Perkins Elementary School in Logan Heights on March 14, 2023.
Perkins Elementary School in Logan Heights on March 14, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Like the imp crouched on the chest of a sleeping woman in Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting “The Nightmare,” poverty hangs heavy over nearly every quality-of-life issue in America. From life expectancy to mental health issues to even Covid death rates, income plays an outsized role in just about every aspect of a person’s life. 

In few places is the effect of poverty on people’s lives clearer than in education – which in a cruel symmetry is also one of the outlets for alleviating poverty. 

“The evidence is overwhelming,” said Stephen Krashen, emeritus professor of education at the University of Southern California. “Poverty is probably the biggest factor (in student outcomes) – period.” 

Because test scores are so inextricably linked to poverty levels, we created a metric for our Parents Guide to San Diego Schools that attempts to control test scores for income level, to give parents a better understanding of how schools are performing relative to their poverty level. 

Yet after years grappling with these connections, San Diego Unified has made little, if any, progress closing the gap. In the years since the Covid-19 pandemic, the relationship seems to have only grown tighter. 

San Diego Unified board member Cody Petterson, whose coastal subdistrict is home to some of the district’s wealthier neighborhoods, said even there test scores clearly fluctuate with property values.  

“It’s very stark,” Petterson said. “It’s crazy that Zillow could be your most accurate benchmark in terms of (who) meets and exceeds (standards on tests).” 

San Diego Unified leaders have touted their commitment to equity and promised a student’s ZIP code isn’t their destiny. But sadly, a student’s ZIP code still does seem to be an outsized determining factor in their success. 

This isn’t just a San Diego Unified issue. Both nationally and at San Diego Unified, offered solutions have broadly failed to ensure students in high-poverty schools don’t fall behind.  

Above are a pair of scatter plot charts showing the relationship between test scores at San Diego Unified schools and the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced price meals – an imperfect metric for judging poverty rates at a school, but the best one we have.  

The schools are colored by which high school cluster they’re located in, school jargon for which high school each of the elementary or middle schools feed into. The chart is also interactive. Hover over the dots to see more information about each school, or click on the dots in the legend at the top to remove clusters. 

Countywide, the trend remains, and even tightens somewhat. In chart after chart, as the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced priced meals increases, test scores decrease. 

“What helps you to close the achievement gap, and what is actually now showing success in reducing learning loss from the pandemic, are the same interventions that affluent parents are always providing their children with,” Petterson said. That includes tutoring, enrichment activities like music and arts, and a robust supply of easily accessible books, Petterson said.  

For Krashen, whose research focuses on children’s ability to learn to read, a well-stocked school library plays a significant role in evening the gap in English scores. “Libraries are really big stuff, in my opinion, because that’s what makes things equal for kids who have money and kids who don’t,” he said. 

Income isn’t just tied to straightforward outcomes like test scores, it also influences other educational factors like chronic absenteeism – when students miss at least 10 percent of instructional days in a year.  

Many of the San Diego Unified schools with the highest levels of chronic absenteeism are in some of the areas with the lowest levels of median income. Seven of the 15 schools with the highest rates of chronic absenteeism are clustered in a single ZIP code, which also happens to be the ZIP code with the lowest level of median income in the entire county. Of the 10 schools there, all but one have levels of chronic absenteeism higher than the district average. 

The correlation between chronic absenteeism and the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced price meals persists with very little variation when expanded countywide.  

“None of us should be surprised by the fact that any kind of crisis that affects people across the community, across the region is going to be most intensely experienced by the people who have suffered the worst impacts of racism, economic inequality, the housing crisis, everything that affects our families,” said San Diego Unified board member Richard Barrera. 

Petterson said he’s committed improving the experiences of students within the walls of San Diego Unified campuses, but he also thinks the work doesn’t end when the school bell rings. 

“This is in some very fundamental way also civil rights work,” he said. “It means looking for the sources of inequality where they are, and the fact that some may lay outside of the walls of our campuses does not mean (we should say) ‘Oh, yeah, that’s outside.’” 

Eradicating generations of inequity that have been so fully integrated into our society is akin to unbaking a cake. Closing the yawning gaps borne from those inequities will require big commitments and comprehensive approaches. 

Although San Diego Unified has committed to comprehensive approaches, talking about policy solutions has never been the district’s problem. 

Jakob McWhinney

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter. He can be reached by email at and followed...

Join the Conversation


  1. I think that these disparities in achievement will continue until students are placed at the forefront of all educational decisions. If we genuinely want to even the playing field, then we cannot keep placing political ideologies ahead of students.

  2. I absolutely agree that the achievement gap is real. However, the article doesn’t explore how the link between poverty and education is bi-directional. For example, it is also true that households that are low income are also less likely to include adults who have graduated from college or even high school. Thus, it’s not entirely surprising that a child growing up in a family where their parents/guardians have not held education as a priority for themselves might not necessarily have the same expectations for education as a child growing up with college-educated parents/guardians. In fact, there is a notable exception to the link between low-income households and student outcomes: Asian children whose (frequently, immigrant) families stress education as their children’s tickets out of poverty.

    I also agree that talk is cheap. Historically, SDUSD has put the needs of adults above those of students (especially when it comes to collective bargaining) and hasn’t made the effort to really ascertain instructional best practices. At least SDUSD leaders now appear to acknowledge there is a problem. But actions speak louder than words, and a radical change SDUSD’s standard operating procedures will be needed to actually reduce disparities between student populations.

  3. It looks like my previous comment did not post. I know that all parents want their kids to do well in school, but not everyone can afford tutoring, camps, etc. We need to make sure that the funds go the kids; I’m astonished at how much is spent on local, state, and federal administration with terrible results decade after decade.

  4. Unfortunately this correlation between family income and student achievement has been the case for a long time. I began teaching in SDUSD in 1962 and that was a prime topic of conversation in what was then a rapidly growing district. This same correlation exists throughout the USA, it’s not strictly a San Diego problem. Unfortunately it gets lost in the attention to racial injustice. As the economic gap rises between the rich and poor the achievement gap rises – go back to any post-WWII time frame and compare the wealth gap to education achievement gap.

Leave a comment
We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.