Bill Hammond: Why New York’s ‘Failing Schools’ Fail — and How We Can Turn the Tide
When the lawmakers in New York decided to replace the term "failing schools" with "struggling schools" in state law, many people, including myself, saw it as an attempt to use euphemisms. It seemed unnecessary to sugarcoat the reality of the worst-performing public schools in the state, where almost all the students are failing math and English tests. If these schools aren’t considered failures, then what would be?
However, a thought-provoking study conducted by independent researcher John Bacheller and presented at the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany has made me think twice about being so judgmental. Bacheller analyzed data from the state Education Department and found a clear link between low test scores and high levels of poverty.
For every 10-point increase in the percentage of low-income students in a school, their scores in English and math proficiency tests dropped by an average of 6.3 points. Bacheller calculated that poverty levels accounted for 79% of the variation in test results. This means that factors like the quality of teaching, curriculum design, textbooks, facilities, and budgets, which are often debated, only contribute around 20% to the difference in school performance.
Bacheller focused on the 178 schools officially labeled as "failing" by the state and found that poverty was prevalent in all of them, with 65% or more of their students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. Although these schools had some of the worst test scores in the state, with only 6% of students passing on average, this was only four points lower than what would be expected based on their poverty levels. Bacheller emphasized that this difference was not statistically significant. (Recently, the state has removed 70 schools from the struggling schools list due to progress shown).
Many arguments have been made about improving schools’ achievement levels through initiatives like the Common Core of knowledge and testing. However, Bacheller’s study indicates that schools in central cities face limitations and external factors beyond their control that hinder student success.
The connection between high poverty rates and schools has been previously highlighted, including in a 2015 report from the Fiscal Policy Institute. However, Bacheller brings a new level of statistical rigor to this debate as an independent researcher with a Ph.D. in political science and a long career as a fiscal researcher for the state government. He has no personal agenda.
Bacheller’s findings align with the consensus among experts and advocates that there is a strong link between income and educational outcomes. However, his policy recommendations may not please everyone. He does not see much support for the multi-billion-dollar increase in education funding that school officials and teachers unions are advocating for. He questions its effectiveness, pointing out that Rochester schools have low test scores despite spending over $20,000 per student per year.
Furthermore, he criticizes the state’s practice of labeling schools as "failing" or "struggling" based primarily on low test scores, which he believes are largely influenced by poverty. He wonders why some schools are targeted while others are not. Although he acknowledges that there is variation in school performance and that poverty does not explain all of it, he argues that poverty explains a significant portion.
This perspective goes against the current trend in state policy. According to a law enacted by Governor Andrew Cuomo, schools that fall within the bottom 5% in terms of test scores or have graduation rates below 60% must demonstrate improvement within three years or be labeled as "failing." These schools then face the possibility of state intervention and staff changes.
Bacheller suggests that investing in anti-poverty programs in these districts would be more beneficial for their students than changing school management.
According to Sedlis, poverty and disadvantage certainly have an impact on student performance. However, it is incorrect to deny that other factors, such as the quality of teachers and schools, also play a significant role in student learning. Decades of empirical evidence have shown this to be true. Furthermore, claiming that poverty is the only factor that affects student achievement is condemning disadvantaged students to a lifetime of low success, which is an unacceptable claim.
Sedlis highlighted the success of certain charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, in achieving high test scores despite enrolling a large number of low-income students. This challenges the notion that poverty alone determines student achievement. By classifying disadvantaged students as unable to learn and improve, we deny them the opportunity to succeed, which is something we must refuse to accept.
In his report, Bacheller recognized the impressive performance of some charter schools and suggested that their "no excuses" model should be replicated in schools in upstate areas. Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute agreed that evaluating schools solely based on their performance is unreasonable. However, he believes that the solution lies in improving school grading programs to accurately measure how student performance changes over time. This will enable the identification of high-poverty schools that are making significant progress for their students and deserve recognition.
New York’s program partially addresses this issue by initially identifying the lowest-performing schools, which are often high-poverty schools. However, schools have the opportunity to escape this designation if they can demonstrate significant student progress. This approach is a step in the right direction.
Integration is another potential solution for high-poverty schools, although it may be politically challenging to implement. Bacheller emphasizes that it is not just poverty itself that results in low scores, but concentrated poverty. When the percentage of low-income students decreases at a school, the test scores improve for all students. While wealthier students tend to show more improvement, even the disadvantaged students benefit. Integration has been proven beneficial in New York City schools.
If New York can find a way to combine high-poverty inner-city districts with wealthier, more diverse schools in the surrounding areas, there is potential for students to transition from "failing" or "struggling" to successful. This would require a bold and politically difficult approach, but it is worth considering as a solution for improving education in high-poverty schools.