The Politics of Poverty and Student Achievement

School reform and the subsequent data driven, high stakes, testing climate that is utterly pervasive in today’s education industry is often big news of late. Add to that the drive to bust teachers unions and dwindling school budgets it is a wonder our kids get educated at all. While I do not subscribe to so much of the hype surrounding our “failing schools” there is one thing above all else that I feel is being under represented in all this buzz. That is poverty and it’s effect on student achievement.

If it is hard data you are interested in then do a quick search for “rising poverty in America” and you will get back a multitude of hits supporting the argument. One article I read in the NYTimes suggested that the 14.3% rise in poverty since 1994 is seen hardest on children with one in five being affected. This is not only a travesty for all involved it is also detrimental to the countries future as these children will be less prepared for the difficult challenges the 21st century will throw at them. It is difficult not only to get a homeless child to school, but due to the transient nature of those in poverty remaining in school is challenging.

A good friend of mine is a principal at a intermediate school, grades 4-6. In a conversation I had with him he bemoaned his 43% free or reduced lunch population. His feeling is that to get a student to read at or above grade level is compromised greatly by their home life. When families are barely holding on economically there is little time for a mother or father to sit down at night, go over homework with their kids and spend time reading with them. They simply are to busy struggling to find a job and worrying about where there families next meal may come from, or worse where they will spend the night. These students however are expected to perform on the same standardized tests as students who come from upper middle income, or upper income families. This simply will not happen and a schools performance suffers.

Yet our schools today, and the powers that be, still emphasis the same old ideas on education reform. That being inflationary standardized test scores solely in the areas of Math & Reading. Inflationary meaning that every year a school, and it’s students, must increase their scores. No matter how well they are doing. And when this does not happen, because by nature it is impossible, it is the teachers who get the blame. Now don’t get me wrong I know that there are teachers who are not effective in the classroom and sadly are protected by a system that seems to reward such ineffectiveness, but I truly believe the vast majority of educators are hard working, caring and dedicated professionals. Professionals that are doing there best with decreased funding, large classrooms and ever more scrutiny based on the data acquired from these tests. If you give it some thought that is a tall order when considering the idea that the kids taking the test, by default, do not understand the implications if they do not succeed. In simpler terms they are not vested in the test and do not care. Combine that with increased poverty and it is a recipe for disaster.

Fighting and eliminating poverty in America is not an impossible goal. In fact it very well might be the most important contribution to continued success in the 21st century. When considering the fact that the good jobs of the future all will be met by individuals who’s credentials include higher levels of education, fighting poverty might be the key. If parents of our students can get up in the morning, head out to a good job, come home and effectively be a part of the education of their children by modeling success, then we will be OK. Having parents be allies in producing well educated, hard working citizens, is crucial to improving student achievement, and that will go a long way to getting people back to work and lifting families out of poverty. After we solve our rising levels of poverty in America then and only then will be ready to face the challenges of a truly, 21st century, global economy.

The Opinionated Artist


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