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Poverty and Education – The Challenge of Improving Schools

There is growing consensus that the educational system in America is falling short when it comes to preparing our children for the future. As to the method for improving our current system today, the general focus centers upon increased accountability and a need for higher academic standards.

While there is little doubt that we have many schools in need of improvement, the idea that all of our educational woes are a result of under-performing schools and inadequate instruction is a gross over-simplification. As but one example that demonstrates the enormous complexity facing public schools in our country, we note this story of homeless children which aired Tuesday, March 31st, on PBS.

The story of Tiberius is one every public school critic should hear. Able to articulate his feelings of inadequacy, yet more withdrawn and carrying a burden that no one so young should ever have to shoulder, Tiberius’ educational progress this school year could never be adequately measured by a standardized test score.

Nor should the performance of his teacher be downgraded should Tiberius be unable to demonstrate the skills necessary for promotion. It is preposterous to think that the math or writing skills of a child in need of food and clothing are not affected by the student’s predicament.

As Ms. Hoople notes so well, sometimes “their emotions get in the way.”

And in these time of severe budget cuts, is it not increasingly clear why so many inner city schools cry out when social workers become the first of educational employees to fall victim to the budget knife?

But going back to those test scores and higher standards, the words of Mr. Hannemann certainly offer a different perspective:

“You do the best that you can with the time that you have; and you just keep moving forward.”

America may, in places, have issues with school quality. But watching this PBS story it is easy to see why so many people insist that school improvement measures cannot be handled in isolation, not until we as a country begin to deal with the other crisis affecting our kids: the growing number of them living in poverty.


1 Joe { 04.02.09 at 3:17 am }

Nice post. I agree that problems in our society are interconnected in one way or the other. Just like poverty (and even personal family problems) affects a student’s capability to learn. If student’s don’t perform, a school’s ‘reputation’ is affected.

Improving education entails improving the living conditions of students.

2 Joe Thibault { 04.03.09 at 8:59 am }

I can remember as a student in elementary school the stigma that was put on students if they wore hand-me-downs or the same cloths every day. I can’t even imagine being on the receiving end.

Between this and yesterday’s NYTimes article about the safety net that libraries provide our citizens, I find it more important to believe in the support that public amenities give during times of crisis.

3 megan kelly { 04.06.09 at 1:42 am }

I really enjoyed reading your blog on the effects of poverty on education. With the rates of homeless children increasing, the role of teachers and social workers is also increasing. Social workers at schools work hard to try and lighten the load of the hard life style that students face by offering counseling, clothing, and other resources. It was devastating to read that many social workers will lose their jobs because schools lack enough funding to keep them on staff. This will place teachers into a role that forces them to have to deal with other aspects of student’s lives outside of academics, a role that most teachers cannot handle or do not want. Teachers are challenged daily to inspire students to strive higher. I could not imagine how difficult it must be to motivate 25 plus students on a daily basis, each with their own issues. The PBS documentary that you featured in your blog raised many important issues and gave viewers and readers a glimpse into the harsh reality of the effects of the recession. Many times people look at a school as a whole and not at the individual students. This blog and the PBS documentary brought up the often-overlooked fact that growing up homeless causes children to have emotional problems. Tiberius was used as a key example of this in the PBS documentary. He impressed me with his ability to articulate his feelings of sadness and lack of confidence because of his homelessness. This glimpse into Tiberius’s life showed that he was wise beyond his years. Students growing up homeless are never given a break; they are challenged inside and outside of the classroom. While the teachers know of these challenges, I think it is beneficial that they do not “under teach” homeless students. Mr. Hannemann’s approach to teaching was extremely valuable to Tiberius’s future because he treated him like every other student in the class instead of just letting him slip through the cracks of the education system. Although Mr. Hannemann was able to show success with Tiberius, many teachers are not able to do the same because homeless children tend to miss several days of class and then it is difficult for them to catch up in their school work. What do you believe would be the best way to keep homeless children in school? If you could address Secretary Duncan, what plan of action would you propose he take? Additionally, how can schools keep these beneficial social workers through the tough times of budget cuts and layoffs? Thank you for posting such an interesting blog that truly examines the affect of poverty on the future of education in public schools.

4 Michael Rowe { 04.10.09 at 4:41 am }

Thanks for this post. I teach physiotherapy at a South African university where our students are required to spend time on various clinical placements. Some of these placements involve working with children from various disadvantaged backgrounds, and the role of poverty and other social factors are quite prominent in how it affects their educational outcomes.

While this is all too common in Africa (even in a reasonably well developed country like South Africa), it’s important to recognise that the problem of poverty and it’s relationship to education is not an African problem alone. Thanks for pointing this out.

5 Edthoughts { 04.12.09 at 4:19 pm }

Excellent post. The video was very poignant and its true, schools are more than just standardized test scores, and try as we might, there are factors beyond us that we cannot control… although with children like Tiberius I wish we could.

6 mikky { 05.04.09 at 12:32 am }

Improving education entails improving the living conditions of students.
Nice post I agree that problems

7 Laurence Peters { 06.22.09 at 7:29 pm }

I believe PBS is among the few media outlets that looks at the connections between economic and social ills. This PBS piece is important because it shows the recession’s real victims–young people.
The stress factors on children cannot be routinely ignored. How about a chid stress factor index–it would be a mix between
unemployment rate, homeless numbers, cost of living, increase of child abuse etc.

8 Valarie { 10.06.09 at 6:00 pm }

Wow! What a wonderful article. I experience these situations everyday. I teach 2nd grade in a Title 1 school in Tennessee. My students have their own stories and it’s sad. How can we expect a child to score well on a test when he/she just saw daddy hit mamma before he/she came to school? This is what I deal with. I am judged based on my scores and it isn’t right and it doesn’t accurately portray my performance or my students’. I taught a 4th grade inclusion class a few years ago. I had a student who struggled with reading but was very good at math. He had social issues as well; he would not look you in the eye when you spoke with him. I assigned everyone a partner one day to work on math. I walked by this student and his partner. His partner said,”I didn’t understand this until [my student] explained it to me! He is so smart!” My student’s face lit up and I saw something in him that day that I will never forget. He made so many strides that year that you would not see by looking at his test scores!

9 Kristin { 11.21.09 at 9:22 pm }

Great post! I linked this to a posting I made for a graduate class assignment.

10 Anonymous { 02.01.10 at 11:29 pm }


11 Vickie { 03.16.10 at 11:00 pm }

This school seems really on top of their homeless situation. The teachers and the school officials really care about the students. With our economic situation as it is today, I expect that it will be tougher on the teachers and the school officials.

12 Carol { 03.21.10 at 9:33 pm }

It has long been known that poverty and school failure are related but that relationship is not cast in concrete. Until we get rid of poverty we must teach the child despite poverty. How to do it? Teach the child in a variety of ways: direct instruction, experiences, listening, looking, touching and analyzing. Encourage the child in ways that convey that even if he hasn’t learned it yet he will with effort from himself and the teacher. Constantly point out to the child what has been learned so far and this predicts that he can learn more. Remember the nature of the child, that is, allow children to run and play between intense times of teaching and learning. Child and teacher should know what the learning goals are; Instead of telling students they are failures, teachers should reteach and students should have opportunity to study more and demonstrate their improvement. Sound too simplistic? Not so, many teachers do just this if their bureaucracies allow it.

13 Faye Allen { 06.22.10 at 3:41 pm }

I am glad the schools are there to help in these economic times. It’s very difficult to teach a child who is worried about surviving. Any stability that they receive helps. Although schools are being pushed with school improvement, it’s hard to put test scores, attendance and the such before the basic needs.
I wish the “church” would take a more active role.

14 Hillary { 07.22.10 at 7:57 pm }

I was moved not only by the fortitude and perseverance of Tiberious, but also by the commitment and resolve of the teachers and counselors. Teacher’s roles are forever changing. School funds are in remission while the duties of educators are constantly expanding. I hope and pray that the shelters are a warm and caring place where one can, for a brief moment of time, lay their heads–not in shame, but with the unwavering belief that this too shall pass and a brighter day will be on the horizon.

15 Lori { 01.17.11 at 11:11 am }

I really appreciate the District’s position on the role of Social Workers in the academic world, especially with homeless children. This district is a good model for others.

16 Stephanie Cohen { 08.08.11 at 3:17 pm }

This post brings up two issues with our education system. First, the use of standardized tests as the sole measurement of the quality of students education and teachers’ skills. Secondly, the effect of inequality on education. I would like to use the recent scandal in Atlanta’s education system to discuss these matters:
A ten-year cheating scandal in the Atlanta School District was uncovered this summer. First, lets focus on the impact of ten years… some of these students that were cheated have graduated high school, college, and even grad school. Dr. Beverly Hall, Superintendent, leader of both the district and the scandal, is not the only miscreant. This scandal runs far deeper and far wider, including178 principals and teachers cheating their students of the education they deserve and time that can never be replaced. But its not the “who” that’s important in this case, but rather, the “why.” The “why” will tell us what is wrong with our education system that could cause this cheating and how we can prevent it in the future.

The New York Times article, “Are They Learning?” explicitly states, “Test haters will inevitably blame the standardized testing mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind act for inducing this kind of misconduct. The tests remain a crucial gauge of student performance and an indicator of how much academic progress schools are making. It’s the cheats who need to go, not the tests.” However, I must disagree. It is the high-value placed on these test scores (for funding, in this case) that causes stress in teachers and school administrators and leads to cheating in order to achieve what they couldn’t otherwise. There is only so much pressure they can put on the students to perform, they aren’t robots, and so the additional pressure is absorbed by the adults who must resort to cheating to meet standards. In the end, it is the students that have been unknowingly take the hit for the cheating. We need to learn from this that knowledge cannot be standardized. While the tests are said to be used for measurements, they have created a set of standards.

One solution, fire the “cheaters,” and replace them with new administrators and teachers who, if under the same pressure, will eventually cheat. A second solution, community schools. Community schools hold students to the same high standards and simultaneously ensure that every student has all of their other needs met to create an equal playing field in the classroom. Community schools empower teachers, rather than standardized tests, and put the focus on the students rather than politics and money. To learn more about these schools and the movement: .

Also check out:

17 Lori Dyce { 10.19.12 at 1:20 pm }

We ensure must work to ensure that our public schools are truly looking at the whole child, family and community. Students need to have their basic needs for food, shelter, health care and a stable environment bet while they are working on learning in the school setting. Few students can learn if they are hungry or need medical care. We need to look at why we have poverty in the community, who is benefiting from keeping wages low and jobs part- time.

18 Janice { 03.25.13 at 5:04 pm }

It’s really sad to see that so many children carry these kind of burdens to school on a day to day basis. It puts so many teachers in so many roles that it is very difficult just to teach subjects. They also have to be a disciplinarian, counselor, mother/father figure, and confidant. Schools really need to figure out a way to keep funding available for Social Workers to do their job effectively. It was refreshing to see that this young man was very motivated and that this teacher strived to help him excel!

19 Stephanie { 06.20.13 at 12:01 pm }

This is something we are being exposed to all over the nation. The hard part is that there is no real solution for this problem. We all have to work together to try to make a bigger impact on poverty

20 Melinda { 05.12.15 at 5:06 pm }

Thanks for the informative video. As several before me have said, poverty plays a crucial role in education for many students. Even for those who are not homeless, school may be the only place they are guaranteed a meal each day. Can you imagine wondering if you will be able to get something to eat tonight? How can students focus on buying paper, pencils, etc, when they can’t get their bellies full? I have bought shoes and belts for students so they would not get in trouble for being “out of dress code”. How can a student ask their parents for things like that when their parents are struggling to provide food and shelter for these children? The students know the money situation and understand too well the cost of trivial things like belts. We must work to improve the living conditions for these students while we also teach them everything they need to know to pass “the Test”. Society as a whole needs to reconsider what is important.

21 April { 05.21.15 at 10:23 pm }

I really enjoyed hearing about this story and it is a real reality that we live in that poverty exist now more than we care to talk about. I admire the Social Worker, Mary Hitch and the other teachers, Mr. Hannebon and Ms. Hoople are doing to help the kids to strive for success and learn as much as they can even through their povery situation. I teach at a high school and we have students that are actually sleeping outside in the backyard of a relative’s house and/or garage made into a bedroom. Yet they still manage to get to school and be eagered to learn. This school district is doing a great job and the teachers and social worker are going above and beyond and this is exactly what are kids need in our society today.

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