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?

 

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.

...and I'M STILL FOR HER.

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