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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 where families have a comfortable income always have good scores. This correlation is very stable. For example, the chart below shows scores on the NAEP test, highlighting districts in Massachusetts and California. On this chart, "up" is good — clearly, students at any economic level tend to do better in Massachusetts than in California... but it makes an even bigger difference to be affluent.
The connection between economic well-being and education results is one of the most enduring relationships in all of education research. It shows up everywhere. For example, there are predictable gaps in the scores of the ACT tests that students take as part of the college application process. In a 2015 chart from a multi-year study, the 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% of low income students (under $36,000) did.
In 2021 the gap appeared, as usual, in the results of California's annual standardized test, the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP). About 36% (roughly a third) of students from low-income families met or exceeded grade-level standards in English Language Arts/Literacy, with only 20.32% meeting or exceeding grade-level standards in math. For students not in low-income families, the ratio was flipped — about 2/3 met grade-level standards in English Language Arts/Literacy, and 50.49% met or exceeded grade-level standards in mathematics. The relationship to poverty is amplified at the extremes. For example, about a third of students from families not living in poverty scored in the "exceeded standards" range. But only about 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 that differed in family income or socioeconomic status (SES) over a ten-year span. The results are summarized in this video:
During the pandemic, school lunch service was made free for all students, and it seems likely to stay that way, at least in California. But for decades, many poverty statistics in education relied on a crude definition of poverty: whether a student's family qualifies for the free lunch program. This was a useful distinction, but sloppy. Families either qualified or didn't. This left room for big differences. It's like calling both Tom Cruise and Kevin Hart "short." Sure, neither should be cast as a star player in a movie about basketball, but they don't equally miss the mark, right?
Before access to school lunch became universal, about half of California students qualified for it. The rules varied from one place to another, and even from school to school. It was a costly paperwork hassle and many families experienced a sense of shame about it.
Discussions about the achievement gap often focus on differences in student achievement based on race or ethnicity, and for good reason. 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. Moreover, the intergenerational income gap across races persists over time. For example, throughout the US, Black boys in almost all neighborhoods earn less in adulthood than white boys growing up in families with comparable income.
The challenges of poverty are great everywhere, but they are particularly stark in California.
According to a 2018 report from California Budget and Policy Center, 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 negative outcomes. Families living on the edge find it harder to provide their kids with healthy and productive 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).
Race correlates with test scores and other outcome measures like high school completion or college completion. The effects are not just attributable to poverty.
For example, in a 2015 study of the SAT scores of more than a million students attending the University of California, sociologist Saul Geiser found a strong pattern:
“Socioeconomic background factors – family income, parental education, and race/ethnicity – account for a large and growing share of the variance in students’ SAT scores over the past twenty years. More than a third of the variance in SAT scores can now be predicted by factors known at students’ birth, up from a quarter of the variance in 1994. Of those factors, moreover, race has become the strongest predictor of students’ SAT scores. Rather than declining in salience, race and ethnicity are now more important than either family income or parental education in accounting for test score differences.”
Race shows up in patterns in other studies, too, such as the international PISA exam:
The graph above interposes international test data with American PISA test scores disaggregated by race/ethnicity. This view underscores the reality 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.
John Scalzi, 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 life as a video game in which the difficulty setting is determined by your demographics. "In the role playing game known as The Real World," Scalzi proposes, "'Straight White Male' is the lowest difficulty setting there is... the 'Gay Minority Female' setting? Hardcore."
Writers and researchers take many approaches to exploring the patterns that connect with outcomes in education and life. The following video examines different educational and life outcomes of two children born into different neighborhoods.
Researchers define poverty in different ways, 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?
There is no single, canonical meaning of poverty — context matters. 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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Carol Kocivar January 9, 2023 at 5:00 pm
"We are squandering the talents of too many low-income high achievers"
A comprehensive study, Ohio’s Lost Einsteins: The inequitable outcomes of early high achievers, concludes that more needs to be done on behalf of America’s high achieving kids, especially those from low-income backgrounds. It provides suggestions on what to do.
Carol Kocivar January 9, 2023 at 4:28 pm
School poverty – not racial composition – limits educational opportunity, according to new research at Stanford. " Racial segregation remains a major source of educational inequality, but this is because racial segregation almost always concentrates black and Hispanic students in high-poverty schools, according to new research led by Sean Reardon, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE). "https://news.stanford.edu/2019/09/23/new-data-tool-shows-school-poverty-leads-racial-achievement-gap/
Carol Kocivar June 13, 2022 at 7:42 pm
Carol Kocivar June 13, 2022 at 7:37 pm
Jeff Camp - Founder June 30, 2021 at 2:23 pm
francisco molina August 13, 2019 at 1:33 am
David Shahal May 22, 2019 at 12:33 pm
Jeff Camp May 27, 2019 at 3:31 pm
Emily Cruz October 29, 2020 at 6:41 pm
Dennis Ashendorf February 22, 2019 at 8:42 pm
Sonya Hendren August 10, 2018 at 11:37 pm
Here's a better way to look at it:
"'Straight White Male' is the lowest difficulty setting there is." Changing a demographic (race, gender, orientation) is analogous to increasing the difficulty setting on a game. YOU, the player, remain the same, but the way the game treats you, changes. Non-player characters respond less favorably, the game isn't dropping free boosts and bonuses everywhere, etc.
The point is that members of different demographics are facing a harder game, not that their characteristics gave them disadvantages.
Alma Cacho May 2, 2018 at 9:34 am
Jacquie March 8, 2018 at 3:25 pm
Evan Molin February 22, 2018 at 5:12 pm
February 22, 2018 at 8:30 am
NATHANIEL CAUTHORN February 22, 2018 at 8:22 am
February 22, 2018 at 8:22 am
Damon Spriggle February 22, 2018 at 8:21 am
February 22, 2018 at 8:21 am
Susannah Baxendale January 11, 2019 at 12:44 pm
Tiyah Malveaux-Phillips February 22, 2018 at 8:20 am
Cassie Kahrer February 22, 2018 at 8:20 am
February 22, 2018 at 8:19 am
Jordan Rohr February 22, 2018 at 8:17 am
Emma Mechelke February 22, 2018 at 8:16 am
AlessandroMiguel Amores February 22, 2018 at 8:16 am
VICTOR NGUYEN February 22, 2018 at 8:16 am
Ethan StLouis February 22, 2018 at 8:15 am
Grace Thomas February 22, 2018 at 8:13 am
Brooklyn February 22, 2018 at 8:11 am
Phillip Brady February 22, 2018 at 8:11 am
Alyssa Stettner February 22, 2018 at 8:11 am
Phillip Brady February 22, 2018 at 8:10 am
Connor Pargman February 22, 2018 at 8:10 am
Olivia Thomas February 22, 2018 at 8:07 am
Hannah Symalla February 22, 2018 at 8:06 am
February 22, 2018 at 8:06 am
Jeff Camp March 7, 2017 at 6:28 pm
Jeff Camp - Founder June 24, 2016 at 10:41 pm
Carol Kocivar June 22, 2016 at 11:04 am
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.
tybarra March 23, 2016 at 9:17 am
Jeff Camp - Founder January 11, 2016 at 10:03 am
Pamela Luk November 10, 2015 at 11:35 am
Jeff Camp - Founder October 20, 2015 at 6:10 pm
langle September 5, 2015 at 9:29 am
Jeff Camp - Founder September 6, 2015 at 12:21 pm
Alma Cacho May 2, 2018 at 9:38 am
tonyammarquez April 28, 2015 at 9:13 am
and it continues however I can't say it affected my educational performance.
Jeff Camp - Founder April 22, 2015 at 9:57 am
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 9:08 am
Brandi Galasso February 9, 2015 at 10:38 am
Jeff Camp - Founder June 20, 2015 at 11:53 pm
Jeff Camp - Founder September 15, 2014 at 9:14 am
Kim Fleming, PhD May 26, 2011 at 9:17 am
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: http://www.aecf.org/resources/double-jeopardy/
Bruce Fuller March 12, 2011 at 6:25 am
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: http://ewa.org (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