Poverty and Public Education

If we’re serious about public education, we need to get serious about poverty in this country. Too often those who wish to discuss the impact of poverty on children’s educational outcomes are accused of using it as an excuse for poor teaching. The new “reform” movement insists that the only thing poor kids need is a “great” teacher – increasingly defined by student test scores – and that any poor student performance must be the result of bad teachers.

Obviously, we should not tolerate incompetent teachers (though this is another reason good principals are so important, as it is their job to recognize sub-par teaching and offer the right kind of help – and to show truly bad teachers the door). And it goes without saying that all children have the potential to learn and do well in school. Naturally, we want all students to have a “great” teacher. However, we need a much better, and respectful, conversation about teacher evaluations that are based on far more than test scores alone. (Just think about the greatest teachers you ever had. Really. Imagine them for just a moment. You most certainly are not remembering the grades you got, but are thinking about teachers who inspired you, challenged you, nurtured your passions, and planted seeds that took years to mature.) High stakes testing has created a perverse system of teacher evaluation that often has little to do with recognizing great teaching.

The larger point is that good teaching matters an awful lot inside the school doors, but what happens to children outside them matters a whole lot more. The education historian Diane Ravitch points out, “Reformers like to say that poverty does not affect students’ academic performance, but that is their wish, not reality.” What’s more, she argues, “the corporate reform movement blames teachers for low test scores, ignoring the underlying social conditions that stack the deck against children who grow up in poverty. There is no question that schools in poor neighborhood must be improved, but school reform will not be enough to end unemployment and poverty.” [The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 256-57]

And the fact is that the poverty rate in the United States is projected to hit levels not seen since the 1960s – before many of today’s parents of school-aged children were even born. Census figures for 2011 will be released later this fall, but economists surveyed this summer broadly agreed that the poverty rate could climb as high as 15.7 percent. The Boston Globe explains, “even a 0.1 percentage point increase would put poverty at the highest level since 1965,” and that “[p]overty is spreading at record levels across many groups, from underemployed workers and suburban families to the poorest poor.” [Boston Globe, 7-23-12]

But the number that is our national disgrace – the number that ought to be on all of our lips, the cause for outrage, and at the top of our country’s priority list – is 26. That is the percentage of children aged birth to five living in poverty. [Tracking Poverty and Policy] That’s right, 26%. Over a quarter of American children start life struggling with the ill effects of poverty, including poor nutrition; inadequate pre-natal care; high exposure to health risks such as premature birth, lead poisoning, and asthma inducing smog; and the instability of frequent moves, substandard housing, and food insecurities, to name just a few.

A whopping 23.1% of U.S. children under the age of 18 live in poverty, putting us second in the world. Among developed nations, only Romania has a higher relative child poverty rate (with 25.5% of its children living in poverty). UNICEF reported this past spring that the U.S. ranks above Latvia, Bulgaria, Spain, Greece, and 29 other countries on this absolutely shameful scale. That ought to make us pay all the more attention to the study’s finding that government spending does lift children from poverty. [Huffington Post, 5-30-12]

We also know, as Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California points out, “Middle-class American students who attend well-funded schools rank at the top of the world on international tests.” He argues that, “The problem is poverty … Study after study shows that poverty has a devastating effect on school performance.” [Post-Gazette, 8-12-12] No surprise then that when the Keystone State Education Coalition analyzed Pennsylvania’s list of what it designated “failing schools” last year, it found the poverty rate at those schools was 80.8% (measured by the percentage of students receiving free or reduced price lunch) versus the statewide average of 39.1%. [KSEC, Feb-2011

It’s true that Pennsylvania’s children actually fare slightly better than the nation as a whole, with a statewide child poverty rate around 20 percent, putting us 14th out of the 50 states. But a report out this summer from the Annie E. Casey Foundation also found “nearly a third of children were in families in which no parent had full-time, year-round employment.” [KidsCount report, 7-25-12] Poverty is real, and it affects an astonishing number of Pennsylvania’s children starting in the years before they even reach school.

These numbers underscore just how stunningly short sighted it was when Governor Corbett attempted to slash $100million from early childhood education and Kindergarten earlier this year. If anything, we need to be investing more in pre-natal care and quality early childhood education programs. And we need more wrap-around services like before- and after-school care, tutoring programs, social workers and community healthcare. Those would be the kind of sound public policies based on proven strategies, backed up by real data, that we ought to expect from our legislators.

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