A short piece on Slate last week told a familiar grim story.
According to new data released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, over three million more children were living in poverty in 2013 than in 2008.
That’s a stark increase. Roughly 1 in 5 children overall were living in poverty in 2013. Worse yet, for black and Hispanic kids, it’s 1 in 3.
One in three.
Slate took this report as an opportunity to discuss how poor children are more likely to underperform academically. Whether the measure is proficiency on standardized tests, graduation rates or college completion, the outlook in terms of school performance is significantly worse for low-income students than for their middle-income and wealthy peers. And while all of that certainly has truth to it, it is hardly worth the conclusion Slate gives:
When it comes to learning how to read, unfortunately, family income may just determine destiny.
The average layperson who isn’t reading about education policy and data all day might get the wrong impression from that statement. And that’s understandable.
Low-income students are so consistently underprepared for success that many observers often mistake the correlation between poverty and low student achievement as a causal relationship.
You hear this mistaken belief underlying many of the arguments against major education reforms today—that we must address poverty first because we cannot expect children who face such great challenges to succeed in the classroom otherwise.
I reject this argument.
Balancing the Books
There is no doubt that children living in poverty have greater needs and require greater resources, inside and outside of the classroom. Yet in order to ensure a student can succeed, we must no more solve first for that child’s family income characteristics than we must solve for her black or brown skin.
That is not at all saying that we should not work to mitigate and then eliminate poverty. Rather, sticking with the comparison, we must fight to eliminate racial and economic injustice; but we must also build a public education system that serves black, brown and poor children just as well as it serves middle-class and white children.
Thus, what concerns me most about data showing that the number of children living in poverty is increasing is that our public school system has demonstrated that, at least in its current configuration, it is incapable of providing these students with equal educational opportunities.
Getting Beyond ‘the Exception’
The largest segment of low-income students and students of color live in large urban cities, where the school districts have demonstrated a consistent and troubling track record of performance. Among students attending school in a large city district in 2013, only 1 in 3 fourth graders scored at proficient or above in mathematics, and only 1 in 4 fourth graders scored at proficient or above in reading. Poor students attending rural schools face fewer opportunities as well.
But not all poor children have the same experience when it comes to school. In fact, a substantial knowledge base has existed for years regarding schools all over the country that achieve amazing results for students living in poverty. And despite some efforts to dismiss success stories as anecdotal exceptions that are not replicable, or are somehow masking other nefarious practices, many educators and school leaders know better.
‘Destiny’ is defined as something that is inevitable and predetermined. But the academic potential of low-income students is not preordained; underachievement is not an innate trait.
To raise achievement at scale requires us to do even more. It requires us to rethink our public education system as it is designed today. We must change the underlying policy environment in which schools and educators operate, the mechanisms through which our schools are funded and the way we hold schools accountable for the progress of their students.
But the first step is having high expectations for all children and eliminating the belief gap. The link between poverty and low student achievement is not a matter of destiny. It is a matter of whether we have the will to change the system we have in place and to offer our most disadvantaged children something greater.