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Most Georgia schools graded D or F by the state serve low-income kids

In its new analysis of the grades awarded to schools by the Governor's Office of Student Achievement, the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute found most schools where at least half of students are low-income earned a D or F, including 99 percent of extreme-poverty schools. (The institute defined extreme poverty as 75 percent or more of students coming from low-income families.)

In the report released today, the institute cross referenced poverty data with K-12 performance, per the grades from the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. "We combined this analysis with our own district-level survey that determined 70 percent of school leaders say poverty is the biggest hindrance to student performance outside the classroom," said GBPI spokesman John McCosh.

As the report explains: “Seventy percent of Georgia school district leaders say poverty is the most significant out-of-school issue that limits student learning. That key finding in a new Georgia Budget and Policy Institute survey reinforces an analysis of the grades issued to schools in 2016 that reveals a tight connection between whether a school sits in a high-poverty area and if it meets target benchmarks. Challenges of poverty are most difficult to overcome in schools where students from low-income households are the majority. "

The review confirms what educators already know --  wealthier districts are far more likely to score well in ratings that draw primarily on test scores. Of Georgia schools where less than 25 percent of students are poor, nearly 70 percent received an A or B. In schools where less than 10 percent of children are poor, nearly 94 percent netted an A or B.

The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute recognized the complexity of the problem and the fact that schools alone can’t overcome the ill effects of poverty on children. Among the report’s recommendations:

Foster Socioeconomic Integration. Low-income students do better in schools that are economically diverse than where the majority of students are poor. A growing number of school districts across the country are taking this into account, including Jefferson County, Ky., Hartford, Conn., and Dallas. These school systems are working to integrate schools based on family or neighborhood income level, parent educational attainment and other factors.

Invest Adequate Resources in Low-Income Students and Schools. Georgia ranks 38th in the nation in school spending, even after accounting for regional cost differences. This is not surprising as the state formula for funding public school students was approved by the General Assembly in 1985. The formula is substantially the same as three decades ago, even though it’s since been revised. Meanwhile, state officials ratcheted up performance standards: Students are expected to know and do far more today than 30 years ago. The state is not offering resources to match these elevated standards. The formula also does not account for the added needs of low-income children or the resources needed in high- and extreme-poverty schools.

Build a Principal Pipeline. Every school, especially high-poverty schools, needs an effective principal. Georgia is taking key steps toward reaching this goal, including new accountability measures for leadership training programs designed by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission.

Enhance Teacher Compensation. Teachers are the biggest in-school influence on student learning but districts find it hard to hire and keep good ones. District leaders said low pay is a key cause. Their feedback aligns with results from a survey of 53,000 teachers conducted by the Georgia Department of Education in 2015.

Develop State Research Capacity to Support School Improvement. Georgia collects and distributes extensive data on students and schools. It offers much less information on the programs and policies that consistently lead to increased student learning and more effective schools across the state. Georgia should expand its ability to conduct research to identify those programs and policies.

Establish a Task Force of State Agencies to Support School and Community Improvement. Schools with the highest concentrations of impoverished students frequently need external support to meet those needs. A task force of state agencies can assist local organizations in the communities surrounding these schools and offer more support to students. If needed, task force members should offer services directly. Based on an assessment of community needs and assets, task force agencies should also collaborate with local leaders to design and implement initiatives to strengthen the economic health of these communities.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.