Tuesday, January 24, 2012

SES of the School & Student Matters....a lot!

I just completed reading a very interesting and freely available article in Teachers College Record by Laura B. Perry and Andrew McConney. I urge all educators to give it a read to learn more about the strong influence that socioeconomic status (SES) continues to have on student achievement.

These scholars examined 2003 PISA scores from 15 year old students in Australia. The evidence from their study led them to report two main findings. First, regardless of individual student SES, all students have higher PISA scores when they attend schools that have higher levels of SES. Unfortunately, they also found that independent of individual student SES, students do not perform as well when they attend schools that have lower levels of SES. Second, Perry and McConney reported that gains in academic achievement that occur when students move from low to medium level SES schools are not as great as when students from middle SES schools move to high SES schools. Although this was a well done study that was published in a top tier journal, the findings continue to cause me trouble as a public school leader.

We cannot control the level of SES of the students who attend our schools, therefore, we have no control over our school level measures of SES. Yet, this study by Perry and McConney continues to suggest that SES accounts for much of the variance in student achievement. In a study I conducted in New Jersey high schools, school SES explained approximately 80% of the variance in language arts/literacy scores. So, it seems that unless we're able to recruit the rich kids who live on the right side of the tracks to attend our schools, we'll never meet that dreaded 100% student proficiency benchmark in 2014 to comply with NCLB. Right? Well...
Let me stop the negativity right here.

Thankfully, there are several administratively mutable variables that scholars have identified as moderators of SES, which includes academic optimism, collectively efficacy, trust, and academic emphasis, among others. The work of Hoy, Goddard, Bandura, and Leithwood, to name a few giants in this area of research, continues to give me hope as an administrator. It is important for practitioners to be familiar with some of this work, given the mountain of evidence that researchers continue to accumulate to demonstrate how influential SES is regarding student achievement. We must do our best to continue to increase our knowledge of the evidence regarding those school level variables that can overcome the strong influence of SES on achievement.

As educators, we owe it to our students and to each other to find a way to mitigate the influence of SES on student achievement, but I remind you to look to the evidence. I believe it is important to practice evidence based education for all of our students to succeed. The evidence sheds light on ways to overcome the reality, and if we don't engage in evidence based education, we won't be able to tell our superiors that reality is not an excuse.

Please share your thoughts.


  1. Well done Sam. I appreciate your approach in dealing with SES. As public school educators, we often cannot control which students enter our schools- the focus on understanding the evidence to help us educate them is vital.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Bill. Researchers continue to find that SES is one of the strongest predictors of student achievement. That is reality. It falls on us to find ways to overcome this, though.

  3. A very intelligent and well respected colleague of mine preaches on the importance of "recognizing the obvious" and understanding it. You have put forth a call to all administrators to not only acknowledge the last half century of research, but to take what we have learned in that time and apply it for the future. Kudos.

  4. Thanks for joining the discussion, Joe. Although I've read a good number of quality studies that have found SES to be a strong predictor of achievement, it continues to puzzle me that the effect is large. It leads me to recall a comment made by Dr. Jim Bliss during my dissertation defense at Rutgers. He stated that perhaps it's time we make a K-14 education compulsory to begin to improve SES. I'm beginning to see the genius in that remark.