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Commentary: In education reform plans, poverty has been left out of the picture

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This is a guest blog, and the ideas expressed are solely the opinions of the author. The Notebook invites guest blog posts on current topics in Philadelphia education from its readers. Send submissions to

by Isabelle Sun

Something is missing in the debate over education reform. The growing chorus of well-intentioned calls to close the achievement gap leaves out one critical issue: poverty.

It might be surprising to learn that two out of every five children in Philadelphia live in poverty. But it’s even more shocking to realize that poverty is the number one predictor of student achievement. Research shows a stout correlation between the income gap and the achievement gap.

The effects of poverty permeate all aspects of a child’s life, from health to development to, of course, academic achievement. Students who live in poverty are four times more likely to drop out of school, and they are at a much higher risk of developing behavioral and emotional problems, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Education has often been cited as the means to lift oneself out of poverty, but in the rhetoric of education reform, poverty has been left out of the picture. Without addressing poverty as a root issue in student struggles, poor children are left behind in an aggressive whirlwind of impoverishment and barriers of academic challenge. For the future of our kids, it’s time to break the cycle.

Improving schools in our community means ensuring that all students have equal access to a quality education – but we need to go one step further. We must examine the ways that poverty affects our students, and we need to bring those issues to the forefront of education reform.

There has been public outcry at the growing inequality between rich and poor, but too little has been said about the burgeoning gap in achievement and opportunity between high-income kids and their low-income peers. The link between poverty and poor student achievement is starkly clear.

To understand problems in education for our students, we need to have an open conversation about child poverty in Philadelphia. What can we do to tackle this root problem? What concrete initiatives can we take to address the implications of poverty so that all students have an equal opportunity to succeed?

Many factors contribute to a successful school. Strong leadership, quality teachers, and adequate resources are common denominators that low-income students need most but have access to the least. Kids who live in poverty face much greater obstacles beyond just the school environment. They require greater investments of support to succeed academically. To make kids matter, we need to recognize the multi-faceted challenges that they face, and we need to talk about what we can do to address these issues.

The two-way street between poverty and poor educational outcomes is undeniable. But while a quality education has been touted as the path out of poverty, the discourse of education reform has been quiet on strategies to pave this road. As community-minded citizens, we need to lay this groundwork to build a future of hope and opportunity for all kids, regardless of their socioeconomic background.

So, this Friday, Oct. 19, let’s talk about how we can break the vicious cycle, how we can better serve our underserved kids, how education can be used as the bridge between opportunity and achievement.

It’s time to turn up the volume on this much-needed conversation.

Isabelle Sun is an intern in education policy at Public Citizens for Children and Youth, an advocacy organization, and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, where she majors in English and Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.

Register to attend the Impact of Concentrated Poverty forum on Oct. 19.


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