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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

It's not stupid, it's poverty and how we can help fix it.

From the Principal Difference with an assist from the Keystone Education Coalition

by Mel Riddile

In "It's Poverty, Not Stupid" I proved that we should seek to raise the achievement of all students, but that our national focus should be on our poorest, under-resourced schools and students, who are the reason for our "average" international ranking.

The following post includes excerpts from an article by Marcus Pohlman in the Washington Post and by my personal experiences leading two high-poverty schools:

"Those who believe that “great teaching” alone can overcome the effects of living in poverty are underestimating the toll that difficult home lives have on children."

Q: Why do school reformers ignore poverty?

A: If they acknowledge poverty as a factor...

1. They have no one to blame.

2. They themselves might have to take action instead of standing on the sidelines.

"Some school reformers are fond of saying that “great teaching” can overcome the effects of living poverty on children, and that those people (me included) who insist that poverty matters are only supporting the status quo."

Q: What are the affects of poverty on children?

A: Poverty does nothing to help and everything to undermine a child's education:

1. Focus - When survival and finding something to eat become the focus of a child's life, education takes a back seat.

2. Stress - Money problems increase family stress.

3. Hunger - Students come to school hungry and some don't eat from Friday, when they leave school, until Monday, when they return.

4. Health- Poverty leads to poor nutrition and medical care. As a principal, our staff spent a considerable amount of time obtaining eyeglasses and hearing aids for our indigent students.

5. Literacy - Children living in poverty are talked to less and end up with vocabularies that are about half that of middle-class children.

"Research suggests that the first years shape a child’s capacity to learn. Science tells us that it is essential to brain development that babies are spoken to, read to, cuddled, and allowed to engage in physical play. National Institute of Health studies have indicated the foundations necessary for higher learning — working memory, vocabulary, spatial recognition, reasoning, and calculation skills — are set by the time a child reaches puberty."

6. Mobility and Instability - "Children in poverty move from place to place, often several times in a year. Children “churn,” which means they start at a certain school but will not be there by year’s end.

7. Lack basic necessities - Under-resourced children are just that, under-resourcesd. They come to school unbathed, inadequately clothed, and without books and supplies.

8. No support system - Frequently, one parent is absent either incarcerated, or otherwise not present. Many under-resourced children are "raised by aunts barely out of their teens, or grandmothers who have watched a family disintegrate from a collective inability to fight the powerful currents of poverty."

9. 9% solution - "Through the 18th birthday, the average child will spend less than 9 percent of life in school. That leaves most education occurring outside the schoolhouse. A poll of kindergarten teachers showed that their classrooms would improve if all families had access to quality pre-kindergarten programs."


While educators cannot cure poverty, we can recommend strategies that will create a level playing field so that under-resourced students are provided the resources they need to bring them up to par with their middle class counterparts.

1. Early Childhood Education - If we know that children in poverty will arrive at school two to three years behind, why do we wait for the train wreck? "The bipartisan New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce has recommended that public education begin at age 3 for American students. And studies show that the best early childhood programs are staffed by teachers with college degrees and early education certification, offer developmentally appropriate education, include a focus on language development and comprehensive services such as meals and health and developmental screenings and encourage parental involvement."

2. Best Teachers and Principals - Provide incentives for teachers and principals to work in under-resourced schools. The current strategy of "blame and punish" only serves to drive out the most qualified.

3. Funding - Finally, we must acknowledge that it simply costs more to educate some students. We already admit that it costs more to educate special needs and language-learners, why not poor students?

4. Literacy - Reading and writing skills are the great equalizers helping under-resourced students achieve at middle class levels. We know that poor children lack literacy skills, and, therefore, we must provide direct, explicit literacy instruction beginning the day they first arrive at school and every day thereafter.

5. Time - In order to level the playing field, we must provide under-resourced students more time to learn. It's not about ability. These students don't lack ability. They lack resources and supports. Time is the key. If we hold learning time constant, student achievement looks like a bell curve. We need to provide longer school years, after school tutoring and tiered interventions for all students but particularly for children living in poverty.

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