Thursday, March 6, 2014

How Does Poverty Influence Academic Performance? Find out starting next week . . .

I read, seemingly everywhere about how poverty does or doesn't influence students' performance in schools (including  NY Times on poverty, USA Today on assessments  Sociological Images on SAT scoresEd Week on grit, and Brookings on college enrollment/graduation).

But I notice one thing in common among these pieces -- nobody actually seems to know exactly why living in poverty would or wouldn't lead to a change in achievement or attainment.  In other words, what is it about living in poverty that drives students' poor performance in schools?

We know students from wealthier families far outperform students from lower-income families in schools, but there's no consensus among researchers and very little knowledge among the general public as to why that's the case.  Heck, significant numbers of people still seem to think the relationship isn't even causal.

So, next Monday I'm going to begin a series that draws on my dissertation research to start to answer that question.  Expect 2-3 posts per week over the course of the spring as I explore 19 different ways in which living in poverty negatively impacts students' performance in school and what we can do about this.

I look forward to what should be a vigorous discussion . . .


Parry Graham said...

Three big reasons that I believe have a solid base in the research literature (although you would most likely know better):

1) Parents with lower levels of education are more likely to live in poverty, and lower levels of education are generally correlated with all sorts of things: for example, smaller vocabularies, which result in children being exposed to fewer vocabulary words as they grow up, which impacts reading ability.

2) Parents in wealthier families are able to provide extra-educational opportunities to their children that parents in less wealthy households may not be able to afford: vacations (which expose children to settings and knowledge that might correlate with school curricula), tutoring, piano lessons, museum visits, etc.

3) Living in poverty can have a negative physiological impact on brain development, especially in poor urban settings where some children may experience heightened levels of fear of bodily harm.


Nora said...

I just stumbled across your blog post. I am what they would call a used to have. Therefore, I have some comparative insight.There is an enormous learning curve to being poor.

While I would agree with Parry Graham that the 3 things mentioned are significant, believe there are more subtle, more impactful things at work. Many of those factors are externally imposed and I submit, many are borne out of the mythology of poverty, much of it media driven.

There is an assumption that people live in poverty, especially longer term poverty, because they are irresponsible or fail to try hard enough. Many policies or recommendations come from the top down and fail to properly identify or address real needs. Interventions/assistance are poorly designed, short-termed,categorical and fractionalized.

There is a lot of externally imposed shame that goes with living in poverty.

An example: I have an advanced degree but "job training" offered/required is training to become a daycare aide and get a GED or associates degree. When I am professionally attired and in a setting where I am assumed to be educated and probably middle class or above, I am spoken to one way. I have actually run into some of the same people while I am in jeans and a sweatshirt and accessing safety net programs. Those same people who have discussed things with me as an equal, have failed to recognize me and talked down to me, as if I were "less than".

The digital divide is hugely impactful. It is very different having access at home and having to wait in line at the local library for your 30 minutes of internet access. School newsletters, notices and homework are sent via inaccessible email. Many schools require that papers be submitted through anti-plagiarism sites and handwriting is not an option. Even parent teacher meetings are set up by email or website. Without reliable computer access, families fall behind.

Socialization and the building of social capital is difficult as well. Just as I cannot meet for drinks after work and network toward employment to pull us out of poverty because I can't afford it, children are reluctant to expose themselves to shaming social experiences. They may not attend a birthday party because they cannot afford a gift or join a sports team because the family can't ever be "Snack Mom". As a result they lose out on the time to process information in a peer group. Just discussing what you think might be on the upcoming test, helps a child process learning. Being shunned or ashamed to interact with peers in certain social situations, hurts.

Poverty requires some convoluted logistics just to get things done. Another example: Pre-poverty a doctor's visit was 20 minutes away by car and valet parking plus tip was $5. Now, the same trip is about 2 hours (nearly 4 roundtrip) via 3 buses. Carfare for myself and my childis $24. Where does that 4 hours come from: school time; homework time; meal time; relaxation and depressurizing time?

Finally, poverty is very stressful and stress takes it's toll. Last August a study came out talking about the reduction in mental capacity engendered by poverty. A human has only so much mental bandwidth and if it is being stressed by shame, by logistics, by lack of resources, by anticipatory fear, the study noted a significant reduction in the ability decision making ability and a whopping 13 point drop in IQ....

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Perry and Nora:

It sounds like the one thing you both identified is stress. I'll elaborate on that further in an upcoming post.

Other posts will also be in that vein: examining how tangible social factors and environmental conditions experienced because one lives in poverty subsequently affect students' academic performance.