The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "Michigan Wages War on Schools' Poor" by The Detroit News, 7/13/95.

Original Title:
Michigan's Education War on Schools' Poor
by Barry McGhan

The state's latest plan to improve education includes accrediting schools by placing them in one of three categories and then punishing those in the lowest category by withholding a portion of their state aid. This plan is poorly conceived and should be terminated immediately!

Why? The problem is that the accreditation process is based mainly on the results of the MEAP tests. While apparently logical--after all, no one should be rewarded for poor test performance--it makes little sense when one looks at the facts. In particular, it is possible to show scientifically that the lion's share of districts' test scores are due to the presence or absence of poverty among their students. This means the state will be mostly punishing districts for having too many poor students in attendance, not for mediocre performance by educators!

The proof of my claim lies in a statistical analysis I did using 1994 MEAP test data obtained from various sources. The data represent 58% of all Michigan students. The analysis shows that the relation between poverty and MEAP performance on all nine MEAP tests is very strong and negative, with correlations averaging about -.73. In layman's terms, as poverty goes up, test scores go down.

In cases like these, statisticians say that poverty "predicts" test scores. In my analysis, for example, poverty predicts 61% of the 7th grade math scores and 62% of the 10th grade reading scores. Also, note that if 62% of a test score can be predicted by the poverty rate, then the other 38% is determined by all other factors--including all the things that are under a school district's control.

It's like coaching in a football game where 38% of the time you get to call your team's plays, while 62% of the time some bookie in Las Vegas calls them. If he does a good job, and you do only a mediocre job, you probably win. If he does a lousy job, and you do a fantastic job, you might or might not win. In effect, the state's accreditation program rewards or punishes school districts not for how well they "play the game," but how well poverty has stacked the odds for or against them.

This relation between poverty and achievement has been the subject of controversy for many years. Things are so confused that some people claim that throwing money at schools' problems won't solve them. However, common sense tells us that having money makes life easier and its lack makes life more difficult.

Poverty makes school more difficult by getting in kids' way. Poor families tend to move more, thus disrupting schooling. They tend to have more single parents struggling to make ends meet, and less time to support a child's studies. They may live in neighborhoods where more violence exists to distract them from their studies. They may not eat as well as other students, and so on. Some educators also believe that students living in poverty can't learn very effectively. These negative expectations can create a self-fulfilling prophecy that fosters low achievement.

Even in the face of such difficulties, teachers with students from poor families have no choice but to persevere in their pursuit of learning. Fortunately, research shows what kinds of changes schools can make to overcome many of the problems facing students living in poverty. Some of the best research on changing the "poverty equation" comes from right here in Michigan. Researchers from Michigan State University have identified several factors which can effectively raise achievement in low-income schools.

Evidence that poverty is not completely in control can even be seen in the data I examined. I found seven school districts with poverty levels above 50% which also have students achieving at rates above 50%--like most of the low-poverty districts.

The next time you hear some smooth talker say "You can't solve education's problems by throwing money at them," stop and think. If money doesn't matter, why is the relationship between family income and school achievement so strong? If money doesn't matter, why do parents who can afford it move to wealthier districts, or send their children to private schools? If money doesn't matter, why is the state planning to take it away from the schools of poor children? To give it to whom?

Of course money matters. Withholding state aid from schools that are trying to serve the poorest segments of society is a bad idea. We need an alternative to the current fallacious accreditation process.


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