Want to Fix Education? Start Addressing Poverty.

Let me ask you a simple question:  How closely associated do you think consuming a boatload of alcohol and dying of cirrhosis of the liver are?  Stated another way, how convinced are you that people who spend their lives on the wrong side of the bottle are more likely to die of cirrhosis than the teetotallers in your community’s Anti-Liquor League?

If you guessed that the odds are pretty darn good that people who drink like fish are more likely to die of cirrhosis than people who don’t, you’d be right.

According to Dr. Michael Freemark, Professor of Pediatrics at the Duke University Medical Center, linear regression tests — which are statistical measures used by medical researchers to study the correlation between two or more variables   — prove that alcohol consumption and death by cirrhosis are strongly related, with an R2 value of 0.4-0.5.

Now let me ask you another simple question:  How closely associated do you think struggling academically and growing up in poverty are?

Ready to be shocked: Writing about a linear regression test that he completed using recently released 2013 testing data from public schools in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, Freemark found that the correlation between a child’s economic condition and the likelihood of passing North Carolina’s end of grade exams is 0.85 — TWICE as high as the correlation between spending your life chugging Kentucky bourbon and dying of cirrhosis.

Freemark — along with Raleigh-based attorney Anne Slifkin — summarize the findings of their linear regression testing like this:

This very high value signifies that 85 percent of variability in school performance is explained by the economic well-being of a child’s family, as measured by eligibility for subsidized lunches, and/or is associated strongly with, most factors that determine performance during the elementary and middle school years.  For one factor to have such a powerful impact on educational outcome is revealing and must be addressed.

What does this mean for those who are passionate about fixing education?

Given that recent data released by the US Census Bureau show that the percentage of students living in poverty has risen by 32% since 2001, that 48% of all students in America’s public schools qualify for free or reduced price lunches, and that students living in poverty are now a majority in 17 states, it means that if we are REALLY serious about seeing students succeed, we simply must start investing in struggling communities.  Asking schools to close achievement gaps while ignoring the economic gaps that exist between students growing up in wealth and students growing up in poverty is just another #edpolicy disaster waiting to happen.

More importantly, asking schools to close achievement gaps while ignoring the economic gaps that exist between students growing up in wealth and students growing up in poverty is just another NATIONAL disaster waiting to happen.



 Related Radical Reads:

Living a Silent War

What Parents Don’t Understand about High Poverty Schools

The Crappy Refrigerator Approach to Fixing Schools

  • KrisGiere

    Thank you!


    This is such an important and too often overlooked or ignored topic of edreform.  Thank you very much for being willing to get the information out there for people.

    – Kris

  • WendiPillars


    Bill, as always, you manage to get the thoughts churning. I hadn’t heard of this study, and am sitting here slack-jawed thinking how serious this has become. Given our recent test scores release in NC (ahem, “low” is an understatement…), and the 95% poverty rate in our school, I’ve been wracking my brain as to how I can at least begin to effect change in some small way. Ideally in a way that inspires others. 

    Am wondering if any other collab-ers out there have ideas and suggestions that have worked for their high poverty communities? Ideas that have pulled folks together, and have brought the messages of importance to the fore in a way that inspires others to take action? The time truly is nigh for big changes to happen. I’d love to hear what others have tried, and are thinking. 

    Thanks in advance, and thanks, Bill, for posting this.


  • Derek O’Connell

    Education and Poverty


    The statistics that you have presented regarding the impact poverty has had on the educational system in the United States is truly alarming. America is one of the world’s richest, most powerful, and developed nations on the planet that possess some of the best academic institutions in the world. However, the problems that plague the American school system are a direct cause of the economic and social inequalities, and political disparities that continue to undermine the nation success and ultimately its future.  

    In parts of the developing world and throughout low-income countries there are millions of children deprived the opportunity to receive an education, followed by millions of other learners that are unable complete their schooling. Poverty is a real barrier that impedes educational opportunities in those nations far less fortunate than the United States of America. For poverty to exist amongst America’s public schools in such epic proportions is a failure on multiple levels that indicate much larger problems.

    The United Nations Secretary-General’s Global Initiative on Education is a commendable effort that emphasizes the importance for children from developing nations to have access to a quality education and serves to promote education as central driving force to influence social, economic, and political progress.  I think it is essential that poverty be addressed to help remedy some of the problems that hinder the American’s educational system, but at the same time the country needs to implement social, economic, and political reforms of its own that improves equality, economic opportunities, and health and education. I believe that educators have played a significant role in improving the quality of education, and can play an even more critical role by raising public awareness in regards the effects poverty has on learning to bring about effective political, social and economic reforms. There is ultimately no excuse for the growing number of impoverished students in America’s schools given the nation’s wealth and development. 



  • Brian Ridpath

    Red Herring Alert

    Any first year statistics student knows correlation does not indicate causation no matter how compelling the coefficient of determination’s (R^2) size. The premise that poverty causes educational deficites in this country has been an ongoing debate in this country for decades and billions upon billions of dollars have been spent combating poverty while all reasonable educational outcome measurements have continued to decline or stay flat – this would indicate that poverty is subordinate to other factors. There are other reasonable variables that might cause the student in poverty to not be successful in school: intelligence level, teacher expectations of poverty students, cultural expectations of academic achievement of poverty students (students culture and school culture), does the NC test actually measure what it is supposed to measure, etc.

    I say all this not to denegrate the great effects that poverty has in our society but to illuminate the bad interpretations that come from statistics by people who mean well. Poverty is an issue in schools today but I think its effect on learning is no greater or less than it ever has been unless we as educators make it an excuse for our students. And therein lies the problem with ever expanding poverty – the entitlement mentality that can develop because of all the freebies one receives because they are poor. Go back to your earlier blog posts Bill – the ones that discuss students acting more entitled – there is where the challenges are. Our approach to poverty in society (government, etc.) today is increasing these poor attitudes in our students. We are not helping them to overcome as I was taught to in my formative years.

    My own history just so nobody discounts my opinion: welfare raised, single mother, one pair of pants for school year, received gift baskets every thankgiving, no refrigerator for 5 years, powdered milk, surplus peanut butter in a can,  etc, etc, etc. I have been there and poverty as an actuality and mindset is only overcome by hard work and persistence. Two virtures that are not held in high esteem today. In my opinion the prof was looking for an easy publish without true thought (a little known fact in publishing is that regression is easy, proving something is hard so why do that). Sad.