income and outcomes

Want to boost test scores and increase grad rates? One strategy: look outside schools and help low-income families

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Children at Detroit's Fit and Fold laundromat now have computers to use and books to read while their parents do the wash — part of an effort to bring literacy programs to places where families are.

When Marquita, a Memphis mother of six, became homeless, her children began to struggle in school. “The kids were just out of control,” she said. “Their grades weren’t the same.”

“What people don’t understand is what adults go through, kids go through it too,” she said. “I didn’t know kids get depressed until I went through this situation.”

Marquita, who asked that her last name be withheld to discuss her living situation and her children’s mental health, said she became homeless because she was pushed out of her apartment when she filed a lawsuit about poor conditions. She wasn’t able to find and afford a new place immediately, so over the course of three months, she stayed with friends, rented hotel rooms, or slept in her car. Marquita washed clothes at her kids’ school, which had a washing machine.

“It was a journey,” she said.

Marquita eventually found a permanent place to live with the support of a local “rapid rehousing” program, which also paid her first six months of rent. It immediately made a difference for her kids.

“When I got in a house, their grades went back up, they weren’t getting in trouble,” she said. “It affects them in a major way.”

A large and growing body of research backs up Marquita’s experience, documenting not only that poverty hurts students in school, but that specific anti-poverty programs can counteract that harm. These programs — or other methods of increasing family income — boost students’ test scores, make them more likely to finish high school, and raise their chances of enrolling in college.

In other words, many policies with a shot at changing the experience of low-income students in school don’t have anything to do with the schools themselves. That also means, as these findings pile up, they get relatively little attention from education policymakers who could be key advocates.

“We’re so compartmentalized when we think about kids,” said Greg Duncan, a professor at the University of California, Irvine who has researched the effects of anti-poverty programs. “For people who are interested in promoting well-being of children … these safety net programs should be very much on people’s mind.”

A steady stream of evidence

Chalkbeat identified more than 20 studies published in the past decade that examine how increasing family income or benefits, like food stamps and health insurance, affect children’s outcomes in school in the U.S. This research does not simply restate the well-known fact that less affluent children do worse in schools than more affluent ones; the studies try to pin down the effect of providing additional resources to families in poverty.

Over and over, they find that more money or benefits helps kids in school.

[Read the full list of studies that Chalkbeat has compiled.]

Take the latest study. It came out in July, and showed that teenagers whose families earned a tax credit for low-income families scored substantially higher on standardized tests and were more likely to graduate college. The gains were greatest for the poorest kids.

The effects of these programs are notable, but not huge. For instance, in that most recent study, an annual increase in family income of about $3,000 led to test score gains of a few percentile points. For older kids, it boosted high school and college graduation rates by 1 percentage point. That’s comparable to the effects of things like having a substantially better teacher or lowering class sizes.

This evidence doesn’t suggest that low-income kids can’t learn or that schools and teachers are unimportant to academic achievement. A large body of research shows otherwise. And, of course, many policymakers and educators have long been aware of the how out-of-school factors affects academics. Community schools and trauma-informed teaching are two efforts to address that.  

But the research on anti-poverty programs illustrates how much changes to family income, affected by programs unrelated to schools, can help students do better in class.

Child poverty has fallen since the 1990s mostly due to government benefit programs — but large racial disparities persist. Black children are three times as likely to grow up in poverty as white children, meaning some groups of kids are experiencing consequences of poverty in school much more than others.

Studies show trend, but also come with key caveats

The results aren’t all that surprising, considering the documented effects of poverty and stress on children’s brain development.

“Additional income, especially if it’s regularly received, enables parents to avoid evictions and utilities cut-offs and all the disruptions that can happen,” Duncan said.

Chalkbeat’s review focuses on relatively recent U.S. research, but studies from 1979 and 1984 have also shown positive effects. They seem consistent with what’s been found in other countries, too, and with detailed reviews of past studies by researchers.

But the research also comes with important limits.

These studies point in a clear direction, but there are exceptions. A handful of studies find no clear effects, particularly of government housing programs.

Second, each study focuses on specific programs, and some focus on much older initiatives. The breadth of the results is telling, but they can’t definitively tell us exactly what would happen now if new programs were created or existing ones expanded.

Finally, the studies generally don’t say much about trade-offs. What are the costs — perhaps higher taxes — of expanding such initiatives? Might other programs be a better use of scarce dollars? They also don’t tell us anything about bigger philosophical debates surrounding anti-poverty programs, or about the value of making sure people have adequate food and housing.

With all that in mind, let’s dig into the research.

More money means fewer problems in school

One widely used anti-poverty program is the Earned Income Tax Credit, and it’s been repeatedly linked to better schooling outcomes for kids. The IRS said that 27 million families used the program in 2017.

The program can make a big difference for low-income working families. For instance, a parent of two who earns $15,000 gets an additional $5,700 in benefits through that tax credit. In 2016, the average credit for a family with children was just over $3,000. It has also been shown to boost families’ earning by encouraging work.

At least two studies have examined how the program affects test scores by looking at what happened when the earned income tax credit became more generous in the 1990s. In both, students — particularly children of color and boys — saw scores rise.

Programs that give tax credits to parents also seem to raise test scores, according to other research in both the U.S. and Canada.

The more recent earned income tax credit study found that it boosted high school and college graduation rates, particularly among the poorest kids.

“There is a positive effect of family income on test scores and on educational outcomes — and this doesn’t just fade out,” said Jacob Bastian, one of the study’s authors and an economist at the University of Chicago.

He said it makes sense that the biggest beneficiaries were kids whose families were the lowest-income. “If you give a middle class family three thousand more dollars maybe it’s not a big deal, but if you give a poor family three thousand more dollars, then that’s going to have a big effect,” he said.

Another study, by Duncan and others, looked at anti-poverty programs in the 1990s that offered additional money to people who worked. Income tied to those programs, it found, also led to higher test scores for kids.

A 2010 study suggests that work incentives aren’t necessary to see gains. It looked at what happened when Native American families received a large and unexpected boost in income due to profits from a new nearby casino being distributed to those families with no strings attached.

The results? Higher high school graduation rates and lower rates of crime, particularly among kids from the lowest-income families. The researchers found that an increase in $4,000 annually to the poorest families caused their kids to attain an extra year of schooling. It also seemed to help kids emotionally and behaviorally.

A 2011 study found that that work incentives can backfire if they don’t lead to higher family incomes. Two ‘90s-era state programs, it showed, reduced students’ success in school, probably because they didn’t raise income and older kids had to take care of younger siblings while their parent worked.

Researchers and policymakers are still debating the role of work. Duncan says the evidence suggests that it is money, not work, driving the positive results.

“It appears that income is the active ingredient,” he said.

Health insurance and food stamps can help too; housing vouchers are less clear

Anti-poverty programs that give families benefits beyond cash help kids in school, too.

The expansion of Medicaid — a health insurance program for low-income families — increased high school and college completion rates, according to a number of recent studies. Another showed that government-funded health insurance boosted kids’ reading (but not math) test scores.

Food stamps have been shown to reduce disciplinary rates and student absences while increasing test scores in schools. Students also score lower on exams near the end of a food stamps benefits cycle, perhaps because their family is running short of food.

A 2016 study looked at the rollout of the Food Stamp Program between 1961 and 1975. It found that women who access to the program as a child had higher rates of education as an adult, compared to similar people without access.

That help, one study concluded, “complements school-based education initiatives to address … income gaps in children’s schooling outcomes.”

The effects of housing programs are more ambiguous.

A recent paper focusing on Wisconsin found mixed evidence that housing vouchers boosted academic achievement, though they did seem to help black students in particular. It also showed that public housing seemed to have a negative effect on test scores. An older study focusing on Chicago found no effect of public housing on student test scores.

Widely cited research on the Moving to Opportunity program — which offered low-income families in public housing vouchers to move to a higher-income area — showed there were no overall effects on schooling outcomes, though the program did seem to benefit younger children.

A separate study found that housing vouchers in Chicago had small, if any, benefits on students in school. The results were smaller than those seen in other anti-poverty or effective educational programs, the paper said.

Researchers who have looked closely at the breadth of studies, though, suggest that results like that are exceptions. “We conclude that reducing income poverty can be expected to have a significant impact on children’s environment and on their development,” wrote Kerris Cooper and Kitty Stewart of the London School of Economics.

“Increases in household income would not eliminate differences in outcomes between low-income children and others,” they wrote, “but could be expected to contribute to substantial reductions in those differences.”

How I Help

Students were obsessed with social media. Here’s what this middle school counselor did about it.

PHOTO: Hero Images | Getty Images

In our “How I Help” series, we feature school counselors, social workers, and psychologists who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Students at Eagle Valley Middle School in western Colorado were spending lots of time on social media, and too often their comments turned mean. Counselor Kayleen Schweitzer decided things needed to change, so last year she spearheaded a schoolwide campaign urging students, staff and parents to take a five-day break from social media. More than 150 people signed the pledge.

The results were encouraging. Participating students reported that they had more free time and were getting to bed earlier. Some even said the break made them realize they had been addicted to social media.

Schweitzer, who was named 2018 Middle School Counselor of the Year by the Colorado School Counselor Association, talked about how campaign organizers got students to participate, what she wants parents to know about middle-schoolers, and why she wants students to regard visiting a counselor as normal.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?

When I was 15, I lost my father. It was very unexpected and I found out at school. When I returned to school no one checked on me or followed up to see if I was doing OK. I remember wishing I had more support at school. That was the first time I realized that one day I wanted to be someone who could be there for students going through a hard time or transition.

When I was in college my favorite classes had to do with child development. I went on to pursue a degree in family and human services and a graduate degree in school counseling. I’m definitely happy with my decision to be a school counselor and I look forward to going to work every day.

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

In the 2016-17 school year, my principal Katie Jarnot and I identified a need for something that would help with some of the conflicts occurring at our school. Katie came across a national program called No Place For Hate. It was just what we were looking for. In the 2017-18 school year, we brought No Place For Hate to our school. It has been amazing and powerful.

We noticed a lot of mean behavior on social media and that our students were spending so much time online. Also, with a surge of recent research into the detrimental effects of screen time, social media, and the correlation to depression and anxiety, it was clear there needed to be a change. So Eagle Valley Middle School’s No Place for Hate Coalition created a schoolwide activity that attempted to give students, staff, and parents a glimpse into positives that can come from limiting social media use and taking back control of our lives. We asked our school community to commit to giving up social media for five days.

During those five days, everyone who took the pledge was asked to do a daily reflection on the differences that they noticed. We offered a chance to win prizes as an incentive. To our surprise, we had 110 students (about one-third of our school), 18 staff, and 30 parents sign up.

Though not everyone completed the five days, we felt we brought some awareness to this problem. Students noticed how much more time they had when not using social media and they were able to get to bed earlier. Some actually admitted this activity helped them realize that they are addicted to social media. A few parents reported they were able to be more present with their family at night and have fewer distractions.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?

The tool I couldn’t live without is Google forms. Students can fill out a form to let me know they need to see me. When they fill out the form it notifies me with an email and I can see who is requesting to see me. It also allows me to keep data on what issues my students need support with. This helps me plan what supports I need to put in place through classroom guidance lessons, small groups, and individual counseling.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school where you work?

The biggest misconception I have encountered is that it’s a bad thing to go to the school counselor and that you need to have a huge problem. I have noticed that some middle school students are embarrassed to be seen going to the school counselor. I have worked really hard to make it normal to come to me and teach them that the strongest, most successful people need help sometimes.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?

I would remind parents that students’ frontal lobes are not fully developed and when they say they don’t know why they did something, they are probably being honest. I would also let them know that even if a student says they want parents to give them space and leave them alone, it’s not really what they want or need.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?

I have a student who is now in eighth grade and has been coming to see me on a regular basis when she needs support. As a sixth-grader, she was so closed off and worried about being seen coming to talk to me. I have been very consistent with her and kept reminding her that I’m always here if she needs anything. I ended up running a group with her and a lot of her friends. She saw that her friends loved coming to see me and were willing to talk to work through some of their problems. I also spent time with her and showed her it was a safe place to talk. Over time she broke down her walls and was able to trust me. Today, she stops by when she is doing well and when she is struggling. She loves to come and eat lunch with me. She has grown so much and I’m going to miss her dearly when she goes to high school.

What is the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part of my job is going home and worrying about my students. You always wish you could do more or make students see things can get better and they are enough. Middle school is such a hard time for students as they struggle to find where they fit in and deal with personal changes.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

In my first years as a school counselor, I had a student who was consistently falling asleep in class and missing a ton of school. When I had a meeting with his family, I found out that his mother was a single mom and his grandma, who also lived in the house, was very sick. The student was staying home to help take care of his grandma and his siblings so his mom could work and make money for the family. His father was an alcoholic who was in and out of rehab.

I realized that different cultures have unique values and priorities. It also taught me that you never know what someone is going through so we need to really take time to talk to kids to figure out what is happening in their personal lives before jumping to conclusions.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?

The way I wind down after a stressful day is to come home and spend time with my children. They are still young and innocent. I try to really enjoy this precious time with them when they have fewer worries and just want to have fun. I also love spending time with friends and clearing my mind of the worries of my job. Last, I enjoy catching up with email and work-related tasks as every time I scratch out something on my to-do list I seem to get stress relief.

Chilling effect

Five ways a proposed immigration rule could impact Colorado students and schools

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images

Advocates for immigrant families fear that a proposed federal rule governing green card decisions could lead to more children going hungry and losing housing and health care. That, in turn, could pose challenges for educators and schools.

The proposed rule would allow the government to penalize some legal immigrants who have used public benefits by denying them permanent residency — a possibility that could prompt families to forgo any kind of government help. For children in those families, many of them citizens, the result could be hunger pangs, untreated illness, or outsized worry that their parents won’t be able to stay in the U.S. Inside schools, the new rule could mean more time and energy spent addressing students’ basic needs and the loss of funding from some public programs.

Fear that immigrants will shy away from benefit programs is nothing new. Stricter immigration rules since President Trump took office — stepped-up raids, efforts to discontinue the DACA program, and family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border — have already led to a chilling effect on the legal use of public benefits by immigrants. Advocates say changes to the so-called “public charge” rule will only exacerbate the problem.

The rationale behind the proposed rule, a stricter version of one that’s been in place for years, is to prevent immigration by people who will end up dependent on government help. Opponents of the rule say it punishes working-class immigrants who may need short-term aid, but contribute much more to the country’s economy over the long term.

The existing public charge rule penalizes immigrants for using programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or long-term care. The proposed version adds several more to the list, including Medicaid, food stamps, and housing vouchers. Free and reduced-price school meals aren’t included in the existing or proposed rule.

Mónica Parra, program manager of the Denver school district’s migrant education program, said families she works with are reluctant to sign up for any kind of help, even assistance heating their homes during the winter.

“They’d rather struggle or find other ways to get support,” she said. “It’s going to be very challenging to keep students motivated, but also safe. Maybe they’re going to be cold. Maybe they’re going to get sick.”

The proposed public charge rule doesn’t apply to refugees and asylum-seekers, and doesn’t penalize immigrants for public benefits used by their children. Still, like other advocates, Parra said she hears anxiety about the proposed rule from all kinds of immigrants, including citizens and those who already hold green cards.

They worry that using public benefits could get their own legal status revoked or hurt their chances to sponsor family members who want to immigrate to the U.S.

“The fear has always been there in these communities,” she said. “Now, people are even more afraid.”

The new public charge rule likely won’t take effect for months. First, there will be a 60-day public comment period, scheduled to start Wednesday, and then Trump administration officials will consider the comments and decide whether to make any adjustments.

Here’s a look at some of the ways the proposed rule could affect Colorado schools and students.

More kids come to school hungry

There are at least two ways schools could see more hungry students walking through their doors due to the public charge rule. First, families may be afraid to take advantage of food stamps — either by deciding not to enroll, or by dis-enrolling current recipients, such as citizen children.

Both Denver and Adams counties have seen dips in the number of people participating in the program over the last couple years. In Denver, about 2,000 fewer children receive the benefit now than in November 2016 when President Trump was elected. However, city officials caution that it’s hard to make a direct connection between falling participation and federal immigration policies since historically low unemployment rates may also be contributing to the trend.

While free and discounted school lunches are not part of the public charge rule, some advocates report that immigrant parents have been wary of enrolling their kids since Trump’s election. By law, public schools must serve students regardless of their immigration status and can’t ask for information regarding a family’s or student’s status.

A week after the Department of Homeland Security released a draft of the new public charge rule on its website, the Eagle County school district emailed parents asking them to help squash the rumor that signing children up for free or reduced-lunches “will inform ICE,” a reference to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The letter concluded, “There is NO RISK in applying for free and reduced lunch, help us spread the word.”

So, what happens when kids go to school hungry? They may have trouble paying attention, misbehave more easily, or suffer from headaches or stomach aches. In short, less learning.

More children without health insurance, more student absences

The public charge rule’s chilling effect could have a major impact on child health, according to a recent Colorado Health Institute analysis. An estimated 48,000 Colorado children — the vast majority of them citizens — could be disenrolled from one of two public health insurance programs, Medicaid or Child Health Plan Plus. That would double the state’s rate of uninsured children from 3 percent to 6.7 percent, according to the institute.

The reason for so much dropoff is that health insurance is typically a family affair. So even when different rules govern adults and children in the same family, they tend to be enrolled as a group or not at all.

When students don’t have health insurance, school attendance and performance can suffer. For example, children may be absent more if they lack help managing chronic conditions like asthma, or if they’re not getting treatment for acute illnesses or painful dental problems.

Loss of health-related funding for schools and school-based clinics

School districts stand to lose two health-related funding streams if the number of uninsured children swells. The first would impact the state’s 62 school-based health clinics, which would likely see a drop in Medicaid and Child Health Plan Plus reimbursements if fewer students enroll in those programs.

Such an enrollment decline, which some clinic leaders have already reported, could make it harder for school-based clinics to stay afloat financially, said Bridget Beatty, executive director of the Colorado Association for School-Based Health Care.

With more uninsured students, “The need will go up,” she said, “but conversely the ability to financially sustain them will get more challenging.” 

In addition, 53 Colorado school districts receive funding through a program that could be affected by the proposed public charge rule. It’s called the School Health Services Program and allows districts to seek Medicaid reimbursements for services provided to low-income students with disabilities. That money can be used for health-related efforts that benefit all students, such as the addition of school nurses, wellness coordinators, or suicide prevention programs.

Funding received through the program ranges from a couple thousand dollars in small districts to a few million in large districts.

High-poverty schools have a harder time offering universal free meals

Nearly 40,000 students in 20 Colorado school districts can eat school meals for free because their schools participate in a federal program designed to make breakfast and lunch easily accessible to low-income students. But that number could drop if the public charge rule decreases food stamp participation.

The special meal program, called Community Eligibility Provision, is open to schools or districts where at least 40 percent of students come from families that use certain public benefits, including food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Unlike in traditional school lunch programs, parents don’t have to fill out applications for free or reduced-price meals.

“Any time when you have eligible families not participating in SNAP, it does have a negative impact on community eligibility,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school programs at the national nonprofit Food Research and Action Center.

Even if schools or districts remain eligible for the program, a drop in students getting public benefits could mean a change in how schools are reimbursed for the free meals, she said. That, in turn, could make the program less financially viable for schools or districts to participate.

Immigrants could turn away from publicly funded early childhood programs

Crystal Munoz, who heads the nonprofit Roots Family Center in southwest Denver, worries that the Spanish-speaking families her program serves will stop using programs like Head Start, state child care subsidies, and the Denver Preschool Program, which provides tuition assistance to the city’s 4-year-olds.

Even though those programs aren’t part of the proposed rule, there’s still trepidation, she said. It’s because of the constant flurry of rule changes and the generally negative tone around immigration right now.

“We find ourselves very afraid to even give out resources or referrals to certain programs because we’re not sure,” she said. “For us, it’s waiting and seeing.”

She said if families do drop out of Head Start or other child care programs, it could push children — many of them citizens — into unlicensed care with relatives or neighbors, or force parents to cut back work hours to stay at home with them.