Poverty: The Real Problem With Education

Old Faithful

I participated in a Twitter conversation (although calling it a conversation is difficult for me since it requires 140 characters or less to communicate) via #edchat on the role poverty plays in education this week.  I don’t even know how this topic is debatable given the immense amount of research published on the role socioeconomics play in everything from health to health care to education to mortality (which is influenced by health and education), etc…

So some of the conversation revolved around making access to technology (which apparently is the solution to every problem these days) the answer to resolve the discrepancies between the impoverished and the affluent.  No, we should provide breakfast (which most districts already do and lunch by the way too).  There was even what I think was an architecture firm talking about how we need to create safer school environments (build them of course at the taxpayers expense).   No, “we should be the change we want to see in the classroom”.   OMG, really?

I suppose I should praise anyone who remains remotely optimistic in the face of what we need to do to begin to address all of this, but nah, why ruin a perfectly negative attitude.  I suppose I should explain why I have such a negative attitude about this at all….being well-educated and from a middle class family.  I grew up in a fairly rural area with a great deal of poverty.  I attended school (public of course) with students who had very little.  Poverty is a problem because the environment outside of the classroom is just as important, if not more important, than the environment in the classroom from a learning perspective.  As there becomes a larger divide between socioeconomic classes in the US, the access to resources beyond the school system start to make a real difference.  The affluent have it.  The less affluent don’t.  Those foundational barriers make a huge difference in the classroom when it comes to learning and success.

My partner works in a fairly affluent school district teaching second grade.  Some kids are on the free lunch program, but not a large percentage.  Many of the families are pretty affluent and they care about their kids learning and are already concerned that a poor assessment in second grade might keep their child out of Harvard.   They have access to multiple resources: after school sports (which or course cost money to play), music, ballet, dance, chess, tutors, museums and aquariums, national parks.  They have Internet access at home and probably their own computer.  They travel, a lot, both within and beyond the US.  Their parents are educated, hold white-collar jobs, they eat well, they play sports, they work hard and they are expected to go to college.  Many of them even attend their own cultural schools on the weekends.  Do they deal with stress outside of the classroom?  Yes, they are still kids.  Their parents still fight, get divorces, they deal with bullies. They actually have a lot of pressure to perform well on tests and excel in their activities.  Too much pressure really.  But they have a huge support system both within and beyond the classroom setting.  My partner is an outstanding teacher.   She finds a way to connect with each one of her students, regardless of background and holds them to a high standard.   Their parents hold them to a high standard too.  In the long run, that plays a bigger role in their success than anything my partner does or does not do in that classroom.  Most of these kids will be successful because of their access to resources and support systems beyond the classroom.

My sister works in a poor district in rural NC. Most of those kids are on the free lunch program.  Most of the families are poor.  Mostly blue-collar jobs in the area but most of those jobs are gone now.  Unemployment is very high.  Many of the parents likely completed high school, but few attended college.  Many don’t have access to resources outside of the classroom: no sports, no chess club, no ballet or dance classes, no private music lessons.  They don’t have access to museums or aquariums, unless they travel to a large city.  They don’t travel much.  They can’t afford to.  They may have access to the Internet at home but probably not their own personal computer.  They don’t eat well, probably not even every day and they certainly don’t shop at Whole Foods because well, there isn’t even one within 50 miles and they couldn’t afford it anyway.  Their parents care about them, want them to succeed and do well in school.  Some probably want their children to go to college and push them academically, many don’t or can’t.  Harvard not being the goal, the local community college is far more realistic. Which would be great if they can make it there.  They don’t have access to private tutors. Their everyday experiences, their foundations are the polar opposite of what my partner deals with on a daily basis. My sister has to do daily lice checks.  Call each kid up to her desk and use a comb to look through their hair for evidence of lice.  The teachers always buy extra clothes to have available because there are always kids who come to school in the same clothes for days and the teachers provide new clothes for them.   Sometimes they even have to wipe them down with Wet Wipes because they haven’t been bathed in days.  She has kids whose dad is the local drug dealer and is in and out of jail.  These kids come to school as an escape, a safe harbor for 7 hours.  They worry more about survival, the basics: shelter, food, clothing.  Learning becomes secondary under these conditions.  My sister is also an outstanding teacher (and social worker too apparently).  She finds a way to connect with each one of her students, regardless of background and holds them to a high standard.   Do these students “learn”? Absolutely.  She is no different than my partner when it comes to being an outstanding teacher, however, the children she works with on a daily basis are very different.  Their foundations are different because their access to resources outside of the classroom are different.  Let’s not kid ourselves either.  The resources are different in the classroom as well because so much of education is district dependent and depends on tax levies and local fundraising. Schools in poorer districts also have access to fewer resources than the affluent ones, compounding the inequities.

So shouldn’t schools be the great equalizer?  Maybe they used to be when we had a middle class, but as the socioeconomic divisions grow, so does the educational gap. I find it difficult to believe that the affluent and policy makers in this country don’t understand this.  They do.  But instead of addressing the real problem, which is poverty and lack of resources and the growing socioeconomic divide, they just put more pressure on an already broken system without adequate funding to support the policies and infrastructure. This just leads to more of a division between the affluent and less affluent districts because now they have to fill the funding gap.   Hmmm, I wonder which socioeconomic group those policy makers fall into?

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Tiffany Reiss

Passionate educator, entrepreneur and health promoter.