Which school do you want to support?
Wealthy families do not worry about food, or transportation, or whether walking to school involves crossing a gang boundary.
They have shelter, and health care when they need it. If a crisis hits, they have savings to fall back on – or at least access to credit on reasonable terms.
If you haven't lived in poverty, it is hard to imagine it.
Poverty correlates very strongly with academic results. Schools with low test scores nearly always have a lot of families living in poverty. Schools without a lot of poverty nearly always have good scores. This correlation is very stable -- the chart below shows scores on the NAEP test, highlighting Massachusetts (where scores tend to be better) and California (where they tend to be worse).
The connection between poverty and academic results is one of the most enduring relationships in all of education research. For example, the gap shows up in the scores of the ACT tests students take as part of the college application process. In a 2015 chart from a multi-year study, ACT identified a set of benchmarks to compare how well students are prepared for college and career. While 42% of students from families with incomes above $100,000 met all four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, only 13 percent of low income students (under $36,000) did.
In 2017 the gap showed up, as usual, in the results of California's annual standardized test, the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP). About 2/3 of students from low income families did not meet grade level standards in English Language Arts/Literacy. For students not in low income families the ratio was flipped -- about 2/3 did meet grade level standards. The relationship to poverty is amplified at the extremes. For example, about a third of students from a family not living in poverty scored in the "exceeded standards" range. But only one in ten students from a low income family did so.
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) studied a group of tenth-grade students from families with different family income or "socioeconomic status" (SES) over a ten-year span. The results are summarized in this video:
Poverty statistics in education often rely on a crude definition of poverty: whether a student's family qualifies for the free lunch program. This is a useful distinction, but binary -- you either qualify or you don't. This leaves room for big differences. It's like calling both Tom Cruise and Danny Devito "short." Sure, neither should be cast as a star player in a movie about basketball, but they don't equally miss the mark.
It is common to use the lunch program as a way of measuring poverty in schools. By this measure it appears that about half of California students are poor and the incidence of poverty has risen dramatically. But Matt Chingos of the Brookings Institution counsels that this rule of thumb is a myth. The rules for meal programs vary from one place to another, and even from school to school. Over time, the requirement to qualify for food aid have generally been made less stringent, which can create the impression of rising poverty even in places where it is declining. A growing number of schools simply provide lunch to everyone, eliminating the paperwork hassle and possible shame involved.
To qualify for free or reduced-price lunch usually requires filling out some forms, a small but nevertheless important barrier. Not every child who theoretically qualifies for food aid gets it. Schools and districts in high-poverty areas put some effort into getting the paperwork filled and filed because there is significant money at stake: under California's funding system districts receive extra funding to support the education of students in need.
Often discussions about the "achievement gap" center on differences in student achievement based on ethnicity. Poverty and ethnicity are strongly correlated in California, as they are elsewhere. African American and Hispanic students are much more likely to be poor and their parents often have less education than white and asian students.
The challenges of poverty are great everywhere, but they are particularly stark in California, as the California Budget and Policy Center illustrates using Census data:
The cost of housing has exploded in California, and wages have not grown as fast as the price of rent. The effect on families has been dire: poverty hurts kids, and an increase in poverty is correlated with all kinds of bad outcomes. Families living on the edge find it harder to provide their kids with good spaces and places to focus on learning. The chart above compares the "supplemental poverty rate" in each state. Statisticians prefer this measure to the conventional poverty rate because it is more comprehensive and meaningful. Click the chart to read more about it.
Race correlates with test scores and other “outcome” measures (e.g. high school completion, college completion). The effects are not just attributable to poverty.
The graph above presents an unusual and controversial summary of international test data (the PISA test) that disaggregates American test scores by race. When viewed in this way, US test scores for each subgroup seem to “fit” with scores from other countries.
This view supports the argument that US test scores have much to do with the history of American immigration. There are many theories about root causes of this correlation, some of them frankly racist. But racist theories of differences in student achievement collapse in the face of closer examination of facts. For example, a 2018 analysis points out that recent sub-Saharan African immigrants consistently out-perform other definable immigrant groups in measures of educational attainment.
Scholars including Harvard’s Ronald Ferguson and Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond have tackled the complex issues of race in education. Some of the most frequently cited sources of patterns in the educational achievement of groups include hidden underinvestment; variances in family “social capital”; persistent cultural effects; and various effects of racism including race-based differences in expectations.
GreatSchools.org collects data about schools, examining student demographics and student outcomes including test results. In a 2017 report, Searching for Opportunity: Examining Racial Gaps in Access to Quality Schools in California, the organization focused attention on the small number of schools with a record of success for African-American and Latino students. The introduction to the report expresses the gap plainly:
"Only 2% of African American students and 6% of Hispanic students attend a high performing and high opportunity school for their student group, compared with 59% of white and 73% of Asian students."
The GreatSchools report shows that few Latino and African American students attend schools where students like them score well. Few Asian or white students attend schools where students like them score poorly. Few, however, is not the same as none. The report goes on to identify 156 high-performing "spotlight schools" where African-American and Latino students score highly. These schools, half of them with relatively high poverty, show what's possible.
He concluded that the score gaps associated with poverty were even bigger - and growing.
In 2011, Stanford sociologist Sean F. Reardon compiled data to quantify the achievement gap between children from rich families and poor families. He concluded that the test score differences associated with poverty were considerably greater than those associated with race. He also found that the gaps are growing.
John Scalzi, an author and social commentator, has suggested a provocative analogy to support discussion about the roles of race, gender, class and sexual orientation in education and life. He imagines a role-playing game in which character types have attributes that confer varying advantages and disadvantages. "In the role playing game known as The Real World," Scalzi proposes, "'Straight White Male' is the lowest difficulty setting there is."
Writers and researchers take many approaches to exploring the patterns that connect with outcomes in education and life.
Researchers differ in their definitions of poverty, and states have some influence over the definitions. For example, is a family counted as poor if it falls below a certain income level, or must it remain below that level for an entire year? What if it falls only a tiny bit below or above the line?
The connection between scarcity and performance is phenomenally complex. Economics professor Sendhil Mullainathan has amassed evidence that scarcity itself taxes the mind. It's not just that bad decisions make people poor, this work suggests: "Instead, people make bad decisions because they are poor." Poverty creates its own negative feedback loop.
Many theories of change in education seek to identify what combination of factors, in terms of students’ experiences both in and out of school, cause poverty and ethnicity to correlate so strongly with learning. Some of those factors are explored in the next few lessons.
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