Poverty is on the rise in America and is creating a phenomenon known as the “poverty trap.” Public schools are having to deal with its negative effects more and more every year. This is important for schools because poverty greatly decreases student learning ability, and public schools and teachers must become more creative at finding ways to mitigate the negative effects of poverty in the classroom. During an era of increasing public education “reform,” it’s important to keep poverty in mind as a factor of student achievement.
The US is currently one of only three countries in the OECD community (out of 34) that spend as little on welfare for families in poverty, that do as little for helping children in poverty, and that do not equalize educational opportunity for children in poor communities (1). This must change if the United States is going to be economically competitive with other industrialized countries in the future.
Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, in his book The Price of Inequality, states that “Other countries, not as rich as the United States, have done a better job of reducing poverty and inequality” (2). Some examples are Scandinavian countries, such as Finland and Norway, and some Asian countries, such as Singapore and South Korea. Not surprisingly, these are also the countries with the highest PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test scores. They are the highest performing countries for public education, and the one thing they’ve gotten right issocial equity – equal learning opportunity for all students. The social benefits of that achievement go far beyond the classroom. These countries also enjoy larger economic dividends because social equality for children translates into real long-term GDP (Gross Domestic Product) gains for these countries, not just social gains.
High poverty affects children with a high degree of instability. Stabilizing students’ most basic needs, such as food and shelter, is essential for success at learning in school. Parent involvement is also an important factor in a student’s academic success. When a child understands that education is important for his or her parents, then the child comes to value it as well. Having no books in the home is also a problem for families living in poverty. As is common in poor homes, both parents work, and one or both parent works 2-3 jobs just to survive. In these homes, there is frequently no time or energy leftover for reading. Reading is usually not a priority. But children need to see books in their home. They need to see that adults value reading, and children need to have adult reader role models.
Another negative effect of poverty is that when parents do not read, they do not have a very large vocabulary. And when children grow up not hearing a large variety of words from the adults around them, the vocabulary of those children suffers and it creates an academic downward spiral over time. Literacy is the most basic need that must be met first in order for learning to be successful for students.
With the shrinking of the middle class in the United States today and along with the growth of poverty, more and more students are coming to public schools with poverty’s effects negatively impacting their learning. Schools and teachers are doing what they can to mitigate for poverty and to improve student learning, but much more must be done politically and socially if teachers are to be successful at this very important but very difficult job of educating the next generations. It is in the best interest of the country to ensure that teachers are successful at teaching all students. Teachers need to be given the means necessary to achieve success. Everything that can be done to achieve equal opportunity and a minimum standard of living for the poorest among us will benefit the entire country in the long run.