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.