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The High Price Of Poverty


If you had to place a bet on where student test scores have plummeted over the past decade and a half, where would you put your money? Chicago Public Schools? Galesburg? Urbana? A new study on student achievement in Illinois shows some surprising results.

Paul Zavitkovsky — a former Chicago Public School principal now with the Urban Education Leadership Program at the University of Illinois Chicago — co-authored the report.


Zavitkovsky: Something very important has happened that we don’t think a lot of people are aware of, when it comes to the decline of achievement in largely-white districts south of I-80. All this achievement business has been very heavily racialized for a really long time. This idea of a low-achieving, low-income school was basically code for, you know, a school that serves low-income kids of color in a racially-identifiable area or a racially-identifiable school. We now have concentrations of white poverty that are nothing like the concentrations of poverty that occur in communities of color, yet we’re getting these gigantic declines in achievement that pretty much match what low-income communities of color have been experiencing for years.

And a big part of my point is, maybe this is a little too cute a phrase, but poverty is an equal-opportunity disrupter.


The researchers arrived at this conclusion by tracking test rankings of 55 large unit districts across the state over the years 2001 through 2016. Let’s take Galesburg, for example. It’s a mainly white school district where more than half of students achieved at or above the statewide median test scores in both reading and math in 2001. But over the past 15 years, Galesburg’s percentages have fallen to just 46 percent in math, and 36 percent in reading. At the same time, the percentage of their student body that is low income has increased by 20 percent.


Zavitkovsky: What seemed ironic to us as we were writing this report was that, at the very time that we have substantial communities of color being able to figure out at least to some degree how to combat some of the things that go along with coming from low-income communities — so you see that 15- to 20-point rise in Chicago — the same time that’s happening, you see the floor fall out from underneath achievement that not that long ago saw themselves as kind of immune to achievement issues that they were identifying with areas like Chicago or Rockford or East St. Louis or whatever. And a lot of that looks like it had to do with rising low-income enrollments in those districts.


DR: I notice that the title of this paper is “Upstate/Downstate,” and it looks like upstate is doing better than downstate. I was wondering if that was any kind of play on the old PBS series “Upstairs Downstairs.”


Zavitkovsky: That’s what made it come to mind, yeah. There’s almost as much property wealth in suburban Chicagoland as there is in the rest of the state put together. So that’s not an insignificant factor. It’s not the entire thing. Myself as a principal, I worked in plenty of districts that were not well-funded and not well-heeled when it came to property wealth and we still did I think a pretty decent job of helping kids have the kind of opportunities that every kid deserves. But it does make a difference when you have 35 kids in a classroom as opposed to 20 kids in a classroom. That’s where most of those dollars go to, is to pay teachers, and anyone who argues otherwise is, I think, just not very familiar with how schools work.


DR: So in general, socio-economic status and academic achievement kind of follow the same arc, right?


Zavitkovsky: That’s right. The household income of a youngster predicts pretty clearly, if you look at averages, how a student is going to do, with remarkable accuracy.


DR: The content of the report is not some kind of touchy-feely narrative on how to be an effective school; it’s just data that shows you it is possible to be an effective school. With this kind of demographic, you can still get this kind of test results.


Zavitkovsky: Well, that’s right. And we’ve got plenty of studies prior to this that say it’s possible to do that. What we were interested in doing was seeing to what extent that was actually happening in different parts of the state. So in 2001, when we look at how all the districts in Chicago and the six-county area surrounding Chicago were doing, on average, when a district had about 50 percent of its kids coming from low-income households, about 35 percent of kids in those districts were doing as well as the statewide median. Not very promising, right?

In 2016, a district that had 50 percent low-income enrollment in Chicago and suburban Chicagoland, about 50 percent of kids were scoring at or above statewide median. That’s a pretty big increase, particularly since the statewide median went up a little bit.


By contrast, when you go to districts in Central Illinois, south of I-80, north of I-70, that number stayed pretty much constant at about 45 percent. The problem is that lots more districts had higher low-income enrollment in 2016 than they did in 2001. So the net effect is that you have a lot of districts that are doing much less well compared to the rest of the state in 2016 than they were in 2001. Some of those drops are pretty dramatic.


DR: Yeah, one of them is Urbana. Urbana was doing great and it’s just taken a dive and Urbana’s home of the University of Illinois, and a lot of kids there have parents who are college professors.


Zavitkovsky: Yeah, same can be said of Bloomington, home of ISU. Bloomington lost about 20 points.


DR: Although Champaign did not take a dive, and that’s also home of the University of Illinois.


Zavitkovsky: Yeah, it didn’t take as big a dive, let’s put it this way. Its performance compared to the rest of the state did go down.


DR: What explains it?


Zavitkovsky: You know, we’re not in a position to say specifically what explains it. But you were asking earlier about this idea of school effectiveness, and what we’re saying in the report is that the various factors that go into making a school more effective seem to be operating at scale to a much greater degree in the six counties surrounding Chicago and in Chicago than they are downstate. Lots of people could speculate about why that’s happening. What we do know is that there are a number of factors that show up in the school effectiveness literature that really are very closely associated with this business of better academic performance. Like when schools create a safe and orderly environment, when they have ambitious instruction, when teachers get time to collaborate, when there’s a lot of parent-community outreach — there are a number of factors that consistently relate to higher levels of student achievement.


DR: And does school funding correlate?


Zavitkovsky: It does. It’s not clear how consistently that is. That is to say it’s not clear that is a direct cause of any of those things. One of the things that looked pretty interesting to us as we were looking into this stuff is that the percent of parity between downstate districts and districts in the Chicagoland area, you know, for districts that have midrange incidence of low-income enrollment or very high incidence of low-income enrollment, the level of parity that existed between downstate districts and districts in suburban Chicagoland dropped. So the suggestion there at least is that there’s some connection between the kind of funding that’s available to districts and their ability to build the capacity to do the things that make them more effective.


DR: Okay I will say that this report is a cliffhanger, because it leaves a lot of unanswered questions. It’s really scary, but you don’t know whodunit.


Zavitkovsky: Right. Well we tried to be at least intellectually honest enough to stay away from speculating in a way that made it sound like we actually have clear answers to that question. What we do know is that something scary has happened here, and it’s time to take it seriously and get a little closer bead on why.


 To view the report, click here: http://urbanedleadership.org/what-we-do/research/upstate-downstate-report/


After a long career in newspapers (Dallas Observer, The Dallas Morning News, Anchorage Daily News, Illinois Times), Dusty returned to school to get a master's degree in multimedia journalism. She began work as Education Desk reporter at NPR Illinois in September 2014.
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