Stanford professor finds income not the main determinant of public school effectiveness

Jan. 16, 2018, 3:28 a.m.

A study by Sean F. Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education at the Graduate School of Education, found that socioeconomic status in U.S. public school districts only weakly correlated with growth in students’ average test scores over time.

Stanford professor finds income not the main determinant of public school effectiveness
Schools in low-income districts are not necessarily less effective than than those in high-income ones (Courtesy of Stanford News).

Reardon told Business Insider that students’ rate of test score improvement over time is a better measure of a given school’s effectiveness.

“There are many relatively high-poverty school districts where students appear to be learning at a faster rate than kids in other, less poor districts,” Reardon said in an interview with Stanford News. “Poverty clearly does not determine the quality of a school system.”

Reardon collaborated with GSE Ph.D. student Erin Fahle, Ben Shear Ph.D. ’17, Andrew Ho M.S. ’03 Ph.D. ’05 and research staff Demetra Kalogrides and Richard DiSalvo. The team published their findings in a working paper on Dec. 5.

The study’s results run counter to the commonly held belief among academics that poverty levels and school effectiveness are inversely correlated.

“There’s a widespread belief that schools exacerbate inequality, that schools are worse in poor communities and better in rich ones,” Reardon told Stanford News.

Reardon gathered two sets of data, one the test scores of third graders and the other the test scores of roughly 45 million third- through eighth-grade students from almost all 11,000 public-school districts in the U.S. The third-grade scores were, as expected, generally highest in school districts near major metropolitan areas and lowest in the rural West and Deep South.

The rate of improvement between the third grade and the eighth grade, however, varied widely. Reardon found that students in low-income school districts often progressed through academic material at a rate faster than those of more affluent districts. High-poverty schools in Chicago, for example, demonstrated a test score growth rate 20 percent higher than the national average, covering six years’ worth of material in only five.

Reardon hopes the results of his study will be able to help both school districts and parents, according to Business Insider. When parents are choosing a school for their children, he said, they may focus on test score improvement rates rather than the scores alone or the school’s budget.

At the same time, Reardon encourages districts to make information on improvement rates available to parents and serve as “advocates” for lower-income schools.

“There are many places where learning rates are much higher than you might predict on the basis of families’ economic resources,” Reardon told Stanford News. “We have to learn what those places are doing and build on those lessons.”


Contact Sarah Ortlip-Sommers at sortlip ‘at’

Sarah Ortlip-Sommers '18 is a senior staff writer and former Student Groups desk editor. A senior studying political science, she grew up on the beautiful island of Martha's Vineyard (yes, people really live there; no, she hasn't met Obama). Catch her ordering her fifth cup of coffee from Starbucks, singing with Everyday People, or watching Grey's Anatomy. Contact her at sortlip 'at'

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