Poverty and Educational Attainment, Part II

Poverty and Educational Attainment, Part II

In Part II, I’ll continue my commentary on poverty as the elephant in the educational reform movement.  Read my first post, Part I, here.  Once again, I am reading from the May issue of Educational Leadership.  Susan B Neuman, an education professor from the University of Michigan, reports on a 10-year study she and colleagues conducted which compared two neighborhoods in Philadelphia.  One, Kensington, is 90 percent poor, multiethnic, with a 29 percent unemployment rate.  Chestnut Hill, on the other hand, is gentrified, 80 percent white and 20 percent black, with parents who tend to be educated professionals, surrounded by parks “and … somewhat geographically isolated from the rest of the city.”

Over the 10 years of the study, the researchers examined how these disparities contributed to reading and ‘the development of information capital.  They noted three important differences they suggest are related to the economic disparities of the neighborhoods, the families, the community resources, and the schools.  These differences are print resources, adult supports, and independent reading.

In Chestnut Hill, there are multiple sources available to parents selecting a book for their children, with thousands of books, magazines and comic book titles.  Kensington, in contrast, had a small fraction of that number.  Neuman reports 13 titles per child on one hand, and just 1 per child on the other.  Tellingly, schools in Chestnut Hill had a wide assortment for children while Kensington has a limited and “merely adequate” selection.  The libraries in the former had twice the titles as the libraries in the latter.

The adult supports were also noticeable different.  Observing differences among the public libraries of the two communities, the researchers noted that in Chestnut Hill, children were read to by adults for 4 minutes of every hour observed, with adults recommending and guiding book selection.  In Kensington, “not one adult entered the preschool area…”  The observers estimated hat Chestnut Hill children “heard 14 times the number of words read in print per library visit as” their counterparts across town.  As background to this analysis, Neuman cites the research of Annett Lareau (2003), in Unequal Childhoods, (Berkeley: University of California Press).  This work describes differences in parenting styles between working class and middle class families.

In describing the differences in independent reading, the researchers focused on children ages 10-13.  Once again, they recorded what students were reading at the library, the grade level of the text, and whether it as informational or entertainment.  They also examined similar elements of student computer use at the libraries.  They found that only 58 percent of Kensington students were reading at grade level, and frequently the texts were designed for younger children.  In Chestnut Hill, 93 percent of students read at grade level and 7 percent were reading at higher levels.  Differences in time spent were also notable, and Kensington children also spent the majority of time reading for entertainment.  The same patterns were observed on the computers.  “In fact, {Chestnut Hill] students spent about 12 times the amount of time on informational reading materials in print and about 5 times more on informational websites than they spent on entertainment content…”

What are the consequences of these differences?  One significant difference is the well-known vocabulary differences that are found when comparing low-income children with middle and upper class children at virtually any grade level.  These late affect the accumulation of academic content–when children do not have the vocabulary to delve into grade level or increasingly complex text, they will remain at a significant advantage their entire school careers.  No amount of good teaching, by itself, can overcome these kinds of class-based disadvantages on a consistent, scalable basis.

Neuman offers four suggestions.  First, un-level the playing field by providing educations resources in low income schools that match those available in middle-class communities.  This is a major task–it really means extra funding for resources and for additional adult services in poor schools, going well beyond Title I.  Second, she notes that strengthening parent involvement by providing programs to help parents by teaching them about “skills and strategies children will need to be successful in school.”  Such programs are often suggested but simply are too rare so far to make a real difference.  Third, she suggests “people underestimate the capabilities of students who live in poor neighborhoods.”  This isn’t at all controversial, and is the basis for the notion that simply by staffing schools with brilliant and highly successful teachers, the problems of urban poverty and educational low performance will disappear.  Fourth, and likely far to idealistic, she suggests economically integrating schools, and cites research suggesting that such efforts can help to equalize the resources, improve school stability, decrease discipline problems and increase volunteer support in schools.

If these notions pique your interest, read the next article by Eric Jensen, entitled “How Poverty Affects Classroom Engagement.”  Eric is the author of two ASCD books:  Engagement with Poverty in Mind, 2013, and Teaching with Poverty in Mind, 2009.  He offers seven ways in which children of poverty struggle with engagement:  Health and nutrition; vocabulary; effort; hope and the growth mind-set; cognition; relationships; and distress.  He has multiple citations to the research suggesting these seven concerns, with suggestions on what a teacher can do.

When we hear President Obama supporting universal preschool, it’s an encouraging to think that at least a few politicians are thinking about how to address obvious gaps between the haves and the rest of American society.  The American Dream and upward mobility are hitting a wall of unequal opportunity that has grown higher and higher for the last 40 years.  Without breaking down this wall, or building steps by which the poor can climb the wall, the Dream will fade to dark.  And the major movers of education reform are simply paying no attention to such realities

Do get a copy of the May 2013 Educational Leadership.  It’s the best issue I’ve read in several years, and poverty is the most important and most neglected issue in American education today.

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