Family Potential
Another Approach to Improving Dc's Dismal Public Schools


The District's new mayor ran on a ticket which placed education reform first, and he won in every one of DC's eight Wards. During his campaign, he had summarized his "vision" for education as follows:

Making Education Our #1 Priority

The District's continued economic growth and the opportunity for abright future for our children depend on our ability to improve public education. We must foster strong early childhood programs, world-class primary and secondary schools and implement state-of-the-art vocational/career and technical education and workforce training. We must dramatically increase our school graduation rates and academic performance if we are to ensure that all people are prepared to fill the new jobs created by our strong economy. To make excellent education a reality, the Fenty administration will:

o Appoint a Deputy Mayor for Education to direct our government agencies in supporting the school system and to engage our people, our communities, our universities, our foundations and non-profits and our businesses on meeting the needs of our children, our youth and our workforce;

o Ensure that our schools are fully modernized, made safe, sound, and educationally appropriate for today and for the future. We won't allow yet another generation to be educated in our schools in their current state of disrepair.

o Support the Superintendent's vision for a rigorous academic curriculum with qualified teachers for all children and his vocational/career and technical education initiative. We must ensure that we prepare our students for high skill/high wage careers in our labor market. We must ensure that, as in other cities, all of our education programs including our vocational/career and technical education program actually raise academic achievement levels and make the difference for our students between staying in and dropping out of school.

Following the mayor's election, he turned to The Parthenon Group to produce a brochure describing what he planned to do, entitled "Fact-Base for DCPS Reform". The group does not appear to have any particular expertise in the education field, but does offer pro bono consulting services in the general education area. The chart immediately below from that brochure provides a simplified summary of the plan:

A few pages later, the brochure presents a simplified justification for the reform, based on comparative data from ten other representative urban school districts (including DC), plus the national averages for public schools. This is taken directly from the recent analysis prepared by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of the US Department of Education for just those few urban districts (there are hundreds more). It uses the standard scoring system from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the extensive US data base used in previous NARPAC studies such as our earlier work on "exploring NAEP test scores". The numbers used in the table below compare the percentage of all students in a certain grade that are "below basic" (the lowest of 4 categories) in a particular subject, and correctly point out that for this sample, DC ranks at the very bottom:

NARPAC will devote most of the remainder of this chapter to delving into the relevance of these scores and trying to put them into context. Whether or not, and by how much, DC student scores can reasonably be expected to be improved is an important consideration before making unwarranted accusations and undertaking systemic changes in the DCPS schools. In fact, most of the materials that follow are based on reaffirming conclusions already reached on the basis of our prior analyses on:

"Education, Poverty and Ignorance";
"Demographics of Parents";
"Recalling Drop-out Students";
DCPS's recent "Strategic Plan"; as well as
its latest "Master Education Plan".


In essence, we have been able to illustrate in the past the strong relationship between students' performance and the level of poverty in their households. That householder poverty is induced in the main by lack of parental education, and the lack of parents themselves (most often fathers, of course). It is further exacerbated by the number of kids in a household. In the past we have used a simple indicator for "Educational Score" of parents. In this analysis, we have gone a step further and generated a "Family Potential (FP)" score, based on the level of household poverty for single parents and/or couples and the number of "kids per parent". The correlation becomes even better and explains differences in at-school educational performance very well. And it does so completely without reference to the very divisive subject of race. Race does in fact impact on such terms as how many single mom students there are in a school, how many kids there are in a family, and how old the moms are at first birth (a reasonable proxy for parental educational achievement.

It should also be noted, however, that demographic statistics can be very different at three levels of data aggregation. Using State-level data, school district data (which is geographic, but not necessarily representative of the school population), or school system data can produce quite different results. Unfortunately, school system data collection does not fully reflect the demographic distribution and educational achievements of the students' parents. In urban public school districts which mainly cater to those families that cannot afford other options, such as Washington, DC, it should therefore not be surprising that kids often perform below the level predicted by given regional demographics. It is painfully easy to underestimate how poorly the poorest of poor kids will do in school. In fact, DCPS students are not that far from their average parentally prescribed potential.

Finally, important insights can also be gained from exploration of education system factors that demonstrate no useful correlation. This latest analysis confirms NARPAC's earlier conclusions that there is no recognizable correlation between kids' school performance and the size of the school, or the ratio of school staff to kids.

focus of the national "no child left behind" (NCLB) program

Based on a constructive suggestion from a web site reader, NARPAC adds here a short summary of the "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) legislation. Contrary to the thrust of our analysis, that legislation seems to assume that there are no importance outside influences on many kids' ability to learn.

In 2001, the Congress made major changes to "Title 1" of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The title itself was changed to read "Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged". Sec. 1001, "Statement of Purpose" is summarized below, highly condensed to focus of the major issues: It starts out:

The purpose of this title is to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments. This purpose can be accomplished by:

(1) ensuring that high-quality (assessments...accountability....teaching...curriculum...materials..) are aligned with challenging...standards, so that (all players) can measure progress against common expectations for student academic achievement;

(2) meeting the educational needs of low-achieving children (of all sorts, everywhere in the US);

(3) closing the achievement gap between high-/ low-performing kids, (especially minority and poor);

(4) holding (schools, agencies, states) accountable for improving the achievement (of all kids) and (turning around all schools or finding alternatives);

(5) applying resources (wherever) needs are greatest;

(6) using state assessment systems to (bolster) accountability, teaching and learning (to ensure meeting challenging standards, especially the disadvantaged};

(7) giving teachers/schools (more authority/flexibility) in exchange for greater responsibility for students' performance;

(8) providing (better) educational programs, including (more/better) instructional time;

(9) promoting (school reform, better strategies, challenging content);

(10) elevating instruction quality (with more chances for) professional development;

(11) coordinating all services (with each other, other educational agencies) and "to the extent feasible, with other agencies providing services to youth, children, and families"; and

(12) giving parents (a chance to) "participate in the education of their kids".

According to recent news reports (February 2007), the Commission for the NCLB Act has now released its monumental report presenting 75 recommendations relative to re-authorization of this Act. According to the apparently authoritative (and largely supportive?), "Public Education Network", "most" of the recommendations can be grouped into five broad categories (verbatim from their 2/26/07 PEN "Weekly NewsBlast"): 1) ensuring that teachers and principals are effective at improving student achievement; 2) accelerating progress through accurate and fair accountability measures; 3) effective school improvements and quality student options; 4) rigorous standards tied to college and workplace readiness; and 5) strengthening and reforming high schools. That doesn't leave much room from addressing kids' outside-of-school issues!

While this summary may not be 100% comprehensive, there is nothing missed in here to suggest that kids are in anyway disadvantaged by their circumstances outside the schoolroom. It appears to NARPAC to be totally unreasonable, and to risk seriously damaging vulnerable schools faced with near-impossible in-school situations. Based on NARPAC's analyses, NCLB is an insult to the many dedicated school system personnel trying to teach those unprepared to learn, and a waste of time for most of the kids at most risk.

return to the top of the pagesample school characteristics

For every set of school districts that NARPAC explores, we look first at the gross characteristics of each school system in terms of total enrollment, the total number of schools, and in the number of teachers and staff members per student. We look to see if there is any correlation between these gross parameters and the percentage of the kids that score "below basic" in both 4th and 8th grade reading and math. And we rank each of the school systems to see where DC stands. The charts below show the results. Note that in general, we use the "below basic" category of educational test results, in this case averaging the NAEP results for 4th and 8th grade kids in both reading and math. It is a tragic reality that well over 50% of all kids in these school districts score in the "below basic" category, and less than 20% make it to "proficient" or "advanced"!

In the first "pair of pairs" we look at the relationship, if any, between the ratio of school-kids-to- school-staff (teachers and other staff) and test scores (left), and then overall school district enrollment (right). The "scatter" among the dots on the upper graphs suggests that there is essentially no relationship between staffing or overall district size and the kids' performance. The lower bars, ranked from highest to lowest, indicate that DC is second only to Cleveland in the small number of kids per staff member, and 20% below the (background) average. Is DCPS guilty of "featherbedding"? Similarly, total district enrollment is only greater than that of Boston and Atlanta, and is now less than a quarter of the average urban sample school district size.

In the second "pair of pairs" we look at the impact of poverty on kids' school performance and DC's poverty ranking amongst this set of school districts (left), and the impact of school size in terms of numbers of students per school. While there is certainly fair correlation between the portion of kids essentially failing in school and the number of poor households they come from, it is less obvious (but certainly not impossible) that the correlation between scores and grades favors schools with larger (not smaller) enrollments. DC is only 5% of this urban average for kids in poverty, but the average school enrollment is by far the lowest, a full 43% below average. Yet another confirmation of the folly of keeping so many half-filled schools.

It should be noted here that this is one of the keystone reasons for reform presented by the Parthenon Group: "poor facilities conditions and severe underutilization are widespread." Based on the DCPS Master Facilities Plan of 2006:

  • 69% of DC Elementary Schools:
  • 79% of DC Middle/Junior Highs: Have POOR/UNSATISFACTORY CONDITIONS
  • 83% of DC High Schools:
  • 41% of DC Elementary Schools:
  • 60% of DC Middle/Junior Highs: Operate at LESS THAN 65% CAPACITY
  • 29% of DC High Schools:
It is inconceivable to NARPAC that DCPS has not moved more smartly to consolidate their vastly oversized and over-aged facilities. Surely this is a matter for the DC government to address, and not just its School Board!

The third "pairs of pairs" deals with the education impact of kids with single parents, and the relationship between school size and pupils per staff member. There is fair correlation that student performance drops among kids with single parents (this has been confirmed in every other school sample NARPAC has looked at over the years). There is also fair correlation (and intuitive support) for the notion that larger school enrollments can result in fewer staff members per kid (i.e., more kids/staff member). Note that DC has 44% more kids with single parents than the average of these urban schools, but that the ratio between teachers and other staff is just about on the mark.

return to the top of the pageracial parameters cannot be ignored

The next chart set barges into the touchy but inescapable issues of differences between racial mixes and lifestyles. In this case, the basis is the nine states in which the sample urban school districts are located. The availability of relevant statistics varies by break-out, which in fact, causes considerable confusion in results (see further on). The four major racial categories are displayed from left to right within each chart, generally in accordance with the scholastic achievements of their kids.

(Upper left) the most important variation is in adult education achievement, which NARPAC believes drives the performance of their kids. Asians have only slightly less well educated parents that whites, with only a few more adults lacking a high school degree, but many more adults have college degrees (from BS up). The White figures present the ratios of "BS,+" to "HS,+". Hispanics currently suffer from many more adults without high school degrees, but this may reflect at least in part their more recent immigration status (see ahead).

(Upper right) Across these nine states there are many more Whites than any other race, with Hispanics now clearly more prevalent than Asians or Blacks. The White share of kids, however, is less marked than their share of adults, due to lower birth rates.

(Lower left) The imbalance in the share of families in poverty, however is very different, and the stark effect of single-parent families on their poverty status is shown more clearly. Here, Hispanics show a greater share of 2-parent families in poverty, clearly related to their poorer educational achievement (above). Still, the Blacks take the cake for single-parents in poverty, and the increasing failure of black family cohesion is a serious matter for national (particularly urban) concern.

(Lower Right) The consequence of the three foregoing parameters also reflects in the number of kids per parent, which NARPAC believes is a second basic contributor to poor school performance. While relatively well-off couples (often Catholic!) have found the secret to raising large families with great educational success (particularly in Catholic schools), the absence of parents, and particularly the absence of fathers, is surely a detriment to those attending public schools in urban areas.

The next 4-chart set reverts back to urban school district sample to illustrate the fairly good correlation between their racial composition and their kids' accomplishments in those "below basic" NAEP scores. Clearly, as the share of Asians and Whites increases (left side), the share of kids "below basic" in both reading and math in both 4th (upper) and 8th (lower) graphs declines. And inevitably, then, as the share of Blacks and Hispanics rises, the share achieving only "below basic", also rises apace. As NARPAC has concluded many times before, however, this is not a simple matter of skin color or "genetics", it is a matter of family accomplishment, or what we will later introduce as the "family potential".

Finally, the triple chart below shows the consistent difference in NAEP testing scores by the four races, parental education, and blacks only across the nine state aggregates ranked simply from best to worst.. This clearly shows the separate "strands" for Asian & White compared to those for Hispanic and Black; the advantages of parental education, and the tragic conditions for black kids in all the sample urban districts. The details of the charts are not important here. Look at them as "line-ups" of students: those with purple caps may become professionals; those with green shirts can join the middle class; those with yellow pants can get blue collar jobs, and those with the red boots are stuck in poverty for life. It is not an encouraging picture, and DC's school kids are part of a common national problem.

the special interest in Black kids

This chart set deals with racial parameters for the Black component alone, mainly because Blacks are a far larger share of all urban schools than may be reflected in State demographics (see below), and because they also represent the vast majority of DC public school kids. NARPAC has previously suggested that as the Black share of a school's enrollment increases, the scores of the Black kids goes down as a result of counter-cultural tendencies. The upper left chart here compares the overall NAEP accomplishments of black kids in this urban school sample, ranked left-to-right by increasing black enrollment. No such expected correlation emerged here (though a combination of Blacks and Hispanics might improve the suspected relationship). The relationship between single parenting and black families is, not surprisingly, much better (upper right). The incidence of 2-parent families above the poverty line (lower left)declines between DC (at 40%) and Ohio (at only 25%).Single-parent poverty increases proportionately, but the number of kids per parent does not track well when ranked in the same order.

Finally, the chart pair below deals with the complete NAEP scores for 4th and 8th grade reading and math (right side), comparing DC's black pupils to the average for the 12 urban school district sample being used in this analysis. This shows that DC has 14% to 21% more kids "Below Basic" than this sample urban average, except for 4th Grade math in which case DC is a whopping 44% worse off than those other urban Black kids. NARPAC believes strongly that DC schools should focus primarily on reaching average black performance before reaching for any higher goals.

Other analysts tend to put only "Below Basic" below the line in the negative column, lumping "Basic", "Proficient", and "Advanced" all together. We do not believe "Basic" is good enough because in fact, the predominance of White and Asian kids are in the upper two categories, as shown on the left hand chart. Moreover, we are satisfied that only the "proficient and above" are likely to move on to college. There is indeed some correlation between college-educated parents and proficient offspring (see ahead).

sensitivity to data aggregation

The next few charts bring up the obviously important issue of how the data sets used will change the correlation of the key parameters. This introduces an inherent difficulty in gauging relative school system performance. The foregoing sections illustrate that the schools' racial and parental mixes will strongly influence the schools' test scores. These charts show that those mixes will shift substantially whether demographic data is collected at the State level, at the (geographic) School District level, or within the particular school system itself. The upper sets of three bars show the racial composition at each level by race itself. While the Asian composition does not change much (it's very small anyway), the White share drops very substantially, first because Whites tend to live in the suburbs while the minorities tend to cluster in the cities, but possibly more important, the wealth among Whites gives them a much broader selection of school choices. This is reflected again in the lower chart comparing kids per parent, but note that data is not available at the school system level because it does not appear to be collected by either NCES/NAEP or the Council of Great City Schools (CGCS).

This issue is more dramatically illustrated by the differences between racial composition of state, school district, and school system for the urban sample being explored here. Note what is intuitively obvious: in every case (including the US as a whole) the share of less privileged minority kids increases as one gets closer to the issue at hand (school composition), and the major family component in kids' education tends to disappear.

return to the top of the pagedeveloping a "family potential" score

While NARPAC has by no means done sufficient work to assure that this formulation is precisely correct, it does suggest that its possible to discuss kids' performance in school without suggesting that skin color is somehow to blame. The simple chart set below indicates the level of correlation for the urban district sample used in Mayor Fenty's arguments for changing the management of the DC school system. It focuses only on "Below Basic" scores for reading and math together and for each one separately. The prominent black dot is for DC, which comes remarkably close to the computer-generated linear trend line in each case. It makes the simple case that much of the reason (blame?) For DC kids' low scores is not the schools' fault, but the low "family potential (FP)" with which DC's kids are stuck, through not fault of their own. But the charts also suggest very strongly that if you want to improve the kids' scores, improve their family situations.

The double chart below shows how FP has been developed at this time. The formula for FP is shown below the charts. It essentially sums the weighted shares of 1- and 2-parent families, both not-in-poverty (nip), and in-poverty (ip).v The weighting factors are somewhat arbitrary, and in fact, the correlation remains with significant variation in them. Our rationale is roughly as follows.

o The best family relationship is to have both parents involved (2-p), out of poverty (i.e., with a sound educational base); and with relatively few kids in terms of "kids per parent". It is given a weighting factor of 1.0;

o A family not in poverty but with only one (almost certainly working) parent is given a much lower weighting factor: we have chosen 0.7;

o We actually believe that in most households with kids, the kids will be better off with two parents, even if they are not as well educated. This in some ways reflects our concern for the large number of fatherless boys, and the likelihood that they will not stick it out in school. the "2-p, ip" therefore ranks somewhat higher at 0.8;

o the worst of all worlds from the standpoint of the kid's chances for success is a single parent (odds on, just the mom) who has little education herself, may well not work, and is mired in poverty. We award them a weighting factor of 0.6 (but would not argue if others prefer to reduce it to 0.5, or even 0.4.

The left hand chart shows the distribution of the four family types across the nine states in which the sample urban districts are located. They are broken out by race, because that is the greatest determinant of family demography. The black line shows how the FP score drops as the average family conditions decline. The right hand chart sorts out the FP by both state and race, showing that the difference between states (and the US as a whole) is far less than the gap between white/Asian family styles, and black/Hispanic customs. It might be noted, however, that there is a substantially higher number of "2-p" families, but they suffer from lower parental education, and somewhat more kids per family.

The next four-chart set looks at several other aspects of the education dilemma, using the FP unit of measure. First (top left), there does not seem to be any direct connection between the strength of the family and the number of teachers and staffers they demand for their kids in school. If anything, one could divine a trend line suggesting that the more capable the family home situation, the fewer school personnel are required. The concept of using the school to compensate for lack of family seems to NARPAC to be a very unsound course.

The middle chart, left, separates out FP by the parental education level, and demonstrates in at least this case, that 8th Grade Math scores vary significantly with whether the parents dropped out without finishing High School (HS-); got their High School diploma but went no further (HS); got some college time, but not degree (HS+), or stuck to it and got a Bachelor's or more (BS+).

The bottom chart, left, shows how DC's FP ranks with the other urban schools in this sample. It has a better FP only somewhat better than Atlanta's and 18% below the average of all the rest. Before DC takes its school system apart, and pillories either the superintendent or the School Board, it should understand that DC kids simply lack the family support necessary to get (or want) a good education. If the superintendent or the Board can't keep the plumbing and heating working, however, it may indeed be time for a major change in management style.

Finally, the right hand chart simply displays the range of variation in FP across the nine states, their average, and the US as a whole, again by race. There are clearly substantially different family circumstances across this sample, although the "best" amongst Hispanics and Blacks remains more than 20% below the least of the opportunities provided to Asians and Whites by their home conditions.

(NARPAC offers an unexplored aside here: we wonder if, in fact, there are any "FP requirements" laid upon DC's many foster parents, or whether the average "FPFP" simply adds to DC's miserable score.)

NARPAC is deeply concerned that despite its earlier cautions about using the most relevant data bases, we have been unable to do so. Although the Census Bureau provides school district data in its extensive "American Community Surveys" (from whence most of these charts have been derived), there is no equivalent family information routinely gathers by individual school systems. As we pointed out earlier, there can be significant differences between the demographics of the geographic district, and that of the parents who choose (or are forced) to use their local public school system. Almost certainly, the public school subset will be skewed towards the less fortunate families, with (as always) the less options for their kids. The right hand chart shows there are some (if not major) differences between the factors comprising the state and the urban school district averages FP's.

The left hand chart below shows how much FP can change between the racial components. It also introduces one new consideration that probably deserves substantially more emphasis, particularly in the world of urban schools. A substantial number of American adults with kids were not themselves born in the US. Oddly enough, over half of Asian and Hispanic adults in these sample districts were not born here. Yet they seem to bring with them a greater respect for family cohesion than do the Whites and Blacks who have been here on average, much longer.

Finally, we "re-rank" the FP's at state and district level to illustrate how they relate to each other. At the most aggregate "total" level (shown on the center chart below), the pattern is little short of an analyst's dream. Unfortunately, that ideal pattern does not hold up as one parses out the "just White" or "just Black" components (left and right). In some cases, the data are vanishingly small. In others, the differences will require further explanation. NARPAC strongly believes, however, that the use of "family potential" offers important insights into the true problems in American public schools, of which DCPS is a typical, not an aberrant, case.

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This page was updated on March 15, 2007

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