Commentary | Budget, Taxes, and Public Investment

Lessons—Poverty and Achievement, And Great Misconceptions

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Poverty and Achievement, And Great Misconceptions

By  Richard Rothstein

Everyone wants to raise the achievement of low-income pupils, but there is little agreement on how to do so. One approach is to identify exceptional schools and seek to copy their techniques.

In that spirit, the conservative Heritage Foundation has studied 21 schools with both high poverty and high achievement. In its report, ‘No Excuses,’ Heritage claims that these schools succeed because their principals defy public education bureaucracies, substitute basics for progressive education fads, do a lot of testing, fire uninspiring teachers (or harass them until they leave) and refuse to blame poverty or other family disadvantage for low scores.

In such ways, the report says, these schools escape a destructive ‘cult of public education.’

Yet it seems that ideology, not evidence, inspired the conclusion.

Three of the 21 schools that the report identified are private, and several of the public schools are at least partly selective. A Queens school it chose, P.S. 122, includes a program for gifted pupils drawn from the entire district, so its high average scores tell us little about how to improve achievement of the most disadvantaged children.

The report’s biggest flaw is its assumption that poverty alone defines the problems of the low-income school. Rather, schools with consistently low scores typically have children for whom poverty per se is only one problem. They also suffer crime-ridden neighborhoods, broken families, parental stress, inadequate housing and poor health.

Data on school demography, however, usually disclose only pupils eligible for subsidized lunches. This includes some with family income as high as $30,000. These are often children with stable homes and parents regularly employed. It is foolish for the ‘No Excuses’ report to suggest that if some schools in such places succeed, schools with much poorer children who have multiple social and economic problems can too.

Consider Bennett-Kew Elementary School in Inglewood, Calif., a ‘No Excuses’ school. Its pupils are in the lunch program, but 30 percent have parents who graduated from college, a rate higher than the national average; 12 percent have parents with graduate degrees. Bennett-Kew may be terrific, but can schools filled with the children of high school dropouts learn much from it?

Or consider another ‘No Excuses’ school, Morse Elementary in Cambridge, Mass. It has bilingual classes in Korean and Chinese for children of graduate students and faculty members at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Graduate students may have incomes low enough for their children to get subsidized lunches, but schools with children of less literate immigrants cannot just as easily post high scores.

‘No Excuses’ says its 21 schools succeed by discarding whole language, ‘new’ math and social promotion. But evidence does not support this at several of its schools. The Amelia Earhart School in Chicago mixes whole language and phonics, and rarely holds back students who are below grade level (though it does give them extra help).

Some of the schools that rely heavily on phonics have a curious test score pattern, with higher scores in early grades but lower scores later. This is true, for example, at the Mabel B. Wesley School in Houston, which has won national acclaim for a scripted program of drill in basics.

Samuel Casey Carter, author of the report, says such score declines in upper grades occur at all schools. For older pupils, he says, exams test not just phonetic skills but also comprehension, and are harder.

But that explanation makes no sense. Scores are reported as national percentiles. So, by definition, at every grade half the nation’s pupils are above the 50th percentile and half below it. If ranks drop in a school as pupils move to upper grades, they must be doing worse compared with pupils elsewhere than when they were younger. Their school may be sacrificing comprehension to excessive focus on phonics.

Some ‘No Excuses’ schools score well on commercial tests, but poorly on state exams aligned with a richer curriculum. Thus, the Healthy Start Academy in Durham, N.C., has high scores on some tests, but North Carolina designates it ‘low performing’ because its state scores are so low. This inconsistency, too, may result from emphasizing basic skills to the exclusion of more advanced thinking that new state standards require.

The Heritage Foundation highlights some practices that do breed success. These include teacher collaboration, strong leadership and parent involvement. But it also highlights others, like near-exclusive drill in phonics and computation, that seem inspired more by ideology than results.

Regrettably, the report as a whole is enveloped in such contempt for most public education that its valid messages are lost.

Correction: January 5, 2001, Friday

The Lessons column on Wednesday, about a report by the Heritage Foundation on successful practices at 21 schools, referred incorrectly to a bilingual education program at Morse Elementary in Cambridge, Mass. It teaches only in Korean, not also in Chinese.

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