Don’t Blame the Teachers: Notes on Poverty and Student Learning

“… nothing makes sense in education without understanding the role of poverty.” ~Anthony Cody

My last post offered some of the lighter moments in the “Poverty Is Not a Game” (PING) unit in my game-based learning course. We, of course, examined darker issues but only glanced at one that’s so dark that it’s practically hidden from those like me cocooned in academe and the comfortable middle class: the effects of poverty on teaching and learning.

I’m aware that many, if not the majority, of my students are financially struggling, but most in this blue-collar community have supportive families and are getting by, even if barely – getting by enough to attend college. I’m aware that my friends teaching in the elementary schools pay out of their pockets to buy pencils and paper for students who show up without them. In fact, last summer my golf league donated school supplies to our teacher members and their colleagues. What I didn’t realize, not until my students and I delved deeper into issues surrounding the working poor, was the extent to which the gap between the ulta-rich and everybody else – especially the bottom 40% of the U.S. population – has impacted the public schools.

While my students were preparing for their final project – designing a “serious game” about living on minimum wage in our community – I looked into the relationship between poverty and academic readiness. Anthony Cody has written the most intriguing piece I’ve found so far, “Can Schools Defeat Poverty by Ignoring It?” (14 August 2012), posted on Impatient Optimists, a blog hosted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The post is part of Cody’s exchange with the Gates Foundation that, in part, criticizes the Foundation for focusing on teacher effectiveness rather than student readiness. It addresses the issue of “education reform in relation to the problem of family poverty” and looks for “the best way to achieve greater equity in educational life and prospects for children of poverty.”

Cody supports his argument with research data showing that smart money would go to improving the conditions of low-income children – in their homes, communities, and schools – rather than to grading teachers on the basis of student test scores. He argues that blaming the teacher for poor student outcomes is wrong-headed (as well as divisive and morale deflating). For example, a 2002 study showed that teachers make about a 20% difference in student achievement; another 20% has to do with the quality of a school, and 60% is on out-of-school factors like parents’ income and educational background, their neighborhood, and health care.

Certainly, good teaching makes a difference – and  most of our teachers are professional, are good at what they do, and welcome opportunities for getting even better, if programs cater to their needs and respect their time. Teachers need support, not punitive measures. Their students (our children!) need good schools, supportive families and neighborhoods, and a supportive nation. Unfortunately, the nation’s support for our children in need is on the wane. It’s shameful that the richest nation in the world has the highest rate of child poverty in the developed world.

Cody surveys the following out-of-school factors that affect student learning:

  • Violence. A 2010 study that focused on children in the Chicago area showed that “[a] murder in the neighborhood can significantly knock down a child’s score on an IQ test, even if the child did not directly witness the killing or know the victim…. The findings have implications … for the heavy reliance on standardized tests…. [And] can also explain about half the achievement gap between blacks and whites on such tests.”
  • Health. A 2012 study, called “Assets, Economic Opportunity, and Toxic Stress: A Framework for Understanding Child and Educational Outcomes,” shows that, along with food insecurity and stress, “one of the of the most important indicators of an individual’s health is one’s street address or neighborhood.”
  • Stress. Among the poor stress comes from a wide variety of sources, including neighborhood violence and food insecurity, as well as the incarceration of a parent, unemployment, foreclosure, and homelessness. And stress affects physical, mental, and emotional health which, in turn, affects learning.

Such reforms as the Common Core curriculum and Race to the Top, while well intentioned, ignore the fact that poor students are not on a level playing field “with their well-heeled counterparts in the suburbs,” says Cody. He goes on to say, “The whole system is built around the idea that anyone can make it and therefore we will ensure the highest level of success if we attempt to hold everyone to the same high standards, while largely ignoring the conditions in which they live” – but data does not support this assumption. Cody advocates for greater prenatal, early childhood nutrition, and early education programs. He calls for an end to the “war on drugs” in order to “dramatically reduce the levels of incarceration, and shift resources toward services for impoverished families.” He calls for raising the minimum wage and adds, “The greatest reduction in poverty in our nation coincided with the expansion of collective bargaining for workers, so we should be supporting unionization, not just of teachers, but of all workers.” Hear, hear!

Many of us are aware that the disparity between the “have nots” and the “have mores” is growing and threatens our democracy. For example, according to 2012 data, “The heirs to the Walmart fortune have as much wealth as the bottom forty percent of American families” – up from thirty percent in 2007. A shocking figure! As the fortunes of the Waltons and others  in their rarefied class have risen, the majority of Americans’ wealth has fallen (when adjusted for inflation). Meanwhile, our public schools are underfunded, especially those serving children most in need.

It’s time to stop blaming the teachers and think of our children. As President Obama said in his moving speech last Sunday at the interfaith vigil in Newtown, Connecticut, “This is our first task — caring for our children.  It’s our first job.  If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right.  That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.”

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About Lotus Greene

I started the blog called "Educating Lotus" in 2011, shortly after I began exploring the virtual world Second Life. With friends I met there, I migrated my virtual life to World of Warcraft (WoW) and joined an educators' guild. Lotus Greene is my gamer name, one I kept when I started another blog in 2015 called "Not Quite Ignored," which originally focused on the lighter side of news. For a year I didn't blog at all - just didn't get around to it. Lots has changed since then: for one thing I'm now completely retired from teaching; for another, the U.S. political climate has grown darker. I return to blogging with, among other things, the goals of providing "Political News in Brief" every week or so in "Not Quite Ignored" and in "Educating Lotus" occasionally posting screenshots and reflections on aspects of Legion, WoW's most recent and quite exciting expansion.
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