A new analysis from David Figlio and Krzysztof Karbownik, part of the “Evidence Speaks” series from Brookings, indicates that variation in educational practices between individual schools explains a large amount of the socioeconomic achievement gap. In short, school quality varies, and it matters for every student.
Using a specially created data set from the Florida Departments of Education and Health, Figlio and Karbownik were able to match each child’s school record with his or her birth certificate data, which includes parental education, family structure, and poverty status. Based on a child’s socioeconomic status (SES) at birth, they grouped children into SES quartiles. Then, they examined academic gaps between low- and high-SES students at three points in time: kindergarten entry (using existing readiness data), the end of third grade (the point at which most students in Florida are first formally assessed), and the end of fifth grade. The study included 568 elementary schools across the state with a substantive distribution of students in all four socioeconomic quartiles, excluding schools that were practically all low- or high-SES (about one quarter of the elementary schools in the state).
In line with prior research, achievement gaps were observed between high- and low-SES pupils. Yet wide variations in the size of these gaps were observed from school to school. There were schools where the gaps were small and both groups enjoyed strong academic growth relative to state averages. There were schools where the gaps were small but growth was poor compared to the state average. Then, there were schools where high-SES students far outpaced their low-SES peers.
The general trend was that low-SES students appeared to perform somewhat better when in schools where their high-SES peers also do well. A rising tide lifts all boats.
The researchers dug deeper into the data to test variables that might explain their findings.
As befits the current vogue for preschool as a solution to poverty-related achievement gaps, the first variable examined was preschool preparation, measured by students’ kindergarten readiness scores. While the vast majority of students at all socioeconomic levels tested “ready,” it was not surprising to observe that high-SES students generally had higher kindergarten-readiness rates than their low-SES peers. But data from specific schools again varied widely, including eighteen schools whose low-SES kindergartners had slightly higher readiness rates than their high-SES peers. Additionally, while students with higher kindergarten readiness tended to perform better on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) in both third and fifth grades, wide variations in FCAT achievement between individual schools were observed which could not be explained by either individual socioeconomic status, a school’s overall SES level, or students’ kindergarten readiness.
Further digging into these and other variables led Figlio and Karbownik to conclude that while socioeconomic status plays a large role in achievement and test scores for students throughout elementary school, some individual schools were clearly making real and ongoing contributions to mitigating the influence of low SES on academic outcomes. The best schools helped both high and low-SES students to achieve.
However, identifying the “special sauce” that created these pockets of excellence for poor students is beyond the scope of this report and the authors surmise that a variety of efforts are at play. They recommend policymakers take a close look at practices and instructional policies at the school level, tracking the achievement and growth by subgroup to figure out which schools have greater success with low- and high-SES students. They also recommend that accountability systems focus at the school rather than district level, which can obscure variation in performance by school.
While only correlational rather than causal, the patterns documented here seem an important evidentiary underpinning to a fundamental truth: Some schools are better than others. While this tenet has always been a guide star for folks able to buy a house in a “good” school district, it has often been bound up with non-academic considerations, which can distort the definition of “good.” The same is true of the school choice movement, where mere access to choice has sometimes taken precedence over the quality of those choices. But we have turned that corner and research that points with specificity to schools and settings that are making a difference for low-SES kids is a timely reminder: Advocates of interdistrict open enrollment, private school vouchers, and charter schools must put academic quality—especially for the neediest students—at the forefront of our definition of a “good school”.
SOURCE: David Figlio and Krzysztof Karbownik, “Some schools much better than others at closing achievement gaps between their advantaged and disadvantaged students,” Economic Studies at Brookings (July 2017).