College and career ready? Fewer low-income students enroll in college

Just two years ago, the Southern Education Foundation published a report announcing that, as of 2013 a majority (51%)  of school-age students were “low income.”    This development, an important milestone, is not a surprise, as they write:

In 1989, less than 32 percent of the nation’s public school students were low-income. By 2000, the national rate as compiled and calculated by NCES had increased to over 38 percent. By 2006, the national rate was 42 percent and, after the Great Recession, the rate climbed in 2011 to 48 percent. NCES data shows that in 2012 the rate of low income students was barely below one-half –49.6 percent. In 2013, the rate crossed the threshold of one half so that in 2013 low income students became a new majority in the nation’s public schools.

Since income level is the most persistently reliable predictor of academic success, income inequality and the decline of the middle class are clearly necessary (if not sufficient) matters to incorporate into any ideas of school improvement.

In November came a story on college enrollment trends, “Where have all the lower-income students gone?”  that seems almost a corollary of this:

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the percentage of students from low-income families enrolling in higher education immediately after graduating from high school has declined by 10 percentage points since 2008, from 56 percent of graduates to just 46 percent…While the percentage of low-income students in elementary and secondary schools is increasing, the percentage of low-income students who go on to college is falling. Said a bit differently, at the same time that low-income individuals are enrolling in college at lower rates, the majority of young adults in the pre-college education pipeline are from those same low-income communities.

Meanwhile, NCLB is replaced by ESSA.  One of the positives attributed to NCLB is that its accountability system identified the schools that are underperforming, so that they can be improved in one of various ways — some constructive in effect, some punitive and damaging.  This argument,which I heard sometimes made by people whose wisdom I generally respect, always nonplussed me:  did we really need the elaborate and minatory machinery of high stakes testing to tell us who was not being well-served?  And it’s not as though this fresh insight was then used to marshall resources and support to build communities, relieve and renew (and in some cases re-train or replace) unsatisfactory teachers, feed children and address their health issues…

With the long-delayed replacement of NCLB by the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (where do they get these names?), we are hearing well-meaning people lament the slight retreat from the high-stakes machinery that has been causing so much mayhem.  A recent opinion piece in the Washington Post by Michael Gerson makes this case.

 We actually have some experience in how education systems operate in the absence of accountability enforced from above. Before No Child Left Behind, only 29 states had real accountability systems; 11 states did not disaggregate by race at all; only 22 states reported graduation rates by high school. What will happen with the end of federal nagging? concludes education researcher Chad Aldeman. “But we’ll see a lot more just kind of getting by and doing the bare minimum, particularly when local politics and inertia prevent state leaders from pursuing bold changes on behalf of disadvantaged students.”

Gerson sees the evil fact that “gaps in academic achievement between black and white students are large, continuing and disturbing.”  What he doesn’t mention is that decades of increasing standards, high-stakes testing, Big Data, school receiverships, market-based solutions, and similar faux-systemic methods have not addressed the problem he wants to solve.  The corrosive effects of income instability, food insecurity, inadequate health care, environmental injustice, cannot be tested away, “reformed” away, wiped away, until the school is seen more fully in its societal context, as an expression of our actual values — not the ones we espouse, but the ones we actually enact.

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