AUGUSTA, Maine — A new study concludes that the percentage of a Maine school’s student population who live in poverty is the single best predictor of academic performance.
Lead author David Silvernail of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern Maine presented the findings to the Legislature’s Education Committee on Thursday. He told the committee that the percentage of students whose families live in poverty, along with per-pupil regular instruction spending and teacher education levels, account for 70 percent of the difference in student performance between schools in poorer and more affluent communities.
Furthermore, students at schools with more children living in poverty fall further behind as they move from elementary to middle and high school, the study indicates.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Silvernail, director of USM’s Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation, told the Bangor Daily News on Friday, the performance of more affluent students at schools with higher percentages of students living in poverty also suffers compared to their peers at schools with less poverty.
But the news is not all bad: According to the study, some schools “defy the odds,” and students achieve more than predicted by school poverty levels.
“I tried to stress that yes, there is a connection between poverty and performance, but it doesn’t have to be your destiny in terms of the school,” he said. “These schools may provide good models for other schools to emulate.”
At the request of the Maine Legislature, researchers analyzed the percentage of students at each Maine school who qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch as an indicator of poverty, and compared academic achievement according to students’ results on the New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP, standardized test, which each student in Maine is required to take.
Previous reports both nationally and internationally have concluded that children from poorer homes enter school cognitively, socially and academically behind more affluent students; are more likely to drop out of high school; and are far less likely to attend or graduate from high school.
The report also addresses Maine’s new A-through-F letter system of grading schools, and concludes that performance on the NECAP test is consistent with poverty levels.
“Schools earning a letter grade of A tend to be schools with lower levels of poverty … and schools earning grades of D and F tend to … represent higher poverty rates,” the report states.
As the Education Committee and Department of Education explore funding options for K-12 public education in Maine, Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick, a member of committee, said Friday, “I think it shows we need to potentially tweak the [school] funding formula we’re working on right now to address these economically disadvantaged schools and see what we can do to boost student achievement.”
Daughtry was struck by data showing that high-poverty schools affect all students, not just those who come from economically disadvantaged households.
An “innovative and multipronged” approach is necessary, she said, rather than “just throwing more money at the problem.” Among her ideas are a state-facilitated summer school program or an extended school year.
Department of Education spokeswoman Samantha Warren said Friday that department officials have not yet had time to review the report.
She noted that the causal relationship between poverty and achievement has long been known, but that as the report indicated, “sometimes the low performance of a high poverty school isn’t driven by its economically disadvantaged students. Across Maine, there are examples of schools with high percentages of poor students who are performing well above state averages, including 21 Maine elementary schools that earned an A or a B in our recent school grading system, despite having greater than 50 percent of their student population on free or reduced lunch, including Phillips Elementary School in RSU 58, an A school where 79 percent of students are economically disadvantaged.”
“Demographics doesn’t need to define destiny, and it’s important we look to those schools where education is the great equalizer and find ways to replicate their strong results in schools with similar challenges,” she added.
The Education Committee also asked the report’s authors to examine higher-performing schools and improving schools, and they have sent researchers to those schools to try to identify what makes them “defy the odds.”
According to Warren, the state distributes approximately $48 million in federal Title I dollars and $100 million in state funds to support disadvantaged students. But Silvernail said the authors of the study recommend devoting additional resources to working with disadvantaged students.
And he hopes poorer schools will “begin to identify peer schools and find ones that are doing better than them, and they begin to have conversations about what is making them better.”