New FRL data show recession's impact

See all posts
A look at the free and reduced lunch (FRL) participation rates in the sample of districts in our updated TR3 database paints a decidedly grim picture. The table below shows the 10 districts in our database with the biggest increases in FRL students between 2007 and 2009. Baltimore City Public Schools, for example, had 73 percent of its students receiving free or reduced lunches in 2007; two years later the figure was 84 percent.
Changes in Free Reduced Lunch Rates in TR3 Districts
Source: NCES Common Core of Data Build-a-Table and NCTQ calculations

Indeed, 92 of the 97 TR3 school districts with available data saw increases in their FRL percentages. The average increase over all 97 districts was 6 percent. The disheartening full table is here

The story emerging in our sample of districts is consistent with the bleak national economic picture, where over the four year period ending in 2011, the number of students receiving support increased 17 percent across the country.  It's unlikely the 2009 numbers represent the peak for the hardest hit districts — even worse news is probably yet to come.

To the host of concerns these disturbing numbers bring to mind—few districts are prepared to add services in the current economic climate—we add another raised by Stanford University's Sean Reardon. Reardon's research shows that the income achievement gap (defined as the difference in performance between students at the 90th and 10th percentiles of income) has increased by more than 30 percent in the last 25 years and is now twice as large as the black and white achievement gap.

Surprisingly, Reardon finds that the income achievement gap increase has not been primarily driven by rising income inequality; rather, the increase is due to increasing parental involvement and investment in their children's development, particularly among families in the upper half of the income distribution. In other words, "a dollar of income appears to buy more academic achievement that it did several decades ago."

With an increasingly tight relationship between income and education, more children from families with declining and stagnant incomes should keep many an education reformer up at night. The current tea leaves don't bode well for closing the achievement gap in the coming years.

Ginger Moored and Rob Rickenbrode