Poverty Doesn’t Dictate Academic Outcomes

Critics of education reform often blame poverty for poor academic achievement. In fact, many argue that you can’t fix education until you fix poverty.

This simply is not true.

Yes, reducing poverty is an essential piece of the puzzle in solving the achievement gap. However, schools don’t control housing, economic development, or social welfare policy. Schools only control what goes on inside the walls of the building. To argue that we can’t improve education until poverty is solved only gives a pass to schools that are failing our children.

Schools can help reduce poverty, but only by increasing opportunity for children.

And I’m proud to say that I’m involved in two schools doing just that. I’m involved in one as a parent and the other as a teacher.

KIPP: Memphis Collegiate Elementary

My son just finished Kindergarten at KIPP: Memphis Collegiate Elementary (KMCE). KIPP wasn’t our first option; we tried to get into a good district-run school (read about that here). But we are more than happy with the education our son received at KMCE this year, so much so that he’ll be returning for 1st grade and plan to enroll our daughter there when she’s of age.

People thought I was crazy for enrolling my son at KMCE, which has a population that mostly receives free/reduced lunch. I was told that my son’s classmates would not be Kindergarten-ready and, as a result, the level of rigor in the classroom would not be enough for my son. And, even crazier to many, my son would likely be the only white kid in his class.

It’s true, his classmates did enter Kindergarten behind, according to beginning of the year data on the nationally-normed Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment. KMCE’s grade-level average then was at the 33rd and 23rd percentiles in Reading and Math, respectively. KMCE’s grade-level average is now at the 63rd and 57th percentiles.

In other words, by the end of the year, students at KMCE had not only caught up, but had surpassed the national average. This tells me that kids who are not academically prepared for school can catch up in as little as one year.

KMCE’s Kindergartners this year set a national KIPP record for percent of students meeting their projected growth goals. That record, by the way, was set by last year’s KCME Kindergarten class.
This is great news!

But what about my son? How did he do? After all, so many of my friends were concerned that he wouldn’t be pushed academically.

My son grew even more than the average KMCE student. In fact, he grew so quickly that he had already met his end-of-year goals by the end of first semester. But his teachers found ways to push him even higher. He entered Kindergarten at the 72nd and 64th percentiles in Reading and Math, respectively, and is now at the 96th percentile in both areas.

So I’d say that my friends’ concerns were unfounded. KMCE found a way to grow both those who were more and less academically prepared for Kindergarten.

Grizzlies Prep

KMCE proves that, when provided high-quality interventions, a Kindergartner who enters school behind can catch up in one year. However, without the interventions provided at schools like KMCE, that same kid will fall further and further behind as they progress in their schooling.

That describes many of our scholars at Grizzlies Prep, the all-boys middle school where I serve as Director of Scholar Support. The average 6th grader enters our school reading on a 3rd grade level. And by then it’s no longer possible to catch up in just one year. Our average student grows by 2 grade-levels per year, which is incredible, but also means that it will take multiple years to fully catch up.

This shows up in our testing. We just completed our end-of-year reading testing, and the average 6th grader now reads on a 5th grade level, a growth of two years. The average 7th grader also grew two years and now reads on a 7th grade level. If he continues to grow at this rate, then he will enter high school reading on at least a 9th grade level.

In other words, it takes three years to catch up by the time a kid gets to middle school. More difficult to be sure, but our data shows that it’s doable.

Like my son at KMCE, we can teach those students who are already where they need to be academically at the same time as our lower level students. Every 6th grade scholar who entered at grade-level this year grew by at least 2 grade-levels, meaning they all read on at least an 8th grade level now; most, in fact, are already reading on a high school level. A full 30% of our 7th graders now read on a high school level.

So, like KMCE, Grizzlies Prep is proving that you can educate both the more and the less prepared together successfully.


There are several key takeaways that I have from my experiences with KIPP: Memphis Collegiate Elementary and Grizzlies Prep.

First and foremost, poverty does not have to be destiny; zip code does not determine potential. We can’t afford to use poverty as an excuse to continue the status quo. We can’t wait until poverty is solved. We have to set expectations high for all kids.

Secondly, parents should not be so afraid to education their kids alongside kids of different socio-economic, racial, or other backgrounds. Specifically, white parents need to be okay with their kids being the minority. This is Memphis after all, the first majority African American metro area in the nation. And, since median household income in Memphis is $35,000, middle class parents need to be okay with their kids being around those with less income.

Finally, it is essential that we invest in early interventions. Simply put, intervening early on is more efficient because underprepared kids aren’t that far behind yet, and so it takes less time for them to catch up. This is why high-quality universal pre-K makes so much sense.

But it is also essential that we invest in interventions for those who slip through the cracks or who fall behind later on. This is why I’m so excited about the State’s new Response to Instruction & Intervention (RTI²) initiative. (For more detail, see here.) The State has a great plan, but dedicated funding is needed for effective implementation.

No matter how under prepared they are, all kids can achieve academic success. And if it’s possible, then we can’t be satisfied until it becomes reality.

It’s time to stop making excuses. It’s time to make it happen.

James Aycock is currently the Director of Scholar Support at Grizzlies Prep, an all-boys public charter middle school located in downtown Memphis. He previously served as the founding Special Education Coordinator with Tennessee’s Achievement School District, after several years as a special educator and baseball coach at Westside Middle School in the Frayser community of North Memphis. Contact him at jaycock@grizzliesprep.org.

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4 comments for “Poverty Doesn’t Dictate Academic Outcomes

  1. turnbert
    June 6, 2014 at 8:33 am

    Critical of the corporate model of reform myself, there are not many people arguing that poverty needs to first be solved in order to improve educational outcomes. Rather, the popular argument is that poverty cannot and should not be ignored. As study after study has shown, poverty has real consequences. Health, literacy preparations, access to early child care, stability at home and transience in education, to name only a few. To ignore these issues is quite literally a show of profound ignorance. This willful ignorance is encapsulated by often spouted corporate reform mantra of “No excuses” and is illustrated here.
    The only person in the reform movement that seems to not only understand the consequences of poverty but is actually engaging the issue is Jeffrey Canada where his Children Zone is providing wrap around services (though he is not without his faults, expelling at least one class of students for not raising test scores). There needs to be more places like this. Where families are engaged in all aspects of child rearing and education, even bettering there own situations with adult education and ESL. But that would require a real investment in the community, rather than the current myopic view on kids alone that is popular in the corporate reform model.

    • June 6, 2014 at 8:45 am

      Thanks for your great comment! I tend to agree that the reform movement gets myopically focused on the kids sometimes at the expense of forgoing real and meaningful community engagement like Mr. Canada does at his school. We definitely need charters to step up and provide some of those services that have been traditionally offered through traditional public schools. That said, Jame’s story is also a powerful testament to what can happen inside the 4 walls of a school serving impoverished students and how achievement is possible despite poverty.

      • Bert Turner
        June 11, 2014 at 8:55 pm

        I’m not sure it does. This is not the the way the TN assesses its students. To be quite blunt, unless it’s the state’s tests no one really cares. Unless it’s made to market success.
        Aycock made an argument on the need for a common standardized assessment but he doesn’t speak of of the TCAP or SAT 10 results, both of which are used by the state, at either KIPP or Grizzlies Prep. Instead we see an odd side step with the use of assessment data that is not the norm in Tennessee. There seems to be a cognitive dissonance between these two pieces.
        For the case of Grizzlies Prep, he doesn’t even mention the measurement tool, provide graphs, or have really any hard statistical information… so we just have to trust his word. Again to be blunt, evidence or it didn’t happen. For KIPP, the MAP has been used by other charters and has shown to be a poor predictor of achievement on TCAP. Cornerstone Prep comes to mind, which claimed to be in the 90th percentile on the MAP in their first year but scored a school-wide TVAAS of 1. That’s quite literally regression compared to the year before. But I digress.
        Jersey Jazzman, while perhaps onerous, really hit the nail on the head with the issue of poverty. He provided the facts to show the negative effects of poverty on achievement at both KIPP, Grizzlies Prep, and a number of other schools in Memphis, why it cannot and should not be ignored.
        So there are some real issues at play in these two pieces. One we need a single standard of measurement, unless we’re looking at certain schools in which case we’ll will use a different standard of measurement. He also says we need to have high expectation in assessment, but then uses (what appears to be) a lowered standard when measuring the achievement of those in poverty. Again, this comes back to cognitive dissonance. Or rather, holding one group (traditional public schools) to one set of standards and another group (charters) to another. Why? My original conclusion – marketing

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