Education and urban schools

The American mythology continues to insist that education is the path to the middle class for those struggling to escape the grip of poverty.

By Cynthia Hudley, PhD

Much has been written about the poor academic achievement among students in “urban”, “minority” and otherwise coded schools over the past decades. However, the conversations about the heightened challenges facing students in urban public schools must recognize that on average, 64 percent of students receive free or reduced price lunches, indicating that their families are at or near the federal poverty level. Guidelines for the 2013-2014 academic year locate the federal poverty line at $23,550 for a family of  four; eligibility for the federal free breakfast and lunch programs requires an income of no more than $30,615 before taxes. The comparable income maximum for reduced price breakfast or lunch is $43,568 (USDA, 2013). Thus, in urban public schools, many students and their families are living with severe economic disadvantage.

Urban schools serving high-poverty families and communities

The American mythology continues to insist that education is the path to the middle class for those struggling to escape the grip of poverty. However, the education that poor, urban students in public schools receive is demonstrably insufficient to make them competitive with their more advantaged, middle and upper income peers. There is much talk today, for example, about the importance of STEM careers for the future of our youth and for our country. Yet, mathematics classes in high-poverty high schools are twice as likely to be taught by a teacher with a credential other than mathematics as are mathematics classes at low-poverty high schools. Similarly, for science classes at high-poverty high schools, teachers are three times as likely to be credentialed in areas other than science as those who teach science at low-poverty high schools (Wirt et al., 2004). 

Irrespective of teacher credentials and subject specific concerns, in general teachers in high-poverty schools more often report having to work with outdated textbooks in short supply; outdated computers and other kinds of technology; and inadequate or nonexistent science equipment, materials and labs. As well, the amount and variety of college-preparatory or advanced placement offerings lag significantly behind schools serving more advantaged populations (Freel, 1998). Combined with deficient supplies, materials and opportunities to learn, deteriorating physical plants, often another characteristic of high-poverty urban schools, can diminish student engagement and achievement. More than a decade ago, physical conditions in urban schools predicted academic engagement and performance (Lewis et al., 1999) but basic materials — including textbooks, science equipment and desks — were generally in disrepair or absent. Thus, conditions in high-poverty schools too often render them sites of developmental risk rather than competent assets that would enhance student developmental outcomes.

Theories of stress and coping define structural conditions such as dirty bathrooms and physical decay as stressors that undermine students’ ability to concentrate (Evans & Kim, 2013), and lack of concentration, or poor “on-task behavior,” is a core indicator of low motivation and disengagement in students. However, when school facilities provide intellectual support and resources, all students can develop academically as they explore their own intellectual abilities. Providing laptops for urban adolescents, for example, has increased achievement and engagement when computer use moves beyond rote skill practice (Penuel, 2006). A reform initiative that provided laptops and wireless access in an urban high school (Project Hiller) increased standardized test scores, student motivation and technological literacy for adolescents in grades 8 and 9 (Light, McDermott, & Honey, 2002). An innovative project to teach physics concepts to urban high school students using video technology developed students’ sense of agency for subject matter that is too often closed to low-income, urban students (Elmesky, 2005). Substandard curriculum, facilities and physical plants are undeniable stressors sometimes found in high-poverty schools. But well equipped, technologically sophisticated facilities and challenging curriculum provide demonstrated benefits for all students’ intellectual development. 

Poverty and public policy 

How can public policy surmount the many barriers to high quality education for all children? Building state-of-the-art public schools with cutting edge technology to serve the poorest children is a challenging prescription in an era of declining public resources and contested political priorities, although the evidence is clear that a substandard school environment, like substandard housing, nutrition, family resources and social opportunities yields troublesome academic and developmental sequelae. There are other possibilities to consider as well.

One undeniably evidence-based but controversial policy initiative to remove structural barriers to educational achievement would directly supplement the income of poor parents by either reconceptualizing the minimum wage to a “living wage” or increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit. Rather than addressing the school plant or academic programs, this initiative is grounded in the belief that families can support student achievement if they are able to lift their vision from a daily struggle for survival. Recent analyses (Dahl & Lochner, 2005) conclude that direct cash supplements to family income have a causal relationship with student achievement and the child’s future earnings, and these relationships are strongest for the poorest families and for female headed households.

Another important policy initiative, discussed in president Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address and subsequent speeches, is investment in early childhood education. The evidence is quite plain that high quality early childhood education leads to intellectual and academic gains in the short run as well as long-term improvement (i.e., “sleeper effects”) in life chances for poor children (Knudson et al., 2006). Working to “compensate” for pervasive disadvantage as students progress through K-12 may be too late for our poorest children to breach the barriers that separate them from advantaged students who have enjoyed enriched environments since birth.

A final and perhaps most controversial policy initiative might consider how to encourage more effective teachers to work in high-poverty schools. Question of teacher assignments, merit pay and evaluations based on student test scores are undeniably fraught with tension and dissent across the political spectrum. However, as described in the introduction to this brief, the most qualified teachers are less often found in the highest-poverty schools. How to address that gap, whether through increased professional preparation and development, more concentrated support services for teachers, increased pay for the teaching profession, alternative pathways into the profession or some other policy initiative, it is impossible to think about structural improvements for schools serving our neediest student without thinking about the teacher as the primary point of contact.

All of these possible initiatives will require the right combination of funding and political will. California is having a discussion worth watching, as the state legislature and governor take cautious steps toward a new school funding formula. While not mandating specific education policy, in 2012, the voters approved a tax increase that can provide schools and districts, particularly those serving high-poverty communities and students, additional funding to equalize per-pupil expenditures across the state. New money might allow districts to enact policy initiatives and structural reforms. This revised funding formula is still in the very early stages of the political process (i.e., “sausage-making”), so it is unclear exactly what will result for the most vulnerable students in California’s public schools. Still, bold moves are called for if public education is to cease its role as one of the structural determinants of poverty.

Author bio

Cynthia Hudley, PhDCynthia Hudley, PhD, is a professor of graduate school of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Hudley received her PhD in educational psychology from The University of California at Los Angeles in 1991. Throughout her academic career she has pursued research interests in children's social development, with special attention to children and adolescents who are not well served by public education, ethnic minority children, low income children and children at-risk for school failure. Hudley's work has focused on two distinct but interrelated areas: academic achievement motivation and children's peer-directed aggression. Currently, her primary area of research focuses on the influence of children's social cognitions on their motivation to succeed academically. Much of Hudley's scholarly activities have been dedicated to understanding children's aggressive behaviors across samples of students that vary by social class, gender, ethnicity, age and region of residence to determine the generalizability of attrition theory to typical understudied populations. Her work has appeared in Journal of Educational Psychology®, Psychology in the Schools, Developmental Psychology®, Child Development, Journal of Early Adolescents, Applied and Preventive Psychology, among others. Hudley is a member and a 2013 chair-elect of the Committee on Socioeconomic Status.


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