“Poverty is not a learning disability,” declared Pedro Noguera of New York University during a recent guest lecture at Vanderbilt. His presentation on economic influences on student achievement advocated a community-wide focus to improving schools and educational outcomes for students in predominately low-income areas. Although he oriented much of his discussion around models in urban areas including New York City and Newark, NJ, Dr. Noguera’s passion for addressing the effects of poverty in schools carried resonance in Tennessee, a state with only a few major urban areas but rates of economically disadvantaged students exceeding 60 percent.*

On Monday, NPR’s Talk of the Nation picked up the conversation on income and racial achievement gaps. During the program, Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust discussed two primary needs: “building up the skills of the people who are in the teaching force and ensuring, as we’re talking about the achievement gap…that poor kids and kids of color get their fair share of the strongest teachers.” She suggested reallocating funds now allocated toward enhancing pay for teachers with Master’s degrees. Freed up funds could instead provide professional learning support and incentives for high performing teachers to serve in geographic and subject areas of greatest need, as research has found little connection between teacher performance and holding a graduate degree.

A recent study by Sean Reardon of Stanford University presented the implications of an increased gap in achievement between students from high- and low-income backgrounds in stark terms: “As the children of the rich do better in school, and those who do better in school are more likely to become rich, we risk producing an even more unequal and economically polarized society.” Dr. Reardon’s findings complement those of Martha Bailey and Susan Dynarski: “Differences in high school completion between children from low-income families and those from high-income families explain half of the gap in college entry. However, among those who enter college, children from low-income families are much less likely to get a degree. Inequality in college persistence, therefore, produces inequality in college completion, even if college-entry rates were equal (which they are not).”

Tennessee has made a commitment in recent years to become the fastest improving state for education in the country, and policy leaders have enacted a comprehensive set of reforms to push student achievement toward that goal. Wide gaps in achievement between white students and their peers from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds persist. Recent research, however, reminds us of the need to focus energy and resources to address income achievement gaps, as well. Low-income student SCOREs on the 2009 NAEP math exam trailed those of higher-income peers by an average of 24 points—a gap virtually unchanged since 1996.

Poverty is not a learning disability, but from Mountain City to Memphis, the hardest work of education reform is creating a culture, school by school and community by community, that encourages students from all backgrounds to achieve through rigorous curriculum and graduate from high school ready to pursue a postsecondary credential and successful career. Adults—parents, teachers, and administrators, in addition to business and community leaders—all have critical roles to play in promoting this cultural change, because only through that change will the state’s ambitious goals for improving student achievement become reality.

* Tennessee Department of Education Report Card. Available online at http://edu.reportcard.state.tn.us/pls/apex/f?p=200:1:422327717978101.