Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Academic Excellence for All: Just How Serious Are We?

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to acknowledge that humans are complex beings; how often does a friend, colleague or family member do something you perceive to be simply inexplicable? Given our diverse nature, it should come as no surprise that educating children is not an exact science; each one is unique. Ultimately, they are the result of their background, family and economic circumstances, and life experiences. A student’s potential and capacity for achievement rests with our country’s capacity to recognize and respond to these systemic challenges, perhaps even embrace them, to support the whole child. Consider the following statistics highlighting the challenges our country faces:

  • 2.8 million American children live in extreme poverty, defined as surviving on less than $2 per person per day in a given month.  
  • On NAEP, fourth-graders who were eligible for free lunch scored 29 points lower than those not eligible. A similar pattern is seen for eighth-graders.
  • 17 percent, or one out of every six, African American schoolchildren enrolled in K-12 was suspended at least once in 2009-2010; one in four African American children with disabilities enrolled in grades K-12 was suspended at least once. And schools with high suspension rates score lower on state accountability tests than other schools, even when adjusting for demographic differences.  
  • A quarter of our nation’s African American students and 17% of Latino students attend high schools in which graduation is not the norm. These numbers are significantly lower than in 2002, and a positive sign that we’re moving in the right direction. 

When it comes to education, policymakers and public officials pay attention to student achievement (usually as measured by standardized test scores), high-school graduation rates, and the accompanying number of dropouts.  But the desire to raise student achievement is profoundly complicated by high levels of child poverty, high rates of out-of-school suspensions – especially for students of color – that only encourage already struggling students to consider dropping out, and the extensive social and emotional needs that all children have throughout the school day.


According to the National Center for Children, 22 percent of all children in the U.S. live below the federal poverty level and 45 percent of all children live in low-income families. Poverty has significant consequences for individuals with regard to education, earnings, dependency, health and incarceration. A recent report, Education and Poverty: Finding the Way Forward, released by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) referenced a longitudinal study that tracked adult outcomes by poverty level at various age ranges during childhood. It points to results from a poverty status between prenatal and age 5:

“[C]ompared with children whose families had incomes of at least twice the poverty line during their early childhood, poor children completed two fewer years of school, earned less than half as much money, worked 451 fewer hours per year, received $826 per year more in food stamps, and were nearly three times as likely to have poor health.”

Poverty affects a student’s ability to learn in school and as a consequence, it influences academic performance. However, research suggests that high-poverty schools are fully capable of serving children in spite of their socioeconomic status; it requires a committed effort and multiple components operating simultaneously. The ETS report makes several recommendations in response to the educational realities associated with poverty. They include: expanding access to high-quality early childhood programs; reducing segregation and isolation – a large proportion of low-income and minority students are segregated in districts and schools by race and income (known as double segregation); establishing equitable and adequate funding; increasing teacher quality; and adopting effective practices and targeting resources to early childhood education, class size reduction and competitive wages.

Mediating the effects of poverty is not solely a school’s responsibility, but it is an important aspect of child wellbeing and a reality that policymakers would do well to acknowledge as a key influencer in student and school performance.


In April 2013, a coalition of organizations released Addressing the Out-of-School Suspension Crisis: A Policy Guide for School Board Members, highlighting the critical role school board members have in creating local policies that offer comprehensive alternatives to out-of-school suspension. The report highlighted the negative effect suspensions have on student achievement: “The American Psychological Association has found that [exclusionary disciplinary strategies] harm academic achievement for all students while increasing the chances that those excluded will be held back, drop out and become involved with the juvenile an criminal justice systems.”

The report also noted that African American, Latinos and Native American students were much more likely to be suspended, expelled, and arrested than white peers – even when exhibiting similar behavior. In addition, students with disabilities and African American students were more likely to get suspended repeatedly in a given year – a reality that only increases the likelihood these students will drop out of school permanently. Schools should seek to maximize the amount of seat time for each student and improve school climate, reducing discipline issues and identifying students who display key risk factors, without risking the safety of staff or other students.

Although out-of-school suspension policies are deserving of revision in districts across the country, student behavioral data can be instructive if accompanied by the appropriate responses. A careful recording of misdemeanors and other behaviors can help build a student risk profile and identify those students who are most likely to drop out of school. Robert Balfanz from Johns Hopkins University’s Everyone Graduates Center offers the ABCs of early warning systems: attendance, behavior (which includes suspension) and course performance. Changing school climate around misbehavior can reduce the rates of out-of-school suspension and the dropout potential within a given student body.

A Comprehensive Approach to Education

The community schools model addresses many of the systemic challenges low-income students face, and it provides services to help address behavioral and academic needs. The model focuses on the whole-child and engaging all stakeholders in the education effort. Community schools offer a wide range of supports, including health services, after school programs, nutrition classes, parent and family engagement programs, early childhood education, youth development activities, mentoring and arts programs. They review data and identify specific needs within a school and then work to build partnerships with organizations and businesses in the local community to help address those needs. Much of the data is related to student performance and helps guide the development of useful interventions.

In sum, we cannot expect to raise the level of student achievement and serve students equitably without addressing the large scale challenges that so many low-income and minority students face. Some are fostered by school policies – such as discipline guidelines – while others are the result of vast inequities and socioeconomic realities. Schools are not responsible for addressing all the complexities, but they play an important role. Policymakers, officials, parents and education professionals – indeed communities on all levels of governance – can come together to strategically intervene in a way that supports the whole child. Raising standards and increasing test frequency cannot begin to touch the layers of complexities that have shaped our children and will continue to dictate their future.