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COURSE, COUNSELOR, AND TEACHER GAPS: Students in High-Poverty Schools Receive Inadequate College Preparation, According to New Study

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“While some high-poverty schools defy the odds by providing an education that prepares students for college, this is not the norm."

High schools that serve predominantly low-income students have the least experienced and least qualified teachers, provide limited or no access to school counselors, and offer a less rigorous curriculum than schools that serve primarily affluent students, according to a study from the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). Consequently, students who attend these high-poverty schools are less likely to enroll in college and more likely to require remedial course work if they do attend, according to Course, Counselor, and Teacher Gaps: Addressing the College Readiness Challenge in High-Poverty High Schools.

The CLASP report analyzes School Year 2011–12 data from the 100 largest school districts nationwide, examining trends in the districts’ 2,275 public high schools. Collectively, these schools serve 2.8 million students representing 20 percent of the nation’s total public high school population. The report finds that high schools with the largest concentrations of poor students lack the resources and supports necessary to prepare students to enroll and succeed in college.

“High-poverty schools struggle with lack of funding, crumbling infrastructure, community safety hazards, and teacher shortages,” according to the report. “This severely affects their ability to provide high-quality education. Without effective K–12 education, students will flounder in postsecondary settings.”

Furthermore, these schools serve predominantly, and disproportionately, students of color. Among the school districts examined in the CLASP study, African American students represent more than 36 percent of students in high-poverty high schools, even though they represent less than 16 percent of the total K–12 public school student population, according to 2012 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Similarly, American Indian students represent nearly 18 percent of students in CLASP’s high-poverty high schools, but just 1.1 percent of the total K–12 public school student population, while Hispanic students represent almost 28 percent of students in CLASP’s high-poverty schools, and 24.5 percent of the total K–12 public school student population, according to NCES.

By contrast, white students, who represent 51 percent of all K–12 public school students nationwide, represent a mere 3.6 percent of students in the highest poverty high schools in the nation’s largest school districts. Diminished resources in high-poverty schools exacerbate gaps in college attendance and completion between poor students of color and their affluent peers.

“While some high-poverty schools defy the odds by providing an education that prepares students for college, this is not the norm,” the report states. “The disparity in college completion between low-income and higher-income students can be attributed, in part, to poor preparation in high-poverty K–12 schools.”

At high-poverty schools—those where more than 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—14.5 percent of teachers are in their first or second year of teaching, according to the report. By contrast, at low-poverty schools—ones where less than 25 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—only 9.5 percent of teachers are first- or second-year educators. Additionally, 11.5 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools are not certified, compared to just 3.5 percent of teachers in low-poverty schools.

“Teacher quality is the most important in-school factor affecting student achievement,” according to the CLASP study. “Because the work environment in schools serving large numbers of low-income children is very challenging, it is difficult to attract and keep the most experienced, well-equipped teachers.”

Furthermore, high-poverty high schools offer fewer advanced-level math and science courses, which students need to succeed in college, the report says. While 94 percent of low-poverty schools offer Algebra II, only 84 percent of high-poverty schools offer the course. The divide is even greater for physics and calculus. Although 90 percent of low-poverty schools offer physics and 85 percent of low-poverty schools offer calculus, only 69 percent and 41 percent of high-poverty schools, respectively, offer the highest level science and math courses.

Additionally, students in high-poverty high schools have less access to school-based guidance counselors, which hinders their ability to explore and pursue postsecondary education options, according to the CLASP study. “Students in high-poverty schools have the strongest need for counselors because their families and community networks are less familiar with higher education opportunities,” the report states. Yet, more than 3 percent of students in high-poverty schools attend a high school without a guidance counselor, compared to just 1.7 percent of students in low-poverty high schools.

“In today’s education reform climate, where the push is for high achievement and greater accountability, equity is more important than ever,” the reports states. “We cannot hold all students to the same standards without also ensuring that every school provides the same quality of education. … [I]mproving postsecondary enrollment and completion requires that we address resource disparities between affluent high schools and those in communities of concentrated poverty.”

Course, Counselor, and Teacher Gaps: Addressing the College Readiness Challenge in High-Poverty High Schools is available at http://www.clasp.org/resources-and-publications/publication-1/CollegeReadinessPaperFINALJune.pdf.

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