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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


In the most affluent

In the most affluent neighborhoods, most households have two adults, both with high incomes. There are few children. In poor neighborhoods, adults work long hours at exhausting jobs and have almost no time or resources to spend on their children.

The public schools in the expensive neighborhoods are fabulous. The students score high on all the important tests. We should do something to improve the education we offer to poor children. I think we should have medicare for needy families with children. Maybe they could also get groceries at the lower prices offered for the military at commissaries and perhaps get school uniforms issued too.

At present, most of our children are not getting an education, and I think we will regret it when they grow up as a permanent underclass who can't function as productive citizens.

Many of our school reformers know nothing about poor children. Teachers, however, do. Most public school teachers have taught children from many different backgrounds. They should be consulted about school reform.

This is an excellent article.

This is an excellent article. The truth of it has been known for many years. The public education community needs to band together and reinforce the message publicly, in the media and with policy makers.

Dear Mr. Domenech, I enjoyed

Dear Mr. Domenech,

I enjoyed your article and agree with you that the economy plays a significant role in the education of our children. However, I do believe that it is not only the socioeconomic status of the family that affects the children’s education, but it is also the environment in which the educational institution provides. Therefore, in response to your article, I would like to propose that more focus should be put on magnet schools to increase the quality of education. With the original intention of magnet schools being to increase racial diversity within a school, I believe that it still serves that same purpose with the added consideration of socioeconomic status. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act provides the necessary funding to continue the diversification of students throughout these institutions by providing the books and supplies needed to students without regards to socioeconomic status. In addition to the purchase of supplies, magnet schools are able to hire the staff needed to instruct their specialized courses, as well as compensate current highly qualified staff with an increase in pay. The recruitment and retention of quality teachers takes on an even more critical role on the students' education. For example, students replicate the attitudes and efforts of instructors that show dedication and hard work in their profession. In some schools, you may find teachers that majored in physical education, but are teaching an algebra course. Another aspect that boosts the quality of magnet schools is the themed learning environment, where different magnet schools focus on subjects revolving around science, engineering, and technology to the arts. Students would be potentially motivated to learn if they have a special interest in a theme that a magnet school provides. I think that if more focus were to be placed on magnet schools, which in turn, would be made more available to lower income communities, then the quality of education would see an increase.

Yes, yes, yes. Being poor

Yes, yes, yes. Being poor means that one is less likely to have lots of supportive resources that contribute to learning. However, we insist on creating a dichotomy between the school and the conditions of poverty. This leads to an assumption that schools cannot better educate students of poverty unless they cease to be poor, or failing that, unless massive compensatory resources are directly available to the schools. And yet, never are statistics cited showing an improvement in learning with the inception of school lunch programs (or school breakfast programs). No studies showing how Medicaid has brought about better learning for the poor. There seems to be little interest on the part of schools in considering the potential for before and afterschool safe havens for students whose parents work and who live in high-crime neighborhoods. If anything there is often mild resentment that such things might be needed--proof of the inadequacy of the parents who, many seem to believe, don't care enough about themselves or their children to do better in live.

This all begs notice of the great, grand elephant in our living room, which is the question of whether our system of public education works to lift children from the poverty of their parents, or whether it is rather a part and parcel of the system holding their parents in severely limited situations. Our schools are heavily burdened by assumptions that they are a property extension of their neighborhood, that is, those who can afford to purchase a house in an exclusive area has a parallel property right to place their children in a superior school--newer building, more library books and computers per student, more effective better educated teachers, more electives, better access to challenging curriculum, better relationships between school and home--by almost any quality measure (not even looking at opportunity to rub elbows with students having greater home resources) better than the schools available to those whose families rent in urban areas, or horrors, live in government subsidized housing. They are further burdened by assumptions that certain social problems (domestic violence, addiction) are far more prevalent among the poor (they are not) and limit the capability of poor children to learn. These beliefs also serve to set limits on how schools envision interactions with parents--inviting them to learn how to be a better parent and writing off the effort when nobody takes them up on it.

If poverty is the chief problem preventing learning among poor children, then what are we, meaning educators, doing about that problem? Are we willing to rally neighborhoods to demand fair wages and city services in the name of improving education? Are we willing to teach children about the economic forces that create urban poverty and next door neighbors like Detroit and Grosse Point. Because it seems to me that unless we are truly willing to go there, perhaps we had best stick closer to home and look at the things we can do within buildings and districts to improve education.

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