The Atlantic has an article that I thought provides an interesting and somewhat different perspective on why a lot of poor school districts perform poorly. It focuses on factors other than the students, their families and the teachers.
The article is mainly about the Philadelphia school system, so not everything will be applicable to every state. Among the things that pop up in the article are general administrative incompetence, particularly when it comes to resource management, as well as budget cuts leading to severe shortages in support staff that could help ameliorate administrative problems.
I thought that one of the most interesting issues brought up in this piece was the role of the major textbook publishers in standardized testing. Apparently, the textbook companies (Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) are also responsible for writing and grading standardized tests in many states. This leads to a perverse conflict of interest where the publishers know exactly what’s on the tests and can write the textbooks accordingly. Students in districts either wealthy enough or savvy enough to purchase the right textbooks could have an advantage over other students on standardized tests.
It’s not at all clear to me why this state of affairs should have ever arisen in the first place. There are many thousands of educators in each state. Surely the states relying on major publishers to run their tests could have put together committees to come up with a lists of test questions based on the state educational standards. This might help ensure that the best textbooks are actually the best at teaching the subject and not because they’re the best at teaching to the specific questions on the tests. Standards also shouldn’t go through major revisions very often in order to avoid burdening districts with the cost of replacing all the textbooks every few years.
Of course, for-profit companies have long been making inroads into the public education sector, so I would imagine that it might be too much to expect states to rely more on their own expertise and less on companies like Pearson. It also may be too much to expect all the states to individually enact rigorous standards, but one can dream…