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St. Louis lags far behind in closing low-income student achievement gap

North Side community school classroom
Susannah Lohr | St. Louis Public Radio | file photo

Updated 2:38 p.m. March 30 with clarification from Education Cities organization:

New data show that public schools in St. Louis and some area suburbs score far down the list of major American cities when it comes to closing the achievement gap between students from low-income families and their more advantaged peers.

The Education Equality Index, released Tuesday, uses test results from 2014 from schools across the country. It ranked St. Louis as having the seventh largest achievement gap among major cities for which data was available. But the numbers showed that the gap narrowed by 2 percent between 2011 and 2014.

Overall, Missouri ranked 20th out of 34 states; Illinois ranked 19th. (In a subsequent release, the group said it stood by its school and city rankings but was withdrawing its state rankings.)

Ethan Gray, whose Education Cities organization released the index, noted that two charter schools in St. Louis – KIPP and North Side Community School – stood out for having small or nonexistent gaps and serve students who primarily received free or reduced-price lunches, the common measure of low income.

The data focused on a gap based solely on economic factors, not race.

In an interview, Gray said schools that perform well, whether they are charters or traditional district schools, can show the way for others that want to improve.

“Hard-working educators at these schools are clearly making a big difference for kids,” Gray said, “and folks at the city level and at the national level really need to spend some time learning about these schools and learning about their practices, to better understand what's going well so we can try to replicate that success across other schools.”

Those in charge of KIPP in St. Louis and North Side both emphasized that there is no simple or magic answer to how others can replicate their success. But, they said, it can be done.

“Any school can do what we do,” said Stella Erondu, principal of North Side. “It is important for you to be there for the child, emotionally and academically. That makes the difference here.”

KIPP’s Kelly Garrett added that basics such as strong leaders who have the power to create change, plus a focus on how well students perform, are keys to what his school has accomplished. And, he said, students have to spend more time on academics.

“For many students who come in behind academically,” Garrett said, “they need more time to catch up. So our school days are longer. That can look different. Some people go on Saturdays. Some people go in summer. Some people make longer school days. But students need more time learning.”

By the numbers

The index is designed to provide a tool that can compare how students from low-income families are doing relative to other students, from one state to another.

It came up with its rankings this way:

It compared the percentage of a student body that receives free or reduced-price lunch and also were graded proficient on a state’s standardized test with the percentage of the student body as a whole that reached the same benchmark. It found those numbers for each test in a given grade and a given subject.

Then it averaged all of those numbers to find a raw score, and adjusted that score depending on the number of low-income students enrolled. That gives a school its index score.

For St. Louis area schools, the numbers looked like this:

  • 94 out of 100 for its rank
  • 19.8 for its score, compared with a national average of 36.2
  • 43 out of 94 for its rank of the pace of change in improvement
  • 2 percent improvement in closing the gap between 2011 and 2014
  • 61 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, compared with a national figure of 51 percent

For Missouri, the numbers were 20 out of 34 states; a score of 31.5, compared with the national average of 36.2; 15 out of 35 for its pace of change; 2 percent improvement in closing the gap; and 45 percent of students from low-income families.
First wave of research

Discussing the numbers, Gray emphasized that this is the initial release of what he expects to be a wide range of data that should help provide a clearer picture of where schools in any particular area stand nationally.

Because it’s so early in the process, he said, it’s difficult to make judgments on ways that low-ranking schools or states can move up.

But, Gray added, some conclusions can be made.

“It’s not about district schools or charter schools or magnet schools,” he said. “We see examples of great gap-closing schools all across the spectrum, and we see schools that are having challenging results all across the spectrum as well.”

For the St. Louis area, Gray said, having only two schools that are ranked as doing well in closing the gap can be problematic.

It's important that in this day and age, where we focus a lot on the negative story, that there are examples of gap-closing schools across the country. -- Ethan Gray, on schools closing the achievement gap

“I think there are some important questions about what’s going right in those schools,” he said, “and why we haven’t been able to build more schools that are helping to close the achievement gap.”

Looking closely at the numbers, he said, will help answer those questions.

“It’s really important that we don’t rush to conclusions yet about the why,” Gray said. “We need to unpack more of the data, learn from these schools and identify some of the things that are going well there.”

What can everyone who is invested in quality education learn from the numbers?

“There are a lot of moving parts,” Gray said, “but I think that policymakers, parents and others at the local level should start celebrating and learning from the schools that are providing equitable education to all their kids.

“It’s important that in this day and age, where we focus a lot on the negative story, that there are examples of gap-closing schools across the country. A lot of time, folks want to point to Singapore or Finland or other countries that are doing better on international assessments. I think it’s important to recognize that there are some great schools here in the United States, too.”

The index was funded by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and developed with the organizations Education Cities and Great Schools.

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.