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Little income makes big difference in schools

Publication Date: 2007-05-09

When low-income kids get the assistance they need to reach school ready to learn, and when children from low-income and middle-income families go to school together, all students' performance is enhanced.

In recent months there has been a great deal of discussion about the Memphis City Schools and the educational challenges faced by the students and educators in that system.

A graphic in a recent article in The Atlantic, titled "Immune to Conventional Remedies," is a relevant read for the discussions we're having in our community. The graphic suggests that despite a national doubling of per-pupil funding, an increase in teacher qualifications and a decrease in student-to-teacher ratios, student achievement scores remained stagnant between 1970 and 2003.

This argument unfairly proposes that serious efforts to improve public schools have failed. Before we concede that pouring more money into public schools has not raised test scores, we need to look a bit more carefully at the numbers.

Between 1970 and 2003, there was a very real change in the population of students attending public schools nationwide. The percentage of kids in public schools from low-income families has tripled.

In 1970, 20 percent of students in public school were low-income, and by 2003 it reached 60 percent. (Meanwhile, both the total number of school-age children across the country -- and the share who are low-income -- increased only slightly.)

The dramatic change in the socioeconomic status of public school children accounts for much of the increase in spending per-pupil, given the additional cost of educating poor and low-income children. It costs at least 40 percent more per child, according to most independent and federal studies.

If the proportion of low-income children in public schools had remained constant between 1970 and 2003, it might be true that per-pupil spending had doubled. The reality is far different, and points instead to an absence of political will when it comes to improving the well-being of children in this country.

How so? Instead of investing in public schools, a growing share of middle-class -- particularly white, middle-class -- families have disinvested from public education, choosing other options like private, parochial or home schooling for their own children.

In many ways, Memphis illustrates national trends. Between 1994 and 2006, the number of low-income students attending Memphis City Schools increased by 25 percent, so that today, nearly 80 percent of students in the district are from low-income families. And while 97 percent of African-American children in the city attend public school, less than half of white children do.

Too often, low-income kids reach school at a disadvantage -- lacking proper nutrition, stable family and home life, quality time with parents and caregivers, and time spent reading together. They simply lack the fundamentals at home.

Children from low-income families have different home lives than children in middle-income families, and parents' income is directly tied to children's school readiness and academic success.

Meaningful Differences, a study of the development of children's vocabularies, shows that the children of professional parents are exposed to nearly three times more expansive vocabulary at home than children living in welfare families.

This difference translates into the classroom, and contributes to the achievement gap between low-income and middle-income students. It's no wonder that children from middle-income families develop vocabularies much more advanced by junior high than do peers from poor families. These disparities show up on test scores at the local, state and national levels.

The good news is that we know a great deal about what improves school readiness and academic performance. We can improve the likelihood that students will reach school ready to learn by investing heavily in early childhood programs.

The brain more than triples in size from birth until age 3, and dollars spent on early childhood interventions -- particularly those that focus on low-income families -- provide extraordinary returns on investment when it comes to the emotional, social and cognitive development of children.

High quality pre-kindergarten education is a bright addition of opportunity to parents in Tennessee.

When low-income kids get the assistance they need to reach school ready to learn, and when children from low-income and middle-income families go to school together, all students' performance is enhanced.

To find proof of this, we need look no further than our own district -- where some of the most integrated schools -- along both racial and class lines -- are also among the highest performers.

When it comes to public education, it really seems to be true that everybody does better when everybody does better.

Contact Leah C. Wells at cucp@theurbanchildinstitute.org.

Bio info: Leah C. Wells is a research associate with the Center for Urban Child Policy at The Urban Child Institute.

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