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What Really Drives Student Achievement? Not What You Think.

Sam Zeff

For the past few years, when we talked about education in Kansas it was all about money.

Is the state spending too much or too little? Are districts efficient? Is the school funding formula flawed And what does this have to do with student outcomes?

Turns out, not as much as you think.

"The most important factor is the education of the parents," says Professor John Rury from the University of Kansas School of Education.

For decades, his research shows, parents in Johnson County have generally been way more educated than parents in other parts of the metro.

In 1960, more than half of parents in the Shawnee Mission School District had at least one year of college.

By 1980, 60 percent had four years of college. That’s three times higher than the rest of the metro.

The gap is even wider when compared to Wyandotte County.

So what would happen if you took all those kids in Shawnee Mission and sent them to KCK schools?

"It would flip," says Rury. "The KCK schools would become high-performing by the usual measures of graduation and test scores. And the Shawnee Mission schools suddenly have lower test scores and attendance and graduation."

So parents’ education is one factor in student success.

But wealth, says Rury, is certainly another. There's no better place to illustrate that than County Line Road.

To the north is KCK, to the south Roeland Park.

Now, County Line Road doesn’t get the kind of attention as a dividing line that Troost or State Line Road does, but it is a predictor in student outcomes.

All you have to do is look at housing prices.

A four bedroom, two bath home on the Johnson County side recently sold for 29 percent more than essentially the same house on the Wyandotte County side.

The wealthier the area, the better students usually perform.

That’s not to say that the school, the district or the teachers don’t make a difference. They do.

"In the old days we just taught — assumed all kids came with the same things and those kids who didn’t come with those things weren’t successful. We essentially blamed them for that," says Kansas City, Kansas School District Chief of Staff David Smith.

In KCK, 91 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, according to the state.

More than a quarter have limited English. And while Kansas graduates 85 percent of its students, in KCK it’s only 66 percent.

So, says Smith, since his students often don’t have learning opportunities at home, the district has to provide those at school, making teaching more complicated.

"If I’ve been to museums and I know what a docent is, then if you use that word in class I don’t look at you like you’ve lost your mind. I know what you’re talking about," he says.

But things are changing on the south side of County Line Road. Since 2000, poverty in Johnson County has doubled.

"We are certainly in our schools seeing more children who come from families with lower income," says Karen Wulfkuhle, Executive Director of United Community Services of Johnson County.

"It does mean additional challenges. They may come to school hungry. Or they may have parents that don’t have the time in their day to help them with homework, or the ability to help them with homework."

Despite the growing Johnson County poverty, students are still doing well.

While economically disadvantaged students have more than doubled in both the Shawnee Mission and Olathe school districts in the past decade, graduation rates have remained steady at about 90 percent.

KU’s John Rury says that has a lot to do with peer pressure, the good kind, where students push each other to do well.

But this is where we circle back to money.

It turns out that more funding in poorer districts can make a difference, Rury says, by lowering class size and paying teachers enough to make them want to stay.

For David Smith in KCK, this is both practical and moral.

"Public education is the great equalizer in this country and if we can use it to give every kid what they need, that’s what we should do."

This look at the Wyandotte / Johnson County line is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what’s being done to bridge or dissolve them. Become a source for KCUR as we investigate Johnson and Wyandotte Counties.

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