How can we help poor students achieve more?

Jason Shephard:

As a teacher-centered lesson ended the other morning at Midvale Elementary School, about 15 first-graders jumped up from their places on the carpeted rug and dashed to their personal bins of books.
Most students quickly settled into two assigned groups. One read a story about a fox in a henhouse with the classroom teacher, and another group, headed by a UW-Madison student teacher, read a more challenging nonfiction book about a grandmother who, as one child excitedly noted, lived to be 101.
In addition to this guided reading lesson, one boy sat at a computer wearing headphones, clicking on the screen that displayed the words as a story was read aloud to him, to build word recognition and reading stamina. Two other boys read silently from more advanced books. Another boy received one-on-one help from a literacy coach conducting a Reading Recovery lesson with him.
“I think what’s so important is that this program truly meets the needs of a variety of students, from those who are struggling to those who are accelerated,” says Principal John Burkholder.

In classroom after classroom at Midvale, where two out of three students come from low-income families, the hallmarks of the Madison school district’s balanced literacy program are on display. The district has invested much in this teaching practice and philosophy, which it views as critical to reducing the racial and socio economic achievement gaps that exist in its schools.
But curriculum changes alone haven’t erased the correlation between achievement and income that persists in Madison schools. Districtwide, only 55% of low-income students scored “proficient” or “advanced” on the state’s 2005 third-grade reading exam, compared to 91% for non-low-income students.
Clearly, a lot more needs to be done in these formative early years to give poor kids a better chance at succeeding in school.
Growing poverty
The socioeconomic achievement gap is high on the list of problems faced by the Madison schools. The district’s low-income population has doubled in the past 16 years. In 1991, one in five students in Madison schools came from low-income families, as defined by eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch. Today, the district’s low-income population stands at 41%.
The trend is troubling because research has long found a negative correlation between academic performance and the size of a school’s low-income student population. Increasingly, policymakers worry that as Madison’s schools become poorer, it will become harder to produce gains in student achievement.
To its credit, the Madison district has for years provided extra resources to schools serving poorer students, but state-imposed revenue caps have cut into these supplemental allocations.
And while smaller class size and a flexible curriculum are important in dealing with the learning needs of poor students, the district has yet to embrace one of the best-researched solutions to compensating for skill deficiencies that many low-income kids face: 4-year-old kindergarten.
In 2003, Superintendent Art Rainwater rejected a plan to partner with Madison’s early-childhood providers — including Bright Horizons, Creative Learning, the YMCAs, Red Caboose, Woodland Montessori and Preschool of the Arts — for a jointly run 4K program. Today, about 50 school districts across the state have similar partnerships, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.
Madison school officials say start-up costs were prohibitive, but they never brought a proposal to the school board, which could have prioritized funding or sought a referendum to finance citywide 4-year-old kindergarten.
Dorothy Conniff, the longtime supervisor of the city’s community services programs, offers this explanation for the proposal’s demise: Rainwater and John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., didn’t like losing power and authority through a community partnership.
“Madison has a fabulous child-care program, and we could do this together,” Conniff says. “All it would take is for people to put their egos behind them and really think about the needs of young children, and to work hard to make it happen.”
A clear connection
Madison school data shows a clear connection between poverty and achievement rankings in the district’s 31 elementary schools.
Based on third-grade state reading test data, the 10 lowest-performing schools mirror almost exactly the list of the 10 schools with the largest percentage of poor students. Glendale elementary on Tompkins Drive on the southeast side is the district’s poorest school, with 73% low-income students, meaning under federal guidelines they come, for example, from a family of four that earns less than $37,000 a year. Glendale’s test results are the worst in the district, with only 63% of its students scoring proficient or advanced on the state’s third-grade reading test.
At the other end of the spectrum, Van Hise, on the near west side, is the highest-scoring elementary school, with 97% of its students reading at or above grade level; it’s the second-wealthiest school, with a low-income population of 21%. Of the 10 schools with 85% or more of their students reading at or above grade level, seven have a low-income level of less than 30%.
Still, district officials point to sustained progress over the 10 years of its balanced literacy program.
In 1998, for example, 59% of third-graders met or exceeded reading standards as measured by a state test; in 2004 that number rose to 82%. The program has also garnered headlines for closing the achievement gap for the district’s lowest-performing students.
“I really believe our balanced literacy program is critical to closing the achievement gap,” says Sue Abplanalp, the district’s assistant superintendent of elementary schools.
Julie Underwood, dean of UW-Madison’s School of Education, says Madison’s small class sizes and instructional approaches have demonstrated that “staying the course” with strong programs can reduce the achievement gaps.
“They have raised student achievement for all children, and at the same time raised achievement for their low-income children even more…which is so impressive,” Underwood says.
Some have questioned, though, whether Madison’s gains are a chimera — the product of DPI manipulating the Wisconsin Knowledge and Comprehension Examination. Statewide, students have seen equally dramatic increases in achievement. The problem, say critics, is that the national reading test given to Wisconsin fourth-graders (the National Assessment of Educational Progress) shows reading levels of state students remaining relatively flat during a period in which the state test shows huge gains.
Something is out of kilter.
‘Classmates count’
While race is the factor most often associated with the achievement gap in education, experts agree that poverty is another telling indicator.
Decades of educational research show that students from low-income families tend to begin kindergarten lagging behind their wealthier counterparts, often because of limited vocabulary exposure, lack of reading experiences and more.
Writes Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation in a review of decades of research: “High-poverty schools are often marked by students who have less motivation and are often subject to negative peer influences; parents who are generally less active, exert less clout in school affairs, and garner fewer financial resources for the schools; and teachers who tend to be less qualified, to have lower expectations, and to teach a watered-down curriculum.”
A 2002 study of Dane County’s schools by researcher David Rusk found that the “primary factor” related to a school’s academic success, as measured by standardized tests, was its population of low-income students.
Rusk’s study, called “Classmates Count” (see story HERE) concluded that housing patterns in Dane County were also connected to educational success. “The test scores of low-income pupils improved significantly the more they were surrounded by middle-class classmates,” Rusk wrote.
To combat these trends, Madison school officials have long sought to strike racial and economic balances among its schools by reconfiguring school attendance areas. But that’s increasingly difficult. In 2000, none of Madison’s schools enrolled more than 60% low-income students; today 10 of its 31 elementary schools do.
And the spread in income levels has grown more severe, from Glendale’s 73% low-income population to Crestwood’s 19%. Nineteen of the district’s elementary schools have more than 41% low-income students, which is the district average.
No longer can schools count on a critical mass of middle- and upper-class families to anchor the learning environment.
The growth in the low-income population has also increased pressures on the district at a time when 14 years of revenue caps have left officials with little flexibility, let alone money for new programs.
‘Substantial benefits’
Madison school officials say those state spending restrictions have kept them from offering a citywide 4-year-old kindergarten program, but 257 other Wisconsin districts have somehow found a way to make it happen.
Both Johnny Winston Jr., the school board president, and Lawrie Kobza, the vice president, say the program deserves another look because of its proven educational benefits and its ability to put kids on equal footing when they enter the school system. Kobza says the district’s failure to create a 4K program may be “penny wise but pound foolish.”
The state Department of Public Instruction hails 4K programs as providing “substantial benefits to low-income children” and to other children as well.
Dorothy Conniff points out that the achievement gap is already evident in preschoolers. “Starting at age three, children in professional families develop a larger vocabulary,” she says. “If we could shore up the early-childhood education for low-income kids in Madison, we would eliminate a lot of the problems we have.”
That’s why Conniff is deeply distressed by the Madison district’s refusal to create a partnership with community daycare centers to provide 4K. “I think it’s really tragic that the school district decided to blow this off,” she says.
Conniff sees several advantages to child-care providers teaching 4-year-old programs, rather than housing these programs in schools.
For starters, it would bring money into Madison’s chronically underfunded child-care programs. Conniff says that running 4K out of the schools could cripple those programs by taking away a big population of its kids. And Conniff says child-care programs are better equipped to deal with the learning and social development of very young children.
“The accredited programs in this city have well-developed environments and specially designed programs and trained teachers,” she says. “Research after research has shown that the influence of early-childhood education is about half that of parental influence. That’s a huge influence we can have.”
Conniff says politics killed the partnership.
“I think there are two reasons this didn’t work, and both have to do with power,” she says. The first, Conniff says, is that the district’s administration didn’t like the “loss of control” from a decentralized program. The second reason, she says, was opposition from the teachers union, Madison Teachers Inc.
Conniff says Matthews initially agreed to negotiate the issue of using accredited day-care teachers for the program, but then reneged after district officials raised other concerns. “John was seeing this from a very narrow perspective,” she says.
Sue Abplanalp, who coordinated the proposal for the district when she worked as elementary lead principal, says the costs were too prohibitive at a time when the district is making annual cuts to programs. She says district estimates showed the program would create a budget shortfall of $2.2 million in the first year, and about $870,000 in the second year. By the third year, the program would be fully funded under the state’s school funding formulas.
“It failed because of budgetary constraints, period,” Abplanalp says.
But Abplanalp acknowledged other concerns, including whether the accredited centers would have enough space to offer the program to interested students citywide.
Matthews says MTI opposed the partnership because it called for district money to fund programs taught by non-school district employees. “We’ve got no problem with it as long as they’re MMSD employees,” says Matthews, which he says would ensure “quality control” and “high standards.”
Another look?
Some see the 4K rejection as a telling example of how change-resistant both MMSD and MTI are. In February, the school board killed a proposal to open an arts and technology charter school after Rainwater and Matthews opposed the project. Matthews has also been successful in stalling expansion of online courses through the district’s Virtual Campus initiative.
Other Wisconsin school districts, responding to parental requests, have been far more venturesome than Madison in diversifying their offerings.
Winston says that MTI better wise up to the need for change. “The teachers union is going to have to look at different ways of doing things, otherwise we’re all going to inevitably die,” he says.
“I know that’s a harsh statement, but inevitably if things continue as we move forward with yearly budget cuts, Madison schools are going to be in more trouble than just a little bit. We’ve got to look at some different things,” says Winston. “Hopefully, the executive director of MTI will start looking at these things with a different eye.”
Costs, too, aren’t insurmountable, as more than 250 Wisconsin school districts have implemented 4-year-old kindergarten despite revenue caps. The school board could also consider a referendum for financing a 4K partnership — something that could likely be sold to the community as an important investment with measurable results.
Kobza thinks a 4K program is important — especially with the district’s changing demographics. She says if money can’t be found in the district’s budget, a referendum is worth considering. Winston agrees.
“We’ve got to take a strong look again at 4-year-old kindergarten,” he says. “We’ve got to figure out how to make it work.”