income and outcomes

Want to boost test scores and increase grad rates? One strategy: look outside schools and help low-income families

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Children at Detroit's Fit and Fold laundromat now have computers to use and books to read while their parents do the wash — part of an effort to bring literacy programs to places where families are.

When Marquita, a Memphis mother of six, became homeless, her children began to struggle in school. “The kids were just out of control,” she said. “Their grades weren’t the same.”

“What people don’t understand is what adults go through, kids go through it too,” she said. “I didn’t know kids get depressed until I went through this situation.”

Marquita, who asked that her last name be withheld to discuss her living situation and her children’s mental health, said she became homeless because she was pushed out of her apartment when she filed a lawsuit about poor conditions. She wasn’t able to find and afford a new place immediately, so over the course of three months, she stayed with friends, rented hotel rooms, or slept in her car. Marquita washed clothes at her kids’ school, which had a washing machine.

“It was a journey,” she said.

Marquita eventually found a permanent place to live with the support of a local “rapid rehousing” program, which also paid her first six months of rent. It immediately made a difference for her kids.

“When I got in a house, their grades went back up, they weren’t getting in trouble,” she said. “It affects them in a major way.”

A large and growing body of research backs up Marquita’s experience, documenting not only that poverty hurts students in school, but that specific anti-poverty programs can counteract that harm. These programs — or other methods of increasing family income — boost students’ test scores, make them more likely to finish high school, and raise their chances of enrolling in college.

In other words, many policies with a shot at changing the experience of low-income students in school don’t have anything to do with the schools themselves. That also means, as these findings pile up, they get relatively little attention from education policymakers who could be key advocates.

“We’re so compartmentalized when we think about kids,” said Greg Duncan, a professor at the University of California, Irvine who has researched the effects of anti-poverty programs. “For people who are interested in promoting well-being of children … these safety net programs should be very much on people’s mind.”

A steady stream of evidence

Chalkbeat identified more than 20 studies published in the past decade that examine how increasing family income or benefits, like food stamps and health insurance, affect children’s outcomes in school in the U.S. This research does not simply restate the well-known fact that less affluent children do worse in schools than more affluent ones; the studies try to pin down the effect of providing additional resources to families in poverty.

Over and over, they find that more money or benefits helps kids in school.

[Read the full list of studies that Chalkbeat has compiled.]

Take the latest study. It came out in July, and showed that teenagers whose families earned a tax credit for low-income families scored substantially higher on standardized tests and were more likely to graduate college. The gains were greatest for the poorest kids.

The effects of these programs are notable, but not huge. For instance, in that most recent study, an annual increase in family income of about $3,000 led to test score gains of a few percentile points. For older kids, it boosted high school and college graduation rates by 1 percentage point. That’s comparable to the effects of things like having a substantially better teacher or lowering class sizes.

This evidence doesn’t suggest that low-income kids can’t learn or that schools and teachers are unimportant to academic achievement. A large body of research shows otherwise. And, of course, many policymakers and educators have long been aware of the how out-of-school factors affects academics. Community schools and trauma-informed teaching are two efforts to address that.  

But the research on anti-poverty programs illustrates how much changes to family income, affected by programs unrelated to schools, can help students do better in class.

Child poverty has fallen since the 1990s mostly due to government benefit programs — but large racial disparities persist. Black children are three times as likely to grow up in poverty as white children, meaning some groups of kids are experiencing consequences of poverty in school much more than others.

Studies show trend, but also come with key caveats

The results aren’t all that surprising, considering the documented effects of poverty and stress on children’s brain development.

“Additional income, especially if it’s regularly received, enables parents to avoid evictions and utilities cut-offs and all the disruptions that can happen,” Duncan said.

Chalkbeat’s review focuses on relatively recent U.S. research, but studies from 1979 and 1984 have also shown positive effects. They seem consistent with what’s been found in other countries, too, and with detailed reviews of past studies by researchers.

But the research also comes with important limits.

These studies point in a clear direction, but there are exceptions. A handful of studies find no clear effects, particularly of government housing programs.

Second, each study focuses on specific programs, and some focus on much older initiatives. The breadth of the results is telling, but they can’t definitively tell us exactly what would happen now if new programs were created or existing ones expanded.

Finally, the studies generally don’t say much about trade-offs. What are the costs — perhaps higher taxes — of expanding such initiatives? Might other programs be a better use of scarce dollars? They also don’t tell us anything about bigger philosophical debates surrounding anti-poverty programs, or about the value of making sure people have adequate food and housing.

With all that in mind, let’s dig into the research.

More money means fewer problems in school

One widely used anti-poverty program is the Earned Income Tax Credit, and it’s been repeatedly linked to better schooling outcomes for kids. The IRS said that 27 million families used the program in 2017.

The program can make a big difference for low-income working families. For instance, a parent of two who earns $15,000 gets an additional $5,700 in benefits through that tax credit. In 2016, the average credit for a family with children was just over $3,000. It has also been shown to boost families’ earning by encouraging work.

At least two studies have examined how the program affects test scores by looking at what happened when the earned income tax credit became more generous in the 1990s. In both, students — particularly children of color and boys — saw scores rise.

Programs that give tax credits to parents also seem to raise test scores, according to other research in both the U.S. and Canada.

The more recent earned income tax credit study found that it boosted high school and college graduation rates, particularly among the poorest kids.

“There is a positive effect of family income on test scores and on educational outcomes — and this doesn’t just fade out,” said Jacob Bastian, one of the study’s authors and an economist at the University of Chicago.

He said it makes sense that the biggest beneficiaries were kids whose families were the lowest-income. “If you give a middle class family three thousand more dollars maybe it’s not a big deal, but if you give a poor family three thousand more dollars, then that’s going to have a big effect,” he said.

Another study, by Duncan and others, looked at anti-poverty programs in the 1990s that offered additional money to people who worked. Income tied to those programs, it found, also led to higher test scores for kids.

A 2010 study suggests that work incentives aren’t necessary to see gains. It looked at what happened when Native American families received a large and unexpected boost in income due to profits from a new nearby casino being distributed to those families with no strings attached.

The results? Higher high school graduation rates and lower rates of crime, particularly among kids from the lowest-income families. The researchers found that an increase in $4,000 annually to the poorest families caused their kids to attain an extra year of schooling. It also seemed to help kids emotionally and behaviorally.

A 2011 study found that that work incentives can backfire if they don’t lead to higher family incomes. Two ‘90s-era state programs, it showed, reduced students’ success in school, probably because they didn’t raise income and older kids had to take care of younger siblings while their parent worked.

Researchers and policymakers are still debating the role of work. Duncan says the evidence suggests that it is money, not work, driving the positive results.

“It appears that income is the active ingredient,” he said.

Health insurance and food stamps can help too; housing vouchers are less clear

Anti-poverty programs that give families benefits beyond cash help kids in school, too.

The expansion of Medicaid — a health insurance program for low-income families — increased high school and college completion rates, according to a number of recent studies. Another showed that government-funded health insurance boosted kids’ reading (but not math) test scores.

Food stamps have been shown to reduce disciplinary rates and student absences while increasing test scores in schools. Students also score lower on exams near the end of a food stamps benefits cycle, perhaps because their family is running short of food.

A 2016 study looked at the rollout of the Food Stamp Program between 1961 and 1975. It found that women who access to the program as a child had higher rates of education as an adult, compared to similar people without access.

That help, one study concluded, “complements school-based education initiatives to address … income gaps in children’s schooling outcomes.”

The effects of housing programs are more ambiguous.

A recent paper focusing on Wisconsin found mixed evidence that housing vouchers boosted academic achievement, though they did seem to help black students in particular. It also showed that public housing seemed to have a negative effect on test scores. An older study focusing on Chicago found no effect of public housing on student test scores.

Widely cited research on the Moving to Opportunity program — which offered low-income families in public housing vouchers to move to a higher-income area — showed there were no overall effects on schooling outcomes, though the program did seem to benefit younger children.

A separate study found that housing vouchers in Chicago had small, if any, benefits on students in school. The results were smaller than those seen in other anti-poverty or effective educational programs, the paper said.

Researchers who have looked closely at the breadth of studies, though, suggest that results like that are exceptions. “We conclude that reducing income poverty can be expected to have a significant impact on children’s environment and on their development,” wrote Kerris Cooper and Kitty Stewart of the London School of Economics.

“Increases in household income would not eliminate differences in outcomes between low-income children and others,” they wrote, “but could be expected to contribute to substantial reductions in those differences.”

cracking the code

Newark schools partner with Girls Who Code to expand access to coding clubs

PHOTO: Kei-Sygh Thomas/Chalkbeat
Students at announcement of Girls Who Code partnership with Newark Public Schools at Rafael Hernandez School

Starting in the spring, more Newark middle schoolers will be learning how to code, owing to a new partnership between Newark Public Schools and Girls Who Code. Schools Superintendent Roger León announced the initiative at Rafael Hernandez Elementary School on Thursday. The partnership will establish Girls Who Code clubs in 24 of the district’s middle schools, providing an introduction to coding skills to more than 3,000 girls.

“If we are serious about equity and opportunity, especially when it comes to communities of color, we have to teach them how to code,” said Reshma Saujani, the CEO of Girls Who Code. “I think it’s an opportunity to reach the hardest-to-reach communities.”

The initiative complements a push to increase computer science education statewide. In January, New Jersey passed a law requiring every public high school, starting this fall, to offer a computer science class. And in October, Governor Murphy committed $2 million to increasing the number of public high schools making advanced computer science classes available to students. Priority consideration will be given to schools that receive Title I funds.

Girls Who Code already offers clubs in six Newark schools, according to its website: Newark Tech High School, East Side High School, Barringer High Schools, TEAM Academy, Hawkins Street School, and First Avenue. The new partnership will increase that number and target middle schools exclusively.

By age 15, girls have often lost interest in math, science or technological subjects, according to one report. The program wants girls “to act or think like a computer scientist,” said Chrissy Ziccarelli, the director of education at Girls Who Code.

It also hopes to inspire girls to enter technology-related fields. The U.S. Bureau of Labor projects that there will be approximately 4.6 million computing jobs nationwide by the year 2020 but not enough people with the skills to fill those jobs.

“A majority of our girls want to take another computer science class after they participate in a club,” Ziccarelli said. Alumni of the program are also more likely to major in computer science, she said.

The challenge for districts, however, isn’t just exposing students to computers, says Darrin Sharif, Executive Director of Newark Kids Code, another organization that provides extra-curricular enrichment programs for Newark students, but also showing them how to use them. The Thirteenth Avenue School has two computer labs, for example. Rather, schools struggle to find teachers who are trained in how to teach computer science.  

“It’s not a digital divide, it is a digital use divide,” Sharif said.

According to a report by Code.org, universities in New Jersey only graduated three new teachers prepared to teach computer science in 2016. Because of the shortage in computer-science instructors, Girls Who Code will use volunteer facilitators, who are not required to have a technical background (and often do not). Their training consists of two, 15-minute videos to introduce the structure of the program.

The facilitators are then encouraged to learn alongside their female students by completing tutorials with them. The clubs in the new Newark Public Schools partnership will also have access to one club specialist, who has a technical background, whom facilitators can reach out to online or by phone for support.

Newark Kids Code is approaching the teacher shortage by working to tap more homegrown talent. “There is a lot of tech activity that is happening downtown, but there’s no connection to our schools at all. It may be a while before [NPS] can fill that gap,” Darrin Sharif said.  

To compensate, Newark Kids Code recruits computer science students from New Jersey Institute of Technology. These NJIT student facilitators then use curriculum from Code.org to teach six-hour workshops to elementary school students every Saturday at the Urban League’s headquarters for ten weeks. Students learn to develop websites, animations, and games with HTML and Scratch.

Stephanie Burdel has been teaching coding at Hawkins Street Elementary School for almost two years and attends “training” at Newark Kids Code on Saturdays, where she assists students, some of whom attend Hawkins and can observe the NJIT student facilitators. Burdel uses the time to learn best practices for teaching coding to her own students.

“I get extra engagement with students and see what problems they come across in the Scratch program,” Burdel said. “I learn what to do when students have problems when they’re coding and speak with the facilitators if I have questions.”

Last week, Burdel’s kindergarten and first-grade students participated in an Hour of Code, a national event designed to encourage interest in coding. She was amazed by how engaged students were. Burdel believes that learning to code in school can help students build character and improve in other subjects.

“I especially love seeing the little ones sitting and talking through the problems together,” she said. “You don’t think they have the capability especially with shorter attention spans. But they sat engaged the whole time and they loved it.”

Ana Quezada is one of Burdel’s students. She is 10 years old and sees herself becoming a programmer so she can understand computers to make them better.

“When I’m not able to figure something out on my own after ten minutes, I look around to see who can help me,” Ana said. “I ask them to explain it so I know how everything works.”

Kei-Sygh Thomas is a Newark-based journalist, who grew up and went to schools in the city.

First Person

The SHSAT helps Manhattan families like mine. I finally stood up last week to say that’s wrong.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Parents in Manhattan's District 3 gathered in June to learn about the middle school admissions process.

Choosing schools in New York City can be a formidable challenge. That was evident at a Community Education Council meeting in District 2 last week, when I spoke in favor of a proposal to phase out the exam that governs admissions to the city’s sought-after, specialized high schools — and many other parents voiced opposition to the plan.

In 2011, when my husband and I began to think about where our daughter would go to kindergarten, we realized what a complex educational landscape we would have to navigate. In the years since, we have struggled, as former teachers ourselves, to reconcile our values and self-interests. And sometimes our choices have reflected the latter.

I’ve come to see these choices through a different, critical lens, and I think our family’s story — just one in a school system with more than one million schoolchildren — may shed light on how the system isn’t yet set up to make the right choices the easy ones, and why I’ve come to believe elevating these values is so important at this moment.

The first decision we confronted was where our daughter should go to elementary school. She was zoned to attend P.S. 51 in Hell’s Kitchen. Although State Sen. Brad Hoylman would later call P.S. 51 “one of the jewels in our city’s school system,” in 2011, by traditional measures, the school faced steep challenges. Almost 70 percent of P.S. 51’s students lived in poverty, and only 61 percent of the school’s third-graders passed the state’s standardized tests. This performance still exceeded the citywide average by a significant margin but remained far below the city’s top-ranked schools. In addition, the school itself was in the middle of a construction zone.

As plans were finalized to build a new housing development and school facility where P. S. 51 stood, it was relocated to the Upper East Side, where the school stayed for two years. And so, although school buses were provided, our neighborhood school was no longer in our neighborhood.

We had another possible option. Midtown West, also known as P.S. 212, an unzoned school that accepted children via a lottery system, was a block away from our home. Years earlier, Hell’s Kitchen parents had founded the magnet school based on the progressive pedagogy championed by Bank Street College as an alternative to the neighborhood’s existing public schools, P.S. 51 and P.S. 111.

The combined efforts of school administrators, teachers, and parents led to a strong program at Midtown West. Increasing numbers of middle-class students from Hell’s Kitchen and neighborhoods around the city began to apply to the school, which attracted more resources of all types. By the time we applied to Midtown West in 2011, 87 percent of third-graders passed state tests, and 22 percent of students lived in poverty. In addition, although P.S. 51 and Midtown West were only four blocks apart, P.S. 51 had 73 percent black and Latinx students, whereas Midtown West had 38 percent. The demographics, performance, and resources of the two schools (which parents often look up) were starkly different.

In addition, we had a third possibility. Our daughter tested into the citywide Gifted and Talented program. The closest gifted program was at P.S. 11 in Chelsea, and we attended an orientation. The majority of the parents there (ourselves among them — I am white and my husband is Indian-American) were white and Asian. The gathering was a reflection of the program’s overall demographics; in 2011, more than 70 percent of kindergartners in gifted programs were white and Asian.

This stood in contrast to the broader demographics of the city’s public schools, where 70 percent of children were black and Latinx. We were deeply uncomfortable with the racial disparities between the gifted and general education classrooms but were also daunted as parents by the logistical nightmare of getting one child to school in Chelsea and another to daycare in Hell’s Kitchen — and still getting to work on time.

So here were our choices: We could send our child to a school in transition that had relocated across Manhattan. We could send her to a sought-after school that served those lucky enough to make it through a lottery system. Or, we could send her to a gifted program that served a fraction of New York City’s children. Options one and three would place our child outside of our neighborhood and in deeply segregated environments. Midtown West was closer and less segregated than most gifted classrooms, but only marginally so.

Ultimately, we were among the few to make it through Midtown West’s lottery system and we chose to enroll our daughter there. But this choice, I now see, was a Faustian bargain between our self-interest and our values.

As former teachers who had benefited from quality educations ourselves and with remunerative careers, we could have enrolled our child at P.S. 51. We could have become active parents, making positive contributions to a school in need of advocates and racial and socioeconomic diversity. But as two working parents with young children, we already felt stretched too thin. We determined that we needed a school that would successfully educate our child — with or without our involvement. P.S. 51’s relocation across town cemented our decision. So we made our own needs a priority and abandoned our zoned school.

Geography and school performance had combined to shape our choice. Midtown West was a short walk from our apartment and offered a well-rounded program. But in the process, we became inured to a system that lifted our choice about what was best for our child over the needs of the majority of the city’s schoolchildren.

By not enrolling our child in P.S. 51, we divested our zoned school of whatever resources we could have provided. Our values were in conflict with our actions. And we participated in this system again as we made our way through the screened middle school process. Our daughter received an offer from the Salk School of Science, one of the most selective and least diverse middle schools in the city. We accepted the offer, and she is at Salk today.

Now, with our daughter two years away from high school, our city is immersed in a battle over the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, a conflict that often pits families’ interests against one another, and the needs of the city’s children as a whole.

A small but vocal group of largely white and Asian parents has mobilized to protect the SHSAT, a mechanism that has historically preserved seats in the city’s most selective high schools for their children. Today those schools are comparable to gifted programs in their racial disparity. The majority of specialized high schools’ students are white and Asian; only 10 percent are black and Latinx.

The energy of these parent advocates for their cause could measure on the Richter scale. I know because I felt the tremors when I spoke out at the District 2 CEC meeting in favor of the city’s initiative to make the system more fair by phasing out the test and offering seats to the top 7 percent of each of the city’s middle schools. Education department projections show this measure would increase black and Latinx enrollment at the city’s specialized high schools to 45 percent — still far below the average citywide but a step closer to representative.

If the SHSAT is eliminated, the odds of these parents’ children attending specialized high schools will be significantly reduced. The same will be true for our daughter. Last year, in a school system with almost 600 middle schools, students from just 10 middle schools received 25 percent of the overall admissions offers from the city’s specialized high schools. Salk was one of those 10 schools; 70 Salk students received such offers. If the city’s plan is adopted, Salk’s number of admitted students will likely plummet.

So why did I speak out in support of phasing out the SHSAT? When our daughter was entering elementary school and middle school, we chose what was most advantageous to our family. Why change course now? Some will say the answer is because the hard choices are behind us. Many great New York City high schools exist beyond just the specialized ones. But that’s not quite it.

In 2011, as our daughter was about to enter the New York City school system, this country stood poised to elect President Obama for a second term. A common perception — one that we naively shared — was that the critical mass of American politics and culture was moving in a progressive direction. And in such a climate, my husband and I reflected less on how our choices made in self-interest might undermine the momentum toward a greater public good.

The state of our country in the last two years has increasingly reshaped our thinking and helped us begin to grapple with and develop a new understanding of how our individual actions, however great or small, contribute to the weaving or unraveling of a more just society.

Our evolution is also related to changing family dynamics. During earlier decisions about our daughter’s education, my husband and I had to answer only to each other. We had long discussions during which we weighed our options against our values and could more easily accept and forgive rationalizations and expediency. Now we are making choices in the presence of a highly engaged third party: our perceptive young daughter, who has a keen sense of social justice honed in New York City’s public schools.

How do we look her in the eye and continue to seek privilege in an educational system that is structured to favor some children, including our own, and not others? She is old enough to understand that our choices define and reveal who we really are.

The fervor of the parents at the SHSAT meeting is surely driven by their desire to secure the best opportunities for their children. That’s something we have in common with all parents across New York City.

So what would happen if we united to demand that the New York City public schools genuinely serve the public good? What if we took to heart the words issued by the city’s Board of Education in 1954, in the wake of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision: “Public education in a racially homogeneous setting is socially unrealistic and blocks the attainment of the goals of democratic education, whether this segregation occurs by law or by fact.” What would happen if we insisted that the goals of a democratic education — equal educational opportunities for all children — be realized?

Committing to those values would mean scrapping more than the SHSAT. It would mean rethinking gifted programs and middle school screening, and all the ways we separate and isolate children, which have contributed to making New York City’s school system one of the most segregated in the country.

Committing to these values would mean integrating our schools, so all children can benefit from the enhanced ability to participate a multiethnic, democratic society. It would mean offering well-funded, high quality schools to all children in all New York City neighborhoods. Yes, it would also likely mean more discomfiting conversations, like the ones at the meeting where I spoke — conversations with each other and also with ourselves. And it would mean living in harmony with what we say we believe and what we actually do.

Alexis Audette is a parent of two children in District 2. Portrait photo credit: Mark Weinberg.