Poverty and the Achievement Gap: The Missing Link

Some things are so clear. Such is the case with the impact of socioeconomic status on student achievement. But it’s taking us way too long to  connect the dots.


This week, Renee Wilson-Simmons, executive director of the National Center for Children in Poverty, and I took a stab at it in a conversation at NCCP’s new online book club, for which Squandering America’s Future was the July selection.

Renee jump-started our discussion with a slide highlighting child poverty in America. Of 35 economically advanced nations, the U.S. rate of just over 23 percent puts us second only to Romania, whose status as “economically advanced,” needless to say, is disputable.

We then looked at the results of a survey of teachers of the year, conducted by the Council of Chief State School Officers. When asked about the barriers that most affect their students’ academic success, family stress, poverty, and learning and psychological problems topped the list. Anti-poverty initiatives, early learning, and reducing barriers to learning were the teachers’ top picks for investment.

They get it. But others—including policymakers—don’t have a clue. Too many people are shocked when they hear that nearly one in 4 children under the age of 6 lives in poverty.

Renee’s last graph summed it all up: rates of academic proficiency varied tremendously among poor, near-poor, and middle-class children. Socioeconomic status, and the conditions that accompany it, are the missing links in our nation’s conversation about the achievement gap.

So where do we go from here?

Thanks to neuroscientific and health research, we know a lot about those conditions. They’re called toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences, and they often come with the territory of poverty. Without the support of a stable, healthy, loving adult, the brains of infants exposed to, say, domestic violence and maternal depression, are affected, cortisol levels going through the roof. Toxic stress diverts energy from the prefrontal cortex, the center of executive function, or the heart of babies’ capacity to plan, focus, and learn.

Some of the outcomes are immediate. Others are long term: developmental delays, learning challenges, and physical and mental illness that can extend all the way into adulthood. Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control have spent decades tracking the effects of adverse childhood experiences in a longitudinal study, begun in the mid—1990s.

But this critical information hovers beneath the surface of our education policy conversation.

As I was doing research for my book, I came upon a couple of reports published by the ETS, which administers millions of achievement and admissions tests each year.  The first was the Black-White Achievement Gap. ETS called it a “whodunit detective story…without a clear whodunit ending.” The size of achievement gaps has waxed and waned since the National Assessment of Educational Progress introduced the “nation’s report card,” in 1969. But the disparities in outcomes were, apparently, puzzling.

In Poverty and Education: Finding the Way Forward, a report published two years later, the ETS had finally solved the mystery. Their document read like a social justice manifesto. They noted the disturbing prevalence of extreme poverty in the U.S. They cited the research of Helen Ladd, a Duke University economist, who’s been studying the impact of socioeconomic status on academic outcomes for years. She’s also a staunch critic of education policy, which has long reflected a deep denial of the impact of poverty on student outcomes, leaving educators to pick up the slack.

As usual, transforming our knowledge into action is not easy.

One of the great rewards of writing my book was finding social justice warriors making change for young children and families all over the country.  Like Geoffrey Nagle.  When I met him, he was Director of Tulane’s Institute of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health as well as State Director of BrightStart, Louisiana’s Early Childhood Advisory Council.

New Orleans is an epicenter of child poverty.  Of the Atlantic hurricanes in 2005, Katrina was the deadliest, striking the city’s most vulnerable children. Prior to the storm, 40 percent of New Orleans’s children under the age of five were living in poverty. After the deluge, that rate ascended to 65 percent. A Third World nation in our midst.

An act of nature made change acceptable, Geoff told me. “Before the storm, the state wasn’t paying a lot of attention. Two months after the storm, they said, ‘Remember that Quality Rating and Improvement System, you were talking about: how quickly can you do this?’” He swung into action, bringing to the table two hundred stakeholders, including early childhood teachers. By 2006, Louisiana’s Quality Start was up and running.

But he wasn’t finished. Geoff’s piece de resistance was the early childhood system budget, which includes all slices of the state’s pie for children. “When you show that half of 1 percent of early childhood dollars are going to early childhood mental health, it jumps off the page,” he said. “Before, they would have said: ‘what is early childhood mental health?’ but now it’s on the pie chart, and they go ‘oh my God, we’re doing nothing in mental health.’”

You could say that he was working at the forefront of this issue. Healthy social-emotional development is the sine qua non of academic achievement. When it’s compromised, cognitive development suffers. It’s as simple as that.


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1 comment to Poverty and the Achievement Gap: The Missing Link

  • Thank you for bringing attention to the impact of toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences on child outcomes. This truly is a sleeper issue at the moment and not only for policymakers! Many early childhood teachers and leaders are unfamiliar with the compelling research on this topic. Your comments about LA and its investment in early childhood mental health gives me an idea. Why don’t we have a QRS to measure, improve, and reform state early childhood systems? This proposed QRS would report on percentage of birth to 12 education dollars being spent on birth to K. It would report on effectiveness of system integration to best meet needs of children and their families. It would report on early childhood mental health as well as state PreK and child care budgets. Which states would receive the highest quality ratings on these metrics?

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