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The Poverty Obstacle

August 17, 2011 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

Many of us remember the old hypothetical question, “What would you do if you had a million dollars?” In the classroom, I would adjust for inflation and ask my students what they would do with five million dollars. In addition to the expected answers about cars and houses, I heard too often the heartbreaking reply, “Pay for my mom's [or dad's, or aunt's, or, or, or] operation.”

Poverty is a tricky subject in our debate about schools, and one in which it is easy to caricature the “other” side, no matter which side you happen to be on. On the one hand, education reformers are often accused of ignoring poverty. However, even Wendy Kopp (founder and CEO of Teach For America), will acknowledge that poverty plays a role in educational quality.

On the other hand, reform skeptics are accused of using poverty as an excuse; witness the claim of MinnCAN (a new education reform organization in Minnesota) that, “Those who insist that we cannot solve America’s education problems without first solving poverty have it exactly backwards: we will never solve poverty until we guarantee a great education for all our children.”

This chicken-and-egg argument gets us nowhere. Poverty has very real effects on a child's capacity to learn. If they lack insurance, a child with a toothache, an untreated illness, or concern about their family's health will struggle to focus on the classroom. A child who doesn't know where tonight's roof will be has the same problem. A vision problem left uncorrected (because glasses or contacts proved too expensive) cheats an otherwise focused child of his/her chance to learn.

Poverty's effects go beyond the classroom. The job that helps support the family, or the time spent managing siblings and cousins, cuts into homework. Since computers and Internet connections cost money, a student's research and paper-writing may only happen at school or when the public library is open (assuming time and transportation can be procured).

Parents or guardians left exhausted by dual jobs or scheduled for the night shift may be unavailable to help with homework. Even if they have the time, their own education may prove inadequate for higher level work (when was the last time you had to apply multiple critical lenses to a novel and work through titration formulas in the same evening?).

The student who overcomes all of this does so for a shot at a college education that might be rendered affordable by scholarships, but then again might not.

Meanwhile, low income tends to mean low property value, which tends to mean less local capacity for school support when the state abandons its commitments. As a result, a student who is sufficiently motivated – whether by individual will or by family – may find themselves in an under-resourced school where they can't get the technology practice they need to equip themselves for a 21st century job. Or they may find that, due to low funding, their school can only hire less experienced teachers when a staff that blends youthful energy and hard-earned wisdom would better serve. Or they may find themselves locked into test preparation when practicing collaboration, creativity, and open-ended problem solving would be more helpful.

All students deserves better.

The income-based achievement gap is very real, both nationwide and in Minnesota. It is no accident that the gap is tied to income. If we want to meet our system's new goal of universal achievement, however, we cannot take this in turns. Even if we could magically make all of our schools wonderful and well-resourced, it would take at least a generation to see the effects on poverty. Similarly, students sent to unequal schools are likely to get unequal results.

Consider the following (admittedly non-formal) logic:
(A) Lack of poverty produces positive effects sufficient to counteract a poor school experience.
(B) A strong school experience produces positive effects sufficient to counteract poverty.
(C) A student combining the positive effects from both a strong school experience and a lack of poverty will tend to perform better than a student who must rely on either (A) or (B) to counteract other negative effects.
(D) For as long as students exist in poverty, they must rely on (B).
(E) Therefore, for as long as students exist in poverty, they will tend to underperform their higher income peers.

In other words, poverty and school change must be addressed simultaneously. This means supporting our schools and celebrating their student-supporting innovations. It also means acknowledging that poverty is an obstacle that we can and must overcome. Anything else is doomed to half-measures.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • Chris says:

    August 17, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    You use a citation from a Job Posting to back up the “reform skeptics are accused of using poverty as an excuse” assertion? That’s deep reporting.

  • Michael Diedrich says:

    August 17, 2011 at 2:29 pm


    Yes, the link I gave is to a job listing, which makes it a major part how the organization is presenting itself. I believe that is relevant.

    If you look around the rest of the site, you will see that the rest of the organization’s efforts are exclusively devoted to education policy instead of to any poverty-related efforts. They do not give any indication that poverty could have an impact on education, which is consistent with the page I quoted.

    I chose the quotation that I did because I felt it most clearly articulated the underlying ideology.

  • Chris says:

    August 18, 2011 at 9:48 am

    Poverty has been used as an excuse in the anti-reform community to not make changes in the system.  Stating that a strong education is a key to solving poverty doesn’t discount it as a major challenge in the classroom.  I’d like to think that everyone can agree that a strong education gives us all more opportunity in life.

    I personally believe policy goals such as pushing for passage of $4 million in scholarships for low-income families to access preschool are very worthwhile and concrete steps in a positive direction. If this is pure “Ideology” in your opinion, perhaps your mind is already made up.

  • Michael Diedrich says:

    August 18, 2011 at 10:53 am

    I strongly agree that poverty is no excuse for inaction on improving school quality. I suspect that we may disagree on which measures are most important for getting that done, but acknowledgment of poverty as an obstacle should not be conflated with defense of the status quo.

    $4 million in scholarships is, of course, a worthy cause, and I think MinnCAN’s work on early childhood education quality is wonderful. However, focusing only on access and quality of education does little to address the immediate causes and effects of those families’ poverty. A strong education is critical if those children are to avoid future poverty, but assuming that the focus should only be on schools strikes me as an incomplete approach. MinnCAN’s recruiting pitch (which is the same as the national-level 50CAN’s pitch) explicitly establishes a schools-first approach, and their body of work – broadly focused on assessing and improving school and teacher quality – supports this. If you are a member of MinnCAN and feel that I have misrepresented your viewpoint, I do apologize and would welcome a correction. Looking through the material on MinnCAN’s web site, however, I do not see efforts to alleviate current poverty.

    As my article lays out, current poverty has many negative effects on students, and the payoffs of a schools-only strategy to fighting poverty are delayed by at least a generation. Rather than demanding poverty be fixed before schools or demanding schools be fixed before poverty, I argue for an approach that blends the two. As a skeptic of some current reform efforts, but also someone dissatisfied with the status quo, I do not believe that acknowledgment of poverty as an obstacle should be written off as excuse-making.