Averages are so misleading.
A new report from Research for Action, a nonprofit education research organization makes use of their new research tool—an educational opportunity dashboard that provides a variety of ways to crunch data from all fifty states. The news for Pennsylvania is not great.
The research tool looks at fourteen indicators to create an average opportunity score for each state. The indicators fall into three categories:
Student access to quality educators (e.g. student-teacher ratios, percentage of teachers certified and experienced)
Positive school climate (e.g. suspension rate, absenteeism for both students and teachers)
College and career readiness curriculum (e.g. advanced math, chemistry, AP courses)
At first glance, Pennsylvania seems fine. The average opportunity score for the state ranks it 17th in the nation (Wyoming, Vermont and Nebraska are the top three).
But that’s an average. The average income in your house could be $50,000, and that could mean that one partner makes $49,000 and the other makes $51,000. Or it could mean that one partner makes $99,000 and the other makes $1,000.
Breaking down Pennsylvania’s numbers in their report, RFA reveals a troubling truth about the state. The gap between students with the greatest educational opportunity and those with the least is the worst in the nation. The opportunity score for white students ranks 10th in the nation; the score for Black and Hispanic students ranks 40th and 34th. For Free and Reduced Lunch students, the state ranks 30th, but for non FRL students, the state is 16th.
This echoes a long-standing inequity in Pennsylvania public school funding. Because the state kicks in only about a third of public school funding, local districts that can afford to put a lot of money into their schools do so. Those that can’t, don’t. A lawsuit seeking to force the state to fully fund public education finally made its way to court this summer.
The data set used by RFA comes from the 2017-2018 federal Civil Rights Data Collection, and so the dashboard cannot tell us how the pandemic affected the picture of inequity in Pennsylvania.
Looking at inputs for schools has been out of fashion with education reformers in the past few decades. Instead, they have focused on outputs (primarily standardized test scores). That approach is like comparing the weight of your livestock without checking to see if they’re all being adequately fed. It makes sense to also look at what opportunities students have for education and not just the test scores they achieve.
It’s also worth noting that ranking is not everything. West Virginia has the smallest opportunity score gap between white students and students of color, but both groups have opportunity scores lower than students of color in Pennsylvania.
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