I’m not sure what is more maddening, a teacher union leader saying that we need to address poverty before we focus on schools or an education reform advocate claiming that we can close the achievement gap with the right school reform efforts. Both are too simplistic.
Research says: Family and Schools Have Largest Impact on Students
Poverty matters, as do good schools. The research seems fairly clear that outside of a student’s family, Mom in particular, school is the next greatest impact on a student’s trajectory. Research both on the political left (Rothstein and Center for American Progress) and the political right (the American Enterprise Institute) tend to agree.
A quick glance at a graph measuring student achievement against child poverty rates demonstrates that while there is a strong correlation between poverty and student achievement, there are also outliers that are bucking the trend. This implies that poverty has an enormous impact on student achievement. But that is not the whole story. The outlier demonstrates that a quality school or school system can overcome the negative relationship between poverty and achievement.
We can see similar patterns if we look globally. Organization for Economic and Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports show the range of relationships between educational outcomes and poverty. The U.S. is typically in the middle of the pack on education and at highest end in terms of poverty and income inequality among OECD countries. There is no question that the American poverty rate has a huge impact on education and social mobility. Just 30 or 40 years ago, the US had both the best education system (comparatively) and highest level of social/economic mobility of any country. We have fallen far behind many Asian and European countries. The diagram shows the US ranking on the 2012 PISA exam. Similar rankings are shown for the international TIMMS assessment and others.
Research demonstrates low-income students struggle to learn at the same pace as middle and upper income white students do. We have seen time and time again that students struggle in school when they do not have healthy food, quality health care, before/after school care, quality early childhood programs, a stable home, or a rich literacy-based home environment–among other home-based factors. It is still far easier to get into college if you are rich and dumb than if you are poor and smart. The highest performing schools in Colorado serving low-income students have a gap of between 4 and 6 points on the ACT, while the typical school serving low-income students has a gap from 8-12 points on the ACT (ACT scale is from 0-36). Low-income five-year-olds start off two years behind their middle income peers according to this recent Stanford study.
No Excuses: Let’s Get to Work on Both Poverty and Good Schools
I understand why those that do not want to see change in public education place everything on poverty, it shifts the discussion to policies about poverty, letting educators off the hook. It makes sense why so many representatives of the current system, particularly teacher unions make this argument but I am still stunned that so many committed educators seem to buy in even when research suggests that poverty has little impact on the development of kids. It seems rather bizarre that teacher unions would make these claims and at the same time argue that teachers make a difference in the lives of kids.
On the education reformer front, I realize that a charter leader does not want to be distracted by the complicated messy political issues around how to reduce poverty but I don’t know how they can continue to ignore the obvious impacts of poverty. Far too many education reformers seem to think that if only we were to improve the number of high performing charters or effective teachers we might rectify all of the inequality in this country. Teach For America’s One Day slogan comes to mind. Last time I checked, the highest performing charters were doing better than their district counterparts in urban districts, but very few of these schools have come close to closing the achievement gap when it comes to college and career-readiness.
Battling on Two Fronts
It is time for those of us that are committed to having great public schools for all do more to ensure that all kids have great schools and all of the supports required to succeed in school. While I recognize that, in many ways, poverty may seem even more intractable than school improvement and it may cost more, but we need to engage on these issues whether it is supporting better health care, tax and wage policy in addition to other efforts to reduce child poverty. Education reformers that suggest that their schools have closed the gap without being honest about all of the gaps caused by economic inequality are furthering the problem by suggesting that we can solve these problems with just some great schools. That is just not true. It is time for more of us to work on both fronts, to improve schools and support policies that reduce poverty.