Why Suburban Parents Need to Care About Poverty in Schools

Let’s start with what we all agree on, reformers and anti-reformers alike.

Poverty matters in education. Of course it does.

Yes, high concentrations of poor students in schools make it harder for those students and their teachers to succeed.

Yes, children living in poverty need more support, especially in the earliest years. Yes, teachers who work in high-poverty schools need more training and more resources.

Yes, schools in high-poverty neighborhoods need more money, not less—especially in states like Illinois, which has the worst school-spending disparity in the nation.

A series of stories by the Daily Herald and WBEZ radio makes that case emphatically, and it also gives suburban parents ample reason to start caring about this issue, because it’s now very much in their back yard.

We’ve been reporting these truths for a few decades now in education journalism, and it bears repeating again because we haven’t mustered the political will to fix this. Here’s my beef with the story as it appeared on the WBEZ version: It opens by disputing a misleading bit of rhetoric attributed to school reformers: “A school’s success depends on quality teaching and high standards. Poverty shouldn’t matter when it comes to either.”

The story doesn’t present a single reformer who says poverty “shouldn’t matter.” It presents many who say it does, including the new schools superintendent of Illinois, Tony Smith:

[Poverty] is a big deal, it needs to be paid attention to … There’s something about how we’re structured that is sorting opportunity. We’re wasting massive, massive human potential by not figuring out a way to increase access and support for all of our kids.

And in an on-air interview on WBEZ promoting the series, both reporters conclude school reform “isn’t working” because the correlation between poverty and outcomes hasn’t changed from 2004 to 2014, the decade when No Child Left Behind took hold in schools nationwide. But the story would seem to contradict that assertion, given this confounding piece of evidence:

Dozens of high-poverty schools are consistently performing much better than the average for their income level. Among them are many Chicago schools. Two-thirds of city elementary schools in 2014 had a positive score on the Poverty-Achievement Index, beating the odds when it comes to poverty. … CPS has gotten better vis-a-vis the rest of the schools in the state, our analysis shows.

So how is school reform a failure if all the growth in poverty (and poor outcomes) is focused outside the city and in the suburbs, while all the school reforms in the last decade—charter schools, multiple-measure teacher evaluation, turnarounds and closures for failing schools—has been focused inside Chicago Public Schools?

The evidence clearly shows that the Chicago school system is making steady progress, especially in its high-poverty schools, which would seem to make the argument to stay the course on reforms, not retreat.

Poverty matters, but it is not an excuse for failure. It is not an argument for inertia. It does not absolve teachers and principals from the responsibility of teaching all children regardless of their family income and family circumstances.

So please, please, WBEZ, don’t assert that “schools don’t cause achievement gaps” just because poor kids come to kindergarten with fewer vocabulary words and more behavioral issues.

There are schools that cause achievement gaps, where those small gaps become huge over time, where students slip further and further behind every year as the adults in the building throw up their hands and blame parents, poverty and a paucity of programs.

And then there are schools that close gaps. Those are schools that welcome low-income parents rather than blame them. Those are the schools that feed students’ minds and bellies. Those are the schools where the adults find ways to brighten kids’ learning with a creative partnership, a can of paint, or an after-school arts program.

Just as the Daily Herald found at Sunny Hill Elementary in Carpentersville, when they interviewed principal Irma Bates: “You can do it, but you have to believe in kids. You have to believe they are capable of truly reaching excellence.”

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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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