Poverty does not affect a school’s performance as significantly as having students with risk factors associated with poverty, a recent Penn study found.
The study co-authored by Graduate School of Education professor John Fantuzzo found that having enrolled students with risk factors, including homelessness, maltreatment, lead exposure and poor prenatal care, will impact other students’ educational experience. It also showed that students with risk factors generally do worse in school.
The study also found that concentrations of risk factors are more important than poverty in examining classroom outcomes because poverty causes different disadvantages which affect people in different ways.
“Going to school with kids with risk factors [affects] students who aren’t going through that,” Fantuzzo said. “Take homelessness: If a school has a high concentration of kids coming from emergency shelters, that school is going to then have a high turnover.”
When schools have high turnover rates, the curriculum, teachers and other students are impacted, often negatively.
While past studies only used data from schools, Fantuzzo explained that his study expanded the knowledge base by synthesizing public data from Philadelphia agencies to examine factors other than education that impact the third grade students he studied.
Jean Boyer , a professor of education at Temple University, praised the novelty of the study.
“Rather than looking at an individual child and looking at risk factors, [the study] was able to do some really important developmental psychology looking at this cohort of third graders,” Boyer said.
Fantuzzo, who also directs the Penn Child Research Center at GSE, used an integrated data system he helped create to link data from separate government agencies in order to examine the impact of risk factors on third graders across the Philadelphia public school system.
“Through the use of an integrated data system we were able to look at a whole child - a child’s experiences - not just what was resident in a child’s record,” Fantuzzo said.
The study ultimately called for social service agencies to partner with education and health systems to target problem areas for children throughout Philadelphia.
“It really is a call to action for these social service systems to work together with the public school systems to try to identify collaborative programs to support children’s well being outcomes,” said co-author Heather Rouse , the health policy research director for the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement.
“We have to use all that we have available to us and in this case we’re talking about publicly monitored information,” Fantuzzo said. “So the question is how can that information be disciplined and used so we can inform education policy, public policy and health policy.”
In order for the findings of this study to be effective, collaboration among government agencies is essential, Fantuzzo said.
“Being able to collaborate across agencies has been shown to benefit kids. When different departments and agencies work together, things get better for kids,” said Boyer, whose research includes early literacy initiatives.
“This is a very important piece of research,” Boyer added. “It’s allowing us to look at students in high poverty, high need schools in a different way.”
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