Poverty, not uneven funding, explains the achievement gap

City of New Haven. (Photo Courtesy of New Haven Connecticut Aerial)

I grew up in East Rock, the affluent, predominantly white neighborhood that is home to the highest achieving middle school in New Haven. The city as a whole lags behind the rest of the state in terms of academic achievement, but middle schools like my alma mater which are located in wealthy, white neighborhoods regularly meet or exceed state average test scores. Conversely, poor black and Hispanic neighborhood schools often fall well short of academic standards. Unequal funding is usually blamed for achievement gaps across school districts, but it doesn’t explain this type of inter-district achievement gap. After all, there are no significant funding differences across New Haven middle schools. So what gives?

To answer that question, let’s look to the data. In 2013, Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon conducted an analysis of a dozen nationally representative studies which tracked the income and test scores of students. He found that the achievement gap between low-income and high-income students is large in kindergarten but fails to widen significantly through eighth grade, despite low-income students generally attending underfunded schools. This suggests that poverty is the primary contributing factor to the achievement gap, not school quality or funding.

Why is this the case? Low-income students are more likely to be chronically absent, which impairs progress and is a strong predictor of future income. Poverty-induced hunger causes students to lack focus, become sick more easily and miss developmental benchmarks. Poverty is also strongly linked to underdeveloped social and emotional skills. These issues persist and compound as students grow older, leading to lower test scores and high dropout rates. Other variables, like social capital and parental education level, have a strong indirect impact on children’s educational attainment and future success. Due to these poverty-related developmental hurdles, low-income students arrive at school already far behind their more affluent peers.

It’s notable that the long-term effects of childhood poverty hit black, Hispanic and American Indian communities the hardest. These groups have been economically and socially neglected for generations, and as a result suffer from the highest poverty rates in the country. For these communities, higher education is advertised as a golden ticket out of poverty. But for many poor students, higher education becomes unattainable due to the same poverty they are trying to escape. It’s a vicious cycle.

This evidence can and should inform smart public policy. Strong education reform must be grounded in an understanding that reducing childhood poverty is the best way to reduce the achievement gap. Don’t get me wrong: equitably funding schools and providing extra resources for underserved students is critical. Well-funded schools can offer more specialized learning environments, lower teacher-student ratios and better facilities. A wealthy state like Connecticut, which relies heavily on local property taxes to fund school districts, could surely distribute its revenue more evenly. There’s no reason that students in Greenwich deserve a disproportionate amount of funding simply because of higher property values. But addressing achievement gaps this way is like trying to heal a stab wound with a band-aid.

So, what can be done? Poverty itself isn’t going away anytime soon, but there are measures we can take to stabilize low-income households and negate negative developmental effects. Programs like SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid have a direct positive impact on economic and educational outcomes. Unfortunately, these programs are often underfunded, leading to suboptimal results. Early childhood education programs which are proven to decrease incarceration rates, increase graduation rates and increases academic achievement deserve heavier investment as well. Fully funding and expanding the broader social safety net to include better healthcare and affordable housing will produce long term economic and social benefits.

I went to underfunded public schools for most of my life, but still graduated and matriculated to college. Not because I have a tenacious, hardworking personality or innate intelligence, but because my parent’s wealth and social capital equipped me with the tools to succeed. In the rat race that is America, I was given a head start. Many of my peers aren’t afforded the same luxury.


Harry Zehner is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at harry.zehner@uconn.edu.