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Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017 12:24 am

Poor outcomes

Spreading white poverty and failing schools


It is possible paint a picture with numbers. The State Journal-Register did it the other day when it used data from the Illinois Report Card, the state’s education data source, to draw before-and-after portraits of 15 area school districts from 2001 and 2016.

I was particularly interested in one measure: how much of the enrollment in each district comprises kids from low-income families. “Every school district in the area,” reported the SJ-R, “saw its low-income population rise, and in the case of some communities, more than double.” The kids behind the numbers are not refugees from Chicago’s troubled black and brown neighborhoods; the biggest shift happened in Riverton (97.2 percent white in 2010), where the share of kids from poor backgrounds rose from not quite 30 percent to nearly 60 percent of total enrollment.

This matters for the kids and for the schools. On average, nothing so reliably predicts how well a kid will do in school than his family’s household income. The importance of poverty as an aspect of school performance was underlined by a recent study done by the Urban Education Leadership Program at the University of Illinois Chicago. The authors are Paul Zavitkovsky, a former Chicago public school principal, and program director Steve Tozer, a familiar name to those who knew him and his educator father in Springfield who now is professor of educational policy studies at UIC.

The two men tracked standardized test rankings of 55 large unit districts across Illinois from 2001 through 2016, with results that are both heartening and dismaying. Having a lot of poor kids in a district – “a lot” here meaning at least 50 percent of enrollment – was long assumed to doom that district to poor performance. Such districts were concentrated in greater Chicago, where in 2001 only about 35 percent of kids were performing at the statewide median on standardized tests of reading and math.

Since then – haltingly, imperfectly – a crisis was acknowledged. Steps were taken. Changes were made. By 2016, about 50 percent of kids in Chicago-area districts were scoring at or above statewide medians, even though the statewide scores had risen over the period. While still low, the scores in such schools showed the highest rates of increase among all 55 districts examined.

The news was less happy in the larger Downstate districts like Galesburg and Bloomington and Urbana. Such districts have seen increases since 2001 in the number of poor kids similar to those seen in the Springfield area. As noted, most of these kids are white, but poverty’s effect on families is indifferent to race. In a June interview with Dusty Rhodes of NPR Illinois, Zavitkovsky explained, “We now have concentrations of white poverty that are nothing like the concentrations of poverty that occur in communities of color, yet we’re getting these gigantic declines in achievement that pretty much match what low-income communities of color have been experiencing for years.”

One might quibble with the word “gigantic,” but the performance declines were real. While Chicago-area kids got better over the past 15 years, test scores hereabouts remained stagnant. In Springfield’s District 186, 39 percent of students performed at the state reading median in 2001; in Chicago-area districts that year only 27 percent did. By 2016, Springfield did slightly better, at 41 percent, but Chicago schools had pulled even. In math, in 2001 39 percent of Springfield kids tested at or above the state median compared to Chicago’s 23; by 2016, Springfield had slipped slightly (to 36 percent) but Chicago districts had pulled ahead, with 41 percent of their kids testing at or above the state median.

The larger districts in greater Chicago and Downstate all turned a corner in the past 15 years, in short, but they are going in opposite directions.

The social forces that drove black social breakdown are now affecting more and different communities Downstate. As low-income enrollment rose (by an average of 16 to 21 points) overall achievement in central and southern Illinois fell by an average of 6 to 9 points. As Tozer explained to me, the study “does substantially challenge the narrative that it’s kids of color who are depressing Illinois achievement test scores. It is really Downstate poor white kids.”

The numbers, like the sputtering candle that used to alert miners when oxygen was low, are a warning about looming social failure as the ills of globalization, mechanization and wealth inequalities spread. Tozer says that many administrators and boards out in corn country are in denial about the trends. Happily, he adds, “We actually know what to do about it and aren’t doing it. As Chicago is demonstrating.” “What to do” includes smaller class sizes, creating a safe and orderly environment, ambitious instruction from teachers who are given time and freedom to collaborate and offering lots of parent-community outreach. Such measures have slowed the slide in performance that used to accompany a poorer student body. In suburban Chicago, low-income enrollment rose by an average of 22 points over the period but average achievement declined by just 1 to 3 points – a triumph in the circumstances.  
Contact James Krohe Jr. at


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