A few weeks ago Fordham hosted an event in our hometown of Dayton to discuss findings from a student mobility study we commissioned. In addition to shedding light on several fascinating findings related to mobility (read more on the study via the Dayton Daily News), the conversation diverged into a useful tangent when West Carrollton Superintendent Rusty Clifford described the district’s increasing student poverty rate and struggles with mobility alongside strategies to ensure that such challenges don’t impact the district’s high academic performance.

Indeed, many in the room (lawmakers, district leaders, academics, policy wonks, and philanthropists) were curious to know how a district like West Carrollton, whose student poverty rate has risen from seven percent at the start of the decade (2001-02) to nearly fifty percent (49.4) last school year, has managed to hold academic achievement steady – let alone improve it. West Carrollton is currently rated Effective by the state, up three categories from Academic Emergency when Clifford first took over in the late 1990s.

With the unemployment rate still high, and presumably more districts serving economically disadvantaged kids, we wondered the same. How many districts have seen sharp growth in poverty rates over the last decade? And how many of those have been able to hold steady, or even improve, instead of sliding backwards?

The results are surprising, but in a good way.

First we looked at student poverty (as measured by Ohio’s “economically disadvantaged” status) and Performance Index scores among all Ohio districts from 2003-04 to 2008-09. (Poverty data prior to 2003 was somewhat spotty, and 2003 is when Ohio began phasing in the current generation of state achievement tests.) We defined “high growth in poverty” over that time period as an increase of 75 percent or higher (i.e., for a district with a starting poverty rate of 25 percent, a 75 percent increase is 18.75 percentage points, resulting in a final poverty rate of 43.75). We only paid attention to districts with a significant final poverty rate of 40 percent or higher. Then we looked at what was happening to those districts’ Performance Index scores over the same period of time.

Intuition might suggest that an increasing poverty rate results in lower performance, and that we’d observe lower achievement averages or at least stagnant ones in many such districts. 

However, only four (out of 38) such poverty-growth districts saw PI scores drop – and even then only by small amounts (the greatest was a 4.75 percent drop in Richmond Heights Local). The vast majority of poverty-growth districts actually increased PI scores by decent margins; four districts witnessed a 15 percent or higher incline in PI scores while also experiencing growing numbers of economically disadvantaged students. Below are the top ten achievement-increasing districts among those that also had high poverty-growth.

Figure 1: Top ten Performance Index-increasing, poverty-increasing districts (2003-09)

Source: Ohio’s interactive Local Report Card (iLRC)

These ten districts (and the 24 others who improved their scores) deserve recognition. This data provide evidence that just because a district has increasing numbers of poor students does not mean that lagging performance is inevitable.

Of course, one wonders why these high poverty-growth districts are experiencing somewhat counterintuitive performance improvements, and explanations abound. Perhaps the kids rated as “economically disadvantaged” are the same kids (whose parents lost jobs or fell into poverty) rather than an influx of outsiders. A “core” group of the same kids could have a stabilizing effect. Many of the districts we observed are rural, or located in towns experiencing significant job loss. The experience of poor urban districts might differ.

Perhaps most importantly, none of these districts had a final poverty rate that was as high as the quintessential most-challenged district. While some have poverty rates that climbed into the 70s and 80s, most on the list have a moderate poverty rate that is still far less than that experienced in Ohio’s Big 8 urban districts. Similarly, none had a starting Performance Index that was any lower than 76 (fairly close to an 80, which marks proficiency) and so didn’t have to make up enormous ground. Districts experiencing growth in poverty while also having very low performance to begin would undoubtedly have a harder time improving performance. 

Maybe the greatest takeaway is that it’s easier to hold steady on decent performance (as these districts did) even in the face of rising poverty, but essentially impossible to improve terrible performance. Whatever the explanation, these districts deserve credit, and other increasingly disadvantaged communities would do well to learn from them.

Ohio Gadfly will be examining more performance trends in the coming weeks, following the 2009-10 report card release. Stay tuned.

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