Magnifying the American Educational System: The War on Poverty in the Classroom

Children in a classroom

President Lyndon Johnson sent a powerful message during his 1964 State of the Union address when he said, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”

A gauntlet was figuratively thrown down by our nation’s leader that we would turn the tide of poverty in this country.

As we look to the present, 52 years later, the U.S. average of families living in poverty is 20 percent, with 14 states higher than average. One out of every five students in our schools is fighting each day to attain basic human needs. President Johnson’s war on poverty was not won, and the battle rages in our classrooms each day.

How poverty impacts learning

On the surface, poverty may appear to be more of a societal issue rather than an educational issue. Current research would state that children from low socioeconomic homes face a series of roadblocks to learning, including low literacy home environments, chronic stress, and lack of access to educational resources. These students begin their educational careers at a significant disadvantage, and the path doesn’t get any smoother as they continue.

A simple way to relate to the academic struggles of students living in poverty is to reference Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Top tier: Self-actualization
4th tier: Self-esteem
3rd tier: Friendship
2nd tier: Security, safety
Bottom tier: Food, water, sleep

A meaningful education would be at the top of the pyramid as part of self-actualization. Before someone can climb to the top, other needs must be met. These are typical needs that are often taken for granted, including food, security, and self-esteem. If a student doesn’t feel safe in their home, how are they supposed to place any value on the merits of long division?

Effects after high school

The statistics of students in poverty beyond academia are just as frightening. Nationally, 74.6 percent of low-income students graduate high school on time. This is a 14 percent difference from non-poverty students.

A report from the University of Pennsylvania and the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education extend the topic further by highlighting that only one in five students from the lowest income bracket successfully completes a bachelor’s degree by the age of 24. This statistic is the same as it was in 1970. Regardless of the attempts, these students simply are not college- and career-ready.

Fundamentals for victory

A war on poverty is being fought in the classrooms of our schools, but is there a strategy to win? It goes beyond simply teaching harder or caring more. Fundamental areas must be addressed:

Recognize that poverty is an educational issue

Rhetoric stating that schools should stop using poverty as an excuse for poor performance is not productive. While a principal shouldn’t throw her hands in the air and say “These kids are too poor to educate,” pundits should not be allowed to turn a blind eye to the effects that poverty has on education.

Many students of poverty were disadvantaged before they were born. Pregnancy concerns related to poor nutrition, environmental toxins, and prenatal drug use are more prevalent in low-income households. These can lead to poor cognitive development. While this may not be the case for many low-income students, the chances that schools in impoverished areas will serve these affected children are greater.

Poverty is an educational issue and needs to play a larger role in how we hold schools accountable and how success is truly measured.

Target spending in productive ways

One promising regulation to come from the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is the proposal of Title One funds to be used to supplement rather than supplant funding for low-income schools. In some areas of the country, states or school districts have replaced local funds with federal Title I funds, leading to less overall money for the schools in the most need.

Even with the promise of positive changes to funding, many would argue that people are needed much more than materials. Attracting the strongest educators and administrators to work in the highest-need schools could be a major step in the right direction. This requires a shift to how pay scales are developed and how “merit pay” is defined.

Stop assuming that anyone can teach

Cultural diversity and competency is not something that can be mastered in one college course. Effective educators in a school that serves students in poverty need additional, continuous training to help understand and overcome the learning barriers that face their students.

Many teachers have not lived in the same world as their students, but that doesn’t mean they can’t learn how to help them.

Make college and career readiness a concrete objective

Educational researchers have highlighted multiple times that educators are expected to teach far more curriculum than is possible. It sounds preposterous to even consider adding content that focuses on life skills such as filling out a job application, developing a firm handshake, and making a good impression. Yet these are just a few examples of the basic skills missing in the lives of many students in poverty.

They began their educational career at a disadvantage and are often forced to begin their search for a job with the same disadvantages. Many large corporations are seeking skilled workers from diverse backgrounds.

The natural pipeline between school and business continues to be disconnected because it requires a monumental shift from the traditional school model. This type of shift is needed if we are ever to help students break the cycle of poverty that may have existed in their families for generations.

Poverty is a societal issue that is so immense it can seem too massive to impact, particularly at the school or classroom level. Every day, educators battle the effects of poverty and strive to make a difference in the lives of these students. This is how we fight the battle, but it must extend beyond the actions in the classroom. We must recognize the impact of poverty and advocate for change that can aid in this conflict. We can’t be passive and accept that change can’t occur. When this becomes our action, the war will be lost.

Dr. Jason Perez is the executive director of Teacher and Leader Effectiveness for the Oklahoma State Department of Education with 14 years of educational and administrative experience at the elementary level. He also serves as an adjunct faculty member at St. Thomas University.

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