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POST: (Montgomery's) Pupils' Poverty Drives Achievement Gap

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  • Richard A. Wilson
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A27602-2001Aug31.html washingtonpost.com: Pupils Poverty Drives Achievement Gap Pupils Poverty Drives
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 3, 2001
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      washingtonpost.com: Pupils' Poverty Drives Achievement Gap

      Pupils' Poverty Drives Achievement Gap

      By Brigid Schulte and Dan Keating
      Washington Post Staff Writers
      Sunday, September 2, 2001; Page A01

      First of two articles

      In an era when the desire for world-class schools has become something of a national crusade, the educational system that Montgomery County has maintained at that lofty level for a half-century is dividing in two.

      The district is evolving into two "separate and unequal" school systems, according to School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, who sees the growing number of poorly performing schools as the unaddressed "elephant on the table."

      Montgomery County's challenge reflects the changing face of inner-ring suburbs across the nation, as a landscape once uniformly middle class has become infused with economic and cultural diversity. The change has played out in myriad ways in Montgomery County, but nowhere has it been more influential than in the schools.

      Schools on the western side of the county still are among the best in the nation, ranking among the elite in test scores and college admissions. But performance has declined dramatically at schools in a swath running from the southeastern corner through the center of the county.

      The Washington Post analyzed the test scores and economic status of 50,000 Montgomery County students in the third through eighth grades.

      The analysis found that poverty was the most influential factor in predicting a student's performance. It also showed that the performance gap between schools with high levels of poverty and more affluent schools has continued to widen, even as the amount targeted to help troubled schools doubled to $60 million in the last five years.

      The data indicated that the performance of individual students differed dramatically depending upon the overall level of poverty in the school they attend.

      Lower-income students performed their worst at schools where the student population was overwhelmingly poor. But when lower-income students attended schools where most of the students were more affluent, they achieved higher scores -- matching or exceeding the county average.

      In a finding at odds with some national studies, middle-class students scored well when they attended schools with heavy concentrations of lower-income students. That challenges an assumption that has fueled a flight of middle-class parents out of troubled schools, hastening an already rapid transformation of certain schools and the neighborhoods that surround them.

      That transformation has been profound.

      Thirty years ago, 3 percent of county schoolchildren were poor; now, one-third are considered low-income. In 1988, six Montgomery County schools were considered high poverty, with 40 percent or more of their children qualifying for a federal lunch subsidy. Now, nearly 40 schools surpass that threshold.

      And the tests used to gauge progress show that the performance gap that first became evident in urban school systems now also bedevils suburban educators.

      That was underscored nationally and locally in SAT scores released last week. Although overall scores in Montgomery County mirrored those of the previous year, white and Asian American students did slightly better this year, and Latino and black pupils -- more than half of whom are poor -- did somewhat worse. The gap between the performance of white and Asian American students and their black and Latino peers widened to 243 points.

      "Urban suburbs like Montgomery County are at a point where many inner cities were when white flight began," Weast said last year in a speech to the League of Women Voters. "We have a chance to do things differently here."

      As Weast sets out to close the performance gap, Montgomery County is in a much stronger position than the troubled urban systems that have been grappling unsuccessfully with poverty and low achievement for decades. It is the ninth-wealthiest county in the nation. Its school buildings are among the best money can buy, it pays teacher salaries that draw some of the finest talent in the business, and the degree of commitment to public schools by its generally highly educated population has few parallels in America.

      Demographic Changes

      Some Montgomery County schools are untouched by the influx of poverty, but others are quickly becoming overwhelmed by it.

      At Burning Tree Elementary in affluent Bethesda, children filtered into school in the morning to the sound of classical music. A child's voice came over the intercom: "That was the scherzo movement of Schubert's Trout Quintet. Scherzo means quick and lively."

      Third-graders at Burning Tree studied algebra and already talked of college. On a given day, about 30 parents show up to do volunteer work. A book listed other parents who were available to help with lessons that draw on their professional expertise: science, architecture, politics. And parents were helping to raise $50,000 to upgrade the school computers.

      Burning Tree posts some of the highest test scores in the state.

      Broad Acres Elementary is a 30-minute drive to the east. For many of its students, English is a second language, and their parents speak little or no English. When second-graders were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, they drew pictures of pizza deliverymen, mechanics and bus drivers. In fifth-graders' creative writing, their characters were based on such television shows as the "Jerry Springer Show," "The X-Files" and cartoons.

      At Broad Acres, 90 percent of the students are low-income, and test scores have declined with the increase of poverty. Just 14 percent of the school's students scored proficiently on a state test, and the school is in jeopardy of a state takeover.

      The pace of change in Montgomery County, as in maturing suburbs throughout the nation, has been dramatic. The recent census found that Montgomery County now is 40 percent minority. And this year, for the first time, no single racial or ethnic group held a majority in the schools. Latino enrollment increased by 62 percent between 1998 and 2000, while the number of whites fell by 8 percent.

      But while the overall portrait of the county school system is multicultural, the concentration of affluent and poor, of whites and nonwhites, reflects the growing segregation of the district.

      Suburban segregation across the nation was described in a study released by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University in July:

      "Segregation is following the black and Latino families who are moving out of the central cities, and it is threatening the suburban dream of upward mobility for nonwhite families."

      The study found that white children were "growing up in more segregated schools than any other racial group, even in many places where the minority population has soared and the white population has plummeted."

      Gary Orfield, who heads the Harvard group, said: "There's a serious pattern of educational segregation developing in suburbia. And nobody's addressing it at all."

      Indeed, as Montgomery County's middle-class demographics that seemed to virtually guarantee test-score superiority began to change in the late 1980s, school officials were reluctant to acknowledge that performance was slipping in a growing number of schools. For years, they masked the truth by focusing only on countywide test score averages rather than releasing more revealing school-by-school results.

      "This is something we saw start to happen 20 years ago," said Jim Robinson, head of the Citizens Minority Committee, an education advocacy group. "We took it to the school board, and they blew right past it. They haven't dealt with it at all."

      County Council member Blair G. Ewing recalls the backlash when, as a school board member, he warned that some problems common in city school districts were surfacing in county schools.

      "Ten years ago, I said, 'We have five urban high schools, let's treat them as such,' and I got an avalanche of angry letters saying, 'We're not urban, we're suburban,' " Ewing said. "We have not wanted to acknowledge what's happened in the county. And we have not found a way to keep up."

      To the educators entrusted with the county's reputation for progressive, world-class schools, the growing number of troubled schools is a perplexing challenge that jeopardizes the quality of public education and the stability of the communities within it.

      "You can't ignore it and say this is just a passing trend. Or worse yet, publish statistics that are counterintuitive by putting out mythical averages," Weast said. "Because the people who are involved, who do know the truth, automatically pick up two things: Either you don't know, or you don't care."

      Looking Beyond Race

      The achievement gap that divides America's schoolchildren has usually been defined in racial terms. White and Asian American students have generally outscored their black and Latino peers.

      Recent research shows, however, that economic status is far more accurate than race in projecting who will do well on tests.

      For example, lower-income fourth-graders were more than twice as likely to score below grade level on reading tests than their middle-class counterparts, according to a recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. For every $10,000 increase in household income, researchers have found a 30-point gain in test scores.

      Most research on poverty's effect on education has been done in high-poverty, inner-city schools, which usually are beset by many problems that combine to frustrate educators.

      In Montgomery County, The Washington Post examined the most perplexing challenge facing public education in a setting free of the overwhelming poverty, funding shortages and crumbling infrastructure commonplace in many cities.

      The schools that are considered high-poverty in the county are newly renovated and chock-full of books and state-of-the-art computers. They have long been given more resources -- as much as $3,000 more per pupil, in some cases,than other county schools.

      Montgomery's school budget is $1.2 billion. With 134,000 students, the county has one of the fastest-growing school systems in the country, and in an era when more parents are turning to private education, Montgomery continues to draw more than 80 percent of the county's children to its public schools -- even though it has more private schools than any other county in Maryland.

      The analysis of standardized county and state tests taken by 50,000 students between third and eighth grades found that the achievement gap between poor and middle-class schools has widened in the past five years.

      In schools where the poverty level is below 5 percent, however, poor children do well. Though their scores aren't quite as high as their more-affluent classmates, they register at or above the county average in both reading and math.

      At affluent Herbert Hoover Middle School,there are only five dozen low-income students. Their average test scores in reading and math matched the county average. And low-income students performed far above the county average in reading and math when integrated with the more-affluent student body at several elementary schools, including Beverly Farms, Burning Tree, DuFief, Westbrook and Wood Acres.

      But a change in environment seemingly changes a poor child's fate. When lower-income children attend schools where the student body is overwhelming poor, their test scores are subpar. For example, The Post's analysis showed that some of the worst test scores posted by low-income students came at schools including Broad Acres, Glen Haven and WheatonWoods, where there are high concentrations of poor children.

      The most surprising finding in the analysis was that middle-class students scored well regardless of the level of poverty in their school, performing above the county average. For example, Parkland and Eastern middle are two of the poorest, biggest and most overcrowded schools. But dozens of their middle-class students scored well above the county average and far better than their poorer classmates. Smaller groups of better-off students also fared above average at otherwise-struggling Georgian Forest, Glenallan and Summit Hall elementaries.

      One explanation for the solid performance of middle-class children in high-poverty schools is that their home environment better fosters learning, experts say. Another is that Montgomery school officials have tailored curriculum at those schools to keep nervous parents from panicking.

      "It is not uncommon to create special strategies if you believe you are going to lose a population of parents who are viewed as your political and economic base," said Pamela Hoffler-Riddick, a school official new to the system who is charged with studying the gap. "They create a separatist approach."

      Nevertheless, Weast fears that middle-class flight will accelerate if larger numbers of lower-scoring students drag down test scores at individual schools. A school's test scores, not an individual child's actual experience, powerfully shape community notions about what constitutes a "good" school, he said. Do nothing to halt the current trends, he warns, and risk reaching a "tipping point" that will be hard to reverse.

      As he talked about that fear, Weast again and again returned to his metaphor of choice: the "elephant on the table" that must be addressed.

      "Ignore it," he said, "and it will expand."

      Return of White Flight

      Already, the patterns of white flight that typified the postwar evolution of many urban neighborhoods are repeating themselves as white parents who moved to Montgomery County in search of first-rate education see performance at their neighborhood schools slipping.

      Their departure has undermined the social stability of some neighborhoods and has hurt property values.

      When Weast moved here from North Carolina two years ago, he got an immediate lesson in how school performance, test scores, changing demographics, the growing gap and property values are interwoven.

      He observed that schools with higher test scores were surrounded by houses that commanded higher prices, even when the houses and neighborhoods were quite similar. And he was astonished to discover that that wasn't obvious to top administrators of the school system he had come to run.

      "The teachers knew. The parents knew, and the Realtors knew. Everybody knew but [the central office]," Weast said. "That's why the theory that everybody would jump ship if I openly talked about the demographic changes didn't hold water with me. It wasn't something people hadn't already figured out and factored in."

      A Washington Post analysis of real estate records found that a house near a high-scoring school may cost $200,000 more than a similar one in a lower-scoring school district.

      Take, for example, two virtually identical two-story homes set on quiet cul-de-sacs off curving parkways at opposite ends of Montgomery County.

      The home on the eastern side of the county -- a neat, two-story red-brick house with a basketball hoop and a television satellite dish set to one side -- is served by Springbrook High School. The home on the western side of the county -- beige with dark-blue shutters and crisp white trim -- is served by Thomas S. Wootton High School.

      They sold for an identical price -- $120,000 -- in 1983, when the student population at both high schools was overwhelmingly white and middle class. At both schools, students matched or exceeded the county's notably high average on college entrance exam scores.

      Last year, both houses were sold again.

      The house near Springbrook -- which has slipped to the middle of the pack in SAT scores as its poverty rate has increased -- sold for $255,000. The house near Wootton -- where SAT scores rank with the nation's elite -- sold for $400,000.

      That ripple effect of the emerging "separate and unequal" school system is not lost on Weast, and he does not see the luxury of time to study the options.

      "We don't have a whole lot of latitude," he said. "This is some serious business when you're talking about the economic vitality of an entire county."

      Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

      TOMORROW: The search for solutions to the growing segregation of suburban school systems.

      © 2001 The Washington Post Company

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