News & Opinion » Columns

The schools' problem? Concentrated poverty


"The sky is falling." And as usual, it is falling on schoolchildren. Recent headlines place the academic performance of US students near the bottom of the world. These reports are partially true, but problems with our education system are exaggerated for some groups of students and underreported for others. Consider that:

            • Countries we are often compared to, including Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Germany, have a relatively flat distribution of income compared to us. They have largely succeeded in creating "middle class" cultures and schools through income distribution and social programs.

            • Unlike many countries, we test all our students. Now, under No Child Left Behind, we expect them all to graduate having taken advanced courses.

            • 2003's Progress in International Reading and Literacy study found that American students attending schools with fewer than 25 percent of their students in poverty finished first in the world in literacy, handily beating the top-scoring country, Sweden.

            • That same study found that American students in schools with 25-50 poverty rates attained scores that, had those students constituted a nation, would have ranked fourth in the world.

            Unfortunately this good news involves only about half of America's students. For the rest, the results are dismal. Students from high-poverty schools consistently score well below international standards, a result that has held steady for as long as international comparisons have been compiled. Children from households in concentrated poverty --- defined as an income of $18,850 per year for a family of four ---can rarely compete against their peers in the United States or the world. Achievement in the RochesterCitySchool District mirrors these national statistics

            Underachievement stems from a number of factors. The NationalCenter for Educational Statistics reports that twice as many teachers in high-poverty schools have less than three years experience than in more wealthy schools. There are few peer role models in high-poverty schools.

            Also, no matter how much people say "all children can learn," a population of needy students can put this maxim to the test. It is difficult for teachers and administrators to stay focused and positive day after day, year after year, and not become discouraged.

            Band-Aids like after-school and mentor programs can help. Never underestimate the power of superb teachers, counselors, principals, or mentors. But the pockets of success that we have seen in poor urban schools due a cadre of committed people do not constitute systemic change.

            Fifty years of studies confirm the real solutions. For poor kids to achieve, they must be in classes and schools with kids who are not poor. A critical mass of at least 60 percent middle-class kids seems to be the magic number. Flight to the suburbs by the middle class makes this impossible in most urban areas including Rochester.

            To improve education, we must think regionally. This means considering solutions like a MonroeCounty school district or greatly expanding partnerships with suburban districts. By thinking "outside the box," we can address the middle-class flight from the city and provide educational opportunities for all children. This model of cooperation can turn into a win-win for all of us. But it cannot be happen if we continue to make believe that schools with concentrated poverty rates have any chance to do as well as wealthier schools.

            Recent figures indicate that in the next few years the RochesterCitySchool District school population will shrink below 28,000. Divide that total by the eight or nine school districts and six or so colleges and universities in our immediate region. Think of the money that could be saved and children that could be served by creating partnerships at all these levels.

            The Rochester region has the human and institutional capital to tackle this problem but it starts with acknowledging it. An effort to break up the warehousing of poor children could transform our community and become a national model for change. Yes, it is a dream fraught with difficult barriers involving race, neighborhood schools, and turf wars, but it is worth the struggle.

            Rochesterian Jeffrey Linn is Director of Staff Development in the CanandaiguaCitySchool District. Previously he served as associate professor of education at SUNY Brockport. During that time he participated in a partnership with RochesterSchool 17 in a program training teachers in urban school districts.