Moving Beyond Poverty to Ensure Success for All Students

November 7, 2014



Poverty is a prominent concern in our society, and one that spills over into our schools and affects the way students learn, think and problem-solve. More than one in five children live in poverty in the United States, and more than two in five children are living in low-income households (Reeves, 2003). Women and children in single-mother families have even higher rates of poverty with almost 75 percent of these children living in poverty, while 30 percent of children living in married-couple families live in poverty (Reeves, 2003)  


When our students live in poverty, there are many ways in which this impacts their lives. According to Eric Jensen (2009), “Chronic exposure to poverty causes the brain to physically change in a detrimental manner.” This is why schools are struggling with effectively educating these students. Because of the experiences and conditions poverty presents, including emotional and social challenges, health and safety issues and acute chronic stressors, these students must be taught differently. It is important to note that they CAN be taught and they CAN be successful. The brain is designed to adapt from experience, so we know that it can change and develop for the better, and we, as educators, are faced with the task of determining HOW (Jensen, 2009).


Why do we talk about race when we are examining the impact of poverty? In 2010, 47 percent of Native American children, 39 percent of Blacks, 35 percent of Hispanics, 14 percent of Asians and 12 percent of Whites were poor (Reeves, 2003). In addition, more than 80 percent of Black and Hispanic children living in single-mother households were living in poverty. The racial and socioeconomic disparities in academic achievement, otherwise known as the “achievement gap,” exist pervasively in schools across this country (Lavin-Loucks, 2006). “Predicated on race and class divisions, the achievement gap is part of a larger legacy that intertwines individual and family resources with school quality, social capital and educational opportunity” (Lavin-Loucks, 2006). Although there is much disagreement about whether the fault lies with the failure of families to provide enriching environments, poor quality schools or policies that seem to ignore the institutionalized racism, segregation and funding inequities among schools, one thing we do know for sure is that poverty and the resulting achievement gap is a complicated issue with many interrelated factors.


Although early childhood education is known to be one of the most powerful ways to minimize the achievement gap, other than Head Start programs designed for at-risk youth, enrollment by minority children in preschools is much lower than for white students. Children living in poverty are also much less likely to attend center-based early childhood programs, with 47 percent attending these programs versus 59 percent of those above the poverty line. Poverty impacts preschool enrollment and contributes to math and reading achievement gaps that already exist by the time a child enters kindergarten (Lavin-Loucks, 2006).


This research brief provides a summary of research and best practice in terms of what schools, teachers and administrators can do to improve educational outcomes for students living in poverty. In seven domains, specific strategies are listed along with explanations and practical examples. Any one of these strategies can be examined in much more depth, and resources and authors are cited so you can pursue ideas that are of interest to your school.


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