Sep 13, 2016 by Kristina Birdsong

poverty in educationMost teachers spend hours outside of the regular work day grading, planning lessons, and dreaming up ways to engage, motivate, and teach their students better every day. If teachers are working so hard, there must be some other reason for the growing achievement gap in America. Teachers blame students, parents, or administrators. Parents and students blame teachers. Administrators blame social media. Etcetera, etcetera. Amidst all the chatter and disappointment, one question continues to rise out from the depths of curiosity without a true answer: When our students don’t succeed, who is at fault? This question does no more than allow people to point fingers and shift blame to the next likely target. The truth is, socioeconomic status is the biggest predictor of school success, more so than any other factor. It seems then, that instead of an education crisis, we have a poverty crisis.

How can we change the dialogue?

Perhaps the question we should be asking is What can each of us do despite this overwhelming obstacle? This question gets parents and educators alike centered on doing everything possible to improve learning. There may not be an overnight solution to the nationwide problem of poverty, but educators can help get everyone pointed in the right direction. After all, education is about giving children a chance to grow, learn, and adapt so they can become the best possible versions of themselves. And if we aren’t gearing up for that, then we are on the wrong path.  

Communities cry out for equality in education as the solution to the perceived education problem in America. But test scores reveal that schools with the lowest poverty rates outperform every nation in the world, which may completely vindicate the education system in this debate. We now know poverty negatively affects brain development and achievement. Sean Slade, Director of Global Outreach for ASCD, acknowledges the poverty problem and points out a disheartening reminder: “If you are born into poverty, you are likely to stay in poverty.” A maddening paradox of poverty should also be noted: The surest way out of poverty is education; however, education attainment is more difficult for the impoverished.

What is the impact of poverty on students?

Students living in poverty struggle in ways most others do not. They face a plethora of issues, including but not limited to the following:

  • Increased risk for behavioral, socioemotional, and physical health problems
  • Decreased concentration and memory
  • Chaotic home environment
  • Higher rates of suspension, expulsion, absenteeism, and drop out
  • Poor hygiene and malnutrition
  • Lack of preparedness for school

Additionally, schools in poor communities are ill-equipped and suffer more staffing issues and lack of grant funding for more diverse and special programs, including extracurricular opportunities. Due to higher attrition rates, even the most well-intentioned teachers in low-income schools often lack the experience and tools required for narrowing the gap.

How can educators help?

Despite the grim facts, there are things educators can do to help.

  1. Educate themselves. According to the ASCD, in their Report on the Whole Child Symposium, 2015, “Educators must better understand poverty and its effects on the ability of students to learn so that they can […] motivate [students] and adapt their teaching practices appropriately.” Teachers can stay up-to-date on current trends in appropriate interventions by attending professional development seminars and subscribing to renowned journals and blogs.
  2. Create a safe learning environment. We may not be able to change a student’s socioeconomic status or move a student out of a chaotic household. But we can create a safe, nurturing learning environment built on trust, kindness, and understanding. This does not mean you need to lower your standards. Quite the opposite is true. If students of parents with higher expectations reap more success, then it stands that students of teachers with higher expectations also reap more success. As Frederick Douglass once said, “Without a struggle, there can be no progress.” As educators, it will serve us well to encourage students to reach for more than they think they can handle and to push them to think beyond their comfort level.
  3. Build strong relationships with students and parents. Boise State University Associate Professor Kathleen Budge says that by getting to know our students and “building relationships with people who are living in situations that we may be very unfamiliar with,” we can break down damaging stereotypes. Reach out to parents with kindness, and show sincere interest in helping them discover ways to set their children up for success. Let parents know how important it is for them to build strong relationships with their children by teaching social skills and setting high expectations.
  4. Focus on positivity. Tiffany Anderson, Superintendent of the Jennings School District in Missouri, asserts, “You cannot get sandwiched into the conversation that resources are too small and parents aren’t involved. That is reality. But we can control the environment in our classrooms in a way that helps lessen that opportunity and access gap.” We must resist the urge to engage in circular discussions and harsh attitudes about students, parents, and the state of education. These conversations do more harm than good. We must perpetuate a dialogue with each other, and ourselves, that focuses first on understanding the issue and then doing our part to solve the problem.

Society belongs to all of us. Sometimes we may forget to look at the global picture because teaching means solving about a million little problems every day. But if we try to see things from our students’ perspectives, we might be on the path to something great.

Other Science of Learning blogs on poverty:

Path Out of Poverty? Education Plus Neuroscience
10 Facts About How Poverty Impacts Education


A poverty, not education, crisis in U.S.: Column
Poverty Is America's #1 Education Problem
We Can Overcome Poverty's Impact on School Success
11 Facts about Education and Poverty in America
Statistics on How Poverty Affects Children in Schools
Poverty Affects Education – And our Systems Perpetuate It

Other Sources Used:

Effects of Poverty, Hunger, and Homelessness on Children and Youth.
Science says parents of successful kids have these 13 things in common
What are the Disadvantages Facing the Poor Community Public Schools?
Poverty and Education: Report on the Whole Child Symposium



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thank you for this article

Thank you for this article highlighting the many aspects that contribute to children's ability to learn. Educators and all those working with children and families MUST also become trauma informed to become trauma sensitive. There is much emerging and evolving on this topic and some amazing work that is being done all around with so much more to do moving forward.

Early Childhood Education is

Early Childhood Education is the key. Unfortunatly, the authors of Common Core did nor realize that there was not enough time for all of the standards to be achieved in

I have founded a non-profit

I have founded a non-profit called Readers Ignite. While our overall focus is to connect at-risk or underserved children in our (Chicagoland) area to reading resources, we do a lot of EARLY literacy efforts. Sadly, we have not been able to connect with many who understand how critical this work is, not just for the future of the underserved children, but for our nation, as well. With low literacy now costing EVERY American an estimated $700 or more PER YEAR, we need to look for OTHER ways to proactively spend money. Readers Ignite has several initiatives to help bring parents on board before kindergarten and connect with the children earlier, making reading in school a possibility, instead of a daunting task. Facebook has our history and some of the initiatives listed. I welcome any such dialog, and I am sharing this blog. More articles on this subject need to be written. More folks need to be involved. The issue cannot be solved within these communities alone. Others NEED to step in and help. Thank you for writing this very important piece!

This is something our school

This is something our school is working on right now. Working on the whole student while using positive language and more positive reinforcement.