No Education Reform Without Tackling Poverty, Experts Say

If many so-called education reformers really want to close the student achievement gap, they should direct their fire away from public school educators and take aim at the real issue—poverty. This was the consensus of a panel of policy advocates and academics that convened recently on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. to discuss the impact of poverty on student learning over the past 40 years. The panelists presented data that showed the current state of student achievement and discussed what changes needed to be made to address the needs of students and schools in low socio-economic areas.

“It’s time to stop arguing whether schools prepare students for the future and launch a full scale attack on poverty,” said panelist Peter Edelman of the Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy.

Joining Edelman on the panel were Sean Reardon, Professor of Education and Sociology at Stanford University School of Education; David Sciarra, Executive Director of the Education Law Center in Newark, New Jersey; Eric Rafael González an Education Policy Advocate for the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc.; and Elaine Weiss, national coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education.

The panel used their presentations to demonstrate how more affluent schools have made significant gains in academic improvement over the past 40 years while under-funded schools, despite making some strides, have been unable to close the achievement gap. The panelists urged lawmakers to avoid blaming the public school system and instead put programs in place to address the crippling poverty that obstructs student learning.

“We do have a responsibility to build a system of public schools that address poverty needs as soon as the students walk through the door,” Sciarra said.

The ability to reach and engage these students in an academic setting at an early age is obviously critical, but extreme funding shortages and misplaced priorities have prevented too many students from having access to a quality pre-kindergarten classroom. The panelists agreed that immersing students in education early would produce long-term, sustainable benefits for all students.

The stakes, Sciarra warned, are high.

“All 3 – 4 year olds need to be put in high-quality pre-schools or the achievement gap will never close,” he said

Unfortunately, a new report lays out how stark the funding picture is for early childhood education across the country. According to the National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER), funding for state pre-K programs has plummeted by more than $700 per child nationwide over the past decade. Though enrollment in these programs has soared over the past 10 years, just 28 percent of all 4-year-olds and only 4 percent of all 3-year-olds are enrolled. NIEER also found that many states expanded enrollment without maintaining quality.

“Overall, state cuts to pre-K transformed the recession into a depression for many young children,” the report said.

NIEER’s report followed findings by the Schott Foundation for Public Education that detailed how lower-income students of color in New York City were being denied the critical resources needed to close the “opportunity gap” with more affluent students.

At the Capitol Hill forum, Sean Reardon of Stanford University demonstrated how the achievement gap between children from high-and low-income families is roughly 30 – 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than in 1976. If states received more financial assistance and listened to schools in determining how these funds should were allocated, the achievement gap between wealthier schools and struggling schools would slowly close.

Unless the funding course is reversed, financially strapped schools will continue to scramble to put together barely adequate programs and educational inequalities will only intensify.

“If we don’t discuss the poverty issue, we end up in a society where the American Dream becomes less and less possible,” said Reardon.

See Also:

What Does Quality Early Childhood Education Look Like?

Report: The Opportunity Gap is Growing

Child Poverty Rate Increases Across the Nation

  • Tremendous article; thank you. Until politicians listen to and act upon the advice of those that are on the front line of education no progress will be made for students. POVERTY is the root cause to “poor” academic achievement. No one wants to listen to this because it makes ALL of society accountable; thus it’s easier to blame the schools, or more specifically, the teachers. Let’s focus on fixing the main issue and stop finger pointing at easy targets. Collaborate will and educate those in poverty, not just students but adults. We must alter the poverty cycle one family at time. Put corporate and government dollars here, not into tests, etc.

  • Tracie

    I work at a school where 95% of the students are on free and reduced lunch. The life most of them have I wouldn’t wish on my enemies! Until we do something about their lives they will not reach their potential in school. If you truly want to make a change in Education then deal with this problem. Missouri educates their teachers about poverty but they don’t do enough for the students. No one does!!

  • sherylmorris

    Look to Crossway-Community for hope.

  • Jassa

    Just believe in education not in schools. We all know that children got familiar with the drugs while studying. So better to study them at home. There are lots of online institute available on the internet which teaches distances courses.

  • Mike

    People live in poverty because THE GOVERNMENT makes poverty comfortable.

  • DeAnn

    We don’t just need pre-school, however to help close the achievement gap. Our schools need so many more support structures in them to assist students and their families to maneuver through the community structures designed to assist them. For instance, every school should have a full-time nurse, psychologist, counselor &/or therapist, social worker, parent liason, a security officer, and staff for an ISS (in-school suspension) room. Our goal should be to assist our students in all aspects of their lives, and many of us who are honest know that high-poverty situations often result in students, even as young as kindergarten, with anti-social, psychotic or mental disorders that a regular classroom teacher is just not equipped to handle. Let’s find the money to fund these full-time postions, so that we have people in place who have the educational and experiential knowledge necessary to work with these high poverty/high needs children.

  • Mikem

    When are parents going to be held accountable for their own children….Fathers be fathers mothers be mothers. Teachers stop making excuses! You can’t even facilitate learning with the BILLIONS you already get!!! NO MORE!!

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  • Bob

    Poverty is an issue, but not the root cause. The American family structure is the main reason behind the fall of education. Children come to school not ready to work. Many can not count to 25 or no their ABC’s…Blame poverty, but why not take it further an add the lack of family structure, pride in education, and want in education.

  • Scott

    You know, I agree something has to be done about poverty. But government has shown they are not the ones to do it. They have been trying since the Great Depression, and government “assistance” really started to spike during LBJ’s “Great Society.” It hasn’t helped. Poverty stricken areas are still poverty stricken. How about we quit reflexively screaming that government should swoop in and fix everything. They obviously can’t do it. A free market can. And much more effectively. There is not one thing you can name (other than defense) that government programs have fixed over the years. Education has gotten worse since the federal government took over for the states. The same tired big government solutions to education will continue to produce the same result.

  • Kate Kelley

    I’d love to see a REAL reality show, where education pundits and policy-makers try to do their jobs while dealing with one of the problems common to our students. Hungry. Too-tight shoes. Dirty, because the water got turned off at home. Tired after trying to sleep in a car or a homeless shelter. Toothache. Ill. Impaired vision or hearing. Oh, and when their performance falls short of expectations, let’s make sure to blame their manager.

  • dale

    I teach at a very affluent public high school and our one and only goal is testsis test scores. Kids are not responsible for deadlines, do not respect authority and expect teachers to be ready at ttheir beckon call. Scores mean nothing without learning to respect others not born with a silver spoon.

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