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Poverty and Graduation Rates in Chicago and the U.S.

Looking at Chicago Public Schools in the context of other large urban school districts: how we compare in terms of poverty, and high school graduation rates, to our peers.

Today Alex Kotlowitz has an excellent piece in the New York Times about the Chicago teachers strike: why teachers are striking (it has less to do with specific negotiation points than a host of issues, few of which are actually covered in the negotiations, not to mention what the CTU is actually allowed to go on strike over), and how much we ask of teachers, and public education generally, as an antipoverty program:

“Reform of teacher tenure,” Paul Tough writes in a new book, “How Children Succeed,” has become “the central policy tool in our national effort to improve the lives of poor children.” Are we expecting too much of our teachers? Schools are clearly a critical piece — no, the critical piece — in any anti-poverty strategy, but they can’t go it alone. Nor can we do school reform on the cheap. In the absence of any bold effort to alleviate the pressures of poverty, in the absence of any bold investment in educating our children, is it fair to ask that the schools — and by default, the teachers — bear sole responsibility for closing the economic divide?

Kotlowitz attributes the stress on teachers in Chicago—internally and externally—to our desire for them to “transform children’s lives” in a near-vacuum, with little integrated help from a skeleton staff of social workers and underfunded afterschool programs.

That got me to wondering: how impoverished are CPS students compared to students in other districts, and how do they perform in school?

To do this, I started with data from the Department of Education. The Education Finance Statistics Center has a handy tool that selects peer districts for any given school district based on a number of factors; I chose 30 big-city school districts around the country. One of the data points it provides is the percent of kids in poverty: “an estimate of the percent of children in each district age 5-17 living in families below the poverty level.” Not of students attending schools—so we can safely assume the poverty rate is higher in the public schools themselves—but it provides a good snapshot of the district in 2009.

To the DOE data, I added statistics from Education Week’s research center: high school graduation rate (for which I took a five-year average, 2005-2009) and percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunch. The latter is a broader measure of less extreme poverty. For example: 81 percent of students in the Santa Ana school district in California are eligible for free or reduced lunch, while 21 percent live below the poverty level, compared to 73 and 29 percent in Chicago, suggesting that there’s more widespread poverty in the former but less extreme poverty. Detroit is on the other end of the spectrum: 74 percent eligible for free or reduced lunch, 43 percent living under the poverty line. (Note: two data points were missing, Wake County’s lunch numbers and Detroit’s 2007 graduation rate, so I got those from the Wake County school district and another DOE site.)

There are outliers, but the trend is really clear:

Long Beach is one of the outliers, and it’s been praised for this:

The district has been a leader in using test data to provide differentiated instruction to students, has strong career technical programs integrated into academics, and will open a credit recovery high school next year to try to keep students who need just a few more credits from giving up.

They also have extremely low teacher turnover.

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