If Poverty & Financial Hardship Affect Cognitive Function, Then is the Opportunity School District a Good Idea?

If Poverty & Financial Hardship Affect Cognitive Function, Then is the Opportunity School District a Good Idea?

The Opportunity School District is a plan by the Governor’s Office in Georgia to take over “chronically failing” schools across the state.  To be voted on in the November 8 election, if passed, schools will be selected by an OSD Superintendent (Czar), from a list of schools that fall at the bottom of a rank ordered list of schools across the state based on state-mandated multiple choice achievement tests along with other factors such as progress to round out a complete score called CCRPI.

A school’s CCRPI is an over all score and values are used to rank order schools from high to bottom.  Schools producing CCRPI scores below “60” are on a list called “chronically failing” are eligible to be pulled out of their local district and pushed to the state Opportunity School District with administrative office presumably near the governor’s office.

It might be better for the OSD to rent a hangar at the Charlie Brown Airport, in Fulton County.  As I mentioned in an earlier post having a private pilot’s license might just be the ticket  to get folks to visit OSD schools spread across 59,425 square miles.

Oddly the Georgia Department of Education is not privy to the OSD, meaning that there will be two independent state-wide administrative bodies competing for the same pool of resources.

Seems to me like a bunch of bull promoted as a vanity project to make Governor Deal look righteous.

Many (perhaps all) of the schools eligible for OSD have very high percentages of students living in poverty and/or economic hardship.  To remedy this fact, the Governor is going conduct mass firings of principals and up to half the teachers and support staff.  So half the teachers that have worked and may have lived close to the school community will be given the boot.

The evidence based on experiences in New Orleans is that the teachers who replace the fired educators will be non-certified teachers from the temp agencies, Teach For America and the New Teacher Project.

Free or reduced lunch is not a perfect measure of the poverty level of students attending a specific school, but it the best measure we have that we can use to predict how well kids will do in school, especially on state mandated achievement tests.

Many of the students whose school will taken by the OSD are living in poverty and face some form of economic hardship.

A longitudinal study (1985 – 2010) of 3,400 young adults was carried out to investigate the relationship between poverty and economic hardship, and cognitive function. The study was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, in advance of Volume 52, Issue 1 (January 2017).  In this report, “Sustained Economic Hardship and Cognitive Function: The Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study, by Adina Zeki Al Hazzouri, et.al. the authors collected income data over the period of the study, and in 2010, tested the participants using three cognitive aging exams.

Four groups of participants emerged:

  1. Never in poverty
  2. Less than 1/3 of time
  3. From 1/3 to nearly 100% of the time
  4. Always in poverty

The results showed a strong and graded association between greater exposure to economic hardship and worse cognitive function.  The researchers concluded that poverty and economic hardship may be important contributors of cognitive aging.

The lead investigator, Dr. Zeki Al Hazzouri, said that maintaining cognitive abilities is a key part of health.  He made it clear that poverty and economic hardship most likely contribute to premature aging.

Not only that, there is clear evidence that poverty has a direct association with performance on academic scores and other school measurable (Graph 1 & Graph 2).

Using data from the Georgia Department of Education, Graph 1 plots CCRPI and percent poverty.  For these data there a strong relationship between CCRPI scores and student poverty.  Lower test scores are associated with higher poverty rates.  The same relationship is true when we plot achievement scores and poverty percent (Graph 2) (CCRPI and Achievement Scores and Percent of Poverty, Georgia Department of Education).

Graph 1: CCRPI Score and Percent Poverty


Graph 2: Achievement Points and Percent Poverty



Are charter schools the answer to the problem of chronically failing schools?  Is it a valid idea to replace public schools with charter schools and expect the outside force of a charter school to do better than regular public schools.

The OSD is a misplaced idea simply to give a few politicians a feel good experience at the cost of thousands of Georgia parents and their children.

We have already dismissed the idea that charter schools are miracles falling out of the sky.  In the last post I showed how P.L. Thomas put this to rest with his analysis of the charter school sham.

Secondly, and perhaps even more important is the fact that charter schools foster a re-segration of schools.  In Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms: Lessons for ESSA. Ed. By William J. Mathis and Tina M. Trujillo. Charlotte: Information Age, 2016, Gary Orfield, in his chapter entitled “A New Civil Rights Agenda for American Education, 279 – 313 provides critical information for policy makers about charter schools, race and civil rights.

Orfield makes it clear that so-called “choice” in education (ergo, charter schools) leads to a stratification of educational opportunity, and in my view, the Opportunity School District is a perfect example of stratification.

Charter schools do far worse than regular public schools.  In earlier posts, I’ve cited the research of Michael Marder, at the University of Texas.  He has examined the relationship between poverty concentration and percentage of students meeting SAT criterion scores across all Texas Hugh Schools. Take a look at the chart below.  We see here that Marden’s graph is similar to the Georgia graphs.  The higher the level of poverty, the lower the test scores.

But look.

Charter schools, irrespective of poverty level, are at the bottom of the graph.  They form a straight line, showing how ineffective they are compared to regular public schools.



The schools that will be part of the OSD will most likely be in metropolitan areas of the state (Atlanta, Athens, Columbus, Savannah, Augusta).  Most of the students attending these schools will either be living in poverty, or facing some form of economic hardship.  Simply changing a school from a public school to a charter does nothing to improve the economic status of the parents and their children in this schools.

Gary Orfield says that a new civil rights agenda is needed to remedy this and many other problems.  We need to understand that identifying each school as chronically failing without considering the context of the school raises serious civil rights issues. Orfield offers this is something to think about:

Educational stratification and inequalities today are basically defined by school-district boundary lines, much more than by problems with on district (or school, my addition), so civil rights remedies must have a metropolitan dimension.  This is vital not just for the central cities but to provide stability and block resegregation by race and class in growing sectors of suburbia. Boundary lines and the housing segregation which makes them so significant must be central foci. If opportunity is allocated on the basis of space within a metropolitan area, crossing boundary lines and regional cooperation arrangements in schools and housing become urgent priorities. (Orfield, G.  “A New Civil Rights Agenda for American Education,” Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms: Lessons for ESSA. Ed. William J. Mathis and Tina M. Trujillo. Charlotte: Information Age, 2016. 293).

As Ed Johnson and others have spoken and written, the issues of students in any school need to be embraced within a systems model of education.  There is an interconnectivity among schools in a district or region, and separating one from the other because of performance of achievement tests is bogus.  But more than that, it leads to a non-solution.

In order to make sure that students have a chance to be fully functioning and healthy human beings, they need to be living in an environment where they see hope and love, and that the community pulls together to help each other.  A community based agenda is needed for schools to improve for our students, not one of isolating the school from the community to be run by outsiders.

Deal’s OSD is not only a bad deal, its without merit and is violating the civil rights of the students involved.







What’s Common Here: Teacher Education, Authoritarian Reform, Poverty, & Charter Schools?

In this first blog post in nearly two months, I want to introduce you to four areas of inquiry that have been explored on this blog over the past 10 years.

Over the next month, I’ll be uploading links to landing pages, each of which is a kind of inquiry or an investigation of themes that appeared on the Art of Teaching Science Blog.


The first four areas of inquiry are up on the blog website, and they are:

  • Assault on Teacher Education:  The assault on teacher education is being led by neoliberal and conservative ideologues who want to de-professionalize teaching, and one of the places to do this is by attacking the nation’s colleges and universities that prepare teachers.
  • Authoritarian Reform: In this inquiry, I am going to explore another movement that has historically played a role to oppose corporate, authoritarian, un-democratic, and right-wing policies and beliefs, and that is the work and wish of progressives, who have played a role in American history, starting with the American revolution.
  • Effect of Poverty on Learning:  There are bloggers and researchers who understand the nature of poverty and its effects, and why journalists, bureaucrats, politicians, corporate executives, and the billionaire boys club reformers either whitewash or simply avoid the problem. In fact, we have entered a period of “no excuses education,” which is held up as the option of “choice,” especially for families living in poor communities.
  • Charter Schools: In Whose Interest?:  Charter schools are seen as a cure-all to raise test scores of American students. It kind of like a philosopher’s stone, or a 19th century elixir, to serve as an antidote for the ills of traditional public schools. Many policymakers are motivated by the delusion that choice and competition are the answers to solving problems facing our schools.  In this inquiry, we’ll explore the underlying rationale for charter schools (the rationale has moved from one of true curriculum development by teachers, to a cash cow for charter management companies). When you look carefully at charter schools, they do not offer the kind of choice they claim in press releases and other public statements.

Future inquiries include:

  • High Stakes Testing and Teacher Evaluation
  • The National Council on Teacher Quality & the Art fox Ineptness
  • Politics and Influence Peddling
  • Progressive Pedagogy
  • Questioning Standards-Based Education
  • Stealth Appearances of Intelligent Design

Welcome back to the Art of Teaching Science blog.

Poverty in Georgia and Its Effect on Student Learning

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a story in which the writers connected the state of Georgia’s new academic performance score card with poverty.

In their article they reported that Georgia students in poor schools got lower grades than students in affluent schools.  To show this they used a bar graph comparing poor schools (schools who have 40 or more percent students receiving free or reduced lunch) and affluent schools (less than 40 percent).  Three comparisons (see Figure 1) are shown at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

Figure 1. CCRPI Scores compared to percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch.
Figure 1. CCRPI Scores compared to percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch. Source: AJC, May 7, 2014

The data shown in Figure 1 is valid data.  In each case, high school, middle school, and elementary school, affluent students outperform poorer students.  No surprise here.  This relationship has been confirmed in many studies.

But, poverty is a severe problem in Georgia, and presenting the data in this form masks the reality.  The chart tells us very little about the extent of poverty in the state.  It does not tell about the number or percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunches.

For example, Figure 2 shows the academic performance of all the schools in DeKalb County based on 2013 scores plotted against the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch.   Note that the line graph produced from the scatter plot has an R value of 0.45 which means that there is a strong negative relationship between school performance and poverty.

Figure 2. Scatter Plot of CCRPI vs Percentage of Students on Free or Reduced Lunch in DeKalb County, GA Schools.
Figure 2. Scatter Plot of CCRPI vs Percentage of Students on Free or Reduced Lunch in DeKalb County, GA Schools.

Figure 3, shows the academic performance for all schools in the state plotted against the percentage of poverty in each school.  Fifty-nine percent of Georgia’s students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.  In many counties eligibility for free or reduced lunches exceeds 70%.


Figure 3. Relationship between CRCT scores and percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunches.
Figure 3. Relationship between CRCT scores and percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunches.  Source: Georgia Department of Education

Georgia ranks in the top seven states for the highest percentage of students living in poverty.  More specifically there are nearly 1 million students out of the nearly 1.6 million in the state who are eligible for free or reduced lunches.   Figure 4 is a graph comparing poverty levels among states with the highest percentages of students living in poverty.  Georgia is tied in fourth place along with Alabama, South Carolina, and Kentucky.

Figure 4. Comparison of Poverty Among the Poorest States

Poverty in Georgia is a Statewide Problem

In Georgia, poverty is a state-wide problem.  Figure 5 shows the number of students eligible for free or reduced lunches from 2002 – 2013.  The number of students eligible has continuously increased during this period.

To improve education in Georgia, we need to think differently about school accountability.  We need to accept the fact that a quality education is not about increasing the academic bar (manipulating cut off scores) and then believing that annual testing will somehow contribute to improved performance.  Tweaking the cut off scores by manipulation of the numbers, or changing the standards will not improve education in Georgia.

Figure 5. Students eligible for free or reduced 2002 – 2013.

The model of education that has been adopted by Georgia and most of the U.S. is called the Global Education Reform Model (GERM), described by Dr. Pasi Sahlburg, one of Finland’s leading educators.  In fact, carrying the metaphor further, he suggests that the Finnish education system has not been infected to the viruses of the global education reform movement.  The essential characteristics of the GERM virus are (1) standardization by defining the outcomes of learning (2) limiting learning to core subjects, especially reading and math (3) low-risk ways to help student reach learning goals (4) use of corporate management models including market driven reforms and (5) whole-scale adoption of test-based accountability.

Pasi Sahlburg outlines ways to help schools (but especially systems of education) kill 99.9% of GERMs.  His suggestions will seem like common sense.  Here they are:

  • Put high confidence in teachers and principals and learning.  The focus on meaningful learning must be at the school level.  Superintendents need to get out-of-the-way, stop micro-managing, and entrust education to well prepared teaching staff.
  • Create a systemic environment which encourages teachers and students to try new ideas and approaches.  Encourage principals to work with teachers to push for curiosity, imagination and creativity in the classroom, and make that the focus of learning.
  • Fill classrooms with well experienced and well-educated teachers who are not only knowledgeable in the content, but more importantly understand how to teach and how to experiment with different pedagogies.
  • Empower principals to be the leaders of change, not superintendents.  Superintendents are too far away from the day-to-day life of students to encourage the kind of creative teaching that can be supported by principals.
  • Teachers should have masters degrees in education and be knowledgeable in their field of teaching.  Reliance on uncertified and inexperienced teachers will in the long run lead to failure.

There are many examples of some of these principles in effect in Georgia.  But these creative principals and teachers are being held back by a system that relies on a test-based culture that enables the lowest level of teaching, and that is teaching to the test.  It leads to potential disasters.

The system of schooling needs to transformed, not tweaked, and instead our focus should be on the continuous improvement of education.

What suggestions do you have to do this?  How can teachers and principals in schools where poverty rates are high be supported to work improve the quality of their students experiences?