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Before assigning homework, ensure that students have a home

Fixing the achievement gap comes second to meeting kids’ basic needs

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

A child waits with his family outside of the emergency overnight shelter intake center in the Bronx borough of New York City.

A child waits with his family outside of the emergency overnight shelter intake center in the Bronx borough of New York City.

“We had to wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning because our school was far away. Sometimes we had to go to school late, because we had to wait for the bathroom. But since it wasn’t our house, they could use the bathroom first,” Kimberly, 12, told the child advocacy organization Children’s Defense Fund for their The State of America’s Children 2014 report. But at school, she was labeled truant. “I could not go to recess because of this.”

One out of every ten New York City public school students lived in temporary housing in 2017, according to a sobering October 15 article by The New York Times. That amounts to 114,659 students sleeping in hotels, motels, others’ couches, temporary shelters and the unsheltered streets of New York City. The article showed that the total number of homeless students was more than the entire population of Albany, the state capital. Put closing the achievement gap bombast to bed till students have one to sleep in.

Rhetoric around the need to close the achievement gap feeds into a warped notion of individualism — that students need to pick themselves up by their academic bootstraps — and misses the real needs that kids have, which should be supported through policy. Students and their families need secure, affordable homes in safe neighborhoods and a living wage, which can be addressed through policy. Student homelessness of this magnitude is not an individual failure — it’s a failure of policy to address families’ basic needs and made worse by the systemic problems of unaffordable housing and low wages.

Homelessness isn’t just a New York City problem. However, it is most profound in urban districts where people of color live in high concentrations. “In 2014-15, the rate of homelessness among U.S. public school students was highest in city school districts at 3.7 percent, but was also 2.0 percent or higher in suburban, town, and rural districts,” according to a 2017 report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Escalating homelessness can’t be chalked up to mass laziness. My research team helped create the following map using homelessness data generated by the NCES to show where student homelessness has more than doubled in the last decade among the top 100 metropolitan areas in the U.S. in 2017.

This rise in homelessness spells the decline of our future — our students.

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Research shows that homelessness interacts with a number of other risk factors that predict for lower academic achievement, including poverty, chronic absenteeismviolence and food insecurity, all of which form a harmful combination of barriers that are manifested in students’ academic records. In one of the most-cited studies on the impact of mobility and achievement, university researchers found in 1989 that among 1st through 12th graders, “children who moved three or more times were 60 percent more likely to repeat a grade, controlling for poverty and other socio-demographic risks.”

Our obsession with closing achievement gaps misses the disparities around basic needs such as housing. Homework will always be secondary to a home. Grades may be the furthest thing from a homeless child’s mind. Even health concerns caused by abuse are overlooked by our achievement gap fetish. The advocacy nonprofit Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness found in a 2018 study that 22 percent of homeless high school students reported being physically abused within the previous 12 months by someone they were dating.

Factors that contribute to homelessness can be addressed through affordable housing policies such as de-prioritizing homeowners in the federal tax code, mandating inclusive zoning practices that create affordable housing, and opening up high-demand areas with affordable housing developments currently thwarted by Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) advocates. The acronym represents people who oppose development — especially that which favors low-income residents — in their neighborhoods. In addition, the country shouldn’t bank on individual employers increasing the minimum wage. After we ask economists if we should increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2024, we must also ask a homeless family.

As a society, we’ve learned how to ignore the homeless’ extended hands and handwritten cardboard signs asking for help. Many of us attribute their position on the street as a personal failing, one that began perhaps by not doing their homework when they were in school. And the more we see those sleeping bags and empty cups on the streets, the less we are moved by them. But we fail to ask why so many people are homeless. And the thousands of students crammed in apartments or homes much too small for them, couch surfing in relatives’ houses or cycling between shelters are even more invisible to us. But out-of-sight cannot continue to be out-of-mind.

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Clearly we can’t fault a child for being homeless. But when our policy choices contribute to a rise in homelessness, that’s exactly what we’re doing. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who placed affordable housing on his campaign agenda, has made efforts to increase the number of affordable units by giving landlords tax subsidies in exchange for rent control for their tenants, curbing the rent spikes in parts of the city. However, he gave tax incentives to landlords who already had rent-regulated units. And he has not spurred the creation of additional public housing units — sorely needed for low-income residents who can’t otherwise afford to live in the city. De Blasio is not alone: city leaders’ broken promises are putting families at risk of homelessness. In 2015, The Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance created a 10-year plan that includes the preservation and expansion of the supply of affordable rental and home ownership opportunities, enforcement of fair housing policies and incentives for inclusive development. Yet it gave itself a D on its report card earlier this year. As the weekly paper The Gambit reported in September, “while there have been some gains in new units or housing assistance, the city [New Orleans] has not kept pace with the need for affordable homes — it has lost more affordable housing than it has created.”

Clearly, leaders are aware of the problem, and are trying to fix it, but it’s not enough. The responsibility for preventing student homelessness falls squarely upon adult legislators and political leaders who fail to deliver more affordable homes and living wages through policy. Students are not failing schools as much as society is failing students. Let’s put the scrutiny on leaders’ inabilities to achieve the promise of more affordable housing — the real achievement gap.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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