By StudyBlue CEO and Founder Chris Klundt
We often reference the “achievement gap” when discussing how certain student groups perform better than others. For instance, low-income students are graduating at a rate of 15 percentage points behind their more affluent peers, according to a recent GradNation report. Or that the graduation rate for Hispanic/Latino students in New York is nearly 20 points below the national average among all students.
These standardized measurements of achievement, like graduation rates and test scores, only examine student outcomes. What we need to do is explore what’s causing this opportunity gap – and low-income students to fall behind – so we can remold our school systems into environments conducive to student success for all. That means reimagining an educational system that best equips students for the workforce of the future and not the assembly lines of the Industrial Revolution, when our current educational system was first formed.
Opportunities Out of Reach
We first have to understand the challenge of rising out of poverty. Students are often stuck in a vicious cycle, suggests Harvard professor Robert Putnam, who analyzed decades of research on families from both sides of the economic scale. He found familial situations can determine much in life, with parental characteristics – such as level of education – being more influential today than they were several decades ago. Additionally, researchers like University of California-Irvine professor Greg Duncan are seeing more affluent families heavily investing in extra educational opportunities – nearly $10,000 per child per year, compared to lower-income parents’ $1,300 per child per year.
“It’s no wonder that schools are having a difficult time closing gaps…because of things that are happening at home,” Greg tells me.
Many families rely on public school and can’t afford to supplement their child’s education. Earlier this year, a Southern Education Foundation report showed a majority of public school students nationwide come from low-income families, with high-poverty schools clustered unevenly across the country. These geographic disparities are amplified for children of color, in areas like the South. Part of this is due to economic and social policies that live outside education, explains SEF President Kent McGuire. It’s these instances of geographic disparity and policies that not only reflect the challenges public school students in poverty face, but the overwhelming burden placed on teachers ill-equipped to help them.
Support for Success
Living in poverty includes numerous instabilities – housing, food scarcity, familial connections – that students inevitably bring with them into the classroom. These stressful situations are traumatic for students and undermine their ability to learn, Pamela Cantor, child psychiatrist and president of Turnaround for Children, found after her own interactions and research with children. It’s what prompted her to launch Turnaround, an organization aimed at helping schools in high-poverty areas, and its educators, establish an environment conducive to successful learning.
To best foster student success, these learning environments need to be more flexible and function as support systems for teachers. Thankfully, organizations like Cantor’s and McGuire’s are helping schools construct these foundational environments by promoting personalized learning experiences that stimulate academic growth. Turnaround’s New York City partner schools saw a 39 percent reduction in detentions, along with lower absenteeism and bad behavior. Similarly, comprehensive school reform programs like Expeditionary Learning provide malleable curriculum so teachers can adapt lessons to help all types of learners catch up and get ahead.
Building Achievement Bridges
Although these efforts are commendable, we have to keep in mind it’s only one piece of the puzzle. On top of curriculum-based efforts, schools need to help provide poverty-stricken students with access to important necessities they aren’t getting outside the school day. Opportunities like health and nutrition education, offering free breakfast options or providing mental health services can serve as achievement bridges for students who’d normally fall through the cracks. Because if a student is hungry, tired, or homeless, they’re already at a massive disadvantage for being able to “do well” in school no matter how engaging the curriculum.
We need to continue fostering ways to help fulfill these basic needs and ensure school is a safe haven for all children to learn and grow. Education reform can’t be self-contained. Battling the effects of income inequality in our schools require changes in sectors ranging from economic and employment policies to better health initiatives. The achievement gap will remain unless we attempt to reform the broader environment surrounding education.