Growing Poverty in American Schools

Growing Poverty in Schools

I’ve been writing about poverty a lot lately, with two recent post on poverty and educational attainment here, and here.  Continuing along that theme, two recent reports have come out of the Southern Education Foundation relating to poverty in U.S. Schools.  The first is A New Majority: Low Income Students in the South and Nation, dated October 2013.  Using 2011 school year data, 17 states are identified in which the majority of public school students are low income–eligible for free or reduced meals.  Of the 17, 13 are southern states that have had such numbers since 2005.  By region, the South has 53% low income in public schools, the West 50%, the Midwest 44% and the Northeast 40%.

City Poverty in Schools is Widespread

Looking at the low income rates in city public schools, it tops 50% in 38 states.  Cities are defined as having populations of 100,000 or more, which may help to explain why North Dakota, Montana, Colorado and Vermont have the lowest numbers of low income students in this category, ranging from 30-38%.  They may have the fewest cities large enough to make this study’s cut.  Regionally, the Northeast has the highest percent of low income students in it’s cities, at 71%, followed by the Midwest, the South and the West, with 54% of its city school populations in the low income range.  Given the concentration of poverty in big Eastern cities, this is not surprising.

District Poverty Highest in the South

Looked at yet another way, 76% of school districts in the South have low income majorities, with Western districts showing 54%, Midwestern districts 38%, and Northeast districts 26% low income students.  Again, students of geography will see in these numbers the patterns of population and SES distributions prevalent in each region.

Growth in Poverty in 10 Years

Low income student population growth over 10 years is a disturbing reflection of the growing economic disparities within America today.  Between 2001 and 2011, the Midwest, hardest hit by economic and manufacturing contractions, showed a 40% increase in low income students.  The South showed a 33% increase, the West a 31% increase, and the Northeast a 21% increase, so no regions were unscathed by the economic dislocation of families.

Achievement Gaps Remain Constant While the Percent of Low Income Students Grows

Between 2003 and 2011, NAEP scores have risen for all subgroups of students, but there is little change in the gap between scores of high and low income students–it remains at about 27 points in every region of the nation.  When you recognize that the numbers and percents of low income students have grown substantially while the gap in scores has remained constant and all scores have improved, that’s actually a rather substantial compliment to the work of schools during a time when per pupil expenditures have not kept pace with the increased number of low income students (except in the Northeast.)  These should be seen as relatively positive data elements for schools, but that positive reality is hidden behind the lingering achievement gap.  This gap is often described as a gap between white students and students of color, but it is increasingly being correctly identified as a socio-economic gap and a function of economic disparities, not racial ones.  This is easier to see in states with lower numbers of minority students but high rural, and usually white, poverty.  Rural poverty and low student performance go hand in hand, regardless of ethnicity.

TIMSS Math Scores and State Low Income Levels

The second important item from the Southern Education Foundation is a new brief that looks at TIMSS math scores by state using free and reduced lunch rates as a variable.  International Test Scores: States with a “New Majority” of Low Income Students finds that “states with math scores below or not significantly different from the international average in 2011 [on TIMSS Math scores] were largely the state with a majority of low income students.  The higher the percentage of low income students, the lower the states generally ranked in TIMSS Math or Science Grade 8 scores.  The accompanying charts clearly illustrate the patterns.

Poverty and Achievement Are Inversely Linked

These two reports once again point toward disparities of educational opportunities and economic inequality that so strongly influence student attainment.  We can talk forever about teacher quality and accountability, but until the nation takes responsibility for the patterns of economic inequality among the states, and the rural and urban poverty that is increasing annually, real progress will elude us.  As the first report above concludes: “When the public school achievement of low income students constitutes the educational success of failure of a majority of all public school students, our entire nation’s future educational capacity is at stake….. Without improving the educational support that the nation provides its low income students–students with the largest needs and usually with the least support–the trends of the last decade will be prologue for a nation not at risk, but a nation in decline.”


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