How Schools Can Best Support Children Living in Poverty

An Essay by Anne Wicks, Director of Education Reform at the George W. Bush Institute

Using data from high-quality assessments in schools can help school leaders identify pathways forward in the fight against poverty.

The impacts of poverty on young people are intense and compounding. How can our education system – from teachers to principals to elected officials – support children living in poverty?  What should policymakers, community leaders, researchers, and philanthropists prioritize given the complexity of poverty?

First, follow the data. Second, investigate the context. Third, support high-quality interventions.

These three steps, applied here in two areas where poverty and schools collide, can help identify a path forward. One area is relatively easy to measure and understand – chronic absenteeism. The other – the quality of instruction and curriculum – is less straightforward.  Both are important, but it is essential not to conflate significance with clarity when making decisions about resources and focus.

Chronic absenteeism

When the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed in 2015 – the long-awaited reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act in place for over 50 years – states were given increased latitude to decide what measures to include in their respective accountability systems. Several added chronic absenteeism to academic measures. 

In simple terms, a student who is absent at least 10 percent of school days is considered chronically absent. Missing two days a month may seem benign; in fact, that student is missing over 100 hours of instruction. When a chronically-absent student returns to class, the teachers must adapt and attempt to catch him or her up without disrupting the progress of other students. Students who are not in class struggle to engage, learn, and stay on track.

Missing two days [of school] a month may seem benign; in fact, that student is missing over 100 hours of instruction.

What does the data tell us? Chronic absenteeism data is collected and shared by the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, which means that it can be used to compare districts. The Bush Institute’s State of Our Citiestool shows that districts with high rates of chronic absenteeism typically have low rates of student achievement. In 2015, 49 percent of black students in Milwaukee were chronically absent. That same year, only 10 percent of black students were proficient in reading on the state assessment.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the Bush Institute's State of Our Cities tool

Absenteeism is clearly not the only factor at play, so it becomes important to investigate the context before jumping to interventions. Research on this topic, including ours, shows that it is not one or two reasons that keep kids from school. It is a range of constraints that often connect – including access to reliable transportation, access to laundry facilities, housing insecurity, and feeling disconnected from the school community. Sometimes kids are absent in specific classes only but present the rest of the day. Leaders must start by asking kids, families, and teachers what keeps students away from school  and then take action.

Understanding that why, or the context, then allows leaders to select and support appropriate high-quality interventions. For chronic absenteeism, that may include adopting school-site practices to monitor and support specifics students. If a district struggles across many or most schools, engaging agencies and resources beyond the district is essential.

Students who are not in class struggle to engage, learn, and stay on track.

Instruction and curriculum

Measuring the quality of instruction and curriculum that young people experience each day in schools is more difficult but critically important. Far too many students show up each day to school, sit through classes, do the work, and graduate from high school only to learn that despite their A and B grades, they are behind and unprepared for college or career. This lack of academic rigor disproportionally impacts children of color and children in poverty, often artificially stunting their futures.

Measuring the quality of instruction and curriculum that young people experience each day in schools is more difficult but critically important.

The Opportunity Myth,a report released in late 2018 by TNTP, comprehensively details this phenomenon and its impact on kids. TNTP studied five districts – urban, rural, and a charter management organization – observing classes, reviewing assignments and student work, and hearing directly from students about their experiences.

The results are sobering. Forty percent of classrooms made up with largely students of color never received any assignments on grade level. Classrooms comprised of mostly higher income students received 2.1 times the amount of grade level appropriate assignments than their low-income peers – and they were 5.4 times more likely to receive grade-level appropriate lessons during class.

In summary, classrooms of low-income students and students of color were often missing the four essential elements of high-quality instruction as defined by TNTP:

  • Consistent opportunities to work on grade appropriate assignments
  • Strong instruction that lets the students do most of the thinking
  • Students experience a deep sense of engagement in what they are learning
  • Teachers believe that their students can meet grade-level standards

This lack of rigor and belief means that too many low-income students receive a superficial education. That light version of content leaves big gaps for kids. It is no wonder that many struggle mightily in college and require expensive and time-consuming remediation if they stay enrolled.

The problem is clear from the data in this report; unlike chronic absenteeism, however, a comprehensive and comparable data set does not exist for every district or city. To investigate this issue in a city or region requires that leaders take lessons from The Opportunity Myth and seek similar local data by reviewing classroom observation reports, student work, and listening to students.

Study the context

Investigating the context illuminates where to go next. Do our teachers and principals believe all kids can learn? Why not? How do teachers select curriculum and what resources are available to them? How do we support the instructional practice of our teachers over their careers? Do we know who are our best teachers and principals? How are we deploying their expertise?

Data plus context allows leaders to thoughtfully align the resources of people, money, and time to better serve students living in poverty. An absolute commitment to the four essential elements listed above is essential. Without that, any intervention is likely to fail or fade away.

Data plus context allows leaders to thoughtfully align the resources of people, money, and time to better serve students living in poverty.

Education remains our best option to move people from poverty to the middle class. There are no magic quick fixes for a system that both works for some kids while failing others with such maddening regularity. It is possible to make meaningful improvements by connecting data to context on the front end of intervening.

Understanding and preventing chronic absenteeism is important, but that alone will not make the system work for kids in poverty. We need those kids to attend school, of course, but just getting them to show up is only the first step. We need kids to attend rigorous, supportive schools led by adults who believe in their ability to learn and succeed.

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