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If you want to close the achievement gap, you can't ignore poverty

Jan 23, 2017

Poor kids in Michigan, and across the country, do worse in school than their wealthier peers.

That’s particularly true for kids attending schools where most of the other students are also low-income, too. Schools that do manage to get kids in concentrated poverty performing on par with wealthier peers are the exception.

This information is probably not all that surprising to you. But if you need a visual aid, take a look at where the bottom 5% of schools are in Michigan. 

The red dots represent schools in the bottom 5% of student achievement in September 2016. The shaded areas show the percentage of children who receive free or reduced lunch within a school district's boundaries.
Credit Sy Doan / Vanderbilt University

See all those clusters of red dots? For the most part, those are places where students are going to high-poverty schools. When you look at Michigan schools’ standardized test scores, the thing that pops out again and again is that the poorer a school’s students are, the worse they are doing on those tests. 

Districts with a high percentage of kids receiving free and reduced lunch are much more likely to end up on the priorities schools list.
Credit Sy Doan / Vanderbilt University

And these test scores aren’t just numbers. They have real world consequences. In Michigan, schools whose test scores put them into the bottom 5% of schools for three years in a row are supposed to be shut down.

The state's School Reform Office (SRO) recently released a list of 38 schools across Michigan that would be eligible for closure this year based on the past three years of test scores.

So, how do we fix this?

There are all sorts of ideas about what reforms could make schools work for poor kids.

But before you find a solution, you need to understand the problem. Here’s a breakdown of some of the ways poverty impacts student achievement — outside the classroom.   

Early learning experiences

The achievement gap between poor and rich kids becomes obvious once they start school. But it starts long before they ever set foot in a classroom. By the time they reach kindergarten, low-income kids are often more than a year behind their wealthier peers. And kids who start out behind in kindergarten have a very hard time catching up as they grow up.

One of the reasons that children from low-income families fall behind is that they miss out on early experiences that are critical for language development and literacy. By the time they start school, low-income kids have heard around 30 million fewer words than other children their age. Families living in poverty also tend to have fewer books in the house, which can have a huge impact on learning. One study found that kids who grew up surrounded by books were three years ahead of peers coming from book-less homes. 

Another factor is access to high-quality childcare and preschool. States and the federal government have recently been working to expand access to early childhood education for low-income kids.

But there are still 2.5 million kids in the U.S. who don’t have access to publicly funded preschool. And even for kids who do end up in preschool, the quality of those programs vary widely, and to a large extent, reflect a family’s resources. As Columbia University professor Jane Waldfogel told the Washington Post:

“Whereas other kids — those in the middle, but especially those at the bottom — are in poorer quality care, or they might be in informal care, they might be in a patchwork of arrangements — with a relative or a baby sitter or someone else.”

There is some good news on this front. The most recent research shows the school-readiness gap between poor and rich kids is narrowing. Researchers say and increase in preschool enrollment is one reason. But so are changes in the amount of time poor parents are spending reading to their kids and taking them to places like museums and libraries. 

Neighborhood influences

Growing up in a neighborhood with concentrated poverty is stressful — both physically and mentally.

One of the most dangerous health hazards low-income kids face is lead exposure. Aging and rundown housing is more likely to have flaking lead paint and lead dust in the air and soil, which quickly finds its way into children’s bodies. Early exposure to the neurotoxin has long-lasting effects on a child’s cognitive abilities.

The psychological toll of growing up poor is also significant. Low-income kids face higher rates of family instability and separation and are more likely to be exposed to violence. The stress that causes has a direct impact on how well students do in school. A 2014 study found that kids who lived on blocks where a violent crime had recently occurred did worse on standardized tests. 

Healthcare access and hunger

If you can’t see the white board or hear what the teacher is saying, it’s pretty hard to keep up in school. And according to a report from the Children's Health Fund, poor kids are less likely to get the vision and hearing care they need. They also are more likely to go without treatment for dental problems. Around 27% of children living in poverty have untreated cavities.

Hunger is another barrier to low-income children’s learning. Going to school hungry can make it harder for kids to focus or interact with their peers. The same report estimates that 3 million households with children in the U.S. experience food insecurity. “Of these, an estimated 274,000 households experience food insecurity so severe that children were hungry, skipped a meal, or did not eat for a whole day or more,” the report says. 

This isn't a complete list of all the ways poverty impacts learning. But it illustrates an important point: The schools in charge of educating the poorest students in America are being asked to take on problems that extend far beyond the classroom.

We'll explore how well schools in Detroit are meeting that challenge in our latest documentary. Tune in at 3 p.m. and again at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, January 25, to listen to We Live Here by State of Opportunity reporter Jen Guerra.