The Uphill Climb for Virginia Schools

by James A. Bacon

Why aren’t we making more progress improving the academic performance of Virginia’s school children? Many reasons have been advanced. Some say that school divisions don’t get enough money or that the money is unfairly distributed between schools. Others say that the public school system is over-regulated, bound by bureaucracy and resistant to innovation. Yet others blame society at large (sliding work ethic, the distraction of electronics) or point to the different emphasis on education among different racial/ethnic groups.

But there is another explanation that gets very little attention. Could the root of the problem be demographic? Could Virginia schools be struggling to raise academic achievement scores because school children increasingly are drawn from the ranks of the poor?

The correlation between poverty and socioeconomic status is well known. The challenges of poverty and economic insecurity — homelessness, frequent moves between school districts, family dysfunction, domestic violence, inadequate nutrition — distract poor children from focusing on school work. There is a cultural overlay as well: Because poor children tend to come from less educated parents, they grow up in households where reading is not emphasized and academic achievement is not stressed.

It is an indisputable demographic fact that poor women bear more children than middle-class and professional-class women. According to “Fertility of American Women: 2008,” published by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010, the breakdown by income category looks like this:


The poorest women, typically unmarried women, have the most children. Not only do they tend to have more children, they tend to have them at younger ages than higher-income women who typically wait until they complete their educations and get married before bearing children. Thus, to cite an extreme example, a poor family in which successive generations of women give birth at age 18 produce two generations of offspring in the same length of time as a more affluent family in which a woman has her first child at 36.

When poor women give birth to more children and they do so at an earlier age, the result is that the student body of school systems is significantly poorer than the population at large. Here is a list of the 10 Virginia school divisions with the largest gaps between general poverty rate and poverty among children under 18 (a proxy for the poverty rate of children in the school system):

Source: 2012 U.S. Census Bureau data

The same pattern prevails in every school division in Virginia with the exception of five small localities with large university populations in which the number of “poor” is skewed by the presence of college students. (To see the poverty gap for all Virginia school divisions, click here.)

Even with a fair amount of upward economic mobility — poor people lifting themselves out of the ranks of the poor — the tendency of the poorest women to bear more children at a younger age continues to fill up school houses with their poor progeny, with all the economic and cultural disadvantages they suffer. I subscribe to the idea that many school divisions could be doing a better job with the resources they have — the horror stories I could tell you about the City of Richmond school system! But the problem is bigger than bad schools, bad teachers or inadequate funding.

The question that should concern us all: Will the trend of schools filling up with poor children get better or worse over time?

Bonus question: What does this mean for the ongoing debate on the war on poverty? Does the persistence of widespread poverty in the U.S. represent a failure on the part of U.S. institutions to foster upward economic mobility? Or does it reflect the fact that poor people replenish their ranks faster than people can raise out of poverty?

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19 responses to “The Uphill Climb for Virginia Schools”

  1. The basic thrust of your blog is undeniable.

    but so is the fact that some schools and school systems in Va do quite well even with these disadvantageous demographics because they have effective programs for teaching the kinds of kids that come from these circumstances.

    The other table you should add is the one that has the things you have on this table but you show it for individual schools and then a column for SOL scores for the ED demographic.

    and if you did that – you’d see huge anomalies to your thesis – i.e. that the poverty demographic does not equate to a proportional lower academic performance.

    in other words – some schools do well at teaching this demographic – and some – the majority do not.

    you should already know the answer to your bonus question.

    and it goes like this – if you continue to deny that kids like these can be successfully educated – then the outcome is pre-ordained.

    You either get into the game of figuring out how to break this cycle – or you just slide off to the side and chatter in the peanut gallery.

    The economic well-being of Virginia is resting on this answer.

    We have a history of denying an education to blacks in Virginia and now we are creating a history of denying that we have to teach kids in poverty or else suffer the economic consequences.

    at some point – the folks on the right have to meet up with reality on this no matter their tendency to want to blame someone for the problem.

    get in the game or go sit down. Lead, follow or get the heck out of the way.

    we have work to do .. it’s laughable that we talk about what Virginia can do about economic development while at the same time asking if we should try to educate kids of the poor.

  2. Let me say again. There are some kids that are going to fail no matter what we do. That’s a reality.

    the question is – how many, what percent?

    and if the answer is – the percentage will vary – I’d like to know why.

    are we saying there are different kinds of poverty demographics and there is a range from “mild” to “profound” and that in turn determines the percentage that will fail at a given school?

    or you tell me – what explains the huge differences in SOL scores for similar demographics in different schools – sometimes in the same school district?

    For instance in Henrico – for the same black economically disadvantaged demographic there is a 20 point difference in SOL scores.. from 40% fail
    rates at one school to more than 60% at other schools.

    In other elementary schools in Va – you can find an 80% pass rate among economically disadvantaged blacks but in Henrico – apparently best they can achieve is a 60% pass rate and the worse is 40%.

    so my question is – how can you attribute these divergent results to a demographic?

    If some schools can pass the same numbers of blacks as whites for the same demographic – – what exactly explains the schools that have the gap and does that mean – there is nothing that can be done when some schools seem to have much smaller gaps?

    If you could show me – a constant percent of failure for the economically disadvantaged – no matter the geography, no matter the schools and school systems – you’d have a powerful argument to back up your thesis.

    but there is such huge disparities in the scores that it seems to make your thesis irrelevant at best – and problematical on a racial basis – at worst.

    we KNOW some kids will fail – no matter what. What is that percentage?

  3. Hamilton Lombard Avatar
    Hamilton Lombard

    I am a little less pessimistic about the demographic factor for a couple reasons:

    Lower income women have higher fertility rates in the U.S because they are typically younger. Teen and early 20’s pregnancy rates have plummeted since the recession began, while fertility rates for women above 35 (who typically earn more) have risen.

    If you look the distribution of economically disadvantaged students in VDOE data you can see they are concentrated in the lower grades, which means they are more likely to have young parents as well. But in the upper grades where the parents are likely older there is less of a concentration of low income students.

    Going forward with fewer teen and early 20’s parents, I would expect fewer children being raised while their parents incomes are still low.

    1. Women are the key. If we can convince them that teenage, out-of-wedlock birth is a ticket to poverty, if we can convince them to delay child-bearing until they have an education and are well established in the job market, that will make a big difference. We do seem to be making progress on that front, as teen births are steadily declining.

    2. You make excellent points – the teen birth rate has plummeted WHERE they have access to birth control and it’s no small coincidence that the folks on the right who complain the most about “culture”, single parent, education and entitlements – tend to also be the ones opposed to over-the-counter contraception even MedicAid-provided contraception.

      this is the problem I have… with the right these days.

      they are not focused on solutions. They are focused on what they say are their “principles” which end up being things like being opposed to entitlements and being opposed morning-after pill contraception for poor women… who are sexually active..

      Now we don’t know how Jim Bacon feels about the morning after pill but we do know that he’s lined up with other Conservatives on education.. and that’s a problem because they all vote the same way at elections – which basically is to further support a conservative agenda – that INCLUDES denying contraception to poor young women even if they want it.

      1. I don’t have a problem with the morning-after pill. And I don’t align with the cultural conservatives on many issues. Indeed, I would not be surprised if the libertarian and cultural-conservative wings of the Republican Party part ways in the not-too-distant future. I’ll be sticking with the libertarian wing.

        1. but you don’t speak out against it and separate yourself for those that do and at the same time you do align yourself with them on things like entitlements and vouchers.. etc…

          you’re in their herd … you run with that herd … you look like the others in that herd.. sometimes…

          and when that herd votes – you’re voting the same way…


        2. ” Colorado’s teen birth rate dropped 40% between 2009 and 2013, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment announced this week, in part due to a program that provides long-acting contraception to low-income women.
          Colorado’s Family Planning Initiative provided funding for 68 family clinics across the state to offer around 30,000 intrauterine devices and implants to young women at low or no cost. An IUD is a small T-shaped device that is inserted into the uterus by a doctor. They’re either wrapped in copper or contain hormones, which kill sperm and make the uterine lining too thin for egg implantation. Because IUDs stay in place for five to 10 years, they’re easier to comply with than taking daily birth control pills.”

          Now, Jim – I want you to show me that Conservatives have supported this approach… including you…

          1. I was unaware that the use of IUDs as a contraceptive was controversial (outside the Catholic Church). I can’t think of a single conservative in my acquaintance who has expressed a problem with IUDs. I *do* know conservatives who have supported the idea of birth control patches for poor women. Why would they not support IUDs?

          2. Haven’t heard a single GOP support a way to cut teen pregnancies and HAVE heard the pro-life and evangelicals – who vote GOP – oppose it

          3. Haven’t heard a single GOP support a way to cut teen pregnancies and reduce poverty and HAVE heard the pro-life and evangelicals – who vote GOP – oppose it

            how come we don’t hear it being advocated on the right as a way to reduce teen pregnancies, poverty and entitlements?

            the GOP does not advocate it because it would anger the evangelicals and catholics in their ranks.

            you say you don’t oppose it – why do you not advocate it like you would vouchers and such?

  4. Jim – you talk about “culture” but where is your passion on OTC birth control as part of the solutions?

    where have you trumpeted this at the same time you’re talking about single parents?

    “Colorado teen birthrate drops 40% with low-cost birth control”

    is this where we get down to what are “liberal” solutions verses “conservative” solutions?

  5. […] View Original: The Uphill Climb for Virginia Schools […]

  6. where is the support for birth control for single women as a way to put off having kids until they are older?

    not being opposed is not the same as having it up there with the other things that are advocated as a way to cut teen births and single parents.

    why advocate that young girls not have sex but not at the same time advocate birth control?

    show me one GOP that you know that advocates both….

  7. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    “they grow up in households where reading…academic achievement is not stressed.”

    We’ve been over this before. You’ve seen studies that say this isn’t true. Why do you persist in saying it with absolutely zero information backing it up?

    “What does this mean for the ongoing debate on the war on poverty?”

    What debate? The War on Poverty was given maybe 10 good years before the Reagan Revolution swept in and decided we weren’t going to be doing that any more. The block granting of aid to the states during the Clinton administration was pretty much the Democrats waving the white flag on fighting any more real battles of that war.

    “Does the persistence of widespread poverty in the U.S. represent a failure on the part of U.S. institutions to foster upward economic mobility?”


    “Or does is reflect the fact that poor people replenish their ranks faster than people can raise out of poverty?”

    No. The increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few means there is less for everyone else.

    “I subscribe to the idea that many school divisions could be doing a better job with the resources they have”

    Of course you do. Even in the face of rising amounts of poor children it’s just a matter of teachers doing more with less, right? And if anything arises that might lead one to the natural conclusion that spending some money to address the problem might help, quick, write a blog post about how it’s all just cultural (even though governmental programs have had success at changing cultural habits or they’re just breeding too quick (even though the US birth rate is at record lows, driven by births rates among the young and fertile dropping

    1. Fertility is indeed at an all-time low in the U.S. But fertility has fallen to a lower point for middle- and professional-class women than it has for low-income women, with the result that poor people still have more children, and students in public schools are disproportionately poor. Those are facts. We can discuss what those facts mean, but they are facts.

      “Just a matter of teachers doing more with less…” No, that’s not what I believe at all. Fall Line, you must be totally unacquainted with the private sector because successful private-sector companies stress productivity and innovation, introducing new technologies, management techniques and business models. Companies that fail to do so… fail. Schools that fail to do so…. ask for more money, with people like you blaming the problem on the lack of money… even though inflation-adjusted spending on education has increased dramatically over the decades, and the U.S. spends more per capita on education than European and Asian countries with much higher academic achievement levels.

      1. we spend money on a plethora things that European and Asian systems do not spend money on as they pretty much restrict spending to core competencies – which show up in their scores and their spending.

        we spend for all sorts of extra things that rightly are the responsibility of the parents not taxpayers and worse – the money does not get spent on core competencies not only of the economically disadvantaged but the college bound- who are beaten by the European and Asian schools that spend less than us because our kids avoid the real-world problem solving courses.. and gravitate towards things that look good on their college resumes..

        Our system of education has become perverted – and turned into something not really focused on academic rigor but bennies for the well-off college bound and screw those who are poor and disadvantaged accusing them of being culturally inferior…

        we ought to be ashamed but instead we’re so ignorant that we don’t even know better.

      2. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

        Your faith in the private sector is actually quite charming. But as someone who has worked in its bowels and seen that “stress productivity” almost universally means “yeah, this job used to be done by two or more people, but we’re not replacing them and you can work 60 hours now that you’re salaried.” Management techniques and business models are somewhat similar, throwing in “we’ll hire tech workers in batches on a rotating basis and then can them before the law requires us to actually hire them.” Raiding the pension has fallen out of fashion here recently, but that’s mostly because the smart companies innovated the great invention of having their workers figure their own retirement out. And, of course, that old standby of making sure any gains are reflected by the profit going primarily to those at the top, rather than the actual workers.

        I don’t think the problem is lack of money for the schools. I think the problems are various forms of structural inequality that money spent on the proper types of programs would help ameliorate so that when these kids show up at school they are mentally and physically ready to learn. Yes, there are European and Asian countries that spend less per capita on education, but where do they rank in terms of other social spending?

        1. the best school systems in the US – are Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland and Florida – all pay substantially more than Virginia does.

          In Virginia, we spend too much of what we do spend on things that are not core competencies -especially local discretionary money that goes for things the state does not require – and will not pay for.

          Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland and Florida invest more money for the core competencies – and the proof is that – Massachusetts scores about 7th in international comparisons.

          The best schools in the US do a better job with the economically disadvantaged and as a result to not have those scores dragging down the other scores – like is what is happening in Va. If you exclude the ED in Virginia – we score like Massachusetts, Florida and Maryland.. when you include ED – we drop to 10 or 11th or so.

          and in Virginia – our ED are primarily the kids with poorly-educated parents – from generations of poor-educated families – that date from Massive Resistance… we’re still seeing the effects of that – generations later and we’re still blaming it on “culture” whereas other states have managed to shed that canard and get on with the job and stop blaming unions and ‘culture’.

          Jim has become yet another “denier”, now an education denier.

          he continues to “believe” that despite the wide disparities between schools in academic performance is due to “culture”.. not the school and that there is no fix – because you can’t “fix” …”culture”

          I think you can fix this and you can fix it without more money by assuring that schools with heavy ED demographics do get skilled and experienced staff not brand new newbies out of college.

          it’s a question of how you allocate and prioritize your existing resources.

          we need to incentivize the teaching positions for the disadvantaged.

          If we can pay stipends for sports coaches and bands and AP/IB and the like why can’t stipends be paid for academic coaches and specialists for the needs of ED?

          And we need to make free removable IUDs for young women so they can delay their childbearing …

          and we need to stop blaming culture and teacher “unions” and get on with the job that we must do if we are going to reduce the damage to the economy and taxes for entitlements.

          the problem with the right – is they are all about ideology and “principles” and nothing about pragmatic solutions.. they bill themselves as fiscal conservatives but their actions these days on actual issues is all talk, gridlock and even vandalism .. of govt functions and institutions.

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