We’ll Have to Do Something About Poverty to Improve School Achievement

In the New Yorker essay she just published on the Atlanta test-cheating scandal, Rachel Aviv quotes education researcher David Berliner: “The people who say poverty is no excuse for low performance are now using teacher accountability as an excuse for doing nothing about poverty.”  While research demonstrates a strong correlation between extreme family poverty and children’s struggles to achieve at school, many us living in middle and upper income communities struggle to discern how family poverty affects children and how the poverty of a neighborhood affects the public schools. We don’t spend much time in poor neighborhoods and we rarely go into a public school once our own children are grown. Today this blog will review some of the evidence, particularly about the impact of concentrated poverty, a phenomenon especially evident in places like Philadelphia, Detroit, Newark, Memphis, Cleveland, and Gary.

Paul Jargowsky, Director of the Center for Urban Research and Education at Rutgers, defines concentrated poverty as a neighborhood where 40 percent or more of the people are poor.  In such neighborhoods, he writes, fewer than half the men are likely to be employed and fewer than half the children are likely to be living in a two-parent family.  This kind of poverty doubled between 1970 and 1990, writes Jargowsky, then diminished in the strong economy of the 1990s, and has risen quickly since 2000.

In his recent book, Stuck in Place, New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey explains whose lives are shaped by living in such circumstances: “Being raised in a high-poverty neighborhood is extremely rare for whites…  but is the norm for African Americans.  Among children born from 1955 through 1970, only 4 percent of whites were raised in neighborhoods with at least 20 percent poverty, compared to 62 percent of African Americans.  Three out of four white children were raised in neighborhoods with less than 10 percent poverty, compared to just 9 percent of African Americans.  Essentially no white children were raised in neighborhoods with at least 30 percent poverty, but three in ten African Americans were…  This degree of racial inequality is not a remnant of the past….  If there is any difference between children in the previous generation and in the current one, the degree of neighborhood disadvantage experienced by African American children has worsened in the current generation…  Even today, 31 percent of African American children live in neighborhoods where the poverty rate is 30 percent or greater, a level of poverty that is unknown among white children.” (pp. 27-29)

Cities where African American concentrated poverty is greatest, according to Jargowsky, are Detroit, Milwaukee, Rochester, Tallahassee, Dayton, Cleveland, Gary, Louisville, Buffalo, and Memphis.  Hispanic families also experience concentrated poverty, with the highest rates in Texas—Laredo, McAllen, Brownsville; in California—Fresno and Visalia; and in Las Cruces, New Mexico; and also in several cities in the East and Upper Midwest: Philadelphia; Springfield, Massachusetts; Milwaukee; and Hartford.

Another variable that makes an enormous difference for the children, according to Sharkey’s research, is embedded in the poverty data: “In essence, when white families live in a poor neighborhood, they typically do so for only a single generation; when they live in a rich neighborhood, they usually stay there for multiple generations.  The opposite is true for African American famlies: Neighborhood affluence is fleeting, and neighborhood poverty is most commonly multigenerational.” (p. 39, emphasis in the original)

Jargowsky contends that, “Concentration of poverty is the direct result of policy choices.  Political fragmentation means that hundreds of suburbs develop.”  “Suburbs grow much faster than is needed to accommodate metropolitan population growth.”  “By policy and tradition, we create a durable architecture of segregation that ensures the concentration of poverty.” In the long term, Jargowsky prescribes reversing the trajectory of suburbanization.

Is there a way to address today at least some of the issues for the children attending schools where segregation by economic level has become entrenched?  First, the demographic data demonstrate that today’s wave of  “portfolio school reform” that closes public schools and opens privately managed charter schools is not designed to address the primary issues in Philadelphia and Detroit and Cleveland; neither are voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee. If we choose to support children living in the circumstances these researchers describe, it will be necessary to develop the political will to invest publicly in the schools in communities where poverty seems intractable.  We’ll need to provide incentives to attract the best teachers and support teachers instead of blaming them when they cannot overcome such issues on their own.  We’ll need to reduce class sizes.  We’ll need to provide the kind of wrap-around health and social services embedded in Community Schools.  We’ll need to create quality pre-Kindergarten programs to catch children up before the achievement gap gets established prior to their even beginning school. The federal government will need to increase investment in improving the public schools in our poorest communities and  find ways to create incentives to ensure that states also increase their investment in quality education for children living in poverty.

In short we’ll have to take David Berliner seriously: “The people who say poverty is no excuse for low performance are now using teacher accountability as an excuse for doing nothing about poverty.”  There is no excuse for the kind of punitive public education policy our nation is currently practicing.