Income, geography and Arizona school grades

by David Safier

I knew what the results would be, but I didn't know they would be this dramatic.

The AZ Dept of Ed has a web page where you can choose an area of the state and see a map with every school in that area and its state grade. I set the map for the greater Tucson area and saw that school grades divided geographically into distinct areas. To show the grade clusters more clearly, I created colored clouds around the areas where most of the schools had certain grades: Green for A, Blue for B, Yellow for C and Orange for D — the same colors the state uses for each grade. This is what I came up with.


The vast majority of the A schools stretch almost uninterrupted from Oro Valley and Marana across the Foothills and down the east side to Vail. B schools are clustered above Speedway and below Orange Grove. C schools predominate in the central Tucson area, east of I-10 and as far south as Ajo. Most D schools are in an arc to the south and west of I-10. (You can see the map without the added colored clouds below the fold.)

I can't imagine a more dramatic representation of the correlation between neighborhood income and AIMS scores. But what do I know? I'm not rich like Bill Gates, and I'm not the U.S. Secretary of Education like Arne Duncan. So I'll bow to their greater wisdom and say, the reason certain areas have better or worse school grades must be related to the quality of the teachers, the rigor of the curriculum and high expectations of the staff.

If they're right, that means most of the great teachers and administrators in the Tucson area must be clustered north and east of the city — they're probably using the superior Common Core Curriculum as well — and the staffs and curriculum get progressively worse as we head south. It must be that simple. It's all about the quality of the teaching and the curriculum, according to people like Bill Gates and the members of the Billionaire Boys Club, most of whom have never been K-12 teachers. Ed Sec Arne Duncan helps to reinforce that notion.

So I've got a simple solution based on their analysis. Let's just swap the entire staffs of the A and B schools, along with their superior curriculum, with the staffs of the C and D schools. If the people who know more about education than I do are right, in a few years we should see a complete reversal in student achievement and state grades. Those C and D schools with their predominantly low income students will soar to the A and B range while the schools that currently have the high income students and the highest state grades will slip down to the C and D range.

Because if that's not true, we're going to have to admit, as the research indicates, that student achievement on standardized tests correlates more closely with socioeconomic status than any other factor, in the Tucson area, in Arizona, in the U.S. and around the world. And that means we'll never come up with a magic formula that will change student achievement simply by changing what goes on inside the school walls. Our increasing poverty levels, which are part of our increasing income inequality, need to be addressed if we want to increase our children's success in school.

Below is the same map as above as it looks on the ADE website before I added the colored clouds.


13 thoughts on “Income, geography and Arizona school grades”

  1. Rep. Kavanaugh, as a recently retired AZ teacher and principal, I’d like to clue you in on how money does make a difference. When I first became an elementary principal, which was about the time that No Child Left Behind was implemented, I realized that my k-6 school had qualified for federal Title 1 funds for some years. I forced the superintendent’s hand and he did my school its portion the following year. Of course, doing so diminished the funds the other Title 1 schools received. Nevertheless, I used the money to hire instructional aids who worked directly with students who were behind and I purchased Accelerated Reader and library books at all reading levels, of which we had very few. Within a year, my school had the top scores in the district. And two of the elementary schools were not even Title 1 schools. (One of them was where our self-contained gifted program was housed.) My school continued to have the top scores by far for the entire time I was there — because with Title 1 monies we got an infusion of money and we knew what to do with it.

    Now if the AZ Legislature, which is under the influence of ALEC and therefore backing efforts to divert public taxes from public schools to charter schools with little accountability, were to fund schools at an even adequate level, we would not need to accept federal funding. Our hands would not be tied with such deforms movements, such as Common Core, which is untested and poorly implemented. The money you are wasting on Common Core alone would go a long way to providing better funding for public schools. 70% of New York students failed the PARCC test. Wouldn’t AZ have been better served if you had waited till all the bugs were worked out of the CCS implementation?

    What bugs me the most is that legislators like you have an opinion — or you are provided with an opinion by ALEC — about something you know absolutely nothing about. What qualifies you to vote for or against legislation affecting our schools. Take a year off and spend a year in the classroom of a Title 1 school. Until you do, you are not qualified to cast a vote that concerns a career I devoted 35 years of my life to. (I apologize for the typos. I tried to edit them out, but typepad doesn’t make it easy to move the cursor where you need it.)

  2. I lived much of my life in Quebec where bilingualism is government policy. English and French is taught in all schools, and businesses in Quebec are run in French and English with the proviso that the employees of English companies speak adequate french. Signs are in French and the use of English for this purpose prohibited. There has constant debate about preserving the culture, the fact the province is in Canada which is predominately English speaking, etc. Nevertheless, the country as a whole is bilingual with both languages displayed on packaging, on government documents, and all other forms of formal communication.
    Does it affect the overall outcome for the student who are emerged into French as a second language ( there are several languages represented in the cities so English is not the only consideration)?
    Since instruction takes place in both tongues for all students through emersion they acquire good skills early and get on with their work. The problem comes when the parents cannot use the official languages and cannot help out at home. There are remedial studies programs there for this problem.
    I think economic difficulties and the breakdown of homelike through the need for multiple jobs by both parents strands the student in an emotionally difficult place.

  3. It appears to me that the problem isn’t primarily the lack of school funding, but the lack of family resources of all kinds, including money. More money for the schools won’t get at the vast lack of resources (shorthand “poverty”) that exists outside the school yard.

    However, our schools COULD play an important part in solving these problems. If schools were changed to become centers of their communities, they could help people create their own resources together.

    Right now, schools are isolated, age-segrated bastions of workforce training (a bad goal in itself, as far as I am concerned).

    Schools could be reorganized to become the centers of their neighborhoods and become the centers for creating Communities for All Ages that link the young, old, and everyone in between. They could host community gardens, senior day-care, job training, hacker-spaces for all ages, local time banks, and many other things that would enable people to serve each other and better their own lives.

    I don’t think we can solve the failures you identify, David, by doing more of the same. We need to define the problems differently, in order to solve them.

  4. Rep. Kavanagh, the amount of money a family spends on food doesn’t guarantee that the children will be healthy. People can have enough to feed their children and still spend it on food that adds to obesity and other health concerns. But other families use that extra money to buy more fresh vegetables, more whole grain foods and the kind of ideal balance of ingredients that give their children the best chance of living healthy, active lives. On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible for a family with too little money to buy the best foods for their children. True, some families manage it through extraordinary efforts, for awhile anyway, but they’re the exception. Poverty and poor nutrition correlate pretty strongly.

    It’s not a perfect analogy. But the point is, when spending on education is below a certain level, the difficulties of providing a good education increase. That’s the case in Arizona, and that’s a probable reason why a study out of ASU indicates that Arizona students in almost every socioeconomic category score lower on standardized tests than similar students in other states. If the legislature gives districts and charter schools enough money to purchase high quality supplies, texts, technology, etc., the schools have a better chance of being successful with their students than if they’re barely scraping by as they are now. And if the legislature decides to be even more generous, it’s possible some districts and charters will waste the extra money on unnecessary frills, but others will put it to the best use to maximize their students’ educations.

  5. It’s definitely not all funding but there’s more to funding than a school’s M and O budget. Schools in wealthier areas bring in more tax credit dollars and parents with resources bring resources into the educational arena. Likewise parents in financial crisis have a more difficult time helping kids with school-ready skills and supporting the mission of their schools. Schools in poor neighborhoods need funding to close those gaps.

  6. It appears that funding levels also do not pay a major role because all these schools get roughly the same amount of money. Besides, if money were as big a factor as some allege, we would all be moving to Newark and Washington DC to give our children a great education. However, some schools in poor neighborhoods do excel without extra funding. Maybe we should emulate them more.

  7. This is a great teaching tool David. Thanks so much. (Some aspiring Board member may want to use it and your idea in the future…with attribution of course. Unless you are an aspiring board member?)

  8. Absolutely. When children don’t have a basic mastery of English, or even when they do and their parents don’t speak English well, their difficulties in school are multiplied. Tom Horne, et al, made things that much worse when he created his ELL regimen that is more like a punishment than a helping hand for these kids.

    The fact that the pocket of D schools is in an area where there are so many ELL kids is no coincidence.

  9. I read your 2012 article. Good stuff. You were ahead of the curve. The one place I would differ somewhat is your emphasis on doing the right thing in our schools and deemphasizing the need to deal with poverty in the country. I recommend Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error. The first half is a debunking of the conservative “education reform” myths about what’s wrong with our schools and the ways to fix it. The second half is her suggestions for ways to improve children’s educations. She begins with prenatal care to age 5. Improve those conditions which are completely independent of K-12 schools, and work to improve the conditions of our poorest citizens, and many school problems will slowly improve.

    Ravitch’s book is a primer in the best sense of the word, filled with information people concerned about the present and future of education (and the past. She’s a historian) should understand.

  10. Dramatic is an understatement! A vast majority of students and education professionals across our state work incredibly hard. A classroom full of students “looks” very different in the geographic areas shown on the map. Knowing what has to happen for Bs and Cs to occur in many parts of central, south central, and southwest Tucson, I can safely say that teachers, students, parents/family, staff and administrators in those areas are busting their collective asses. They should all be very proud.

    Thank you for sharing, David. Your insight and work on behalf of Arizona students is valued and needed!

  11. These school grades are probably also related to English as a second language. Right?

    I’d assume that would be an added stressor– on top of poverty, parents working multiple jobs, food insecurity, housing insecurity, incarceration rates, etc. We learned from the excellent series in the AZ Star just how many layers of shit are being piled on top of poor families and children in Tucson. Thoughts?

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