Perhaps it sounds like a commonplace observation, but one of the hotly debated statements about public education is just this simple: Poverty hurts student achievement in schools.
Obvious, yes, but in many education circles that observation can lead to a heated dispute over whether poverty is destiny and public schools can’t be expected to produce excellence, or even adequacy, with such material as provided by America’s poorest neighborhoods.
Yet we can see examples in public schools in New Orleans where if poverty hurts, some schools are finding ways to do better, sometimes significantly better, with students from poor backgrounds.
This is a reason why reformers around the country are looking to New Orleans for answers.
In New Orleans, 84 percent of public school students met the standard definition of poorer students, eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches, according to data from the state Department of Education.
Yet in the 2013-14 school year, says a new report from the Cowen Institute at Tulane University, that high number — which in many schools it is close to 100 percent — did not exactly correlate to poor academic performance.
Instead, since the pre-Katrina school year of 2004-05, the average of school performance scores has increased 41 percent in New Orleans, compared with the statewide increase of about 16 percent.
That is a pretty significant increase, and one that came even as the dislocations of the storms and levee failures of 2005 caused significant economic problems in the city; the Cowen report said the student population in poverty in New Orleans has increased 9 percent since 2005.
Along the way, school performance scores have been adjusted, but the Cowen study accounts for those changes.
The report is a “by the numbers” comparison, noting that New Orleans’ 84 percent of students with free- or reduced-lunches is greater than that of other major cities.
Nor does the Cowen report draw conclusions from this data alone, but it shows that there are schools rated F on the grading scale of the state department that have the very highest percentage of poorer students — but not all schools are that way.
We think this report is quite suggestive that some good things are going on in New Orleans schools.
Is there a silver bullet for the impact of poverty on student learning? Clearly, some schools remain afflicted by a level of poverty so pervasive that it is a huge challenge to overcome, however dedicated the teachers and staff.
It might more accurately be said that poverty still is a staggeringly significant factor in the lives of young people in our city, and there are as many secrets to success as there are schools, charter or traditional or magnet, beating the odds.
By the numbers, though, some things are going in the right direction.