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A Consensus that Poverty Really Does Influence Education Outcomes

At a recent TC gathering of top education researchers, the consensus was that poverty really does influence educational outcomes
At a recent TC gathering of top education researchers, the consensus was that poverty really does influence educational outcomes

By Patricia Lamiell

Education, like any field, has its pendulum swings, and nowhere more so than around the issue of poverty.

In 1966, the federal government released “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” the first comprehensive national study to name poverty and its related problems—unstable housing, poor nutrition, lack of health care—as a cause of failure in school. Better known as The Coleman Report (for its principal author, Johns Hopkins University sociologist James Coleman), the document became the foundation of federal education policy for the next 35 years.

Beginning in about 2000, some education reformers began arguing that schools should be able to teach any child, regardless of his or her background. The legislation that emerged in part from their work—the federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002 – garnered widespread bipartisan support because it seemingly promised to hold schools accountable for imparting a quality education to students from historically neglected groups, including many minorities and those from low-income families. 

However, most observers now agree that the 2014 deadline set by NCLB for states to ensure proficiency for all American children in literacy and math, with no accompanying resource allocation and no clear or universal definition of “proficiency,” had the reverse effect of what was intended.  At best, many school districts narrowed their focus academic focus and “taught to the test,” while others actively gamed the system, “counseling out” poor students or otherwise disguising low test scores.

Now the pendulum shows signs of swinging back. Recently, bolstered in part by a growing body of empirical evidence that confirms that income status really does have a major impact on academic success—and that poverty is a problem for which schools alone cannot be held accountable—many states have secured waivers that excuse them from complying with NCLB in exchange for making changes that were being pushed by the U.S. Department of Education.

On September 19, at an event titled “Beyond the Schoolhouse Door: Bringing Non-School Factors Into Education Policy,” the prominent scholars and editors of three comprehensive volumes published this year gathered in TC’s Milbank Chapel to discuss the latest research on the connection between poverty and education and the implications for policy. The speakers also sought to handicap the political chances of those policies in this presidential election year.

See the video for Beyond the Schoolhouse Door: Bringing Non-School Factors Into Education Policy

The panel discussion was sponsored by TC’s Department of Education Policy & Analysis, and it was organized and moderated by Department Chair Jeffrey Henig, Professor of Political Science and Education.

Panelist Richard D. Kahlenberg, Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation and editor of The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic Diversity as an Education Reform Strategy (Century Foundation Press) said analysis of National Assessment of Educational Progress data in 2011 shows that low-income students who get a chance to attend low-poverty schools are almost two years ahead of their low-income peers in performance. By contrast, middle-class students in high-poverty schools do “a little bit worse than the low-income kids who are in the more affluent schools,” Kahlenberg said, evidence that school environments are important to academic success.

Greg J. Duncan, Distinguished Professor, School of Education at the University of California Irvine and co-editor with another speaker at the Milbank event—Richard Murnane, Thompson Professor of Education, School of Education, Harvard University—of Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances, agreed that school environment and the quality of teaching are critically important, but the socioeconomic status of students plays a significant part as well. Duncan noted that as income gaps among Americans have widened over the past several decades, so have economic segregation in schools and the disparity in academic performance between low- and middle-income students and their wealthier peers. The unhappy result, Duncan said, is that Americans have fallen from first to 19th among OECD nations in high school graduation rates, and from first to 12th in college graduations. “There has been a remarkable divergence in the educational outcomes for kids growing up in high- and low-income families,” Duncan said, adding that economic inequality has eclipsed race as a factor  influencing academic performance.

Such income disparity “really threatens the nation’s economic future,” Murnane said. He pointed to research by Claudia Goldman and Larry Katz showing that increases in academic achievement across all incomes drove dramatic economic growth and dramatic improvement in the standard of living over the first three-quarters of the 20th century. Increased income disparity also threatens Americans’ “deeply-held” belief in “intergenerational mobility,” Murnane said—the assumption by past generations that, by working very hard, parents could make it possible for their children to go farther in school than they did and have a better, more successful life.

Several panelists spoke about policy solutions that are politically achievable. Murnane said adoption of national common core standards, which a majority of states have agreed to do, and replacing state exams with national tests, which are more difficult, “will expose much larger gaps in achievement than the current tests show.” But he believes that addressing that gap would create a long-term opportunity to “improve education.”

In the 1960s and ‘70s, racial integration was achieved in some cities by busing white students from suburban neighborhoods to largely minority, but high-quality, inner-city magnet schools. Panelist William F. Tate, the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor at Washington University in St. Louis; and editor of Research on Schools, Neighborhoods and Communities: Toward Civic Responsibility (Rowman and Littlefield), said busing in the opposite direction—from inner-city to suburban schools—has been effective in St. Louis in attacking economic segregation in schools. Each inner-city student comes with extra money for the receiving school, which makes them attractive to aging suburban districts that may not be able to fully support their schools. “There is evidence from St. Louis and elsewhere, that if there are financial incentives, suburban schools are willing to accept low-income transfer students,” Tate said.

Nearly 50 years after the Coleman Report, panelist Michael Rebell, Executive Director, Campaign for Educational Equity and Professor of Law and Education at Teachers College, is working with other national education experts on a new report to Congress about the effect of poverty in schools. Rebell said government officials on both sides of the political aisle are beginning to agree that offering comprehensive educational and social services to low-income students and their families is the most cost-effective and efficient way to address the effects of income disparity.

“People are starting to emphasize the advantages of consolidation, of having different government agencies better coordinating, using the private sector more, using community agencies, using universities—doing a profound job of overcoming the impact of poverty—but doing it without huge new expenses. Whether that really can be done, I don’t know, but that is a lot of the talk now.”

Published Thursday, Sep. 27, 2012


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