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U.S. Schools Have a Poverty Crisis, Not an Education Crisis

Posted: 02/ 1/2012 3:16 pm

In the 10 years since enacting the No Child Left Behind Act, we have made very little progress toward our national goal of closing the achievement gap between students from low-income families and their better-off peers. Implicitly acknowledging this lack of progress, President Obama announced last fall that his administration would grant states waivers that would, among other things, give them more time to meet the law's goals. More time won't help, however, unless the Obama administration and Congress acknowledge the most glaring flaw in NCLB and the educational policies of most states -- their failure to recognize and mitigate the enormous impact of poverty on the chances for the school success of millions of American schoolchildren.

In America, we don't have an education crisis; rather we have a poverty crisis. The latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores indicate that American schools that serve few low-income students rank higher than the world's top-scoring advanced industrial countries. But when they are averaged with the scores of schools with high poverty rates, the United States sinks to the middle of the pack. At nearly 22 percent and rising, the child-poverty rate in the United States is the highest among wealthy nations in the world. (Poverty rates in Denmark and in Finland, top global performers on the PISA exams, are below 5 percent). In New York City, the child-poverty rate rose to over 30 percent in 2010. Like other aspects of the inequitable U.S. distribution of wealth, our child poverty crisis seems to fall within a national blind spot.

Childhood poverty has a profound impact on learning. Achievement gaps for disadvantaged children begin before they start school and widen throughout their school careers. But research shows that change is possible.

Most non-poor students in this country come to school equipped with the basics for success. They arrive with the preschool experiences they need to be ready for grade-level work; their health and mental-health needs are largely being met; they enjoy a range of both academic and nonacademic learning experiences beyond the school day that complement what they learn in class; and they receive the family support that ensures they are motivated and prepared to learn during the school day. Children raised in poverty cannot count on these advantages. As a result, too many are unprepared, inattentive, or chronically absent.

We can and we must respond on a broad, systemic basis to the socioeconomic factors that impede learning. For the past three years, working with a statewide task force of experts and advocates in a variety of fields and a team of seven education economists, the Campaign for Educational Equity has examined the legal, economic, and policy issues associated with providing a broad range of comprehensive services to low-income students. Last fall, we issued five white papers that demonstrate how impediments to school success that are caused by poverty can be overcome on a large scale. These papers conclude that:

  • In addition to in-school resources to meet their learning needs, disadvantaged students are entitled to relevant services in the areas of early-childhood education, expanded out-of-school time learning, health care, and family engagement and support.
  • Access to these comprehensive educational services is a legal right that must be made available to all disadvantaged children, not merely to some and only when political trends and budget cycles coincide.
  • Each state needs to create a policy infrastructure for fulfilling this right by crafting standards, parallel to K-12 education standards, for early childhood, expanded learning time, health care and health education, and family engagement.
  • States can provide these comprehensive services for a reasonable price. We estimate it would cost approximately 4,200 annually per disadvantaged student (above current educational costs) over the 18.5 years from birth through high school to provide the full array. Moreover, the economic and social benefits to providing them would, in time, return more than double the value of the investments made.

We cannot continue to bemoan mediocre national scores and ignore the real story of disparate achievement. A growing body of research and a number of demonstration projects around the country indicate that America will attain its goals of equity and excellence in education only through a concerted effort to eliminate the substantial socioeconomic barriers that limit school success for many students.

We have the tools and knowledge needed, but implementation of the full program that we envision would take a decade or more. That means getting started now with a focused agenda to meet the comprehensive educational needs of all our children.