Epilogue: Rockin’ the Suburbs

Last week I blogged a little about PSSA scores and the false impression that we are testing children when a great deal of what is attributed to “good teaching” can be equally attributed to demographics.  Remember that the rich, suburban schools near large cities in Pennsylvania do very well on the PSSA and the poor, urban schools do extremely poor.  These results are independent of any connection to the percentage of minorities in the school district.  School districts with a relatively high percentage of minorities do just as well as school districts with a minimal percentage of minorities.

So why do suburban school districts do so well?

My theory:  When school districts began to be rated as poor or low achieving, people of means left the city in droves to schools that were already doing well.  The schools in the suburbs.  The shift in affluence from the cities to the suburbs meant that the city school went from below average to dismal and the schools in the suburbs went from above average to pretty near phenomenal.  The highly educated who worked in the cities felt it oput their children at a disadvantage to have them schooled there.

But why does richer equal smarter?

I don’t necessarily think that it does.  What affluence does provide though is experiences.  Experiences at a young age put beginners at a great advantage over students whose experiences are limited.  Students who have been to the zoo, the museum, even a ball game have more experiences than students that never get off their street. That early advantage builds through the primary grades as students of means continue to have experience rich lives. That’s not even mentioning the next level of students who have been to Disney World, Yellowstone or even Mexico.  Think of the experiences that those students take for granted that a student who lives in a 500 square foot apartment never has.

Another factor, and I think the biggest implement to achievement in the early years, is language poor homes.  Vocabulary is the key to all learning.  People of means go to college.  People of tremendous means go to college even if they aren’t smart enough. Whether you earned it or not you were exposed to an enormous new vocabulary and you use that vocabulary in the home.  Even though developmentally children may not know what those words mean, they have been exposed to them.  Exposure puts them one step in front of the child with uneducated or undereducated parents.

One more because I like things in threes:  If you are affluent and have gone to college chances are you work a 9 to 5 job.  Nine to 5 parents are home.  Parents who are home have the opportunity to spend more time with their children. Exposing them to more experiences, more language and reading.  Reading to your children is important but you have to be home to read.

In this whole post, I’m not saying it’s impossible to be a high achiever if you come from a poor, language poor, experientially vapid home.  What I am saying is that it takes work.  Keep in mind that if you are 6 months behind your peers in kindergarten you will have to make 10 months worth of growth in 9 months every year until the end of fifth grade to catch up.  That is unlikely but not impossible.  Students rise above their circumstances all the time.  Those are the students who should be applauded at graduation.  The students who made a 2.0 under the toughest of conditions not the one’s who made a 4.2 with a silver spoon hanging out of their mouths. (Sorry, lost my focus there)

My point is, it’s a snowball effect.  Your school is deemed low-achieving by a single test, if your school is low achieving the people who can move out will, the people who move out will take with them strong experiences and rich vocabulary, with the loss of your high achieving and average students your schools scores will continue to decline.

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The Low Hanging Fruit of Education

This year the elementary school that I lead made adequate yearly progress in every category. I’m not bragging; just stating a fact. In fact, our school has made adequate yearly progress every year. That sounds like great news, headline grabbing stuff in a small town. Unfortunately, the way the system works, that is not necessarily great news.

Next year we will have to be 89% proficient in Math and 91% proficient in Reading. We are a very small school. In the grade span that we are responsible for, 3-5, we will test approximately 180 students. That means that no more than 18 students can be basic or below basic in Math and 16 in Reading (The state doesn’t round up)

Unfortunately the low hanging fruit has been picked. All of those things that don’t cost money but suck all of the knowledge out of students. You know them because your school has done them: increase instructional time, align to standards, eliminate the “unnecessary” subjects, teach to the test. Done!

In order to harvest the higher fruit everyone needs more resources. Even a picker needs a ladder. To really get to those five or six students that are on the fringe we need to extend the day, offer after school resources to the economically disadvantaged, and engage more parents in the educational lives of their children. Luckily we’re tall and we probably only need a step stool. But even a step stool costs money. If you read the papers you know there ain’t none of that.

Throw in a complete retooling of the standards that will be instituted next testing cycle; which by the way have not been approved by PA yet; and you have an equation that can’t possibly balance. Keep in mind that while the common core standards are indeed a step in the right direction, somehow it will be necessary to increase the rigor in third grade to the extent that one year can replace the change in rigor designed to be achieved in four years. Never mind the impact on the sixth grade curriculum that needs to make up for 7 years of changes in rigor in less than 180 days.

The projections are that over 80% of the schools in Pennsylvania will not make adequate yearly progress in 2013. Those were the projections before schools lost funding and the final transition to common core was approved. If the projection for 2013 is 80% the projection for 2014 must be close to 90%.

Let me run this idea past you. In Pennsylvania is education the low hanging fruit of the commonwealth? Is it just simple to set up schools to fail under the guise of keeping taxes low? Is their a benefit to the citizenry in the privatization of K-12 schools? No ladder needed! Just hanging out there like Tom Corbett’s personal piñata.

But, that’s another blog post all together. Just let me say this though, those guys from Commonwealth Connections Academy with their matching backpacks and polo shirts (paid for with your tax dollars) seemed to be sleeping significantly better than most administrators that I know!