Investing in Urban Education: Addressing Risks to Children From Low-Income Families
More than one in five American children live in poverty, and research tells us that certain risk factors associated with poverty contribute to poor academic achievement. Public agencies monitor many of these risks, but so far few states and municipalities have devised ways of sharing that information in order to improve services to low income students.
At a February 14 Capitol Hill briefing on the payoffs of long-term investment in education research, Penn GSE Professor John Fantuzzo argued for research-based systems that provide a holistic view of the risks children from low-income families face.
"We need research based on integrated data systems and effective educational interventions informed by this research to prevent vulnerable children from being left behind," he said.
Fantuzzo’s research strategy integrates municipal data from education, health, and social service agencies; geographic information at the neighborhood level; advanced assessment tools; and sophisticated statistical methods to tease out the effects of risk over time.
To help municipalities overcome the disconnect between public service agencies and the education system, Fantuzzo and Penn colleagues created Kids Integrated Data System (KIDS), an integrated, longitudinal data system. KIDS links education and human services data and enables service providers to track kids’ progress through the system.
What has this strategy taught them? Chief among Fantuzzo's findings is that all risks are not equal. For example, risks to children's health – lead poisoning, low birth weight, no prenatal care - will have more of an impact on their academic achievement than their classroom behavior. Family risks - maltreatment, homelessness, the mother's education - deliver a double hit, influencing both academics and behavior.
Timing matters, too: children who experience homelessness and maltreatment as infants or toddlers will suffer more adverse effects than kids who experience these risks during elementary school.
Nor are all schools equal, Fantuzzo explained. Different schools have different concentrations of student risks, and it's the make-up of the student body rather than just income or race that predicts academic outcomes.
These insights imply responses for policymakers. For example, one way to counteract the impact of homelessness that Fantuzzo’s research has brought to light might be to coordinate with the shelter system in enrolling children in early childhood programs.
Fantuzzo's work also suggests some fine-bore interventions at the classroom level. For instance, because his research is longitudinal – that is, conducted over several years – it reveals much about children’s learning trajectory.
These findings tell us that we can detect in the first grade children who will struggle to read as third-graders. First-graders who are behind in math will likely fall further behind as their school career unfolds. Early childhood education will improve children’s academic achievement in reading and math, but not, alas, their behavioral outcomes (as measured in kindergarten and third grade).
To read more about Fantuzzo’s testimony and the briefing, click here.