We are at the point where any study that shows how low-income schools can reach the heights of academic performance is also an indictment of how the nation has no commitment to lifting all schools.
For instance, the California education think tank EdSource recently published a survey of 5,500 teachers and 257 principals in elementary schools in the state to see what factors correlate the most with high achievement. A median sample school was one in which 78 percent of students participated in free and reduced-price meal programs, 40 percent did not speak English as a first language, and 32 percent had parents who did not graduate from high school. Just 11 percent of students had parents who graduated from college.
The top factors for a higher-achieving school were lofty expectations for all students; clear, measurable goals; a consistent curriculum; and a staff that pores over data to see where teachers and students can improve. Such schools have teachers who are not only willing to push students but come armed with up-to-date textbooks and other modern resources.
The survey made some news for finding that parent involvement, while important, is not as influential a factor in a school as the ones above. Higher-achieving schools have a ''shared culture" that allows them to function in a sense as if there were no parents at all. In a Washington Post story on the survey, a parent said a principal told her: ''We don't have an expectation of the home. We don't blame the home. We can't teach parents. We don't worry about whose responsibility it should be. We just consider it ours."
Such stoicism is admirable. But we keep getting reminders that the nation does not share that principal's sense of responsibility. A classic example is teacher quality. It has long been known that students in low-income schools are less likely to have a teacher qualified to teach a particular subject than students in higher-income schools.
According to the Education Trust, the education reform think tank, 34 percent of classes in high-poverty schools are taught by ''out-of-field" teachers, compared with 19 percent of classes in low-poverty schools. The problem is particularly pronounced in math, where 70 percent of middle school classes in high-poverty and high African-American and Latino schools are taught by a teacher lacking even a college minor in math or a field related to math.
The problem worsened under President Clinton. President Bush has dragged his feet on teacher quality with his chronic underfunding of No Child Left Behind. Under that program, the states are supposed to staff all core classes with qualified teachers.
Defining a ''qualified teacher" is state-by-state roulette where college credentials and state certifications that satisfy No Child Left Behind requirements do not necessarily equate with credibility and connectivity with students. Education and psychology professor Robert Pianta of the University of Virginia, whose research involves observations of nearly 3,000 classrooms, estimates that only 25 percent of the nation's first- through fifth-graders receive high-level instruction in what he calls ''gap-closing classrooms."
The gap in gap-closing teachers is monumental. The Education Trust reported this year that California's largest districts generally spend far less on teachers serving in high-poverty schools and schools with the highest percentages of African-American and Latino students. By the time a student at a high school that is mostly Latin American and Latino graduates, her district will have spent $173,000 less on her teachers than is spent on teachers in schools with few African-American and Latino students.
Other research in places like Dallas and Houston that show how high-poverty students are so much more likely to receive ineffective teachers repeatedly confirm how the nation's school children suffer from a ''crushing impact of maldistribution" of teachers, according to the Education Trust. In Capitol Hill testimony two months ago, Education Trust director Kati Haycock asked, ''What's happened with all the new money and all the new focus on teacher quality? No one knows. . . . What we are left with is a bold policy initiative from Congress that has never seen the light of day." She said many states ''have yet to even acknowledge the disparities in access, let alone craft a plan to address the problems."
This, by the way, is from an advocate who praised No Child Left Behind in general in the same testimony for its ''dramatically positive impact on American education." The studies keep coming that show that schools can raise student achievement with stoic principals and dedicated teachers who toil in a ''shared culture" against all odds. It will be a great day when every child has a chance to share in the culture.
Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is email@example.com.
© 2005 Boston Globe