Insight

Now what for children left behind?

Teachers of poor children do what they can to help them overcome obstacles, and Teachers of poor children do what they can to help them overcome obstacles, and wish they could do more.

“I grew up poor and have worked a fair amount of my life with low-income students. To be poor affects everything from health to housing — which weighs mightily on children. ... Only someone who hasn’t been poor could say that all this can be overcome by school.” — Education author Mike Rose

Things are bad out there and, according to new U.S. Census data, they aren’t getting better.

Information from the 2009 census, the American Community Survey released in September, found that applications for food stamps are at an all-time high, and the gap between rich and poor is at its widest ever. The nation’s poverty rate rose from 13.2 percent to 14.3 percent, “the second-greatest one-year poverty increase in the 50 years of federal poverty estimates,” according to testimony in October by the chief economist of the Fiscal Policy Institute.

In New York City, as in other metropolitan centers, poverty’s greatest victims are children. Each night, some 16,000 children in the city sleep in homeless shelters. Twenty-seven percent of school-age children in the city are poor, compared with 19 percent of all residents. In some neighborhoods it’s much worse. The poverty rate in the Mott Haven-Hunts Point neighborhood in the Bronx was a startling 43 percent, but the child poverty rate in that area was higher still: 56 percent. In Ocean Hill-Brownsville in Brooklyn, 36 percent of residents were poor, but 47 percent of children were.

The city’s family poverty rate, defined as an annual income below $22,000 for a family of four, rose to 20.3 in 2009 from 20.1 in 2008.

It is hard to come to grips with such levels of poverty and their effect on children’s academic lives. Yet in the era of No Child Left Behind and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it has become fashionable to ignore it.

“The single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income — it is the quality of their teacher,” asserted Chancellor Joel Klein and a group of superintendents in a “manifesto” in the Washington Post in October. Research has shown that teachers can indeed influence student growth, but the really large effects are found only at the very highest and lowest ends of the teacher scale. Poverty, with all its attendant ills, is far and away the largest predictor of student achievement. [Although a new study suggests poverty is not a significant predictor of on-time graduation. See Research Shows in New Briefs on page 17.]

The impact of poverty on student performance has been proved again and again. David Berliner, past president of the American Education Research Association, recently looked at scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Across the United States, math scores were tightly linked to the percentages of low-income students. Basically, the more poor children in your school, the lower your average math score.

That last bar in the chart below — the highest poverty levels — could be New York. Seventy-seven percent of the city’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the classic student poverty indicator, putting our rich city among the highest-ranked areas by student poverty. In fact, 68 percent of the city’s students qualify for completely free lunch, meaning their family’s annual income is no larger than $28,665 for four people.

Now what for children left behind - 2

If the family pays $1,200 a month in rent — and good luck finding a two-bedroom apartment for $1,200 in New York — that leaves at most $16,665 for food, utilities, clothing, medical care and transportation for four people for a year. It’s strange to claim that doesn’t matter.

“I grew up poor and have worked a fair amount of my life with low-income students,” education author Mike Rose wrote recently. “To be poor affects everything from health to housing — which weighs mightily on children. ... Only someone who hasn’t been poor could say that all this can be overcome by school.”

Poverty may not condemn students to poor achievement, but it litters their paths with boulders.
Teachers of poor children see every day the obstacles their students face. They do what they can — bring in coats or food, help with homework — and wish they could do more.

Referring to the celebrated Harlem Children’s Zone where impoverished students and their families get medical care, housing referrals and other assistance, former teacher Jessica Siegel wrote in Education Week [Oct. 25], “Anyone who has been around schools for any length of time knows that most school people want and need this kind of broad-based support for their students — it’s not just a rationalization for shirking their responsibilities.”

If current trends continue, the poor are going to grow more numerous while the very rich will prosper beyond most people’s imaginations. According to the Census survey, in 2009, the poorest of the poor, whose income is half the poverty level, rose to 11.7 million or 6.3 percent of the population, an all-time record, while the richest 5 percent of U.S. residents added to their incomes.

Such disparities are not lost on children or their teachers. The true test of the nation’s school system may lie not in increasing test scores, but in compelling the nation’s focus on the outrage of child poverty.

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