For the millionth time: the conditions poverty creates affect academic achievement

Is it true that great teachers can inspire even the most troubled students?  Absolutely. Is it true that great teachers can help such students achieve academic success?  Certainly.  Is it important that all students have great teachers?  Of courseNobody argues these things.

But what people do argue is the extent to which poverty affects student performance in school (even though there’s much research which documents the correlation between socioeconomic status and test scores)—and, perhaps more importantly, the extent to which teachers themselves can overcome the devastating affects poverty has on the children in their classrooms.

In the current climate of education reform, where the most sweeping changes to education policy are dictated by billionaires, corporations, and other non-educators who know nothing of the actual children who populate America’s classrooms, one thing is for sure: something needs to change—because education policy based on blind ignorance and political and financial agendas hurts children.

So maybe the problem here is semantics, because there’s something so obvious that corporate reformers are failing to acknowledge—mostly because acknowledging it would ruin the foundation of the case for “reform” they make–and it’s this. Children aren’t always concerned with poverty itself, per se; at a young age, they don’t balance checkbooks, they don’t earn paychecks, they don’t pay bills, and generally, they don’t have a mature, comprehensive understanding of finance.  But they are very aware of the conditions that accompany poverty—even from a very young age–and it has been proven again and again that these conditions impact students’ academic achievement. (For an extensively-researched explanation of this reality, read Chapter 10–“How Poverty Affects Academic Achievement”–in Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error.)

What about the child who has a toothache that’s so painful he can’t concentrate in school—yet nobody will take him to the dentist?

What about the child who needs glasses but has nobody to take him to the optometrist—so he can’t see properly and has perpetual headaches as a result?

What about the child who comes to school having been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused the night before—and who knows that he’ll be abused again when he gets home later?

What about the child who comes to school hungry—and is used to doing so because it’s a way of life for him?

What about the child who comes to school dirty—and wearing dirty clothes—because he has nobody to take care of him?

What about the child who was taken out of his house by child protective services—and who will be placed in a foster home to be raised by strangers?

What about the child whose family just faced foreclosure and is not sure that he’ll have a place to live in the near future?

What about the child who comes to school tired because he’s forced to work late hours to help support his family?

What about the child who lives on a street where a fatal shooting happened the night before?

What about the child who is afraid to leave his house because of rampant gang activity in his neighborhood?

What about the child who has a parent suffering from mental illness? Or the child himself who is suffering from mental illness—but isn’t getting the help he needs?

What about these children?  Simple. Suck it up, kids, and take a bunch of standardized tests–because they’re the most important singular measure of your intelligence and worth.  If that’s not incentive to come to school, I don’t know what is.

And what about the teachers who are tasked with educating, without support staff or services, roomfuls of children like the ones described above?  Fire them if they’re unable to get those kids to perform well on flawed standardized tests.

And there you have it. “Reform.” Brilliant.

How dare anyone claim that teachers use poverty as an “excuse” for some students’ poor academic performance—when too often, those very teachers are functioning all at once as teachers, counselors, first-aid administrators, and surrogate parent figures within the four walls of one classroom.

One of the most frustrating aspects of many teachers’ jobs is that as much as they desperately want to, teachers can’t take children to the dentist or give them medicine to take away the pain of a toothache.  Teachers can’t take kids for eye exams or get them the glasses they need to be able to see clearly. Teachers can’t ensure all their students are fed after the school day is over.  Teachers can’t pay their students’ families’ mortgages to make sure those students have a place to live. Teachers can’t keep parents or caretakers from abusing their children.  Teachers can’t keep students safe on crime-ridden streets—nor can they always convince students not to be afraid of the violence that is all too familiar to hundreds of thousands of children who live in dangerous neighborhoods all across the country.

And one of the biggest tragedies presenting itself in urban schools across the country is that children like the ones described above, who need the most support, are systematically being denied access to it.  In major cities all over America, at-risk children are being shuffled carelessly around because their public schools are closing—largely because of governmental fiscal mismanagement. They’re being forced to travel through unsafe neighborhoods of which they’re frightened to make it to school each day. They’re being denied access to guidance counselors—who in schools are essential first-responders in crisis situations—because some school reform commissions like the one in Philadelphia have determined that counselors are expendable and unnecessary.  Where the highest populations of children without adequate medical care exist, schools are without nurses.  Where the highest populations of at-risk children exist, districts are being forced to cut art, music, vocational, technical, and athletic programs—which for some students were the only truly enjoyable part of a school day—in the name of standardized test preparation.

THIS is the way to improve education for our nation’s most at-risk children?


It is ignorant, unreasonable, and supremely arrogant to sit in a position of privilege and power and ignore the correlation between the conditions of poverty and poor academic performance.  It is insulting to students who face such conditions every day—for many of whom it’s an accomplishment simply to show up at school on a regular basis—to promote reforms that strip away the things that make school the only safe and enjoyable environment some children have.  It is insulting to students to suggest that the way to improve their academic experience, which is already volatile, is to test them incessantly.

Students who suffer the effects of poverty are never “lost causes” who cannot be successful because of their circumstances—and reformers who manipulate teachers’ concerns about poverty to suggest that teachers believe as much should be ashamed of themselves.  As a teacher, I would never underestimate the impact great teachers have on their students—but as a human being, I know that a teacher’s power and influence have limits.

Experiencing and understanding life’s hardships is what makes us human, as struggle and sadness are universal, and these conditions are by no means exclusive to people of a particular race, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.  But more often than not, such conditions of life disproportionately affect–and are disproportionally more difficult for–those who live in areas of the country with a high concentration of impoverished citizens.  And until we start reintroducing meaningful community, social, and child-centered educational support programs in these areas (wraparound services, early childhood education for all children, accessible community programs, adequately-funded and staffed schools, small class sizes, etc.), children in poverty will continue to suffer on our watch–despite overextended educators’ best efforts.

In a depersonalized, top-down educational system that strips struggling children of basic necessities and then blames teachers for not doing enough to raise test scores and reform “failing schools,” the achievement gap (which is really an opportunity gap), will widen. It is no coincidence that as poverty rates increase, so too do problems in society—and public schools are a part of the society for which all of us share a common responsibility.  This is not a difficult concept to understand—but apparently it’s an easy one to manipulate to promote a political and financial agenda.

And that is incomprehensibly shameful.



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9 responses to “For the millionth time: the conditions poverty creates affect academic achievement

  1. I lead Support Service efforts in a rural, primarily Native American school district. I have experienced EVERY “What about . . . ” you listed in this article in the first two months of this school year and it will not cease, not even slow. We are doing our best to connect our students and families to services, but as you mentioned, many services are being eliminated or severely cut, under staffed and there’s so much stress in these positions that feelings of discouragement are intense and turnover frequent. Thank you for your blog. A friend posted this on Facebook and I’m pleased to find your site. I believe 100% in the powerful influence we can be to our students. I also believe Finland has made wrap-around services a reality and despite spending little to no time on testing and test prep, they have students that are learning despite their environments choosing to emphasize EQUITY over excellence – and ironically, their results are excellent. Come on US, we can do this!
    Sharon W,
    Coach W Solutions, career educator

  2. Thanks for your comment–and for working so hard for the kids who need you!

  3. A genuinely thought provoking and insightful essay. This is something everyone should read.

  4. Pingback: Breaking Bad Through Giving, Not Giving Up | Teaching it Forward

  5. Pingback: “It’s the Poverty, Stupid”: Why Ed Reform and Social Reform Need Each Other

  6. Tom Giblin, Professor of English Education

    Just discovered your wonderful BLOG…sent out a Tweet with a link to this incredibly important perspective…you write so well :-)…keep up the good work!

  7. Pingback: Predictable reform tactics in Camden: close neighborhood schools, lay off veteran teachers, open charters, import TFA | teacherbiz

  8. Pingback: Rocky Killion is Right | Live Long and Prosper

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