Are we using poverty as an excuse for school failure?

When I first covered schools as a young reporter fresh out of grad school, I made assumptions based on my 12 years in Catholic schools in urban New Jersey. While my  family was working class, I sat next to children whose parents were recent immigrants to America; those parents expected their children to do well and go to college. Many did.

BARRIE MAGUIRE/NEWSART

BARRIE MAGUIRE/NEWSART

As a result, I assumed any teacher could teach any child. I didn’t see poverty or non-English-speaking households as obstacles as many of my classmates overcame both. Covering schools for many years has tempered that view. Now, I don’t think any teacher can teach any child. Some children bring intense challenges that require deft teachers, tailored instruction and more time on task.

I still believe children of low-income parents can flourish in school – especially if their parents are engaged. In looking back, I realize most of my classmates from low-income households had involved and motivated parents. Yes, their mothers and fathers toiled long hours, but their school uniforms were pressed, lunch boxes packed and homework checked. Often, an Abuela or Oma lived with the family and kept a pot of soup simmering on the stove and children reading at the kitchen table.

Kids can come from poor families without being impoverished educationally. The lethal combination for education success seems to be poverty coupled with parents who don’t value or promote learning.

With that preface, I wanted to share an excerpt from a Thomas B. Fordham Institute article headlined, “Poverty cannot explain America’s mediocre test scores.”

In the essay, Michael J. Petrilli and Brandon Wright write: (This is a very short excerpt. Please read the full piece before commenting.)

At a time when the national conversation is focused on lagging upward mobility and yawning income inequality, it is no surprise that many educators point to poverty as the explanation for American students’ mediocre test scores compared to their peers in other countries. If teachers in struggling U.S. schools taught in Finland, says Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg, they would flourish—in part because of “support from homes unchallenged by poverty.” Michael Rebell and Jessica Wolff at Columbia University’s Teachers College argue that middling test scores reflect a “poverty crisis” in the United States, not an “education crisis.” Adding union muscle to the argument, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten calls poverty “the elephant in the room” that accounts for poor student performance.

But does this explanation hold water?

Critics of education reform are certainly correct when they say that poverty is a major factor in lackluster academic performance.

Still, poverty is an issue for virtually every nation on the planet. Where reform critics get it wrong is when they claim that America’s average scores are dragged down by the particularly poor performance of low-income students — or that the advantaged kids are doing just fine. That is objectively untrue. And its scores are not dragged down by an unusually high proportion of poor students, as measures of absolute poverty find the United States not to be an outlier at all.

America’s mediocre performance is remarkably consistent. Yes, our affluent students outperform our poor students. But they don’t outperform their peers overseas. This doesn’t imply that reform, as currently formulated, is on the right track. The enigma of our mediocre student performance is a topic worthy of study and debate, as is the challenge of helping students at all points on the economic spectrum perform better.

What it does show is that poverty can’t explain away America’s lackluster academic performance. That excuse, however soothing it may be to educators, politicians, and social critics, turns out to be a crutch that is unfounded in evidence. We need to stop using it and start getting serious about improving the achievement of all the nation’s students.

 

 

 

 

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73 comments
Wordy Smith
Wordy Smith

Words Starting with "PE"


There are Total 1922 words Starting with Pe (Prefix) found after searching through all the words in English. 


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cyadra
cyadra

To answer the question, I encourage the author to ask that same question to fifteen of my homeless students that I teach. Six of them live in a car across the street from the school that I work at. Ask them, what they think.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@cyadra Do their parents live in that same car?  Are these six kids of one mother?  What does their parent(s) do for a living?

tammylashley
tammylashley

I am a teacher in a Title 1 & Title 3 school system where we have over 90% living below the poverty level and over 90% ELL's. There are many factors your article does not take into consideration and address.


Sometimes the parents hold 2-3 jobs, often at night, to feed their family. It is assumed they do not care when they do not help at home with the student's school work. Most of the parents I come into contact with do not speak the English language which is a huge barrier, but their kids try to translate for them as they are learning English themselves. Many of these parents have not been educated beyond an 8th grade education in their country, which is not equivalent to US standards. We automatically assume they do not care if they do not help their children at home, but there are so many barriers that your article does not take into consideration. Actually, most of our students arrive each day with maybe 2 sets of clothes their parents alternate every other day, but they look picture perfect when they arrive, sometimes lacking coats and appropriate clothes in cold weather.


Our school works so very hard and we get students to the state standards and sometimes beyond. We are teaching a new generation how to speak "correct" English and how to "write". I am SO very proud of where I teach and how far our students progress each year, teaching their parents. 


Not all students living in poverty have parents who are able to help with homework at night and press their clothes before they enter our doors. We welcome them with open arms, make sure they feel "safe" when they are at school, and do not make them feel bad that their parents were not able to help them with homework at night. Many live in less desirable neighborhoods with drugs and crime, so we have no idea what our students have gone through over night. 


You are correct, we do not accept this as an excuse so we make them feel safe when they are with us, and we push them as far as we can while they are with us at school. It is absolutely amazing the progress our students are making, even though they do not speak the English language at home and they live in poverty. We never point our finger at the parents expecting them to help at home and blame them. Everything we do includes a very positive environment at school while raising the bar of what we expect from them. Even in poverty, they rise to the occasion!!!!!

insideview
insideview

Poverty is not synonymous with low achievement. If that was true, then no poor child would succeed. Yet, many have. Does poverty make it harder to succeed?Absolutely,  for some children. 

Many of you are right , about what is valued by the parent, is valued by the student. Schools have to be held accountable for the mis-guided attempts and contempt for poor students.


Public schools have minimal expectations for poor children to succeed, which is why the public allows overcrowding, poor teaching and poor discipline to permeate predominately low-income and miniority  schools. Children do not choose their parents, but they are stuck with them. Yes, parents should be accountable for their children, but what happens when they are not? Do we throw the baby out with the bathwater? It is easy and more comfortable to assign the failure of students to outside forces that we cannot control , rather than look at how we educate impoverished children. When we stop making excuses for failing students and start making it possible, we might see some results. We know everything we need to know to educate every child. We are not doing it because we don't want to!

jezel
jezel

@insideview I have taught and coached in 4 schools over a 30 year span. Never did I see contempt for disadvantaged student. I saw just the opposite.

I used my money to help many kids. My dad who was at every football game and wresting match I coached...pulled money from his pocket.


There is a mean spirit in this country. You will not find it among those teachers in the trenches. Maybe you are barking up the wrong tree.

Starik
Starik

@jezel @class80olddog @insideview If we do that, where do we put the kids?  DFACS often places foster children with poor foster parents who make their living by fostering kids, sometimes in groups.  State orphanages perhaps?

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@Starik 

See the musical film, "Annie," directed by John Huston, and I would hope you would change your mind regarding state orphanages.  We must progress, not regress.

Starik
Starik

@MaryElizabethSings @Starik Orphanages could be done right, with proper leadership and decent funding. They might even have high standards for teachers!

FIGMO2
FIGMO2

No excuses for parents derelict in their parental duties!

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Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@FIGMO2 You gotta have time to go--hard to do when working and caring for a family. You have to have money for MARTA (IF you live close enough to it) and money for the "affordable" child care.  And you have to know about it--which many non-readers do not.


It is a great program and opportunity, but one that many are unable to take advantage of because of the premises it is build on.

jezel
jezel

Explain away America's lack luster academic performance ? What is important to the parent is usually important to the child.


If you are living in poverty then your next meal is important.  For  many Americans...this is their dilemma.


It is an excuse... only if you deny this fact


The real questions are :  why is the minimum wage not 17 dollars per hour....why is the middle class shrinking.....why are there so few manufacturing jobs....why is there such a discrepancy of wealth...


When we address and solve these issues....academic performance will improve. And unless we tackle these problems....we are part of the problem...not part of the solution. All else is just talk...window dressing....while we are being played as fools.



eulb
eulb

I'm really glad to see this topic being discussed.  I hope to read some ideas for do-able, legal, helpful solutions. 

Poverty alone is not the thing that is preventing disadvantaged children from maturing into educated, employed, self-sufficient contributors to our communities. Common sense tells us that a single-parent home containing multiple children is one of the causes because it's often an unstable, stressful, environment that's conducive to school failure.  But what solutions are available?  No one can force anyone else to practice sexual abstinence or effective birth control.  Nor can we force anyone to marry, remain faithful to their spouses, earn a living, provide financial support, stay out of prison, or supervise their children -- much less make sure their school lessons are a top priority.

So what CAN we do to improve the odds for the current batch of disadvantaged students and their offspring?  Anybody got a viable suggestion?  Anybody know how countries with better outcomes are achieving them?

Starik
Starik

@Wascatlady @eulb In Western Europe the countries tend to be socialist, and take care of their needy people better than we do.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@eulb Perhaps some carrots for those who do act responsibility?  And trying not to reward irresponsible behavior?


Of course, that is hard to do as there are others(children) involved.

Starik
Starik

@Wascatlady @Starik @eulb I don't know. Englard and France have their fair share of poverty, with many of the poor being minorities.

eulb
eulb

@Wascatlady What is your opinion of The Seed School in Dc?  It's a charter school with dorms.  The students are local.  I think they return to their homes on weekends and reside in the dorms during the week.  http://www.seedschooldc.org/15years 

I'm wondering whether it would be worthwhile for APS to start a charter with similar structure -- not necessarily intensive college prep, but providing that type of living/learning arrangement. 

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

On this general subject, have you ever noticed that it is an EXCUSE when someone else gives it, but it is a REASON when you give it?

class80olddog
class80olddog

So let's do a thought experiment - let's assume we give a single mom who does not care about her kids and is a druggie $3000 a month?  No poverty now.  Will her kids' test scores now rise dramatically.  Of course not!  But she will be happily supplied with plenty of drugs.

sneakpeakintoeducation
sneakpeakintoeducation

@Becca Leech


There is a link between lack of nutrition and poverty and the affect it has on the brain. A study has shown that the lesions on a developing brain are akin to those who have suffered a stroke. But hey Grover, just pull yourself up by your britches and get to learning!! 


The writer of this piece and the institute he is being paid by is a right-wing think tank whose job it is to further the demands for privatizing education so that those who pay him can further swell the coffers. 

chipspeed
chipspeed

the rason the program like that doesnt work is some of the people that are getting food stamps are Selling them. for cigerates & beer.  sometimes playing rent with them.  when @ the store i have seen first hand what some buy. mostly drinks & snacks not anything nutritous   something needs to be done to make sure that food is brought with the stamps but there is no way it can be controled.

sneakpeakintoeducation
sneakpeakintoeducation

Do you think that food stamps are the big equalizer in nutrition? I think not. And isn't this the very program that is under attack by right wingers because the recipients are vilified and called moochers?

class80olddog
class80olddog

@sneakpeakintoeducation My point was that giving food stamps to the mother does not guarantee that the kids get fed.  She could sell them under the table, or buy food that she and her boyfriend consumes, and leave the kids still hungry. 

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@class80olddog @sneakpeakintoeducation @Becca Leech Malnutrition is a serious problem. Many of our kids get poor calories.  That is, they are the cheap foods we see advertised on TV.  And it isn't just food stamp money buying these cheap fillers,either.


Food stamps can be stretched and can use healthy food, but the parent needs to have the time, education,and planning to do so. Many parents of every income level do not.   They subscribe to the "give them those chicken nuggets to shut them up" school of thought.  Or they are used to catering to their child's wants instead of needs, food-wise and otherwise.  "He won't eat that" is what I hear a lot, and it starts when they are little. How many of us have seen a toddler hauling around a bottle with coke or koolaide in it?


Here where I live, most of the Anglo kids on food stamps also have X boxes, cable, and other things most of us think are non-essential.  They may be given "food" but they are not MEALS.  That is one reason why, I would guess, we have so much obesity in the schools.  At recess, the kids stand around and eat junk for the 15-20 minutes they are allotted.  The junk they ate for breakfast or lunch (including school meals) burns off pretty quickly.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@class80olddog @sneakpeakintoeducation And some do that. But what I see is parents not having the education, or will, to do better.


Now, if we are talking about children on ADHD med, I would posit that many of the kids "run out of" their meds by the 5th of the month because the meds are being taken or sold by the adults "in charge."

sneakpeakintoeducation
sneakpeakintoeducation

@class80olddog @sneakpeakintoeducation


No, it doesn't guarantee it. Nor does bailing out the banks only to see that the CEO's award themselves huge bonuses, etc...  There are no guarantees in life but I would rather give those who need the help the opportunity and support to succeed rather than tell them it's their fault that they are losers. There is no program, whether it's for the rich or the poor, that will not have a number of ne-er do wells receiving welfare but, ultimately, the hope is that there is more good than harm achieved. 

newsphile
newsphile

@class80olddog @sneakpeakintoeducation @Becca Leech  We need to give training plus coaching/mentoring in household budgeting, nutrition, and parenting, along with the food stamps and other government assistance.  If these were required, many of our children would be helped tremendously.  This is the reality.

Starik
Starik

@Wascatlady @class80olddog @sneakpeakintoeducation Kids should be taught at the highest level possible; for some, we need to be realistic and not have the highest expectations.  Good teachers know which students are bright and which are not.  Place them in classes and schools accordingly... and ignore race.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

I'd like to see (or do) research on the multigenerational family effect of poverty on educational attainment.  That is, how do children from families whose financial poverty goes back generations do versus those whose poverty is recent.  That might tease out how much of the effect of "poverty" is financial vs. attitudinal/behavioral (controlling for other factors) and thus guide us to solutions that might be more effective in addressing lack of student educational attainment.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

In my experience, the Fordham Institute frequently starts with a premise and then finds data to massage to support it.  This is certainly not unknown among -leaning institutes.  Certainly, professors also do this. (The head of the Institute where I got my doctoral degree was infamous for this.  Once, while studying for prelims I had my then-17 year old daughter read me something that he wrote.  Then I said, "So what does that SAY?"  Her reply?  "It's bull$***, Mom, plain old ********!")


Nevertheless, I think this piece does point out something perhaps we don't like to talk about:  We use "poverty" as a proxy for something less tangible, less easy to quantify.  There are behaviors and attitudes frequently found among the financially poor that are harder to measure for a dataset, but that are a significant part of the bundle for many poor folks.  Lack of money is important (as money buys intellectual stimulators such as preschool, books, travel, camps, tutors) but the long term, intrenched beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, while hard to measure, figure strongly into why kids from low income families do not do as well as those with attitudes, beliefs,and behaviors that do support educational attainment.

readcritic
readcritic

@Wascatlady More important than poverty is an individual's value system. Teachers today are dealing with educational apathy from all levels and especially from low income groups. Students come to class disconnected from reading, writing, books, and learning activities but not their cell phones. They are all legends in their own minds because they got praise and rewards without experiencing challenge or failure throughout elementary school. They all think they are going to be rich and famous athletes and rappers. They don't want to learn and make no effort to get an education; in fact, their main objective is to be as disruptive as possible for amusement as they hone their entertaining skills to the detriment of their classmates' education. Parents of these students do not respond to the teacher's pleas of failing grades or missing work, but they will come knocking at the school door when their baby gets a detention or disciplinary referral (which administrators rarely enforce because they brag about being a school of "choice" meaning they keep the parents happy).  Since administrators pack high numbers (35+) of low-level students who are lacking self-motivation and discipline into one classroom, taxpayers will continue to pay for poor results. Students will repeat high school grades year after year and then get pushed along by some "creative" administrative program designed to manipulate statistics to "prove" wondrous achievements. The graduation rate will show improvement and the school will have avoided the dreaded "dangerous school" list and all is right with the world. It is so much easier to blame teachers for poor test scores and student inability to perform, yet the teacher is never given the support necessary to do the job as it should be done.  

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@readcritic @Wascatlady Be careful, however, of speaking in absolutes (never, etc).  SOME administrators support teachers. SOME low-income parents support teachers (In my experience, it was overwhelmingly Latino parents here in rural N Ga.)  And SOME higher-income parents seem worse that useless when it comes to addressing their children's very real needs.

WardinConyers
WardinConyers

@readcritic @Wascatlady You nailed it, honey.  I taught for 33 years, and the last half was much worse than the first.  Why?  Because early on, I had parents who instilled a seriousness in their kids about education.  Note that this was well before cell phones.  Also, the "praise them for anything" program had not fully set in.  Even in the latter part of my career, I did have poor parents who were still classy and insisted that their kids be serious about school.  Unfortunately, they were in the minority.  

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@Wascatlady 

One has to ask the question:  How much of those "attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors" that do not support educational attainment in children of poverty is the fault of the individual, or the individual's family, or our society, itself?

Our society is constantly evolving in consciousness from seeing black people as inferior slaves, to subservient Jim Crow survivors, to nonpersons as in the book and film, "Black Like Me," to black power types asserting that they do exist and have power, to lack of support for today's young black males, to single-parent families?  We have not stopped in this ongoing evolutionary process of achieving true racial justice and equality yet.  The black anger and hopelessness, reflected in unstable family situations, is only another phase through which we and America, itself, will evolve toward a "more perfect union."  We must have the self-awareness and brutal honesty to see and to acknowledge the part that the society as a whole has played in creating the present evolutionary phase, based upon past phases of black liberation in America.  Understanding this requires higher consciousness backed by historical knowledge of depth. We can change readily what we diagnose correctly and have the will and the heart to affect positively, for all Americans.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Wascatlady ALL scientists and researchers tend to generate findings pleasing to them who pay their salary.  Just look at the global warming researchers.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@class80olddog @Wascatlady You have to look at individual researchers farther up on the food chain who are not dependent on pleasing a master with their research.  There are a few.

readcritic
readcritic

More important than poverty is an individual's value system. Teachers today are dealing with educational apathy from all levels, but especially from low income groups. Students come to class disconnected. They don't want to learn and make no effort to get an education; in fact, their main objective is to be as disruptive as possible for their own amusement as they prevent others from getting an education. Parents of these students come to the school only to complain if a teacher writes a discipline referral or a detention, but never respond to the teacher's plea about failing grades or missing work. Since administrators won't deal with discipline problems and pack high numbers (35+) of low-level, unmotivated, undisciplined teens into one room, taxpayers will continue to see the same results. Students will repeat grades year after year and then get pushed along by creative administrative manipulation to save the graduation rate. Little or no disciplinary action is ever taken to make the students and parents responsible because administrators want to stay off the dreaded "dangerous school" list. It is so much easier to blame teachers for poor test scores and student inability to perform, yet the teacher is never given the support necessary to do the job right.

CSpinks
CSpinks

To what extent is school failure attributable to a school climate characterized by disorder and disrespect? 

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@CSpinks And how much of that climate can the local or district level administrators control, given legal rulings.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@class80olddog @Wascatlady @CSpinks The reward system for administrators, for one.  Administrators are not promoted for having held the line on social promotion.  They aren't in charge of enforcing attendance.  And their superiors have to provide the money for alternative programs.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Wascatlady @CSpinks Legal or PC?  What legal rulings force administrators to socially promote students?  Or tie their hands about attendance enforcement?  Of prevent them from putting discipline problems in an alternative school?

Retiredmathteacher
Retiredmathteacher

@class80olddog @Wascatlady @CSpinks Office of Civil Rights, for one.  Inquire at your county office how many OCR complaints have been filed in your district and how much time is spent on the paperwork involved.  Most OCR complaints are about a group perceived as being disproportionally disciplined.  Both suspensions and alternative school assignments are popular targets.


I am a few years out of date, so there could have been more recent rulings, but last time I took a school law class, there were multiple rulings where attendance policies regarding credit issued were tossed out by the courts.  I have been in several meetings involving the school board attorneys when the attorney (a nationally known expert in education law) flat out said that there is no need to try to enforce an attendance/credit policy because the courts will not back up the policy upon challenge.  Judges have frequently ruled that kids that can pass the class should receive credit for the class, regardless of the number of classes missed.  That's right, a student could miss 179 days and still get credit for the class!  And yes, I would question what is going on in a class when a student could miss even 30 days and still pass.  However, academic ability is fequently not in question for students who do not come to school.


Judges have also frowned on any part of a students' grade being tied to attendance.  If grading and credit ar out of bounds, then schools must turn to the court system to enforce attendance policies.  Except for a few well publicized instances, when have you heard of parents facing consequences significant enough to change the attendance behavior of their kids?


And one comment about alternative schools.  It is really easy to say to put students in an alternative setting, but honestly, who is really going to teach in such an environment?

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Retiredmathteacher @class80olddog @Wascatlady @CSpinks  You don't have to base the grading on attendance - it comes naturally.  If a student can miss half his classes and still ace the final exam - more power to them!  But that won't happen - when they miss a large number of days, they end up with failing grades on their end of course test.  So just retain them then.  But schools won't do that.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Retiredmathteacher @class80olddog @Wascatlady @CSpinks  A fine example of civil rights laws holding down minorities.  Do you think businesses can't see through the sham High School Diplomas?  Soon businesses will start doing their own testing and base hiring on that.  And the ones who were "given" diplomas will be left in the unemployment line, AGAIN.