The Numbers Behind the Long March of Educating Poor Children

Mike Petrilli makes an excellent point about reasonable expectations when educating poor children:

This fall, about 1 million poor children will enroll in Kindergarten in the U.S. The vast majority of them live in single-parent families headed by women in the late teens or early twenties. Most of their mothers dropped out of high school; most of their fathers are nowhere to be seen. Most live in urban or rural communities hit hard by the recession where unemployment, addiction, and violence are commonplace….
You acknowledge-privately at least-that it’s unrealistic to expect all kids growing up in poverty to be able to “beat the odds” and graduate from college. (That’s why we call them odds.) You recognize that for most middle-class families, the path from poverty to prosperity was a multi-generational journey.
But you also believe in the promise of social mobility, and can point to examples of schools-even mediocre ones-that have helped some kids escape the ghetto or the barrio or the reservation. To accept the status quo is to accept perpetual injustice for decades to come.

….Assuming that these 1 million kids remain poor over the next 12 years, what outcomes would indicate “success” for education reform? Right now the high school graduation rate in poor districts is generally about 50 percent. What if we moved that to 60 percent? Right now the reading proficiency rate for 12th graders with parents who dropped out of high school is 17 percent. What if we moved that to 25 percent? The same rate for math is 8 percent. What if we moved that to 15 percent?
To my eye, these are stretch goals-challenging but attainable. Yet to adopt them would mean to expect about 400,000 Kindergarteners not to graduate from high school 12 years from now. And of the 600,000 that do graduate, we would expect only 150,000 to reach proficiency in reading (25 percent) and just 90,000 of them to be proficient in math (15 percent).
90,000 out of 1 million doesn’t sound so good, but without improving our graduation or proficiency rates for these children, we’d only be taking about 40,000 kids. So these modest improvements would mean twice as many poor children making it-9 percent instead of 4 percent.

This is the reality we’re facing: significant improvements that would be hard-won–a twenty percent relative increase in the graduation rate, reading proficiency increased by fifty percent, math proficiency doubled–still would yield a lot of ‘failure.’ And then there’s this:

And what about the other 91 percent of our Kindergarteners? We don’t want to write them off, so what goals would be appropriate for them? Getting more of them to the “basic” level on NAEP? Preparing them for decent-paying jobs instead of the lowest-paid jobs? Driving down the teen pregnancy rate? Lowering the incarceration rate?

This is one reason why we need higher wages for non-college degree jobs: some students won’t be ready for college, and they need to be able to earn a decent living. ‘Not going to college’ should not equal ‘poor.’

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