Accept it: Poverty hurts learning

nydailynews.com – opinions – Schools matter, but they’re not all that matters
Thursday, September 2nd 2010.   BY Pedro Noguera

There has been a fierce, ongoing debate among educational leaders about how to teach poor children: One side has argued that we must address the wide variety of social issues (like poor health and nutrition, mobility, inadequate preparation for school, etc.) that tend to be associated with poverty. The other side has argued that schools serving poor children must focus on education alone and stop making excuses.For more than 20 years, I’ve been associated with the first camp – and I remain baffled about why we are still debating such an obvious point. We’ve long known that family income combined with parental education is the strongest predictor of how well a student will do on most standardized tests. There is abundant evidence that in schools in the poorest communities, achievement is considerably lower than in schools with more socioeconomic diversity.

Studies on literacy development in small children show that middle-class children arrive in kindergarten literally knowing hundreds more words than poor children.

And schools alone – not even the very best schools – cannot erase the effects of poverty.

In recent years, policymakers have focused on how to achieve higher test scores without addressing the influence of poverty. The results have mostly been discouraging. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan claims that thousands of schools across America are chronically underperforming; in New York, Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have shut down more than 100 schools in eight years. Inevitably, the struggling schools serve the poorest children and experience the greatest challenges. It will take more than pressure and tough talk to improve these schools.

Under both Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, the federal Education Department has largely avoided addressing the socioeconomic challenges that impact schools. Instead, they’ve championed reforms like performance pay for teachers, raising academic standards and creating charter schools. Seeking to avoid poverty as an excuse for low achievement, Klein and other educational leaders wrote the following in The Washington Post in April:

“[M]any believe that schools alone cannot overcome the impact that economic disadvantage has on a child, that life outcomes are fixed by poverty and family circumstances, and that education doesn’t work until other problems are solved.

“Problem is, the theory is wrong. … [P]lenty of evidence demonstrates that schools can make an enormous difference despite the challenges presented by poverty and family background.”

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