How Poverty Sinks Our Schools (in 2 Graphs)

As a pair of recent reports reminds us, states with the most poor students produce the worst education results. 

American teens are some of the smartest students in the world. At least, they are in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Vermont. Kids who live in Alabama and Mississippi, on the other hand, appear to be among the worst learners. So says a fascinating new report by the Department of Education, which uses some clever projections to show how each U.S. state's standardized math and science test scores would rank globally.

My colleague Julia Ryan reported the details this morning. But the big picture is that, as in so many other things, the U.S. is a deeply divided nation when it comes to educational excellence. Some states crank out geniuses while others mass produce mediocrity.

And one of the reasons why is most certainly poverty. As I reported last week, roughly half of public school students now come from low-income families. But just as achievement varies state to state, so too does financial deprivation—and the two are highly correlated. For each state, I've plotted out the percentage of low-income students against the math and science test scores the Department of Education used in its new reported.* 

Generally, states with more low-income students fared worse in both subjects. Here's math:

And here's science.

So surprise, surprise, low-income students tend to be low-achieving students, and poor communities have fewer resources to devote to their schools. These are things you've probably read before. But I'm pointing them out because conversations about education these days tend to focus on how schools can do a better job lifting kids out of poverty. Unfortunately, there's much less discussion of how lifting kids out of poverty, either through a better economy or a better safety net, could help them in school. It's not necessarily wrong to expect more of our school systems. But we should be thinking about both sides of the coin. 


*There are obviously a million and a half other factors that influence student achievement that you would look to control for in a more sophisticated analysis, but I think it's worth looking at the raw relationship in this case. 

Presented by

Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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