where your chance for success is higher? And is the logical next step for committed educators to abandon entirely the high-poverty schools where they are most needed?

The Texas-Maryland comparison is not the only instance in which the Chance for Success Index placed more weight on the characteristics of students than on the power of educators and education policymakers.

  • Take, for example, preschool education. The importance of pre-K programs, especially for low-income students, is made clear throughout the report. But the pre-K indicator in the Chance for Success Index—the percent of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool—is as much an indication of parents’ ability to pay as it is of state effort in making services available to any children, much less to the children who most need it. So Connecticut, with 60 percent preschool enrollment, gets top marks despite the fact that just 9 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded programs. And Oklahoma, the state with the highest percentage of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in state-funded pre-K in the nation (34 percent), gets a mark against it because its overall preschool enrollment (42 percent) is lower than the national average.

Which state really deserves credit for recognizing and acting on the benefits of early education—the state leaving preschool in the hands of affluent parents who can afford private preschool or the state that’s working to make high-quality public preschool more widely available?

  • The K-12 indicators similarly discount state efforts to better serve their most disadvantaged students. States with notable results for struggling students get no credit for this accomplishment while others are allowed to rest on the laurels of their higher income students.

Low-income fourth-graders in Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, and Kentucky all perform above the national average for low-income students in reading. But these states’ success with disadvantaged students is nowhere in the Index, and they fall toward the bottom of the list. On the other hand, low-income eighth-graders in Connecticut and Maryland perform below the national average in math, yet these are two of the highest ranked states.

In which set of states, though, do low-income students actually have a better chance for success?

  • The higher education measure in the index—the educational attainment of a state’s adult population—is also an odd choice, for this statistic is often as much a product of in-migration as of home-grown college graduates. Wouldn’’t it have been better to examine how well states’ colleges and universities are doing in both enrolling and graduating all groups of students?

The perversions in the Quality Counts approach are clear. For example, Colorado, which gets points for having one of the highest rates of adult educational attainment, is average in terms of college-going and ranks 29th in the nation in terms of six-year graduation rates for first-time, full-time freshmen. Iowa, on the other hand, gets no credit for adult educational attainment, but is above average college-going and 3rd in the nation in terms of its six-year graduation rate.

So kudos to Education Week for pressing readers of Quality Counts to look at education as a continuum, from pre-K through college. Kudos, too, for reminding readers that the work of schools takes place in a broader context of children’s lives.

But the Chance for Success Index needs some work. Instead of signaling just how important the work of schools truly is and giving educators and education policymakers in each state feedback on what they’ve accomplished with the students they have, Education Week added to the sense that “demographics are destiny.” And that defeat for some students – —and educators – —is all but inevitable.

Educators in high-poverty, high-performing schools know that in an era when economic success and civic participation rests ever more on education and skill levels, they represent their students’ best, and sometimes only, chance for a decent future. Yes, it would help if their parents were paid family-supporting wages, and if they had better housing and regular health care. In the meantime, though, we’ve got to focus on the students we have and what we can do to help them.

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