Child poverty is our national family secret. According to a recent ETS study by Richard Coley and Bruce Baker, among the economically advanced countries only Romania has a higher percentage of children living in poverty than the United States.
Twenty-three percent of American children live in poverty. One and a half million children live in extreme poverty, getting by on $2 or less per person per day in a given month. Nearly one-third of American children are in a household where neither parent hold full-time, year-round employment.
Coley and Baker document the effects of poverty on student learning. By the age of two poverty is already taking its toll; babies living in poverty are less able to listen for comprehension and have less expressive vocabulary than other babies. At four years old youngsters living in poverty have poorer letter recognition skills and are less able to identify numbers and shapes than their peers.
Children living in poverty perform less well than other children on NAEP reading assessments at the 4th and 8th grade levels. There is a near perfect correlation between SAT critical reading scores and family income — the higher the income the higher the score. Nine percent of students born into the lowest quartile of incomes between 1979 and 1982 graduated from college, while 54 percent of those coming from families in the top quartile graduated.
Our educational system is a vast sorting and selection machine that separates children and young adults according to the birth lottery. Inequality is reproduced by our schools with eerie consistency. My recent study of how high schools reproduce inequality helped me to understand how race and class discrimination are baked into the system. There are several ways high schools maintain social divisions including race and class segregation by zip code, credentialism and the reproduction of what sociologists call status rights based on the social prestige of high schools.
The work of Coley and Baker brings to consciousness that we are engaged in a struggle of the soul of America. The educational channeling of millions of children by race and class every year calls into question what we stand for as a people. To be fair, lots of us do care and do want to rectify what is an appalling situation. But the evidence is mounting that current policy efforts are not working. Coley and Baker write:
Education policies and reform efforts have shifted over the past several decades. Emphasis has shifted away from providing more equitable and adequate funding for schools and targeted services for disadvantaged students and toward polices directed at developing and implementing common core standards, improving teachers quality through the design and implementation of quantitative evaluation metrics, widespread use of test-based accountability systems, and providing wider-ranging choice among traditional district schools, charter schools, and private school vouchers. Yet, there exists little evidence that these reform strategies can substantially reduce the influence of poverty on educational opportunity, especially when they fail to address concurrently children’s readiness for school and availability of equitable and adequate funding for high poverty school and districts.
The authors suggest a shift in policy that includes greater awareness of the incidence of poverty and its consequences, equitably and adequately funding our schools, broadening access to high-quality preschool, reducing segregation and isolation, adopting effective school practices, recognizing the importance of a high-quality teacher force, and improving the measurement of poverty.
These are all sound ideas — what is lacking is the political will to turn suggestion in to action. Public education needs be redesigned from the ground up to solve its efficiency crisis (greater learning for all) and the equity crisis (greater access to opportunity for all).
Political paralysis is the forerunner to social crisis. I don’t know how we can revitalize our political process to tackle the very real problem of child poverty in the United States, but I do know sweeping it under the policy rug or grasping at illusory quick solutions will only make things worse for millions of children and their families.
Photo Credit: Educational Testing Service