Thursday, March 13, 2014

How Does Poverty Affect Academic Performance? Part 2: Theory

Today I continue the series examining the ways in which poverty influences academic performance.  Part 1 explored the achievement gap and some trends and causes and future parts will discuss social factors and environmental conditions experienced by families living in poverty that may also impact academic performance.  In other words, what, exactly, is it about living in poverty that results in dramatically lower achievement and attainment?

Before we can answer that, we need to first understand why poverty would matter.  Below, I briefly discuss some theory and literature that points us toward some possibilities.

Neighborhood Effects
Though a wide array of social conditions influence children’s academic performance, researchers and policymakers have focused more on the links between housing and neighborhoods and educational outcomes; from the Gautreaux decision to the MTO experiment and beyond. The results of this strand of policy and research have run a wide gamut. A recent review of the literature [1] concludes that:

Housing programs have successfully helped poor parents move to safer and less disadvantaged communities and, in some cases, less segregated neighborhoods . . . Despite the ability for some of these programs to bring about context changes, it appears much more difficult to improve the educational outcomes of children. Early Gautreaux results suggested large benefits for children moving to the suburbs, but . . . more recent MTO research concludes that neighborhood change is not enough to substantially improve schooling quality or educational outcomes (p. 478).

In short, while there may be sufficient reason to believe that housing policy can positively and significantly impact the academic performance of some of the poorest Americans, there is as of yet no conclusive evidence that we know how to do this on a consistent basis.

One reason behind the contradicting findings may be the lack of a clear consensus on a theoretical framework outlining the relationships between potential levers of housing policy and academic performance. In their introduction to the Neighborhood Poverty series, Gephart and Brooks-Gunn [2] write that

Multiple theoretical perspectives, fragmented by discipline and often by method, provide partial, potentially complementary (but sometimes conflicting) guidance about the characteristics of neighborhoods that may affect the development of children, youth, and families, and about the mechanisms through which such characteristics affect families and individuals. (p. xvii)

Although the field has come a long way in the 17 years since, the problem they identify has never been fully resolved. Why would these policies have led to changes in children’s educational performance? While the theory supporting such a relationship has been well-developed in some areas, it remains highly fragmented – particularly across different disciplines. In other words, while theoretical models regarding parts of the story abound, we do not yet have an all-encompassing theoretical framework. Jencks and Mayer [3] divide theories relating neighborhoods to child development into three groups: epidemic models, collective socialization models, and institutional models.

Epidemic models
Epidemic models theorize that neighborhood characteristics spread much like disease spreads – from person to person. For example, one person decides to use drugs, then another, then another, and so forth (or, perhaps, read Shakespeare). In this way, peer norms are the main driver of individual behavior; those raised in neighborhoods where going to college is the norm are more likely to attend college, and those raised in neighborhoods where dropping out of high school is the norm are more likely to drop out.

Collective socialization models
Collective socialization models hold that values are derived from adults who live in the neighborhood. Adults both serve as examples to which children should aspire and enforce rules within the neighborhood. These models would theorize that people who grow up in neighborhoods where drug dealers are idolized would be more likely to deal drugs when they come of age while those who grow up in neighborhoods full of shopkeepers would be more likely to open their own store and people who grow up around college graduates would be more likely to attend college themselves.

Institutional Models
Institutional models underline the importance of adults from outside of the neighborhood; particularly those in positions of authority (teachers, police, etc.). Theories under this umbrella posit that children from poorer neighborhoods interact with different outside authority figures and/or are treated differently by outside authority figures. Children treated with more respect and concern by these authority figures would then stand a better chance of graduating from high school or avoiding jail.

Theories under all these umbrellas overlap with one another and often predict similar outcomes (for example, that students in poorer neighborhoods will be less likely to graduate). Both because of that fact and because they all have empirical backing, we should consider all three when predicting and studying how social policy might impact academic performance. That those in lower classes live in worse housing is not seriously questioned. Indeed, the local home values seem to explain differences in school-wide achievement that other background variables do not [4]. This may be due in part to those with means opting to move into neighborhoods zoned for better schools, but is also likely the result of a more complicated relationship between homes and neighborhoods and various behaviors and actions. For example, it has been theorized that perception of disorder in one’s surroundings leads to other negative behaviors [5, 6]. Hastings [7] posits that neighborhood effects are compounded by a vicious cycle wherein poorer neighborhoods need more services and the situation is exacerbated when government officials fail to recognize, and subsequently act on, this condition.

Stress Theory
Based on developmental research, Shonkoff and Phillips [8] add stress theory as a fourth group of neighborhood effects theories, though it is more often cited by health researchers. Stress Theory posits that stressors more common in poorer neighborhoods (which might range from crime to lead paint) have deleterious effects on children. These negative effects add up to create stress and inhibit development. A recent advance in the study of stress was the creation of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) survey [9], which measures accumulated stress through exposure to various stressors in childhood and strongly predicts later health and academic outcomes. Stress theory would predict that children exposed to more negative experiences would be more distracted, less focused, more stressed, and lower achieving in school.

Ecological Systems Theory
Widely used by those who research both neighborhoods and family/home conditions and their effect on child development, ecological systems theory [10] and the bioecological model [11] theorize that children are affected by people and institutions in five different nested levels: immediate friends, family and surroundings (the microsystem); the relationships between these immediate surroundings (the mesosystem); the outside experiences of immediate friends and family (the exosystem); the cultural context in which one lives (the macrosystem); and the historical context in which one lives (the chronosystem). Each system influences each child differently and to different extents depending on both the degree of exposure to, and context of, each. Students who experience problems in their immediate surroundings (e.g. family conflict), relationships between these different groups (e.g. a poor relationship between their church and parents), extended social systems (e.g. a parent working in a stressful job), cultural context (e.g. high rates of poverty and unemployment), and/or historical context (e.g. racial discrimination) would be expected to perform worse in school.

Resources likely matter both directly and indirectly. In the most direct sense, more money enables families to purchase more goods to aid their children’s learning. For example, a recent study using two national databases found that families who earn more money or begin earning more money spend more on physical items like books and toys in addition to enrichment activities like sports and art classes [12]. More indirectly, economists and psychologists argue that a lack of resources diverts attention away from other tasks. For example, focusing attention on finding adequate food or water decreases the amount of attention a parent can focus on their child’s physical health or the homework due the next day [13]. The former predicts that a child with more stimulation at home and more activities outside the home will perform better in school because he/she had more learning experiences; the latter predicts that a child whose parents have to spend less time and energy ensuring basic needs are met will perform better in school because he/she received more attention and care.

Non-Cognitive Factors
Recent writings have focused the attention of researchers [14] and the public [15] on the non-cognitive skills of students, with some evidence that they may be stronger predictors of school success than cognitive skills [see, for example: 16]. Some researchers group self-control together with attention as psychological effects of poverty [17] since the stresses encountered by those living in poverty can deplete both over time [18], but I instead include self-control with non-cognitive factors. Tough lists grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity as the seven factors “especially likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement” (p. 76). Students whose environments foster development of these skills and traits would be more likely to earn higher grades, score higher on tests, and graduate from high school and college.

Culture of Poverty
Popularized by Oscar Lewis [19] and “The Moynihan Report” [20], the “culture of poverty” theory essentially argued that people living in poverty had developed a destructive culture that perpetuated the cycle of poverty. Lewis later clarified [21] that he believed that:

The people in the culture of poverty have a strong feeling of marginality, of helplessness, of dependency, of not belonging. They are like aliens in their own country, convinced that the existing institutions do not serve their interests and needs. Along with this feeling of powerlessness is a widespread feeling of inferiority, of personal unworthiness . . . People with a culture of poverty have very little sense of history. They are a marginal people who know only their own troubles, their own local conditions, their own neighborhood, their own way of life. Usually, they have neither the knowledge, the vision nor the ideology to see the similarities between their problems and those of others like themselves else in the world (p. 21).

Lewis continues on to argue that although he believes those living in poverty had changed their culture, that these changes were not all negative. He argues, for example, that a focus on the more immediate present rather than long-term planning could lead to a more joyful and carefree life.

Though largely discredited and ignored in recent decades [22], the “culture of poverty” hypothesis has made a recent comeback among scholars [23] – but this time with a different meaning. Rather than focusing on the shortcomings of those living in poverty, the focus has shifted to examining how living in poverty affects the culture of families and neighborhoods. In this sense, Lewis may have been right that those living in poverty often feel outcast, isolated, and hopeless – but scholars now see these as an outcome rather than cause of poverty. Scholars investigating the relationship between culture and poverty would expect students who are more isolated, feel less hope for the future, and engage in less long-run planning to perform worse in school.

The theories discussed above all influence the research that I'll discuss in future posts and make appearances in a wide range of articles and topics. Indeed, researchers from different fields and disciplines often cite different theories in order to support similar arguments. Collectively, they predict that children with more stress, fewer resources, strained relationships, more chaotic surroundings, and worse role models will earn lower grades, perform worse on tests, drop out more frequently, and earn fewer degrees.  The next posts will explore some more specific and tangible ways in which students living in poverty experience these types of factors and conditions and how those experiences subsequently affect academic performance.

  1. DeLuca, S. and E. Dayton, Switching Social Contexts: The Effects of Housing Mobility and School Choice Programs on Youth Outcomes. Annual Review of Sociology, 2009. 35(1): p. 457-491.
  2. Gephart, M.A. and J. Brooks-Gunn, Introduction, in Neighborhood Poverty: Context and Consequences for Children, J. Brooks-Gunn, G.J. Duncan, and J.L. Aber, Editors. 1997, Russell Sage: New York. p. xiii-xxii.
  3. Jencks, C. and S.E. Mayer, The Social Consequences of Growing Up in a Poor Neighborhood, in Inner-City Poverty in the United States, Committee on National Urban Policy and National Research Council, Editors. 1990, National Academies Press: Washington, DC.
  4. Kane, T.J., D.O. Staiger, and G. Samms, School Accountability Ratings and Housing Values. Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs, 2003(4): p. 83-137.
  5. Franzini, L., et al., Perceptions of disorder: Contributions of neighborhood characteristics to subjective perceptions of disorder. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 2008. 28(1): p. 83-93
  6. Sampson, R.J. and S.W. Raudenbush, Seeing Disorder: Neighborhood Stigma and the Social Construction of "Broken Windows". Social Psychology Quarterly, 2004. 67(4): p. 319-342.
  7. Hastings, A., Neighbourhood Environmental Services and Neighbourhood 'Effects': Exploring the Role of Urban Services in Intensifying Neighbourhood Problems. Housing Studies, 2009. 24(4): p. 503-524.
  8. Shonkoff, J.P. and D.A. Phillips, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. 2000, Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  9. Felitti, V.J., The relationship of adverse childhood experiences to adult health: Turning gold into lead. Zeitschrift fur Psychosomatische Medizin und Psychotherapie, 2002. 48(4): p. 359-369.
  10. Bronfenbrenner, U., The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. 1979: Harvard Univ Press.
  11. Bronfenbrenner, U. and P.A. Morris, The ecology of developmental processes, in Handbook of Child Psychology: Volume 1: Theoretical Models of Human Development, R.M. Lerner, Editor. 1998, John Wiley & Sons Inc: Hoboken, NJ. p. 993-1028.
  12. Kaushal, N., K. Magnuson, and J. Waldfogel, How Is Family Income Related to Investments in Children's Learning?, in Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children's Life Chances, G.J. Duncan and R.J. Murnane, Editors. 2011, Russell Sage Foundation: New York. p. 187-205.
  13. Banerjee, A.V. and S. Mullainathan, Limited Attention and Income Distribution. The American Economic Review, 2008. 98(2): p. 489-493.
  14. Heckman, J.J., Policies to foster human capital. Research in Economics, 2000. 54(1): p. 3-56.
  15. Tough, P., How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. 2012, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  16. Duckworth, A.L. and M.E. Seligman, Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science, 2005. 16(12): p. 939-944.
  17. Mullainathan, S., The Psychology of Poverty. Focus, 2011. 28(1): p. 19-22.
  18. Spears, D., Economic Decision-Making in Poverty Depletes Behavioral Control. The BE Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, 2011. 11(1).
  19. Lewis, O., The culture of poverty. Scientific American, 1966. 215(4): p. 19 - 25.
  20. Office of Policy Planning and Research, The Negro family: The case for national action. 1965, United States Department of Labor: Washington, DC.
  21. Lewis, O., The culture of poverty, in Poor Americans: How The White Poor Live, M. Pilisuk and P. Pilisuk, Editors. 1971, Transaction, Inc.: New York. p. 20-26.
  22. Small, M.L., D.J. Harding, and M. Lamont, Reconsidering Culture and Poverty. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 2010. 629(1): p. 6-27.
  23. Cohen, P., ‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback, in New York Times. 2010.


Parry Graham said...

Keep it up -- looking forward to future posts.


Anonymous said...

Economics influence my school as well. What characteristics must a school leader possess in order to influence his/her school in a positive way?

Anonymous said...

What characteristics must a school leader possess in order to influence an economically deficient school in the right direction?

Unknown said...

It does affect a great deal, affecting acess to resources, its important to have financial aid to help the less fortunate, such as ( which helps the vulnerable students in society.