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OPINION: Poverty and Learning

Laura Ofobike, The Akron Beacon Journal

Opinion Poverty and LearningExcept for some massaging, Ohio lawmakers are all but done writing a new law that changes how the state will measure and tell the public how well or poorly its schools are performing.

The most that many of us probably know about House Bill 555 and the new state school report card is that it will drop labels that have become familiar in the past decade, such as "Academic Emergency" and "Excellent with Distinction, " to describe a school district or building's overall performance. The new law, expected to be wrapped up and signed by Dec. 31, will replace the current rating with the venerable letter grades from A to F, with no plus-and-minus shadings to soften the edges.

But as legislation goes, this one has had its share of contention, involving everything from cut scores and the rigor of testing to whether the law pushes too many changes too fast on schools. Of the issues raised during the legislative process, the one I found most "loaded" (for lack of a better word) was not a new issue at all. It had to do with poverty.

Here is an observation Bill Sims made in his testimony during the House Education Committee hearings on the bill. Referring to a simulation the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools had run on the Performance Index category of assessments, the organization's president and chief executive pointed out:

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"The 66 schools that received As had an average economically disadvantaged rate of 13.2 percent. Compare that to the 277 schools that would receive Fs, which have an average economically disadvantaged rate of 90.6 percent." At least four of the seven grading categories proposed, he noted, were achievement measures that strongly correlate with socioeconomic status.

The observation sets up the questions: In identifying the indicators on which schools are graded, are lawmakers taking sufficient account of poverty and its implications in education? Should policymakers demand the same performance level of a school or district with a 90 percent poverty rate as they do of another with a 13 percent rate?

President George W. Bush answered that question effectively with the memorable phrase "soft bigotry of low expectations." It offends the sense of fairness and justice to sell children short simply because they are poor. And yet, the unfairness in holding a Helen Arnold CLC in inner-city Akron, for example, to the same accountability system as an elementary school in a wealthy Revere district, is just as obvious.

To an extent, Ohio has tried the past several years to mediate this dilemma by using a "value-added" measure to capture progress, even if students don't quite make the bar.

But the broader question is this: If fairness demands that a school system not sell any child short (that no child be left behind), are we as a society taking sufficient account of how poverty is implicated in school performance and achievement gaps?

It is easy to argue sometimes that poverty is not necessarily destiny as far as school achievement goes. So what if a family does not have the means for books in the home or enrichment programs? School is free, isn't it? And what are libraries for? Some self-discipline, hard work and focus from parents and students go a long to erase many of the economic disadvantages.

Without question, there are examples enough of students and schools that beat all projections and excel in spite of miserably poor circumstances. What research increasingly is clarifying, though, is that we need to pay attention to poverty not simply because it represents a lack of something tangible -- say adequate food or warm clothes or shelter. Findings from studies such as the multiyear Adverse Childhood Experiences project and brain development research indicate the multiple pathologies that arise from poverty and the unrelieved stresses those create in childhood years -- having to cope with constant fear and anxiety, unstable living conditions, physical and emotional abuse and neglect -- can so damage the developing brain that learning becomes a difficulty, beyond anything a value-added measure can mitigate.

Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at lofobike@thebeaconjournal.com. ___