The Lexington Clipper Herald recently reported on Nebraska school performance and the
impact of poverty on student learning, relying on Hastings resident Bert Peterson’s comparison of school demographics and student outcomes. Peterson suggests a child’s race and family income are the only relevant factors in understanding school performance.
Peterson goes on to negate his own thesis by suggesting that Nebraska schools can learn from higher performing districts with similar demographics, citing Lexington Public Schools as an example. We absolutely agree. But this would also require agreement that variations in school quality exist, a theory Peterson spends most of his time disputing.
Lexington Schools disprove Peterson’s theory, not only at the district level, but at the school level as well. Take, for instance, Morton Elementary. At 90%, Morton had the highest free and reduced lunch rate in the district during the 2014-15 school year. Based on Nebraska’s standards, a combined 68% of Morton’s students were proficient in math and reading that year. At the district’s lowest poverty school, Bryan Elementary, 56% of the students qualified for free or reduced lunch and 69% of the students were proficient in math and reading. Poverty, as measured by free and reduced lunch rates, made no difference in student performance between these two schools.
Schools across Nebraska provide additional examples. At WashingtonElementary School in Norfolk, 73% of the students qualified for free or reduced lunch during the 201415
school year and 95% were proficient in math and reading. No elementary school in the Gretna school district, where the free and reduced lunch rate hovers around 6%, performed so well.
Adults entrusted with the responsibility of educating students must focus on what works, not excusing poor performance by blaming factors over which they have little to no control, as Peterson so often does. If we accept that schools can do little to improve student learning, nobody will suffer more than the students stuck in low performing schools. Poverty matters, but high standards and expectations, as well as highly effective teachers and great school leaders, also matter.
Looking at schools like Morton Elementary in Lexington, and Washington Elementary in Norfolk, we know what happens in the school building during the school day impacts student learning and outcomes. A correlative pattern between school performance and student demographics, with high poverty schools often performing worse, speaks to the opportunity to improve, not the inability of children to learn. Parents do not require statistical analyses to understand that a child’s demography does not determine his destiny. Parents care where their children go to school because they know, better than anyone, that it matters.