Poverty and Education


Some of my more accomplished (and less opinionated) UNC colleagues released an immensely distressing study a couple of weeks ago. Chapel Hill and Madison medical scholars demonstrated that poverty has direct, potent and harmful impact on early brain development.

By age 4, kids living in economic distress show diminished brain tissue deemed essential to process information. Potential identifying causes included poor nutrition, sleep deprivation, lack of suitable reading materials and stimulation, parental stress and unsafe physical environments. The causal list was long and non-exhaustive. The conclusion, though, was linear and inescapable: poor kids begin to experience diminished life chances almost immediately.

Then North Carolina’s Public School Forum released its 2013 figures revealing that our 10 highest spending counties, last year, spent almost $60,000 more, per classroom, than our lowest spending counties. The unholy gap exists “primarily because of the variation in property wealth across the state.” The richest counties have “more than $2 million in real estate capacity available per student.” Poorer counties have about $380,000 in capacity for each school kid. The spending gulf widens significantly each year.

These two distinct, but linked, reports touch on a much larger, undisputed, and more opportunity crushing reality: students from economically disadvantaged families perform markedly less well, on average, than their peers from more advantaged backgrounds. This, of course, is the zip code standard. Little matters so much to a kid’s success as the wealth of his family and neighborhood.

Proof of our stunning economic achievement gap is fulsome. Sean Reardon of Stanford wrote last year that the link between family income and educational achievement “may be the most robust pattern demonstrated in all of education scholarship.” In other words, not only do we know wealthier kids have a giant leg up in educational opportunity, we know it more irrefutably than we know anything else about American education. Some first principle.

And the long-developed pattern is picking up speed. A new national report finds “the achievement gap between children from high and low income families is 40% larger for children born in 2001 than those born 25 years earlier.”

International comparisons tell an identical tale. Data from the massive Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that among 15 year olds, both here, and in each of the 13 or so countries significantly outpacing us, students of diminished economic status have much lower test scores than their more advantaged homeland counterparts. In every single nation.

As Helen Ladd (Duke) and Edward Fiske (Fiske Guide to Colleges) put it: “Can anyone credibly believe that the mediocre performance of American students on international tests is unrelated to the fact that (almost a quarter) of our children live in poverty?”

The Stanford Economic Policy Institute, after going through the latest PISA findings, determined that if the US had an economic “composition similar to that of the leading nations,” we’d rise to 6th from14th in reading, and to 13th, from 25th, in math.”

We do worse than international competitors because we allow twice as many of our kids to live in wrenching poverty. This, of course, creates unspeakable hardship for millions of innocent kids. But it also makes it demonstrably impossible to have one of the world’s leading education systems.

The troubling correlation between education and poverty places Republican reform efforts in odd posture. In state capitals across the country, the conservative obsession to “reform” our education system – through vouchers, tests, performance measures, and the like – is matched only by an unequalled, defining pledge to ignore child poverty. They’ll use every reform tool in the arsenal except the one that the entire world knows matters most – lifting kids from debilitating hardship. As if a child can learn effectively when she is hungry, sick, ill-clad, unsupported, unchallenged and unprepared. 

The marriage of poverty and educational underperformance should also give pause to the many who claim the only anti-poverty program they can support is education. It’s a consoling thought, perhaps. But it s literally, quite literally, impossible to secure equal educational opportunity while a quarter of our children live in torturous poverty.

It’s like trying to teach your dog to speak French. Can’t be done. 

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of law and director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina and President Emeritus of College of William & Mary.

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 201



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