Poor Indicators: Testing Our Achievement Assumptions

On this blog and around the office at MDC we talk a lot about economic mobility and the lack of opportunity for upward mobility for many low-income young people. In one of our recent meetings on this topic, I mentioned that it is easy to falsely conflate the low-income student population with the low-achieving student population. Just as there are high-achieving wealthy students, there are also high-achieving, low-income students. A recent longitudinal study from the National Center for Educational Statistics found that high-achieving low-income students are as likely as affluent students with below average test scores to complete a college degree.

This conversation reminded me a study I read years ago about gifted students living in poverty. The authors of the study followed a young, gifted student named Jermaine who lived in a poor county in Alabama. In the study community, “Pine Grove,” all students are African-American and 98 percent of them are eligible for the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program. Jermaine’s school had a leaky roof, no gym, and no art or music rooms. The school district was consistently on the list of schools to be taken over by the state’s department of education. The names of the people and places studied were changed to protect the participants’ identities, but this study could be talking about any number of communities across Alabama. Alabama is the sixth poorest state in the nation; one in four children there lives in poverty.

The authors followed Jermaine for the span of three years, his 3rd– to 5th grade years. They reviewed a portfolio of Jermaine’s work, observed Jermaine in and out of school, and corresponded with Jermaine and his teacher, Teresa Beardsley. When the study first began, Jermaine lived with his mother, older brother and sister, and an aunt. His family lived in a house, but in his community, homes were inferior to trailers that came with central heat and air conditioning, furnishings, and appliances. Jermaine knew his family was considered to be in the lowest rung of the social circle in Pine Grove: other students had expensive sneakers, while Jermaine’ mom gets his sneakers from Bargaintown. Jermaine got teased a lot.

Jermaine’s performance in school was considered “remarkable”; he was creative, had an advanced vocabulary, and very high achievement scores. However, his intelligence was not cultivated at school; he was bored and became a discipline problem. Administrators and teachers alike described him as “bad”; someone to “keep an eye on.” His teacher, Ms. Beardsley, found that she often had to serve as an advocate for Jermaine.

His mother did not play an active role in his schooling, but he had two uncles from Detroit who brought him toys and paid for his uniforms when he needed them. Jermaine was supported by friends’ families and the football coach who, recognizing the young boy’s intelligence, made Jermaine his starting quarterback. Jermaine gained friends by sharing the books he received from his uncles and, of course, the acclaim that comes with being the school’s quarterback. He dreamt of becoming a lawyer, but explained that he wanted to be a Hollywood film producer first. We never find out if he achieves this dream.

Even though Jermaine’s school offered opportunities for athletics, they did not offer access to gifted and talented programs or other programs that could have nurtured Jermaine’s creativity. Study authors detailed that rural, gifted students face without access to these types of activities:

…within rural school districts acceptance of the status quo and resistance to change made it difficult to initiate new programs for gifted students. Along with limited financial resources for programs perceived as benefiting a few students, rural schools were unable to provide adequate specialized teachers, counselors, school psychologists, and curriculum specialists to assist in providing appropriate services for high-ability youngsters. (p. 202)

Inadequate funding for poor, rural school districts perpetuates the acceptance of the status quo. In July 2015, EdBuild released a map of student poverty rates for 13,000 school districts. They found in many cases, “school districts of dramatically different income levels are next-door neighbors, or even sit, island-like, within one another.” And in many Southern school districts, there is significant variation in student poverty rates between schools. A recent Urban Institute study examined concentration of poverty in schools and found that a student from a low-income family is six times as likely as one from a high-income family to attend a high-poverty school. The study also found that students of color are far more likely to attend high-poverty schools—in the case of black students, six times more likely than white students to attend high-poverty schools.

I’m glad that Jermaine’s story has remained with me all these years. It puts a face to all those data points. Jermaine is a creative, caring young man who wants to thrive despite his circumstances. As we try to figure out solutions to improve educational opportunity for low-income students, it’s important that we don’t forget there are thousands of other students like Jermaine. Poor students can be smart, too, but our educational system is still failing too many of them.

Criminal Justice in the South

Today’s guest post on criminal justice comes to us from Abby Reimer, a journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism and a business minor at Kenan-Flagler. Incarceration disrupts the educational trajectory of young people, and erects barriers to employment and economic security. While funding for public education is cut in the South, state corrections spending continues to rise, exacerbating the challenge for communities trying to address low mobility.


In October 2015, President Obama headed to Charleston, W. Va., to launch a “criminal justice tour,” a high-profile spotlight on criminal justice reform across the country. It is significant that the tour started in the South, where the problems of America’s criminal justice system-racial inequity, harsh sentencing laws, and overcrowded prisons-are most visible and entrenched. In recent years, Southern states have joined the increasingly bipartisan effort to address prison overcrowding, high costs, and prisoner reintegration.
Prisons in the US are overcrowded following the stringent laws. A criminal must be put behind bars, but persons caught for crimes as simple as a DUI might also face imprisonment for as long as ten days in the States. In DUI cases there may or may not be causalities. Not every drink and drive leads to accidents, but the probability of getting caught by the cops is higher due to various obvious signs such as rash driving. If a person is convicted of the same due to a high blood alcohol level (BAC), it is highly likely that they would have to get in touch with a Phoenix DUI lawyer or someone of similar caliber in their vicinity. This might save the person involved from a possible prison conviction.

The Landscape

Like the rest of the country, the South has seen a significant drop in both violent and property crime during the last 20 years. From 2013 to 2014, the South saw a 5.9 percent drop in property crime and a 3 percent drop in violent crime, a slightly smaller decrease than the rest of the country. While decreasing, the South has a long history of being the U.S.’s most violent region. In 2012, the South accounted for 40.9 percent of violent crimes in the country, while its population makes up 37.4 percent of the country.

Nationwide, the drop in crime has been attributed to a smattering of factors: aging populations, decreased alcohol consumption and up to the mid-1990s, increased incarceration.

African Americans, in the nation as a whole and in the South, are overrepresented in all parts of the criminal justice system, from traffic stops to incarceration. In Alabama, Georgia, Delaware, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, more than 60 percent of those serving life sentences are black, a rate shared by only four Northern states.

The South also carries the distinction of having the largest prison population in the country, almost doubling the incarceration rate in the Northeast. Louisiana is the world’s “prison capital,” incarcerating 1 in 75 adults, the highest rate in the world. However, prison populations have declined slightly in Southern states during the past few years, even as prison populations have grown in northern and western states.

Changes in Prison Population (2011-2014)

Map 1

Source: Brennan Center for Justice


Criminal reform in tough-on-crime states

Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Alabama are policy leaders in reducing prison populations. The recent reforms show a path forward for conservative, traditionally “tough-on-crime” states to tackle criminal justice reform. Leaders in the state emphasized cost savings and “common-sense” reforms, while not addressing more politicized issues like racial inequity and the death penalty.

Mississippi, which still has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, saw its prison population fall 21 percent between 2008 and 2014, with a 14 percent drop from 2013 to 2014 alone. The state passed a sweeping reform bill in April 2014, supported by a grant from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a partnership between the Department of Justice and the Pew Charitable Trust to help research criminal justice reform. The bill shortened the sentences for many property and drug crimes and suggested new sentencing recommendations for officers. The state also increased supervision of parolees, increased the number of prisoners freed on parole and opened technical rehabilitation centers, which housed parolees who violated terms of their parole rather than sending them back to prison. Conservatives in the state emphasized the financial impact: $266 million in savings over the next decade.

South Carolina’s prison population has nearly tripled in the past 25 years, and state spending on prisons has increased almost 500 percent since 1983. Faced with a projected growth in prison population and a $27 million Department of Corrections deficit, South Carolina passed a reform bill in 2010. The bill shortened sentences for some non-violent crimes, ended mandatory minimum sentencing for drug possession and expanded prison alternatives and parole. From 2011 to 2014, crime dropped 14 percent and the prison population dropped by 6 percent.

Texas faced similar financial pressures in the mid-2000s. Prison population growth showed no signs of slowing down, and would have required spending $500 million on new prisons in 2007. The state responded by appropriating $241 million to prison alternatives including drug courts and substance abuse and mental illness treatment programs. In 2011, the Texas legislature passed two bills that shortened probations if parolees completed treatment programs and reducing prison sentences if prisoners completed educational programs. Texas saw a 12 percent drop in crime from 2011-2012 and a 3 percent drop in prison population.

The Republican-controlled government emphasized savings and assured conservatives the state was still “tough on crime.” In March 2014, Republican Gov. Rick Perry spoke about criminal justice reform at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), assuring the crowd that criminal justice reform was a mainstream conservative strategy.

“You want to talk about real conservative governance?” Perry asked. “Shut prisons down. Save that money. Texas is still tough on crime. Don’t come to Texas if you want to kill somebody.”

Alabama is the most recent Southern state to tackle criminal justice reform. The state was faced with the same mix of budget constraints and booming prison populations, as well as lawsuits from The Southern Poverty Law Center and The Equal Justice Initiative contending that some state prisons did not meet constitutional standards. The Department of Justice backed up the claims, filing a report in 2014 that claimed that inmates at a women’s prison were subject to sexual abuse by male officers.

In May 2015, the state passed a Republican-sponsored bill that followed the strategy of Texas, South Carolina and Mississippi: reducing penalties for some nonviolent property and drug crimes, creating a new felony designation for some nonviolent offenses and prioritizing parole and parole supervision. Alabama also passed a bill expanding prison capacity. The reforms are estimated to save the state $380 million and reduce the prison population by 4,200 people.

The death penalty: part of the ‘Southern way of life’?

Southern states have been slower to change death penalty policy, which has largely become Southern in use. While the death penalty largely faded away from 1935-1972, the 1972 Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia reinvigorated the death penalty as a “states’ rights” issue in the South, said Frank Baumgartner, who studies the death penalty and racial inequity in the criminal justice system at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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Racial discrepancies in the death penalty still loom large. As of Jan. 1, 2014, 42 percent of defendants on death row were black and 43 percent were white, although blacks make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population. When the victim is a black male, the death penalty is rarely applied even when black men are the most common victims of homicide, Baumgartner said. A black man who kills a white woman is the most likely to be given the death penalty.

While death penalty reform or abolition hasn’t been backed by the same bipartisan push as prison or sentencing reform, there has been some movement on the issue, Baumgartner said. An upcoming Supreme Court case dealing with racial bias in juries may change the application of the death penalty, Baumgartner said. In North Carolina, for instance, of the 159 prisoners on death row, all-white juries sentenced 31 and another 38 had only one person of color on their juries.

“The death penalty has been politicized in the South to be part of the ‘Southern way of life,’ but it’s actually one of the ugliest reminders of the ‘Southern way of life,’ which is this great fear of the black man that might do something terrible to a white woman in the South,” Baumgartner said. “That fear is really strong, and politically powerful… It leads to an arbitrary and capricious application of the death penalty really in a discriminatory manner, where some victims are more valuable than others.”

Crime and punishment looking forward

The South has long been a ‘tough on crime’ region with stark racial disparities in its criminal justice system. However, recent reforms in conservative states show an increasingly Republican-led push for lowering prison populations, changing sentencing laws and cutting costs. Bulging prison populations, drug law enforcement and high criminal-justice system costs will push more Southern states into reforms.

In Mississippi: Reaching for Adequate and Efficient Public Education for All

On Tuesday, Mississippi voters defeated Initiative 42, an amendment to the state constitution that would have forced the state to provide an “adequate and efficient” public education for all children. Specifically, the initiative tried to enforce the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), a funding formula that requires the state to fund school districts at adequate levels. Since 1997, school districts have only been funded twice at MAEP-required levels. Critics of the bill said Initiative 42 would have taken the funding allocation power away from legislators and given courts control over the funding process, allowing courts to move money away from “good schools” and “put it in other places.”

While Mississippi legislators are happy they still get to control public education funding, students are suffering. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation KIDS COUNT Data Center, Mississippi ranks 50th in the nation in child well-being. In 2013, over a third of children there lived in poverty, a four percent increase since 2008. To further illustrate this point, almost three out of every four children in Mississippi are low-income, the highest rate in the nation.

Mississippi children are not showing up for kindergarten ready to learn—kindergarten that Mississippians fought so hard for. Research shows positive links between quality early childhood education and high school graduation rates. This research is fact in Mississippi: over half of Mississippi children do not attend preschool and 32 percent do not graduate high school on time.

National data show that students in low-income families are six times more likely to attend a high-poverty school—schools that are typically not “adequately” funded. Over the six-year period from 2008 to 2015, Mississippi decreased state funding by $623 per pupil. With the rejection of Initiative 42, will this downward trend in funding continue or will Mississippi’s legislators use their power to ensure that all of Mississippi’s children have access to quality education? Mississippi’s education governor, William Winter, deserves the last word here:

Education will always be an issue. The quality of education of our people is still going to leave a lot to be desired. Regardless of how far we go, we still have so much further to go [because] education, adequate education, is more important now than it ever has been because there are very few things people can do now without having a basic framework of education. When I was growing up, there would be good jobs for people who couldn’t even sign their name. But now you can’t have a satisfying, satisfactory life unless you have a good education. The key now lies, it seems to me, in doing whatever it takes to reduce that number of people who, for whatever reason, have never been able to acquire that education. The poorest schools are in the areas that are in need of the best schools. So our willingness to invest more of our resources in education I think is a political priority.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come: The Mississippi Education Reform Act of 1982

On Wednesday, I attended a screening of “The Toughest Job: William Winter’s Mississippi,” a Southern Documentary Project film detailing Mississippi Governor William Winter’s political career, the passage of significant education reform in Mississippi, and his subsequent racial reconciliation work. The film was followed by a provocative and inspiring conversation between Governor Winter and former North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt, moderated by MDC’s president, David Dodson. Governor Winter served as MDC’s Board Chair from 1991 to 2001 and still serves as an example of the integrity, commitment, and perseverance required when it comes to improving conditions-economic, educational, and civic-in the South.

Governor William Winter with MDC's Shun Robertson, David Dodson, and Anna Ormond

Governor William Winter with MDC’s Shun Robertson, David Dodson, and Anna Ormond

The film focuses on the passage of the Mississippi Education Reform Act of 1982 (MERA); as I learned about the setbacks and the strategy surrounding the legislation, I was reminded of University of Michigan professor John W. Kingdon’s three streams that must come together to shape public policy:

  • “Conditions become defined as problems when we come to believe that we should do something about them.”
  • “The processes by which public policies are formed are exceedingly complex-these processes are dynamic, fluid, and loosely joined.”
  • “The political stream [is] composed of such things as public mood, pressure group campaigns… and changes in administration.” (John W. Kingdon, Agenda, Alternatives, and Public Policies (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Longman, 2002): pp. 109, 145, 231.)

Behind the scenes, monitoring these three streams are policy entrepreneurs, advocates who are willing to invest their resources (time, energy, reputation, money, etc.) into setting the policy agenda (Kingdon, 179).

When former Mississippi Governor William F. Winter wanted to mandate statewide public kindergarten, he called on several staff members (Dick Molpus, John Henegan, David Crews, Bill Gartin, Ray Mabus, and Andy Mullins)-often referred to as the “Boys of Spring”-to serve with him as policy entrepreneurs and guide the passage of the Mississippi Education Reform Act of 1982 (MERA). This act changed the course of public education in Mississippi and has been referred to as the greatest piece of civil rights legislation of 1982.

How did Kingdon’s three streams come together to shape MERA for Governor Winter and the Boys of Spring?


Because of school integration rulings, there was a wave of white flight to private schools in the 1970s. Contrary to the present day, where there happen to be options for marketing for private schools to attract students, back in the 1970s there was nothing like that and yet students were attracted to such institutions. It is believed that in the Jackson school district alone, nearly 25 percent of students left the public school system from September 1969 to September 1971 (Cathy Hayden, “White Flight Reverses Desegregation Efforts,” The Clarion-Ledger, July 9, 1995, p. 1A). Mainly black children remained in inadequate, separate but unequal public schools.

When Governor Winter came in to office in 1980, he explicitly stated that building a better public education system was his number one priority. At the time, legislators were apathetic towards public education, viewing it as an institution that only benefited blacks; universal kindergarten would only serve as daycare for low-income black workers. Many white legislators stated that none of the voters in their districts attended public schools.


In the 1982 regular session, Winter and his staff tried three times to pass a statewide kindergarten bill but were unsuccessful. At the end of that session, the Speaker adjourned the House without a clear majority in favor of adjournment, preventing the kindergarten bill from being voted on before the end of the session.

At the time, Mississippi governors could only serve one term. Time was drawing nigh for Winter. He would be a lame duck during the next legislative session, which would severely limit the chances of a kindergarten bill being passed by an unfavorable legislature. Winter decided to call a special session of the state legislature in December 1982 to give the kindergarten bill one last opportunity for passage. Winter and his staff packaged the kindergarten bill with other education reform efforts, including compulsory school attendance and new standards for teacher and student performance.


Before the bill came up for a vote, Winter and his staff traveled all across the state, advocating for passage. They spoke at countless town hall meetings and churches, sometimes drawing crowds of 2 and 3000 people, creating a grassroots effort around education reform.

The education reform advocacy activities caught the attention of the editors of the Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi’s state newspaper. Reporters wrote a series of articles on education reform, covering the town hall meetings and providing data on the state of education in Mississippi. Editors wrote:

“The overriding question is this: Will rank-and-file legislators speak out in this special session or will they cower in the corner and a few bullheaded leaders make the rest of the legislature look bad?… Mississippi is at a crossroads. The direction we take depends on how our legislators respond to the urgent call for education improvements. If there are legislators who don’t understand the urgency of that call or the sensibility of it, then it’s high time the public learned their names. The governor is ready… The public is ready. Is the legislature ready?” (“The Mississippi Christmas Miracle: Explaining the Success of the Mississippi Education Reform Act of 1982,” p. 28)

The Clarion-Ledger published all votes, even committee votes, for the education reform bill in the paper-listing how each legislator voted.

Windows of Opportunity

When Kingdon’s three streams come together-problem, policy, politics-a policy window is created (Kingdon, 165). For every issue, there is a short window of time and an opportunity to push attention to it. When the policy window opens, the policy entrepreneurs must by ready.

The public support campaign, along with the newspaper articles, put pressure on legislators to act. In December 1982, the Mississippi Education Reform Act passed the House of Representatives 80-38 and the Senate 26-25.

When considering the problems, policies, and politics surrounding education reform, it is important to understand the critical role of policy entrepreneurs and their efforts to find windows of opportunity. Governor Winter’s statewide kindergarten efforts demonstrate the significance of Kingdon’s stream alignment and reveal the gravity of understanding when an idea’s time has come.