I was confident my story wasn't a fairy tale, but I didn't bother backing it up with more than just a couple of quick data points. I believe that it's a good personal habit to challenge one's own preconceptions now and then. Because sometimes I'm wrong. (I know. Hard to believe.) So I did my homework.
The graph below plots 41 RISD elementary schools' state academic rankings against the percentage of students in those schools on the free or reduced lunch program. My thinking is that the free lunch program serves as a crude proxy for socioeconomic status.
Sure enough, the schools are scattered across that graph in the expected pattern, from the upper left (high performing, few free lunches) to the lower right (low performing, many free lunches). So in this case, it looks like my preconception proved largely correct. I wish that there were a few outliers in this scatter chart, a few schools in the upper right of the graph, meaning high performing with many students getting free lunches. If there were, we could study what's happening at those schools to learn how they escape the clutches of destiny. But sadly, there aren't any such schools. Still, there is some vertical separation between some schools on the right end of that graph. That's where I would recommend focusing.
Even if demography is destiny, we should be doing our best for every child that walks in our doors. But let's recognize that children are not interchangeable cogs. Let's resist comparing one school's performance against another's, other than to find outliers after controlling for demographics, as I did in this exercise. I feel sorry for the teachers and administrators of lower-performing schools, who might be working just as hard or even harder than the teachers in higher performing schools, but are getting their ears boxed by community critics who ignore socioeconomic differences. Teachers in the lower-performing schools are the Red Queens of public education.
My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.
Source: Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.