Turns Out, It’s the Poverty

A recently released study on student achievement confirms what any teacher will tell you: Poverty matters. In fact, it matters a great deal. It seems the only people who don’t realize this are those making education policy — and Tennessee’s policy makers are among the worst at denying the reality of the situation.

Here’s more from the Washington Post:


High concentrations of poverty, not racial segregation, entirely account for the racial achievement gap in U.S. schools, a new study finds.


The research, released Monday, looked at the achievement gap between white students, who tend to have higher scores, and black and Hispanic students, who tend to have lower scores. Researchers with Stanford University wanted to know whether those gaps are driven by widespread segregation in schools or something else.


They found that the gaps were “completely accounted for” by poverty, with students in high-poverty schools performing worse than those from schools with children from wealthier families.

This isn’t actually news — but it is interesting to have such a comprehensive academic study confirming the importance of addressing poverty as a key driver of improving education outcomes.

I’ve written about this on a Tennessee-specific level before, especially as it relates to state testing and the ACT:


An analysis of TCAP performance over time indicates that those school systems with consistently high levels of poverty tend to have consistently low scores on TCAP. Likewise, those systems with the least amount of poverty tend to have consistently higher scores on TCAP.


One possible explanation for the expanding achievement gap is the investment gap among districts. That is, those districts with lower levels of poverty (the ones scoring higher on TCAP) also tend to invest funds in their schools well above what the state funding formula (BEP) generates. The top ten districts on TCAP performance spend 20% or more above what the BEP formula generates. By contrast, the bottom 10 districts spend 5% or less above the formula dollars.

In other words, money matters. Districts with concentrated poverty face two challenges: Students with significant economic needs AND the inability of the district to generate the revenue necessary to adequately invest in schools.

The Achievement School District’s first Superintendent, Chris Barbic, referenced this challenge as he was leaving the job:


As part of his announcement, he had this to say about turning around high-poverty, district schools:


In his email early Friday, Barbic offered a dim prognosis on that pioneering approach. “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results,” he wrote. “I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”

While state policymakers adopt misguided “reforms” like A-F school report cards and expensive voucher schemes, children in poverty remain in poverty. Interestingly, the State Report Card holds schools accountable for closing achievement gaps:


Under Tennessee’s accountability system, districts must increase achievement levels for all students and show faster growth in achievement for the students who are furthest behind in order to narrow achievement gaps.

At best, this policy is well-intentioned but misguided. A more cynical look at the policy reality would conclude that legislators simply don’t want to admit the real problem because dealing with it would be politically difficult.

Addressing poverty would mean providing access to jobs that pay a living wage as well as ensuring every Tennessean had access to health care. Our state leads the nation in number of people working at the minimum wage. We lead the nation in medical debt. We continue to refuse Medicaid expansion and most of our elected leaders at the federal level are resisting the push for Medicare for All.

Governor Bill Lee’s idea is to provide vouchers. Of course, all the evidence indicates vouchers just don’t work — they don’t improve student achievement. They do, however, take money from the public schools.

Bill Lee and his legislative allies are the latest to stick their heads in the sand and ignore the plight of the least among us. All the while, these same leaders expect teachers and school districts to do more with nothing.

Sadly, ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. Instead, like yet another disappointing UT football season, it will just keep getting worse.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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2 thoughts on “Turns Out, It’s the Poverty

  1. I so appreciate this post and link. They speak the truth. Kids will be forever be trapped in dense poverty and segregated neighborhoods. Rev. Bill Barnes shouted this from the rooftops. We can continue to blame educators and urban public school systems for low achievement … it is the easy place to lay blame. We need to look at ourselves … what we are willing to spend … how we shape our communities. Surely there are exceptions to the rule … public and charter schools that climb over the bar and perform as we hope … but dense and segregated neighborhoods of poverty have never been a pathway to the results we long for, especially when they are underfunded in comparison to high achieving systems.

  2. There is something they could do, and yes it would cost money. Reduce class size in high poverty schools, or increase teacher/student ratios with training paraprofessionals. I’ve been reading a lot of posts by SCS teachers. SCS requires so much testing which is on computers, and could be handled by paraprofessionals. Then classroom teachers could spend their time doing what is needed – teaching.
    SES has been a known predictor of student success for years.

    Higher SCS typically come into K having already attended good preschools were they have mastered the basics of the old K programs. They know their upper/lower letters, most sounds, and 0-20, if not higher. They’ve also learned how to socialize with peers, how to sit and learn, and use pencil & crayons. Or they stay at home where typically a parent “home schools” with a preschool type program with lots of enrichment through museum/zoo, plus learning games & activities, plus play dates that build social skills.

    Lower SES kids have gone to daycares that call them selves preschool. If the child has been lucky, they start school maybe knowing how to write their name, some letters & numbers, some socialization skills. Then there are those that this is their first educational experience. Some don’t even know their name because they’ve been called by a nickname all their life, but you haven’t been informed of it. These kids also appear to be extremely ADHD. However, the real problem is that for the first five years of their life they’ve never had any structure or schedule. They often come from a terribly disorganized home life. They become easily overwhelmed and act out because their brains, at age 5, aren’t developed enough to cope. They get attention when this happens. The birth of a new behavior is born. [I’m bored, I’ll act out, I’ll get attention/I’ll get out of work/I’ll entertain the class].

    So if the more challenging lower SES classes were either made very small (5-7), or a regular sized (20) was given 3 paraprofessionals so that classes could be broken into manageable work groups for the first three years of school (K-2). I think that this could do a lot more than to continue with all the changes and blaming the teachers for all that goes wrong. This would be giving the kids that need it the most the small, intensive classroom instruction that would benefit them the most.
    Why only the first three years? Research has definitively proven that students should master basic reading and math skills by the 3rd grade. If they don’t, it is indicative of a problem, and with such intensive work, teachers should have identified any weaknesses well before the 3rd grade. The earlier interventions begin the better for long term outcomes.

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