The numbers are nauseating. According to the just released new Census Bureau data , based on 2010 data:
*22 percent of American children live in poverty
*39 percent of black children live in poverty
*35 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty
The federal government set the poverty level in 2010 for a family of four living with an income of no more than $22,314 or a single person with an income of no more than $11,139. And, according to this Washington Post story, the total number of Americans living below the line is at the highest level in the last 52 years. That’s 46.2 million Americans, or 15.1 percent of all Americans.
And if you consider that, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, a family of four needs an income of about twice the poverty threshold to cover basic expenses, more than 42 percent of American children live in low-income families.
So what does this have to do with school reform?
In America, the most successful public schools are in wealthier zip codes, and the worst public schools are in the poorest zip codes. There is always a big hullabaloo when American students score average on international tests, but the fact is that American kids in very low-poverty schools score as high or higher than anybody else on the planet.
For years now, we’ve heard modern school reformers denigrate those who cite poverty — or, rather, the effects of living in poverty on children — as an impediment to academic achievement. Lovers of the status quo, they are said to be. People who just like to make an excuse for bad teachers.
President Obama hasn’t helped, nor has his Education Department, by pursuing policies that mostly ignore the effects of poverty and concentrate on business-driven reforms that involve measuring how well teachers do their jobs.
While there may be some nutcases who support the status quo, and there may be folks who don’t want to get rid of bad teachers, I don’t know of any.
The critics of modern school reform that I know are people who see enormous trouble in the public education system, but don’t think it will be fixed by spending billions of dollars on questionable teacher assessment systems linked to standardized test scores, or expanding charter schools that are hardly the panacea their early supporters claimed they would be, or handing out federal education dollars based on promises to change schools according to the likes and dislikes of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, whose record as superintendent of Chicago public schools was hardly distinguished.
For too long, school reform efforts have focused almost exclusively on “bad teachers,” with billions of federal and private foundation dollars going into iffy schemes to ferrett out lousy teachers with standardized test scores of their children.
I’ve said before and will say it again: Of course there are bad teachers (there are) and of course progress in improving schools can be made without eliminating poverty.
But we need to face facts: Problems in schools would remain even if every teacher were magnificent (show me a profession where that is true about every practioner) because teachers are obviously enormously important, but they are not the only factor that goes into how well children succeed.
The current direction of school reform is making it even harder to fix broken schools and improve the ones that do well even if they suffer from 20th century design and resources.
Making teachers entirely responsible for a student’s academic progress — regardless of whether the child eats enough or sleeps enough or gets enough medical attention — is counterproductive. Pretending that these issues can be “factored out” in some kind of mathematical formula that can assess how much “value” a teacher has added to a student’s progress is near nutty. That’s not just me saying it. Leading mathematicians say it too.
The effects of poverty on children matter in regard to student achievement. That is not to say that efforts to improve teacher quality, modernize curriculum, infuse technology into the classroom where it makes sense and other reforms should not be pursued. But doing all of that while ignoring the conditions in which kids live is a big waste of time.
But reformers still can’t help themselves on this issue. The latest example: author and entrepreneur Steven Brill just wrote in part on the Council of Foreign Relations website:
“Here’s the bad news about making America’s next generation competitive in the global economy: Anything we do today to fix our failing public schools will take fifteen to twenty years to show significant results.
“Last year, the head of the Pittsburgh school system — who was engaged in a trailblazing reform effort — did the math for me this way: He knew from research done by various think tanks and education experts over the last decade that improving the effectiveness of teachers was the single most important factor in improving student outcomes. However, he calculated that if he could remove the 2 to 3 percent of his teachers that were least effective every year, it would still take him ten years to refortify a third of his staff. And in a public education world where the unions have typically been able to protect even the lowest-performing teachers, that kind of quality upgrade seemed doable only because the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had offered the city a grant that required the union to cooperate in return for a huge injection of funds into the school system.
“The good news, however, is that, spurred in large part by President Obama’s Race to the Top federal education grant contest and supported by a burgeoning network of reformers, more efforts like Pittsburgh’s are now underway.”
Brill is wrong on a number of counts, including that research shows that improving teacher effectiveness is the most important factor in improving student outcomes. There is research that shows that to be the most important in-school factor, but that's not what he wrote.
So to be clear, here’s what the American Pyschological Association says are some of the consequences of living in poverty. Read them and tell them they can’t affect how well a child does in school.
With more children living in poverty, the problems of educating them will only be more difficult. We can ignore the problem all we want, but it isn’t going away by itself.
Poverty and academic achievement
Poverty has a particularly adverse effect on the academic outcomes of children, especially during early childhood.
Chronic stress associated with living in poverty has been shown to adversely affect children’s concentration and memory which may impact their ability to learn.
School dropout rates are significantly higher for teens residing in poorer communities. In 2007, the dropout rate of students living in low-income families was about 10 times greater than the rate of their peers from high-income families (8.8% vs. 0.9%).
The academic achievement gap for poorer youth is particularly pronounced for low-income African American and Hispanic children compared with their more affluent White peers.
Underresourced schools in poorer communities struggle to meet the learning needs of their students and aid them in fulfilling their potential.
Inadequate education contributes to the cycle of poverty by making it more difficult for low-income children to lift themselves and future generations out of poverty.
Poverty and psychosocial outcomes
Children living in poverty are at greater risk of behavioral and emotional problems.
Some behavioral problems may include impulsiveness, difficulty getting along with peers, aggression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder.
Some emotional problems may include feelings of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
Poverty and economic hardship is particularly difficult for parents who may experience chronic stress, depression, marital distress and exhibit harsher parenting behaviors. These are all linked to poor social and emotional outcomes for children.
Unsafe neighborhoods may expose low-income children to violence which can cause a number of psychosocial difficulties. Violence exposure can also predict future violent behavior in youth which places them at greater risk of injury and mortality and entry into the juvenile justice system.
Poverty and physical health
Children and teens living in poorer communities are at increased risk for a wide range of physical health problems:
Low birth weight
Poor nutrition which is manifested in the following ways:
Inadequate food which can lead to food insecurity/hunger
Lack of access to healthy foods and areas for play or sports which can lead to childhood overweight or obesity
Chronic conditions such as asthma, anemia, and pneumonia
Risky behaviors such as smoking or engaging in early sexual activity
Exposure to environmental contaminants, e.g., lead paint and toxic waste dumps
Exposure to violence in their communities which can lead to trauma, injury, disability, and mortality
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