CCSS and PISA Test Thread on LinkedIn


If you are not reading some of the online topical threads on current education topics, you are missing an opportunity to follow the thoughts of an interesting variety of people who are interested in education.  One group I follow is … Continue reading

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.”


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.