School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

More Not-So-Great News For the Middle Class

Well, talk about a great way to kick off the week!  We’ll learn today in a sobering report that Middle-Class Schools Aren’t Making the Grade.  A Democratic think tank, Third Way, crunched data from the Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Education, and national and international testing programs.  What did they find? 

First, spending.  When it comes to spending, middle-income public schools are being outspent by their lower and upper-income counterparts.  Middle-income public schools spend less on average per pupil, pay less for the average base teacher salary, and have higher student/teacher ratios than lower-income or upper-income schools.

Given that we know spending isn’t a reliable predictor of student outcomes, let’s look at results.  How are students in these middle-class public schools performing?  Not very well, according to the same report:

  • Less than a third of students who attend middle-class schools score proficient on national 4th- and 8th-grade reading and 8th-grade math exams. About 36% are proficient in 4th-grade math.
  • For upper-income schools, more than half the students are proficient on the 4th- and 8th-grade reading and 4th-grade math, while nearly half (46%) are proficient in 8th-grade reading.
  • In low-income schools, less than 20% of students are proficient on all of those exams.

 OK, still not sure why we should care?  Like most things in education reform, it’s all about the numbers.  While closing the gap for lower-income students remains critically important, the reality is that if we want to move the needle in terms of student outcomes nationally, we have to take a hard look at how middle class students are performing because of their sheer numbers. 

Again, according to the report, middle-class schools educate 25.7 million, or 53%, of all public-school students.  This translates on the ground into more than half of all white and African-American students, 50% of Hispanic students and 45% of Asian students.  That’s a lot of students touching substantially on every demographic.

Moreover, the trend for the past 15 to 20 years, arguably starting with Wendy Kopp and Teach for America, has been to focus on low-income students.  I know of no TFA-quivalent for middle class students, even though, as Michelle Rhee aptly observed, unless we focus our efforts on middle class kids, reform just won’t happen:  “But for this movement to really gain hold, we need to engage the middle-class parents who think their schools are doing just fine.” 

Or, as Lisa Simpson’s substitute teacher, Mr. Bergstrom, once said,  “That’s the problem with being middle-class.  Anybody who really cares will abandon you for those who need it more.”

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