Can Poor Children Learn?

Published November 1, 1999

Statistics show that most of America’s public schools are failing the very children most in need of an education springboard to success: children from low-income families.

Although many educators blame this lack of accomplishment on the children, their families, or inadequate funding, a new Heritage Foundation report provides compelling evidence that poverty is no excuse for failure, and that children from all income levels can excel.

Nationally, almost 60 percent of low-income fourth-graders cannot read. Two-thirds of inner-city eighth-graders cannot do basic math. The performance of African-American and Hispanic seniors in high school is equal to that of white seniors in junior high school. Schools with more than 75 percent low-income students typically score in the bottom third in national exams.

Yet there are hundreds of schools across the country serving low-income minority students and producing outstanding academic results. How can these schools succeed where so many others fail?

Earlier this year, Samuel Casey Carter, a Bradley Fellow at The Heritage Foundation, interviewed more than 100 principals of schools that scored in the top one-third in national exams but where more than 75 percent of the students came from low-income families. The schools were in typical inner-city neighborhoods and often drew from the same pool of students as neighboring public schools that were failing.

Carter observed seven common traits among the principals of successful schools:

Freedom to act. Effective principals are free to make their own decisions on spending, hiring, and what to teach.

Focus on tangible goals. High_performing schools focus on measurable, tangible goals: calculus by twelfth grade, or all students working above grade level.

Master teachers. Teacher quality, not seniority, is the key to improving overall student achievement.

Testing, testing, testing. Regular testing enforces a school’s goals.

Discipline through self-control. Schools teach by example that self_control, self_reliance, and self_esteem are the means to successful achievement.

Establish parental support. Effective principals extend the mission of the school into the home by teaching parents to read to their children and check homework.

Effort creates ability. Good principals demand that their students work hard and permit promotion only when mastery is clearly demonstrated.

“Nothing here is beyond the reach of any school in America,” says Carter. “Outstanding principals know that all children can excel academically regardless of race, income level, or family background. But if we are to see more such high-performing schools, we need to stop making excuses for failure.”

Carter’s study is not the only one to show that high-poverty schools can excel. Earlier this year, the Education Trust surveyed 366 such schools in 21 states for its report, “Dispelling the Myth: High Poverty Schools Exceeding Expectations.” Also, eight of the 20 top-scoring schools in last year’s Kentucky state assessment were high-poverty schools.

For more information …

Samuel Casey Carter’s 36-page report, No Excuses: Seven Principals of Low_Income Schools Who Set the Standard for High Achievement, is available for $5.00 from The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20002, phone 202/546-4400. Further information on high-performing high-poverty schools is also available on the Internet at