Poverty, not bad teachers, is the main reason for poor test scores in schools. One-fifth of American children live in poverty, and facing up to that reality is a moral issue.
Teachers are convenient scapegoats for the ills of our society. Many of our best teachers quit because they are beaten down by bad working conditions, low pay and lack of support. Every year 20 percent of teachers in urban districts quit.
Researcher Clancy Blair of New York University wrote “Stress Relief Can Be the Key to Success in School” in the September/October issue of Scientific American Mind. This article states, “Stress may be silently sabotaging success in school. Its effects are especially potent for children in poverty." The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health.
He concludes this altered stress response and its effect on executive function help to explain one way in which poverty affects children’s development of school readiness skills and later classroom performance.
Although poverty is considered a major source of stress, the findings also suggest that other sources of stress may affect children in all income groups — for example, from divorce, harsh parenting or struggles with a learning disability.
The Coleman Report, which came out in 1966, showed the relationship between economic advantage and student achievement. New research by Sean Reardon of Stanford University traced the achievement gap between children from high and low-income families over the last 50 years. Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that more than 40 percent of the variation in average reading scores and 46 percent of the variation in average math scores across states is associated with child poverty rates.
The Program for International Student Assessment shows that among 15-year-olds in the United States and the 13 countries whose students outperformed ours, students with lower economic and social status had far lower reading test scores than the more economically advantaged students within every country.
Policy makers ignore these facts because they believe that teachers, if pushed hard enough, can overcome the effects of poverty. They say recognizing that poverty has a negative influence is setting a low achievement bar that becomes self-fulfilling.
Some schools have beat the odds but evidence of a few success stories does not support the view that this can be scaled up to address the needs of large populations of disadvantaged students.
We need to recognize the difficulties these children bring into the classroom. These kids need the enriching activities their more economically advantaged peers get.
There needs to be funding for early childhood schooling, educational support for parents and their 2 to 3 year olds, the addition of after-school programs, social services and summer camps to help the disadvantaged so that they can prosper. Schools need to be properly funded so class sizes are workable.
All of this is possible, but we first need to recognize the problem exists.