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Not all poor schools are created equal

New York Teacher

For more than a decade, New York City has graded public schools and declared each a failure or success, while also touting the success of charter schools, based on how each school performed relative to similar schools. Schools are deemed similar primarily if they have the same demographic characteristics and percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch.

But new research finds that this is a flawed method for comparing schools. A school’s performance is affected less by how many students are poor than by how many face certain risk factors associated with poverty, a new study in Education Researcher finds.

Researchers John W. Fantuzzo and Whitney A. LeBoeuf of the University of Philadelphia and Heather L. Rouse of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences based their study on records for more than 10,000 3rd-grade students in Philadelphia, a district where student poverty is around 68 percent. They used school system data along with information from other local government agencies, including the city’s departments for housing and public health.

The researchers studied the impact on a school’s reading performance and student-attendance rate when a high concentration of students has certain health and social risk factors. Risk factors studied included whether the student was born to a teen mother, the level of prenatal care that the mother received, the mother’s level of education, whether the student had ever been homeless and whether there was a substantiated report of child abuse for the student.

They found that a school was most likely to have poor overall performance if a high concentration of its students had experienced homelessness or had a substantiated record of child abuse or a mother who did not complete high school or had inadequate prenatal care. The most important factor was the mother’s level of education and the second most significant was whether the mother received adequate prenatal care. Once all four risk factors were taken into account, a high rate of poverty became insignificant in predicting a school’s reading performance or attendance rate.

The researchers suggest the study shows the importance of accounting for social and health risks to understand variations in school performance and attendance. They recommend that policymakers create links between local government data systems to dissect how poverty may affect school performance.

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