George Orwell once wrote that it is sometimes the duty of intelligent men (sic) to re-state the obvious. In support of Orwell’s dictum, I’d like to restate in this blogpost something that we all know: despite our hopes for the power of education to correct for social disadvantage and inequality—to transform children’s life chances—persistent childhood poverty negatively affects children’s educational outcomes. I raise this issue because it has been my experience in working with educators that they sometimes sanguinely believe that education can overcome the deleterious effects of poverty. Sadly, research shows that educational attainment is stunted by poverty. Among research findings:
- The gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students has grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s, and is now double the testing gap between blacks and whites.
- 22% of US children live in poverty.
- 40% of children living in poverty aren’t prepared for primary schooling.
- Children who live below the poverty line are 1.3 times more likely to have developmental delays or learning disabilities than those who don’t live in poverty.
- Between birth and age six, wealthier children will have spent as many as 1,300 more hours than poor children on child enrichment activities such as music lessons, travel, and summer camp.
- By the end of the 4th grade, African-American, Hispanic and low-income students are already 2 years behind grade level. By the time they reach the 12th grade they are 4 years behind.
- Dropout rates of 16 to 24-years-old students who come from low income families are seven times more likely to drop out than those from families with higher incomes.
- A child from a poor family is two to four times as likely as a child from an affluent family to have classmates with low skills and behavior problems – attributes which have a negative effect on the learning of their fellow students.
- International data shows that compared with other economically advanced countries, only Romania has a higher child poverty rate than the United States.
The implication of these facts, of course, is not that we (American society) should abandon our long-held commitment to educating all children, but that we should disabuse ourselves of the idea that education alone can solve the social problems of disadvantage and inequality. We have looked to public education to solve many societal problems, but the fact is that as these deepen and multiply—from unemployment to growing racial inequality— the institution of education can’t rectify these on its own. Our commitment to the highest quality public education should be a moral and political one, not a delusional one.