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Todd Williams: Poverty is not destiny
By Todd Williams
Most people wouldn’t be surprised to learn there’s a high correlation between student achievement and poverty across our nation.
The same is true in Dallas, where nearly three-quarters of children in the county’s public schools now qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and the city ranks third in the nation in child poverty. For a region so plentiful in resources, the disparities in our own backyard are startling and indefensible.
But we can’t let pervasive poverty constrain or overwhelm us, and we can’t allow it to keep us from ensuring that every child gets a great education.
The good news is that closer data analysis shows example after example of high-poverty schools succeeding — despite poverty’s many challenges — and even outperforming wealthier peer schools. There is a huge opportunity in identifying practices that are helping students and teachers overcome poverty’s challenges and then using those same practices elsewhere.
The Commit Partnership, a growing coalition of roughly 150 school districts, foundations, nonprofits and other institutions, was founded in 2012. Its mission is simple but impactful: to double the number of area students achieving some type of post-secondary education. By bringing robust data and community expertise to the table, we are working closely together to align the region’s abundant resources and scale what is proved to work.
We formed this unprecedented partnership because our current educational outcomes represent the greatest threat to our long-term future.
In a competitive market that requires workers with higher-level skills gained through college or technical training, we can’t continue to graduate only 14 percent of our public K-12 students prepared for the next level. There isn’t enough workforce talent to import, and leaving our own children behind is not only morally wrong but financially unsustainable.
Since our group formed, our review of campus-level data has provided great hope for the future, and a recent analysis of 2014 figures hasn’t changed our opinion.
And yet some continue to claim the education problem can’t be overcome without first breaking the cycle of poverty. That’s akin to dismissing the power of effective educators while throwing up our hands and saying “we can’t be better.”
But our own data shows we can.
Regardless of subject, Dallas County grade-level achievement among schools with similar percentages of students considered economically or language-disadvantaged is tremendously dispersed. Proficiency in such schools consistently ranges from 40 percent to 70 percent.
For example, analysis of third-grade math proficiency for 2013-14 across our 413 area elementary schools was startlingly hopeful. Some schools where 80 percent or more of students are economically disadvantaged are achieving at higher levels in math than schools where less than 20 percent of students are poor. Achievement is broadly dispersed even when adjusting for deeper, more intense poverty.
It’s clear we can increase achievement significantly by following the regional leads of those who are aggressively addressing those factors we can control. There’s Lancaster’s pre-K enrollment approach. And Richardson’s strong early math success. Dallas ISD has select outliers in early literacy. Grand Prairie has school-choice successes, including single-gender environments and career technical education. Uplift Education has a great approach to college preparation and access.
The list goes on, because many among us are doing great things. Those great things are revealed by the data.
We believe strongly that data’s purpose is not to punish but to shine a light on what’s working and what needs help. Our donors are hungry to invest where outcomes are greatest, whether it’s in the areas of hybrid learning, parental outreach, ensuring equitable resources, data-driven instruction, school culture or teacher hiring/professional development.
Poverty clearly presents great challenges to improving our schools. More local and state funding is warranted, and we’ll continue to strongly advocate for additional wise investment. But we can’t — and we won’t — wait for someone to solve poverty.
So much is already within our control, and poverty is not destiny.
Todd Williams is the founding executive director of The Commit Partnership. Reach him at [email protected].