How are the rural poor doing at school?

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Massachusetts is a wealthy place. We are among the wealthiest states in the country, and the educational attainment of Massachusetts parents is well beyond that of parents in every other state. All this should point to high-powered students and schools in the Bay State.

In fact, “big thinkers” in education policy often point to those factors to explain why Massachusetts does so well on national and international assessments. In part, that’s true.

But what these big thinkers fail to see is that Massachusetts not only has risen from around 11th in the country on the national assessments to No. 1, but also that the performance of all Massachusetts student groups has gone up.

In fact, Massachusetts’ improvement in performance among Hispanic students is very much in line improvements in the states that have most concentrated on this issue, such as Florida (Florida’s improvement among Hispanics is a hair better and, ironically, they end up higher today in part because they started out ahead of Massachusetts due to pockets of highly educated immigrants).

However, the search for bragging rights is misplaced.

We all have a lot to learn in terms of which state experiments have worked or not worked, for whom, and where our weaknesses persist.  The Bay State’s weaknesses are clear: we need more focus on high achievers as well as low achievers, and we need to expand choice options for parents in those poor districts that have failed students for decades now through charters and an anything-it-takes approach.

Here are some basic facts on poverty in Massachusetts.  Overall, we rank 8th among the states in household income.  With the baseline of about 10 percent of the overall population living below the poverty line, around one in three students statewide qualify for free or reduced price lunches.  The extent of poverty varies wildly, with FRPL eligibility by district ranging from a miniscule 0.1 percent to an eye-popping over 90 percent.

Poverty in Massachusetts is concentrated in urban areas, and only one state has a lower percentage of rural students qualifying for FRPL, but the percentage of the commonwealth’s urban students who qualify is higher than in 35 states.  The highest poverty rates are in Suffolk and Hampden Counties, home to Boston and Springfield, where about one quarter of school-aged children are below the poverty line.

There are also pockets of rural poverty in Massachusetts. More than half the students qualify for free or reduced price lunches in the Greenfield, North Adams, Gill-Montague and Ware school districts. Orange, Athol-Royalston, Hawlemont, Ralph C. Mahar, Flordia, and Winchendon all have almost half their students on FRPL.

So let’s disaggregate the big, broad measures we too often use, and understand that we need to avoid lumping poor with poor, thinking that poverty makes for a monolithic set of individuals, motivations, aspirations, and challenges.  Let’s ask:

How have urban and rural poor students fared, respectively, since the start of the landmark 1993 education reform act, which infused school with more money, set high academic standards, required testing of students, insisted on higher quality teachers determined by tests tied to the state’s standards, and introduced competition into the system through charter schools?

A recent report entitled Urban and Rural Poverty and Student Achievement in Massachusetts does just that.  The author of the paper, Salem State professor Ken Ardon, begins:

Massachusetts still has a significant share of its population living in poverty – approximately 600,000 people in the Bay State live below the poverty line. While low-income families are often concentrated in urban areas, rural areas also have deep pockets of poverty.

A few takeaways from the paper:

  • Using national assessment data, the poor overall in Massachusetts have improved fast on math than their counterparts around the country.  The same is not true on English language arts.
  • Using MCAS data, the scores of high and low-income students have risen in the Commonwealth, whether in urban, suburban or rural areas.

Finally, as Ardon notes, “Low-income rural students have made slightly larger gains than low-income urban students and modestly reduced the performance gap.”  Why is that important?  Just 10 years ago, the performance gap was larger in rural areas than in urban areas.

Today, the performance gap between low- and higher- income students is roughly the same in rural and urban areas of Massachusetts.  That is, poor students have improved more rapidly and closed the achievement gap as measured by both the MCAS and graduation rates faster than their urban counterparts.

Finally, Ardon suggests that the difference in performance between low-income students in rural and urban areas may be attributable to the urban students being poorer and less likely to speak English.

Also seen in Boston Globe Blogs and Education News

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