Who’s poor? School lunch data is ‘muddy’

Schools should gather accurate data on the income, education and English fluency of students’ parents, instead of using eligibility for a free or reduced-price school lunch as a not-very-accurate measure of family poverty. 

School lunch data’s validity has been “diluted” even further now that many schools have been allowed to serve a free lunch to all students, regardless of their family income, reports Jill Barshay in U.S. News.

More than half of public school students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch because their parents’ earnings are no more than 85 percent above the federal poverty line. For a single mother with two children, that’s up to $36,612 per year.

Lunch eligibility undercounts poverty, especially at the high school level, because some students won’t eat school food. But it overestimates poverty too. Lunch eligibility is “rising far faster than the actual poverty rate,” writes Barshay.

Between 2000-01 and 2012-13, the percentage of children eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch increased from 38 percent to 50 percent, an increase of 12 percentage points. In contrast, the percentage of public school children who lived in poverty increased from 17 percent to 23 percent, an increase of 6 percentage points.

Billions of dollars in federal aid for disadvantaged students and philanthropic grants are tied to lunch statistics, writes Barshay. Why not get accurate data?

Out of Sandtown


A CVS Pharmacy burned in Baltimore when rioters cut the firefighters’ hose.

Derrell Bradford grew up in Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood that’s exploded in anger at the death of Freddy Gray in police custody. School choice got him out of Sandtown, Bradford writes on The Catalyst.

That corner where the CVS was burned and looted? That’s where he caught buses to better schools in other parts of town. It’s why he now runs the New York Campaign for Achievement Now.

. . . it’s exactly because you grow up in Sandtown that you know the value of an excellent school which you get to attend regardless of who your parents are, how much money they make, or where you live. While watching students of Frederick Douglass High School throw rocks at police across the Gwynns Falls Parkway, all I could remember was my first trip to that school. I arrived as a visitor and an athlete—not a student—at what would have been my zoned public school. There was glass in the grass of the end zone; I was the only one of my classmates who knew to look for it.

. . . but for the right school, and the shining fingertip of providence, you are Freddie Gray.

“Choice is the most powerful way to create new worlds of possible for kids who are destined to have so little possible for themselves,” Bradford concludes.

Liberals, stop ‘awfulizing’ my kids

Schools can’t defeat poverty by ignoring it, writes Anthony Cody, a veteran teacher in Oakland, in an exchange with the Gates Foundation. “In the US, the linchpin for education is not teacher effectiveness or data-driven management systems,” he writes. “It is the effects of poverty and racial isolation on our children.”

Dear Lord, Stop These Liberals From Awfulizing My Kids, responds Chris Stewart on Education Post.

Every possible chart, graph, study and statistic paint an ugly picture where all poor kids of color live in violent urban neighborhoods and suffer from PTSD. Exposure to violence has reduced their test scores. Bad parents have not taught them to speak enough words. Indeed, their parents are socially, emotionally or intellectually unfit.

One in six of these kids is in “extreme poverty.” This breaks their brains and leaves them developmentally delayed.

The numbers “receiving free or reduced price lunches has grown significantly,”  “one child in ten has been foreclosed upon” and more “than one million students are homeless.”

All this encourages teachers to lower expectations, writes Stewart. “Why is it failing teachers so often discuss poverty and successful teachers discuss pedagogy, curriculum, instruction and learning?”girl_englewood-716x320

Cody slams “education reformers” for pretending that teachers can “push students to new heights with our high expectations.”

Teachers account for no more than 20 percent of the variance in student test scores, writes Cody, while more than 60 percent correlates to out-of-school factors. “We cannot solve the problem of educational inequity while we ignore the inequitable and inadequate resources available to low-income children in their homes and communities, as well as their schools.”

Stewart wonders: “How does it feel to be a ‘teacher’ who sees teaching as futile?”

It may feel compassionate to enumerate all the life problems of our children, but it isn’t. It is limiting and hurtful. Bright poor kids are as likely to be discounted as struggling ones.

Stewart teaches only his own five children, he writes. “Still, I interview talented teachers and committed administrators often, and they speak differently than the fatalists . . . They are students of success, not experts on failure.”

In The Smartest Kids In The World, Amanda Ripley recounts a conversation with a Finnish teacher.

When she asked him about educating poor students, he was “visibly uncomfortable labeling his students,” she says. He responded, “I don’t want to think about their backgrounds too much…There are twenty-three pearls in my classroom. I don’t want to scratch them.”

. . . “I don’t want to have too much empathy for them, because I have to teach. If I thought about all of this [their poverty] too much, I would give better marks to them for worse work. I’d think, ‘Oh, you poor kid. Oh, well, what can I do?’ That would make my job too easy.”

That attitude does more to help children who live in poverty than “awfulizing” them, concludes Stewart.

For $25K per pupil, Camden still fails

Camden, New Jersey is a very poor city with very high school spending and very low-performing schools, reports Reason. Camden raised per-pupil spending to more than $25,000.  The public schools remain “notorious for their abysmal test scores,  the frequent occurrence of in-school violencedilapidated buildings and an on-time graduation rate of just 61 percent.”

Reason also takes a look at LEAP, one of Camden’s best charter schools: Last June, 98 percent earned a high school diploma and all graduates went on to college.

What killed Kevin Green?

Most students aren’t ‘in poverty’

Fifty-one percent of public school students were eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch in 2012-13, according to a Southern Education Foundation report.  That means low-income students are a majority, some have reported. 

Not really.

Qualifying for a subsidized lunch is a very unreliable measure of poverty. It both undercounts and overcounts the poor, explains Kevin Drum on Mother Jones. But, mostly, it overcounts. 

A family of four earning $44,000 a year, less than 185 percent of the poverty line, would qualify for the reduced-price lunch. That’s about 7 percent of the total. Forty-four percent get a free lunch because family income is under $31,000.

. . .  lots of poor kids, especially in the upper grades, don’t participate in school lunch programs even though they qualify. They just don’t want to eat in the cafeteria. So there’s always been a bit of undercounting of those eligible.

On the other hand, a new program called the Community Eligibility Provision, enacted a couple of years ago, allows certain school districts to offer free meals to everyone without any proof of income. Currently, more than 2,000 school districts enrolling 6 million students are eligible, and the number is growing quickly. For example, every single child in the Milwaukee Public School system is eligible.

A few school districts — typically those with affluent students — are dropping out of the school lunch program because students don’t want to pay for the new smaller, healthier meals.

Instead of fooling with inaccurate school lunch data, why not ask about family income directly (and parental education while we’re at it)?

Child poverty increased in the recession, but is now trending down, writes Alex Tabarrok on Marginal Revolution The National Center for Education Statistics estimates 21 percent of school-age children were in families living under the poverty line in 2012. Child Trends estimates 20 percent in 2013.

Unemployed, out of school, at risk of jail

By 2011, more than one-quarter of young black males were neither employed nor enrolled in school or job training, reports Black Men and the Struggle for Work in Education Next.

ednext_XV_2_wilson_fig01-smallInner-city black children grow up in violent neighborhoods, often with only one parent. “As a result of the escalating incarceration rates among less-educated black males, poor black children are more likely than white or Hispanic children to experience a period when at least one of their parents is incarcerated,” the authors write.

They’re less likely to be enrolled in high-quality child care and often “clustered in failing schools,” where they’re more likely to be suspended, placed in special education and fail to graduate.

Compared to white youth, young blacks are more likely to be arrested and placed in a detention facility. That keeps the cycle going.

Modern family: Fatherless kids do worse

The children of unmarried mothers do much worse in school and in life, just as Daniel Patrick Moynihan predicted in his 1965 report on the black family, conclude Sarah McLanahn and Christopher Jencks in Education Next. Many more children — especially those with less-educated mothers — are growing up in single-parent families.
ednext_XV_2_mclanahan_fig01-small
Forty percent of families with children headed by an unmarried mother live in poverty, they write in Education Next. That compares to 8 percent of families with children headed by a married couple. “Among blacks, the rates were 46 percent in single-mother families and 12 percent in married-parent families. Among Hispanics, the figures were 47 percent and 18 percent, and among whites the rates were 32 percent and 4 percent, respectively.”

In 1960, 95 percent of single mothers had been married; by 2013, only half of all single mothers had ever been married. “The shift to never-married motherhood has probably weakened the economic and emotional ties between children and their absent fathers.”

Growing up with only one biological parent reduces a child’s chances of graduating from high school by about 40 percent, though it doesn’t appear to affect test scores.

. . . a father’s absence increases antisocial behavior, such as aggression, rule breaking, delinquency, and illegal drug use. . . . Thus it appears that a father’s absence lowers children’s educational attainment not by altering their scores on cognitive tests but by disrupting their social and emotional adjustment and reducing their ability or willingness to exercise self-control. The effects of growing up without both parents on aggression, rule breaking, and delinquency are also larger for boys than for girls.

Unmarried mothers often have “problems that marriage cannot solve” and mates with serious problems of their own, McLanahan and Jencks write. Persuading women to delay motherhood — and improving “the economic prospects of their prospective husbands” — would give more children “the benefits that flow from a stable home,” they write. But how?

Moynihan was shocked by the fact that nearly a quarter of black families were headed by a single mother. Since 1965, the percentage of children living with an unmarried parent has gone up from 24 to 50 percent for blacks and from 3 to 19 percent for whites.

Poor kids do worse in Baltimore than India

It’s harder to be a poor teenager in Baltimore than in Nigeria or India, according to a Johns Hopkins study, reports Vocativ.

Researchers analyzed health challenges faced by 2,400 15- to 19-year-olds from impoverished areas in Baltimore, Shanghai, Johannesburg (South Africa), Ibadan (Nigeria) and New Delhi.

Baltimore's slums are not far from skyscrapers (AP Photo)

Baltimore’s slums are not far from affluent areas (AP Photo)

In Baltimore, “adolescents exhibited considerably high rates of mental health issues, substance abuse, sexual risk-taking, sexual violence and teen pregnancy.” Johannesburg teens also fared poorly.

Baltimore and Johannesburg teens “don’t feel safe from violence,” said Kristen Mmari, a Johns Hopkins assistant professor. By contrast, Shanghai adolescents had little to fear from violence.

Half of young females in the Baltimore study said they’d been pregnant.

I suspect it’s harder to be poor in a wealthy country.

Can schools build character?

“Performance character” strengths — qualities such as prudence and drive — lead to success in school and work, concludes a Brookings study, The Character Factor.

“Family income and maternal education are positively associated with higher levels of performance character strengths,” the study concludes. That is, the children of educated, middle-class mothers tend to be better at deferring gratification, working toward a long-term goal and persisting in the face of obstacles.

Brookings has posted essays on character and opportunity, such as Ross Thompson on how chronic adversity leads to self-regulatory problems.

Brookings researchers want policymakers to pay attention to the “cultivation” of character skills, notes Robert Pondiscio. What does that mean? “Character value-added measures?”

A figure in the report is headlined “Drive and Prudence Matter as Much as Book Smarts for HS Graduation” (“Book Smarts?” Seriously, Brookings?), but the bar graph clearly shows “high reading skills” matter a lot more.

“Schools need no additional reasons to short-shrift academics,” Pondiscio writes. Telling “fad-prone” educators that grit trumps academics “wouldn’t be prudent.”