Too many poor kids

Poor kids learn more in low-poverty schools, according to a Century Foundation study that looked at Montgomery County, Maryland schools. Writing in Time, Andrew Rotherham sees socioeconomic integration as logistically challenging. Century’s Rick Kahlenberg responds here.

It’s impossible for most low-income students to attend low-poverty schools, writes Sara Mead in her Ed Week blog. There are too many poor kids.

The study found low-income students learned more in schools in which no more than 20 percent of students qualified for a subsidized lunch, but the benefits vanished when 35 percent of students were eligible for a subsidized lunch. “Nationally, 41% of American students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches,” Mead writes. Do the math.

It’s possible for a fraction of low-income students to attend middle-class schools.  For the majority, “it is absolutely critical that we ALSO have strategies in place to enable low-income children to get a good education in high-poverty schools.”

This makes sense to me. There are some high-performing, high-poverty schools, usually organized around middle-class values. Districts could create more.

About Joanne


  1. The fact that poor kids do better in low-poverty schools has nothing to do with any magic properties of middle class and wealthy kids. It has everything to do with the fact that a parent who is wiling to scratch and fight to get his or her kid into a “better” school no matter what is a supportive parent who is showing the value of education. That parent is making sure homework gets done, that the kids get to school every day without fail, and that there are books in the house. Wake me when research shows that plopping completely random poor kids in a rich kids’ classroom results in anything more promising than a sitcom premise.

    Putting poor kids in low-poverty schools isn’t going to fix the performance gap, even if it were possible to do.

  2. ShortWoman, the kids in this study weren’t in low-poverty schools because a parent fought and clawed their way in. They were essentially randomly assigned to those schools, as you’d know if you had read anything about the study:

    For forty years, this affluent Washington suburb has required developers of new subdivisions or condominiums to set-aside units for low-income residents, creating opportunities for poor children to live—and go to neighborhood schools—with more affluent agemates. What’s more, families who apply to these housing units are randomly selected, creating perfect conditions for rigorous social science.

    Cries of “It’s the parents!” are far louder and more ubiquitous than cries of “It’s the teachers!” It’s as if teachers *want* to not be able to remedy the shortcomings of parents, which after all children do not choose.

  3. > 41% of American students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches


  4. Mark Roulo says:

    Do we know if the key factor is sitting next to kids whose parents make a lot of money, or sitting in orderly classrooms? I can imagine a low income school with well behaved kids. And I can imagine the kids at this school learning more than at a low income school with absolute chaos.

    Is it the wealth, or the behavior of the adjacent kid? Or do the two track so closely as to be difficult to separate?

  5. I have taught in a school where the children were very poor and very well behaved. This was in Chicago in the 1960’s; the children lived in the shadow of the infamous Robert Taylor Homes. They learned pretty well, but they had started Kindergarten quite far behind.

  6. Mark Roulo says:

    I have taught in a school where the children were very poor and very well behaved. This was in Chicago in the 1960?s; the children lived in the shadow of the infamous Robert Taylor Homes. They learned pretty well, but they had started Kindergarten quite far behind.

    Do you think they would have done better if they had been sitting in classes with mostly wealthier peers?

    -Mark Roulo

  7. It doesn’t make sense to me. Both we and an adjacent district have both extremely wealthy neighborhoods and impoverished. About 20% of our kids are on free and reduced. They attend school from pre-school on with their wealthier peers (some very, very wealthy — most comfortable middle-class). All the data states that the low income children still do worse. Generally, poverty bundles with other issues — unstable parents, mental illness, substance abuse, etc.

  8. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Ah, but Lightly Seasoned… I don’t think the study said that the poor kids don’t still do worse than the rich ones, but that the ones in the mixed schools did better than other poor kids in predominantly poor schools.

  9. This is a lot of fuss for a study that didn’t eliminated the achievement gap, or even halve it. Moreover, it was for elemetary school kids, where the achievement gap isn’t as daunting as it is for high school.

  10. The idea that low income children will do better in low-poverty schools is great. Perhaps these low-poverty schools have the available resources to support learning because of the (traditionally) increased level of parent and community involvment – due to the possibility that those higher income families don’t have to work the night shift, have reliable transportation and child care, and have adequate insurance to keep their children healthy and in school. The real question here is what about those students not fortunate enough to attend on of these low-poverty schools. What will we do differently for them to help them achieve? Blame their parents for not making more money and being more involved? No. We have to look at what we can do during the school day to effect change and find creative ways to provide opportunities for low income parents to become involved in their children’s learning. We can not afford to make assumptions about parents values and intentions. Instead, we should assess our community’s needs and work together to move in a positve, forward directions.

  11. Do you think that the fact that the study group with the fewest amount of children participating in the free/reduced meal plans helped increase education, has anything to do with the lack of descrimination and/or stereotyping. The more low-income children you have the easier it is to group the less the more you have to individualize….hmmm

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    Did I miss the possibility that a low-poverty school has less distraction and even danger and so learning is not so hard?
    IOW, a kid from wealthy parents going to a high-poverty school will do…?

  13. In response to Mark Roulo — I do think my school’s students would have done somewhat better in a wealthier school. But, as Lightly Seasoned points out, not all of the gap would have been erased, possibly not much of it. I compare them to myself; in a class that’s more challenging (and therefore more interesting), I achieve more, due to the the quickness of pace and the extra material, and also to the students I’m with, than in a less challenging class.

    Also, the more advanced students were the ones who would have benefited most. At my school, they were outliers and there was no way to feed their talent other than to praise and encourage them. Some were skipped a grade, but the ones who excelled at one sublject and not others were stuck at grade level, which was really below grade level.

  14. CarolineSF says:

    A school that enrolls a critical mass of high-need, at-risk students from unstable homes and/or communities will become overwhelmed and struggle — these are our “failing schools.” A school that enrolls a percentage of those students that falls short of that critical mass can still function effectively. That sums up the situation.

  15. What about the social effects? I grew up middle-class in an affluent town and jr. high was H*LL because most of my classmates looked down their noses at my family for not having all the luxury goods that nearly everyone else had. I felt resentment towards them for their snobbery and have kept in touch with very few of them since graduation.

  16. Crimson Wife –
    One would have to do a cost-benefit analysis. Is the shame you now feel for your upbringing greater than the rewards you have experienced due to your education?

  17. I don’t feel shame now as an adult. I’m talking about when I was a young adolescent and desperately trying to “fit in”. I think I would’ve preferred going to a school that offered a rigorous curriculum and high academic standards but with a broader mix of students so I wouldn’t have stood out as the “poor” girl (in a relative sense since we were definitely middle-class). My DH went to a Catholic school that was like that and he never experienced the kind of ostracism for not having the right “stuff” that I did.

  18. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Crimson Wife is right — being the poor kid in a rich group of kids (and let us be honest, when you’re really poor they don’t have to be that rich to be a “rich group of kids”) is extremely unpleasant, even when the kids aren’t unpleasant.

    But it’s just unpleasant. It’s not crippling the way missing out on one’s biological learning window is.

  19. Crimson –
    All’s well if there is a school with a rigorous curriculum that has a lower-income population, but that’s the whole point of this study. Generally, schools with high populations of lower-income students will not provide the education you are looking for.
    Yes, there are plenty of exceptions including religious schools if you can pay, but for most people that is not an option. Having a choice of two school districts, one full of haves and one of have nots, the better choice for anyone is to attend the wealthier district.
    As you yourself stated and Michael commented, ten years of shame is worth a good education.