First, we as a society must acknowledge poverty is a pervasive disease that radiates into all aspects of society, whether it’s crime, health care, economic development, or any other aspect of life.
For two decades, we’ve blamed our schools, teachers, unions, and district leadership for low-performing schools, while disregarding the fact all of our low-performing schools have one commonality – poverty.
Poverty is a disease with many symptoms. Quality education is merely treatment for those symptoms, but it is not a cure for the illness. The cure is economic opportunity. The more disadvantaged a student’s environment is, it becomes more difficult for education to treat poverty.
I’ve experienced multiple state audits in which I was told, “Don’t bring up poverty. Those state people don’t want to hear that.” I’ve listened to a state auditor tell a group of teachers that “the circumstances of these kids’ lives have no impact on whether they can learn.” The auditors went on to tell us that poverty has no influence on student achievement and a school’s ability to educate children.
This disillusionment, the misguided pressure for better standardized test scores, and the push for every child to attend college, is merely an attempt to cover a bleeding wound with a band aide. High poverty students are in constant distress, whether its violence in the home or neighborhood, a lack of nutrition, a lack of permanent housing, alcohol or drug abuse within the home, or any number of poverty’s symptoms. It doesn’t take a doctoral degree to know a person struggles to learn in a distressed environment. It’s especially difficult for young children.
The federal guidelines for poverty are a joke. A single mom with a child needs to make less than $16,140 to be considered in poverty. A family of three making less than $20,780 a year is considered living in poverty. Housing alone would consume most of that income. So to truly put things in perspective, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a family of three needs to make $44,617 to meet basic needs in Simpson, Mississippi, which has the lowest standard of living in the United States. This figure is more than two times the federal poverty rate. The Southern Education Foundation reports that 51 percent of children in our public schools come from low-income families and qualify for free or reduced lunch. Low income is considered 200 percent of the federal poverty line.
So what can be done? First, we as a society must acknowledge poverty is a pervasive disease that radiates into all aspects of society, whether it’s crime, health care, economic development, or any other aspect of life. Children do not bring poverty upon themselves and cannot control ways in which it attacks their families. By the time they have any control of their life, poverty is often irreversible. Evident by the fact that 70 percent of those born into poverty remain in poverty throughout their lives, according to the Pew Charitable Trust. To further the point, according to U.S. Census data, 25 percent of all households in the U.S. make less than $25,000 and 40 percent make less than $40,000. I’d argue the real poverty rate in the U.S. is around 40 percent. In Kentucky, the median-household income is $40,062.
As a society, we must be willing to treat high-poverty schools differently than more affluent schools. We must create wrap-around programs, we must create better vocational training that highlights the shortages of skilled-labor in the community, and we must accept this disease will not be cured in one generation. Educators can’t control economic policy, but we can push society to acknowledge the elephant in the room.
We need universal pre-k programs. We need to put aside the standardized tests and create community environments that encourage collaboration between residents and schools. We must acknowledge the root cause of low-performing schools in order to vaccinate the disease away, rather than attempting to treat the symptoms.