New York State School Boards Association

To improve student achievement, we must address poverty

On Board Online • August 12, 2013

By Willa Powell
Director, Conference of Big 5 Schools

I worry that the Common Core and Annual Professional Performance Reviews are not the “game changers” they are promoted to be. Something is missing. Current reform efforts focus exclusively on conditions in the school environment and ignore conditions in the home environment.

Currently 22 percent of American children are living in poverty. That’s higher than the percentage in 1964, when President Johnson declared war on poverty! Only Romania has a higher child poverty rate than the U.S. among the richest 36 nations. The federal minimum wage was last reset in 2009 to $7.25 per hour, which has 30 percent less buying power than the minimum wage in 1968.

We all know that poverty interferes with student achievement. In 1966 the Coleman Report identified a “one-third in-school factors, two-thirds family characteristics” ratio to explain variations in student achievement.

Research since then has confirmed the overwhelming importance of poverty as a factor in measures of student success. In fact, a 2011 study by Sean Reardon of Stanford University showed that family income is the determining and predictive factor in students’ educational achievement. The income achievement gap – defined as the income difference between a child from a family at the 90th percentile of the family income distribution and a child from a family at the 10th percentile – is now nearly twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

Given the increase in child poverty and its effect on student achievement, I find it miraculous that scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress haven’t gone down since 2008. They’ve been flat or slightly higher, depending on the subject matter of the test and the age group. 

If we are looking for game-changing impact, we need to build a consensus that poverty must be addressed as a key element of our strategy to improve our state’s education system. I’m not knocking Common Core and APPR; I’m just saying the prodigious efforts being made will have much less impact if we fail to address poverty. I’m convinced that graduation rates will go up when we spend additional resources on anti-poverty efforts.

Schools with a poverty problem are growing in number. According to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Education, about one in five public schools was considered high poverty in 2011, up from about one in eight in 2000. I’m a member of the school board in Rochester, the poorest in the state, as measured by child poverty, and the seventh poorest school district in the nation. It should come as no surprise that Rochester’s graduation rate is the lowest in the state.

We’ve all heard it: “No excuses – poor kids can learn too.” Of course they can! But it is illogical to place 100 percent of the responsibility for outcomes on only 33 percent of the conditions of achievement. We must address poverty.

First, all school board members ought to advocate for full and fair funding for high-needs districts, regardless of whether our own district falls in that category. Public education is judged in the aggregate, and it’s in everyone’s interest to help urban schools and other high-needs districts improve results.

Second, we should advocate for government spending in areas other than education: housing and child care subsidies, and access to subsidized housing and child care; public transportation infrastructure that will allow low wage workers to get to where the jobs are; and more robust resources to help families deal with behavioral problems including truancy, physical abuse, substance abuse and mental illness. If our social service agencies aren’t funded sufficiently to address these matters, then the function is thrust upon the schools (with or without funding, but mostly without), because children cannot learn until the barriers to learning are addressed.

Third, as elected officials and leaders in our own communities, we should lead the charge for living wages. No one who works for a living should be living in poverty if we want to encourage independence from the social safety net. Our self-interest in doing so is that social service needs shrink when families are able to raise themselves out of poverty through their own effort, leaving more of the pie for education. Henry Ford knew that when workers are well paid, they could buy his cars. Higher wages mean a larger economy as families spend those wages to meet their needs, in turn growing the pie of tax dollars available to spend on education.

Although it would be nice if urban schools received the funding they were promised by the state after the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuits, I’m not saying, “Just give us more money.” The fact is that we’re all better off cooperating than pursuing our individual interests. John Nash of Princeton University was awarded a Nobel Prize for demonstrating that mathematically and inventing modern game theory.

Maybe John Nash was crazy. (Watch A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe.) But he wasn’t wrong. When we all do well, we all do better.

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