Covering poverty and education

(Note: Some of the examples in this tutorial are based in Georgia, where this site was created. That said, virtually all of the advice is based on county-level data that is applicable to and available in every U.S. state.)

Why you should cover poverty and education

  1. Poverty is both a cause and effect of insufficient access to quality education. A 2003 study sponsored by the National Center for Children in Poverty found that in families whose income falls below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Line children score far below average on reading, math and general knowledge tests. A lack of education perpetuates poverty and breaking this cycle is key to overcoming persistent poverty in Georgia. Data suggest that poverty affects increases the likelihood a student will not graduate high school and will miss more days of school than his or her more affluent counterpart. Extremely low graduation rates plague many Southern states as well as cities with large low-income or minority populations
  2. Education is directly related to the ability to earn enough to stay out of poverty.From 2008 Georgia Wage Survey
    Annual earnings
    High school dropout $22,100
    High school graduate 29,500
    Post High school 41,700
    College graduate 59,000
    Lifetime earnings
    High school dropout $ 884,000
    High school graduate 1,180,000
    Post High school 1,668,000
    College graduate 2,360,000
  3. The quality of people in your work force is a fundamental factor behind economic growth. Low education levels discourage new investments in a county and poverty persists.
  4. Young children from low-income families score significantly lower on literacy and math assessments before starting kindergarten. The gap persists as students progress through school. Before kindergarten, the average cognitive scores of children from the highest socioeconomic group are 60 percent above those from lowest. The gaps in reading and math performance between African American and Hispanic students and white and Asian are two grade levels.
  5. Teachers and officials in school systems struggle to see past the poverty of low-income students. This creates disadvantages for poor students.
  6. Families living in poverty tend to be less involved with their children’s school activities.
  7. The higher the individual’s education, the more job benefits that become available.
    Almost 95 percent of people with college degrees have employer-provided health care compared with 77 percent for high school-level employees and 67 percent for high school dropouts.
  8. Thirty percent of children do not graduate from high school. These children are more likely to go to prison or enroll in welfare programs. They cause a financial burden on society in lost tax revenue, increased health care costs, food stamps, subsidized housing and public assistance.
  9. In 2004, nearly 600,000 18-year-olds failed to graduate high school. Had these students advanced one grade further, then about $2.3 billion would have been saved in taxpayer-funded medical care over one lifetime.
  10. If the high school graduation rate increased by 1 percent for men ages 20 to 60, then the United States would save as much as $1.4 billion each year in reduced costs from crime.
  11. Affluent students in high-poverty schools score lower on reading tests than poor students in mostly middle-class schools. Test scores for all students— regardless of the level of family poverty—drop in a school where half or more of the students are eligible for subsidized lunch. When more than three quarters of the students live in low-income households, scores drop significantly.
  12. In a study by the Education Trust, data confirm that the best predictor of a school’s achievement scores is the race and wealth of its student body. The Trust also found that in majority white Illinois schools poor teachers are rare. Only 11 percent of teachers scored in the lower quartile. Schools populated mostly by minority students contained 88 percent of teachers who earned poor marks for teaching quality.
  13. Students from low-income households are more likely to quit school. Multiple studies show that socioeconomic status is a significant predictor of potential dropouts. Studies have found that students in low-income homes were three times more likely to drop out than those from average-income homes and nine times more likely than students from high-income homes.
  14. Poverty in any community can lead to:
    Family involvement in schools problems
    Learning problems
    Graduation problems
    Work force problems
    Teaching problems
    Attendance problems
    School problems
    Resource problems
    Testing problems
    Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) problems

How to measure the opportunity to cover poverty and education

Answer these 48 questions:

  1. What percent of public-school children, by school, qualify for free or reduced-prices meals?
  2. How is eligibility for free/reduced lunches determined?
  3. What percent of students who are on free/reduced lunch in elementary school continue this service in middle and high school?
  4. Do low income children quit using the free/reduced lunch service as they get older due to peer issues?
  5. How many children have dropped out of school, by grade, for each of the last five years?
  6. How many students in your county go on the higher education?
  7. Is there a pattern in drop outs by feeder schools (elementary-middle school-high school)?
  8. How does your system define “at-risk” students?
  9. What programs are used to work with these students?
  10. According to graduation coaches, councilors, teachers, etc. why do kids drop out of school?
  11. According to kids who have dropped out (or are in the process of making that decision) why do they drop out?
  12. What do those kids think there future will hold?
  13. What percent of students that dropped out (versus graduates) had failed a grade?
  14. What percent of students that dropped out (versus graduates) had large numbers of absences during recent years?
  15. What percent of students that dropped out (versus graduates) had large numbers of disciplinary referrals?
  16. Do low-income children drop out at a higher rate than more affluent children?
  17. For each school, and system as a whole, how did economically disadvantaged students perform on the Criterion Referenced Comprehension Test (CRCT)?
  18. For each school, and system as a whole, how did economically disadvantaged students perform on end of year or graduation tests?
  19. Do students at schools with high levels of poverty (majority on free/reduced lunch) perform similarly to students at schools with lower levels of poverty on the CRCT, end of year or graduation tests?
  20. In schools with high levels of poverty (majority on free/reduced lunch) how do children not on free/reduced lunch perform on the various tests?
  21. In schools with low levels of poverty how do children on free/reduced lunch perform on CRCT, end or year, or graduation tests?
  22. For the system as a whole, did economically disadvantaged students meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals?
  23. What is AYP, how it is measured, and what are the consequences of not making AYP?
  24. What is the pre-school attendance in your county?
  25. Are their differences between low-income and other children in pre-school attendance?
  26. What percent of four-year olds in your county attend public pre-k?
  27. What percent of four-year olds in your county attend a private pre-k program that is funded by the state?
  28. Are there differences between schools in your county in low-income neighborhoods and other schools in the number of certified teachers on staff?
  29. How many new teachers are in low-income schools versus others?
  30. How many alternative certification teachers are in low-income schools versus others?
  31. What percent of teachers are rated by the state as “highly qualified” in low income schools versus others?
  32. How are resources allocated across schools in your county?
  33. Are there differences in the physical plant across schools?
  34. What percent of parents attend Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) meetings?
  35. What are the differences between schools in your county in terms of the financial support parents give to schools? (Fund raising success, donations, amount in principal or PTO spending accounts from parents).
  36. Is poverty being directly addressed in any of your schools?
  37. What are effective indicators for assessing school success (AYP, graduation rates, others)?
  38. Are in-service training programs that help teachers work with low-income children available in your county?
  39. Are there parental involvement volunteers in your schools?
  40. Are there any formal programs to increase parental involvement?
  41. Is there a “Certified Literate Community Program (CLCP) in your community?
  42. How are administrators and teachers reaching out to low-income families in their neighborhoods?
  43. Are there any skills programs aimed at parents to help them help students with school work?
  44. Are there after-school programs in your county?
  45. Are there after-school programs for middle and high school students?
  46. Does your county have any “community schools?”
  47. What is the perception among employers in your county regarding the quality of students who go through your school system?
  48. What are the wage differentials paid by employers in your county for different levels of education?

A step-by-step approach to finding and reporting important and engaging stories

Let’s take, as an example, the topic of poverty and graduation rates. What steps might you take to find and report a story about poverty and graduation rates in your county?

Step one:
Go to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement site. Research the graduation rate for your school district and high schools. Check out neighboring counties to provide context for your story.

Step two:
Contact the assistant superintendent for instruction or an IT coordinator to obtain demographic information on the students in your district such as gender, age, ethnicity, instructional setting (regular, special or gifted), disciplinary referrals, absences, lunch status and CRCT scores. Request the number of students who drop out versus those who graduate from high school. Caution: School officials calculate graduation rates in ways that are sometimes tricky and complicated. Check with your district to determine if many students transfer in and out of the system. This activity could cause graduation rates to be inaccurate.

Step three:
Once you have a statistical picture of your dropouts, interview officials in the system who deal with these students. Each middle and high school will employ a graduation coach who works with at-risk students towards graduation.

Step four:
Interview former students who have recently dropped out as well as at-risk students. Usually school officials can arrange these meetings. Also ask the school officials what programs are available to these children.

Essential resources

Here are essential resources that should help you cover poverty and education in your county.

Key sources of data

  • The Georgia County Guide provides more than 165,000 facts that cover each of Georgia’s 159 counties. The easy-to-use format profiles the state’s past and present social, economic, and demographic environments. Published by the University of Georgia for 20 years, the guide covers topics such as agriculture, courts, crime, education, health, housing, labor, population and public welfare.
  • GeorgiaInfo is a site sponsored by GALILEO and the University of Georgia Libraries to provide statistical and demographic information on the state.
  • Office of Planning and Budget Census Data specializes in financial information that could be related to education.
  • Governor’s Office for Student Achievement provides press releases and other official information on education in Georgia.
  • Kids Count is an initiative sponsored by The Annie E. Casey Foundation that attempts to track the status of children in each state. Countless data and other links are available on this site.
  • Initiative on Poverty and the Economy started in 2003 with the University of Georgia’s Office of the Vice President for Public Service and Outreach. The site includes seminal studies on persistent poverty in the south.
  • National Center for Children in Poverty provides specific data on children in poverty.

Key sources of documents

Key sources for experts

  • System-level administrators who specialize in Title 1 money received from the U.S. Department of Education
  • Graduation coaches
  • Personnel who specialize in maintaining and tracking student data

Additional Web Sites:

  • Reading is Fundamental
  • Child Trends
  • Parents as Teachers
  • Academy of Hope
  • Second Start
  • Literacy Services of Wisconsin
  • Milwaukee Achiever Program
  • Journey House
  • Certified Literate Community Program
  • Literacy Connections
  • Next Door Foundation
  • Robin Hood Foundation
  • Garrett County Community Action
  • Project H.E.L.P.
  • Partners for a Prosperous Athens
  • National Institute for Literacy


Freakonomics author Steven Levitt provides these lists:

4 factors that are not strongly correlated to childhood test scores:

  • The child’s parents recently moved into a better neighborhood.
  • The child’s mother didn’t work between birth and kindergarten.
  • The child’s parents regularly take him to museums.
  • The child frequently watches television.

4 factors strongly correlated with test scores:

  • The child has highly educated parents.
  • The child’s parents have high socioeconomic status.
  • The child’s mother was 30 or older at the time of first child’s birth.
  • The child has many books in his home.

Story example: Best practice

The Dropout Dilemma
– by Carmen Aiken, Hallee Berg, Thea Chroman, Sandhya Dirks, Sarah Gonzalez, Melissa McDonough, Jackie Kennedy and Shira Zucker of Mills College in Oakland, California – 2007

2007 second place educational writing in radio by the Education Writers Association

What’s the story: Holly Kernan, Mills College lecturer and KALW news director, coordinated the project enabling students to report, write and produce eight original radio stories. The Mills students examined dropout rates at Oakland Aviation School, Emiliano Zapata Street Academy, the Castlemont Community of Small Schools, Oakland High School, Skyline High School, Elmhurst Middle School and the Fremont Federation of Small Schools.

Why it works:
Students got on the ground and documented what was happening to students close to their age. Radio listeners sent donations to help graduates who were profiled or to give money to teachers.

How to do it: Take a bigger picture look at “hot button” education topics – dropout and graduation rates, test scores, advanced courses – and evaluate how they’re offered, funded and implemented across the school system. List all the stakeholders and ensure you’re covering all sides and points of view. Split the stories into parts.

Terms to know: Dropout rates (National Center for Education Statistics), vocational education (Office of Vocational and Adult Education), No Child Left Behind Act

Questions to ask:
How many students graduate from high school in the community?
How do the rates differ among the schools? Does it correlate to poverty?
How does vocational education affect the area?

Sources: Local principals and superintendents, vocational program directors, local legislators, nonprofit educational organizations

Advice from Kernan:

“The best stories are about people doing things and documenting what’s happening. Finding interesting sources is key. The biggest and best sources are people who are living it and have a good sense of what’s happening.”

Story example: Multimedia

Law, software fuel new ‘digital’ divide
– by Alex MacGillis of the Baltimore Sun – 2004

2004 special recognition for investigative reporting by the Education Writers Association

What’s the story: Thanks to federal grants, most schools are well-supplied with computers, but most have differing levels of software availability. Poor schools teach drill by rote methods and use older software, versus richer schools that can afford more expensive upgrades and more advanced teaching methods.

Why it works: MacGillis uses specific schools to show how software deals aren’t equal across schools. He writes with a familiar tone that makes it easy to understand yet ties it to a national problem of a new achievement gap in schools.

How to do it: Research what types of federal grants go to schools in your community. More specifically with technology, compare and contrast across the school system resources – computer lab space, hardware, software and instruction time.

Terms to know: Compass Learning labs, No Child Left Behind Act, rote learning

Questions to ask:
How does the No Child Left Behind Act affect such areas as technology in the classroom?
How does technology availability affect students’ scores in standardized math and reading scores?
How does funding for technology differ across schools in the community?
What is the difference in software offered to these schools?
What technology opportunities and learning labs are offered to students in separate schools – including the differences between elementary, middle and high schools?

Sources: Compass Learning labs, Plato Learning labs, parents, teachers, principals and superintendents, Center for Children and Technology (may be able to find state centers), learning education software companies, test-prep companies (such as Kaplan and Princeton Review), impartial professors of education, testing analysis companies such as Northwest Regional Education Laboratory

Story example: On a shoestring

State voucher debate renewed in Legislature
– by Jessica Jordan, education reporter for The Times of Gainesville, Ga. – 2009

What’s the story: A state legislator introduces a bill to give private school vouchers to public schools, which many public educators oppose because it’ll take funding from public schools where the money is needed.

Why it works: Jordan breaks the different aspects of the arguments down into subheads and segments, helping to explain all parts of the problem to readers who need it – especially parents.

How to do it: Localize state legislative bills by evaluating the effects on local schools. Pull in data about local SPLOST revenues and interview superintendents, teachers and parents who may or may not take advantage of the voucher.

Terms to know: Free lunch program, school vouchers, special tax revenues for education, standardized testing requirements in public vs. private schools, No Child Left Behind Act

Questions to ask:
How many students receive free and reduce lunch prices in the year?
Which schools don’t meet annual yearly progress (AYP) reports? Does poverty affect this?
How would a switch to this program break down funding for public schools? Does it affect SPLOST or other taxes?
What types of students would take advantage of the private school voucher?
How would this type of legislation specifically affect schools in the community?

Sources: Educational magazines, non-profit educational advocacy groups, teachers and parents in the school system, principals and superintendents, Professional Association of Georgia Educators and Georgia Public Policy Foundation (or other similar state groups)

Advice from Jordan:

“In Gainesville City Schools, if I didn’t write about poverty, I wouldn’t be writing about 70 percent of the kids who get free lunches, which means they fall below poverty line.”

“I tend to put explanation in my stories. Many times, I was reporting it and didn’t understand it fully to begin with, and I don’t think it’s bad to put in the details. If I didn’t understand, then a majority of my readers may not either. For examples, with the voucher debate, the school of thought is that if the student is not getting education here, why be limited to that schools? But the other side is if the government is going to spend money on these kids regardless of public or private schools, why not spend more in the public school system so that whole tide will rise? In this country, education is the way to lift yourself out of poverty.”