A week ago, I wrote about the role of household income in student success. Data recently generated by the Ohio School Boards Association, the Ohio Association of School Business Officials and the Buckeye Association of School Administrators offer a fresh reminder of what long has been plain.
Academic performance, in this case as revealed on state proficiency tests, closely tracks household income, the higher the income the better the scores, those at the lowest income rungs with the lowest marks.
The information developed by the three groups is especially useful in view of the recent conversation at the Statehouse. So much attention has been focused on such things as evaluating teachers that the defining role of income risks getting shoved to the side, the state thus failing to confront squarely the problem, which, in a word, is poverty.
Hard to overstate the destructive role that poverty plays. Many studies have shown the impact on children of living, day after day, in highly stressful circumstances, in rough neighborhoods, families struggling with a lack of food, parents failing to provide a measure of stability, let alone regular health care or a home environment suited to steady learning.
Jack Shonkoff of the Harvard Center on the Developing Child describes such settings as “toxic stress.” Studies show the debilitating impact, harming the way children think and behave, from their performance in school to developing the social and emotional skills required to succeed later as adults. One Stanford study has linked the deteriorated memories of 17-year-olds to the number of years living in poverty from birth to age 13.
A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that toxic stress for women during pregnancy can translate into trouble for the child, including the equivalent of “a year less schooling” and a sharp increase in chronic health conditions.
All of this, and more, is part of a report released in July by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (www.cbpp.org). Yet the purpose of the report wasn’t to dwell on the negative. It highlighted the progress that has been made because of public programs aimed at countering the impact of poverty, easing the stress, bringing a measure of stability, children performing better in school.
Take the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, a cash refund available to the working poor to offset payroll and other taxes. Several studies have recorded how the additional income from the tax credit, and the Child Tax Credit, contributes to the higher reading and math test scores of students.
One analysis concluded that providing an income supplement of $3,000 to a working parent in a child’s early years may raise that child’s school performance by the equivalent of two extra months of schooling. More, research has revealed that the benefits follow the child into adulthood, in the form of improved employment and higher earnings.
The Earned Income Tax Credit is one of several programs, from Head Start and Medicaid to food and child care assistance, that put children in a better place. Yet, as the new census figures revealed last week, the poverty rate stands at 15 percent, at the upper reaches of the past four decades, with the number of households in severe poverty rising roughly 150 percent since the middle of the 1990s. In Ohio, the share has climbed from 4.6 percent to 7.6 percent since 2000.
James Heckman of the University of Chicago, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, would add a much larger component of high-quality early education to the mechanisms for fighting the effects of poverty. Many share his view. It isn’t hard to see why.
Writing in the New York Times last weekend, Heckman stressed that effective early education, including a dimension for parents, gets at the role families play in developing the necessary skills. It addresses “the critical gap in skills between advantaged and disadvantaged children that emerges long before they enter school.”
Heckman argues that current programs do not start early enough and that they fail to reflect the way “cognitive and character skills” work together. He emphasizes that success in life also requires “self-control, openness, the ability to engage with others, to plan and persist.”
Do early education programs right, Heckman insists, and a community has “great economic and social equalizers,” supplementing the family lives of disadvantaged children. He admits the effort is expensive. Then he points to research showing the annual return on investment — an attractive 6 percent to 10 percent.
At the Statehouse, the concept of early education regularly wins applause, even the bipartisan variety. What have governors and lawmakers actually done? Funding for early education has risen and fallen sharply the past decade, no lasting commitment made, a tiny fraction of Ohio children in state-funded preschool.
Difficult to imagine fulfilling the third-grade reading guarantee without mobilizing on early education.
Perhaps state leaders should take another look at The Blind Side, the movie starring Sandra Bullock, based on the Michael Lewis book. It is a story about the evolution of football. It also is about overcoming poverty to achieve. Consider all the Tuohy family invested in Michael Oher, its time, attention, care and, yes, money.
There’s a clue about what it takes.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at email@example.com.