SEATTLE — Teachers across the country are working with students who are victimized by poverty. Nationwide, top educators agree that the poor living conditions some students face on a day-to-day basis serve as the biggest obstacle to academic progress. They believe poverty should be a new focus of school reform efforts.
This finding was recently revealed after Scholastic Inc. conducted a survey. Scholastic asked teachers to indicate which factors they felt most hindered successful learning. Teachers of the Year were specifically chosen as participants. These are the U.S.’s most highly skilled educators, selected annually in every state.
When top teachers were asked about their personal experience with this issue, there seemed to be widespread agreement. Even though current school reform efforts do not typically prioritize external conditions like poverty, it is often these out-of-school factors that present the greatest obstacles to student growth.
The country’s 2015 Teachers of the Year cited family stress, poverty and learning/psychological problems as the greatest impediments to student learning. Among the fifty-six educators surveyed, there was a common sense of shared frustration that these major issues are not being nationally prioritized.
The survey’s results echo earlier findings related to poverty and education. In fact, researchers, psychologists, and educational experts have long been studying out-of-school effects on inside-the-classroom activity. They too find it frustrating that poverty has not been placed at the forefront of educational policy-making.
David Berilner, a researcher, educational psychologist, and professor at Arizona State University, has spent time studying the educational consequences of poverty. He cites six out-of-school factors that inevitably affect student development. These factors are found commonly among the country’s poorer population.
Berliner cited issues that are not currently being attacked directly in school reform efforts. These included low birth weight, inadequate medical care, food insecurity, environmental pollutants, family stress, and neighborhood characteristics. It is no coincidence that all six factors often directly correlate with poverty.
Berliner’s list is strikingly similar to the list of educational inhibitors compiled by Scholastic. Along with explicitly citing poverty, teachers named family stress and learning/psychological problems as major impediments to academic growth. These last two factors are often symptoms of a greater problem at play—namely, poverty.
When asked to rank the academic obstacles in order of importance, teachers most commonly named family stress as the most important, followed by poverty, and then psychological problems. When asked to identify their top three school funding priorities, however, teachers agreed on anti-poverty efforts as their top choice.
This specific finding reiterates the common denominator connecting all major academic obstacles: poverty. Following anti-poverty efforts, teachers cited programs that would provide health care to poor children as should-be funding priorities. Once again, the underlying connection to poverty is no coincidence.
Teachers know better than any of us the tools that students need to learn. What is more, top teachers earned their title because of their specially attuned relationships with students. Scholastic’s survey speaks to poverty’s potentially ruinous educational effects. In terms of educational reform, focus should be redirected accordingly.
– Sarah Bernard