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Conventional wisdom has it that schools with high concentrations of poverty are bad. But when a team of researchers from University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education (Penn GSE) studied every third grader in the Philadelphia public schools, they found strong student achievement in some schools with high concentrations of poverty. The low-achieving schools were ones with high concentrations of homelessness and child abuse. Not only did the performance of the students experiencing abuse and homelessness suffer, so did their classmates. High concentrations of students whose mothers did not complete high school were similarly harmful. The whole grade level had lower achievement.

“It’s not poverty itself that predicts achievement. It’s other risk factors that are associated with poverty,” said Heather Rouse, one of the study’s authors.

“We can’t cure poverty. But we could work on interventions to connect with kids who experience these other risk factors, through department of housing and other agencies,” Rouse added.

Rouse’s study was published in Educational Researcher in Februrary 2014 and presented at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual conference in April. She and her colleagues had access a treasure trove of data on all 10,000 third graders in the Philadelphia public schools during the 2005-06 academic year. In addition to education records, the researchers were able to look at birth, health, public housing and human services records for each student.

About 70 percent of the entire population qualified for free and reduced price lunch, a measure of poverty. Only 26 percent of the population had a mother without a high school degree. The schools that had a 10 percent higher concentration of low maternal education had significantly worse math scores, reading scores and attendance records.

The researchers found that some risk factors, such as high lead exposure or having a teenage mother at birth, didn’t affect student achievement much. But substantiated cases of child maltreatment, which affected 10 percent of the population, and low maternal education were particularly harmful risk factors. Episodes of homelessness, which affected 9 percent of the students, came in third.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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