How to Fix High-Poverty High Schools

By Anne Kim

A recent report from the nonprofit Pell Institute found jaw-dropping disparities in college-going and college completion rates based on a student’s family income.

Among students from households in the bottom income quartile (those earning less than $34,160 a year), just 45 percent go on to college – and only 9 percent eventually earn a bachelor’s degree. Among students from households in the top quartile, in contrast, 82 percent go on to college and 77 percent graduate.

Now a new report from CLASP helps shed light on why such glaring gaps exist. It also offers a blueprint for the specific resources that high-poverty schools need to help more students prepare for and succeed in college.

CLASP analyzed more than 2,200 high schools from the nation’s 100 largest school districts and compared them by poverty level. Together, these schools serve more than 3 million students nationwide. What it found was that “high poverty” high schools – where 75 percent or more of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and are moreover disproportionately African-American and Latino – consistently lack specific resources essential for college-bound students.

In particular:

High-poverty schools have lower-quality teachers.

11.5 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools aren’t certified, and roughly 1 in 7 are novices, teaching in their first or second year. Among the most affluent schools, however, the overwhelming majority of teachers are both experienced and certified. Just 3.5 percent of teachers in low-poverty schools – schools where 25 percent or fewer of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch – lack certification.

“Low-income schools typically get new teachers coming straight out of their teacher preparation programs,” says Rhonda Bryant of the Moriah Group, the report’s lead author. “These new teachers don’t have an opportunity to hone their skills, and they’re placed in some of the most challenging teaching environments, which is problematic.”

High-poverty schools offer fewer college preparatory classes in math and science.

One in six high-poverty high schools don’t offer Algebra II; three in five don’t offer calculus, and nearly one in three don’t offer physics. Among wealthy schools, in contrast, these offerings are near universal. For example, just six percent of the most affluent schools don’t offer Algebra II.

Bryant says the lack of higher-level math and science classes means that lower-income students are forced to take remedial coursework when they get to college. “That’s particularly detrimental to low-income students because those remedial courses eat up their Pell Grants – their financial aid money – and don’t count toward their degree program,” says Bryant. “A higher number of low-income students drop out of college because they realize they’re no closer to having their degree than when they started.”

High-poverty schools suffer from a shortage of guidance counselors.

Students in high-poverty high schools are almost twice as likely as students in the wealthiest schools to have no access to counseling. In fact, 8.4 percent of high-poverty high schools lack a guidance counselor at all. And while the disparities in access to counseling are not as stark – 7.4 percent of low-poverty schools lack counselors too – the need in high-poverty schools is arguably much greater. Lower-income students are much more likely to be first-time college-goers and to need more help with academic guidance financial aid.

It’s of course no surprise that high-poverty schools lack resources more generally, but the CLASP report is valuable in several respects. First, it pinpoints a specific set of priorities for policymakers to target scarce funding for the greatest impact. As painful as it is to forego needed infrastructure upgrades or other improvements, school administrators now know that coursework and counseling must come first.

The report also takes a valuable step in quantifying the disparities between high-poverty and more affluent schools – and thereby also offering some objective guideposts for what equal opportunity in education should look like. All schools should offer Algebra II, for example, and school districts can track their progress toward educational parity through this measure. Districts can also ensure that schools have a similar mix of novice versus seasoned teachers.

Educational inequality is without doubt a multi-faceted problem. But this report offers a glimmer of hope that the challenge is measurable – and thereby solvable.

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