It often feels like everything is just a little bit harder in West Virginia, and public education is no different. The state Constitution requires that our school system provide a thorough and efficient education, but we consistently fail to meet that standard.
State policy makers, teachers, school administrators, parents and other taxpayers are now debating how to improve outcomes. The legislature is expected to take up education reform in a few weeks.
One of the great obstacles, however, cannot be solved by passing a bill or changing a policy. It’s just this—we have a lot of poor families in West Virginia.
Naturally, there’s nothing that says a child from a poor family cannot do well in school and go on to achieve great things. We all know Horatio Alger stories. However, statistically, children from low income families generally do not do as well in school as those from wealthier families.
That point is clear in a study by researchers at Harvard and Stanford—”The Achievement Gap Fails to Close: Half century of testing shows persistent divide between haves and have-nots.”
(I first read about this study in a column by Robert Samuelson in the Gazette-Mail, followed up and read the study for myself.)
The study first reaffirms what other research has found; there is a significant gap in achievement in the nation’s public schools that is linked to socioeconomic conditions. For example, the achievement gap between students in the bottom 25 percent based on their socioeconomic condition and the top 25 percent represents two-and-one-half years of learning.
That number is especially significant in West Virginia because of the number of students from low income families. Half of the state’s public schools (336) are classified as Title I, meaning they have a high percentage of poor children. Two-thirds of the state’s school children (67 percent) qualify for free or reduced price meals.
The research also found that the student achievement disparity has not changed in a half-century; it’s just as large as it was in 1966. “Although policymakers have repeatedly tried to break the link between students’ learning and their socioeconomic background, these interventions thus far have been unable to dent the relationship between socioeconomic status and achievement,” the researchers concluded.
The report does not blame teachers specifically, but it also does not let them off the hook. It points out that while “there has been ample commentary on teacher recruitment and compensation policies, few programs and policies… have directly focused on enhancing teacher quality [emphasis added], particularly for disadvantaged students.”
The study results reinforce the frequent complaint by teachers and school administrators that a growing number of students do not come to school ready to learn. The response has been for the schools to take on even more of the responsibilities normally handled by the family.
State School Superintendent Dr. Steve Paine said on Talkline Monday that he heard over and over during the just-completed education public hearings about the need for more social and emotional support for students. “Kids are coming from some very, very difficult backgrounds and some of those needs need to be met before we can address their academic needs.”
That’s a monumental challenge, and one that requires new thinking because as this study points out, nothing we have done so far has worked in narrowing the education gap between the haves and the have nots.