More About What Makes a Middle Class School

September 21st, 2011

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The goal of our recent report “Incomplete: How Middle-Class Schools Aren’t Making the Grade” was to jumpstart a national conversation around the state of middle-class schools. Given the response, it looks like we’re off to a good start.

We’ve received a wide range of feedback from educators, policymakers, and thought leaders who share a common purpose—getting our kids ready to succeed in the 21st century. Since a portion of the response has focused on our definition of “middle-class” or our approach to school-by-school data, we wanted to take a moment to tackle some of the issues that have been raised.

It seems that the main point of contention that some have with our report has to do with how we define a middle-class school.

To sum up their argument, they find our use of eligibility statistics for free or reduced school lunch to be either arbitrary or too sweeping. Let us be clear: Our decision to use this criteria was a deliberate choice, grounded in established procedures and data.

With the current education reform debate almost entirely focused on low-income schools and students, we wanted to shed light on the schools in the middle that serve a majority of Americans. We paralleled the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of high poverty schools and districts as those with more than 75% of students qualifying for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Schools and districts with 25% or less of their students eligible for free or reduced lunch are the upper-end of the income spectrum. In essence, the middle two quartiles of schools are middle-class schools. 

The school district income data supports our definition of what schools are middle class. According to data from the National Center on Education Statistics, the median family income for a middle-class school district under our definition is $51,869—just slightly more than the national median income of $49,777. For upper-income school districts, it is $77,835, and for lower-income school districts, the median family income is $39,551.

We understand (and state in our report) that in some instances, schools with, say, 70% of students eligible for NSLP will look more like high poverty schools. At the same time, schools with, say, 30% of students eligible for NSLP will more resemble high income schools. But together, they represent schools close to the median.

If we only studied schools in just the second highest income quartile, less than one-third of students would achieve proficiency on the NAEP exams and the college graduation rate would still only be about one-in-three: a very alarming finding.

A second concern we heard was that we chose to examine schools, not students. Once again, this was a conscious choice for a clear purpose. Within a school, students of different income levels, family make-up, educational attainment, or background will be seated in neighboring desks. Even though they have dissimilar backgrounds, they form the same community and the school has the same obligation to them all—to prepare them for success. Rather than looking at how one student performs versus the other, we wanted to look at the school populations as a whole. By taking a national snapshot of middle-class schools, we were able to see who attends them, how they achieve, and their educational outcomes. We found that while students in middle-class schools aren’t failing, they aren’t leading the pack either.

Given the paucity of research on middle-class schools and limits of existing data, it’s not surprising that there is a desire in the education community to posit a different statistical approach to defining middle-class schools. As part of our wider efforts to spark a debate, we welcome their perspectives.

But, to be clear, we don’t want this debate to be just about data. The reality is that in today’s economy, a college degree is a necessity, not a luxury, and the U.S. economy will need more and more students with a postsecondary degree if it will lead the global economy. To meet the challenge, America must ensure that middle-class schools are performing at much higher levels than they are today. So, while the debate over data is important, from the data we examined we can’t see a tremendously happy picture of the state of middle-class schools. The debate we want to jumpstart must be over what we, as a nation, must do about the performance of these schools. Over the next series of months and years, Third Way will continue to look at, analyze, and discuss middle-class schools in order to inform and inspire reforms across the U.S. We hope it’s a long, broad, and robust discussion.