Poverty and Educational Attainment, Part II

Poverty and Educational Attainment, Part II

In Part II, I’ll continue my commentary on poverty as the elephant in the educational reform movement.  Read my first post, Part I, here.  Once again, I am reading from the May issue of Educational Leadership.  Susan B Neuman, an education professor from the University of Michigan, reports on a 10-year study she and colleagues conducted which compared two neighborhoods in Philadelphia.  One, Kensington, is 90 percent poor, multiethnic, with a 29 percent unemployment rate.  Chestnut Hill, on the other hand, is gentrified, 80 percent white and 20 percent black, with parents who tend to be educated professionals, surrounded by parks “and … somewhat geographically isolated from the rest of the city.”

Over the 10 years of the study, the researchers examined how these disparities contributed to reading and ‘the development of information capital.  They noted three important differences they suggest are related to the economic disparities of the neighborhoods, the families, the community resources, and the schools.  These differences are print resources, adult supports, and independent reading.

In Chestnut Hill, there are multiple sources available to parents selecting a book for their children, with thousands of books, magazines and comic book titles.  Kensington, in contrast, had a small fraction of that number.  Neuman reports 13 titles per child on one hand, and just 1 per child on the other.  Tellingly, schools in Chestnut Hill had a wide assortment for children while Kensington has a limited and “merely adequate” selection.  The libraries in the former had twice the titles as the libraries in the latter.

The adult supports were also noticeable different.  Observing differences among the public libraries of the two communities, the researchers noted that in Chestnut Hill, children were read to by adults for 4 minutes of every hour observed, with adults recommending and guiding book selection.  In Kensington, “not one adult entered the preschool area…”  The observers estimated hat Chestnut Hill children “heard 14 times the number of words read in print per library visit as” their counterparts across town.  As background to this analysis, Neuman cites the research of Annett Lareau (2003), in Unequal Childhoods, (Berkeley: University of California Press).  This work describes differences in parenting styles between working class and middle class families.

In describing the differences in independent reading, the researchers focused on children ages 10-13.  Once again, they recorded what students were reading at the library, the grade level of the text, and whether it as informational or entertainment.  They also examined similar elements of student computer use at the libraries.  They found that only 58 percent of Kensington students were reading at grade level, and frequently the texts were designed for younger children.  In Chestnut Hill, 93 percent of students read at grade level and 7 percent were reading at higher levels.  Differences in time spent were also notable, and Kensington children also spent the majority of time reading for entertainment.  The same patterns were observed on the computers.  “In fact, {Chestnut Hill] students spent about 12 times the amount of time on informational reading materials in print and about 5 times more on informational websites than they spent on entertainment content…”

What are the consequences of these differences?  One significant difference is the well-known vocabulary differences that are found when comparing low-income children with middle and upper class children at virtually any grade level.  These late affect the accumulation of academic content–when children do not have the vocabulary to delve into grade level or increasingly complex text, they will remain at a significant advantage their entire school careers.  No amount of good teaching, by itself, can overcome these kinds of class-based disadvantages on a consistent, scalable basis.

Neuman offers four suggestions.  First, un-level the playing field by providing educations resources in low income schools that match those available in middle-class communities.  This is a major task–it really means extra funding for resources and for additional adult services in poor schools, going well beyond Title I.  Second, she notes that strengthening parent involvement by providing programs to help parents by teaching them about “skills and strategies children will need to be successful in school.”  Such programs are often suggested but simply are too rare so far to make a real difference.  Third, she suggests “people underestimate the capabilities of students who live in poor neighborhoods.”  This isn’t at all controversial, and is the basis for the notion that simply by staffing schools with brilliant and highly successful teachers, the problems of urban poverty and educational low performance will disappear.  Fourth, and likely far to idealistic, she suggests economically integrating schools, and cites research suggesting that such efforts can help to equalize the resources, improve school stability, decrease discipline problems and increase volunteer support in schools.

If these notions pique your interest, read the next article by Eric Jensen, entitled “How Poverty Affects Classroom Engagement.”  Eric is the author of two ASCD books:  Engagement with Poverty in Mind, 2013, and Teaching with Poverty in Mind, 2009.  He offers seven ways in which children of poverty struggle with engagement:  Health and nutrition; vocabulary; effort; hope and the growth mind-set; cognition; relationships; and distress.  He has multiple citations to the research suggesting these seven concerns, with suggestions on what a teacher can do.

When we hear President Obama supporting universal preschool, it’s an encouraging to think that at least a few politicians are thinking about how to address obvious gaps between the haves and the rest of American society.  The American Dream and upward mobility are hitting a wall of unequal opportunity that has grown higher and higher for the last 40 years.  Without breaking down this wall, or building steps by which the poor can climb the wall, the Dream will fade to dark.  And the major movers of education reform are simply paying no attention to such realities

Do get a copy of the May 2013 Educational Leadership.  It’s the best issue I’ve read in several years, and poverty is the most important and most neglected issue in American education today.

Poverty and Educational Attainment, Part I

In recent week, several excellent publications have crossed my desk or shown up on the Internet resources I read regularly. In this first of several postings on poverty and it’s effect on educational attainment, I’ll continue to build on one of my regular themes in this blog–that the effects of poverty on children are the elephant in the education reform movement. Everyone knows poverty impedes learning, but the well-know reform leaders, ostrich-like, refuse to confront the realities that researchers have elucidated again and again.

The Income-Achievement Gap

The theme of the May issue of Educational Leadership is “Faces of Poverty.” I think this issue is among the best I’ve ever read, and is particularly important to those of us who are concerned that this fundamental impediment to educational progress is being overlooked or intentionally ignored.  If you don’t subscribe already, you can purchase this issue for $7.00 on the ASCD website.  The first article is entitled “The Widening Income-Achievement Gap,” from Sean Reardon. Sean has looked at 50 years of data on the relationship between achievement and family income, using data from 12 national studies in which the achievement measures were standardized reading or math tests.

The Income Achievement Gap is Growing

Reardon points out that in the 60’s the income achievement gap between the 90th and 10th income percentiles was 0.9 standard deviations on standardized test scores. Today it’s 1.25 standard deviations. Over the same period, the black-white achievement gap has gone in the opposite direction–from nearly 1.25 SDs to about 0.6 SDs. This, he suggests, represents considerable success within schools in addressing racial equality, but highlights the problems that increasing economic stratification has created. The income achievement gap is growing across all racial populations is now at an all-time high in American life.

Furthermore, these income gaps are showing up in other measures of educational attainment such as college completion rates, enrollment at selective colleges, and participation in ‘soft skills’ like sports, clubs, and participation in extracurricular activities and community life.

The Gap Starts Early and Continues Through School

Gaps are observable in early childhood and kindergarten programs, and as students progress into higher grades, the gap continues. It grows slowly, but not significantly, and Reardon suggests this demonstrates that the cause of the gap is not unequal school quality (emphasis Reardon). Further analysis of the data suggests the gap actually closes during the school year and widens in the summer.

Increased Economic Stratification

Several changes in American society are suggested as causes of the gap. In the 50’s, families at the 90th percentile of income earned 5 time that of families at the 10th percentile. Today that gap is 11 times. Upward social mobility has also decreased as middle class jobs have disappeared. Today, upward mobility in the US is lower than in almost every other developed country of the world.

High income families usually have two parent caregivers supporting their children and providing resources for their success. Low income families are far more likely to be headed by single women with low educational attainment.

At the extremes of family income, between 1977 and 2007, the income of families at the 90th percentile increased 90 percent, while families in the bottom 20th percentile saw increases of only 7 percent, falling farther and farther behind every year. (Duncan and Murnane, (Eds.), 2011, Whither Opportunity?, New York, Russell Sage Foundation.)

College and Career Ready as the Measure of Achievement

Today, we are laboring under increasing pressure to get children ‘college and career’ ready, with educational programs that claim to be designed to prepare kids to continue in higher education after high school completion. One can question whether new standards appropriately reflect career readiness, unless the career required academic training–we do an abysmal job of meeting the needs of young adults who want to learn a trade. Much of society has gone along with the notion that success in life requires an advanced college program of some kind, of 2 years or more.

With the decline of formerly middle class jobs, overall generic data suggests that many of the employment sectors that are expanding, and that pay middle class wages, require higher educational levels, thus justifying the push toward college standards. This ignores the kinds of jobs that keep the backbone of the nation running. The national infrastructure continues to erode, and the vast majority of construction jobs don’t require college level training. So too, many manufacturing jobs–assembly lines in the auto industry have a few highly skilled tasks, but most are not. In general, the construction trades are not technical jobs either. And we rely on low-skill jobs for our day to day operations–retail sales, care of the elderly, clerical work, … the list goes on and on.

As a nation, we are very close to defining college ready as the only measure that counts. This is short-sighted, and indirectly suggests that certain employment opportunities will increasing be filled only by the children of the bottom 20%, who simply, overall, do not have the resources to thrive in a society with an ever-increasing income opportunity gap.