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.

Can Money Buy Proficiency?

A week or so ago I published a blog post boldly stating that you could probably sort districts by their aid ratio from high to low and get a pretty accurate projection of how their PSSA reading and Math scores would look.   One of my loyal readers, Rogue Anthropologist, inquired about whether any such research was available.  Being interested in statistics and more so probabilities, I set out to determine how accurate my blurted out hypothesis had been.

What I found was not an exact, one to one correspondence but it is pretty telling. Using 2012 PSSA scores in reading and Math and district aid ratios (AR) for 2012 I was able to get a pretty good picture of district scores in relation to the economic status of the community.  I do want to go on record as saying this isn’t a statistical analysis.  It is a collection of facts based on the data.  I also want to clarify that when I talk about making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) I am talking about what we call in education “making the number.”  In other words I did not take into account whether districts made AYP using confidence interval, Safe Harbor, Growth Model or a combination of any of the above.  I simply used 78% for math and 81% in reading – “the numbers.”  Also, I will note that I used only district totals not individual schools.  For example, Central Dauphin School District is lumped together although it is made up of many different schools including two high schools.  As well, the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh school systems were grouped as one district.

I took all of the school districts in the state and order them from lowest AR (.1500) to the highest (.8814).  I then divided the entire lot into quartiles.  There are 500 school districts in the state of Pennsylvania.  I eliminated one, Bryn Athyn, because they don’t actually educate any students in their district.  Look it up!  It’s pretty interesting.  So, of the 499, since I was looking primarily at the top and bottom quartiles, there were 249 in the middle two quartiles and 125 in the top and bottom.

In the area of Math statewide 62% of the school districts made AYP.  That is important to know as a yardstick for the rest of the data.  School districts in the top quartile according to their AR made AYP 90% of the time.  Conversely, schools in the bottom quartile only made AYP 26% of the time.  That means that a rich school district is about three and a half times more likely to make AYP than a poor one.  To take it a step further, the schools in the top two quartiles – I gave them number 250 – made AYP 80% of the time while the schools in the bottom half made AYP only 42% of the time.

On the Reading PSSA only 28% of the school districts statewide made “the number.”  That seems to have really skewed the numbers based on AR.  In reading only 2% of the schools in the bottom quartile made AYP.  Of the top quartile school districts 70% made AYP.  Some of this in my professional opinion can be attributed to poor households being more apt to be language-poor and those students tend to come to school with fewer background experiences.  When you look at this information as a 50/50 split, the bottom half of school districts only made AYP 8% of the time and the top half made AYP 48% of the time.

There are of course exceptions to every rule.  Windber Area School District and Cambria Heights School District made AYP in both subjects despite ARs of .7324 and .7241 respectively.  Inversely, 14 school districts did not make AYP in either subject even though their ARs ranked in the top quartile.  Pequea Valley School District had the lowest AR of any school not to make either number; .2554.

In addition to economic indicators, I was also interested in determining other factors rather than the quality of teaching that may determine performance on the PSSA.  Research has been done about how the education of the mother impacts achievement.  When I look at that statistic I tend to think that it leads back to the affluence of the family.  Students in privileged circumstances would more likely have two highly educated parents than students living in poverty.

One thought that I have heard, and this is probably do to the poor performance of Pennsylvania’s urban areas, is that the percentage of minorities in a district has an impact on achievement and PSSA. The data on the percentage of minorities in a district is interesting but not very conclusive.  In the area of Math school district that have 10% or greater minorities were proficient 50% of the time (remember that the entire state only had an AYP rate of 62%).  On the opposite end, only 57% of the schools with 2.5% or fewer minorities achieved the 78% threshold.  In Reading the discrepancy is greater but weighted towards the districts with a higher number of minorities, with 33% of school districts with 10% or more minorities making the 81% necessary for AYP and the school districts with 2.5% or fewer minorities making AYP only 13% of the time.  Bear in mind that statewide only 28% of school districts made AYP in the area of Reading.

At the behest of my superintendent I also looked at scores based on the size of the school district.  This is a tough measure when used for measuring the entire district.  The reason being is that the statistic does not take into account the size of individual schools.  For instance the Pittsburgh Public School System, the second largest in the state, has nine high schools to serve 6000 students and the School District of Philadelphia, the largest school district in the state, has 55 high schools to serve roughly 38,000 students.  With those kinds of numbers it is possible to have some high school s doing very well and some high schools doing very poorly.  Anyway, here’s what the number say:  When broken down into quartiles, the top quartile – the largest schools – were proficient 45% of the time in Reading and 71% of the time in Math.  Thirteen percent of schools in the fourth quartile were proficient in Reading and 50% in Math; much to the chagrin of my superintendent.  I’ll have some good news though for him as our district broke many of the rules.

At this point it looks like rich, white – but not too white, large schools have a decided advantage in my personal; race to the top.  Let’s look a little closer though.  Where exactly are the schools that are making it and does that have any impact on their goal of Proficiency?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  There might just be a link.

The National Center for Educational Statistics breaks down districts into categories based on where they are located, how close they are located to a city and the size of the city within the nearest proximity.  Following is the data that I collected on those categories:

  Example Number #Proficient-R %Proficient-R #Proficient-M %Proficient-M
Small City Reading 13 2 15 3 23
Mid-sized City Erie 2 0 0 0 0
Large City Pittsburgh 2 0 0 0 0
All City   17 2 12 3 19
Suburb of large city McKeesport 165 78 47 107 66
Suburb of mid-size city Harbor Creek 21 8 38 18 86
Suburb of small city Pottstown 19 12 63 7 37
All Suburb   205 98 48 132 64
Distant Town Huntingdon 36 0 0 11 42
Fringe Town Brownsville 74 16 22 47 50
Remote Town Dubois Area 10 1 10 6 60
All Towns   120 17 15 64 58
Distant Rural Twin Valley 85 9 11 47 55
Fringe Rural Yough 77 19 25 48 62
Remote Rural Galeton 12 0 0 5 42
All Rural   174 28 16 100 57

As you can see from the data, it is definitely a benefit to live in a suburb especially the suburb of a large or mid-size city.  Those two categories along with the All Suburb categories were the only categories to have a higher percentage of district proficient than the state averages listed previously.  The worst place to live and therefore go to school is obviously in the city with the lowest percentages of all groups.For more information on what each of these categories mean see the NCES website.

With a little dime store analysis you can determine why the suburbs do so well.  Or at least generate an additional hypothesis.

For the conclusion of my hypothesis, without formal statistical analyses, I would say that I was pretty close to accurate.  More affluent school districts are almost three and half times more probable to be proficient on the Math PSSA than their poorer counterparts and more than 35 times more probable to be proficient on the Reading PSSA.  Put another way:  if you live in the top quarter of the wealthiest district in the state your child’s school will have a 9 in 10 probability of being proficient in Math and a 7 in 10 probability of being proficient in Reading.  In opposition, districts that comprise the poorest quarter of all Pennsylvania districts will have a 1 in 4 probability of being proficient in Math and a 1 in 50 probability of being proficient in Reading.  As AYP expectations go up in 2013, to 91% in Reading and 89% in Math, look for those numbers to change.

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!