School Beat: Reduce the Achievement Gap through Income Diversity

by Glenn Davis on January 28, 2010

After a decade-long debate regarding student assignment and the reality that San Francisco’s public schools remain segregated by race and income, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is just a few months away from implementing a new student assignment system. By all indications it will not look extremely different from what currently exists, with some level of a lottery system for placement of students and a condensed number of variables for how students are placed in requested schools, such as academic achievement, language ability and socio economic status. This conservative approach will not achieve the Board of Education’s request for the new student assignment system to be a catalyst to close the achievement gap between ethnic groups attending public schools.

What this conservative approach does is leave the responsibility of solving the achievement gap between the diverse groups of students attending the city’s public schools to old assumptions that strong leadership from the principal, quality teaching methods, prepared students and resources provided to a school from external organizations will create a high performing public school. These are without doubt invaluable components to a successful school and public education advocates have done a great job of bringing resources to San Francisco’s public schools in recent years with the hope of closing the achievement gap. For example, San Francisco First Five program provides pre-school services to help prepare students from low income families to achieve at the same level as students for middle and high income families when they begin kindergarten. San Francisco voters in November 2004 approved Proposition H. This proposition approved the use of public money for services, such as nurses and social workers to help close the gap in health care between students from families with different levels of income attending San Francisco’s public schools.

Additionally, in June 2008 the residents of San Francisco passed Proposition A to improve teacher quality through better pay, professional development and thoughtful evaluation. These initiatives are coupled with the work of non-profit organizations like the Boys and Girls Club and San Francisco’s neighborhood beacon centers that provide after-school services during the school year and in the summer to students. All of these resources, along with the recognition of the positive impact that strong leadership from a principal and quality teaching have, are critical to minimizing the inequity that many students face when they arrive at a public school., However even with those elements in place, the achievement gap has persisted in the SFUSD.

Furthermore, the on-going budget crisis has usurped funds provided by Proposition H, created a reduction in services provided to youth by non-profit organizations and is certain to lead to teacher and administrator layoffs this spring. This situation only increases the possibly of the achievement gap persisting in San Francisco’s public schools well into the future.

With this reality, the SFUSD should be taking a more innovative approach to the development of the new student assignment system. One such approach would be to implement a student assignment policy that caps the percentage of students from low income families that attend any given public school in the city. Research done by Richard Rothstein would suggest that this should be seriously examined as a new strategy for student assignment. Rothstein found that “A school’s average student achievement appears to decline almost linearly as the school’s percentage of children receiving subsidized lunches increases. However, the drop is most severe when the subsidized lunch population exceeds 40 percent.”

In North Carolina, the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) believed strongly enough that a high concentration of low income students negatively affected performance, that they implemented a policy in the 1990’s which uses 40 percent as the target maximum percentage for low income students that are assigned to a school in there district. In 2001, analysis affirmed that this policy change had a positive effect on student performance.

Karen Banks reporting on the analysis stated “Major findings of the study of the effects of school poverty in the WCPPS include the determination that previous actions of the district have created a system of schools in which relatively few campuses have a high concentration of poverty.” Ms. Banks also stated that “larger changes in the concentration of poverty in a school would be likely to produce changes in student achievement growth that would be both statistically and educationally significant and that the relationship appears strongest at the extremes of the WCPSS range, particularly as the concentration rises above 35-40 percent.”

The findings in WCPSS are not isolated. In Albuquerque, New Mexico David Rusk spent ten years studying the effect of poverty concentration in Albuquerque’s public schools. During this period Rusk examined the test scores of 1,108 third and fifth graders who live in public housing. Rusk’s study controlled for sex, race, ethnicity and household characteristics, and what he found was “that for every percentage point decrease in poverty among public housing child’s classmates, the child’s test scores improved 0.22 of a percentile.” To explain it another way, “attending a middle class neighborhood school with 20 percent poor children rather than a high poverty neighborhood school with 80 percent poor children meant a 13 percentile improvement in an average public housing child’s test scores.”

Rusk also shifted the focus of his study from the school’s socioeconomic mix to the school’s average test performance, and the results proved even more dramatic. “For every percentile increase in the school’s average test scores, the public housing child’s scores improved 0.53 percentile point. Attending a public school whose students ranked on average in the 80th percentile in the national tests as opposed to a school whose students were in the 20th percentile meant a 32 percentile improvement in the average public housing child’s test scores.”

Rusk’s research findings and the successful implementation of a cap on the percentage of low income students attending a public school in WCPSS are evidence that capping the level of low income students at individual public schools improves academic performance. The San Francisco Board of Education should view this cap as a viable option to reach their goal of implementing a student assignment system that works to close the achievement gap. In contrast to the focus on geographic concentrations of low test scores as a primary factor for achieving diversity, as presented to the Board of Education this past Monday, an income level indicator more explicitly brings into play some of the fundamental factors external to the school environment that contribute to the achievement gap, such as housing, the relative frequency with which lower income kids change schools, teaching abilities of parents in the home, access to health care, access to tutors for pay, after-school programs, and variance in life experiences based on mobility of family to travel and more.

It certainly is not too late in the process for the Board and SFUSD staff to conduct quantitative analysis to find out what is the impact high and low levels of economic segregation has on the academic achievement of students attending public schools, especially given that the major goal of the SFSUD in recent years has been to close the achievement among diverse groups of students.

Should their analysis conclude that the academic performance of a given public school in San Francisco, and of the low-income students in that school drop significantly at a certain percentage level of low-income students, the Board of Education should implement policy that caps that percentage assigned to any school, much like the Board of Education for WCPSS in North Carolina did in the 1990’s for their school district. In line with one of the recommendations of the consultants evaluating the current assignment process, using income as the primary, if not only, factor in the lottery would strengthen the overall effort to reduce the achievement gap while increasing diversity at all of San Francisco’s schools.

Glenn Davis is the producer and host of “The 22” on Comcast Ch. 76 and a volunteer at Junipero Serra Child Development Center.

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