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

By the Notebook on Oct 19, 2012 10:00 AM
Photo: Images_of_Money/Flickr

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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Comments (29)

Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on October 19, 2012 3:15 pm

Today, students in one of my classes were researching an issue they picked to develop a longer term service learning project. Two students selected "poverty." While looking for Romney's and Obama's position on "poverty," they found very little information. There is plenty on jobs / economy but the issue of poverty gets little attention. Romney's comment on the 47% received attention but neither the Democratic Party nor Republican Party leadership want to honestly talk about entrenched poverty and the income inequity. The reasons the Parties don't want to talk about it may be obvious. Nevertheless, I'm sure there are many students who want to talk about it.

Submitted by g (not verified) on October 19, 2012 7:29 pm

There is an excellent article in the Fall (vol.36, no. 3) issue of the AFT publication-American Educator. Worlds Apart,Two Libraries and Ten Years of Watching Inequality Grow. This article is a MUST READ for anyone who cares about all of our children. This is the best article I have ever read on the subject and the study was done in Philadelphia! Just as it is very unpopular to suggest spending way more resources on poor children than on wealthier ones-it is also quite politically incorrect that many poorer families have such vastly different ways of interacting with their young children-and stimulating them cognitively-that it would be virtually impossible to close that gap without a MASSIVE, MASSIVE (possibly quite intrusive) program of -dare I say--- parent re-education?? Yes- this is a slippery slope-but almost ALL parents DO want to help their children-and if assisted, respectfully, from the time of a child's birth, maybe progress can be made. To pretend that we can fix what is often, essentially a cognitive gap that has grown for 5 years ,is disingenuous . The way most middle-class people interact with their young children IS quite different than the way many poorer parents interact. Please read the article! It says it much better than do I.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on October 19, 2012 7:25 pm

People don't want to talk about poverty because it raises thornier issues related to race, ethnicity, and class. Poverty and race is tightly woven. It is no accident that the most persistently underperforming and dangerous schools are located in neighborhoods where the overwhelming majority (90% +) of residents are Black and/or Latino/a. Tackling poverty is the first step to improving education for at-risk children, not the other way around.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2012 8:08 am
Strong rumors that many more schools will become Renaissance/charter. These schools are all in high poverty areas of the city. Attempts to have a reasonable discussion about student progress that includes poverty can get one branded a racist or excuse maker. What is happening is madness! The thought of a school magically improving by getting rid of the school staff and starting over with a charter company is ludicrous. We have been told that teachers shouldn't be getting 3s and 4s ...the highest evaluation scores....if our students are not making progress. This is insane! Most of us who read and contribute to the Notebook know that a student's current year teacher is one variable of many that effect student test scores. I have seen articles that show that there are over 25 variables that effect student achievement with of course poverty being number one. I am soooooo tired of the magical teacher myth out there that singlehandedly will override all of the other factors and create 100% advanced and proficient students. By the way my principal was overheard over the phone discussing that my school will be one of the latest schools converted to a Renaissance school. I am not going to name my school yet, cause it's reasonable to say that a one sided phone conversation could be easily misinterpreted. But I will say that we have seen massive maintenance improvements to our physical facility....every day there are people in our school fixing/improving the building. The staff has been saying for months the only reason we are seeing all of these people fixing stuff is because they are going to give us away to a charter.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 20, 2012 8:55 pm
Here is what I would like to see done. Let's exhange an inner city school's teaching staff with a suburban teaching staff. Have them trade schools for the year. Do you really think the suburban teachers will get the same test results in an inner city school as they did in the suburban? And do you think the inner city teachers will continue to get the low scores if they are teaching the suburban kids? No. So, wouldn't this suggest that it is not the teaching staff, but SOMETHING ELSE? "Reforming" teachers is not what is needed...addressing the poverty and inequity in the inner city schools might be a better solution (not to mention looking at principal turnover and ineptitude), but who wants to try is an impossible feat and no "data" can show a magic solution.....cough, cough.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 21, 2012 8:13 am
I suspect that this is happening at many schools and I believe that you might be right that Renaissance may be taking over many, many schools in the District. My school is also slated to receive physical improvements as well and yet people think that the improvements are being done because they are needed. What a joke!
Submitted by Concerned Phila. (not verified) on October 21, 2012 8:06 am
If a school is being repairs in time for a Charter Management Company to take it over, is there any way for the School District to recoup the costs? My understanding is the Charter gets the school for less than operating costs. Do you know of any way to challenge this use of funds to benefit the Charter?
Submitted by Ken Derstine on October 21, 2012 9:32 am
The School District, under the SRC, will not try to recoup the costs. They are the ones who are engaging in this discriminatory practice. Last year Universal, after all, used Audenreid and Vare's facilities rent free and maintenance was paid by the School District. This year Universal is only paying half of those costs.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 21, 2012 9:35 am
Is this another contributing factor as to why the School District is broke? Why would anyone in their right mind permit an outside source to use their buildings without getting paid to use them?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 21, 2012 11:34 am
As I read on a comment on this site, the School District is being run by a "shadow group" of people who are controlling things from behind closed doors. While the SRC is holding "public engagement" sessions, the decisions are being made behind closed doors and are being rolled out to us. The Boston Consulting Group's privatization plan is being superimposed upon the school district regardless of what the public thinks or wants. In the background are these groups who stand to profit from privatization, and in concert are conducting a campaign of advertising, commentaries, radio appearances, and publications of false facts to sell their plan to the public. Jeremy Nowak was hovering over the SRC at the last SRC meeting as though he was watching them to be certain they were complying with his plan. What is going on is becoming more and more obvious. These are the insiders who are running things and they are doing so by circumventing the legally required democratic processes. They are all either on the insider trading committees or actively controlling what is going on. These are the people to keep your eyes on who are all complicit and acting in concert: Mark Gleason, Jeremy Nowak, Scott Gordon, Gamble, Lori Shorr, Tom Knudsen, Ron Tomalis (the Secretary of Education), the BCG, and of course, Corbett and Nutter. They are all not looking out for children and their communities. They are all looking out for their profit motives and political agendas. It is becoming clearer and clearer every day. Watch and see who gets the power, control and profit of and off of our schools. It will not be the people of Philadelphia or their children. I never thought I would see this day that the education of our children education would come down to his. But it has.
Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on October 21, 2012 12:28 pm
Hite spoke to the staff at 440 and said there would be painful closings this year. Rather than close charters that are "under-performing," charters are renewed (e.g. World Communications Charter). How can the SRC / Hite look us in the face and close our schools, which perform better than many charters, and tell us we have to close while giving charters more seats. As you wrote, the privatization agenda is live and well - and the pockets of the few are being filled. We are left with crumbs.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 21, 2012 12:18 pm
The term "high performing seats" is the psychobabble of the privatizers. It sounds like it is right out of an Orwellian novel. They are only creating more seats in the privatized versions of charter schools and a selected few real charter schools. Charter schools, by Boston Consulting Group's own admission, cost the district more money than regular public schools. There is no evidence at all which would lead anyone to believe that charter schools have increased student achievement. That is, anyone who understands what "test scores" measure and do not measure. We all know the test scores are being gamed and scammed even by the Secretary of Education. So where are these so called "high performing seats?" Only in schools where students are pre selected based on their already well demonstrated academic talent and ability to score well on standardized tests. We need some honesty here.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 22, 2012 5:07 pm
Parents don't need psychobabble to know they want a choice to flee violent schools run by bureaucrats who choose not to enforce discipline or other social standards. I think your real problem is that parents don't have anymore patience for the psychobabble of your Ed phds.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on October 22, 2012 6:07 pm
The best public schools in Philadelphia with the highest test scores are all regular public schools which were originated by regular public school teachers and administrators. The highest performing schools are still those run and led by certified public school teachers and principals. The good charter schools are mostly those that replicate what has already been done in our best and most innovative public schools, and of course, most of them exclude problem students. The best charter schools, with a very few exceptions, are those run by principals and CEO's who once worked for the School District. The regular public schools which teach students with low test scores are all in high poverty areas. WE all know what Great schools do and we do not have to privatize schools to turn them into Great schools. All we have to do is fund them, lower class size to those of suburban schools, and democratically choose the best principals to lead them. Then give them all of the supports and resources which are necessary. Such as certified reading specialists for very elementary school student who falls behind in reading. Our regular public schools have all been held back by the mismanagement of outsiders who only came here to make a buck or propel their careers. The regular public schools have been held hostage to those who turned our once student centered pedagogy into a test preparation test and punish mentality. We never looked at students as seats. We always looked as them as children and young adults who have multiple intelligences and individual needs. You know, we looked at them as people -- not seats.
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on October 21, 2012 9:47 pm
Thank you for naming names. Now we all need to Google their pictures and become familiar with their faces so we can recognize them and question them when we see them at education-related functions. The time to sit silently by is over.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on October 21, 2012 10:48 pm
The "shadow" group of people includes the Boston Consulting Group, the Gates Foundation, the Philadelphia Schools Partnership, and the William Penn Foundation. What is disturbing about the involvement of these private foundations is that they have little to no accountability to the public. Members of the public cannot elect or oust members of the boards overseeing these foundations. Thus, these foundations and their top representatives have as much power as they have money. Thus, the more money a foundation gives to the cash-strapped School District of Philadelphia--which is basically bankrupt--the more power the foundation has. And the more money these foundations give, the more power they have and the less power the public has. There has to be a better way of ensuring that each child has the opportunity to receive a high-quality while maintaining democratic accountability and democratic involvement. As it stands now, the SDP and the SRC seem to be most responsive to an oligarchy of foundations instead of the public.
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on October 21, 2012 10:05 pm
Don't forget the influence of the Broad Foundation which is responsible for training superintendents with a very specific agenda of dismantling traditional public schools and privatizing public schools. Both Arlene Ackerman and Willliam Hite were trained by Broad.
Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on October 22, 2012 4:35 am
Both of the candidates the SRC "gave" us for Superintendent were alumnus of the Broad Foundation. Like Teach for American (TFA), they are taking the anti-professionalism of teachers, anti-union, privatization to urban districts throughout the U.S. Gates and Walton Foundation also contribute to this agenda which has been spread by Arne Duncan for the Obama Administration.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 22, 2012 8:36 am
Yes what is amazing to me is that the Mayor's Office is not held accountable for anything even though they have had three full-time staff at 440 for nearly a year (accountable to no one but Mayor Nutter) and the new chief-of-staff of the SRC was brought over from City Hall. The lack of transparency is astounding!
Submitted by HS teach (not verified) on October 20, 2012 12:18 pm
Fighting poverty is very simple. Two things: 1. Raise the minimal wage to the living wage level. 2. Get rid of the constitutional clause that keeps the state taxes flat, and raise money by taxing the rich. Use this money to higher more public workers.
Submitted by charter nonsense (not verified) on October 21, 2012 1:40 am
Funny that this undergrad can identify a problem and recommendations that even our presidential candidates can't. Good for her, Shame on them.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on October 21, 2012 9:57 pm
Before asking for more money, we can start using Title I money the way it was intended to be used: for the poor. Stop watering it down in bureaucratic self service/b.s.s. $2000 per child can buy a lot of the enriching experiences that "middle class" (some families hold middle class values despite lower class income) peers get: music lessons, swimming lessons, self defense, dance, field trips, etc. etc. etc... etc. etc. Obviously Industrial Revolution style education, as at Central, can educate a child for very little: $5,500 per child. At a "critical mass" of students, the rest becomes profit for the bureaucrats. We're spending $14,000 per child: Chester Community Charter knows this... just ask Mr. Gureghian.
Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on October 21, 2012 10:12 pm
Not much gets to the classroom - especially the last two years. We are repeatedly told there is no money for anything. Teachers are expected to pay out of pocket or go without. I don't know where the $14,000 goes but, again, it is not in the classroom.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on October 22, 2012 8:16 am
Totally frustrating and outrageous. We are informed that $14,000 per child is the equivalent of tuition at a Friends (Quaker) private school. So if the PSD is getting this amount, indeed the PSD has a big problem, which is not their teachers. Per this article: PSD gets $2,424 per eligible child for Title I. If you peak at the Mayor's disclosure: , it looks like it's about $1,000 per every (eligible and noneligible) PSD child; And it looks to be allocated for official/technically correct purposes. Too sad. It doesn't take much imagination to conceive that some of that general appropriation could hire a shift of afterschool chaperones, and pay for buses for just 2 days a week, to get the eligible kids into swim lessons after school or another form of enrichment, rather than having an "Instructional Reform Facilitator" running around in a suit busy filling out forms and paperwork or Parent Ombudsmen basically wasting time. This article is good in stating (by implication) that just improving schools (often by "cracking down" on teachers) does very little good when kids can't focus because their world is filled with uncertainty or unreliable adults. Lowering expectations is not the answer. True enrichment and caring must be tried.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 22, 2012 8:02 am
The biggest cost (in any district) is salary and benefits. This is where most of the per pupil goes.
Submitted by Ken Derstine on October 21, 2012 10:30 pm
Look at this recent listing of the top 100 high schools in the Philadelphia region from Philadelphia Magazine. Look at the Instructional spending for each high school. Notice the six Philadelphia high schools in the list receive less, in some cases far less (1. Masterman - $6,516; 2. Lower Merion - $16,661) than other schools in the region. When looking for the Philadelphia high schools just find the lower funded schools in the $6000 range.
Submitted by Cognita School (not verified) on October 25, 2012 4:03 am
These findings are not surprising at all as a kid who does not get proper meals to eat would be the last one to be interested in studying hard. More often than not, in such developing nations, children drop out from schools to be an extra earning hand for their families. So, firstly they should be provided with proper meals and then pushed for better learning.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 9, 2013 4:54 pm
I believe we need to have certified and highly qualified teachers in all classrooms across our country, put we also need supportive homes and parents. It seems easy to legislate teacher requirements and to hold teachers responsible even if it means threatening to take aware their jobs and give them to private corporations looking to make money. It seems easy to over look a deeper issue-giving children the best advantage by making their parents responsible for parenting. It is true that many people living in poverty work more than one job, but there are many that live on the government assistance programs that don't work and could be held more responsible for their children. When children are raised in an attitude of apathy how are they to become motivated to seek a better standard of living? We must educate parents living in poverty, holding them responsible for the way they raise their children, giving them the assistance they need to help prepare their children for future education.
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