America’s public schools serve more than 50 million students from kindergarten through 12th grade and more than 50 percent of those students qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch (FRPL) under the National School Lunch Program. In 2013, 24 percent of public school students attended a high-poverty school—schools where more than 75 percent of students qualify for FRPL—while only 21 percent of students attended schools where 25 percent or less of their peers qualified for FRPL.[i] While not directly correlated to poverty[MTJ1] , many of these students unfortunately fall through the cracks and wind up in the crevices of America’s achievement gap.
The achievement gap separating economically disadvantaged students from their more advantaged peers disproportionately affects students of color and has been the focus of discussion, research and controversy for more than 40 years. While the gap between black and white students narrowed considerably from the 1950s to the 1980s, that gap has remained stubbornly stable since then. Some research suggests that the income achievement gap (separating wealthy and poor students) is widening.[ii] Below-par achievement of minority and economically disadvantaged students remains one of the most concerning problems in education.
With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states can work toward the goal of helping to guarantee that all students receive a meaningful and well-rounded education and have an opportunity to graduate high school with skills that ensure their college and career readiness.
As states struggle to find and implement meaningful education policies to tackle the detrimental impact of poverty and accompanying achievement gap issues, some success stories exist that states may find helpful to consider and scale to best meet the needs of their students. Some of those programs and policies include:
Early Childhood STEM Learning Through the Arts Program
The Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts’ Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts has been working with the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia to establish a classroom residency program to integrate the arts into early childhood STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning. This initiative partnered more than 140 kindergarten and pre-k teachers with Wolf Trap’s trained teaching artists for up to two years of sustained professional development to develop lesson plans that use the arts to authentically support student success in math. An independent evaluation of the program conducted by the American Institutes for Research found that a teacher’s participation in the Wolf Trap program resulted in the equivalent of more than a month of additional math learning for students in just the first year. [iii]
K-12 Achievement Gap Issues Do Not Pertain to Certain States:
Even states with track records of above-average and strong academic achievement — such as Connecticut and Massachusetts — still struggle with how best to close persistent achievement gaps.
Connecticut, Massachusetts, Washington and Wisconsin established state task forces to review policies that could lessen the effect of the achievement gap and help students from all schools in their respective states succeed. Although recommendations and goals from state task force or commission reports vary widely, some common themes include:
- Offering professional development specific to teachers and administrators in low-performing schools and districts.
- Creating programs to recruit and retain teachers and administrators of color.
- Assisting English language learners (ELLs) and ELL teachers through special programs and extra training.
- Creating initiatives to address housing and food insecurities.
- Expanding early childhood education programs.
- Exploring alternative disciplinary actions to suspensions or expulsions, as they disproportionately affect students of color.
A report from Education Commission of the States, Closing the Achievement Gap: Four states’ efforts, shares more information about some of these policies.
Postsecondary Policies to Focus on Poverty and Achievement Gap Issues:
Wisconsin Emergency Grants - Unexpected expenses can derail a student’s entire semester and pose an additional challenge as they work to obtain a postsecondary education while living in poverty. Often, challenges that may appear as routine, on the surface challenges – such as a vehicle in need of repair, a sick babysitter or child or a reduction in working hours – pose unexpected hardships that can undo an already tight budget. To help students facing these challenges, the Wisconsin state legislature provides grants of up to $500 that can make all the difference for a student in poverty. These small, just-in-time grants can help students remain enrolled and complete the term. Policy citation: Wis. Stat § 36.66
Minnesota Child Care Grants - Finding accessible and affordable child care can pose a major challenge for low-income parents seeking to begin or finish a postsecondary credential. Recognizing that the expense of child care can determine whether parents living in poverty seek to obtain a postsecondary education, Minnesota, in addition to several other states, provides grant support tailored to meet the costs of child care while a parent attends class or studies. These income-based grants can offer financial relief for low-income students supporting their children while enrolled in college. Policy citation: Minn. Stat. § 136A.125
With the current legislative session underway, and as states continue their work in creating their individual ESSA state plans, new opportunities exist for states to develop and implement policies that provide support to impoverished students throughout their academic careers. These supports not only can help promote equal learning opportunities for all students, but can also help states to best address the needs of students living in poverty, work to close the achievement gap and ensure the success of their student populations.
[i] “Concentration of Public School Students Eligible for Free and Reduced-Price Lunch,” National Center for Education Statistics, 2016, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_clb.asp (accessed February 2017).
[ii] Sean F. Reardon, “The Widening Income Achievement Gap,” Educational Leadership 70 (May 2013): 10, http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/may13/vol70/num0... (accessed January 2015).
[iii] Meredith Ludwig, Mary Beth Marklein and Mengli Song, Arts Integration: A Promising Approach to Improving Early Learning (Washington, D.C.: American Institutes for Research, 2016), http://www.wolftrap.org/~/media/files/pdf/education/arts-integ-brief-2016-final.pdf?la=en (accessed February 2017).