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.”

chronically absent

One in four students are chronically absent in Tennessee’s state-run district. Here’s what educators are doing about it.

PHOTO: (Lance Murphey, Memphis Daily News File Photo)
About 25 percent of students at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School were chronically absent last year, a drop of 6 percent from 2017.

More than one in four children in Tennessee’s state-run turnaround district were chronically absent from school last year. Until recently, Armani Fleming, an eighth-grader in Memphis, risked being among them.

Armani struggled with attendance until a student support specialist with Communities in Schools, a Memphis nonprofit focused on wrap-around services for children, worked with him to identify and resolve barriers keeping him from class at Humes Middle School, apart of the Frayser Community Schools charter network.

“I realized Mr. B really cared about me, and he’s helped me make sure I come,” Armani said of the support specialist, Cadarius Buckingham. “He’s more of a counselor to me. I come and talk to him about everything, he’s the person I come to when I need help … and me coming to school has gotten a lot better.”

In the Achievement School District, getting kids to show up at school matters. Recent research has shown that when students have more “familiar faces” around them in class, they’re less likely to be chronically absent. Which is why nonprofits like Communities in Schools are sending staff members into local schools to connect with students like Armani.

Tennessee created the Achievement School District in 2012 to fix its lowest-performing schools by turning them over to charter organizations, but it has struggled to move the needle. Last year, 27.4 percent of the district’s students were chronically absent — representing a 2.4 percent drop from the previous year, but still alarmingly high. Now composed of 30 schools, the district faces higher rates of student mobility and poverty, contributing to its challenges with absenteeism.

Statewide, more than 13 percent of students are chronically absent, defined as having missed 10 percent of the school year, which is typically 18 or more days, for any reason (including excused absences and suspensions), but the average rate was significantly higher, 21 percent, for students who live in poverty.

The stakes are high for improving attendance numbers. Chronic absenteeism is now a major part of Tennessee schools are held accountable by the federal government. And research shows that children who are chronically absent from school are often academically below grade-level, more likely to drop out of school, and more frequently involved in the criminal justice system.

Communities in Schools is now in 19 Memphis schools, eight of them state-run. Those schools have seen, on average, a 5 percent reduction in chronic absenteeism, according to Michael Russom, the group’s director of operations and communications.

One school, Cornerstone Prep Denver Elementary, saw even more dramatic results: an 18 percent drop in chronic absenteeism year-over-year. Last year, just 13.7 percent of the school’s students were chronically absent.

What made the difference? Capstone Education Group, the charter school operator that runs Cornerstone schools, has a staff member dedicated to improving attendance and a partnership with Communities in Schools, said Drew Sippel, executive director of Capstone, which runs two state-run schools in addition to Denver that also had low absenteeism numbers.

“Whenever a parent expresses some concern related to regular attendance, [Patricia] Burns works to resolve impediments to consistent attendance,” Sippel said of the school’s Manager of Student Information and Business Systems. “These impediments range from transportation, homelessness, and inability to purchase school uniforms.”

Untreated health issues is sometimes another factor.

Denver Elementary’s principal also worked with Capstone staff to increase the number of meetings with parents, and therefore, to pinpoint the root causes of students’ absences.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Two of Agape’s staff members work with students on reading at Whitney Achievement Elementary School. The staff members, though employed by the Memphis nonprofit, are integrated into school life.

“There’s often an assumption or judgment with parents, ‘Why don’t you just make your kids go to school?’” said David Jordan, CEO of Agape, a Christian nonprofit that has also seen success in reducing chronic absences in Memphis schools. “We keep data on this, and it’s not that parents don’t care. There’s a lot of issues that can prevent students from making it to class.”

The program has grown every year from when it began in 2013 with 113 students. Now, more than 550 students are a part of Agape programs in 16 schools throughout Memphis — and all students they work with are now at school for at least 85 percent of the school year. This is just shy of the group’s goal for Agape students: to attend more than 90 percent of the year.

For its part, Communities in Schools hopes to expand onto additional Memphis campuses, but for now, the focus is the schools they are already serving. And they have added additional staff to some of the highest-needs schools.

One such school is Fairley High School, an Achievement District school run by the charter operator Green Dot Public Schools. There, about 56 percent of students were chronically absent last year, a 19 percent increase from 2017. Russom said they placed two full-time support specialists within Fairley earlier this school year.

Last year, absences spiked at Fairley amid a change of leadership at the school, and it took time for the new principal to gain students’ trust, said Zachary Samson, Green Dot’s area superintendent.

“That’s one huge piece of chronic absenteeism that’s hard to quantify,” Samson said. “It makes such a difference when a student walks in the door, and I as a school leader am able to greet them by name. I know their mom. It’s students feeling seen and appreciated.”

To improve attendance, Samson said his staff is working with Communities in Schools to create an incentive program for students, in which students who meet their attendance goals can attend school parties. He added that they are also focusing on their communication with parents, as many parents may not be aware their children are chronically absent or of the consequences.

Samson said he’s confident attendance can improve at Fairley because he’s seen it happen at another Green Dot school – Wooddale Middle School. About 15 percent of students were chronically absent at Wooddale last year, a drop of 3 percent from the previous school year.

Communities in Schools has a full-time staff member at Wooddale, and that has made an enormous difference, Samson said, noting: “For schools where budgets are very, very tight, having another passionate educator in your school whose big focus is to address attendance and behavior with students – that’s a huge help.”

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that the state defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent of attended school days, which is typically 18 or more days for the school year.

Correction: This story has been corrected to say that one in four students in the Achievement School District were chronically absent last school year, not one in three.

behind the budget

Surprise: Most funding for New York City’s ‘community schools’ going to academics, not social services

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman/Chalkbeat
Principal Asya Johnson of Longwood Preparatory Academy, a community school, corrals a student between classes.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio promised a new “community schools” program during his 2013 campaign, it was in part a repudiation of his predecessor’s focus on improving academic results.

Rather than punishing schools when students struggle, the theory went, the city should flood schools with services to combat the problems that hold students back from succeeding. The city has included schools with a range of academic performance levels in the program, and officials have said their main goal is to increase equity, not test scores.

So it’s surprising that just a small fraction of this year’s extra spending at the city’s 239 official community schools is going toward physical and mental health services, while about 60 percent of the $198.6 million being spent on the program is going to academic services.

That’s according to a new analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office, which looked at school-level spending plans produced for the first time this year under a new state transparency law.

The city education department is disputing the budget office’s methodology but not the conclusion that community schools are spending heavily on academic services. Community schools choose which programs and services to offer, based on their students’ needs; the academic services category includes spending on anything beyond traditional classroom instruction, including gifted programs, extra tutoring, and services for students with disabilities.

The spending analysis offers important context for an external evaluation of New York City’s program by the Rand Corporation, which is expected in 2019. It could potentially add to an existing body of research suggesting that efforts to combat poverty by providing “wraparound services” in schools often — though not always — generate improved test scores. The research has so far not answered the question of what makes some programs more successful than others, so knowing that New York City’s results come after spending heavily on academic services will add an important data point.

Early in the program’s development, some advocates pressed the city to tackle academics in addition to social challenges. But how much the community schools model is boosting academic improvement remains an open question locally, and the spending analysis offers important context for an external evaluation of New York City’s program that is expected in 2019.

Education department spokesman Doug Cohen said the state’s fiscal reporting requirements don’t reflect the city’s “holistic” approach to supporting schools. He said the discrete spending categories obscure the reality inside schools, where various programs interact in complex ways.

After-school programs, for example, might offer emotional support for students, Cohen said, adding that the overlap is an important feature of the community schools model.

“If we were only doing mental health alone,” he said, “it wouldn’t really be a community schools strategy.”