Unpacking the Narrative of Poverty in Education Reporting

IPR researchers relay ‘what matters’; “no panacea” for addressing it

education writers association

IPR experts Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and David Figlio (r.) listen to Kirabo Jackson (standing)
present his research on how school spending can benefit students, especially low-income ones.

For reporters on the education beat, teasing out the full implications of the latest in education reforms on children’s learning is already a tall order. So how can a reporter—who wants to paint a broader picture of the systemic factors behind an issue for readers—attempt to relay how living in a blighted neighborhood, going to bed hungry, or coming from a poor family could affect a child’s classroom performance?

“So many of the stories that we do, the underlying narrative is poverty. It’s always difficult to figure out how to tell these stories,” said education reporter Sarah Karp, in kicking off an October 22 Education Writers Association seminar on the influence of poverty on education in Chicago.

“Poverty is the backdrop to so many conversations about improving America's schools that sometimes it feels like part of the furniture. At EWA, we felt it was high time to focus squarely on the intersection of education and poverty,” Education Writers Association president Caroline Hendrie wrote in a statement. “We were particularly interested in helping reporters understand trend lines in the scope and magnitude of concentrated poverty as well as gain awareness of efforts to address its impact on students and schools.”

In discussing their research, the five IPR experts on the panel, “Covering Poverty's Influence on Education,” offered shorthand versions of some of their research findings and takeaway points for the 45 reporters in attendance. Karp, who recently joined the Better Government Association after working for the education-focused newsmagazine Catalyst Chicago, moderated the event.

Other EWA seminars highlighted small steps to help children and youths in poverty, for which IPR economist Jonathan Guryan was a panelist, and the power of storytelling by author and journalist Alex Kotlowitz, a Northwestern lecturer. Education professor and IPR associate James Spillane also spoke the following day at a seminar on covering teacher education.

Stress Matters and Biology Matters

Emma Adam

In tracking how racial and economic disparities emerge, newer research suggests that sleep and stress can vastly affect a student’s school success. IPR psychobiologist Emma Adam, who studies both stress and sleep, uses saliva samples to track the daily “rhythm” of the stress hormone cortisol and wristwatch-like devices to measure sleep patterns.

She and her colleagues’ main finding for stress is that the more of it a person experiences, the more their cortisol rhythms “flatten” instead of rising and falling throughout the day in normal patterns. Such “flattening” negatively affects a person’s health and cognitive functioning, specifically weakening attention and memory, Adam said, which, of course, poses problems for learning. 

“Chronic poverty has particularly profound effects on this diurnal cortisol rhythm,” she emphasized, and these effects can be long lasting and profound: The more poverty a person experiences as a child, “the flatter their rhythm is in early adulthood,” Adam said. 

In terms of sleep, the number of hours a person sleeps and the quality of that sleep are not only “highly sensitive to stress,” but also show socioeconomic and racial/ethnic disparities, according to Adam. Not getting enough sleep or enough quality sleep diminishes cognitive functioning, thereby affecting academic performance.

Tracing the effects of too little sleep and too much stress, Adam argues, shows why reporters should pay attention to the effects of race and ethnicity, as well as poverty, on children’s school performance. And, at least in the case of sleep, one offers a relatively cost-efficient fix for improving academic performance in times of tighter budgets and tightening standards: “Have schools start later,” she advised.

Disadvantage Matters — a Lot

David Figlio

Why is it that in almost every country in the world, the United States included, boys are doing worse than girls “in terms of any type of educational outcome you can think of, be it high school graduation, college attendance, test scores, you name it,” asked IPR Director David Figlio, an education economist.

In research recently featured in the New York Times, Figlio and his colleagues, including MIT's David Autor and IPR research associate Krzysztof Karbownik, investigated this puzzling worldwide phenomenon through a study that matched birth and school records for more than one million children in 150,000 families in Florida. In looking within families, they discovered the achievement gaps between brothers and sisters in the same family were not present when measured at birth, but “by the time they are in kindergarten, those gaps are opened up, and they’re continuing,” Figlio said.

Moreover, these gaps were far wider for disadvantaged families. For instance, boys in families at the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder were 8.5 percentage points less likely to be ready for kindergarten than their sisters whereas, for boys in families at the top of the socioeconomic ladder, this gap was closer to 2.5 percentage points.

The family disadvantage the researchers observed in their data also explains a “substantial fraction” of racial differences in gender gaps, Figlio said, including half of the black-white difference in the boy-girl kindergarten readiness gap, a fifth of the gap in absences, suspensions, and test scores, more than a third of the gap in high school graduation rates, and 10 percent of the gap in the number of kids who end up in the juvenile justice system.

“Our takeaway message is that disadvantage really matters a lot,” Figlio concluded. “One major systemic cause seems to be the fact that boys in disadvantaged households are doing particularly badly.” 

Sustained Early-Life Interventions Matter

Diane Schanzenbach

How do early-life environments affect a child’s health and academic well-being in the long run? This question runs through much of IPR economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbachs research, from her investigation on how small class sizes can affect the likelihood of a black student enrolling in college, to her study on the impact of food stamps on children’s long-term health.

For the latter study, Schanzenbach and her colleagues explored the relationship between living in a county that had implemented the food stamp program in the early days of its existence, and the prevalence of obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes—also known as metabolic syndrome diseases—later in life. 

They find that being in a food-stamp county made the biggest long-term difference for babies in utero and children up to age five. For those adults in this group who grew up in disadvantaged families (as measured by their parents’ education level), their risk of developing metabolic syndrome was lower. 

The results point toward the importance of intervening during early life because, as Schanzenbach and her colleagues find in their IPR working paper, the health impact of the food-stamp program on adults is minimal if children are older than 5 years old.

“What we find is [these children] are healthier as adults, because we invested in them as children,” Schanzenbach explained. 

More School Spending and Methods Matter

Kirabo Jackson

Does spending more on schools make them better? In the past, some policymakers have said no, relying on research that purports to show that spending on underperforming schools does not matter. To prove their point, they often cited that U.S. per-pupil spending has increased since the 1970s, yet test scores have remained flat. Yet new research is showing that school spending does matter. Starting in the 1970s, certain states’ supreme courts began mandating that more be spent on poor schools with high percentages of low-income students.

In studying the before-and-after effects of these finance reforms, IPR education economist Kirabo Jackson and his colleagues determined that students who attended these schools following the reforms did better later in life, garnering higher wages and more education, than similar students who went to the schools before the reforms. Additionally, Jackson points out that such spending was even more beneficial for the post-reform, low-income students.

The discrepancy over whether school spending matters or not, he explains, occurred because of problematic study methodologies: Those finding that spending does not matter failed to account for outside factors—such as the fact that “a lot of times, areas on the decline are also those that tend to get compensatory spending from the federal government,” Jackson explained. “When people put out studies…it’s important to think about whether the method they’re using is going to lead you to a credible answer or not.”

To sum up, “We’re not saying that we should throw money at the problem,” Jackson clarified, because “exactly how you spend matters.” The schools that got more money spent it on reducing class sizes, increasing teacher salaries, and lengthening school days—all of which served to improve their students’ outcomes.

Helping Students Previously Written Off Matters

Jonathan Guryan

By the time many low-income, low-performing teens enter high school, educators, administrators, and parents alike might believe that these students are beyond help. 

“There has been a narrative that says we should be taking resources away from things where we would be intervening with adolescents and young adults because it’s too late to be really doing anything,” IPR economist Jonathan Guryan said. “I want to push back on that a little bit, and raise the possibility that maybe, we just haven’t been trying the right things.”  

Guryan recently evaluated an intervention that aims to improve skills and knowledge of such teens. Match Tutoring is an intensive, individualized, daily math-tutoring program developed by a Boston charter school. Guryan and his colleagues implemented a randomized-controlled trial of Match tutoring for disadvantaged CPS high school students during the 2013–14 school year and continue to study the program in both CPS and the New York City Public Schools.

The researchers found that students in Match tutoring for just a year improved their performance on a standardized math test enough to reduce the test-score gap between black and white students by one-third, did better in classes outside of math, were more engaged in school, and were less likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

“Even with adolescents who have been left behind by the system for a very long time, if we think carefully why they’re falling behind, we can make a difference,” Guryan said. 


After listening to the researchers lay out some of the complexities they see associated with reporting poverty and education outcomes, reporters got to ask their questions. Trisha Crain, who runs the Alabama School Connection in a state where education budgets are chronically tight, asked whether any of the researchers had “come across any ‘magic bullets’ that don’t cost any money,” while still improving outcomes.

“There is no panacea in education,” said Schanzenbach, who urged the reporters there to “hold policymakers’ feet in the fire, and not let people try a quick infusion of money, then abandon it if it hasn’t worked five minutes later.”

At the same time, argued Figlio, many of the factors associated with poverty are also “fixable by policy,” from giving money to low-income schools to providing intensive tutoring for low-income students. “We can lament the problem,” he said, “but this is something we can work towards fixing.”

In a follow-up email, Crain commented, "The opportunity to hear directly from those doing the research and from those in the field is immeasurable for those of us out here doing the reporting on this incredibly important topic." She also appreciated the opportunity to engage with her fellow reporters.

For more information about the IPR fellows and their research, see

Emma Adam is professor of human development and social policy. David Figlio is Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics and IPR Director. Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach is associate professor of human development and social policy. Kirabo Jackson is associate professor of human development and social policy. Jonathan Guryan is associate professor of human development and social policy. All are IPR fellows.