Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

What’s wrong with our schools? It’s the poverty, stupid

It’s that time of year again when children across the state return to public school and the state releases test data and school accountability labels that prove that if those children come from a poor family they will attend a school with low test scores and a low accountability label.

Happens every year.

But poverty is never blamed for bad scores and weak schools. It’s always the schools, the administrators, the teachers, the districts, the parents and/or the miserly Legislature.

Never the poverty.

But it’s the poverty. The proof is published every August. It’s there for all to see. Nearly all of the schools with above average test scores and the highest state labels, which is now an A on an A-to-F scale, are in the wealthiest neighborhoods, according to census data. And nearly all of the schools with the lowest test scores and worst labels, a D or F, are in the poorest neighborhoods.

Moreover, all of the schools with average test scores and average labels, Bs and Cs, are in the middle class neighborhoods or diverse neighborhoods that have a mix of incomes.

The data doesn’t lie. We just choose to ignore it.

Blaming the teachers and administrators of bad schools is easy. Solving poverty is hard.

Does anyone really believe that if you take the teachers and administrators from perennially high scoring Catalina Foothills High School (where the median household income is $80,000) and send them to perennially poor scoring Pueblo High School (where the median household income is $19,000) and send that school’s teachers and administrators to Cat-Foot but keep the students where they are that the scores at Pueblo will rise and the scores at Cat-Foot will plummet?

Of course not.

Yet despite the same data beating us in the face every year there is a resistance among education reformers and legislators to call it as they see it. Instead, they point to anecdotal data and instances in this state and others where a single school or a single district managed to overcome the headwinds of poverty and create excelling schools in impoverished neighborhoods.

But despite all of those anecdotes, those successes have never been duplicated statewide in any state. Why? Because the solutions don’t scale at the rate we fund education.

The solutions to what ails public schools has been known for decades: Low teacher-to-student ratios; aggressive teacher training programs; early education (pre-school and all-day kindergarten); early intervention for struggling students; intensive parent engagement programs; many, many student counselors; and lots and lots of social services. (Notice this list doesn’t include rigorous testing regimes and accountability labels. That’s just folderol used to beat up schools and teachers. The proof that the American system of education is fine is found every year at the schools in high income areas where the students seem to be receiving a more than adequate public education. What and how we teach is not the problem.)

None of that raises the incomes of families but it gives schools the ladders they need to climb over the obstacles poverty creates.

That kind of school is very expensive and requires the involvement of more than a school district but also the involvement of state, county and municipal governments.

But we don’t want to pay for it, as determined by the way we’ve voted the past 40 years. We just want to blame the teachers and the schools.

Happens every year.

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