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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

By Peter DeWitt — November 30, 2011 5 min read
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“It’s no cop-out to acknowledge the effects of socioeconomic disparities on student learning. Rather, it’s a vital step to closing the achievement gap.” Richard Rothstein

In our present economic climate, where it seems that politicians are completely disconnected from the people who voted for them, schools have a serious issue with poverty. It doesn’t matter whether it is a rural, urban or suburban school district; the number of students living in poverty is rising, which can be devastating to their education.

There is a great deal of research which indicates that poverty can severely effect a child’s education. Poverty has an effect on the social, emotional and physiological make-up of children which all directly effect the academic progress a student can make in school.

“Children growing up in poverty demonstrate lower academic achievement because of their exposure to a wide variety of risks. These risks, in turn, build upon one another to elevate levels of chronic (and toxic) stress within the body” (Evans et al. 2011, p.22).

Given an increase in mandates and the increased pressure from high stakes testing, children who come from impoverished households are held to the same standard of their wealthier peers. Considering these students begin school, not to mention life, at a disadvantage, holding students to the same standard when they lack the same experiences and resources seems unfair. If we are going to hold these students to the same standard than we must provide them with better resources for learning.

“Social and economic disadvantage contributes in important ways to poor student achievement. Children in poor health attend quality schools less regularly. Those with inadequate housing change schools frequently, disrupting not only their own educations but those of their classmates. Children whose parents are less literate and whose homes have less rich intellectual environments enter school already so far behind that they rarely can catch up” (Rothstein, “A Nation At Risk” Twenty-Five Years Later).

Although there are students being raised in impoverished households that may be able to perform at a high level; educators know that there are far more students who cannot compete and those teachers in the trenches are working hard to make sure that their students do not get left behind.

Some schools lack resources such as paper and pencils and they have a high concentration of impoverished students which puts them at the greatest disadvantage. If a student living in poverty happens to attend a school with great resources, they are a bit more fortunate because the school may have the means to help them. However, many students living in poverty are at risk to move to different schools because they are transient, which negatively affects any school experience.

Given this sad reality, what can schools do to help meet the needs of this impoverished student population? Is poverty one more element working against schools? When children are unsure where their next meal is coming from it is very hard to make school the priority. Many educators are empathetic to the needs of this at risk student population and understand they are still responsible for their education.

How Poverty Effects Academic Performance
“On average, professional parents spoke over 2,000 words per hour to their children, working class parents spoke about 1,300, and welfare mothers spoke about 600. So by age 3, children of professionals had vocabularies that were nearly 50% greater than those of working-class children and twice as large as those of welfare children” (Rothstein, 2004, p. 28).

Many children who come from impoverished homes have a serious disadvantage from their wealthier peers. Without books at home, these students are lacking enriching literacy experiences. They lack exposure to educational experiences such as trips to a museum or cultural events. If they are attending a high poverty school they are less likely to be exposed to any of these important educational opportunities.

High stakes testing was always viewed as a way to help highlight the inequalities in education. However, high stakes testing has not helped these students. Educators in poor schools already understand that their students are not afforded the same education that their wealthier peers are receiving. This information has been around longer than high stakes testing has been in existence.

In order for impoverished students to be given a fair chance in education, they must be exposed to high quality health care, high quality child care and a high quality education (Rothstein). Many educators know that many of these at risk students do not go to the doctor because they cannot afford it, or their parents cannot take the time off of work to bring them. Therefore, these students who come to school sick are often sent to the nurse’s office, because that is the only health care they may experience.

What Can Educators Do
“One of the tragedies of the ideology of public education is that educators only think of themselves as educators. There may not be a lot that administrators and teachers can do in their roles as administrators and teachers but nobody understands these problems better than educators and I think because of that they have an obligation to be more active in the public realm.” Richard Rothstein (DeWitt. Vanguard. P.16)

The reality is that educators are in the trenches seeing more and more students come from impoverished households. They work hard to meet the needs of their students regardless of the circumstances working against them.

However, educators cannot do it alone. They need to speak up and speak out about the growing number students that are living in poverty. Clearly, public protests such as that of Occupy Wall Street is a perfect example of people who are tired of seeing the unemployment rates rise and the inequalities in wealth and how it is distributed from school district to school district.

Educators need to be able to tell the story of their students who seem to lack a voice. Parent groups, educators and politicians must find ways to help impoverished parents find better resources for their children. Standing up and speaking out is difficult but it is the only time the voices of the students may ever be heard.

DeWitt, Peter (2009) Class and Schools: A Conversation with Richard Rothstein. Vanguard Magazine. School Administrators Association of New York State. Evans, Gary W., Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Pamela Kato Klebanov (2011). Stressing Out the Poor: Chronic Physiological Stress and the Income-Achievement Gap. Pathways. Stanford University. Rothstein, Richard. (2008). Whose Problem is Poverty? Educational Leadership. Volume 65/ Number 7. Arlington, VA. Rothstein, Richard. (2008) Essay: A Nation at Risk 25 Years Later. Cato Institute. Washington D.C.


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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.