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What Can Schools Do to Address Poverty?

William Parrett and Kathleen Budge

Director Center for School Improvement and Policy Studies / Associate Professor Educational Leadership
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An adult woman and a young girl are walking down a school hallway.

Editor's note: This piece was adapted from Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools by William H. Parrett and Kathleen M. Budge.

"Some say we can't fix education until we fix poverty. It's exactly the opposite; we can't fix poverty until we fix education." (Kati Haycock, keynote address, 2010 Education Trust Dispelling the Myth Conference)

Childhood poverty rates are higher in the United States than in any other industrialized country, and this rate is on the rise. As of 2014, 33 percent of all people who live in poverty were children -- more than 15.4 million, or 21 percent of all children in the United States. Another 15 million (21 percent) reside in low-income families (PDF). Between 2000 and 2014, the number of children living in poverty increased from 11.6 million to 15.5 million, or by a factor of 33 percent (U.S. Census Bureau, 2014 -- source: Table 3). The number of people in poverty in 2014 climbed to 46.7 million -- one in seven Americans -- the largest number since poverty rates have been published (U.S. Census Bureau, 2014 -- source: Table 2). Equally startling, a study indicated that between 60 and 75 percent of Americans will live below or near the poverty line for at least one year of their lives (Neuman, 2008).

Whose Problem Is Poverty?

James Coleman's (1966) conclusion that schools could have only a limited effect on students who live in poverty began a debate that has continued for decades. In an article published in Educational Leadership (April 2008), Richard Rothstein, research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, asked the question, "Whose problem is poverty?" He suggests that schools can have only a limited influence on closing the achievement gap between students who live in poverty and their more affluent peers unless school improvement is combined with broader social and economic reforms. Without such a combined effort, he claims, the mandate for schools to "fully close achievement gaps not only will remain unfulfilled, but also will cause us to foolishly and unfairly condemn our schools and teachers" (p.8). He is not alone in this logic. David Berliner (2007, as cited in Rodriguez & Fabionar, 2010) argues, "Without careful attention to the social conditions beyond schools, we will continue to encounter limitations in advancing educational equity and high achievement among diverse student populations within schools" (pp.58–59). (See also Anyon, 2005.)

Others assert that schools can, and do, make a significant difference in the lives and the academic outcomes of students who live in poverty (Barr & Parrett, 2007; McGee, 2004). Kati Haycock contends, "It is very clear to me that even as we work to improve the conditions of families in this country, we can in fact get even the poorest children to high standards of achievement if we really focus in our schools on that goal" (in Holland, 2007, p.56).

What Can Schools Do to Address Poverty?

Eliminating poverty is a both/and proposition -- reforms must occur in both the broader society and in schools -- and schools do make a considerable difference. We encourage educators, and particularly educational leaders, to both become knowledgeable about issues related to eliminating poverty, joining forces with others who advocate for social and economic reforms, and summon the courage to do the much-needed work closer to home -- in their own schools and communities. Successfully educating all students to high standards is critical to ultimately eliminating poverty. If, as educators, we feel powerless to address bigger issues such as living-wage jobs and health care reform, Gorski (2008) proposes that we ask ourselves, "Are we willing, at the very least, to tackle the classism in our own schools and classrooms?" Gorski (2007, p.35) provides the following ten suggestions as a starting point:

  • Assign work requiring a computer and internet access or other costly resources only when we can provide in-school time and materials for such work to be completed.
  • Work with our schools to make parent involvement affordable and convenient by providing transportation, on-site childcare, and time flexibility.
  • Give students from poverty access to the same high-level curricular and pedagogical opportunities and high expectations as their wealthy peers.
  • Teach about classism, consumer culture, the dissolution of labor unions, environmental pollution, and other injustices disproportionately affecting the poor, preparing new generations of students to make a more equitable world.
  • Keep stocks of school supplies, snacks, clothes, and other basic necessities handy for students who may need them, but find quiet ways to distribute these resources to avoid singling anyone out.
  • Develop curricula that are relevant and meaningful to our students' lives and draw on their experiences and surroundings.
  • Fight to get our students into gifted and talented programs, to give them other opportunities usually reserved for economically advantaged students, and to keep them from being assigned unjustly to special education.
  • Continue to reach out to parents even when we feel they are being unresponsive; this is one way to establish trust.
  • Challenge our colleagues when they stigmatize poor students and their parents, reminding them of the inequitable conditions in our schools and classrooms.
  • Challenge ourselves, our biases, and our prejudices by educating ourselves about the cycle of poverty and classism in and out of U.S. schools.

(Reprinted with permission of Teaching Tolerance © 2007. All rights reserved.)

The need for broader social and economic changes in our country does not provide an excuse for maintaining the status quo in schools. Three decades of research have demonstrated that schools can improve academic outcomes and other measures of success for children who live in poverty (Barr & Parrett, 2007; Education Trust, 2002; Teddlie & Stringfield, 1993). As Horace Mann asserted, public education is the most universal of institutions, and it can shape young minds and hearts. It is still our best hope. Although improvements in public education alone will not eliminate poverty, such improvements are an important part of the solution. The question is not whether too much is being asked of public schools, but rather, have we held up our end of the bargain?


  • Anyon, J. (2005). "What 'counts' as educational policy? Notes toward a new paradigm." Harvard Educational Review, 75(1), pp.65-88.
  • Barr, R.D. & Parrett, W. (2007). The kids left behind: Catching children of poverty. Bloomington, Indiana: Solution Tree.
  • Chau, M., Thampi, K. & Wight, V. (2009). Basic facts about low-income children, 2009: Children under age 18. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty.
  • Coleman, J.S. (1966). Equality of educational opportunity. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
  • Education Trust. (2002). Dispelling the myth . . . over time. Washington, DC: Author.
  • Gorski, P.C. (2007, Spring). "The question of class." Teaching Tolerance, 31, pp.26-29.
  • Gorski, P. (2008). "The myth of the culture of poverty." Educational Leadership, 65(7), pp.32-36.
  • Haycock, K. (2010, November). Taking charge of change: Effective practices to close achievement gaps and raise achievement [keynote address]. Taking Charge of Change conference, The Education Trust, Arlington, Virginia.
  • Holland, H. (2007). "Can educators close the achievement gap? An interview with Richard Rothstein and Kati Haycock." Journal of Staff Development, 28(1), pp.54-58.
  • McGee, G.W. (2004). "Closing the achievement gap: Lessons from Illinois' gold spike high-poverty, high-performing schools." Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 9(2), pp.97-125.
  • Rodriguez, G.M. & Fabionar, J. (2010). "The impact of poverty on students and schools: Exploring the social justice leadership implications." In C. Marshall & M. Oliva (Eds.), Leadership for social justice (pp.55-73). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson.
  • Rothstein, R. (2008, April). "Whose problem is poverty?" Educational Leadership, 65(7), pp.8-13.
  • Teddlie, C. & Stringfield, S. (1993). Schools make a difference: Lessons learned from a 10-year study of school effects. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • U.S. Census Bureau. (2014). Income and Poverty in the United States: 2014.
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Turning Around High-Poverty Schools
This series includes excerpts from "Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools" by William Parrett and Kathleen Budge, published by ASCD.

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Daniel Bassill's picture

I think schools can do much via service learning and classroom research to engage youth in activities that build a better understanding of poverty and their own potential for helping build and sustain school and non-school activities that reduce the impact of poverty and help more kids come to school every day prepared to learn. I posted an article on my blog yesterday suggesting ways students and volunteers could be engaged in this process.

Howard Adelman's picture

Given that schools have an important role to play in reducing poverty, that role must involve more than the fragmented and marginalized approaches generally advocated for schools (as reflected in the Edutopia article).

Dealing with multiple, interrelated concerns, such as poverty, child development, education, violence, crime, safety, housing, and employment requires multiple and interrelated solutions. Just adding a few additional services and programs to schools is not a solution. Indeed, what is generally advocated is just a recipe for perpetuating the current marginalized and fragmented set of efforts that have been demonstrated to have only a limited impact. Interrelated solutions require wide based collaboration. In particular, schools, homes, and communities need to work together strategically in pursuing shared goals related to the general well being of the young and society. A particular focus is needed on addressing barriers to learning and teaching and re-engaging disconnected students.

That is, for schools to play a potent role in reducing poverty, they first need to rework how they address student and school factors contributing to so many students not doing well. Then, after identifying critical gaps in the student and learning support system, they can outreach to a wide range of community and home stakeholders to weave in available external sources of economic and social capital.

For all this to happen requires fundamental systemic changes. Such changes will not occur on a large scale without expanding school improvement policy and practices from a two-to a three-component framework and strategic development of a sophisticated operational infrastructure for school, home, and community collaboration (see and ).

The emphasis in the Every Student Succeeds Act on greater subgroup accountability, adding "nonacademic" accountability indicators, and how resources are distributed provides opportunities for states and districts to move in this direction. Of particular relevance to addressing barriers to learning and teaching and re engaging disconnected students, the reauthorization replaces what has been described as a maze of programs with a "Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant" that provides states and districts with flexibility in how students and families are assisted.

It is time to transform how schools address barriers to learning and teaching, re-engage disconnected students, outreach to disaffected parents, and stop pretending that teachers can do it alone.

Equity of opportunity is fundamental to enabling civil rights;
transforming student and learning supports is fundamental to
enabling equity of opportunity and promoting whole child development.

With regards,

Howard & Linda

Howard Adelman, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology &
Center Co-director

Linda Taylor, Ph.D.
Center Co-director

Dept. of Psychology, UCLA
Los Angeles, CA. 90095-1563
Ph: 310/825-1225

William Parrett and Kathleen Budge's picture
William Parrett and Kathleen Budge
Director Center for School Improvement and Policy Studies / Associate Professor Educational Leadership

Dr. Adelman and Dr. Taylor,

Thank you for your response. We have respect for your work and actually find it to be quite consistent with what we advocate. We agree schools' role in addressing poverty must involve more than "fragmented and marginalized" approaches. As we said in the blog, eliminating poverty is a both/and proposition -- reforms must occur in both the broader society and in schools -- and schools do make a considerable difference.

One of the challenges of living in our sound-bite world is finding ways to address a complex topic in brief. As you know, this blog is the second in a series of six. Each of the six blogs is an excerpt from our book Turning High Poverty Schools into High Performing Schools. Far from "pretending teachers can do it alone," in the book we present a comprehensive framework designed to support educators as they take collaborative action in three domains: building leadership capacity, focusing on three kinds of learning (student, professional, system), and fostering a healthy, safe, and supportive learning environment.

In the schools we study, educators, as you say, "rework how they address student and school factors contributing to so many students not doing well." Again, because they cannot do it alone, this entails reaching out to parents/families/caregivers and their communities. They do this not only to garner support and resources, but also to get their students back into the community to give back to, and learn from, the community. This often serves to re-engage students in their own education by bringing relevancy to an otherwise decontextualized learning process.

As one Superintendent said of their school improvement work, "we couldn't tinker our way to success." To adequately address poverty, we agree, large-scale change will not occur without the necessary infrastructure for such change. Nonetheless, within that infrastructure, there must be a place for honoring and attending to the importance of the work stakeholders can do at each vantage point within the system--teachers, principals, central office, superintendents, families/caregivers, community members, as well as school boards and other policy makers.

Spending a good deal of time working in schools, teachers often ask us for ideas about actions they might take in their individual classrooms. The intent of this blog, which drew heavily on the admirable work of Paul Gorski, was to provide individual teachers with a few good ideas for actions from their vantage point--their classrooms. We understand teachers cannot do it alone; which will become evident as the remainder of the series is posted. Thank you for the important work you do. We hope you will continue reading.

TeachCow's picture
Podcaster & Teacher

Wondering why languages and cultural barriers were not mentioned here as something to overcome. Coming from low socioeconomic majority Hispanic schools, I saw often resources not reach the student and/or family simply because communication lines had not been properly established so it could reach them. Schools have to also be an advocate for these and other second language families to assure they are part of the equity solutions you are offering. See on how to bridge the gaps w Hispanic families specifically.

Daniel Bassill's picture

I have been using concept maps to visualize some of the challenges facing young people, and educators, working in high poverty areas. This is one that shows that people out of poverty face some of the same challenges as do people in poverty, but they have far greater resources to help them overcome those challenges. Race-Poverty Cmap -

Over the weekend I received a white paper titled "Can Hospitals Heal America's Communities?" I posted it at and included a link to a site that enabled me to mark up the PDF and add comments.

I think that youth in schools throughout the country could be looking at all sorts of research and publications, using annotation tools like I've demonstrated, to build their own understanding of the wide range of issues that keep kids in high poverty areas from succeeding at the same rate as do kids in more affluent areas. The could be sharing what they are learning with other students, in cMOOCs and other on-line communities.

In so doing, they can begin to be part of the solution, of leaders from many places, who focus on reducing the root causes of inequality. Teaching young people habits of deeper learning, thinking, reflection and of leadership is something schools, and organized non-school programs, have the potential to do.

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