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Schools Can't Do It Alone: Why 'Doubly Disadvantaged' Kids Continue to Struggle Academically

A report on childhood poverty proves once again that no single measure can cure poverty's ills.
 
 
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Q: In what international comparison does the U.S. rank lower than its educational test scores rankings?

A: Childhood poverty.

“Today, 22 percent of our children live in poverty. The U.S has the second worst infant mortality rate among industrialized nations,” details America’s Report Card 2012, a report supported by First Focus and Save the Children to highlight the condition of children in the U.S.

Research has shown for decades that education, health and safety outcomes for children in homes struggling with poverty remain some of the greatest challenges facing this country. As America’s Report Card 2012 explains:

“We are falling behind because we are ignoring these problems. England has reduced child poverty through policies enacted with the goal to eliminate child poverty by 2020, while America has seen rising poverty levels and no national push to reverse that trend. But we can do better.”

Less often acknowledged is the fact that impoverished children are likely to be “doubly disadvantaged” – both by consequences of living in high-poverty homes and high-poverty communities. One response to the disadvantages of high-poverty communities included the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) implementing the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) for Fair Housing program in the mid-1990s:

“MTO recruited more than 4,600 families with children living in severely distressed public housing projects in five cities (Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City). HUD offered some MTO families the opportunity to use a housing voucher to move into private-market housing in lower poverty neighborhoods and did not make the same offer to others.”

Data from the two comparison groups have provided a basis for long-term analysis of whether addressing community characteristics could improve the outcomes of high-poverty children in education, health and safety.

That research on MTO, “The Long-Term Effects of Moving to Opportunity on Youth Outcomes” (2012), details that despite efforts to address community-based disadvantages connected with poverty, long-term data show:

“Overall, MTO had few detectable effects on a range of schooling outcomes, even among those children who were of preschool age at study entry, and few detectable effects on physical health outcomes. In other outcome domains, the long-term survey found that MTO had patterns of effects that were similar to, but more muted than, those the interim follow up survey found, with favorable patterns among female youth—particularly on mental health outcomes—and less favorable patterns among male youth.”

This report is a sobering, although incomplete, message for confronting the negative consequences of poverty and inequity in the homes, communities and schools of American children.

The Doubly Disadvantaged Children in Poverty

Despite the apparent ineffectiveness of the program, MTO represents a bold policy commitment to confronting poverty and inequity in the lives of children:

“These patterns [school dropout, low test scores, and delinquency] have led to a longstanding concern that neighborhood environments may exert an independent causal effect on the life chances of young people. Because low-income individuals comprise nearly one-half of the 8.7 million people living in census tracts with poverty levels of 40 percent or higher (Kneebone, Nadeau, and Berube, 2011), poor children growing up in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty may be ‘doubly disadvantaged’—they face potential risks from growing up in a low-income household and in an economically poor neighborhood.”

While the report and program address many aspects of MTO’s impact on children’s lives, the data concerning education may hold the most important cautions for the current education reform movement, particularly as MTO data impact debates about in-school reform versus wrap-around models for education reform.

Wrap-around education reform, as exemplified by programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone, has received uncritical praise in the media, as well as from President Obama and Michelle Obama. Advocates of wrap-around models for education reform believe that, alongside in-school reform measures, the conditions of a child’s home and the parents themselves require support in order for better educational outcomes to be achieved.

 
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