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Community News Network

October 17, 2013

Poverty becomes norm for public students in South, West

(Continued)

Southern states have seen rising numbers of poor students for the past decade, but the trend spread west in 2011, to include rapidly increasing levels of poverty among students in California, Nevada, Oregon and New Mexico.

The 2008 recession, immigration and a high birthrate among low-income families have largely fueled the changes, said Steve Suitts, vice president of the Southern Education Foundation and an author of the study.

Maryland and Virginia were the only Southern states where low-income children did not make up a majority of public-school students. About one-third of students in public schools in both Maryland and Virginia qualified for the free and reduced meals program in 2011.

Hank Bounds, the Mississippi commissioner of higher education, said the country needs to figure out how to educate the growing classes of poor students and reverse the trend.

"Lots of folks say we need to change this paradigm, but as a country, we're not focusing on the issue," said Bounds, who was previously Mississippi's state school superintendent. "What we're doing is not working. We need to get philanthropies, the feds, business leaders, everybody, together and figure this out. We need another Sputnik moment."

National efforts to improve public education, from the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind to President Barack Obama's Race to the Top, have been focused on the wrong problems, said Richard Rothstein, a senior fellow at the Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

Most of those changes — including the rise of standardized testing, holding teachers accountable for their students' academic performance and rewriting math and reading standards — don't address poverty, Rothstein said.

"If you take children who come to school from families with low literacy, who are not read to at home, who have poor health — all these social and economic problems — and just say that you're going to test children and have high expectations and their achievement will go up, it doesn't work," Rothstein said. "It's a failure."

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