Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Time to Focus on the Real Education Problem: Poverty

By Daniel A. Domenech, Executive Director, AASA: The School Superintendents Association

Many Americans believe public schools are failing our students. Public officials, the media, and investors seeking to cash in on the billions of dollars supporting education by privatizing schools often reinforce this opinion. This opinion is wrong.

Substantial evidence illustrates public schools are doing better than ever. The dropout rate is at an all-time low. Conversely, the high school graduation rate is the highest it’s been in decades.

Unfortunately, we have dysfunctional schools where students’ needs are going unmet. These schools are capturing the public eye, causing observers to ask, “How could they exist in the richest and most powerful country in the world?” The predominant populations attending these schools are children of poverty, and in most cases, ethnic minorities. This isn’t an educational problem. It’s a problem within our society.

Driven by the economy, the achievement gap casts its ugly shadow long before students ever come to school. Compared to all industrialized nations, we live in a society with the highest percentage of children in poverty. Our society refuses to acknowledge that poverty is, by far, the single-biggest factor in determining student achievement. We operate in a society that funds its educational system in the most inequitable way, allowing wealth—or lack of it—to determine the quality of schools.

Educators are not shirking their responsibilities to educate these children. Thousands labor in inadequate environments, are underpaid, and lack the necessary resources to do their jobs. The real issue is the fact that schools can’t do it alone. Our country must understand it’s a community problem, and in order to fix the problem, a comprehensive plan—extending well beyond school walls—must be put in place.

The federal government has a role to play. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was an attempt to level the playing field. A formula was created to distribute federal dollars to schools based on the degree of poverty. But this concept recently has been altered by the Obama administration through the use of competitive grants to states and school districts that comply with the administration’s policy directives.

Formula grants have flat-lined, while additional dollars go to competitive grants. This is happening at a time when districts are suffering a severe economic decline brought about by the Great Recession. Most recently, the federal attempt to level the playing field has been further hampered by sequestration—a mandatory, across-the-board five percent reduction in federal funding affecting the very districts that need these precious dollars the most. More than 1,300 school systems in America receive between 20 and 40 percent of their revenue from the federal government. They are the poorest school systems in America, yet their students will be denied the resources they so desperately need.

AASA collaborated in the development of a study authored by Elaine Weiss, the national coordinator of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA). The study, “Mismatches in Race to the Top Limit Educational Improvement,” concludes the lofty goals established by states so they’d receive federal funding will not be achieved because of “lack of time, resources, and the tools to address opportunity gaps.” The reference to opportunity gaps acknowledges that the impact of poverty on learning and the achievement gap between low-income students and the others is growing.

The BBA report cites the 2013 Council on Foreign Relations Renewing America Progress Report and Scorecard, which acknowledges “the real scourge of the U.S. education system—and its greatest competitive weakness—is the deep and growing achievement gap between socioeconomic groups that begins early and lasts through a student’s academic career.”

The models that states and districts were forced to adhere to by Race to the Top ignore the poverty factor. Rather than focusing on out-of-school influences that affect learning, schools are left to address extraneous variables, such as the evaluation of teachers and principals and the turning over of schools to charters and private management firms.

As of 2010, the child poverty rate for black children was 38 percent, followed closely by American Indian children at 34 percent and Hispanic children at 32 percent. The poverty rate for white students was 13 percent. Not surprisingly, the lowest-performing high schools have the highest number of low-income students, where 40 percent or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

We know that performance on the National Assessment for Educational Progress has a high negative correlation with students eligible for free or reduced lunch. We also know that non-poverty students attending a school with a high concentration of poverty are adversely affected, while poor students attending a school with a low concentration of poverty thrive. We also know that poverty does not affect intelligence, although an impoverished environment can affect a child’s ability to concentrate and focus.

Children of poverty are disadvantaged from the moment they are conceived. From medical attention to nutrition to a multitude of environmental factors, an achievement gap exists long before these children ever set foot in a classroom. The educational system did not create the achievement gap. Unfortunately, for low-income students, the gap is going to widen if opportunities aren’t available to help close it.

Mounting evidence suggests that investing in pre-school programs provides the highest return on the education dollar. President Obama’s early childhood education plan is commendable. As the President says, “Studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more established families of their own” when exposed to a high-quality early learning program. Education is a proven way to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty. What we’re seeing, however, are significant reductions in funding for pre-school programs at the state and federal levels. Sequestration alone has cut more than $400 million from Head Start, and there is little hope that Congress will move to adopt the President’s early childhood proposal.

We at AASA have long been proponents of the education of the total child, meaning for students in poverty, the need to consider factors extraneous to the classroom. There are many nonprofit groups, community agencies, and corporate partners anxious and willing to assist schools with the education of the total child. I happen to sit on the boards of two such organizations, America’s Promise and Communities in Schools.

America’s Promise has forged an alliance of more than 400 partner organizations representing policy makers, the business community, nonprofits, and local community leaders, all anxious to assist our schools. Communities in Schools is one of the largest and most successful dropout prevention programs working with schools to provide the wraparound programs that enable low-income students to succeed.

It’s time to acknowledge that poverty is the biggest culprit hindering our ability to provide the best education for our students. It’s time we focus on funding equity, early childhood education, and providing the wraparound programs that will allow low-income students to get a high-quality education. Only then will we break the pernicious cycle of poverty.

Reprinted with permission from eSchool News. Copyright 2013. Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

Image attribution: Spaarnestad Photo, via Nationaal Archiefvia Wikimedia Commons