Student Success Comes Down to Zip Code

Politicians and the public concerned about how our society perpetuates inequality often assert that "no child's future should be determined by their zip code." But anyone living in a well-heeled neighborhood can look across the street at the new family moving in and know that this is precisely what happens.

A study recently released by sociologist Ann Owens of the University of Southern California showed that access to good schools in the nation's 100 largest cities continues to exacerbate income inequality between neighborhoods. Income disparities in communities increased by 20 percent from 1990 to 2010, largely because of the desire people have to live within the boundaries of top-performing schools. The study also indicates that income segregation between neighborhoods was nearly twice as high among households that have children compared to those without.

Equally disturbing, how the nation identifies and treats low-performing schools perpetuates the reality that where a child lives is still the most reliable predictor of student success.

AdvancED recently analyzed school data in 10 states (Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina, New Mexico and Oregon). Of the 832 schools listed as "low performing," 92.3 percent are considered high poverty schools (with more than half of students living in poverty). Moreover, the schools with the most extreme poverty comprise about three-quarters (74 percent) of the list.

Further analysis shows that once a school gets on their state's "needs improvement" list, they rarely get off. In fact, only 20 percent do. If a school is removed, there is a 50 percent chance that it will return to the list within three years. And when local districts intervene, more often than not they simply mask the problem by redistributing the children being failed by these low-performing schools.

While it may be difficult to change how or why people choose to live in particular neighborhoods, education policy plays a powerful role in perpetuating the cycle of low school and student performance. By putting so much emphasis on labeling schools as failing, our current educational accountability system, even with the end of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era, reinforces negative outcomes and continues to look at the wrong problem. The fact is: We don't have failing schools; we have students failing in every school.

The root of the problem of school performance is that we do not know how to effectively respond to the impact of poverty on a child's readiness to learn or how to provide more effective instruction to accelerate progress for low-income students who find themselves behind their peers.

Children born into poverty must overcome significant obstacles to their educational success before ever stepping a foot into a classroom or school. And once they do enter school, they encounter a system designed to provide instruction to groups of children that are expected to learn in the same environment and at the same pace. For children in poverty who began their formal schooling already behind other children, this uniform pace and structure assures that they will never catch up to their peers.

To disrupt this dynamic, the nation's whole approach toward school improvement needs to change.

First, we must help schools radically shift their approach to focus on the individualized needs of every student and ensure that every young person is prepared and ready for the next level of learning and/or work with an employable skill.

Second, we must rethink what we measure when it comes to school performance. Every state, district and school must gather far broader evidence, especially about each student's readiness for the next level or transition in their educational journey, rather than look solely on evidence from tests which provide no useful evidence to help educators understand underlying causes of what limits school success. Such factors should include demonstrating academic performance, displaying socio-emotional maturation and willingness to engage the learning environment. Data about these factors can provide educators with actionable information to help adapt what they are doing to address the individual needs of learners to help students pursue a pathway to their own success.

Third, we must rethink how resources are allocated. Currently, school funding provides roughly equal resources to address vastly unequal needs. It is the single greatest point of discrimination in our educational system. Even in affluent districts, concentrated achievement gaps often reflect racial and socioeconomic segregation at the neighborhood level that magnify these unequal needs.

Now that NCLB has been replaced by a new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), every state has a new opportunity to get things right. As states determine how they will hold schools accountable and determine how they will work with low-performing schools, it is time to include in accountability approaches a broader set of performance measures and interventions that are designed to measure and better support individual student achievement, progress and well-being. By looking at what's happening with students beyond test scores and shoring up what they have been denied, we can ensure that all students can succeed, regardless of zip code.

Dr. Mark A. Elgart is the founding president and chief executive officer for AdvancED, which drives education improvement through research and innovation, policy and advocacy, technology, and accreditation. It serves over 34,000 institutions and 20 million students worldwide.