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Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007

Improving the Education of Children Living in Poverty
Richard J. Murnane

Build the Capacity of Schools to Educate Low-Income Students

Setting appropriate goals for student achievement and designing incentives for educators to help all students to meet these goals will improve education for disadvantaged children only if the teachers and administrators doing the work know how to meet the goals. But few schools serving high concentrations of poor children are blessed with many such teachers and administrators. Improving education for children in poverty thus depends on increasing the capacity of educators to deliver consistently high-quality instruction. The federal role is to catalyze capacity building and to ensure that state and local initiatives are carefully evaluated to learn how they affect student achievement.

Improving Teaching
One consistent finding from three decades of research into what makes schools effective is that some teachers are much better than others in helping children to acquire critical math and reading skills.30 A second consistent finding is that disadvantaged American children, those who most need the nation’s best teachers because their parents lack the resources to compensate for poor schooling, are least likely to get them.

Among the most striking recent evidence is a 2004 study of Teach for America (TFA), a program that recruits academically talented graduates from the nation’s best colleges and universities to work for two years in urban and rural schools that face teacher shortages, virtually all of which serve high concentrations of poor children.31 The study found that a large share of the non-TFA teachers in these schools was remarkably ill prepared to educate children, especially children needing the nation’s best teachers. Less than 4 percent had graduated from a college or university classified as at least very competitive, compared with 22 percent of the national teaching force and 70 percent of TFA participants. Almost 30 percent of non-TFA teachers had no student teaching experience. The poor preparation of these teachers helps explain why the average reading score of the students in these schools was in the 13th percentile of the national distribution.

This poor preparation comes as no surprise to anyone who follows American public education. Teaching in schools that serve large shares of disadvantaged children is taxing. Very few school districts provide extra pay or other inducements to attract talented teachers. As a result, all too often these schools are left with the teachers other schools don’t want. Those teachers who can, exercise seniority rights to move on as soon as possible, leaving the schools to search yet again for new teachers.

One response to the poor skills of teachers in high-poverty schools has been professional development aimed at improving these skills and at creating a coherent instructional program. But high teacher turnover rates often thwart such efforts.

Some state departments of education have responded to the consistently poor performance of some schools and school districts by taking them over and appointing new staff to replace incumbent administrators and teachers. Results have varied across settings, but clearly the strategy is no panacea.32 Creating effective schools is more difficult than changing the leadership. One thing that states have come to understand, however, is that they must increase their capacity to bring about constructive change in troubled schools and school districts.

NCLB acknowledges the importance of teacher quality and mandates a qualified teacher in every one of the nation’s classrooms, but it provides no new funding to implement the mandate. Nonetheless, many states and school districts have developed a variety of initiatives to improve instruction in high-poverty schools. For example, fourteen states provide some sort of incentive for teachers to work in a hard-to-staff school.33 Several, including Florida, California, and Texas, provide bonuses to teachers with National Board certification to move to hard-tostaff schools.34 And some urban school districts have introduced initiatives aimed at improving education in schools serving high concentrations of poor children. For example, Miami-Dade County has designated its thirty-nine lowest-performing schools as a School Improvement Zone. It is offering teachers a 20 percent pay premium to take a job in one of these schools, working a longer school day and school year.35

The federal government must, for two reasons, take a role in building the instructional capacity in high-poverty schools. First, the number of state and district initiatives, while growing, is modest relative to the magnitude of the problem. Second, almost none of these initiatives will be carefully evaluated, so that researchers and policymakers will not be able to take full advantage of them to learn what works. Thus when Congress reauthorizes No Child Left Behind it should include targeted, competitive matching grants to states and school districts to support initiatives in highpoverty schools to attract and retain skilled teachers and administrators and to create leadership academies to train leaders. Each initiative that receives an award should be rigorously evaluated to learn how it affects instructional quality and, ultimately, children’s achievement.

Since my recommendation is quite specific— targeted, competitive matching grants with a strict evaluation requirement—it seems important to defend these design choices. I use the term targeted grants to mean grants specifically aimed at improving the quality of teaching in high-poverty schools. I distinguish these from common uses of Title I funds, such as reducing class size and hiring reading specialists to work with students whose reading and math skills are slow to develop. Such uses are common because they do not threaten historic practices in most public school districts, including a common salary scale irrespective of the difficulty of the teaching assignment, seniority in choice of teaching positions, and the right to close the classroom door and teach as one is accustomed to, even if it means that children are exposed to different instructional methods from one year to the next. The targeted grants would create incentives for districts to challenge these historic practices. The focus would be on attracting skilled teachers and administrators to high-poverty schools and inducing them to work together over an extended time to provide consistently highquality instruction.

The grants should be competitive rather than formula-based, as provided under Title I, to encourage school districts and states to develop innovative proposals. Innovation is crucial because there is little systematic evidence on the effectiveness of alternative policies to attract and retain skilled teachers and administrators in high-poverty schools. Improving instruction in these schools is thus not simply a matter of having the resources to spend in well-understood, proven ways, but of testing a variety of new strategies to find out what works.

There are two complementary reasons to use matching grants rather than categorical grants that do not require matching contributions from recipients. First, the matching provision increases the total resources devoted to initiatives. Second, requiring a matching contribution is likely to induce recipients to think carefully about the design of their proposals.

The requirement for rigorous evaluations is aimed at maximizing the learning that comes from the grants. Because good evaluations must be planned simultaneously with the initiatives themselves, evaluation plans should be part of all grant applications. Some portion of the federal grant money should be set aside to pay for evaluations. Applicants could be encouraged to leverage their targeted grants by soliciting funding from foundations to pay for part of the evaluation costs—a strategy that states have used successfully to fund evaluations of innovative welfare programs.

Helping Students Who Struggle in High School
The extraordinarily high dropout rate among low-income high school students in urban schools is a pressing national problem.36 State efforts to strengthen high school graduation requirements are likely to exacerbate this problem unless policymakers do something to improve prospects for students who do not thrive in traditional high schools. If improving high school graduation rates is to become a requirement for making adequate yearly progress, as I have recommended, there is a pressing need for strategies to help students who struggle in high school.

Fifteen years ago, when states began standards- based education reforms, many analysts expected that the problem of struggling high school students would be short-lived. They thought that the poor reading and math skills of a great many ninth graders stemmed from low-quality elementary school education, and that improving elementary schools would help students succeed in high school. That logic turned out to be faulty. Although many states have improved the reading and math scores of elementary school students, the number of ninth graders who lack the reading and math skills necessary for high school work has not declined. Improving secondary school education itself, both middle school and high school, is perhaps the nation’s most pressing education challenge.

Recent research has clarified the challenge of secondary school reform. Among the critical dimensions are creating a personalized and orderly learning environment where students and teachers treat each other respectfully, identifying students with poor academic skills and intervening intensively to improve these skills, improving the quality of instruction and helping students understand the importance of acquiring particular skills and knowledge, and connecting students to the world of work.37

Many states are attempting to address this challenge with changes in incentives, in instruction, and in curricular design. But most interventions are not accompanied by highquality evaluations. Congress could improve the knowledge base on how to improve secondary schools by providing competitive grants to states or groups of states to support innovations, with the requirement that states must submit their innovations to an external evaluation.

Experience in another sector—welfare reform— illustrates the value of the federal role in supporting carefully evaluated state innovations. During the 1980s the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services allowed states wishing to try new strategies for dealing with families in poverty to apply for waivers from federal welfare laws. One condition for being granted a waiver was that the state set aside a share of its federal funds to pay for a rigorous evaluation of the effects of its innovative system. The evaluations of these innovations provided much of the evidence that informed the design of welfare reform in 1996.38 The same strategy—federal grants coupled with an evaluation requirement—could also increase policymakers’ knowledge about the relative effectiveness of alternative statewide solutions to improving the secondary schooling of low-income youth.

In addition to state grants, Washington should provide competitive grants to school districts and community-based partners that are developing alternative educational programs for youth at risk of dropping out of school. Again, the grants should include a requirement for a rigorous external evaluation, with the goal of increasing the supply of successful models from which schools can draw.39