One of the most important, and least considered, factors influencing what happens in classrooms is what happens in lunchrooms.
That’s because lunchrooms are where a school’s relationship to the socioeconomic realities of its community are most glaringly apparent. As much as we argue over myriad issues surrounding education – from testing to charter schools to teachers unions – there is an insurmountable truth in the lunchroom: Impoverished children bring massive challenges into schools. Many of the problems that have been identified as school failures stem as much from poverty as anything.
And public schools – in Spokane, in Washington state, across the whole nation – are dealing with a deepening poverty that bodes ill for everyone’s future, because it is being accompanied by a deepening divide in school performance. It does not take much imagination to see the way this cycle can feed itself, destructively, over generations.
Stanford University professor Sean Reardon has studied this “income achievement gap” and concluded that during the past 50 years the link between a family’s income and a child’s academic success has become much stronger.
“As the income gap between high- and low-income families has widened, has the achievement gap between children in high- and low-income families also widened?” he asked in the abstract for a 2011 study. “The answer, in brief, is yes. The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five years earlier.”
Nationwide, there has been a dramatic rise in schools with “high-poverty” populations. That means schools where three-quarters or more of the students qualify for free lunch (families living on 130 percent of the poverty level or less) or reduced prices (for families up to 185 percent of the poverty level).
Twenty percent of American schools are now considered high-poverty, compared to 12 percent in 2000, according to a new Department of Education report, “The Condition of Education 2013.”
In 2000, around half of all schools – 45 percent – were considered “low poverty,” with less than a quarter of students qualifying for lunch assistance. By 2011, that had plunged to 24 percent.
This trend bears out in Spokane and across Washington, as well. In 2003, according to state statistics, 12 Spokane schools were considered high-poverty – by the DOE measure. That’s 16 this year. Districtwide, 55 percent of students qualified for lunch assistance this year. Ten years ago, that was 49 percent.
“We’ve seen this huge shift in all of our schools districtwide,” said Shelley Redinger, superintendent of Spokane Public Schools.
Redinger said the district has seen sharp upward spikes in free and reduced-price lunch applications, even in schools that traditionally have had fewer problems with poverty. Meanwhile, in neighborhoods with long-term, generational poverty, existing problems become even more pronounced. In some of the district’s poorest schools, there are now grant programs that send food home with children who need it most for the weekend.
The poverty trend is troubling all on its own. But it’s even more so when put into the context of recent research showing that family income is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, predictor of success in schools. Reardan’s research shows that the gap in achievement between black and white students, which was for years the focus of primary concerns over achievement in schools, has been surpassed by the “income achievement gap.”
Reardan suggests that a major reason for this is increased engagement and effort on the part of wealthier families; poor kids, meanwhile, enter school already at a disadvantage – he writes, “the income achievement gap is large when children enter kindergarten and does not appear to grow (or narrow) appreciably as children progress through school.”
Redinger said that’s why it’s important to try to start fighting that gap as early as possible – “the earlier the better.”
An example of that is Spokane’s expansion of full-day kindergarten.
“That’s a huge step in the right direction,” she said.
It is common for people to express the idea that schools need to get back to basics. To simplify and narrow their focus. But the story from the lunchrooms tells us the opposite – that the challenges facing schools are growing ever more complex and difficult.