Mention poverty's effect in any discussion of urban education, and the reaction is often dismissive. Officials from the highest levels of government on down the local level frequently say that referring to poverty is an excuse for low student achievement.
Willa Powell raises the poverty issue in a recent article on the New York State School Boards Association website. Powell is the director of the Conference of Big 5 School Boards, and she’s a member of the Rochester school board. The state is currently focused on teacher evaluations and the new Common Core curriculum, and Powell says she doesn’t object to either. But, she says, “What are we doing about the conditions children live in when they aren’t in school?”
Powell points to a gradual retreat from President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty. Roughly 22 percent of American children are living in poverty today, more than in 1964. Recent research out of Stanford University shows that family income is the determining factor in student achievement.
The finding isn’t entirely new. Research dating back to the 1970’s shows that children who see their parents reading are more likely to be readers.
Out of the most recent spate of articles regarding the latest state test scores, a small graph in the Democrat and Chronicle was revealing. The graph showed the scores in Monroe County school districts from lowest to highest. Not surprisingly, the lowest scores were in the poorest communities and the highest were in the area’s wealthiest.
The question Powell raises isn’t whether poor children can learn; that’s a false argument. The question is: What should we be doing to reduce childhood poverty and enhance the investment we’re making in education?