‘Poverty is our biggest challenge in education’

Poverty is one of the biggest obstacles to educating Idaho’s children and young adults.

Research highlights the long-running correlation between high poverty rates and low student performance — a “crisis” that has become the “norm” in schools across the nation, according to national experts William Parrett and Kathleen Budge.

Data tells a similar story in Idaho, where economically disadvantaged students consistently perform below their peers on standardized tests.

“Poverty is our biggest challenge in education,” said Rod Gramer, president of Idaho Business for Education.

Teens who live in poverty are often unable to do homework because they have jobs, take care of siblings or are homeless. Finding shelter or food sometimes supersedes doing laundry or even getting to school.

And poverty not only affects achievement in K-12, it hinders the pursuit of a college degree or certificate. Adults without some form of postsecondary education are more likely to earn a lower wage and live below the poverty line.

“Somebody has to advocate for students in poverty,” Parrett said.

Parrett and Budge have traveled the country for years, studying high-poverty schools that have closed the achievement gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students. In 2012, they co-wrote a book detailing what these schools and their leaders do, from refusing to blame struggling, disadvantaged students and their families to enlisting the community’s help in quelling poverty’s stubborn cycle.

Their research focuses on common classroom practices in high-poverty, high-performing schools, which led to another book published in 2018.

It’s a complex challenge, Parrett and Budge acknowledge, but it’s doable. With the right help, kids of all economic backgrounds can perform at a high level.  

“Any school willing to refocus its efforts can become a high-performing school,” the researchers point out in their book, “Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools.”

The crisis

The achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and their more affluent peers isn’t new, and it isn’t closing.

Fifty years of national testing data reveal a “strikingly” persistent achievement divide, according to a recent study published by Education Next, a Cambridge, Mass., think tank.

Proficiency in math and English Language Arts vs. poverty rates


Free/reduced lunch
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Math proficiency
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ELA proficiency
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Policymakers have repeatedly tried to break the link between learning and socioeconomic status, the study points out, yet interventions have largely been unable to dent the trend.

Eligibility for free and reduced-price meals is a standard measure of student poverty. In Idaho, students who qualify for the federal subsidy have trailed their more affluent peers in proficiency rates on standardized tests by more than 20 percentage points — for at least four consecutive years.

Here’s a year-by-year breakdown of the gap in math and English, according to the State Department of Education:

  • 2014-15: 23.3 percentage points.
  • 2015-16: 22.6 percentage points.
  • 2016-17: 23.4 percentage points.
  • 2017-18: 23.9 percentage points.

What’s more, the SDE last year released a list of Idaho’s 29 lowest performing schools, using a range of performance measures: standardized test scores, graduation rates, college-readiness indicators and student surveys. Twenty-three of the 29 schools — nearly 80 percent — were Title I schools, so designated because they serve a high percentage of low-income students.  

A drag on Idaho’s economy

The achievement gap contributes to the lack of an educated workforce, which makes it a “big drag” on Idaho’s economic fortunes, Gramer said.

Gramer, whose organization represents over 200 Idaho business leaders, pointed to a study by the Federal Reserve of San Francisco that attributes an expected drop in national economic growth to the inadequate education of disadvantaged students.

In Idaho, statistics illustrate the problem:

  • Median household income ranks No. 41 in the nation.
  • Nearly 48 percent of students qualified for free-and-reduced meals in 2017-18.
  • High school graduation rates rank among the worst in the nation, and numbers are even lower for students in poverty.

State lawmakers can minimize these impacts by approving a school funding formula that allocates more dollars to high-poverty schools, Gramer said. 

A legislative interim committee developed a proposal to replace Idaho’s 25-year-old school funding formula with an enrollment model where funding follows the students, and it’s weighted for poverty.

The 2019 Legislature was unable to agree on a new formula, but did pass a law to better define Idaho’s “economically disadvantaged” students.

Gramer said more money for high-poverty schools would improve their access to “proven strategies” and targeted programs such as AVID, a nationwide nonprofit that trains educators to close the achievement gap.

“Why don’t all struggling schools have access to it?” Gramer said.

‘You have to see it to understand it’

Parrett and Budge work as professors at Boise State University and study schools that simultaneously meet two criteria:

  1. Have high eligibility rates for free or reduced-price meals — 60 percent for junior high schools and high schools, 70 percent for elementary schools.
  2. Have standardized test scores that exceed state averages, for all kids.

Over the years, they have tracked activities and attitudes at dozens of outlier schools meeting these marks.

Their “framework for action” is a model designed to bring best practices to other schools hoping to disrupt poverty’s impacts.

The framework begins with leaders capable of fostering  “healthy, safe and supportive learning environments” in order to enable an “intensive focus on student, professional and system learning.”

“Leadership is so key,” Budge said.

Capable and focused leaders move the process along by reshaping school culture in several ways:

  • Caring relationships and advocacy.
  • High expectations and support.
  • Accountability for learning.
  • Commitment to student equity.
  • Courage and will to take action.

High-poverty, high-performing schools also “develop relationships with the district office, local families, and community members” to support the efforts to improve student achievement, according to the framework.

Like cogs in a machine, Parrett and Budge say these efforts often move simultaneously toward the end goal of getting “all students learning to high standards.”

It might not look like much on paper, Parrett said, but the process and results are profound when viewed in person.

“You have to see it to understand it,” Parrett said. “Find a school, and go visit one.”

Our series on poverty, at a glance

This week-long series on student poverty features a close look at what high-poverty schools are doing to move the needle. We also document day-to-day challenges faced by Idaho students impacted by poverty and examine what leaders are doing or talking about doing to fix the problem.

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