You Earned a Ticket!

Which school do you want to support?

Lesson 2.2

Poverty and Race:
How Do Student's Backgrounds Affect Their School Performance?

Are poor students… poor students?

hero image

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.

How does poverty affect educational results?

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).

Schools where many students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch ('FRPL' in edspeak) tend to have lower scores where families are wealthier. Scores in California districts lag substantially behind those in Massachusetts. (Chart: Sean F. Reardon from 'The Landscape of US Educational Inequality') Schools where many students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch ('FRPL' in edspeak) tend to have lower scores than those where families are wealthier. Across the wealth spectrum, scores in California districts lag substantially behind those in Massachusetts. (Chart: Sean F. Reardon from 'The Landscape of US Educational Inequality')

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 2014 report from a multi-year study, ACT identified a set of benchmarks to compare how well students are prepared for college and career. While 63% of students from families with incomes above $100,000 met three or more ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, only 19 per cent of low income students (under $36,000) did. Half of ACT-tested low-income students didn’t meet a single benchmark.

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.

Poverty statistics depend on lunch

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.

Achievement gaps part 1: Race

In late 2007, then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell convened an “achievement gap summit” to look at the issues of race specifically. Race correlates with test scores and other “outcome” measures (e.g. high school completion, college completion). The effects are not just attributable to poverty.

Disaggregated PISA scores. Graph by Steve Sailer. Disaggregated PISA scores. Graph by Steve Sailer.

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 those most frequently cited include hidden underinvestment; variances in family “social capital”; persistent cultural effects; and various effects of racism including race-based differences in expectations. Scholars including Harvard’s Ronald Ferguson and Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond have tackled this complex issue. Brian Rosenthal of the Seattle Times has studied test-score patterns for black immigrant students, who tend to outperform African Americans.

Achievement gaps part 2: Poverty

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.

Definitions matter

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.

Updated April 3, 2017. Added chart comparing scores in California and Massachusetts.
Updated May 8, 2017 to fix a grammar error caught by a reader. (Thanks, April!)
Updated Oct, 2017 with new CAASPP test results and new info about the hazards of using school lunch to measure poverty.


Which ONE of the following statements is true?

Answer the question correctly and earn a ticket.
Learn More

Questions & Comments

To comment or reply, please sign in .

user avatar
Jeff Camp March 7, 2017 at 6:28 pm
Long video but loaded with unprecedented detail about the many, many poor families with young children in California and where and how they live. Lots of variation within the state. From PPIC.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder June 24, 2016 at 10:41 pm
More evidence of the correlation of poverty and test scores:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 22, 2016 at 11:04 am
Helping " At Risk" Students with More Funding...
Education Commission of the States takes a look at "The Importance of At-Risk Funding" and reviews the methods each state uses to identify these students.
user avatar
tybarra March 23, 2016 at 9:17 am
The statement that caught my attention was: It's not bad decisions that make people poor but instead people make bad decisions because they are poor.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder January 11, 2016 at 10:03 am
Jonah Shepp on the politics of poverty: "...most of those who claim to know the solution to American poverty have no idea what poverty really means to those who have lived in it." He goes on to tell his own story. The most distinctive point he makes in this article is that being in poverty isn't just about not having money. He makes the point with personal examples.
user avatar
Pamela Luk November 10, 2015 at 11:35 am
This comic, "On A Plate: A Short Story About Privilege" by Toby Morris, does an amazing job of illustrating how poverty impacts the paths of two children:
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder October 20, 2015 at 6:10 pm
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), America has never had so many homeless students in its public schools. Statistical pundit Nate Silver highlights the problem while also cautioning that we are probably doing a better job of COUNTING homeless students than we once did.
user avatar
langle September 5, 2015 at 9:29 am
I think you have the wrong definition of "middle class" in this segment. We are middle class and we DO NOT have any savings " to fall back on". Middle class is a number, not a set of circumstances.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder September 6, 2015 at 12:21 pm
@langle: Like most terms in social science, "Middle class" has an evolving meaning. Here's what Gallup polls have to say about it: . One main point of this lesson is that labels change and cut-points matter.
user avatar
tonyammarquez April 28, 2015 at 9:13 am
poverty could affect a child somewhat, it depends on the individual. Destitute and homelessness is no way for anyone. Poverty has been suppressing me since I was a child
and it continues however I can't say it affected my educational performance.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder April 22, 2015 at 9:57 am
This lesson was updated on April 22, 2015 to link to the fascinating evidence amassed by Harvard behavioral economics professor Sendhil Mullainathan of ways that scarcity impairs performance. He suggests that this negative feedback loop is a powerful part of the durability of poverty. The implications are significant: to improve performance, address the underlying scarcities.
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 9:08 am
Poverty isn't even just about money. It is about the ratio of what people earn vs where they live and how they choose to live. I think schools should hold low income students to the same standards while providing support in terms of tutoring and reduced lunch programs. Unfortunately, many people take advantage of the systems in place. There is nothing wrong with being poor and as a teacher my BEST families were "poor". However, they were the ones that came in with an entourage of family members invested in the child's education. They demanded respect and discipline for their kids. They gave whatever they had extra for the classroom needs. The wealthier families rarely bothered to show up for conferences or events. POOR doesn't mean invaluable. Honestly the poorest people I know are the most willing to sacrifice. Because they value every dime they have. Poverty in the home doesn't necessarily translate to poverty in education. They may need more support, but teachers need to realize that they have just as much potential to learn as a wealthy student.
user avatar
Brandi Galasso February 9, 2015 at 10:38 am
If schools provided better education for all incomes then not as many people would fall into that category of being poor. Schools should all be ran on an equal level, because after all, all students need a proper education. Where you live should not effect the education you receive. Especially when there are programs like title I to help bridge the gap in funding. Another problem is the people who run our schools into the ground usually don't live in the area or send their kids to the schools they work at, why? They should have to so they can see the output of their actions. Then maybe they would bring the standards up.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder June 20, 2015 at 11:53 pm
Hi, David -- Based on your comment, you will be interested in Chapter 5, which explores the "Places" where learning takes place. Chapter 5 also explores school choice.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder September 15, 2014 at 9:14 am
In 2012-13 about a quarter of a million students in California experienced homelessness. If you don't have a secure place to sleep or shower, it can be hard to put a high priority on homework. The Lucille Packard foundation is a primary source of data through . The California Research Bureau also provides data on the subject at
user avatar
Kim Fleming, PhD May 26, 2011 at 9:17 am
The Relationship of Third-Grade Reading Skills, Poverty and Graduation

A new report, Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation, from the Annie E. Casey Foundation finds that students who don't read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma. For readers who can't master even basic skills by third grade, the rate is six times greater. The longitudinal study of nearly 4,000 students calculates high school graduation rates for children at different reading skill levels and with different poverty rates. Overall, 22 percent of children who have lived in poverty do not graduate from high school, compared to 6 percent of those who have never been poor. This rises to 32 percent for students spending more than half of childhood in poverty. Even among poor children who were proficient readers in third grade, 11 percent still didn't finish high school. That compares to 9 percent of subpar third grade readers who have never been poor. Graduation rates for black and Hispanic students who were not proficient readers in third grade lagged far behind those for white students with the same reading skills. The findings in the report suggest three environments where new policies and programs could foster children's school success: schools; family; and federal, state, and local policy.

See the full report here:{D4DBAD77-DE2E-4FAE-B443-A9AEEBBC6E35}
user avatar
Bruce Fuller March 12, 2011 at 6:25 am
As we consider the role of poverty in shaping children's learning, it's key that we recognize the colorful variation found among families in California. Many display strong cultural and parenting strengths that do lift their children.

How do local educators understand and learn about family assets, sources of neighborhood cohesion? The Institute of Human Development at Berkeley is digging into this question. See:

On Latino children and schools: (New Journalism on Latino Children).

On the diversity and strengths of Latino families: Review essay in Developmental Psychology ( )

On school reform organizing in L.A. -

Bruce Fuller, UC Berkeley
©2003-2017 Jeff Camp
design by SimpleSend, build by modern interface

Sharing is caring!

Password Reset

Change your mind? Sign In.

Search all lesson and blog content here.

Sign In

Not a member? Join now.

or via email

Share via Email

Join Ed100

Already Joined Ed100? Sign In.

or via email