Dr. Andrew Hegedus, Research Consulting Director at NWEA, recently completed a groundbreaking research study exploring the relationship between poverty and performance. We spoke with him about the origins of this work, implications for educators, and where his research is headed next. Hegedus’ responses were edited for length and clarity.
How did you first become interested in studying school performance?
I worked in a school district as a senior administrator in Delaware. One of my favorite schools was right next to our district office in downtown Wilmington, a tougher, urban area. The teachers and principal were on it. You'd go in the classroom, kids were engaged and learning, it was really impressive. And then I’d go to this other school near my house out in the ‘burbs with university professors’ kids and there was nothing happening. Kids were well behaved but that was about it.
In the next year or two, the school in the suburbs got Blue Ribbon status and the school near the district office was labeled a focus school. The principal was relocated, and 50 percent of the teachers were reassigned. Everybody had to interview for their jobs again. Those were pretty severe consequences that made no sense to me because of what I saw in the building.
That memory was always in the back of my mind: What is the relationship between poverty school performance? When I came to NWEA, I thought “This would be an interesting question to pursue.”
When it comes to tackling such a big question, where do you start?
NWEA is essentially the only place in the world that is really designed to measure and answer this question. Because we measure all kids accurately, we know how well low-achievers and high-achievers are performing when it comes to growth. And our norms are explicitly designed to compare across subjects and across grades so you can aggregate them at school levels.
I ran the numbers on poverty and achievement. There’s a long relationship there, it’s widely known. However, there’s a very weak relationship between poverty and growth. It means you've got some high poverty schools that grow kids a lot and you've got some high poverty schools that don't. You've got some wealthy schools that grow kids a lot and you've got some wealthy schools that don't.
What is the impact of prioritizing achievement when it comes to school performance?
It has a huge, personal impact. It's not just personal for the principals and the teachers, it's personal for the kids and the families. These schools serve our most disenfranchised, most vulnerable populations. If you get one of these good schools, like the one I saw back in Wilmington, you want these relationships to stick. If a policy is measuring the wrong thing and all of the sudden a good school that has built up these relationships is told, “You’ve got to restructure. You've got to transform. Someone else is going to manage you now.” That blows up all of that good work and that can't be what’s best for kids.
Is evaluating schools solely on growth the answer?
No, not necessarily. Achievement is very important. Making sure that third-graders are on track to read, making sure eighth-graders are on the path to go to a four-year institution if that's what they want. Achievement needs to be communicated; it needs to be part of the conversation.
When it comes to balancing achievement with growth to evaluate performance, I would say to lean more toward growth, because any bit of achievement you factor in introduces some bias against schools that serve high poverty kids. There's no real cut and dry answer here but pushing toward growth is probably best.
What’s next for you and this research?
First, we hope to define, analytically, what high growth for all schools look like. Down the road, we may identify the schools meeting that status and potentially explore what characteristics, strategies, and practices we can replicate in other schools around the country and the globe.
Want to learn more about poverty and school performance and what it might mean for students in your school or district? Watch, The relationships between poverty and school performance, an on-demand webinar lead by Dr. Andy Hegedus. You can also download this free infographic that breaks down the results of this study in a format that’s easy to read and share.