My View

Disregarding Data Harms Low-Income Students


As a data wonk, I find it fascinating to watch our economy evolve into one that is now largely data-driven. Real-time data collected by a grocery store loyalty card or a click on an Internet ad directs businesses not only to deliver better products and services, but also to customize them.

Yet the decisions school administrators make are rarely based on similarly up-to-date, reliable data. The best education research we have at our disposal frequently is misunderstood, ignored and misused, especially when measuring the performance of low-income students. A change is long overdue as big data provides immeasurable insights into everything from truancy to talent.

Perhaps one of the most notable examples is the movement to hold students back if they fail to meet state standards. Beginning around 2000, the so-called “no social promotion” movement gathered momentum, and it sounded like a reasonable approach. So several states enacted or are considering this “tough love” policy.

Conclusive Details

The problem is this: Not a single independent academic study suggests it works. In fact, repeated research has shown that being held back destroys a student’s confidence. Once left back, that student is far more likely to drop out than a similar student who was promoted, according to a 1996 study by the Texas Education Agency. Sadly, these findings have not found a place at the decision-making table.

More recent research, such as work by Cornell University economist Jordan Matsudaira in 2007, found summer school made a dramatic difference in improving dropout rates and student academic outcomes. He determined that summer school is among the top intervention strategies with the lowest cost. Despite the conclusive data, we have yet to witness a resurgence of summer programs.

Another compelling case addresses how we support low-income students at the other end of the academic spectrum. A study by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, the organization I run, used U.S. Department of Education data to track talented students. Only 59 percent of smart children — those who scored in the top 25 percent on standardized tests — from low-income households graduate from college. But 77 percent of similarly bright children from wealthy families finish an undergraduate degree.

To make matters worse, high-achieving, low-income students are less likely to apply to or enroll in highly competitive colleges, and less likely to complete college than even their low-achieving, high-income peers.

Additionally, these students face more obstacles outside of school and often struggle in isolation. So how much more convincing do school leaders need to act?

Acting Smartly

At the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, we support this population of high-performing, low-income students in middle and high school. We mentor them, challenge and inspire them, provide academic and financial resources and offer a peer community so they are not isolated. While we may only serve a few hundred students each year in our program, our success is worth noting.

The decision-making haze is challenging, but the data are clear. The will — politically and financially — needs to be present so that talented, low-income students may pursue academic success and reach their potential. Case in point: the federal government’s only program supporting gifted students, the Jacob Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act, was appropriated a paltry $5 million in 2014 and nothing in the previous three years. If we are to compete internationally and if we are to fix our income inequality problems, we cannot depend on our most talented students to fend for themselves.

Data and our experience confirm that it’s a myth that high-achieving, low-income students are fine on their own. As school administrators, we can’t delay making data-driven decisions. We need to give talented, low-income students every advantage to keep up with their wealthy intellectual peers now. As leaders in communities across the country, you may well be letting down the next Nobel laureates.

My plea is not only to help my foundation identify talented, low-income students so that they may compete for our generous scholarship, but also that you develop your own policies and programs based on the research that exists and continues to emerge. The lag between what we already know and how we support smart, low-income children perpetuates the achievement gap, and undermines their future and the future of our country.

Worse, if the extremely talented aren’t getting the help they need to succeed, what does that portend for the rest?

Harold Levy, former New York City schools chancellor, is executive director of Jack Kent Cooke Foundation in Lansdowne, Va. E-mail: Twitter: @TheJKCF