Monday, July 1, 2013

It's the Poverty, Stupid! Why Ignoring it Won't Solve Our Education Problems

Originally published by emPower Magazine on July 18, 2012

 Educational reformers have focused on teacher quality and more testing as answers to solving the country’s educational problems. Reformers such as Education Secretary Arne Duncan, former Chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools Michelle Rhee, and even President Obama have focused on improving teacher quality in an effort to raise test scores.

 “Building on the framework for reform endorsed by Obama and Duncan, self-appointed reformers—including Joel Kline, Michelle Rhee, Paul Vallas, and many others—directly announced an education reform manifesto that asserted: ‘As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income – it is the quality of their teacher'."

 But the results of numerous studies have shown us time after time that poverty can have a profound effect on educational achievement. Of course teacher quality is important, but how can teachers be expected to overcome the devastating effects of poverty? Often they do, but sometimes they cannot and then they are blamed for failing students. Teachers make an easy scapegoat for those who choose to ignore the effects of poverty, but blaming teachers will not help our children. So let’s take a minute to examine why poverty matters and what we can do about it.

 A child born into a poor home will likely hear 8 million fewer words a year or less than 30 million words by the time the child is four, compared to children born into wealthy families. This literacy gap has been identified by researchers as one of the major factors that contribute to the achievement gap. So you might be wondering what does poverty have to do with reading to your child? If a parent chooses not to read to their child it’s their choice. But the truth is books cost money and poverty can prevent a parent from closing the literacy gap. If a parents works 16 hours a day at two jobs how likely are they to come home and read to their child for 30 minutes or take him or her to the library? How likely is a parent to purchase a book for their child when they cannot afford food or medicine? Poverty effects a parent’s ability to provide resources to their child and time can be the biggest resource that poverty impacts. Working parents have less time to read and talk to their child than wealthy parents.

Once the child enters school, the gap often widens. Children who would benefit from tutoring or after school care are often the ones who cannot afford it. Poverty has been found to affect academic achievement in many areas.

 “Simple comparisons between children in poor families and children in non-poor families using national datasets indicate that poor children are more likely to do worse on indices of school achievement than non-poor children are. Poor children are twice as likely as non-poor children to have repeated a grade, to have been expelled or suspended from school, or to have dropped out of high school. They are also 1.4 times as likely to be identified as having a learning disability in elementary or high school than their non-poor counterparts. A study called “The Impact of Family Income on Child Achievement” (by Gordon Dahl and Lance Lochner) measured the consequences of growing up poor for a child’s math and reading achievement: a $1,000 increase in parental income raises math test scores by 2.1 percent and reading test scores by 3.6 percent.” — Joel Shatzky wrote in the Huffington Post

 Poverty can have a negative impact on academic achievement. If we are to improve educational outcomes for all children we must understand that poverty is a problem. So why do we ignore poverty? I think there are two reasons: 1) many children who are born into poverty do very well academically so it is easy to believe that poverty does not matter, and 2) many believe that poverty is a result of personal choices and it is not the responsibility of the government to improve the lives of poor people.

 I am a perfect example of the first reason. I was raised in a family of five children by a single mother who was an immigrant in this country. We relied on welfare, low-income housing, and Medicaid to survive. But I have always done well in school, graduating with honors, earning a bachelor’s degree in education, and pursing a doctoral degree. So it would appear that poverty did not prevent me from achieving academic success. Or was I able to achieve academic success despite poverty? I would argue for the latter because I took advantage of many programs that helped me excel despite my meager beginnings. Programs like Head Start, Upward Bound, and the Ronald E. McNair Post Baccalaureate Achievement program contributed to my academic success. Without these programs there is no telling where I might have ended up and I qualified for these programs because I was poor. Poverty does not determine what kind of life a child will have but it can pose severe obstacles to achieving academic success if steps are not taken to alleviate its negative effects.

 I often hear that people are poor because they fail to try hard. Successful people work hard and earn their success so if people are poor then they obviously chose not to work hard. If this were true then the poor women in the Sub-Saharan Africa who work 16-20 hours a day doing back breaking work in extreme heat would be the richest people in the world. Hard work does not always equal success. Being born into wealth makes it easier to be successful. And being poor does not mean you do not work hard. The idea that we live in a meritocracy where people get ahead based on their merit is a fallacy that fails to account for intergenerational transfers of wealth and poverty. Wealthy parents pass on wealth to their children and poor parents pass on poverty to theirs. Personal choices do play a part in the success a person achieves, but blaming poor people for being poor is like blaming a cancer patient for being sick.

The truth is poverty affects every aspect of education.

 “According to the National Center of Education Statistics, all of the wealthiest school districts spend far more per pupil than the national average. The Darien, Conn., public school district spends $15,433 per student per year, more than 50% above the U.S. average of $10,591. The Edgemont, N.Y., public school spends more than $25,000 per student annually. Barbourville, Ky., the poorest school district, spends less than one-third that amount.” — 24/7 Wall Street

 The fact that wealthy school districts spend thousands more to educate their children than poor districts is a testament to how money can influence academic achievement. School funding, teacher placement, resources, and even school buildings are all affected by the level of income within the community. Until we stop funding schools based on property taxes we will continue to have a system where wealthy kids get better schools than poor kids.

Those of us who know how devastating poverty can be to a child’s education often feel like screaming, “It’s the poverty stupid!” to every reformer who thinks more tests and less tenure for teachers are the answers. If we want to improve educational achievement then we must address the severe poverty that many of American children experience.

 What We Can Do

 Here are a few suggestions on how to ensure that all children achieve academic success regardless of whether they were lucky enough to be born into wealth:

1. Universal preschool for all children.
2. Paid maternity leave for all parents so they can stay home with their child for the first 18 months.
3. Equitable school funding that ensures the schools with the most need get the most money.
4. Free quality after school care for all children.
5. Additional funding for programs that help lift children out of poverty such as Head Start, Upward Bound, and other TRIO programs.


  1. I do not believe being born poor impacts your ability to learn. I think the institutions that take the children away from the parents, demanding they work excessive hours for little pay, thus ensuring children do not get the nurture they need to thrive has a larger impact. I do not believe universal preschool for all children should ever happen. Children in Finland don't even begin school until age 7, yet they surpass our education levels severely. Their families do not suffer the same poverty challenges because they have strong social safety nets that do not endanger the children to ineffective nurture during the formative years. What we need is so much bigger than what you propose. We don't need more daycares. We need more stable social realities. We need more nurturing school environments - not more corporate run environments that disregard the humans involved. The student voice needs to be heard. They cannot be objects tossed around for discussion by adults who obviously haven't figured it out or we wouldn't be fighting. I do agree on the paid maternity leave. America is the only first world country that gives nothing to new mothers. I have personally not taken more than 3 days off after giving birth with all 3 of my children. My oldest suffered the greatest consequences of this having to be in daycares from the time he was 6 months old. This lack of nurture in the daycares and then further lack of nurture in the schools pushed them to blame his behavior on lack of ability to focus or conform so they mandated drugging and labeling. When we can finally stop thinking about the adult realities, and start thinking about the child's realities, we might actually find a solution.

  2. You might not think we need universal preschool but for poor, single mothers, they cannot be expected to give their child a good head start without free high quality child care. Until we deal with the effects of poverty we need to counter them and we do that by giving children all the tools poverty deprives them of. That includes universal preschool. Finland does not begin school until age 7 but that doesn't mean that children do not have access to preschool especially for working parents. Universal preschool does not mean mandated preschool. It means all children who want and need preschool will have the access to it for free. If you don't want to enroll your child in preschool then don't but other parents might want it and need it and they should have access to it. We might need more than what I propose but we also need some where to start. And the reality is that poverty is an issue we must deal with. I don't know if you grew up poor so you might not know how it can impact your learning but when you are worrying about where your next meal will come from or where you will sleep at night it might be a bit difficult to focus on math and reading. Poverty can impact learning in many ways. This does not mean that children are not resilient to overcome the effects of poverty but to deny the effects because you may or may not experienced it does nothing to help children who are living in poverty today.

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