When it comes to student achievement, there are essentially two schools of thought on the matter.
On one side, we have those who believe all children can and will learn no matter the conditions. For this camp — which includes Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, and those typically associated with the term "education reform" — low expectations and bad teachers are the only things standing between a student and academic success. On the other side are those like New York University education historian Diane Ravitch, who believes factors like poverty and racism are the real issues affecting educational outcomes.
Wanting to better understand the correlation between poverty and education achievement, as discussed by the second camp, we decided to dig into data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation's recently released 2014 Kids Count report. The report evaluates states based on four categories: economic well-being, education, health, and family & community. Using several measures of academic achievement (fourth grade reading and math proficiency, eighth grade reading and math proficiency, and high school graduation rates) in the five states with the highest child poverty rates and the five states with the lowest child poverty rates, we compiled the following infographic.
So what can we take away?
To begin, states with the highest rates of child poverty — Mississippi, Arkansas, New Mexico, Louisiana, and Kentucky — all have far lower scores than their wealthier counterparts. In fact, the states with the highest child poverty rates tended to perform lower than the national average. The states with lowest child poverty rates, however, performed at or above the national average.
Kentucky was the only state in the high child poverty group that seemed to overcome its families' potential financial hurdles. Fourth graders in Kentucky outperformed the national average in both reading and math, while eighth graders in the state did better than the national average in reading and were just a few percentage points below the national average in math. Also worth noting: Of the high-poverty states, Kentucky also had the lowest percentage of students not graduating on time. While other states in the category had as many as 32% of students not graduating on time, Kentucky had only 18% of its students not doing so — a percentage point better than the national average..
While we're starting to see a correlation between poverty and education outcomes, are we also starting to see a correlation between test scores and graduation? The low child poverty rates of Alaska and North Dakota placed them on the opposite side of the spectrum, but they still struggled with test scores — specifically in reading. Fourth and eighth grade students in Alaska fell below the national average for that subject, while those in North Dakota fell right on the mark. While these two states have low levels of child poverty, they are both notably largely rural compared to Maryland, Connecticut, and Vermont. Could this perhaps impact their ability to attract "high-quality" teachers, bringing the "education reform" argument that these teachers make all the difference into play? Perhaps it's also worth considering that rural schools are impoverished in a non-monetary sense by their relative isolation.
Overall, it would appear there is a notable correlation between poverty and achievement, and the question of "good teachers" largely comes into play in states where poverty is not as much of an issue.