The NYS Commissioner of Education, John B. King, Jr., recently posted a letter on a NY public access web site regarding the 2014 NYS assessment results, released in late August. Included in his letter are two scatterplots of all the New York State results by school, one graph for ELA and the other for math. Each school is displayed based on their 2014 percent proficient and their reported percentage of economically disadvantaged students. In other words, the scatterplots, which can be viewed along with King’s entire letter at engageny.org and which are reproduced here, show the relationship between academic achievement, as measured by the NYS assessments, and poverty:
The relationship is fairly clear to see in both scatterplots; as schools’ poverty levels increase their achievement results decrease. This is not a universal surety, as there are always exceptions to any rule, but the trend is obvious. And this trend is not shocking or contrary to historical data. Indeed, there is a clear correlation heavily supported by research between poverty and achievement. Students of poverty perform worse, in general, on all measures of academic achievement. I want to stress that there are exceptions to what research clearly indicates. There are, of course, economically disadvantaged students who do very well academically, in fact, some who do as well as typical wealthier students.
Commissioner King writes, however,
“These results make clear that those who claim that demography is destiny and that we cannot improve teaching and learning until we have first fixed poverty are simply mistaken. In New York, there are many examples of higher poverty/higher performance schools…this is not to imply that poverty is an unimportant factor – it is extremely important, for all of us. But the idea that poverty or family circumstances outside of school are insurmountable obstacles for teaching and learning is a fallacy.”
When considered only on the surface, his statement is meant to empower, to reinforce that poverty does not mandate poor performance for every student but instead that any student has the capability to rise above his/her poverty and succeed. Indeed, while accurate, his statement tends to remove poverty from the equation, which is misleading and even disingenuous. I encourage Commissioner King to read Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol, in which the plight of East St. Louis schools is detailed. Kozol would agree that even in the poorest of schools there are individual students who rise above their poverty and succeed academically, but he would stress the obvious: that doing so is highly improbable.
And that’s where King’s message is misleading. Academic achievement is strongest where opportunities are richest. Where do opportunities abound? Not in poor districts, but in the wealthier ones. Money is needed to provide opportunities for students, to provide facilities that put students in a proper environment, to provide top quality teachers, to provide programs that allow students to stretch, to provide, well, to provide all that the students in wealthy districts have. You cannot provide equal opportunities for students until you address the inequity of wealth between districts. Until you do that, students in poverty will not have anywhere the same opportunities and the trends seen in the scatterplots above will continue, if not worsen.
Commissioner King, let’s be honest. Your pep talk is empty until there is equitable funding for schools. You can attempt to encourage all you want but there will only continue to be the exceptions you mention in your letter. You cannot will away the link between poverty and achievement.
And that is my perspective.