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Posted at 4:15 PM ET, 05/18/2010

Report looks at role of poverty, parents in student success

By Valerie Strauss

If you doubt that poverty plays a role in student achievement, look at these statistics cited in a report released Tuesday by the Casey Foundation:

*85 percent of low-income students who attend high-poverty schools and who took the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test don’t read proficiently by the time they reach fourth grade.

But the problem is not just in high-poverty schools:
*83 percent of children from low-income families in any school can’t read proficiently by the time they get to fourth grade.

The report’s new look at how poorly millions of American children read is sobering, if not revelatory. We’ve known for a long time that poverty is connected to achievement in school.

Some school reformers like to say that poverty is used as an excuse for the failure of students to progress, but actually, poverty is a condition that most certainly affects the learning dynamic, and any effort to pretend that it isn’t is akin to ignoring the elephant in the room.

The report, “EARLY WARNING!: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters,” is the latest in a series of “Kids Count” analyses by the Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization that advocates for policies to help poor children and families.

The authors take the 2009 reading test results released in March from NAEP--considered to be the gold standard in K-12 standardized assessment--and break down the numbers to show how well different groups of disadvantaged students are doing:

*90 percent of low-income black students in high-poverty schools were not reading at grade level by fourth grade.
*83 percent of poor black students in schools with moderate to low levels of poverty did not reach the goal.
*88 percent of Hispanic students in high-poverty schools missed the mark.
*82 percent of Hispanic students in schools with low or moderate rates of families living in poverty did not read at grade level.

One thing the report does not do is put the blame wholly on teachers for a lack of student success. It discusses, and makes recommendations to improve, other factors beyond the school building that affect how well millions of young children learn.

The report argues for the development of an integrated system of early care and education that helps children from birth so that they are ready to succeed in school and can read by the end of third grade.

Reading proficiency by fourth grade has long been considered an important marker in educational development because that, traditionally, has been when students start reading to learn as opposed to learning to read.

But for most of the past decade, under No Child Left Behind, traditional developmental stages in learning have been disregarded. Curriculum that used to be taught in one grade is now often taught earlier, and today, kids who can’t read by the end of first grade are often already in such deep reading trouble that they don’t catch up.

Education writer Richard Whitmire’s new book, “Why Boys Fail,” blames the problems boys have in school on the fact that kids are being forced to use literacy skills at very young grades--and boys take longer to develop them but are no longer given the time.

The Casey Foundation is joining with partners in more than a dozen states to support a decade-long campaign to improve reading proficiency among young kids, with a goal of inreasing by 50 percent the number and proporition of students who are grade-level proficient readers by the end of third grade.

The report also discusses two problems that affect student performance that are not within the power of a school to solve: Student absences from school, and the problem of summer learning loss among children in low-income families.

It recommends that schools and school districts develop interventions to catch and track absences and develop early warning systems and parent-centered interventions, and calls for a community effort to keep children engaged in learning during the summer.

One important focus of the report is on parent responsibility. It says:

There is no substitute for the parent’s or primary caregiver’s role as a child’s first teacher, best coach, and most concerned advocate. This role begins early and covers a lot of ground.

Parents should: read to and converse with their very young children to instill the language and vocabulary skills that lead to proficient reading later on; cultivate a joy of learning and a desire for education—and then make sure their children show up for school every day; understand why it’s important to read proficiently by the end of third grade and then proactively monitor their child’s progress toward that goal; encourage their children to choose reading as a free-time activity; find and mobilize help from teachers, schools, education specialists, and/or medical professionals if the child struggles to read; find afterschool activities for their children that provide literacy enrichment and summer activities that protect against summer learning loss; and develop their own literacy and English language skills, if necessary, so they can help their children succeed in school.


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By Valerie Strauss  | May 18, 2010; 4:15 PM ET
Categories:  Parents, Reading, Research  | Tags:  Casey Foundation, Casey Foundation report on reading, achievement gap, achievement gap in reading, new report on reading, parental involvement, parental responsibility in school, poverty and student achievement, reading research  
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Thanks for posting. I look forward to reading the entire report. I also hope Chancellor Rhee takes the time to read it as well.

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | May 18, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

We have known this for almost fifty years. This critical information could be used to help our poorest children, but for some strange reason (money?) it is always ignored. Other countries support their poorest children with excellent results and we are capable of doing the same. Here are some changes that could really make a difference for our most at-risk children:

low-income housing in all American communities;

health care for all pregnant women, infants and toddlers;

careful monitoring of at-risk babies;

parent education for all new parents;

high salaries for experienced and successful teachers willing to teach in low-income schools;

nutritious meals for poor children;

after-school and summer enrichment (NOT drill!) for poor children;

scholarships to private schools (from private citizens) for low-income children;

public school vouchers;

small classes in our lowest-performing schools;

charter schools founded by teachers;


And, by the way, I am so sick of that inane mantra "no excuses." An inability to hear the teacher IS a valid excuse. Let's get the child a hearing aide so he can learn even more. We can do it!

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | May 18, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

I look forward to reading this. However analyzed and true, the conclusion presents a vexing riddle for many of us in DC with a stake in public education (all of us, really). Teachers can recite all these other forces subtracting from (or contributing to) education. And, on various blogues, they seem rather hesitant to say what it is that Educators do to educate children during school hours. They can voice a long list of other factors, like parental inattention, but won't commit, at least in friendly comment-play, to a set of things they are responsible for. It is the kind of reluctance that detracts from parent/taxpayer/citizen support for public schools, teacher raises, ironclad job security, generous pensions, and the like. Expandable space below will contain unhappy reactions to this truth from the usual zealots who populate WaPo education boards.

Posted by: axolotl | May 18, 2010 8:43 PM | Report abuse


I referred to out-of-school experiences and factors because the topic was poverty and its effect on education. However, I'll answer your often-asked question about the responsibilities of teachers, even though I am not a DC teacher. Here is what I did when I worked. Most teachers appeared to do similar things:

7:15 I arrived at school and got materials ready for my first-graders. I looked over lesson plans and made certain everything I needed was within reach. I wrote messages on the board so the children would start reading as soon as they entered the room.

8;00 If I had "yard duty" I'd go out to the playground. The purpose of this was to keep the children safe.

8:20- 10:20 Language arts. It was my job to teach the children to speak, understand, read and write English. I took pride in teaching everyone to read and write by June. This was quite a challenge but I enjoyed doing it.

10:20-10:35 Recess. We all took a restroom break. If I had "duty" I was very uncomfortable until lunchtime.

10:35-11:20 Mathematics. It was my job to teach the children to add and subtract, memorize "facts" and solve grade level math problems.

12:05-1:20 Read aloud and reading practice, usually integrated with science and social studies. My responsibility was to teach science and social studies standards.

1:20-1:40 Recess. Half the time I was on "duty."

1:40-2:20 Various subjects (PE, art, music, computers) My responsibility was to teach the standards for each subject.

In addition to these teaching duties it was my responsibility to keep the children safe at all times, to manage the classroom, and to create a good learning environment. Evaluation of student progress went on throughout the day, usually after each lesson.

2:20 Dismissal.

2:20-4:00 I met with parents, graded papers, cleaned up the room, attended meetings, etc.

After 4:00. At home I spent one or two hours getting lessons prepared for the next day.

Saturday: Often spent at Teacher's Supplies or library getting "ideas" and buying new books and materials.

Sunday: Writing plans for the next week.

Summer vacation: I always prepared for units of study for the next year.

Is this what you want to know?

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | May 18, 2010 9:40 PM | Report abuse

Without having read this report, I wonder if this study delved more deeply into what actually happens in these 'low-income, high poverty' families. Rarely do these studies discuss what 'high-income' families actually DO that low-income families don't. We make some intuitive leap that because you're 'high-income' the things you do to ensure your child's success are only related to your income, which may not be the case.

I've always theorized that a mother on welfare should be the ideal stay-at-home mom: you're there when your child wakes up, and can be there when they come home from school. It doesn't take a lot of money to sit your child down at the kitchen table until they've finished their homework. If there's a parent conference you should be available any time since you're not working.

All my grandparents grew up in the Jim Crow South, had barely high school education, yet inspired my parents to finish college. They were not 'high-income,' yet demanded much from and created a learning environment for their children, as did the neighborhood/community. If that generation of 'low-income' families could do it, it can be done now.

Posted by: pdfordiii | May 18, 2010 9:51 PM | Report abuse

You continue to write about "some" teachers who YOU claim are unwilling to take any responsibility for improving student learning. By doing so you are missing the mark and this study demonstrates why.

The problem is not teachers who talk about how big of an impact that parents have on learning.

The problem is that Rhee has said quite vocally that it does not matter what a child experiences at home the night before or the morning of school. It doesn't matter if they didn't eat, they were beaten or saw someone murdered, these kids can learn effectively with a good teacher.

Rhee is the one making extreme statements so that is why you see teachers focus on the home. I have never heard any teacher claim that a teacher has no affect on student learning.

Instead of focusing on what percentage of learning teachers believe they impact, we need to focus on changing Rhee's belief that abuse, neglect and violence makes no difference.

Posted by: letsbereal2 | May 18, 2010 9:59 PM | Report abuse

Without having read this report, I wonder if this study delved more deeply into what actually happens in these 'low-income, high poverty' families. Rarely do these studies discuss what 'high-income' families actually DO that low-income families don't. We make some intuitive leap that because you're 'high-income' the things you do to ensure your child's success are only related to your income, which may not be the case.

It's really simple.
1 They read to their children,read some more, and make sure their kids have access to age appropriate reading materials. On "The principal's page" a blog written by a school administrator he pretty much spells out in detail this process.

2 They provide a somewhat stable living arrangement. Kids who move every few weeks/months fall behind in school. Many folks who do not teach in low SES schools might be shocked to find out how common this is.

3 They value education, and share this value with their children.

Supply these 3 conditions and everything else will take care of itself.

Posted by: mamoore1 | May 18, 2010 10:31 PM | Report abuse


I agree but I'd like to add one more point. When my older son was a toddler, a wise mother told me, "Sometimes I really don't like my children's teachers but I never say anything negative about them in front of the kids." She advised me to always show support for the school and respect for the teachers." I heeded her advice and was always pleased with my sons' progress in school. As a teacher I noticed that my best students' parents were almost always courteous and supportive of me. Sometimes I found out later that I wasn't their favorite teacher but I never suspected that while their child was in my class!

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | May 18, 2010 11:13 PM | Report abuse

I was poised to point out that you have an allergy to facts (ie, all these parents who, along with you, want to know what responsibilities teachers take on vs the over 70% parental satisfaction with their schools' teachers see,+Parents,+Students) but I won't.


I have a change of heart.
As I thought of how to get through to you a simple fact (like 1+3=4) I remembered that my church, as all churches in the archdiocese, have a catechist Sunday in September where the religious ed (CCD) and the school teachers present themselves before the congregation and recommit themselves to teaching.

So maybe you could present the idea to Michelle Rhee that every school have a re-dedication ceremony during which teachers will state what they take responsibility for.

And you could be the High Priestess (non-abusing) who presides over these ceremonies.

Posted by: phillipmarlowe | May 19, 2010 12:00 AM | Report abuse

Two things, one about parenting and one about teaching reading
1. Kids need a parent around to listen to their questions and answer them, to hug them when they are scared and to show them things like museums and parks to stimulate the mind. We have created tax systems that take from kids not just money but parents. When parents are forced to do two jobs to make ends meet, when absentee dads are not forced to provide child support, when there is no funding for birth or maternity benefits or for raising a child so that the child is deprived of the one thing vital- the parent- the issue is not that poverty makes you unable to read. It is that financial poverty is treated by emotional poverty.
2. We are teaching kids to read very very inefficiently For decades we have asked little kids to memorize lists of words and guess what the books say using pictures. Instead of telling them stories logically of what the letters say and why, we have ignored the brilliant mind of the child and just made them parrots. They get tired of this and frustrated and turn off reading since for them it has little logic and is random guessing. I designed a way to teach kids to read by stories. www is waves on water, ss is snake, ttt is train tracks. The shape and the sound of the letter match. When kids look at words they can figure out what they say because they know what each letter says. By controlling the exposure of kids to words so that they only see at first the ones that are logical, kids gain the skills and self-confidence to read. Then I teach them a few other tricks their letter friends do, again with stories. Crazy h pushes letters around, making cc go chug chug chug around a track etc. At a letter party small letters to be seen have to call out loudly - e It's meeee. i - Hi! o - Hello! u _How are you? a - Get out of the way ay. By these stories the kids learn the long vowel sounds and can now sound our a few hundred more words.This course is so simple and logical but the schools insist on memorizing lists with no rime nor reason. My course is on the Net and is called Anchors and Sails.

Posted by: bevgsmith | May 19, 2010 7:04 AM | Report abuse

Reports like these must appear very compelling to the innumerate journalists with little understanding of science.

Just because poverty was used as the dependent variable, doesn't mean that poverty causes the bad student outcomes.

Lots of things also correlate with poverty: low parental IQ, low student IQ, number of household bathrooms, having single parents, out of wed-lock birth, and on and on.

So which of these causes which?

The answer is that you don't know and that "reports" like this that purport to know are merely advocating an opinion. And journalists like Valerie tout the report because it meshes with her confirmation biases.

Such is the state of modern education journalism.

Posted by: kderosa | May 19, 2010 8:17 AM | Report abuse

It is spelled "rhyme." If you cannot even spell correctly, how can you be teaching English?


This course is so simple and logical but the schools insist on memorizing lists with no rime nor reason. My course is on the Net and is called Anchors and Sails.

Posted by: bevgsmith

Posted by: demsrising | May 19, 2010 10:23 AM | Report abuse

Good job bringing up the truth again Valerie, even when it is politically correct to say "no excuses" whenever anybody discusses the complexities of problems in education today.

Looking at low income people who do well in "good" schools would be a possible "next" group to study. If you look at a school that has an ethnic and socio-economic mix, it seems that there are many, many kids from groups that are not "supposed to" achieve that are way above average. Why? Talk to their parent(s). They are usually prioritizing their children's education and are constantly checking up on them and encouraging them to do well. It seems to me that these "good" schools attract people who are really interested in their kids succeeding in school. So it is a two-way thing. The parents or single parent are emphasizing school and the schools are running smoothly because everyone expects good behavior and has prioritized respect and education.

Where I live people actually move to the area to get into the schools. This is similar to people in parochial schools. The parents are investing in their children and that is a top priority for them. This attitude comes from inside the parents and is transmitted to the students. That even develops a good kind of peer interaction. The kids tell each other about good books they have read and soon everybody is reading. The parents are all chatting about the school projects the kids are working on at the morning bus stop, or about volunteering at the school.
Reading over what I have written, this sounds very idyllic. But it really is that way. And guess what? This area I am talking about is made up of all the ethnic groups that are supposedly doing so poorly and we are in the lowest income area of our zip code.

However, the idea that poverty doesn't matter is ludicrous. Just go volunteer for a week in a really poor urban area and see how it affects kids and their ability to concentrate. Of course, poverty is one factor, but it usually has other factors (high crime,moving a lot, medical problems and no insurance) that go with it.

Few people are like my friend from Detroit, whose mom smoked pot on the front porch with his sisters and her friends. He was poor, his mom did drugs and was on welfare and that is what he saw everyday coming home from school. He was very smart and said to himself, "That is not for me. I'm going to get out of here." He studied, went to college, got a degree in marketing, went to California for work, couldn't find any, became a gardener. Went back to school for a degree in computers. He made it "out." But most people, of any background are not going to do that. They are going to do what they see around them. So saying that poverty doesn't matter and is an opinion is absurd. Most people cannot overcome obstacle after obstacle without help.

Posted by: celestun100 | May 19, 2010 11:04 AM | Report abuse

You should reverse the order of your blog and start with the last 3 paragraphs first. Children do not enter school until they are at least 5 years old. Those five years are unequivocally the most important learning years behaviorally, intellectually, and socially. Parents are responsible for creating that foundation - not educators who are basically forced to grind their classroom plans to a halt to make sure students who are five years behind other students catch up. No one should expect any child to do well if they do not have a foundation to build on.

Posted by: gofish133 | May 19, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

We have shown the correlation of highly concentrated poverty and poorly performing schools in Chicago for more than 15 years. What we've not succeeded in is getting consistent funding for volunteer-based non-school tutoring/mentoring and learning programs that connect kids with a wider range of mentors and career aspirations than what they see most days in a poverty area. We use maps to show this information which you can use at

While some cities have youth program locators similar to this, we don't see the daily advertising, and public awareness, that is needed to encourage volunteer and donor involvement, or the sharing of good ideas among multiple programs. This is necessary to sustain long-term programs and have greater impact on your decisions and learning habits.

Posted by: tutormentor1 | May 19, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

Mamoore - I agree completely with your list and that it is not necessarily related to income -- it just usually is.

I think of all the striving, but poverty-stricken immigrant families of the early 20th century and even now. One generation sacrifices for the next. They were very family and education oriented, though poor. Their progeny are the high income people of today.

Posted by: efavorite | May 19, 2010 8:53 PM | Report abuse

Efavorite has made an important point. There are many, many poor people who do an excellent job of preparing their children for school. When we talk about the negative effects of poverty we think of inadequate food, medical care and a paucity of experiences. However, many families spend hours waiting for service at free medical clinics, prepare nutritious but inexpensive meals, and provide their children with visits to libraries, parks and museums. They have rich experiences with extended family members. Perhaps most important of all, they engage their youngsters in conversation and instill in them the value of a good education. They teach respect for the teacher and insist on appropriate behavior.

Respectful and supportive parents rarely have low-achieving children. "Poor" definitely does not mean "poor parenting."

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | May 19, 2010 9:16 PM | Report abuse

Today the city of Central Falls, Rhode Island went into receivership(bankruptcy). According to the 2000 census, the median per capita income was $10,800. In sixty-five percent of the home a language other than English was spoken. More than fifty percent of the population did not graduate from high school. If Central Falls sounds familiar, it's because that was the city where all of the high school's teachers were fired(since rehired) for low test scores. I wonder if poverty had anything to do with it.

Posted by: Susan50 | May 19, 2010 9:21 PM | Report abuse

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