Poverty and Its Effects on School Achievement Are Forgotten in the President’s Budget

On Friday the Trump administration released a very “skinny” budget that outlined a few priorities for each federal department without many details. Many members of Congress, as you have undoubtedly heard, are not happy with what they see, and the ideas in this budget will likely be changed and amended before a budget is passed by Congress. (See more details about the budget process and the President’s proposed education budget here.) There is enough in Friday’s proposed budget for the Department of Education, however, to demonstrate Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s priorities.

In the list of programs for the Department of Education, there are three different expansions of school school choice and privatization—Title I Portability, some kind of pilot of federal vouchers, and expansion by 50 percent of the Charter Schools Program that underwrites grants to states for the launch of new charter schools.  The K-12 education budget cuts after-school programs, two programs that help students prepare for and apply to college, and teacher preparation. There is nothing in Trump’s new education budget to expand the opportunity to learn for America’s poorest children in urban and rural public schools.

For fifteen years the United States has had a test-based accountability system in place supposedly to close achievement gaps, raise school achievement, and drive school staff to work harder. There is widespread agreement that No Child Left Behind (now to be replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act) has failed to close achievement gaps and significantly raise overall achievement for the students who are farthest behind.

Among academic experts on education there is also widespread agreement about what needs to change to help students who struggle.  Expansion of school privatization and libertarian “freedom of choice” for a few students is definitely not the prescribed treatment for what is a much deeper set of problems.

Helen Ladd, a well-known professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, just published an extensive analysis of the No Child Left Behind Act in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.  No Child Left Behind relied almost exclusively, Ladd writes, “on tough test-based incentives. This approach would only have made sense if the problem of low-performing schools could be attributed primarily to teacher shirking as some people believed, or to the problem of the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ as suggested by President George W. Bush. But in fact low achievement in such schools is far more likely to reflect the limited capacity of such schools to meet the challenges that children from disadvantaged backgrounds boring to the classroom. Because of these challenges, schools serving concentrations of low-income students face greater tasks than those serving middle class students. The NCLB approach of holding schools alone responsible for student test score levels while paying little if any attention to the conditions in which learning takes place is simply not fair either to the schools or the children and was bound to be unsuccessful.”

At Stanford University, sociologist Sean Reardon has demonstrated widening residential segregation of our society by family income.  Reardon, with Kendra Bischoff of Cornell University, shows that across 117 metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009. Reardon and Bischoff believe that economic, “segregation is likely more consequential for children than for adults for two reasons. First most children spend a great deal of time in their neighborhood, making that immediate context particularly salient for them, while adults generally work and socialize in a larger geographic area. Second, for children, income segregation can lead to disparities in crucial public amenities, like schools, parks, libraries, and recreation.”  Children are affected by “neighborhood composition effects” such as the poverty rate, the average educational attainment level and the proportion of single parent families in their neighborhood as well as by “resource distribution effects” that include investments in their schools and recreation facilities as well as the presence of public hazards like pollution or crime. Reardon demonstrates here that along with growing residential segregation by income has been a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap.  The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

David Berliner, former dean of the school of education at Arizona State University and a past president of the American Educational Research Association, in a recent short column published by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post, explains how aggregate standardized test scores reflect Reardon’s findings: “As income increases per family from our poorest families (under 25th percentile in wealth), to working class (26th-50th percentile in family wealth), to middle class (51st to 75th percentile in family wealth), to wealthy (the highest quartile in family wealth), mean scores go up quite substantially. In every standardized achievement test whose scores we use to judge the quality of the education received by our children, family income strongly and significantly influences the mean scores obtained… Over the years, in many communities, wealthier citizens and government policies have managed to consign low-income students to something akin to a lower caste.”

In a piece published in The American Scholar, UCLA education professor Mike Rose suggests we, “Imagine… that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success. All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have direct links to local health and social service agencies.  If poor kids simply had eye exams and glasses, we’d see a rise in early reading proficiency. Extra tutoring would be provided…. Schools would be funded to stay open late, providing academic and recreational activities for their students. They could become focal institutions in low-income communities, involving parents and working with existing community groups and agencies focused on educational and economic improvement.”  These are the full service, wraparound Community Schools that have been expanded in New York City, Cincinnati and some other places. Ironically some Community Schools incorporate funding for after-school and summer programs from federal 21st Century Community Learning Center grants, a program eliminated in Trump’s proposed budget.

Last August, members the Vermont State Board of Education wrote to then-education secretary John King about what they believed was needed in the rules the U.S. Department of Education was drafting to implement  the Every Student Succeeds Act: “(W)e have strong concerns and reservations about ESSA. Fundamentally, if we are to close the achievement gap, it is imperative that we substantively address the underlying economic and social disparities that characterize our nation, our communities and our schools.  With two-thirds of the score variance attributable to outside of school factors, test score gaps measure the health of our society more than the quality of the schools.”

Even Andrew Rotherham, a corporate school reformer at Bellwether Education Partners, criticizes one of the proposals outlined in the President’s new budget: to experiment with turning Title I—the 1965 civil rights program to provide extra funding for schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty—into a portable voucher program.  Even though Title I Portability is proposed as a public (not privatized) school voucher program, in which children could carry their extra Title I funding across school district boundaries, Rotherham like many others worries that children would carry Title I dollars away from school districts serving concentrations of poor children to wealthier school districts with a less urgent need for the money: “Right now, those dollars are targeted toward low-income students in higher poverty schools. The idea is to pancake them for more impact, given both the research on effective educational interventions and the reality of housing today for low-income Americans, which often concentrates poor students in schools. Trump’s idea, by contrast, is to spread this money around in amounts too small to make a real difference…. It’s school choice light with an added consequence of making Title I dollars less effective than they are today.”

If, as all these people who do the research and know the research literature explain, poverty and residential concentration of the poorest children in particular neighborhoods and schools is the most serious challenge for public education, then there are also many other alarming problems for children and their public schools embedded in the proposed budgets for other federal departments. The Community Development Block Grant and Home Program, both cancelled in the President’s budget, help pay for housing and also support  shelters and services for the homeless. The Trump budget erases the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps poor people pay for heating their houses in the winter. The budget eliminates the Legal Services Corporation. Even the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is reduced. And of course there is the matter of the 24 million people likely to lose healthcare in the next decade if the current version of the Affordable Care Act were to go forward.

We are hearing a lot about how the President’s proposed budget will affect the middle and working class. As is too often the case, we are not hearing about the implications for the poor. If our society is intent on improving educational achievement, it will have to happen in the public schools that serve 90 percent of our children. At the same time the federal government will have to help state and local governments address poverty and what concentrated poverty does to very poor families and their neighborhoods and public schools.

Residential Resegregation by Income Continues across America’s Large Metropolitan Areas

In 2011, Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon and his Cornell University colleague Kendra Bishoff showed that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods.  By 2007, fewer families lived in mixed income communities. In a companion study, Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap.  The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

For half a century, sociologists have correlated family income with students’ test scores—wealthy children scoring higher in aggregate than their peers living in poverty. Reardon’s research helps explain just how how and why poverty and wealth are so significant for children’s outcomes.  The research confirms the impact of segregated neighborhoods on student achievement and accounts for the ways that wealthy families use their money and social capital to cultivate their children.  In his book Our Kids, Robert Putnam describes the significance of Reardon’s research: “In a landmark study, the Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon demonstrated a widening class gap in both math and reading test scores among American kids in recent decades… That gap corresponds, roughly speaking, to the high-income kids getting several more years of schooling than their low-income counterparts.  Moreover, this class gap has been growing within each racial group, while the gaps between racial groups have been narrowing…  By the opening of the twenty-first century, the class gap among students entering kindergarten was two to three times greater than the racial gap.  Reardon’s…. finding is of fundamental importance, because academic achievement, as measured by test scores, is a dominant contributor to class disparities in later outcomes, such as college graduation, incarceration, and adult earnings.  Strikingly Reardon’s analysis also suggests that schools themselves aren’t creating the opportunity gap: the gap is already large by the time children enter kindergarten and, he reports, does not grow appreciably as children progress through school.” (Our Kids, pp. 161-162. Emphasis in the original.)

Reardon and Bishoff continue to update their work on the correlation of growing income inequality in America with growing segregation by income—the rich moving near each other in wealthy enclaves and the families at the very bottom segregated in poor neighborhoods they cannot escape.  In a follow-up report published in 2013, Residential Segregation by Income, 1970-2009, Reardon and Bischoff updated their work on residential segregation by income across our nation’s 117 largest metropolitan areas (those with populations of 500,000).  Now they have once-again updated their findings in The Continuing Increase in Income Segregation, 2007-2012. Again, they study income segregation in 117 large metropolitan areas with populations over 500,000, where, they explain: “By 2012, over one third (34%) of all families lived in either rich or poor neighborhoods, more than double the percentage in 1970.  Over the same time period the proportion living in middle-income neighborhoods declined from 65% to 40%… In smaller metropolitan areas, income segregation is slightly lower, but has increased at the same rate over time.”  Between 2007 and 2012 segregation by income accelerated even in the middle range among working-class, middle-class and upper-middle-class families.

“Income inequality,”according to Reardon and Bishoff, ” is a key driver of income segregation.”  As the family income distribution widens, the absolute differences in income between families at different points in the income distribution grow, making it less likely that lower-income families can afford to live in the same neighborhoods as those with higher incomes.”  “(I)ncome segregation grew faster, on average, in metropolitan areas where income inequality was also rising quickly…. and was associated more with the rising segregation of affluence than the segregation of poverty.” In other words, families with money are moving into exurban enclaves or gentrified neighborhoods.  “Many of the places where income segregation increased the most in the 2007-2012 period were metropolitan areas that prior to 2007 had low to moderate levels of segregation.  In fact, in the metropolitan areas that were most segregated in 2007 (Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT; New York-Wayne-White Plains, NY-NJ; and Philadelphia, PA), income segregation actually declined very slightly from 2007-2012.”  The report ranks the metropolitan areas with the largest increase in income segregation and also those areas with the greatest increase in families living in poor or affluent areas.

The recent update on growing segregation by income from 2007-2012 concludes that, “(I)ncome segregation continued on the long upward trajectory that began in 1980.  During the 2007-2012 period—which spans the start of the Great Recession and the early years of recovery—middle-class, mixed-income neighborhoods became less common as more and more neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and concentrated affluence developed… These trends may be particularly consequential for children.  Neighborhood contexts and their associated resources affect children’s development and well-being, and their opportunities for future social mobility… Neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and affluence were once much less common in the U.S., but now are home to more than a third of all families in large metropolitan areas.”

The report ends with a warning not only about the consequences of growing income segregation among the poorest children but also among their isolated affluent counterparts: “Segregation of affluence not only concentrates income and wealth in a small number of communities, but also concentrates social capital and political power.  As a result, any self-interested investment the rich make in their own communities has little chance of ‘spilling over’ to benefit middle- and low-income families.  In addition, it is increasingly unlikely that high income families interact with middle- and low-income families, eroding some of the social empathy that might lead to support for broader public investment in social programs to help the poor and middle class.”