Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Challenge of Educating Poor Students - Part 1

       American Public Schools face many and varied challenges.  Funding, equity, and public support to name a few.  On the top of this list of challenges, I would include: The Achievement of Poor Students.

       It is easy to understand the underpinnings of this problem, and yet it is extremely complex to succeed in overcoming this problem.  The problem stems from two indisputable facts:

  1. Poor students consistently demonstrate lower achievement than their non-poor peers.
  2. The proportion of poor students in our nation's public schools is over 50% and is growing.

       I will examine this challenge from three perspectives:

  1. Poor students who have succeeded in our schools
  2. Understanding the special and different needs of poor students 
  3. Expert advice on successfully educating poor students

The Challenge of Educating Poor Students - Part 1

Poor students who have succeeded in our schools

       Every public school can point to a student who comes from a poor family and (yet) defies the odds and does well in school academically.   Or...Can they?  Unless you know the student's background, it might be hard to find these students in your school.

       The outward signs of poverty are relatively easy to see:  dirty clothes or the same clothes day after day; same, single pair of shoes everyday; no extra school supplies.  And then there is the attitude--opposition behavior, attention disorders, excessive absenteeism.  Taken alone, these are not necessarily signs of students from poor homes, but taken together there can be assumptions of the student's home lives based on these visible factors.

       Unfortunately, it is so common for poor students to have low academic achievement that when we have a poor student who succeeds in the academics of school we (often) don't see that child as being from a poor background.  So what is it that propels a poor student to achieve where his/her peers don't?  And what can we learn from poor students that succeed that can help us to raise the achievement of other poor students?

Vocabulary Acquisition

       According to a study from 1995, from the age of 7 months to the age of 3 years, 90% of the words used by children were words used by the children's parent (or primary caregivers).  Parents with higher educations used more words than parents with less education AND higher educated parents talked to their babies and toddlers more than less educated parents.  This creates an "Achievement Gap" among very young children before they even begin Pre-kindergarten.

       But poor students who succeed in school often come to school with a good vocabulary because they were blessed with parents and/or caregivers that shared with them the (totally free) gift of words when they were very young.  Babies and toddlers can learn words from parents reading books to them; but they also learn from simple talking and singing.  So families that cannot provide a lot of children's books to their children can still provide the precious gift of words by simply talking to their children every day.


       The story of Karvel Anderson is the best definition of grit that you will ever find.  Karvel's story is one of a child who grew up with many challenges but never anything that made him give up on life.  He says that adversity was good for him because he always wanted to prove that he can do anything.

       Most students from poor backgrounds succumb to the narrative that they will never succeed because it seems like the world is against them.  Every where they turn, some one is taking away an opportunity or refusing them something.  Grit is a personality trait in which a person strives to achieve goals regardless of the obstacles that may stand in the way.

A Supportive Adult

       Poor student who succeed usually have an adult in their life that is there to encourage them when times are tough.  It might be a parent, but it also might be a teacher, a grandmother, a school counselor, or a coach.  While some students seems to have the ability to overcome just about any situation, most poor students need someone to guide and help them through the toughest times.

       As schools and teachers look to increase the achievement of poor students, I believe that we have to understand that the world they live in can seem very different than our world.  We need to understand how their lack of resources and supports is a great hindrance to their academic success.  And we have to find a way to fill in the supports that they are lacking so that we can help them to value education and to be successful in school.


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