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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Poverty Matters, But Not the Way You Think

By Peter DeWitt — October 06, 2016 5 min read
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Poverty plays a part in many schools. This is not a shocker. Some schools have a low poverty rate, but that doesn’t always mean that it isn’t an issue. There are times that those students who come from poverty, as small as that number may be for more affluent schools, suffer from the low expectations of those adults around them. This is the “he has so much working against him” attitude.

Poverty for schools is not a new issue. Jonathon Kozol wrote about this in Savage Inequalities, and Richard Rothstein wrote about it in Class and Schools, as have many writers and researchers. Although many have researched and written about it doesn’t mean it’s less of an issue, because poverty still negatively impacts schools.

For most of my eleven years as a teacher I worked in two schools (consecutively) that had a high level of poverty. I was consumed by reading Rethinking Schools and making sure my classroom accurately reflected the students who entered into the classroom. As a guy who struggled in school and did not grow up in a family with a lot of money, I thought I understood poverty. I didn’t. What I did start to understand is how tough some of our students have it, but I never wanted that to mean they weren’t going to do great things in life.

The SES Impact
John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, wrote about the effects of poverty in his best selling book Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement (Routledge). Hattie’s research, which he wrote about in the book, collected meta-analysis from developed countries from around the world. In the original research he found 138 influences on learning, and each influence came with an effect size (.40 represents a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input), which stemmed from the meta-analysis he collected.

In Visible Learning, Hattie writes that socioeconomic status has .57 effect on learning, which means it can have a profound impact on learning - students clearly do not leave poverty or rich home resources outside the school gate. What the .57 potentially tells us is that the wealthier the students, the more of a positive effect it has on their learning. We know that in most cases those wealthier students have more resources available to them, their parents are typically well-educated and understand the language of school, and their schools are usually better equipped to help meet their needs.

Hattie also found that the higher the poverty rate, the harder it is to adequately meet the needs of students. What Hattie writes though, is that a lower socioeconomic status alone does not have a negative impact on students. It has a much more negative effect on their schools and parents...and then on them.

Socioeconomic Status and Schools
Most parents begin with positive aspirations when their children enter kindergarten, but Hattie writes that by the time the children living in poverty leave elementary school, their parents aspirations for them have lowered. Why is this? Hattie writes, “Many parents struggle to comprehend the language of learning and thus are disadvantaged in the methods they use to encourage their children to attain their expectations (p.61).”

As the years of elementary school progress, impoverished parents feel less and less engaged in school, which is harmful because their children are entering school with a lower level of vocabulary than their wealthier peers. Hattie wrote, “Hart and Risley (1995) showed when students from lower SES groups start school, they have on average, spoken about 2.5 million words, whereas from higher groups have spoken 4.5 million words (p.62).” And the higher are exposed to 30 million words more than lower by the time they start school.

But why is this more impactful to schools and parents than their children?

Hattie goes on to write,

SES is more important at the school than at the individual level, and for parents more than for their children. This raises the question of the notion of adequacy of funding at the school level-that is, the sufficiency of resources for optimal academic achievement rather than equity, which usually means smoothing the differential resources at the student or family level but not acknowledging the increased level of problems and issues faced by schools teaching students from poorer backgrounds (p.63)."

Issues like social-emotional learning, school climate, and curriculum that addresses the needs of minoritized populations. School climate is not just about how students feel when they enter school but how parents feel as well.

Hattie writes,

One of the ways this influence is manifested is that schooling introduces a language and set of cultural norms with which many parents, particularly those from lower SES families, are not familiar (p. 63). Clinton, Hattie and Dixon (2007) "found major consequences when teaching parents the language of schooling."

Hattie is referring to the Flaxmere Project, which was a five year, five school study completed in New Zealand that included the lowest SES schools in the country. According to Hattie, “The Flaxmere Project involved a series of innovations related to improving home-school relations within and between these five schools.” One of the innovations was to hire former teachers as home-school liaisons, and those liaisons taught parents:


  • The language of schooling
  • How to assist their children to attend and engage in learning
  • Learn how to speak with teachers and school personnel

According to Hattie,

The Flaxmere study found that, when children started school 98% of the parents considered that education was very or extremely important to their children's future. Two-thirds of these parents expected their children to attain diplomas and degrees. By the time they left elementary school, these aspirations had been dowsed and parents mainly wanted their children to get a job (Clinton et al., 2007)."

So, as we already know, if we want to reach the students we also have to make an effort to reach parents. Perhaps this means getting a home-school liaison to help engage parents, but it also means addressing the way we talk with parents. It means that we have to:

Drop the Education Lingo - We need to either teach the parents what the words or acronyms mean (every profession has acronyms) or we have to drop the educational lingo and acronyms to better engage the parents.

Adjust expectations - I never really liked the “High expectations” movement because it got too political. However, we do need to focus on helping students exceed the expectations they or their parents have for themselves, which means that we do have to have higher expectations for them, regardless of what family they come from. This happens in rural, urban and suburban settings.

Provide adequate resources - Make sure that schools have adequate resources to add at least a year’s growth for a year’s input NO matter where the child starts, and ensure that teachers, parents and students know how to use them.

Respect the contributions from home - Hattie’s research found that the home environment has a .57 effect size, which means that we have to engage all parents, regardless of whether they live in poverty or not, and that parental involvement has an effect size of .51, so we should make sure that we are talking with them about learning instead of talking at them about behavior. Sometimes we need to teach the parents the language of learning so we are all working together to encourage and help students exceed what they think is their potential.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (September, 2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.

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