State funding lags for high-poverty schools

The state budget bill approved last month by the Indiana House continues a trend that we’ve seen for several legislative sessions: School districts that primarily serve affluent families are getting decent funding increases while high-poverty school districts are losing out.

But the story is more complicated than a simple tale of taking from the poor and giving to the rich. It also touches on the innate difficulty of coming up with an accurate and reliable measure of student poverty. For some districts, another factor in play is the current atmosphere for immigrant families.

For over 20 years, Indiana has used a school funding device called the Complexity Index to direct more money to high-poverty schools, which face more complex challenges in educating students. The House budget reduces Complexity Index funding by 15 percent, or $136 million.

The result: High-poverty school districts, those that rely for extra funding on the Complexity Index, could face financial challenges in the two-year period covered by the budget. The legislation is now being considered by the Senate, which could make changes in the House-approved school funding formula.

According to data from Libby Cierzniak, an attorney who represents Indianapolis and Hammond schools at the Statehouse, average per-pupil funding would increase three times as much for the state’s 50 lowest-poverty school districts as for the 50 highest-poverty districts under the House budget. Lawmakers could tweak the formula to make the results more equitable, but so far, they haven’t.

“High-poverty school districts, compared to low-poverty school districts, would take the biggest losses,” Cierzniak said.

Why does Complexity Index funding decrease? The short answer, Cierzniak said, is that, according to the poverty measure used in the index, there are fewer poor children in the state than two years ago. Continue reading

Public schools and investing in all our children

Everyone who cares about education should read this Indianapolis Star guest column by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis professor Edward Curtis IV.

Headlined “Why we love our D-rated school,” it explains why Curtis sends his two elementary-age children to their neighborhood public school, regardless of test scores and school grades. The decision, he says, reflects his family’s deepest hopes for all children, not just their own.

“My choice is based not only on our family’s ethics, but also on calculated self-interest,” he writes. “We act out of our deepest values while also providing our kids with great opportunities by sending them to a multiracial, multireligious, multilanguage, working-class school.”

Curtis describes the joy that he sees when he visits the school’s classrooms and attends after-school activities. He celebrates that his children are learning by experience to live in a world that includes poor people, people of color, refugees and families that are learning to speak English.

Continue reading

Same old story: Test scores reflect demographics

The Indiana Department of Education has refused to disclose what grades Indiana schools would have received in 2015 if it weren’t for “hold harmless” legislation approved by lawmakers – so I can’t do the analysis of how grades correlate with school poverty that I did in previous years.

The best I can come up with is to show how school wealth and poverty correlate with passing rates on the spring 2015 ISTEP exams. And as you’d probably expect, they match up pretty closely.

As when looking at grades, I divided school corporations into four quartiles on the basis of the percentage of students who qualified for free or reduced-price meals. Passing rates all around were much lower than in previous years – remember that Indiana students took a new, more difficult version of ISTEP in 2015 – but the pattern was fairly clear.

  • In the top quartile, the schools with the fewest poor students, passing rates for nearly all the schools ranged from 50 percent to 80 percent, with just a few outliers. The median figure – with half the values higher and half lower – was 61 percent.
  • In the second quartile, passing rates ranged from 43 percent to 68 percent. Most were between 50 percent and 60 percent. The median was 55 percent.
  • In the third quartile, passing rates ranged from 35 percent to 66 percent. The median was 50.5 percent.
  • In the bottom quartile, made up of the highest-poverty schools, passing rates ranged from 22 percent to 55 percent. The median was 44.3 percent.

A rough representation of the quartiles looks like this:

2015 rates of passing both math and E/LA ISTEP exams by school percentage free and reduced-price lunch

2015 rates of passing both math and E/LA ISTEP exams by school percentage free and reduced-price lunch

As expected, there’s considerable overlap between the groups – schools at the top of the bottom quartile are a lot like schools at the bottom of the third quartile, after all — but the groups line up along the test-score axis, poor schools at the left and affluent schools at the right.

There’s nothing new or surprising here, of course. It’s just another illustration of the well-known fact that test scores are largely an indication of socioeconomic status and only secondarily a reflection of school effectiveness.

Segregated schools in a progressive town

The Monroe County, Ind., school board thought it was doing the right thing nearly 20 years ago by approving a redistricting plan that clustered many of the community’s neediest children in a single elementary school.

But times have changed, and maybe it’s time to revisit that decision.

The 1997 redistricting did a number of things, but the biggest was moving students from a large public housing complex to Fairview Elementary, which was already a high-poverty school. The plan prioritized “neighborhood schools.” The housing complex was near Fairview, so that was where the kids would go.

My two younger children were Fairview students at the time, and along with most teachers and parents, I thought the plan made sense. Fairview was a good school, with dedicated staff and engaged families. Those kids needed to be taught somewhere.

But the decision failed to anticipate a couple of trends. One is the way schools with high poverty have been increasingly labeled and stigmatized as “failing.” The other is the way parents with means have been able to use school choice to opt out of neighborhood schools.

At Fairview, 71 percent of Fairview students qualified for free school lunch after redistricting. Today the figure is 84 percent. That’s in spite of the fact that neighborhoods near the school have gentrified. And in spite of the Artful Learning the school board approved in hopes of retaining middle-class families.

Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, and we entered a new era of school accountability. Publicly reported test scores and, eventually, school grades bolstered the idea that Fairview was a “bad” school. Some middle-class families in the neighborhood transferred their kids to private schools or a local charter school. Or they simply moved when their children reached school age. Continue reading

High-poverty schools make progress on school grades

High-poverty schools made impressive gains in the 2014 A-to-F grades that the Indiana State Board of Education released last week. So did other schools. Across the board, a lot more Indiana schools earned As and Bs and a lot fewer were labeled with Ds and Fs.

But the performance of schools serving the neediest children jumps out. Among the quarter of schools with the highest percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, 30.2 percent earned As. Nearly half got As or Bs.

Just a year ago, only 20 percent of schools in that category got As. The year before that, just 12.7 percent of high-poverty schools got As. That’s real progress.

It’s still true that school grades reflect students’ socioeconomic circumstances. Indiana’s grading system, especially for elementary and middle schools, is based largely on students’ performance and individual growth on test scores. And research shows that test scores correlate with poverty.

Looking at the grades, you get the impression it’s nearly impossible for a low-poverty school to get a C or worse. And by low-poverty, I don’t mean just Carmel and Fishers. In the quarter of Indiana schools with the least poverty, up to 36 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

  • Schools in the highest-poverty group were still as likely to get a D or F as an A.
  • 65 of the 73 schools that got Fs were in the highest-poverty quartile.
  • More than 90 percent of the most affluent quarter of schools got an A or B.

Continue reading

Examining data for Indiana’s ‘disaggregated groups’

Here’s a question that arguably deserves more attention from education researchers and policy types: Why are some schools better than others at getting students from low-income families to pass tests?

We hear a lot about high-poverty schools that produce better test scores than you’d expect. We pay a lot of attention to no-excuses charter schools and public schools that focus relentlessly on data. But poor kids are scattered throughout all kinds of schools and school districts, urban, rural and suburban. And judging by test scores, some districts do a better job of helping them learn than others.

The Indiana Department of Education recently posted district-by-district and school-by-school passing rates on the ISTEP+ exam for “disaggregated groups” of students: minorities, students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, English language learners and special-needs students.

The data are a carry-over from the No Child Left Behind Act, which required schools to hit targets for the percentage of students in each group who passed standardized tests.

The results vary from school to school – a lot. Looking at students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, for example, the proportion who passed both the math and English ISTEP+ exams in 2014 ranged from 85.9 percent to 45.2 percent. The state average was 62.3 percent.

Some of the districts with the lowest passing rates for free-and-reduced lunch students are high-poverty urban districts. But some aren’t. Some of the districts with the highest passing rates are low-poverty schools with relatively few poor students. But some aren’t. It’s a mix, with no obvious pattern. Continue reading

Don’t let schools be an excuse for not fixing poverty

It’s a mystery. Why are people who call themselves education reformers comfortable with the status quo when it comes to poverty and economic inequality? Why are they OK with social circumstances that are convenient for adults but aren’t good for children?

Why can’t we talk about poverty and the challenges it presents for schools without being charged with excusing failure? As Adam VanOsdol of Indiana Education Insight noted recently: “Anyone raising the poverty issue these days gets accused of letting schools off the hook. These allegations stand in the way of serious form.”

Folks in the reform community like to say schools are the solution to poverty. Certainly good schools are part of what’s needed. But to suggest schools by themselves can solve the problem is naïve. And to suggest there’s nothing we can do is just giving up.

Just for a start, we could:

  • Raise the minimum wage.
  • Quit passing laws to weaken unions.
  • Create a fairer tax system.
  • Fund safety-net programs like food stamps, housing and unemployment.
  • Ensure people have access to health care.

And, yes, we could take on the shameful segregation of America’s education system Continue reading