Roper: Are public schools the best option for low income students?

By Rob Roper

The latest standardized test scores for Vermont students are out, and the results are disappointing. Overall, proficiency percentages dropped a bit from where they were last year, and, as Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe stated, “The achievement gaps between our vulnerable youth and students with greater privilege remain.”

Rob Roper is the president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

Cut and paste from last year at this time when Holcombe said, “Our children from more prosperous families continue to rank near the top nationally. Our most vulnerable youth — those living in poverty, with disabilities, from marginalized populations and who speak English as a second language — continue to have test scores that are on average lower than our general population.”

Cut and paste from Holcombe’s predecessor, Armando Vilaseca, who said when he left office in 2013: “I am particularly concerned that we still have not made major progress in closing the achievement gap for students living in poverty.” It would be more accurate to say that our public school model has not made any progress in addressing this issue.

It is time to consider that maybe the public school system as currently designed just isn’t the right environment for low income and specially challenged students.

Our public school system does a pretty good job of educating mainstream kids. For example, in the third grade 61 percent of kids who are not on free and reduced lunch (FRL) are proficient in English and 65 percent in math — some of the best numbers in the nation. But of the kids who are on FRL only 34 percent and 37 percent are proficient respectively. The numbers for special education students is much lower at just 12 percent and 15 percent. These gaps persist through the 11th grade where proficiency rates for mainstream versus FRL and special education are, in English, 67 percent versus 38 percent and 11 percent, and for math, 45 percent versus 17 percent and 1.67 percent. (Yes, only 1.67 percent of special needs students (roughly 40 out of 2420) are learning enough to be proficient in math at the 11th grade level!)

This track record, which has persisted for decades despite local and federal attention, raises some questions: Is the traditional public school setting really the best way to educate children who need special attention? Is it fair to mandate that these kids attend schools in which a significant majority — roughly 60 percent to 85 percent in a given year/subject — will routinely fall through the cracks?

What these test scores illustrate is that one size does not fit all. A system that works for mainstream students does not necessarily work for others, and vice versa. As Secretary Holcombe noted this year, where the gap between wealthier and less affluent students did decrease, it was “largely a result of score declines for more privileged groups.” So, is it possible that as we emphasize making the one-size public school better fit less advantaged groups, the fit and effectiveness deteriorates for the others? Not enough data to say so for sure, but certainly worth watching.

There are educational models out there that are very successful at educating lower income students. KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) is just one example.

KIPP is an independent program operating mostly (but not entirely) as charter schools. It is specifically geared toward meeting the needs of underserved communities. Some 87 percent of KIPP students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Nevertheless, 93 percent students who completed eighth grade at a KIPP school graduate from high school, 82 percent go on to college, and 44 percent complete college. This is 32 percent higher than the national average for all kids, and five times the national average for low-income kids. (KIPP College Completion Report)

So, why for Pete’s sake do we not allow for more KIPP type options for low-income Vermont students?

Actually, we do in Vermont’s 90-ish tuitioning towns where parents can choose their child’s school, public or independent, and roughly $14,500 will follow the child to that school. There are many Vermont independent schools that specifically cater to students with special needs, as well as general admission schools that simply provide a more stable and focused environment for kids who need that to succeed.

It is a sad irony that a legislative summer study committee is currently looking at rules that would make Vermont’s independent schools — schools that in many cases do a superlative job of giving low income and disadvantaged kids a chance to succeed — look and operate more like public schools, where those kids are demonstrably not thriving. If anything, what we should be doing is opening up as many options as we can for all kids, letting them choose the program and the environment that works best for them. If it’s a public school, that’s great. If not, so be it.

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe.

One thought on “Roper: Are public schools the best option for low income students?

  1. If your numbers are correct, Rob, here’s the bigger deal.

    Take, for example, Math scores for those kids not in the low income or SPED categories. In 3rd grade 65% met the Math standard. In 11th grade 45% met the Math standard.

    While it may be more ‘understandable’ (not to be confused with ‘acceptable’) that SPED and low income students aren’t learning Math, the gorilla in the room is that while Vermont’s average students are coming to school reasonably well prepared to learn, the more years they spend in the public school monopoly system, the worse their academic performance becomes too.

    The headline of your commentary should be:
    Vermont Public schools are Not the best option for most of Vermont’s students?

    Never mind that Vermont spends more per student than almost any other State in the U.S. and, therefore, by default, more than the rest of the world.

    Meanwhile Vermont’s State Auditor contents himself with reviews of the Agency of Education’s methodology for calculating ‘equalized enrollments’ (how they pad the actual decreasing student population) and a few non-competitive bid contracts in 2013. Whoopee!

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