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March 2013 Brief: Volume 20, Number 8

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Watch the Pennies, and the Pounds Will Take Care of Themselves!


by Deborah D. Thornton



This old English saying that means that if we take care of the small things (pennies), the large things (pounds or dollars) will naturally do well.[1] This idea applies directly to educating our children. If we actually teach the children reading, writing, and arithmetic, the test results will take care of themselves. If we do not teach, nothing else we do will make a difference.


The Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) school board passed a “diversity policy statement” in early February directing the superintendent to balance the Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL) numbers of students in the various schools – from elementary through high school. Several elementary schools have high FRL percentages, over 70 percent, while some FRL percentages are as low as 7-8 percent. Several elementary schools are also on the Schools in Need of Improvement (SINI) listing for low test scores. These schools just happen to also have the high FRL percentages.


Some academic research shows that when children who are poor, as defined by eligibility for FRL, are in schools with their wealthier peers they score better on achievement tests. Therefore, since we want all children to score well on achievement tests, the solution is obviously to put low-income children with high-income children. Then they will score better and the pennies will become pounds. The methods of accomplishing this FRL balance as outlined by the ICCSD school board include magnet schools, special arts/music/technology programs, and redistricting the school boundaries. The board emphasized that it does not intend to bus children all over town. The implementation responsibility lies with the superintendent, and he only has a narrow window of time to balance the FRL numbers.


There has been no indication as to what the school board will do in 3-5 years when the test scores of the FRL students are still significantly below those of the higher-income students, even after sitting in classes with the high-income, high-scoring students.


The overall academic success of Iowa’s children has not improved over the last 20 years. This is well documented by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In 1992 we were number one in eighth-grade math and fifth in fourth-grade math, with comparable scores in other grades and subjects. Currently, our eighth graders are scoring 25th in math, and fourth graders are 29th in reading.[2] The issue is not that our children are scoring so poorly, but that others have caught up and passed them. This is also true in the ICCSD – there are many very high-scoring students each year, as might be expected of a college town, but there are also serious problems with low-income and minority students failing at even fundamental skills.


Just as we know who the high-scoring students are, if for no other reason than that their names are frequently in the newspaper, we also know exactly who the low-scoring students are – irrespective of their FRL status. Maybe we should specifically put the high-scoring students in classes with the low-scoring students, and the low-scoring students will magically acquire the ability to read, write, and do math. This would be easier to implement than moving students around based on income. This also would negate the extensive use of high school advanced placement and honors classes in the ICCSD. Many parents specifically have their student take the AP and honors classes so they will advance faster and learn more than they would in the “regular” classes. That is the whole point of AP and honors programs. These high-scoring children are specifically separated from the low-scoring children, by both their parents and their own wishes. Somehow, I do not think this solution will work. But it makes about the same sense as FRL balancing.


Instead the solution is to take care of the pennies – to help struggling students learn. Governor Branstad attempted to do this in his 2012 educational reform efforts by proposing that social promotion be ended. A third-grade student who, individually, was not demonstrating mastery of the material by scoring at proficient levels on achievement tests would not be allowed to move to fourth grade.[3]


This proposal was greeted with great disdain by the educational establishment and does not appear in the 2013 legislation. Instead, this year’s proposal focuses on making the teachers feel better and earn more money by providing them with the opportunity for various professional advancement and mentoring programs.[4] It does not require that teachers demonstrate their ability to teach by having their students pass the tests before moving onto the next grade.


My mother, a 30-plus year first/second grade teacher, felt better about herself and her achievement when her children scored well on tests. They scored well after she actually taught them to read, write, and do math – after she required demonstration of skill mastery. After she showed examples and taught processes, then made assignments, graded problems, went over wrong answers, showed the student where they made the mistakes, and had them redo the work until they got it right. And she did not teach in an advantaged district such as ICCSD – she taught in the west end of Louisville, Kentucky. The majority of her children were FRL. She still taught them, and she asked for the struggling children – the ones who needed the most structure and discipline. That is what teaching is.


Struggling students will learn and will score better on the NAEP when Iowa teachers decide to teach them. When teachers refuse to go along with social promotion and social engineering such as in ICCSD, and instead insist that the children learn. We know who is struggling; we must address their problems individually. We must not make excuses. Being poor does not mean you cannot learn. It may mean you must work harder. And simply being in a school with wealthier classmates will not ensure the poor children will learn more.


The pennies will become pounds when the pennies are watched, taught, and expected to learn – no matter how few pounds their parent(s) have in the bank, or what the bank account balance is of the child next to them.


[1]“Idioms,” Using, <

themselves.html> accessed on February 10, 2013.
[2] “Iowa NAEP 2011 Mathematics and Reading Results Power Point,” <> accessed on February 11, 2013.
[3] “Branstad-Reynolds Administration Recommendations for World-Class Schools,” January 6, 2012, <> accessed on February 10, 2013.
[4] “Branstad, Reynolds, Glass propose reforms to ensure great teaching in every classroom to dramatically raise achievement,” January 14, 2013, <> accessed on February 7, 2013.


Deborah D. Thornton is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact her at

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