It’s Performance, Not Poverty

by John Butcher

The popular sport in the Richmond “education” establishment has been to blame the kids for the awful performance of our schools. We particularly hear about our less affluent (the official euphemism is “economically disadvantaged”) students.

We have some data on that. Again.

Here are the average reading pass rates by grade of the economically disadvantaged (”ED”) and non-ED students in Richmond and the state.  “EOC” indicates the End of Course tests that generally must be passed to receive “verified credits” that count toward a diploma.

Both in Richmond and on average, the ED group underperforms the non-ED group.

To the point here, the Richmond ED students underperform their peers in the state averages, as do the non-ED Richmond students.

We can calculate the differences between the Richmond groups and state average to measure that underperformance.

Here we see Richmond’s ED students underperforming their peers by about 7% in elementary school while our non-ED students average some 9% below that group statewide.  In middle school the difference increases to roughly 19% for the non-ED students and 25% for the ED group.

The math test results show a similar pattern.

These data tell us two things:

  • Richmond students, both ED and not, underperform their statewide peer groups on average; and
  • The average SOL performance of Richmond students, ED and not, deteriorates dramatically in middle school.

As I have demonstrated elsewhere, the large percentage of ED students in Richmond (64% in 2017) does not explain our low pass rates.  So we are left with (at least) two possible explanations: Either Richmond students are less capable on average than students statewide or our schools are less effective than average.

If Richmond’s students were just less capable, it would explain the low elementary school scores but not the drop in pass rates after the fifth grade.

The plummeting performance of our students when they reach middle school tells us there’s a (big!) problem with our middle schools.  And there’s every reason to think that the school system that has terrible middle schools might also have problems with its elementary schools.

To the same end, notice how the ED performance by grade tracks the non-Ed performance in Richmond.  We saw the same thing last year:

Those parallel curves are fully consistent with the notion that performance variations by grade are driven by the teaching, not by the capabilities of the students.

As well, Friar Occam would suggest the simple explanation: Substandard elementary schools and awful middle schools in Richmond, not thousands of dunderheads (both poor and more affluent) attending those schools.

There’s an alternative that we might consider: I keep hearing that some of our elementary schools cheat on the SOLs. We know for sure that’s happened in the past in Richmond and this year in Petersburg.

If, in fact, the Richmond elementary pass rates are boosted by cheating, it absolves the middle schools of some or all of the decline in scores between the fifth and sixth grades but it leaves the conclusion here intact; it merely moves the elementary schools toward the “awful” category of our middle schools.

This article was originally published on Cranky’s Blog.

There are currently no comments highlighted.

15 responses to “It’s Performance, Not Poverty

  1. Cranky, You have clearly demonstrated that something is wrong in Richmond city schools. That problem may well be the quality of teaching, as you suggest, but I’m not yet persuaded that lousy teachers account for the vast gulf between Richmond vs. state performance that you show across the board.

    As you point out, the transition between elementary school and middle school is the inflection point. What else happens around that time? Kids begin to enter adolescence. They are more difficult to discipline. In the Richmond, where a large percentage of the school age population lives in or near public housing projects, I suspect that many mothers begin to lose their children to “the street.” For many of these kids, studying and paying attention to teachers is not high on their list of personal priorities.

    There is a second inflection point — when kids transition from middle school to high school. Testing performance improves somewhat. One of two hypotheses of what might be happening there: (1) kids are coming out of their adolescent turmoil, or (2) problem kids are dropping out of school, making the percentage of passing test takers look better by comparison.

    Do your data sources lend themselves to testing any of these alternate explanations of the data?

  2. I think this abrupt drop off problem that arises in Middle school finds it genesis in lower school. Six Grade is the great turnover grade, because from the 6th grade on, students must already be able to read (and write) in order to learn. So, before the six grade, they are learning to read (and write) in order to succeed in the 6th grade and beyond.

    Hence without learning to read and write by the end of the 5th grade, student are doomed to fail in middle school. They can’t keep up. The learning everyone else does in the 6th grade and beyond is done by their reading homework assignments and their taking tests that require them to read and write.

  3. I’d like to see the sources of the data. I know that they keep numbers of ED but was not aware that data was broken down by grade.

    I wonder how Henrico would look since 5 of their schools were denied accreditation and 8 more have failed one or more of the subject benchmarks and are classified as TBD on accreditation.

    but where is the pass rates for ED and non-ED data on a per school district basis?


  4. Assuming Butcher is correct. Okay, then what do we do? How do we weed out the poorly-performing teachers, and replace them with a stronger faculty? Who is standing in line to teach there? Heck, who is standing in line to teach anywhere, given how lousy the job has become and how lousy the pay? The stories of large numbers of vacant positions as the year opened does not indicate a deep and talented applicant pool…

  5. Larry: Follow the link under “some data” in the 2d para and then click on Customized student achievement reports.

    • Ok.. I see what you’re using – the “build-a-table” …

      where you CAN slice and dice by ED and not ED.

      I suspect other areas like Henrico, Lynchburg and South-central and Southwest Va may show similar results especially if you slice and dice the schools that have been denied or warned on accreditation.

      Like Steve – I think what you’re showing is some systematic problems with communities of low income where even those who are not ED but do go to a neighborhood school that has large numbers of ED kids and the classroom academic rigor is low to account for the larger number of ED kids.

      One of the things that Niche shows that VDOE does not is the number of less experienced teachers for a given school. Apparently this data is actually reported and available to Niche … but it further reinforces a study done by the Feds that indicates that less experienced , newly graduated teachers are hired to staff “troubled” schools so you have this double whammy of both lower performing teaching staff and lower performing students cohorts combining to yield lower performing schools.

      I strongly suspect this is not a Richmond-only problem – that it’s a problem in Henrico, Lynchburg and other areas where there are multiple school school districts with neighborhood schools in low income neighborhoods.

      The problem is poverty – not race. It’s just a fact of life that blacks and hispanics = generationally – are not well-educated.. for different reasons – for blacks because of their generational impacts of slavery and jim crow era discrimination on public education and for Hispanics – many of who came here with lower education levels – and yes – they, as a group, probably do not have a culture of education that we see in Whites and Asians.

      Like Steve – my question is what do we do about it? It’s not like we don’t already know pretty much what your data confirms.

      And I’m totally on board with non-public schools taking on this issue – even with taxpayer money – as long as they meet the same transparency and accountability rules so that we’re actually dealing with the issues and not using private-sector schools to sweep the problem under the rug.

      Finally – I’d request that you actually show your data that you use as opposed to pointing to where you got it. How about it?

      • Fairfax County has been assigning many less experienced teachers to higher performing schools even to the point where it is threatening the County’s ability to attract businesses to the county. There is feedback that suggests business leaders are concerned that their children and the children of their executives will not get a fair chance of getting a reasonable number of experienced teachers. And Fairfax County spends much more on low-income students than on the general education student.

        • As long as you’re not totally staffing ANY school with inexperienced teachers – it should be a benefit to all students because inexperienced teachers need to be assigned to schools where they can get “experience” of the right kind.

          Assigning SOME of the experienced teachers to the schools that need more experienced teachers is responsible…and will end up helping more kids get up on grade level.

          It’s actually irresponsible to send inexperienced teachers as entry level to the tougher schools..without being mentored by more experienced teachers initially. It hurts both the kids as well as the teachers who are basically thrown to the wolves… and likely a lot of them leave when put in no-win situations.

          Anytime you have a school system with a good number of elementary schools – a single schools system – and you have both schools that are excellent and at the same time schools that are terrible and denied accreditation – it’s the mark of failure to administer – it’s a “performance” issue for the administration itself … it’s a failure to properly train teachers to be able to able to perform themselves at the tasks they’ve been assigned to do.

          Fairfax seems to be trying to be responsible. and I doubt seriously that ‘executives’ that always have the option of private academies,tutors and other options are being “harmed”.

          • I guess you have different information than the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority. They have said having good schools with very large class sizes and significant numbers of inexperienced teachers does create a marketing problem.

            A lot of the problems would go away if the federal government enforced the immigration laws aggressively. Notice “liberal” Canada is starting to freak as their borders are being crashed. In a post industrial world, no advanced nation can afford to import poverty. There are limits to how many refugees can be absorbed successfully for themselves and the rest of the nation, including those American residents with lesser education and skills.

        • Thanks much… I see what you did now. thanks.

          I’d be curious if the same phenomena occurs in places like Henrico and Lynchburg…Portsmouth, etc in places where there are bigger school systems with multiple elem, middle and high schools.

          Also.. if you did this to Richmond schools on a PER SCHOOL basis – what would it show?

          for schools with higher SOL results is there a difference between Ed and non-ED scores ?

          and for schools that are bad, denied accreditation – how much difference is there between ED and non-ED scores?

          My suspects are that in “bad” schools – the whole school is pulled down because the level of classroom teaching is lower to reflect the higher percent of ED in the class such that even kids that might score higher. are not – because they’re not getting the rigor that they would get if they were in a classroom with high performers.

          this again, points out the problems with concentrating poverty to neighborhoods that follow to the schools.

  6. As long as we have schools tied to neighborhoods and the neighborhoods have specific economic demographic characteristics – such that companies like Niche actually tie the quality of the school to the price of the housing in the neighborhood that school serves – we’re going to end up with “bad schools” with “bad teachers” attended by “bad kids” who have “bad parents”.

    where “bad” means deficits specific to each of those groups:

    “bad schools” = schools that have been denied accreditation or warned or designated as “focus” schools.. i.e. schools that are having trouble meeting the basic SOL score benchmarks.

    “bad teachers” – either inexperienced right-out-of-school, entry level or teachers that have been cast off from other schools for low performance (but not fired). The biggest issue, by far, is inexperience in teaching the economically-disadvantaged… “at-risk”, hard-to-teach kids.

    “bad kids” – “at risk” kids who live in chaotic and dysfunctional family circumstances exasperated by poverty and living in neighborhoods that are largely poverty-stricken themselves.

    “Bad parents” are low income or unemployed and who themselves are not well educated and basically not “good” parents.. because of the way they grew up … a generational cycle that began when their own parents were not well educated.. and lived in poverty.

    The question here is – why do we expect the school systems like Richmond to “fix this”?

    And to Cranky – what exactly would you have Richmond Government and Schools to do – to fix this?

    This is why it is dismaying to read Cranky’s tomes.. which are super-critical of Richmond – with justification – and he layers on his continuing battle with them and VDOE to get more “dirt” through his access to information that they are supposed to provide but understandably are more than reluctant to give him any more “ammunition” than he already has.

  7. “In a post industrial world, no advanced nation can afford to import poverty.”

    TMT hits the nail on the head. And that should be the defining issue in the Gillespie / Northam governor’s race.

  8. I am much more on the path of wanting to use the data to learn what is going on with an eye towards how we’d change to improve.. .. as opposed to using the data to castigate the current system and cast it as a failure of “education” or “govt” …etc.. choose your favorite anti-establishment biases.

    The problems that we have is that in the absence of definitive data – many folks revert back to stereotyping… and yes.. racism… i.e. the continuing narrative of “why do blacks do worse than whites in academics”.. and then the follow on ” blacks do worse than whites in school even when the schools are run by blacks”.

    To which.. I continue to point to places like Henrico which is an affluent county with some of the better public schools in Va but also with an astounding number of schools denied accreditation or in danger of being denied accreditation.

    I’d like to see Cranky and Jim do some similar data-looks at Henrico to see if we learn anything… how about it?

  9. A lot of the affluent Mary Mumford, Fox, etc. kids leave RPS after elementary school… How does RPS stack up against other areas with high poverty concentration? Is there an inflection point where high levels of poverty starts to hinder non ED pupils?

Leave a Reply