Opinion
Education Opinion

Poverty Rate and the Achievement Gap

By Walt Gardner — September 20, 2010 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The data released by the Census Department on Sept. 16 are grim. The percentage of Americans living in poverty is the highest in 15 years, with children feeling the rise most acutely. The news has direct implications for reformers intent on narrowing the academic achievement gap and for states competing for the Race to the Top funds.

With one in five children affected - more than 15 million - and with little relief in sight, teachers will find their best efforts unlikely to be enough to turn around the worst schools. That’s because most failing schools are disproportionately populated by blacks and Hispanics, the two racial groups most devastated by poverty. Yet the latest report should come as no surprise. According to UNICEF, the U.S. has long had the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industriaiized world. (Only Mexico scored worse, but I don’t consider Mexico to be a rich country.)

The connection between childhood poverty and school performance is well documented. However, this link should not be taken to mean that poverty is destiny. The results of high-flying schools are evidence that in some cases the effects can be mitigated. The Harlem Children’s Zone is the best example. By providing wraparound services for children from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds, Geoffrey Canada has been able to post impressive results.

The question, however, is whether the Harlem Children’s Zone and its variants are scalable and sustainable. What works in a few cases for a short time does not necessarily work in a country as large and diverse as the U.S. over a protracted period. There are 5,000 public schools that Education Secretary Arne Duncan has identified as failing. What is the likelihood that all of them can be turned around? Don’t forget that advantaged children are not standing still in the interim. They continue to benefit from travel and other enriching learning experiences. As a result, the gap will persist.

Not to put too fine a point on this view, wealth in the U.S. is being increasingly concentrated in the upper 1 percent of the population. Between 1979 and 2007, for example, income for the bottom fifth of the country rose by only 16 percent. During the same period, however, for the top 1 percent income skyrocketed 281 percent. It’s not just the poor who are hurting. The middle class is feeling the pain as well. This situation is a prescription for the creation of a Third World country. And we all know what that means for education.

Critics will maintain that this outlook is alarmist. But history has shown that ignoring or minimizing threats to equity is dangerous. No other advanced democracy in the world tolerates the disparities that the U.S. does. We can continue to persist in the delusion that competition and other market-based strategies are the ultimate solution for educational quality. By the time we wake up to reality, however, it will be too late to do much to remedy matters. Resentment eventually leads to outrage, which creates an ideal environment for demagogues.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP