Student poverty is a major barrier to learning, according to teachers polled in a new national survey of educators released Tuesday.
Lack of parental involvement and overtesting were also identified as big problems, as well as student apathy, according to an online Public Opinion Strategies survey of 700 elementary and secondary teachers across the country.
And while nine out of every 10 teachers said they have spent their own money on school supplies, significant numbers say they also have given help to poor students: 51 percent said they have spent their own money to feed students, 49 percent report helping students get new shoes or clothes and 29 percent have helped them get medical care.
Teachers who responded to the poll said they were spending about 20 percent of their time helping students resolve non-academic problems that stem from their lives outside school.
“Twenty percent is the equivalent of one day a week or four days a month, or, extrapolated out, roughly 2.5 to 3 years out of a child’s 12-year career,” said Dan Fuller, vice president of legislative relations for Communities In Schools, a national nonprofit that commissioned the study. “This is time that teachers are addressing the needs of a few students at the expense of an entire classroom. Clearly poverty is an issue that impacts all students.”
The survey comes at a time when the percentage of public school children living in poverty is rising, and the findings echo other recent teacher surveys about the impact of poverty on classroom learning.
More than one out of every five school-age children in the U.S. were living below the federal poverty line in 2013, according to the federal government. That amounted to 10.9 million children — or 21 percent of the total — a six percent increase in the childhood poverty rate since 2000.
The youngest and newest educators — those between 18 and 34 or with less than five years of experience — spend the most time trying to help students solve problems that have nothing to do with classroom instruction, according to the survey.
Communities In Schools works to connect low-income students with social services, health care, mentors, counseling, academic help and other support. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 3.7 percent.
Asked to name the two biggest problems facing schools where they teach, teachers said overtesting and lack of parental involvement were the greatest challenges. They identified the other challenges, in descending order:
● Students distracted by problems outside of school
● Students disengaged from learning
● Class sizes that are too large
● Weak administrators
● Student poverty
Grouped by race, teachers offered slightly different perceptions. Slightly more than half of white teachers identified overtesting as the biggest problem, followed by lack of parental engagement. African American teachers gave equal weight to lack of parental engagement and overtesting while Hispanic teachers said their greatest problem is students coming to school distracted by problems outside of school, followed by too much testing.
A majority of teachers said there should be both school-based social services to help low-income students, as well as community partnerships and outside professionals who can come into schools and work with students.