The Land of Opportunity
Early this year, the New York Times posted an interesting piece on economic mobility in America. The world knows America as “the land of opportunity,” and throughout our history immigrants have come to the country and risen up the ranks.
However, the Times piece noted that, in recent years, U.S. economic mobility for some groups has lagged other developed countries. For example, 43% of Americans raised in the bottom fifth of incomes will stay there. Only 25% of Danes raised in the bottom fifth will stay there.
One of the things that has changed in America`s economic landscape is the increased importance of a college education. A separate Times piece noted that in 1970, 12% of U.S. metro-area residents held degrees. By 2010, that number had risen to 32%, and cities with low numbers of college graduates were struggling to transform their economies as labor-heavy jobs moved overseas.
In an education-driven economy, the degree of economic mobility is directly related to the quality of public education provided. An excellent public education becomes the great equalizer. If a child, who is born in the bottom fifth of incomes, recieves one of the best educations in the nation, a world of opportunities open for him. If that same child receives a mediocre or poor education, he is more likely to be one of the 43% who remain in the bottom fifth of incomes.
A statistical review of elementary schools in the Metro Atlanta area, reveals a strong correlation between the needs level of a school´s students and academic achievement. In fact, about 75% of the variation in academic achievement between schools is explained by the level of student needs. For those interested in the stastics, the R-Squared for grades 3 through 5 ranged from 0.73 in 4th grade to 0.77 in third grade.
I present below graphical representations of the regression analysis for each grade. The blue diamonds reflect actual achievement for all Metro Atlanta elementary schools organized by thier needs level index. The orange box reflects a school´s expected score, given its needs index. The stronger the correlation, the closer the blue diamonds will be to the orange boxes.
The results are fairly consistent across all grades. Within each needs index, there is variation in achievement. The highest diamonds are overachievers and the lowest diamonds are underachievers. However, most (75%) of the overall variation is explained by the student needs index. The majority of schools in Needs Index 1 exceed 1.75 for academic achievement while very few schools in Needs Index 10 exceed 1.75 for academic achievement.
I consider this finding disturbing because it highlights the fact that public education in Metro Atlanta is not currently a great equalizer. Instead, low needs is strongly correlated with high achievement and high needs is strongly correlated with low achievement.
There is however, some positive news to report in the form of outliers. Take a closer look at Needs Index 8 for the fifth grade. You will see that two blue diamonds are way out of place. Those diamonds belong to the Drew Charter School and West Manor Elementary. The methods those schools have employed are producing positive results. If public education in Atlanta going to become a great equalizer, more schools will have to implement these successful approaches.
Certainly, it is harder for schools to raise achievement among high-needs students. But harder doesn`t mean impossible. For more information on education methods that have proven successful with high-needs students, read my recent article on Success Academies.
Note: The outlier in Needs Index 6 is a magnet school, so it is not particularly suprising that the school is overachieving