An analysis by The Oklahoman shows a correlation between poverty and the A-F school evaluation system.
While high-poverty school districts can be found in each of the A-F categories, trends emerge when looking at the statewide student population.
Schools with high grades have lower poverty rates than schools on the bottom end of the spectrum.
Students who attend A school districts have a free and reduced-price lunch rate of 33 percent, compared to 85 percent of students in D school districts, according to state data. For a family of four, the annual household income threshold for free lunch is about $29,000.
Data from the U.S. Census shows a similar trend. A school districts have a poverty rate of about 11 percent, while D school districts report a poverty rate of 30 percent.
For Census figures, a family of four is considered to be in poverty with an annual household income of about $23,000.
There is a relationship between affluence and high grades, said Maridyth McBee, assistant superintendent for accountability and assessment for the state Education Department.
That correlation is “probably not that hard to understand given that there are so many benefits of having more resources and lots of opportunities to learn than if you come from abject poverty when everything is on the schools,” McBee said. “There's a longer way to go.”
Nevertheless, the grades highlight schools that are doing well and schools that need more support, she said.
“There's a challenge, especially with poverty schools,” McBee said. “We need to have all hands on deck. How can we help them improve?”
Is poverty an excuse?
Low expectations are unacceptable for any student, regardless of economic status, State Superintendent of Schools Janet Barresi said.
“The point (of A-F) is to shine a light on how kids are doing,” Barresi said. “We're reporting this around on one stable number: proficiency. Regardless of if they're in poverty or not, we need to shine a light.”
Barresi has said often that education is a ticket out of poverty. But, she said, some people use poverty statistics as an excuse for inadequate performance.
“Those opposed to A-F can twist it around,” Barresi said. “They throw up their hands and go back to their offices and close the door. That's not acceptable. Children in poverty have special challenges, so how are we going to get them to proficiency?”
Options include individualized learning, strong leadership and an environment of cooperation. Barresi cited Oklahoma City Public Schools for offering extra class time for students during school breaks.
Some educators have to reach beyond the school doors. In Oklahoma, Barresi said she's seen visiting health clinics, expanded counseling services and community gardens to help fill in the gaps for students in need.
“One of the things that we're doing is we're trying to find best practices throughout the state,” Barresi said. “If we have these effective strategies, we need to talk together as educators.”
But educators worry that the formula reflects student demographics more than how much students learn or how well teachers teach, said Jeff Mills, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.
Educators want “a fair and equitable snapshot,” he said. But the issues surrounding poverty — hunger, mobility, absenteeism — affect what happens in the classroom.
“Poverty can't be an excuse,” Mills said, “but it is a reality.”
Poverty is a
It's a reality teachers face across the state, said Linda Hampton, president of the Oklahoma Education Association.
“You do what you can,” Hampton said, “and you do it a lot of times one student at a time.”
Smaller class sizes and personalized attention can help teachers combat the impact of poverty on the classroom, she said. Better teacher recruitment, retention and pay can help, too.
“You have to be resourceful,” Hampton said. “You have to be creative.”
But the A-F formula only highlights districts in need instead of helping educators, she said.
“It's really a punitive system that labels students, teacher and schools,” she said. “Then there's no focus on how to truly improve the problem.”
That's what has been frustrating for parents, said Anna King, president of the Oklahoma PTA.
“The report card system intentionally focuses all the accountability on schools without taking into account state or district financial cutbacks and completely ignores socio-economic changes within our state and individual districts,” King said.