Education Opinion

Poverty and Achievement

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 28, 2014 3 min read
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Poverty can be clearly identified as a contributing factor in the achievement gap. Over time, schools’ responses to students living in poverty have included early childhood intervention, education for parents, breakfast and lunch programs, academic intervention programs, full day kindergartens and so on. But the gap remains. Standardized test results hold up a mirror that reflects this unchanged fact: students living in poverty are not improving enough in their achievement to narrow and close the gap. The 2013 NAEP results reveal since 1998, scores in math and reading have improved, but not for all students. “The disparity between races and economic classes remain.”

Measuring implementation of the Common Core Standards and using standardized tests as part of teacher evaluation, has upped the ante and released a distain and disrespect for the results from inside educational circles. In spite of the current discourse about the value of these tests, when it comes to information about our students living in poverty, these results are consistent and they are a call for action.

In order to meet the challenge of having all students leave schools college and career ready, the poverty achievement gap must be addressed. The New York State Education Department reported for the 2012-2013 school year, the Schenectady City School District in upstate New York had 77% of the students eligible for free and reduced lunch. Needless to say, Larry Spring, the Superintendent of that district, is focused on poverty and its impact on the children and their educational success. In a recent NYASCD article, he offered 10 intentional steps that can help to offset the effects of poverty on students.

  1. Make efforts to understand student contexts according to the four variables of poverty - family/neighborhood, intensity, length of time, and frequency of poverty in their neighborhood.
  2. Look at aberrant student behavior not through the lens of “what’s wrong with you?” but instead with the lens of “What happened to you?”
  3. Identify an individual in the school to work with social service agencies to coordinate services and treatment objectives
  4. Recognize that until students suffering from PTSD feel safe, most attempts to treat them are actually re-traumatizing them - create safe space for them
  5. Create predictable routines, expectations and responses
  6. Allocate appropriate resources to mental health needs - mental illness is still dramatically under-diagnosed due to stigma and lack of understanding
  7. Address food insecurity through breakfast in the classroom and Community Eligibility Provisions
  8. Work to engage parents not just with school, but also to help organize the neighborhood environment
  9. Keep close tabs on the progress of these students - frequent assessments so that instructors can keep an eye on their “aim-line”
  10. Closely monitor student “moves” and put supports in place anytime a child changes residency.

Poverty exists in almost every school district. For some, it is an overwhelming reality, and, for others, poverty remains hidden in a corner pocket. Yet, in a nation where public schools were birthed with determination to serve the children of the poor, a solution for the gap poverty creates remains elusive.

Race, when coupled with poverty presents an even more complex challenge. It appears we are making some progress but the gap remains “hefty.”

...And while hefty divides continue to separate white and Asian students from their African-American, Latino, and American Indian peers, there is a bright spot: The gains at the national level were largely driven by improvements among Hispanic and African-American students. (EdWeek’s 2014 Diplomas Count)

These types of improvements do not happen without attention to the data and hard work within classrooms and schools. But could this also mean that our efforts to close the gap will succeed along racial lines before socio-economic ones?

From our previous post on the achievement gap:

The majority of students who achieve and enroll in higher-level math and science courses are from middle and upper income families and they are white. Schools in higher income areas have higher graduation rates and our cities, where there are large minority populations, have much lower graduation rates. We don’t need any more data to tell us what we already know.

There is a direct link between our democracy and public education. That linkage has fueled our place at the table of nations and made us the “land of opportunity”. But, around the edges worry lines are showing. We are separating by class; that gap is in our economy, our society and our schools. If it cannot be solved, a generation of learners is at risk and, yes, so much more as well.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.