Failing Schools – Bill Hammond’s follow up discussion

Bill Hammond’s piece may be found here:

Income Inequality and Minority Group Status in Upstate Metropolitan Areas

In an earlier post, I pointed out that residents of upstate metropolitan areas actually have incomes that are somewhat higher than the average for other cities in the so called “rust belt” – cities located in the old manufacturing regions of the Northeast and Midwest. But, the largest upstate cities – Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse have greater concentrations of poverty than average, while their suburbs have lower levels of poverty than comparable cities, creating a high degree of economic segregation.

Minority group status and location within an upstate central city are strongly related to economic disadvantage. Large income differences exist between minority group residents of central cities, and white residents.  Nationally, the median[1] family income was $68,426 in 2014.  Nationally, black/African-American families averaged $42,711, while families identifying as Hispanic or Latino averaged $44,013.  Families identifying as white (not Hispanic or Latino) averaged $73,974.[2]  But in one upstate city, the median income for Hispanic and Latino families was only $18,149, while in the suburbs of another upstate city, white[3] families averaged $91,693.

Median Family Incomes in Upstate Cities

Median Family Income – 2014
Black Hispanic White
Albany  $39,077 $29,268 $84,422
Buffalo  $29,155 $21,803 $55,516
Rochester  $28,752 $23,717 $56,178
Utica  $22,975 $18,149 $51,043
Syracuse  $27,902 $23,438 $57,246
Troy  $21,563 $20,061 $60,843
Schenectady  $27,338 $25,111 $62,818

There is a large gap between the median incomes of minority families in upstate cities and those of minorities nationally, and a huge gap between minority incomes in upstate cities and those of white residents of those cities – the median income of whites in upstate cities is two to three times that of blacks and Hispanics.  To give a sense of just how poorly minority families are doing in upstate cities, in every city, except for black families in Albany, minority median family incomes are below what would be earned by a worker making the minimum wage proposed by the Governor – $15 per hour, working 40 hours each week.

In five of seven upstate cities, the median incomes of white families were more than twice those of Black and Hispanic residents.  In Buffalo and Rochester, white median incomes were 1.9 times those of black residents, and more than two times those of Hispanics.

In each upstate city, except Albany, the median income of black families was less than half of the national median.  In two cities – Utica and Troy, the median income for black families was one-third of the national median.  For Hispanic families in Utica, the median family income was only one quarter of the national median for all races/ethnicities.  In Buffalo and Troy, the median family income for Hispanics was less than one third of the national median for all races.  White families in upstate cities had median incomes that were below the national median for all races in most cases (except Albany, which was above the national median.  But in each case, median incomes of white city families ranged from 75% to 90% of the national median.

Compared to the median income for all black families in America ($42,711), black families in upstate cities had substantially lower median incomes.  The average black family income median in upstate cities was $28,019.  In Troy, black families had a median income of $21,563, only half of the national median. In Utica, the median income for black families ($22,975) was only 54% of the national black family median.

The picture was just as grim for Hispanic families living in upstate cities.  For Hispanic families, the average upstate median income was $22,047.  In Utica, the the median income for Hispanic families – $18,149 – was only 40% of the national median for Hispanic families, and only 26.5% of the national median for all races and ethnicities.  In Buffalo and Troy, median Hispanic family incomes were less than half of the median income for all Hispanic families in the nation. Hispanic families in Troy and Buffalo had median incomes that were less than one third of the median income for all races and ethnicities.

Median Family Incomes Outside Upstate Cities

 Families living outside central cities in upstate counties had substantially higher median incomes than central city residents – regardless of racial or ethnic background.  In the case of blacks and Hispanics, suburban families had median incomes that were approximately twice those of black and Hispanic families in cities.  But, racial and ethnic differences were significant in suburban areas as well – minority families had median incomes that were substantially lower than those of white families.

Note that the estimates of median family incomes outside central cities have been estimated from available county and city median income data.[4]  Most residents of the counties where upstate cities are located live outside the cities.  Even outside the cities, there are significant disparities between the median incomes of minority and white families.  However, median incomes for minority and white families within counties outside central cities are significantly higher than those in the cities.

Median Family Income – 2014
Outside City Black Hispanic White
Albany  $67,400  $78,594  $91,693
Buffalo  $39,001  $44,463  $77,996
Rochester  $44,716  $44,179  $81,432
Utica  $50,785  $34,792  $70,457
Syracuse  $48,187  $57,778  $80,714
Troy  $47,521  $67,381  $84,992
Schenectady  $65,062  $52,505  $88,674

Black families in outside of central cities in upstate counties had median incomes ranging from $39,001 in Erie County, outside of Buffalo, to $67,400 in Albany County outside of Albany, averaging $51,810.  While these incomes were substantially below those of white suburban residents – for example the median income for white families in Albany County outside Albany was $91,693, and $77,996 in Erie County outside Buffalo, they were substantially above the median incomes for black families in central cities.  For example, the median income for black families in the city of Albany was $39,077, while in Buffalo, it was $29,155. On average, the median incomes of white families living outside central cities in upstate counties was 62.8% higher than that of black families.

The median family income of black families living outside upstate cities was lower than that of all families nationally – ranging form 57% of the national median in Buffalo to 99% of the median in Albany.  Compared to the national median income for black families ($42,711) black families living outside central cities median incomes were higher in all upstate counties, except Erie County outside Buffalo.

For Hispanics, the pattern was similar.  Hispanic family median incomes averaged $54,342 in counties outside upstate central cities. Hispanic families in Utica had a median income of $18,149, but Hispanic families outside Utica had a median income of $34,792. The median income of white families living in Oneida County outside Utica was $70,457.  On average, the median incomes of white families living outside central cities in upstate counties was 59.1% higher than for Hispanic families.  Hispanic families living in upstate counties outside central cities, other than in Oneida County outside Utica, had median incomes that were higher than the national median for Hispanics.

Where Minority and White Families Live

 Given that most residents of upstate metropolitan counties live outside central cities; a reader might conclude that because minority families living in suburban communities have substantially higher incomes than minority families, there are many minority families who have relatively high incomes.  In fact, the level of residential segregation is very high in suburbs outside upstate central cities.  Minority families make up very small percentages of suburban populations in upstate metropolitan areas.

Percent of Population
Outside City Black Hispanic
Albany 2.7% 2.7%
Buffalo 3.3% 2.0%
Rochester 4.3% 3.0%
Utica 0.9% 1.0%
Syracuse 2.3% 1.8%
Troy 0.9% 2.0%
Schenectady 1.4% 1.4%

In the counties surrounding upstate cities, minority families make up substantially less than 10% of families – in Oneida County, less than 2% of all families.  Outside Syracuse, only 2.3% of families identified themselves as black/African-American, while 1.8% identified themselves as Hispanic. Outside Rochester, 4.3% of families identified themselves as black and 3% of families were Hispanics.  These numbers stand in stark contrast to the percentage of minority families in upstate cities.

Percent of Population
Central City Black Hispanic
Albany 35.2% 8.0%
Buffalo 40.5% 10.4%
Rochester 44.8% 18.2%
Utica 13.6% 10.0%
Syracuse 33.4% 8.0%
Troy 16.6% 8.8%
Schenectady 19.0% 9.7%

While 7.4% of families living in Monroe County, outside Rochester were blacks or Hispanics, 63% of Rochester families were members of these minority groups.  In Syracuse, 41% of families were black or Hispanic, while in Onondaga County, outside Syracuse only 4.2% of families were black or Hispanic.


 Upstate New York metropolitan areas are not post-racial communities. White families living outside of central cities in upstate counties are the majority of county families. Minority group members constitute a tiny fraction of suburban populations.  Median incomes of white families living in suburban communities are substantially higher than the medians for all families and for white families nationally.

Minority families are concentrated in central cities – few enjoy the benefits of suburban housing and school systems. Typical black and Hispanic families bear a heavy burden of economic inequality. Median family incomes for minority city residents are very low – only one quarter to one third of the median incomes of white suburban residents.

The contrast between the relative affluence of suburban families and minority residents of central cities is extreme.  Consider that in Rochester, the median black family income was $28,752 in 2014 and of Hispanic families $23,717 while white families in Monroe County outside Rochester had a median income of $81,432.  In Schenectady, the median income for black families was 27,338 and for Hispanic families $25,111, but the median for white families in Schenectady County was $88,674.

The causes of minority group members’ privation have been discussed elsewhere – weak educational backgrounds that lead to limited job-skills, single parent families that can’t get good jobs, high levels of incarceration, and limited access to public transportation, among others.  There are no easy solutions to these problems, but there are many approaches to helping low income people in central cities.  Among them are:

  • Strengthen early child development interventions that promote better parenting, and provide more resources to help low income families access early childhood education options.
  • Help low income parents access better child care options by providing access to all disadvantaged children.
  • Consider adopting classroom management approaches used by successful charter schools in center city public schools.
  • Reduce the concentration of economically disadvantaged students in central cities though strategies like inter-district magnet schools.
  • Employ “dual-generation” assistance models for low income families that integrate a range of health, social and other services in local schools.
  • Leaders should emphasize to targeted audiences how difficult it is to raise children without a committed co-parent.
  • Offer a range of birth control measures, including long acting forms for free.
  • Strengthen SNAP (food stamp) administration. Because of wide variability in food stamp usage rates among eligible populations, consider state administration and increase the number of sites for in-person verification.
  • Consider providing a state supplement to the SNAP program to ensure more adequate support for nutrition.
  • Enhance support for community college programs that provide industry specific skills in high demand fields.
  • Support efforts to provide community college training with flexible class scheduling, and short modules outside traditional AA or certificate programs.
  • Increase or supplement the Earned Income Tax Credit – the program is an effective work incentive. Increasing benefits would provide more adequate support for low income families.
  • Expand or supplement the Child Tax Credit – make it fully refundable.
  • Consider increasing the minimum wage. Though trade-offs are likely in the form of increased unemployment if the minimum wage is raised to $15, a more moderate increase would provide a better balance between assisting low income workers, and potential lost jobs.
  • Address the negative impacts of high levels of incarceration in the minority male population. Consider ways to reduce the impact of “stop and frisk” policing strategies, reduce penalties for non-violent crimes, reduce barriers to employment for those who have completed prison sentences.
  • Focus on developing better public transit access to work sites and community college locations for central city residents.

Despite the stark reality of the economic and residential segregation of minority groups in upstate metropolitan areas, little attention has been paid to this problem at the state level.  The question is why political leaders haven’t made the economic deprivation of minority residents of central city residents a top policy priority, and how the needs of low income inner city residents can become a priority for them.

[1] The income at which half the families have greater incomes and half the families have incomes that are lower.

[2] Source:  U. S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey – 2014-2010, 5 year average data.

[3] Henceforth I will refer to voters who identify as “white, not Hispanic or Latino” as “white.”

[4] The products of median incomes and the number of families were calculated for counties and cities.  City totals were subtracted from county totals, and the result divided from the number of outside city families to derive median income estimates for outside city families.

Single Parents and Child and Family Poverty in Upstate Cities

In an earlier post, I showed that very high percentages of people with children under 18 lived in poverty in upstate cities, and that the percentage increased significantly between 1999 and 2013.  While a few rust belt cities, like Flint and Detroit, Michigan had higher levels of poverty among people with children, poverty in cities like Syracuse, Rochester,  exceeded 50%, while in cities like Buffalo, Utica, Binghamton, Troy and Schenectady, it exceeded 40% in 2013. Overall, upstate New York cities had higher percentages of families with children living in poverty than the average for the rust belt.  In 1999, less than 40% of people with children in each of those cities lived in poverty.

What most distinguished upstate New York Cities from other cities with high poverty rates was the fact that the suburbs of upstate cities were quite prosperous – particularly compared to the suburbs around other placed, like Flint and Detroit, that had high poverty levels.  In fact, only about 11% of residents with children under 18 of counties outside upstate central cities lived in poverty in 2013, less than the average for rust belt counties outside central cities.

Picture1Historically there has been evidence of a strong association between family structure and the likelihood of living in poverty.  That relationship has existed in upstate cities, as well.  In upstate cities, 70% to nearly 90% of families with children living in poverty were single parent households in both 1999 and 2013.

single parent percent of all

Given the fact that the likelihood that single parent families constituted similar percentages of those in poverty in each year, what accounted for the growth of poverty in upstate cities between 1999 and 2013?  The answers lie in changes in the concentration of poverty in upstate cities that are associated with population change.

The next chart shows the change in the number of families living below the poverty level in upstate cities:

change percent poverty type

Each city, with the exception of Albany, saw an increase in the percentage of people living in poverty, and most saw increases both in single parent and married families living in poverty.  More significant, however, were the changes in families not living in poverty.

change percent not poverty type

Each city had significant losses in the number of families with children living above the poverty line.  Most important here was the change in married families living above the poverty line, since most families above the poverty line have been married families.  Each city saw a large decrease in married families above the poverty line – as much as 46% in Rochester, 45% in Troy and 42% in Syracuse.  So, the most important factor in understanding the increase in the concentration of poverty in upstate cities is the loss of population above the poverty line.  And, since the population decreases were largest in married families living above poverty, upstate cities are increasingly home to single parent families living below the poverty line.

What Can be Done?

While the nation has had success in reducing teen pregnancy nationally, the data from shows that between 1999 and 2013 the percentage of families with children headed by single parents in poverty as a percentage of all families with children sharply increased in upstate cities.  Because single parents lack the benefits of two incomes, in many cases, and because of the time challenges faced by single parents in raising children and working, the decline of married households is concerning.  Although absent fathers are legally required to provide child support, often both parents live below the poverty line, and the absent fathers lack the resources to meaningfully contribute to the support of their children.  So, one basic element of any assistance strategy is to find ways to provide more income to both custodial parents, and the non-custodial partners of the heads of households with children in poverty.  Such an approach must focus both on ensuring that adequate government financial assistance is available to meet basic needs, and to help low income parents find better jobs.

The prevalence of single parent families and parents with low levels of education in upstate central cities points to the need to develop support mechanisms for these families and children that will encourage long term goal oriented behavior, and remove obstacles to self-sufficiency. Approaches that should be considered include:

Family centered “Dual Generation” approaches.  Current programs and policies often focus on either children or parents.[1]   Dual generation approaches focus on parental education and skill development, and childhood learning and development.  Several emphasize the impacts of childhood trauma and adverse childhood experiences.  See for example,

Promote Married Families: Since there is strong evidence that children living in single parent families do less well in life, promoting married families is an important way to attack one of the major factors associated with poverty.  The Brookings/AEI report, “Opportunity, Responsibility and Security” argues, “Political leaders, educators and civic leaders – from both the political left and right – need to be clear and direct about how hard it is to raise children without a committed co-parent.”  The report argues for a campaign of similar scope to those used to combat teen pregnancy and the consequences of unplanned sex to encourage marriage.[2]

Birth Control Programs:  Another important element of a strategy to encourage delayed, responsible parenting is the use of birth control programs that offer “a range of birth control measures, including long acting forms, and provide the services free…[These programs] can substantially reduce pregnancy rates among sexually active couples, including teen age and low income couples, and enable them to avoid or plan childbearing.”[3]

Strengthen Food Stamp Administration and Benefits:  New York State, participation rates in the SNAP (food stamp) program vary significantly, according to data from the New York Times, ranging from 21% of potential recipients in 2009 in Putnam County to 93% in Montgomery County.  The wide variation in rates, which averaged about 60% of potential recipients, suggests the need for greater efforts to increase participation, perhaps by moving from county to state administration, or by increasing supervision of county efforts, or by mandating the availability more sites (such as local schools) where in person verification of eligibility is required.[4]

Additionally, there is evidence that the existing food stamp assistance levels create food scarcity among low-income recipients.  Benefits under current law are based on the USDA’s “thrifty food plan” which has been criticized for requiring the use of impractical foods, lacks the variety required to meet healthy dieting guidelines, unrealistically assumes adequate facilities and time for food preparation from scratch, unrealistically assumes food availability and affordability in central city locations.[5]

The Urban Institute estimates that increasing the current SNAP benefit by 30% to bring benefits to the USDA low cost food plan level from the thrifty food plan level would reduce child poverty by 16.2%. While the SNAP program is federally funded, New York could supplement the existing federal benefit.  Note that the Urban Institute was based on the level of food stamp benefits available from 2009 to 2013, which have subsequently been reduced by 5%, so the actual impact of the proposed increase would be somewhat larger than estimated.[6]

[1] See:  Two (or More) Generation Frameworks:  A Look Across and Within, Janice M. Gruendel, Ph, D., M. Ed., March, 2014

[2] “Opportunity, Responsibility and Security,” op. cit. pp. 33-34.

[3] Ibid,

[4]“County-by-County Review of SNAP/Food Stamp Participation,  Food Research and Action Center, Washington, DC,

[5] “Replacing the Thrifty Food Plan in Order to Provide Adequate Allotments for SNAP Beneficiaries.”  Food Research and Action Center, Washington, DC, 2012.


[6] Reducing Poverty in the United States – Results of a Microsimulation Analysis of the Community Advocates Public Policy Institute Policy Package, Kye Lippold,  Urban Institute, March 2015.

Can Charter Schools break the Poverty-Poor Student Performance Link?

In an earlier post, I argued that school based solutions to the problem of the poor performance of students in central city schools were not likely to succeed because they ignored the impact of the concentration of disadvantaged students on student achievement.  The data showed that 79% of the variation in performance in school performance in upstate New York metropolitan areas was related to the concentration of economically disadvantaged students within them.

Discussions about the benefits of charter schools tend to be heated – inflamed by ideological differences.  But whatever one’s feelings are about the virtues of preserving public education, or of competition in improving educational opportunity, before making judgements, we should examine the available data about their effectiveness.

At the outset, it should be noted that evaluating the true impact of charter schools is difficult.  Ideally, the performance of charter and public schools should be compared by selecting and assigning students at random and following their progress over a period of years.  But, in reality, students in charter schools are not selected at random, and matched samples of public school students are not available for comparison. Published analyses on the subject have pointed out the need to adjust performance comparisons of students at public and charter schools for selection bias, because charter school students are to a large degree self-selected.

Where competent analyses comparing charter and public schools have been done, the findings have been mixed. One review of the available studies concluded:

“Taken in the aggregate, the empirical evidence to date leads one to conclude that we do not have definitive knowledge about the impacts of public charter schools on students and schools. But in reviewing the existing evidence, one is also struck by the fact that the impacts of charter schools appear to be very contextual. Some public charter schools are better than others. Some are very successful in meeting student needs, and others are not very successful…. Consequently, the impacts of public charter schools should not be painted with one broad brush stroke. Each should be judged on its own evidence and performance.”

Other studies  have found significant advantages for charter schools in central cities. Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Joshua Angrist, Susan Dynarski, Thomas J. Kane and Parag Pathak, in “Accountability and Flexibility in Public Schools: Evidence from Boston’s Charters and Pilots” found:

“A consistent pattern has emerged from this research. In urban areas, where students are overwhelmingly low-achieving, poor and nonwhite, charter schools tend to do better than other public schools in improving student achievement. By contrast, outside of urban areas, where students tend to be white and middle class, charters do no better and sometimes do worse than public schools.”

My research is based on a reanalysis of state education data on the performance of students on the 2015 Statewide Student Assessment.  It cannot provide a controlled analysis of the performance of charter school students, compared with those in public schools.  For that reason, the data available to me cannot produce conclusive evidence about the effectiveness of charter schools.

Because publicly available data is cross-sectional, it provides information about the performance of students at a given point in time, but unlike longitudinal studies, it does not directly measure their gains over a year or years.  For that reason, when a  cross-sectional study finds out-performance, or under-performance, there is the danger of making an attribution error, because we don’t know whether the out-performance or under-performance was a characteristic of the student population that was unrelated to the effectiveness of the schools being evaluated.  For example, the students at out-performing schools might have characteristics related to their selection that would predispose them to perform better than other students.

With those limitations in mind, it is worth looking at the New York State Education Department data on student performance from the 2015 Statewide Student Assessment, controlling for the concentration of poverty in schools, to see whether students at charter schools do significantly better than those at public schools with similar concentrations of disadvantaged students.  The chart below shows the performance of students in public and charter schools in all counties in metropolitan areas, except for the City of New York:

Public Charter Outside NYC

Note that data was available for only 33 charter schools outside New York City, so conclusions from this group of schools must be regarded as tentative.  Still, a few things stand out.  First, the performance of charter schools was quite varied – several charter schools were among the worst performers compared to schools with similar concentrations of disadvantaged students, while a number of others, particularly those with high concentrations of disadvantaged students performed better.  Second, for charter schools, unlike public schools, student performance was not related to the concentration of poverty.

As a group, students at charter schools did slightly better than at public schools with the same concentrations of disadvantaged students. However, the fact that 24% (8 of 33) schools exceeded the percent of students predicted to pass by 20% or more, based on the concentration of poor students, is significant.  Only 1.9% of public schools outside New York City had student performance reaching that level.   And, as Abdulkadiroglu, et. al. found, the benefit from charter schools was most significant for students in schools with high concentrations of poor students.

The performance of the better charter schools in urban counties outside New York City was significantly better than average schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged students, but not as good as at schools with few poor students.  Most of the better performing charter schools had about 40% of students passing the Statewide Assessment, compared with as many as 60% in schools with few disadvantaged students.

School Performance in New York City

The concentration of disadvantaged students in New York City schools is associated with 52% of the variation in student performance between the schools.  Compared to public schools in urban counties outside New York City economic disadvantage is a less powerful predictor of student performance in City schools – 52% vs. 79%.  For charter schools, the relationship between the concentration of poverty and student performance was very weak – explaining only 8% of the difference in student performance.  As with other counties, the performance of charter schools was quite heterogeneous. Students at charter schools in New York City as a group did better than those at public schools with similar concentrations of disadvantaged students.  At the same time, a number of Charter schools performed less well than the average of public schools with the same concentration of poor students.

The weaker relationship between the concentration of poverty and student performance in New York City schools appears to be in part a consequence of the city’s policy of creating specialized schools with selective admission criteria.  For example, the Medgar Evers College Preparatory School includes questions about student performance on the Statewide assessment in its application form.  Another example is the TAG Young Scholars School, which describes its admission policy this way:  “Prospective students must be tested by The New York City Department of Education to determine whether they qualify for a seat in one of the City’s Gifted and Talented programs.” Note that while charter schools often use lotteries to select students, they are not permitted to use test performance as a selection criterion.

These selective public schools raise the issue of causal attribution, since unlike schools that do not choose students based on test scores, it is likely that student bodies enter the selective public schools at higher levels of performance than students at other public and charter schools, and that their better performance may primarily be a result of selection criteria, rather than teaching at the schools.

Public Charter NYC

Some charter schools and public schools in New York City did as well as schools with low percentages of disadvantaged students.  Some of the best performing public schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged students use test performance as one criterion for admission.  Since charter schools are not permitted to exclusively serve high performing populations, the performance of the best charter schools is more remarkable.  At 34 of 148 (23%) of charter schools, 20% or more students than were expected to pass based on the concentration of disadvantaged students passed the statewide assessment. Among public schools in New York City, including those that have selective admissions, 8.9% of schools exceeded their predicted performance level by 20% or more.

While this data cannot prove that the excellent performance of some charter schools was the result of the schools themselves, rather than some other factor, it is consistent with studies that have shown charter schools to be advantageous for disadvantaged students in central cities.


Much of the discussion about the performance of schools, and how to improve outcomes, has focused on the common core and its testing requirements.  The purpose of these requirements was to provide a universal set of assessment tools that would provide comparable data about student progress across systems.

The results of the testing have been disappointing to many, since, as the figures above show, large percentages of students did not achieve passing grades.  For example, Governor Cuomo’s 2015 The State of New York’s Failing Schools report stated, “It is incongruous that 99% of teachers were rated effective, while only 35.8 percent of our students are proficient in math and 31.4 percent in English language arts. How can so many of our teachers be succeeding when so many of our students are struggling?”

Governor Cuomo’s proposal to improve student performance included the creation of a teacher evaluation system that relied more heavily (50%) on the performance of students in standardized tests, a process to make it easier to remove substandard teachers, and a process to place under-performing schools in receivership.  Several of the proposals have problems.  Teacher evaluation systems that rely heavily on the progress of students on standardized tests suffer from statistical defects that result in low reliability of results – a subject for a future blog post.  The process for identifying under-performing schools does not effectively identify schools that are under-performing relative to the concentration of students in poverty within them.

Most significantly, by focusing almost exclusively on accountability for under performing teachers and schools, the proposal does not offer a strategy for overall improvement of New York’s schools.  Accountability focused methods focus on remedying or removing the worst five or ten percent of schools and teachers in the system, but do nothing to help the great majority achieve better results.

If New York’s education system is to make strides in improving student outcomes, it must encourage schools and teachers to adopt known classroom teaching strategies and effective curriculum choices that have the potential to improve overall outcomes.  Since a significant number of charter schools have achieved excellent student outcomes, it would be helpful if the strategies they use could be considered for adoption in schools that do not perform well.  The state should focus on finding ways to encourage the use of effective strategies, by disseminating information and incentivizing their adoption.

Considerable research has been done on the strategies employed by effective charter schools in improving student performance.  For example, “Getting Beneath the Veil of Effective Schools: Evidence from New York City,” by Will Dobbie and Roland G. Fryer of Harvard University found that:  “traditionally collected input measures – class size, per pupil expenditure, the fraction of teachers with no certification, and the fraction of teachers with an advanced degree – are not correlated with school effectiveness.  In stark contrast…an index of five policies…explains approximately 45% of the variation in school effectiveness.”  They are consistent with the approaches used by “no excuses” model charter schools that emphasize selective teacher hiring, extensive teacher feedback, increased instructional time, and a focus on discipline and academic achievement.

For most schools in cities with high concentrations of disadvantaged students in central cities, academic performance remains poor. In some of these schools less than 10% of students received passing grades on the statewide assessment, and the overwhelming majority of schools with concentrations of disadvantaged students of 90% or more had less than 20% of students passing.

But almost one quarter of charter schools and a few public schools have broken the link between poverty and poor school performance.  At these schools, more than 40% of students passed the statewide assessment, despite very high concentrations of poverty within them.

Accountability based approaches aimed at weeding out ineffective teachers, or taking control of schools from boards of education will benefit only a small minority of students statewide.  Instead, we should focus on making use of what works in improving student performance at the best charter schools, encouraging poor performing schools to adopt effective techniques.


New York’s “Failing Schools” – The Wrong Diagnosis and a Misguided Solution

For the past several years, Governor Cuomo’s office has issued a report, “The State of New York’s Failing Schools.” The 2015 report contends that “Despite the fact that districts with failing schools receive more state funding than other districts, these schools are delivering unacceptable results…The statistics and facts contained in this report and its Appendix expose a public education system badly in need of change.” The report identifies 178 schools, 69 of which are located upstate, that have been identified as “failing.” The report identifies several ways in which the “failing” schools perform poorly. According to the report, these schools are among the worst performing in the state in ELA (English Language Arts) and mathematics performance, or have graduation rates of less than 60%.failing schools chartThe report goes on to state, “Of the 178 schools, 77 have been failing for a decade. More than 250,000 students have passed through these 77 schools in the past ten years. That represents 250,000 students who did not have access to the high quality public education that they deserved. Moreover we are failing the kids who need us most. Ninety three percent of students in failing schools are students of color and 82 percent of these students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch.”

The report benchmarks the “failing” schools against average schools throughout the state, even though the students at the failing schools do not have the same backgrounds and advantages.  The “failing” schools are concentrated in communities with high levels of poverty. And, high concentrations of poverty are strongly associated with poor student performance. My post, “What Critics of Central City Schools Ignore” shows that 79% of the variation in performance between schools in upstate metropolitan counties is accounted for by the percentage of economically disadvantaged students attending them. Given that fact, it is worth examining how well students at the “failing” schools do on the Statewide Assessment compared with students at other schools with similar concentrations of disadvantaged students.

The chart below shows that students at the “failing” schools did badly on the exam. On average, only six percent of the students passed. But, note that students at other schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged students did poorly as well – in fact the average performance at the similar schools that were not labeled “failing” was only 9.8% – only 3.8% better than students at the “failing” schools. And, note that the classification scheme is inconsistent with the performance of schools on this year’s test. A number of the “failing” schools were at or above the average performance of all schools having similar concentrations of disadvantaged students. The reality is that almost all schools with high percentages of disadvantaged students had very low passing rates.

Disadvantaged students face challenges not faced by students in privileged communities- they often come from single parent families, their parents are often poorly educated, they may not be native English speakers, and they may face discrimination as minority group members. Because of these factors, it is not surprising that students at schools with high concentrations of economically disadvantaged students do not do well on statewide exams.

Throughout the report, there is an emphasis on the notion that the remedy for the problem of poor student performance in central city schools is to find more competent teachers and administrators. In another part of the report, the authors argue, “It is incongruous that 99% of teachers were rated effective, while only 35.8% of our students are proficient in math and 31.4$ in English language arts. How can so many of our teachers be succeeding when so many of our students are struggling?” To remedy these problems, the governor proposes reforms to “teacher preparation, certification, evaluation and tenure and the transformation of our failing schools. Our students deserve nothing less.” To transform the “failing” schools, he proposes close supervision and replacing school management, in some cases. The Albany Times-Union reports, “State receivership would allow the state Education Department to appoint a person or organization like a charter school or nonprofit to come in and reorganize a district school without the oversight of the school board, superintendent or other administrators.”

But the report’s emphasis on the failings of the so-called “failing” schools is misplaced The major causes of poor central city school performance lie outside the classroom. Addressing school performance without remedying the problem that is the primary contributor to poor student performance — poverty — is unlikely to significantly improve it.

The report stigmatizes city schools as “failing,” with the implication that if they were run better, or if their teachers were more competent, that students would perform significantly better. The “Failing Schools” program risks damaging schools by attributing power to them that they do not have, alienating faculty and damaging reputations. A more realistic approach would recognize the challenges faced by central city schools, and address them in the context of their socioeconomic environments, by focusing on combating poverty in our central cities .

What Critics of Central City School Performance Ignore

Students attending central city schools perform very poorly on statewide tests.  For example, in Upstate New York, less than 20% of city students received passing grades on the 2015 Grades 3-8 New York State Statewide Assessment.  In Syracuse, only 8.7% of students passed, while in Rochester, only 6.1% passed.  In Buffalo, 13.4% of students passed.

percent passing assessment2

In contrast, students in suburbs like Pittsford, where 69% of students passed, and Fayetteville-Manlius, where 68%, did much better.  Overall, in New York State, about 40% of students passed the exam.

Most discussions about city school performance have focused on perceived shortcomings of the schools themselves as the primary cause of poor student performance.  For example, Governor Cuomo has proposed restructuring and taking over many city schools whose students have performed poorly on statewide tests.  Robert Wilmers, the Chairman of M&T Bank, writes an annual State of of Public Education in Buffalo letter.  In this year’s letter, Wilmers strongly criticized Buffalo schools, saying “By any yardstick our Public School system has been in decline for a long period of time and today it must be considered a dismal failure…There are many major systemic flaws which, if left unchecked, will continue to destroy any hope of improving academic performance and the outcomes of our students.”

Is the performance of city students primarily the result of organizational flaws in public school teaching and administration?  Although critics of city school performance acknowledge that city school students face significant challenges because of high levels of poverty, they do not consider the impact of concentrated poverty on school performance.  In this post, and several succeeding posts, I examine the association between poverty and student performance.

First, to  understand why the concentration of poverty in schools in city schools is so important, we must recognize the very high percentage of disadvantaged students who attend city schools in Upstate New York.  Disadvantaged students, by this definition, are those who receive a form of government assistance – such as food stamps, foster care, the earned income tax credit, and others.  The percentage of students defined as economically disadvantaged students in city schools is as high as 90% in Rochester, 84% in Utica, and 77% in Syracuse.  In contrast, suburban schools outside upstate central cities had percentages of disadvantaged students of between 26% and 40%, with most suburban areas having less than 30% economically disadvantaged students.


To understand how the difference in the concentration of poverty between different schools affects the performance of students, I examined the relationship between the concentration of economically disadvantaged students at the schools and the performance of students on the statewide assessment.  To do so, I applied a technique called regression analysis, which finds the trend line that best fits the data points.

performance vs disadvantaged

As the figure shows, as the percentage of disadvantaged students in a school increased, the percentage of students passing the statewide assessment decreased.  In fact, for a 10% increase in the percentage of disadvantaged students in a school, the percentage of students passing the exam decreased by 6.3%.

Using statistical analysis, it is also possible to determine what percentage of the variation in student performance between the schools is accounted for by the percentage of disadvantaged students in them.  In this case, the analysis shows that the percentage of economically disadvantaged students in schools predicted 79% of the variation.

Another way of viewing this finding is that only 21% of the differences in performance between the schools in the counties containing the upstate cities was not associated with the concentration of disadvantaged students.  The implication of this analysis is that factors associated with the organizational performance of schools, like teaching effectiveness and administration, were associated with a relatively small percentage of the difference in performance.  By blaming central city schools for the level of student performance at them, the critics are holding them responsible for what is largely outside their control.

Those who focus on reforming the schools by weeding out bad teachers and restructuring administration as the solution to the problems of central city education are unlikely to significantly improve student performance, because they ignore the impact of the concentration of poverty.  Nor is the problem a lack of adequate funding.  Upstate city schools spending per student is very high.  For example, the Rochester City School District spends more than $27,000 per pupil, well above the state average.

To remedy the poor performance of students at city schools with high concentrations of poverty, we must address the root causes of poverty in our cities – the factors that prevent poor people in inner cities from getting good jobs.  We must address the needs of single parent families, provide additional training to those with low levels of education, and ensure that discrimination against members of minority groups does not hinder their access to jobs.


Why the Poor in Upstate Cities find it Difficult to get Good Jobs

With almost one third of upstate city residents and one half of upstate city families with children under 18 living in poverty, compared with less than 10% of suburban residents and families, it is helpful to understand how their demographic, social and educational characteristics, and how they differ from more affluent residents of the counties surrounding them.  The data shows that in important ways, the poor living in upstate cities possess characteristics that make it difficult for them to compete effectively for good jobs.


With the exception of Utica, Troy and Schenectady, most upstate city residents who live in poverty identified as members of a minority group in the Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey. Because the residents of communities outside central cities within the county containing the city are overwhelmingly white, it is not surprising that almost 70% to 90% of suburban residents whose income is below the poverty line are white, (not Hispanic or Latino).

• People identifying as “black” or “African American” are the largest group of those in poverty living in Albany, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse.

• In Utica, Troy and Schenectady the largest group of those in poverty identified as “White, not Hispanic or Latino.”

• Black or African American residents ranged from 25% to 50% of the population with incomes below poverty level.

• Hispanics are the third largest group in poverty in upstate central cities, ranging from 10% to 20% of the population with incomes below the poverty line in most cases.

percent of residents poverty by race

But, when we look at the percentage of people of each race or ethnicity whose income is below poverty level, the picture differs. The data shows that both in upstate cities and in the counties surrounding them, poverty among blacks or African American and Hispanics or Latinos is generally two to three times higher than it is for whites, who are not Hispanic or Latino.  More than half of people who identify as black or African American live in poverty in most upstate cities, while nearly half of Latinos and Hispanics are poor.  In most cases, the percentage of minority group members living in poverty in suburbs is much lower – about 20% in many cases. For those who identify as white, not Hispanic or Latino, the percentages of people living in poverty are lower – around 20% in cities, and about 5% in suburbs.percent of group poverty by race


Residents of upstate cities whose incomes are below the poverty level are more than twice as likely to have only a high school education or less than residents living outside the city who are not below the poverty level.

• Overall, 60% or more of residents of upstate cities have a high school diploma or less, while 30% to 40% of residents whose incomes are above the poverty level, living outside central cities, have high school diplomas or less.

• The most significant educational difference between upstate central city residents living below the poverty level and residents outside cities whose incomes are above poverty is the percentage of residents who had not completed high school.

• Outside all of the upstate central cities, less than 8% of residents had not completed high school, while in central cities, 25% to nearly 40% (in Utica) of residents had not graduated.

education poverty city suburb

Family Structure

One of the strongest differences between people in poverty in and not in poverty is found in family structure.
• Outside central cities, 80% to 85% of families whose incomes were above the poverty level were married.
• For those whose incomes were below the poverty level outside central cities, 60% to 70% had single adult householders.
• In central cities, 55% to 70% of families whose incomes were above the poverty level were married.
• In contrast, among those whose incomes were below the poverty level living in central cities, between 65% and 90% of families had a single adult householder.

Family structure poverty city suburb

For families with children, the differences in family structure between people in poverty and those living above the poverty line is even more striking:

single parent families below poverty

• Sixty five to 75% of all families in central cities, with incomes below poverty level, had single adult householders with children below 18 years old.

• Most families in poverty with children below 18 years old (85%) were headed by unmarried householders were headed by women.

For families with children living above the poverty line, the picture is much different – relatively few are headed by single parents:

single parent families above poverty

• Single parents were much less likely to head families with children under 18, living above the poverty line. In the suburbs, less than 10% of these families were headed by single parents, while 16% to 25% of families with children under 18 having incomes above the poverty line were headed by single parents.

• Most single parent families living above the poverty line (78%) were headed by women.

Work Experience

In upstate central cities, less than half of residents sixteen years old or older in poverty worked part-time, or full time in the past twelve months, compared to almost 70% of those living outside central cities and not in poverty.
• Less than 10% of residents of central cities who lived in poverty worked full-time, compared with 45% to 50% of those living outside central cities.
• Over half of upstate city residents whose incomes were below the poverty level did not work, compared with about 30%, on average, for those not in poverty and living outside cities.

work experience poverty


The high percentages of minority group members, people with low levels of educational attainment, single parent families, and part-time or no work experience are all significant barriers that have contributed to the high poverty levels found in upstate central cities.

Central cities, for more than a century, have been home to the least well off Americans. Exposes of tenement life in the late 19th century described conditions in the slums of American cities. At the same time, through the first half of the 20th Century, cities were diverse. Most urban residents at that time lived within the borders of central cities, so while poverty was present, so was wealth. With the end of the Second World War, the beginnings of suburbanization became evident. Young families seeking to raise families in environments with detached housing and some open space, found opportunities in the new tract developments that sprang up. Since automobile ownership was widespread at the time, the new suburban residents had relatively easy access to jobs located in the central cities.

The growth of suburban communities after the mid-20th century has not abated. At the same time, the population of central cities in many places has continued to decline. For example, Syracuse’s population peaked in 1950 at 221,000. In 2010, the city’s population had declined to 145,000. In 1950, the Syracuse metropolitan area had 465,000 residents, increasing to 663,000 in 2010. The city of Rochester declined from 332,000 to 211,000 in the same period, while the Rochester metropolitan area grew from 488,000 to 1,054,000.

Poverty is a complex problem. Our economy has failed in recent years to produce enough jobs to meet the supply of low skilled workers, many of whom are concentrated in central cities. This problem is largely a result of two major long term trends. First, globalization has allowed more workers throughout the world to compete for manufacturing jobs that were monopolized in the past by advanced industrial economies, like the United States. While globalization has undoubtedly been beneficial in reducing poverty globally, it has had a significant cost for low skilled American workers who, in the past, had greater opportunity to hold a reasonably well paying manufacturing job.

The second trend is the result of the development of information technology and automation. Just as low skilled, comparatively low paid, foreign labor has made it more difficult for low skilled workers in the United States to find well paid manufacturing jobs, technology and automation have reduced their availability.

An additional factor that has contributed to the employment difficulties facing low skilled workers is the lingering effect of the severe recession of 2008. While the official unemployment rate has declined to near pre-recession levels, the labor participation rate has not recovered.

These trends have contributed to the increasing income inequality in our society, as low skilled workers have relatively high levels of unemployment, and low wage levels for many of those who find work.

Though poverty is persistent, evidence based approaches have been successful in reducing poverty levels both in the United States and outside it. These approaches typically have specific goals, good measures of need and success, and a commitment from political leaders to follow through with needed resources over a reasonable period of time. For upstate cities that are hard hit by poverty to see reductions in levels of economic distress among their citizens, a greater recognition of the fact that poverty has become a defining characteristic of central city populations, particularly for families with children, is needed. And, beyond that recognition, realistic, targeted approaches must be created and funded.

The Crisis of Poverty in Upstate New York Cities

For many years, concerns about Upstate New York’s relatively slow economic growth have revolved around the idea that the region’s performance has been subpar, and that by altering government policies, by reducing tax burdens, or by spending money on economic development projects, performance could be improved.

But these analyses ignore the fact that Upstate’s economic performance is largely the result of its historic industry mix, which emphasized manufacturing in the past, its location and its age. All of these factors have worked to make the region less competitive as a location than it once was.

In fact, from the perspective of personal income, upstate metropolitan areas are doing a little better than comparable rust belt cities. Each of the large Upstate metropolitan areas, other than Utica-Rome had a median family income in 2013 that is higher than that of rust belt cities outside New York, on average, or for the United States ($64,719).

mean family incomeWhile residents of Upstate metropolitan areas are doing relatively well, Upstate New York metropolitan areas are distinctive for the amount of economic segregation that exists between the economic fortunes of city residents and those of suburban areas surrounding the cities. In all but one (Albany) Upstate city, incomes of families average a smaller percentage of what suburban families earn than the average of rust belt cities outside New York State. In the most extreme case, the Rochester metropolitan area, city families earn only half of what suburban residents earn.

UntitledThe poor economic condition of Upstate city residents can also be seen by looking at poverty statistics. Other than in the Albany- Schenectady-Troy metropolitan area, Upstate cities have higher percentages of poor people than the rust belt average, with more than 30% of residents living in poverty. In contrast, the percentage of poor people in suburban areas outside cities is very low, well below 10% in all cases except Utica, compared with the rust belt average of 10.5%. Of the 841,636 people who lived in Upstate cities in 2013, 256,973 lived in poverty, while of the 2,037,889 people who lived in the counties outside the central cities, only 160,313 lived in poverty. As a result, the percentage of people in poverty in Syracuse and Schenectady is more than five times higher than in the suburbs, compared with three times higher in rust belt cities outside New York State.

poverty percent of all residents 2013The economic condition of families with children in Upstate cities is of even greater concern. In Rochester and Syracuse, nearly half of families with children live in poverty, while in Buffalo, Utica and Troy the percentage of poor families with children is greater than 45%. In contrast, about 10% of families with children in the suburbs around upstate cities were poor. 92,574 of the 198,549 children under 18 living in the upstate cities lived in poverty in 2013. Outside the cities in the surrounding county, 43,808 of the 437,728 children under 18 lived in poverty. The percentage of families with children living in Syracuse, Rochester, Schenectady and Troy was more than five times higher than in the suburbs, compared with a difference of less than three times in rust belt cities outside New York State.

poverty percent of all familiesThe Growth of Poverty in Upstate Cities

Poverty in Upstate cities grew twice as fast as in the nation as whole, and almost five times as fast as in the suburbs around those cities between 1999 and 2013.  The percent of families with children living in poverty grew by 7% nationally. But the fortunes of upstate city residents were far more adversely affected by poverty than suburban residents during the period. Poverty in families with children in Upstate suburbs grew by an average of 3.3% during the period, while in Upstate cities, poverty grew by 15.3% on average, growing by 17.5% in Rochester, 18.1% in Syracuse, and 23.9% in Troy.

growth of povertyImplications
Efforts to help Upstate New York have, in the past, focused on reducing taxes and creating economic development funds to provide resources to promote regional economic growth. Governor Cuomo’s Upstate Revitalization Initiative encourages the development of Regional Economic Development Councils which have been tasked with the development of strategic plans in competitions for state economic development funds. The program could be potentially beneficial to the Upstate region, if projects are chosen well, and implemented as promised.

But regional strategies do not focus on the needs of the people of Upstate cities who have been hardest hit by the growth of poverty over the past fifteen years. Cities are home to people who compete least effectively for good jobs, because of weak educational backgrounds, high percentages of single parent households, criminal records, transportation difficulties and the like. For those reasons, traditional economic development or tax incentive strategies are unlikely to significantly benefit them. Instead, state leaders should develop strategies that are designed to directly address the obstacles that prevent city residents from getting good, full time jobs.