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Poverty in the classroom, or a problem the state mostly has ducked

Joe Centers • Aug 1, 2017 at 12:03 PM

This editorial appeared in The Akron Beacon Journal on Tuesday (TNS):

The members of the new Ohio House Task Force on Poverty and Education launched their work last week with a look at the numbers. Take the scores on the third grade reading test for the 2015-16 school year. Sixty percent of the disadvantaged students scored below proficient, compared to 27 percent of the non-disadvantaged.

That gap reflects a trend long evident. Academic performance tracks household income.

Consider what the associations representing school superintendents, treasurers and board members found. Those districts with higher performance index scores have fewer students in poverty. Districts scoring below 70 have 82 percent disadvantaged students while those reaching above 100 have 9.5 percent.

The formidable challenge is what to do about the difference. In that way, the task force members would do well to pay close attention to the research the associations have produced in recent years, much of the analysis by Howard Fleeter of the Ohio Education Policy Institute.

For instance, Fleeter made a key adjustment in how the state calculates the “equivalent expenditures per pupil,” an apples-to-apples comparison of resources applied in the classroom. He drew on similar efforts elsewhere in adding a more realistic poverty factor.

The result? Total spending per pupil on learning in wealthy suburban districts exceeds the amount in the urban school systems with the highest rates of poverty.

That isn’t to say money alone solves the problem, but resources do matter. In a letter last week to Paolo DeMaria, the state school superintendent, the associations not only urged him to undertake the good idea of a full study on poverty and education. They reminded that the poverty factor in the school funding formula does not reflect “a determination of actual costs.”

One member of the House task force raised the issue of teacher quality. Another noted in response the additional training — or funding — required to prepare teachers. Which goes to the overriding concern, the challenge posed by the students and the tough circumstances they have faced and still do beyond the classroom.

Poverty isn’t a “lifestyle,” or something people just choose. It involves persistent social determinants, from the level of health care to the quality of housing. How does the state, through its public schools, seek to compensate? The effort, in part, goes to wraparound services, for instance, making sure a student has something as simple as a winter coat or as necessary as counseling for deeper problems.

One task force member, Bob Mengerink of the Cuyahoga County Educational Service Center, got it right: The problem requires “a community solution, not just a school solution.” For a community like Akron, there isn’t a higher priority. What would be helpful is having the state as a productive partner, a cause the task force has a responsibility to advance.

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