The percentage of public schools where more than three quarters of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch — a key indicator of poverty — has increased in the past decade, and children at these schools are less likely to attend college or be taught by teachers with advanced degrees.
The findings come from a special report on high poverty schools included in the 2010 Condition of Education study, which reports on a broad range of academic indicators across K-12 and higher education.
The U.S. Department of Education report released Thursday found that the percent of high poverty schools rose from 12 to 17 percent between the 1999-2000 and 2007-2008 school years, even before the current recession was fully felt. By comparison, the overall poverty rate for children increased from 17 to 18 percent, leading researchers to believe that that a higher percentage of poor kids were signing up for the meal program.
In all, there were 16,122 schools considered high poverty.
Students at these schools face a number of disadvantages:
— A smaller percentage of teachers at high poverty elementary and secondary schools have earned at least a master's degree and a regular professional certification than those in low poverty schools.
— They are less likely to graduate from high school; on average, 68 percent of 12th grade students in high poverty-schools graduated with a diploma in 2007-2008, compared to 91 percent at low poverty schools. The numbers have actually gotten worse for students at high poverty schools, dropping from 86 to 68 percent since 1999-2000.
— After graduating from a high poverty school, 28 percent enrolled in a four-year institution, compared to 52 percent of graduates from low poverty schools. And while college enrollment has increased by 8 percent since 1999-2000 for graduates from higher income schools, the numbers have remained stable for those in poor schools.
"It's a persistent challenge," said Val Plisko, associate commissioner for early childhood, international and crosscutting studies at the National Center for Education Statistics, which produced the report.
Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy development at the Education Trust, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said students at high poverty schools tend to start out behind their counterparts at low poverty schools and get less support at school.
"We take those students who have less outside of school, and we give them less of everything we know contributes to achievement inside of school, too," Hall said.
Cities were more likely to have a larger percentage of high poverty schools. About 40 percent of city elementary schools fell into that category in 2007-2008, compared to 15 percent in towns and 13 percent in suburbs, according to the study. The report found a similar trend at the secondary school level.
The South and West had a higher percentage of public elementary schools that were high poverty than the Northeast and Midwest, 24 percent compared to 16 and 12 percent, respectively. Mississippi had the highest percentage nationwide — 52 percent of its public elementary schools are considered high poverty. Louisiana, New Mexico, the District of Columbia and California were also pointed out as having higher percentages of low income elementary schools.
Students at high poverty schools are more likely to be minorities.
Hispanic students, for example, made up 46 percent of students at high poverty elementary schools and 11 percent of students at low poverty schools in the 2007-2008 school year. White students, by comparison, made up 14 percent of students at high poverty elementary schools, and 75 percent at low poverty elementary schools.
High poverty schools also have a larger percentage of students with limited English proficiency.
Students at these schools had lower average scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading and math than those at low poverty schools, though their scores have steadily increased in both subjects, and in some areas, such as 4th-grade reading, the achievement gap has decreased.
The Condition of Education report also included a number of other academic indicators, including overall figures on enrollment, high school graduation rates, and college attainment.
Enrollment among children 3 to 4 has increased from 20 to 53 percent between 1970 and 2008. Plisko said the increase, which leveled off at about 2000, could be attributed to an increase in the number of women entering the labor force during those decades, and the start of research suggesting early education for disadvantaged students.
The percentage of 16 to 24-year-old students not enrolled in school, and who do not have a high school diploma or equivalent degree, has dropped from 14 to 8 percent between 1980 and 2008. The total number of college post-secondary degrees earned has also risen markedly, from 2.3 to 3.1 million from 1997-1998 and 2007-2008.
"We're holding our own given the difficult times we live in," Plisko said.