WASHINGTON — To change the life trajectory of children from families of lesser means, more attention must be given to their plight and crafting policies that increase their likelihood for academic success.
That was the heart of the message delivered Wednesday by the Educational Testing Service, or ETS, during a research forum titled “Poverty and Education: Finding the Way Forward.” The event featured the release of the report by the same name.
The report compiles previously publicized but perhaps not-so-well-known facts and figures that delineate the scope and depth of poverty in America. For instance, 22 percent of the nation’s children are in poverty, 20 million Americans have incomes of less than half of the poverty threshold, and about 1.5 million households with about 2.8 million children are classified as being in “extreme poverty,” that is, living on $2 or less of income per person per day in a given month.
Though the poverty threshold for a family of four is $23,550, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the report notes that “large differences” exist in the income needed by families in various parts of the United States.
The report also contains recommendations of things that can be done to ensure better educational outcomes for children from poor families, such as improving the quality of the teacher workforce and reducing isolation and segregation along racial, ethnic and income lines.
More specific recommendations in the ETS report, which are “within the purview of education policymakers,” include:
- Increasing awareness of the incidence of poverty and its consequences, such as greater reliance on social services and higher rates of incarceration;
- Equitably and adequately funding schools. “There is a need for better coordinator of federal and state education programs targeted at poverty,” the report states;
- Broadening access to high-quality preschool education, which has been shown to improve the educational outcomes of children, particularly those from low-income families;
- Reducing segregation and isolation among the nation’s schools. “Concentrated poverty and large income disparities reduce the extent to which lower- and higher-income children interact in schools and classrooms as peers, largely to the educational disadvantage of the lower-income students,” the report states. “The concentration of child poverty dramatically increases the costs of improving student outcomes by increasing the necessity for targeted educational interventions and supplemental services”;
- Adopting effective school practices, such as smaller class sizes, longer school days and years, and tutoring;
- Recognizing the importance of a high-quality teacher workforce. “Attracting and keeping high-quality teachers in high-poverty classrooms should be of the utmost priority and may require special incentives”; and
- Improving the measurement of poverty in order to better allocate resources for various federal, state and local programs. “Work should continue to expand the official definition of income to include government spending directed at low-income families and to recognize cost-of-living differences across regions.”
Some of the recommendations were criticized as being off-base.
For instance, Andrea Giunta, senior policy analyst in the Teacher Quality Department at the Center for Great Public Schools at the National Education Association, said most teachers leave their jobs not because of lack of pay or large class sizes but because of the inability to be involved in decision-making at the school level and in the selection of course materials.
One audience member asked how the authors of the report would go about the business of reducing isolation and segregation.
Bruce Baker, professor of educational theory, policy and administration at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, conceded that the problem of isolation and segregation is “one of those intractable problems.”
“We would suggest that states that have more aggressive judicial interventions or even proactive policies around housing integration may be able to achieve some reduction of segregation,” Baker said. “But it’s clearly one of those difficult things to overcome.”
He added more equitable funding for schools could help solve the problem because school funding impacts class size and other factors that homebuyers with children consider when moving into a neighborhood.
Baker also acknowledged that improving teacher quality was just one piece of the puzzle.
“If we focus only on trying to get competitive wages to recruit and retain teachers in high poverty settings, we’d only be putting a small dent in things,” Baker said.