The biggest elephant in the schoolhouse: poverty

By Kathreen Harrison | Nov 13, 2014

Among wealthy reformers and others who have little experience with the reality of a classroom, it has become sexy to blame teachers for the low test scores some students achieve in school. Teachers are apparently lazy, working for payday, uninspired, just needing a kick in the pants in order to produce better student testing outcomes.

Teachers see the matter differently. They see students walk through their doors absolutely unready to learn – hungry, dirty, sickly, angry at life, wondering who will stay with them at home that night, unable to control their impulses, media-saturated, unpracticed in the social niceties that allow people to get along in groups, skeptical that learning what a school has to offer could be helpful in life, starved for physical play.

These factors together are the elephants in the room that teacher-blamers will not face, and the biggest elephant of them all is named Poverty. The current focus on teacher evaluation plans, standards-based education and standardized testing is a distraction from facing and addressing our real problem, which is how we can help families prepare their children for school and thereby give them a fighting chance at experiencing a satisfying life.

Children who are not in good emotional and physical shape generally do worse in school than intact children. Suffering children don’t want to comply with the rules of programs they find irrelevant to their problem-riddled lives. Legions of talented teachers work like crazy across this land, sometimes without much to show for their efforts in terms of test scores, but it is an insult to their Herculean efforts to blame them for not being able to erase the debilitating effects of poverty and other social ills from the children they strive to help.

Certainly, inspired teaching in the context of a great school can do a lot to help students learn. Exciting curriculum can engage even the most disenfranchised student. However, we fool ourselves if we think individual teachers can turn grave situations around singlehandedly. We do not live in a Hollywood movie – the plight of our schools and our children is real and progress requires honest, sustained effort at a systemic level.

We need to move the conversation away from finding scapegoats to one where we look for ways to solve the social problems of childhood poverty and unreadiness for school. Certainly we need to do all we can to create great schools, and support our teachers and administrators as they try to meet the emotional, physical and intellectual needs of our students. Simultaneously, however, we need to create the conditions that will allow families to ready their children to walk through the schoolhouse door adequately fed, rested, calm, healthy and excited to learn.

Comments (4)
Posted by: Ronald Horvath | Nov 15, 2014 14:46

I think you missed the point, Kenneth, or maybe you just couldn’t bring yourself to verbalize it.  True, "Parent" is not a title.  It is a responsibility and one that is borne more easily when spread throughout a community.  The poverty that Ms. Harrison speaks of is the burden of parents too stressed out by working a tag-team lifestyle, holding down at least two jobs -and sometimes more- and leaving growing kids to fend for themselves, feed themselves, not mention comfort and support themselves.

It's no secret that the American middle class, and the dream of a comfortable home and secure family life, are slipping away.  Even in the current recovery the median income has fallen.  While corporations are awash in profits (kept conveniently overseas) the working class struggles ever more and time for adults to be adults and children to be children falls away as well.  We try to make up for it with distractions, with gadgets, with celebrities, with the fantasies that materialize on our multiple screens.  Perhaps our national addiction to cell phones is a compensation for the lack of real interaction.


I know something of all this.  I was a latch-key kid in the fifties, with parents working alternating jobs.  But they were well paying jobs and I was always well fed and healthy.  In the nineties here in Maine I worked three jobs at a time to keep things together.  I hardly saw my kids in their teen years but I knew that they lived in a home filled with books and where ideas mattered.  All three have their degrees and two of them are teachers.


Yes, parents can make a difference just as teachers certainly can but no school and no teacher can make up for an insecure homelife in an uncertain economy.  The poverty that grinds down parents takes its toll on children and leaves them little strength left for leaning.   If we want a world worth living in we need to prop it up from the bottom and give them a reason to want to learn.


And now one more quote, just to annoy Mr. Frederic


“The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other.  It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich.  Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied, but written off as trash.”  -John Berger, English art critic, novelist, painter and poet. His novel G. won the 1972 Booker Prize, and his essay on art criticism Ways of Seeing, written as an accompaniment to a BBC series, is often used as a university text.

Posted by: Kenneth O Frederic | Nov 15, 2014 07:54

I would hope, Ms. Harrison, your words will be heard by people actually interested in solutions.  (That said, I see at least one quote above seeking to put up more phantom boogey-men scape goats and advance a thoroughly discredited agenda.) Hopefully people of genuine intent, open minds, and reasonable intellect will consider that the problem with schools isn't in the schools, unless we're talking about demagogues imposing 'standards' that distract and demoralize both teachers and students.  If we have an urgent crisis, one we can and must do something about, I believe you've identified it.  It won't be legislated away and it can't be 'spent' away.  It will, I believe, only be educated away when we find ways to persuade parents they're involved, whether they know it or not and whether they like it or not.  Parent is not a title, it's a verb and doing it well is the most important thing anybody will ever accomplish.

Posted by: Sonja Sleeper | Nov 15, 2014 05:56

Why don't you promote genetic modification, then teach the well behaved/tame clones all the same way?  Then you do not have to worry about managing 20 adolescents in one room.  Doesn't matter what one does in any program the individual still needs to do the work.  Or maybe it is the concept of a school that is wrong, eight hours or what is it now four?  How about some schooling alternatives instead of yet another curriculum.

Posted by: Ronald Horvath | Nov 14, 2014 19:00

“For nearly 50 years, as our country got richer, our families got richer –and as our families got richer, our country got richer.


And then about 30 years ago, our country moved in a different direction.  New leadership attacked wages.  They attacked pensions.  They attacked health care.  They attacked unions.  And now we find ourselves in a very different world from the one our parents and grandparents built.


We are now in a world in which the rich skim more off the top in taxes and special deals, and they leave less and less for our schools, for roads and bridges, for medical and scientific research –less to build a future.”  -Elizabeth Warren.

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