Poverty and Student Achievement

“If you think education’s expensive, wait ’til you see how much ignorance costs.”

These were the words of President Barack Obama this past Friday  in Brooklyn, New York, at a local high school where he addressed students and faculty of the Pathways in Technology Early College High School, a joint venture between IBM and the NYC Public School System.

It reminded me of an old TV advert for an air filter in which the actor portraying a mechanic says “You can pay me now or you can pay me later.” The ad suggested that if you go cheap in maintaining an expensive item like a vehicle, it could cost you much more for an engine repair in the future.

I have been reading and listening to many different authorities on the subject of public schools and student achievement and the common theme of all the experts, including education historian and policy analyst Diane Ravitch, is that poverty is the number one determining factor in student achievement.

poverty and student achievement

Image: CanStockPhoto

Public school teachers and administrators all across the country can tell us that this is one of the most talked about topics amongst educators. Educators ask themselves and each other: How do we reach the vast number of kids who live in poverty and how do we increase their achievement?

Michelle Rhee, the past Superintendent of the DC school system, has stated that public school students who live in poverty are the biggest challenge to educators. Additionally, school systems face greater challenges when faced with limited financial resources; the achievement gap grows between schools who have and those that do not.

The financial disparity between schools is a tremendous burden on educators who work in schools where there are high levels of poverty. From the federal to the local levels, educational administrators are frustrated by the lack of progress on the disparity between schools’ funding across the country — where schools from poor and disadvantaged areas receive funding that upwards of three times less per student than that received by more prosperous schools.

The average spending per student K-12 is $10,560 in the USA, with a high of $19,076 in New York and a low of $6,200 in Utah. Interestingly enough, despite this disparity, all schools and teachers will be ranked and graded on the same Common Core standards with no consideration for poverty and its impact on student performance. In Tennessee, Republican Governor Bill Haslam and his self-appointed Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman — the person who has bypassed the Tennessee Legislature by eliminating collective bargaining for the Tennessee Educational Association — has not just tied student achievement to teacher pay but also to teacher licensing and retention.

In 1954 the United States Supreme Court ruled the policy of separate but equal was unconstitutional based on the fact the segregation policies upheld in public schools were not equal by any rational person’s standards. White schools received more money from state departments of education than segregated black schools and the disparity was exacerbated by institutional racism and historical hatred.

Today, poor schools all across the country face the same issues faced by the segregated schools of the past. And, just as it is with the income disparity between black and white students, today’s disparity between schools that have and have not are as exaggerated as any time since the Great Depression.

As poorer schools fall further behind their wealthier cousins in academic achievement the words of the President are that much more relevant. American society has decisions to make and issues to address from income inequality to the inequality of public school funding and, in both instances, if solutions are not addressed the outcomes for society are not pretty.

There are over two million Americans in prison with 75% of those incarcerated considered functionally  illiterate. In some states more money is spent on incarcerating men and women than is spent on K-12 public education. Incarceration and poverty cost the American economy dearly with experts stating that the cost is 4% of the GDP or $500 Billion dollars a year. As the old TV advertisement suggested, you can pay me now or you can pay me later.

Poverty is not the sole determining factor of student achievement in America, but it is the #1 cause of America’s struggling economy and the greatest threat to the security of the country and the nation’s democracy. Think about it.


  1. It is an oft-repeated axiom that a person can learn a whole lot about
    a society by how it treats its poor; but just as much may be learned
    by looking at how that same society treats its rich. Indeed, the economic
    future of the poor—and our nation—will be determined in the coming decades by how we treat the people in this country who create great wealth. It will be determined by our understanding of the
    so-called rich and by our need to foster and protect this minority of
    true wealth creators


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