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How Poverty Affects Children's Education

The greatest complaint I have of educational reformers is their belief that our public schools should be able to educate children even if the children come from poverty. It is poppycock. The research over years has demonstrated that poverty has demonstrative effects on children's learning. Let me cite a few examples of that research using Eric Jensen's article, "How Poverty Affects Classroom Engagement."Health affects the poor. The poor have more untreated ear infections and hearing loss issues (Menyuk, 1980); greater exposure to lead (Sargent et al., 1995); and a higher incidence of asthma (Gottlieb, Beiser, & O'Connor, 1995) than middle-class children. Each of these health-related factors can affect attention, reasoning, learning, and memory. Nutrition plays a crucial role as well. Children who grow up in poor families are exposed to food with lower nutritional value. This can adversely affect them even in the womb (Antonow-Schlorke et al., 2011). Moreover, poor nutrition at breakfast affects gray matter mass in children's brains (Taki et al., 2010). Skipping breakfast is highly prevalent among urban minority youth, and it negatively affects students' academic achievement by adversely affecting cognition and raising absenteeism (Basch, 2011). When students experience poor nutrition and diminished health practices, it's harder for them to listen, concentrate, and learn. Exposure to lead is correlated with poor working memory and weaker ability to link cause and effect. Kids with ear infections may have trouble with sound discrimination, making it tough to follow directions, do highly demanding auditory processing, and understand the teacher. This can hurt reading ability and other skills. Poor diets also affect behavior. Students can often appear listless (with low energy) or hyperactive (on a sugar "high").
   Children who grow up in low socioeconomic conditions typically have a smaller vocabulary than middle-class children do, which raises the risk for academic failure (Walker, Greenwood, Hart, & Carta, 1994). Children from low-income families hear, on average, 13 million words by age 4. In middle-class families, children hear about 26 million words during that same time period. In upper-income families, they hear a staggering 46 million words by age 4—three times as many as their lower-income counterparts (Hart & Risley, 1995).
   Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds often perform below those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds on tests of intelligence and academic achievement (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002). Commonly, low-SES children show cognitive problems, including short attention spans, high levels of distractibility, difficulty monitoring the quality of their work, and difficulty generating new solutions to problems (Alloway, Gathercole, Kirkwood, & Elliott, 2009). These issues can make school harder for children from impoverished backgrounds. Many children who struggle cognitively either act out (exhibit problem behavior) or shut down (show learned helplessness).
   Jensen goes on to talk about how there are ways for teachers to deal with these issues. But here the research breaks down. What evidence is there that we can overcome all these issues? Certainly there are examples of a few teachers overcoming these issues. But there is no overriding success. Why don't elected officials focus on eliminating poverty. If we drastically reduce poverty, our students would do far better in school.


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