On Monday night of this week, acclaimed education researcher Richard Rothstein spoke to community members at Epworth United Methodist Church in Durham. Rothstein opened his talk with an uncontroversial, yet under-appreciated, fact: social and economic characteristics of children are the primary predictors of student achievement.
This uncomfortable fact has been familiar to education researchers for more than 50 years. The landmark Coleman Report of 1966 concluded that disparities in student outcomes were driven by “the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment,” a finding that has been confirmed by countless additional studies in the ensuing five decades. Of course, just because average achievement is lower for children from low-income families, it doesn’t mean there won’t be individual students or individual schools that are high achieving. But on average, in all 50 states and in every other country in the world, students facing greater social and economic barriers have lower academic achievement.
The discussion holds direct relevance to the recent news that Goldsboro’s Carver Heights Elementary has been selected to be taken over by the state’s Innovative School District (ISD), with school operations handed over to a charter school company. Carver Heights would be the second school handed over to the ISD, following last year’s selection of Southside Ashpole in Robeson County. The state has given Wayne County leaders two options: cede control of Carver Heights to this unproven experiment, or close a school, scattering the students across the county.
The state’s ISD program is based on a nearly identical effort in Tennessee. In 2011, Tennessee officials removed 30 schools from the oversight of local, democratically-elected school boards (most from the majority-Black Memphis school system), and put the schools in the hands of private charter management companies. The experiment has failed spectacularly. Seven years later, none of the Tennessee schools had more than 20 percent of students scoring on grade level.
By the measure of standardized test results, Carver Heights is considered a low-performing school. In the 2017-18 school year, just 16.2 percent of Carver Heights students passed the state math test and only 20.2 percent were found to be reading on grade level. These students need and deserve our help.
However, these outcomes are not surprising given the social and economic challenges faced by these children. Over 90 percent of Carver Heights students come from families with incomes below the threshold for which to qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches. Carver Heights is also highly segregated; 98 percent of students identify as Black or Hispanic.
From decades of education research, we know that schools with social and economic characteristics similar to Carver Heights’ face incredibly difficult odds. Compared to their friends from wealthier communities, Carver Heights students are more likely to face difficult (though not insurmountable) barriers to learning. Carver Heights students are more likely to arrive at school hungry, or with undiagnosed medical conditions such as poor eyesight, asthma, or dental pain. Carver Heights students are more likely to have experienced what are known as “adverse childhood experiences” such as family and neighborhood violence, parental unemployment, and housing insecurity – stressors affect student behavior and impede healthy brain development in young learners. And despite their deeply-held intentions and desires, hardworking Carver Heights parents might not have the time or money to provide their children with the museum trips, books, and instructional technology that wealthy families provide to their children.
These tangible barriers to learning and development won’t be addressed by the state’s ISD scheme. The major changes implemented at the ISD school in Robeson County – buying school uniforms and firing the principal and 15 of the school’s 17 teachers – are unlikely to help students overcome poverty-related barriers to learning.
The programs and policies necessary to help Carver Heights students overcome the barriers they face are no mystery. Like all children, the children of Carver Heights deserve pre-kindergarten programs to ensure that all children are prepared for school. They deserve school nurses and mental health professionals to treat ailments and manage adverse experiences. They deserve delicious and healthy breakfasts and lunches. They deserve an engaging and culturally-relevant curriculum that includes exposure to music and art. They deserve field trips and after-school programs that broaden and enrich the school experience. And they deserve to attend integrated schools that reflect the community at large.
Of course, providing these programs and policies requires substantial investment from the state lawmakers responsible for providing every student in the state with a sound, basic education. Unfortunately, state leaders continue to ignore the barriers to education faced by students at schools like Carver Heights. Rather than give Black and low-income students the resources they need to thrive, they continue to pursue unproven, but cheap, experiments like the ISD.
To be clear, the children of Carver Heights aren’t being let down by the “soft bigotry of low expectations” as some conservatives argue. Nobody is content with low test scores. These children are being let down by state lawmakers in Raleigh who have consistently failed to provide Carver Heights students with the resources and support necessary to overcome the poverty-related barriers they face.
Transferring the management of Carver Heights to the ISD won’t help these children. It only helps the Raleigh lawmakers who can use this bound-to-fail experiment as an excuse to delay needed school investments and deny another generation of Goldsboro students the education they deserve.
Kris Nordstrom is a senior policy analyst at the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project.