For the past decade, corporate reformers have repeatedly said that poverty is an excuse used by and for bad teachers. If all teachers were “great” teachers, all children would have high test scores, there would be no achievement gap, and our problems would be solved. Forgive me if the logic doesn’t work, but I don’t entirely understand the train of thought. The bottom line is the reformy belief that all children, e ery single one, will achieve at the highest levels if great teachers accept “no excuses.”

A new report from ETS reminds us why poverty matters and how it affects the lives of children and families.

Written by Richard J. Coley of ETS and Bruce Baker of Rutgers, the report finds that 22% of America’s children live in poverty. They show that:

“Children growing up in poverty complete less schooling, work and earn less as adults, are more likely to receive public assistance, and have poorer health.

“Boys growing up in poverty are more likely to be arrested as adults.

“Girls growing up in poverty are more likely to give birth outside of marriage.

“Costs associated with child poverty are estimated to total about $500 billion per year.”

Read this along with Richard Rothstein’s “Class and Schooling.”

And google Helen F. Ladd’s review of the evidence on education and poverty.

Do schools make a difference? Yes, they do.

Do teachers have the power to change children’s lives? Yes, they do.

Are schools and teachers powerful enough to end poverty? No. Poverty rates rise and fall in response to economic trends, not to the rise or fall of test scores.

Here are the conclusions of the ETS report on poverty:


While fierce policy debates persist over how to effectively disrupt the link between poverty and chil- dren’s educational outcomes, a fair amount is known from research on effective strategies and program- matic interventions. Several strategies are offered above that might be used to improve short-term educational and long-term economic outcomes for children from low-income families. Each of these strategies comes with a price, and for any to be equitably and adequately implemented requires equi- table and adequate access to funding. Baker and Welner (2011) pointed out that research on state school finance reforms supports this contention, with a significant body of state-specific studies showing that changes to the level and distribution of available resources can, in fact, influence changes to the level and distribution of student outcomes. Specifically, in one cross-state study, Card and Payne (2002) found “evidence that equalization of spending levels leads to a narrowing of test score outcomes across family background groups.” (p. 49)18

The evidence is clear that income inequality continues to rise in the United States, and that federal and state policies have arguably been less successful at curbing income inequality than policies in other developed nations. Since the “Great Recession” officially ended in 2009, the average net wealth of the wealthiest seven percent of households rose by 28 percent, while the average wealth of the lower- wealth 93 percent of households dropped by 4 percent (Fry & Taylor, 2013). Further, the political balance and distribution of government benefits continues to shift in favor of the elderly to the disadvantage of children. Total federal and state spending per capita is highest for children age 6–11 and next-highest for those age 12–18. Three- to 5-year-olds are in third place, and our youngest children (under age 2) get the least support (Edelstein, Isaacs, Hahn, & Toran, 2012). The confluence of these forces results in a growing gap in educational opportunity, largely influenced by gaps in income.

Indeed, some policy actions such as the provision of children’s health care have improved through blended federal and state policies. But even those successes vary widely across the country, depending largely on state-level actions. Likewise, public education policy continues be highly decentralized and controlled by the states, with state investment in public schooling and participation rates of children
in the public schools varying widely. Further, while a handful of states have made significant efforts to target school funding to those areas where it is most needed, many others have not and show little or no sign of future change in their state school funding policies.

In addition to more precisely measuring poverty and targeting resources accordingly, now is an appropriate time to rethink programs and strategies that might best serve to mediate the relationship between poverty and educational opportunity. Providing high-quality pre-kindergarten programs, reasonable elementary class sizes, and a high-quality teacher workforce for schools serving children in poverty requires sustained, equitable and adequate funding. Federal policy should focus on targeting the maximum available funding to schools, districts, and states with the greatest shares of children in need, and encouraging states to increase their own investment, placing less emphasis on competitive grant programs such as Race to the Top. State school finance policies should ensure equitableand adequate funding first, before attaching strings related to currently popular though largely unproven reforms.”

Click to access poverty_and_education_report.pdf