Strategies to Combat Poverty in Schools

What Can Schools Do to Address Poverty?

The United States of America has one of the highest rates of childhood poverty of any other industrialised nation, and this rate is continuing to rise. As of the end of the year 2014, children made up 33 percent of the total population of people who were living in poverty, totaling more than 15.4 million and accounting for 21 percent of all children in the United States. Another 15 million people call low-income families their home (representing 21 percent of the total). The number of children living in poverty rose from 11.6 million in the year 2000 to 15.5 million in 2014. This represents an increase of 33 percent over the course of those 14 years (U.S. Census Bureau, 2014 — source: Table 3). The number of people living in poverty reached a record high in 2014, reaching 46.7 million, or one in seven Americans. This is the highest number recorded since statistics on poverty rates were first published (U.S. Census Bureau, 2014 — source: Table 2). Equally shocking is the finding of a study which revealed that between 60 and 75 percent of American citizens will spend at least one year of their lives living in poverty or in conditions close to it (Neuman, 2008).

Whose Problem Is Poverty?

A discussion that was initiated by James Coleman in 1966 when he came to the conclusion that schools could only have a limited effect on students who live in poverty, this discussion has continued for decades. Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, posed the question, “Whose problem is poverty?” in an article that was published in Educational Leadership (April 2008). He suggests that schools can only have a limited influence on closing the achievement gap between students who live in poverty and their peers who are more affluent unless school improvement is combined with broader social and economic reforms. This is because students who live in poverty are more likely to have a lower level of education. According to him, the mandate for schools to “completely overcome achievement disparities” would not only stay unfulfilled without such a concerted effort, but it will also cause us to mistakenly and unfairly condemn our schools and teachers. Without such an effort, the mandate will remain unfulfilled (p.8). This line of reasoning is not exclusive to him. According to David Berliner’s line of reasoning, which was cited in Rodriguez and Fabionar’s (2010) work, “Without careful attention to the social conditions beyond schools, we will continue to encounter limitations in advancing educational equity and high achievement among diverse student populations within schools” (pp.58–59). (See also Anyon, 2005.)

Others maintain that schools have the potential to and really do make a major impact on the lives and academic results of students who originate from low-income households (Barr & Parrett, 2007; McGee, 2004). According to Kati Haycock, “it is very clear to me that even as we work to improve the conditions of families in this country, we can in fact get even the poorest children to high standards of achievement if we really focus in our schools on that goal.” Haycock is a proponent of the idea that “even as we work to improve the conditions of families in this country, we can in fact get even the poorest children to high standards of achievement” (in Holland, 2007, p.56).

What Can Schools Do to Address Poverty?

Reforms need to take place not just in society as a whole but also in individual schools in order for poverty to be eradicated, and individual schools do play a significant role in this fight. We encourage educators, and especially educational leaders, to become knowledgeable about issues related to the eradication of poverty, to join forces with others who advocate for social and economic reforms, and to muster the courage to do the much-needed work closer to home, in their own schools and communities. It is absolutely necessary to educate all pupils to high standards with great success if we ever hope to rid the world of poverty. If we, as educators, feel helpless to address larger issues such as jobs that pay a living wage or health care reform, Gorski (2008) suggests that we ask ourselves, “Are we willing, at the very least, to tackle the classism in our own schools and classrooms?” If the answer is “yes,” then we should move on to the next question. As a point of departure, Gorski (2007, page 35) offers the ten recommendations that are as follows:

Only assign work that can be performed in school, including work that requires a computer, internet access, or other expensive resources, when we are able to provide the necessary amount of time and materials for such work.
Collaborate with our educational institutions to find ways to make parental involvement more accessible and less expensive, such as by offering on-site child care, transportation, and flexible scheduling.
Provide pupils living in poverty with access to the same high-level curricular and pedagogical possibilities as their counterparts who come from wealthy families, along with the same high expectations for those students.
Prepare future generations of students to create a more equitable world by teaching them about issues such as classism, consumer culture, the decline of labour unions, and environmental pollution. These are only some of the injustices that disproportionately affect the poor.
Keep a supply of school supplies, snacks, clothes, and other basic essentials on hand for children who may need them, but develop quiet ways to disperse these resources so as not to single someone out as needing them specifically.
Create educational programmes that are pertinent and important to the lives of our students, and that draw on their experiences and the environment in which they live.
Fight to get our students accepted into programmes for bright and talented students, give them other opportunities that are typically reserved for students from economically privileged families, and prevent them from being unfairly placed in special education.
Maintaining communication with the parents, even when we have the impression that they are not responding to our efforts, is one strategy to build trust.
When our coworkers stigmatise low-income students and their families, we should call their behaviour into question and remind them of the unequal conditions that exist in our schools and classrooms.
By educating ourselves, both within and outside of the classroom, about the cycle of poverty and classism in the United States, we may challenge ourselves, our biases, and our prejudices.
(This passage was reprinted with permission from Teaching Tolerance in 2007) (We reserve all of our rights.)

The fact that our country is in need of wider-scale social and economic changes does not give an excuse for keeping things the same in our educational institutions. Children who are poor can see improvements in their academic achievements and other indicators of success if they attend school, according to research that has been conducted over the past three decades (Barr & Parrett, 2007; Education Trust, 2002; Teddlie & Stringfield, 1993). Horace Mann believed that public education was the most universal of all institutions because of its ability to mould the minds and hearts of young people. It continues to be our most promising option. Even while improvements in public education won’t be enough to solve the problem of poverty on their own, they are still an essential element of the answer. The question that needs to be answered is not whether too much is being demanded of public schools; rather, the one that needs to be asked is whether or not we have lived up to our end of the deal.