Data on Relative Growth in Public School Districts

A couple days ago, the Times published this article. In it, they explain that the bog-standard way of comparing public school systems is potentially outdated – instead of merely comparing reading levels, we should compare how much reading levels change over several years. Wealthier areas are still by and large better off, but relative to where students in poorer areas begin, the wealthier students don’t improve as much.

You can go into that link and play around with different cities and districts, all studied by researchers from Stanford. The article uses Chicago as an example, showing that, despite how far behind they are in 3rd grade (below a second-grade reading level), by 8th grade they are only barely off the national average, having received the equivalent of six years of (reading) education in five years of school. Here are a few thoughts on what the data shows (and doesn’t show):

  1. As stated above, wealthier areas are still generally speaking better off, but it’s not 1-to-1. You can’t simply assume that median income will lead to a greatly improved reading level. In Westchester, for example, the majority of the most-improved districts have median incomes north of $150k, but nestled in between Rye City School District ($218k) and Bronxville Union School District ($212k) is White Plains, at $62k. What’s happening there that is helping students improve by so much, and why is the growth between 3rd and 8th grade specifically?
  2. The obvious caveat is that, of course, the best school districts don’t need to grow as much. But since we’re talking about a five year period, then growth significantly lower than five-years’ worth is an issue. And on that same list in Westchester (which I used because it’s nearby and mostly wealthy), you have Valhalla ($110k) way down at 4.3 years of growth, along with a couple other towns of similar median income. What’s happening there? Is it just that the best students in those towns don’t actually attend the public schools at all, leaving them bereft of strong performers? Or is it something else? What makes a place like White Plains able to sit among its much wealthier neighbors, and in some cases best them?
  3. The advantage of socioeconomics is plain. But studies like this show that, even if students are behind at the outset, depending on their environment, they can catch up. Hope is not lost at age eight or nine.
  4. I want to see this study for the difference in growth from 8th to 12th grade, though.
  5. Will colleges see these studies? Will they discount the grades from a low-income area because of assumed difficulty level when students are actually surging?
  6. And ultimately, I want to pull it apart a bit more. Yes, poverty has a massive impact on education (and funding, of course). But what about race, gender, sexuality, and other ways in which students can be outside of the majority? Does a low-income area with white students show the same growth and a similar-income area with students of color?
  7. There is, as ever, a huge push for universal pre-k and libraries full of data on the impact of early childhood education on student outcomes and success. But this study shows that it’s not enough to set them up well to start, because there is a massive difference between nine and fourteen. We know, as a country, we have to pay attention to students as they approach either college or working (or both), and we know we can’t let toddlers stay home. But maybe there is potential impact being missed in between the two. Maybe more students can have access to top-flight secondary and post-secondary education – or be better prepared for its rigors – if districts can work on helping them learn and grow during this period. It’s all, of course, a maybe.