Poverty and Education: Solutions?

Poverty affects education.  It affects test scores.  It affects teacher and student motivation.  It is related to just about every possible negative life outcome you could imagine.  In the US, about one-quarter of our children are raised in poverty,  the same percentage of students drop out of school without diplomas.

These figures are an outrage.  Still, much of the school reform efforts actively ignore the research on poverty in education.  They focus instead on test scores and gaps between high scores and low scores within a building. Teachers are being held accountable for these gaps.  Some are losing their jobs.  Having tried to fight  the effects of poverty in highly segregated areas, others are exhausted, dispirited and have quit.  Politicians cannot even say the “P” word, let alone address the effects systemically.  And so the fingers point to the people on the front-line.  Everyone wants an answer but they are looking in the wrong places.

Educators around the globe engaged in a Twitter chat with the hashtag:  educhat.  This is a once weekly event.  Yesterday’s topic was:  If it is the poverty gap that is the major force stalling improvement in the American education system, how do we address that issue?

The majority belief emerged:

  1. Poverty is not an excuse:
  2. Teachers must pull up bootstraps and teach well

This belief set is certainly vital and adaptive.  I think it is a given that good teaching is a must.  But there is more.

Frequency, Intensity, Place

It would seem that your beliefs would vary, depending on your experience.  If you are from an economically and racially diverse community you may not feel the same way a teacher in the inner city does.  Having a few kids in your class with high needs is different than having the majority of your kids with high needs.  Your typical classroom in a racially and economically segregated area that has a high % of families living in poverty will include large class sizes and children with immense needs.

This we know:

Children from poor families do worse than kids from middle-class and wealthy families; children do better if their mother has a college degree, and overall, children of all ethnicities and races do better in schools with less than 25 percent of the student population from low-income families.

There is plenty of research suggesting that students of color are disciplined more harshly than their white peers.  

A cultural shift from zero-tolerance policies is needed in our schools. One research-based alternative, known as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), is gaining momentum among educators as a way to improve overall school climates, as well as academic performance, while keeping children in the classroom. PBIS has been successfully used in both urban and rural school districts and in districts with high and low concentrations of poverty.

Implementation of PBIS is a key provision in several class action settlements reached between the SPLC and school districts in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida. The results have been promising. For example, two years after PBIS was implemented throughout the Jefferson Parish, La., school district, the out-of-school suspension rate for special education students was cut in half. Out-of-school suspensions for general education students dropped 24 percent after the first year.

PBIS implementation is just one of the ways we’re working to ensure that all children have access to a quality education. We’ve also launched campaigns to address the use of alternative schools to warehouse students and deny them the educational services to which they are entitled. In addition, we work to ensure that youths most likely to be pushed out of school receive individualized support to increase their chances of graduating, to address racial disparities in school discipline practices and to increase parental engagement in the formation of school discipline policies and practices.

Current attempts at reform, focusing on test scores and charter schools, are short-sighted.  More importantly, they miss the core issues and leave many kids behind.  Additionally, housing policy in most communities encourages the economic segregation that causes pockets of unmanageable distress.  Solving small problems is different than solving huge, pervasive problems.

My belief is that the answer is “both/and”, not “either/or”.  With the economic re-segregation and enormous gaps between the haves and have-nots, the job of “overcoming the debilitating effects of poverty” is going to take more than just good teaching.  Note:  I did not say that good teaching wasn’t needed.  In fact, I suspect NOBODY has ever said that in education.  That is always expected.  Instead, we need to look past that  and out into the school community as there is much evidence that good teaching is not enough for the long haul.

Until we pair good teaching in economically diverse neighborhoods with the kind of comprehensive support that Nelson and Canada are providing in Chicago and Harlem, we will be placing band-aids on deep wounds.  And anyone who has skinned their knee knows:

band-aids don’t last after the first bath.


7 thoughts on “Poverty and Education: Solutions?

  1. We all understand that “poverty” is one expression of ethical failure in our culture. That aside (I’m pretending that I’m a Republican here…): what practical (read “profitable”) advantage is there in a culture in which all of us have reasonable access to; a level of wealth which supports our fundamental needs, and to “Opportunity”?

  2. Assume that there’s “one pot of money”, so to speak. Assume education costs money and that people who are “educated” tend to make more money. So…….you own the pot of money. How happy are you going to be to share it in significant ways?……..remind you of anyone?

      • “……educated society benefits everyone.” Those of us who favor an inclusive democratic society believe that. The 1% don’t, for the most part, and they’re right. They don’t get to keep as much money/power in an inclusive society. Education is empowerment.

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