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.”

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.

Story time

This Memphis teacher’s favorite student didn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. She taught him a powerful lesson.

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner teaches at East High School in Memphis.

When one of Daniel Warner’s favorite students refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, he could feel the tension in himself rising.

It was August 2017, the first week of classes, and Warner said he knew how important setting a tone was during the first few days of school.

“Didn’t my teacher prep program teach me that I have to set high expectations in that first week or the year is lost?” asked Warner, a U.S. history teacher at East High School in Memphis. “If I don’t set those, we’re done for.”

But before Warner reacted, he said he took a few moments to reflect on what could be going through her head.

Chalkbeat TN Storytelling Event
PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner tells his story to a crowded room.

It was the Monday after a violent white supremacists rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Stories of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick were again dominating the news, as he remained ostracized for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

Instead of punishing her, Warner said, he refocused on what she might be thinking through as a black American high schooler.

“The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers,” Warner said.

Warner was one of seven educators and students who participated in a February story storytelling night hosted by Chalkbeat Tennessee, Spillit, and The Knowledge Tree. The stories told centered around school discipline practices, a topic Chalkbeat recently dove into in this special report.

Video Credit: Gillian Wenhold, The Social Exchange. The Social Exchange is a pay-as-you can PR & content creation firm for nonprofits and responsible, women/minority owned businesses.

Here’s an edited transcript of Warner’s story. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

It’s a week into school in early August. And kids are just trickling into my senior homeroom mostly asleep, sitting quietly in their desk as 18-year-olds do at 7:15 in the morning…And then morning announcements come on. “Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”

So I stand up, and I say, “Alright y’all, go ahead and stand up with me.” I see these seniors throwing their bodies out of their seats, trying to stand up while they are still asleep. And almost everyone stands up but one girl doesn’t…  

So, my eyes meet this girls eyes as she stays in her seat during the pledge. And I can feel the tension in me of my authority being challenged in the room. And I wonder if everyone else is looking at me, my other students. So I give her a teacher look meant to communicate, “Are you going to stand up?” And she looks at me from across the room and shakes her head and mouths, “I can’t.”

So this student was one of my best students the year before in honors U.S. History. She engaged deeply with the material and personally. She asked questions of herself, of her country, of democracy, what this whole thing is about. She processed the double consciousness she feels of being both black and American. And she did so while being kind, thoughtful hardworking. The student you think of that makes you want to cry, you love that kid so much. I wonder what’s going on, what is she thinking about…

This is a Monday and the weekend before had been the white supremacists march in Charlottesville… When she told me, that she couldn’t stand, I went and sat in the desk next to her…I asked, “What’s keeping you from standing up?”

She started by saying, “I hate,” and she stopped herself. She took a breath, calmed herself down and said, “I just can’t.” And so we just sat there for a second. I could see as I got closer to her that she was flooded with emotion and feeling something deeply. And so we let the announcements end and I tell her, “When I say the pledge I say it more as a hope and a prayer…that there would be liberty and justice for all.” She said, “Yeah, I was thinking about that,” like a good U.S. History student, but she said “things don’t’ seem to be headed that way right now…

The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers. She showed me that I was a little too focused on how I was being perceived by other students in the classroom. And that I wasn’t focused enough on her and what she might be processing. As teachers, we have all of this opportunity to escalate conflict, I’ve done it plenty of times. But we also have an opportunity to be gracious to students who are working out who they are in public…

This girl wasn’t being disengaged by saying no to me, she was being especially engaged with who she is… When we talk about restorative justice, the first step we have to take is for us as educators and adults, and it’s doing your own emotional work. And we have to ask ourselves questions about our identities. You can only lead someone somewhere if you’ve gone there yourself…

What is it about us when it sets us off when a kid says no to us? Why are we that insecure? … When we pay attention to ourselves, our emotional status, the hurt we’ve felt, the pain we’ve lived through, that is when we can begin paying attention to how formative schools are. They are spaces where folks are working out their identities in public, and that’s when you feel the most self conscious and vulnerable and in need of grace offered by someone else.

So, I hope as we talk about this, we think of ways where we can make school a space for people to be figuring out who they are and not just punished into compliance. In high poverty schools, you talk about compliance like it’s the ultimate behavior. I hope we can make schools where students can learn what it is to seek justice, even when and especially when, things just don’t seem to be headed that way right now.