Poverty and Education: Finding the Way Forward

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Family income determinative of educational success, NOT race

by Robert Mann

Bob MannThe evidence keeps piling up on the relationship of poverty to poor student/school performance. The latest is in a new report, “Poverty and Education: Finding the Way Forward,” released by the Educational Testing Service (ETS).

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Here are a few excerpts from the report:

“While education has been envisioned as the great equalizer, this promise has been more myth than reality. Today, the achievement gap between the poor and the non-poor is twice as large as the achievement gap between Black and White students. The tracking of differences in the cognitive performance of toddlers, elementary and middle school students, and college-bound seniors shows substantial differences by income and/or poverty status. These differences undoubtedly contribute to the increasing stratification in who attends and graduates from college, limiting economic and social mobility and serving to perpetuate the gap between rich and poor. 

Liberty-CryingGiven the strong connection between educational success and economic disadvantage, we might expect education policy to focus on ways to overcome the effects of poverty on children. Yet most of today’s education policies have other foci. This is not to say that alleviating poverty should be the primary purpose of our public schools. The federal government addresses poverty through a variety of programs, services, and adjustments to tax regulations. Each of the 50 states differs widely in the extent to which it focuses on providing education and other services to children in poverty. Together, across all levels of government, scores of programs provide hundreds of billions of dollars to help the poor.

One aim of this report is to review the relationship between poverty and educational and other important life outcomes and to provide a clearer and more nuanced picture of poverty in America, as well as an understanding of how government attempts to address poverty — particularly from an educational perspective. Another aim is to consider the important issue of how poverty is officially measured in the United States and explore several additional aspects of income and poverty that broaden the perspective.”

The report’s authors also conclude:

Shreveport-katrina2“Compared with children whose families had incomes of at least twice the poverty line during their early childhood, poor children completed two fewer years of school, earned less than half as much money, worked 451 fewer hours per year, received $826 per year more in food stamps, and were nearly three times as likely to have poor health. Poor males were twice as likely to get arrested and poor females were five times more likely to have a child out of wedlock. Even after controlling for a variety of background characteristics, Duncan and Magnuson (2011) suggested that a substantial portion of the simple correlation between childhood income and most adult outcomes can be accounted for by the negative conditions associated with birth into a low-income household.

Education has been envisioned as the great equalizer, able to mitigate the effects of poverty on children by equipping them with the knowledge and skills they need to lead successful and productive lives. Unfortunately, this promise has been more myth than reality. Despite some periods of progress, the achievement gap between White and Black students remains substantial (Barton & Coley, 2010). Yet today, income has surpassed race/ethnicity as the great divider. Income-related achievement gaps have continued to grow as the gap between the richest and poorest American families has surged.

As researcher Sean Reardon of Stanford University explained recently in The New York Times: “We have moved from a society in the 1950s and 1960s, in which race was more consequential than family income, to one today in which family income appears more determinative of educational success than race” (Tavernise, 2012, para 4).”
The Whole report may be found here.

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