How our school systems fail bright, disadvantaged students like DeAnthony

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Timothy Daly

In many ways, DeAnthony is a remarkable success story. Currently a fourth grader in a traditional public school just outside Orleans Parish, he has strong grades and near-perfect attendance. Last year, the first time he attempted Louisiana’s state tests, he scored in the highest possible category for both math and English language arts. These results placed him in the top 10 percent of students statewide for each subject. In a city where academic and social results for young African American men like DeAnthony are unacceptably poor, he has a foundation that positions him for an exceptional future.

DeAnthony is fortunate in other respects as well. He comes from a highly engaged family where both parents attend every important school meeting together. He qualifies for free lunch but lives in a safe neighborhood and plays several sports. DeAnthony’s parents are proud of his performance and thrilled that school has come easily to him.

Unfortunately, it is already possible to see barriers that may limit DeAnthony’s long-term potential. Teachers report that he can be bored or distracted. This year, for the first time, his parents began receiving calls about him talking back to adults. And he earned a C in English language arts for the fall quarter due to unfinished assignments and inconsistent attention in class.

Moreover, although DeAnthony’s elementary school is relatively strong, with a B rating from the state, the middle school and high school for which he’s zoned are not. The middle school has a C grade, and student academic growth lags below state averages. EdNavigator, a nonprofit of which I am a founding partner, has found that the school is poorly organized and has uneven relationships with families, and that its teachers often miss deadlines and don’t communicate with each other about student needs. Similarly, his future high school has weak academic outcomes, and, if he continues on his current path, his performance will make him an outlier.

Still, there’s hope for DeAnthony and others like him. The challenge is keeping them from getting lost in the crowd. Having fiercely supportive parents like DeAnthony’s helps, but they often feel frustrated by their options. They’ve already, for example, considered several ways to maximize his potential. One is to seek admission to one of his parish’s selective public schools, which requires an admissions test. But they’re reluctant to have DeAnthony take the exam because they prefer to keep him with his older brother, Derrick, who will remain in traditional schools. And even if DeAnthony did take the test, seats for his grade are very scarce because the school is full and new seats are made available only when a student leaves.

Charter schools are another option. DeAnthony and his brother have already attended one, however, and their parents were underwhelmed, especially with the quality of special education services for Derrick.

DeAnthony illustrates how the discussion about improving outcomes for students from low-income families has been sadly oversimplified. There is plenty of talk about inadequate parenting, bad schools, insufficient resources, turbulent neighborhoods, and the like. And, yes, lots of disadvantaged students start school behind their more advantaged peers and, because of these myriad challenges, stay behind. But there are many others who demonstrate success in school, at least for stretches of their educational careers, but fall off along the way. So, instead of resigning ourselves to these outcomes, we must instead ask: Why does this happen? And how do we stop it?

The hard truth is that our educational system is failing DeAnthony at both the macro and micro levels. Broadly, it does not provide enough avenues for high-potential disadvantaged students like DeAnthony to maximize their potential through access to coursework that is appropriately matched to their skills. And, more locally, educators who have observed these pupils’ ability—and who are best positioned to draw attention to it—are overlooking them.

All of this raises several questions. Here are four:

  • Who is looking out for all the DeAnthonys out there? Through their employer’s partnership with EdNavigator, DeAnthony’s parents have regular access to a “Navigator” who provides them with personalized educational guidance and support. With this person’s help, DeAnthony’s mom and dad are working through the school choice process, monitoring his grades regularly, and keeping him on track. But the school system seems to lack a larger plan for nurturing the potential of high performing, low income students generally. One of the most striking aspects of DeAnthony’s case is that he has never been recommended by any of his teachers for a gifted program or selective public school, even though his performance on state tests is already higher than most of his classmates. This may be one reason that just 4 percent of the students in DeAnthony’s local selective school are African American.
  • To what degree is school choice a practical solution for high performing, low income students? For DeAnthony’s family, there is no clear path to an available seat in a school that is better positioned to support him, despite living in a city that has become synonymous with school choice. Too often, unfortunately, their school “choices” comprise very similar schools with uneven track records of success. And families like his with multiple children face tough trade-offs when considering splitting up siblings.
  • How do we overcome inequitable awareness of academic opportunities? Many lower-income parents are unaware of the processes for accessing rigorous, selective schools, so they’re unable to take advantage of them when children begin to show signs of high potential, which often occurs as early as preschool or kindergarten. When this potential becomes more obvious in later grades, seats in those schools are no longer available, having been claimed by early-bird students from higher-income, better-networked families. For example, DeAnthony’s school is more than 80 percent low income, whereas the selective magnet school for which he’s zoned is just 20 percent low income. The well documented problem of “under-matching” in higher education exists in K–12 too.
  • Are we properly leveraging tests to illuminate academically talented students? There are valid concerns about the frequency with which we test our students and the way we use tests to hold schools and teachers accountable. But for students like DeAnthony, one could argue just as easily that tests are being under-leveraged as a tool for identifying students with high potential who may not yet be receiving the supports they deserve. States and districts should use extant tests to more equitably select talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds for these opportunities.

Almost everyone says it is a high priority to expand educational opportunity and improve academic outcomes for students from low-income families. It’s a challenge with profound consequences for them, as well as for our nation’s future. Yet DeAnthony’s story suggests that our schools are poorly prepared to support these students even when success is right in front of their eyes. How many more children like him are we overlooking, misdirecting, or underestimating every day? The solution may not be simple, but taking steps like those listed above and ensuring more families get useful information and support would be a good start.

Timothy Daly is a Founding Partner of EdNavigator.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.