Poverty and Student Academic Success

Yesterday I saw a little kindergarten size girl standing on a corner begging for food money with her father, a sight unfortunately common in urban areas. One thought immediately came into my mind. "Begging on the streets today, expected to score at benchmark on a standardized test tomorrow." 

Throughout my teaching career I have made many home visits, but one, in particular, stands out. A student of mine had been in an accident and I visited his home armed with some books, a class photo of his friends, and a hug. The home I entered was a tiny, cramped space occupied by not one, but many families. As teachers we know that despite our best efforts in the classroom, much of a child's future success has been predetermined by his socioeconomic status. It is a wall that we as teachers are continually chipping away at, but it is a monumental task. As educators, we also know how devastating living in poverty is to a child. Poverty causes negative changes in the brain . Poverty causes stress. It is a source of depression and anger, illness and crime. With such devastating effects, why don't teachers have more allies in the fight against it? Especially when it has been shown to be the cause of any so called "education crises" in America. As reported by USA Today, "When you measure the test scores of American schools with a child poverty rate of less than 20%... they outperform every nation in the world." 

So why have we become mired in nowhere "solutions" like "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top"? Why has the answer to perceived school failure become Charter Schools and Vouchers? Why are we splitting our resources and allowing ourselves to continually fail our children because politicians are avoiding the issue. Teacher Tom thinks it's because, you can't make money off of solving poverty, and perhaps, the reason really is that simple. Big box curriculum companies certainly stand to lose millions if we shift our focus from testing to improving lives. Politicians certainly make more progress when they introduce legislations that is labeled "education reform" than by backing a bill meant to improve lives. In my own state of Utah, a bill called the "Healthy Utah Plan" that would improve the health of children in the state may not even be given a hearing in the state house. We know the root of our education problem in this country, and yet we are hesitant to create solutions.

As teachers, we need to remember that we are a source of stability for these children, and that their educational success depends more on the life skills they learn from us, than from the test score they receive at the end of the year. These children are dealing with unbearable levels of stress in their lives, and, therefore, they desperately need a classroom free from anxiety. A classroom where they feel safe. We need to teach our students the proper social skills through play-based interactions. If we do not, they may never learn these skills at all. Our students need love; their parents need to know that their child is loved. It may sound trite, but love is the bridge that can create opportunities for these children and their families, and until we can rally the kind of social reform that can put an end to the appalling percentage of children who live in poverty, love is going to be these children's lifeline. We must extend it to them. They are drowning.

Here are affiliate links to two of my favorite books on the issue.