“It’s the Poverty, Stupid”: Why Ed Reform and Social Reform Need Each Other

In response to Anya Kamenetz‘ post, Let them Eat iPads?


English: US Census map of poverty across US

English: US Census map of poverty across US (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thanks for posing the issue this way. I was a charter school teacher for years, teaching in different communities in California with vastly different socioeconomic realities. I’ve seen that poverty brings several issues that make it hard for students to be truly competitive in school. I had a student who had to choose between attending school and making rent for her family. I had students who wouldn’t get breakfast if not for the school meals program, and who often chose Cheetos and Mountain Dew from the vending machines instead. I taught a student who was one of 13 children, and the only one who had not yet been in the corrections system. I had students who would commute two hours each way so they could attend school in an affluent neighborhood, only to spend their class time there half-asleep from their rigorous travel schedule. Even in a class where every student has access to a modern computer, it’s the poor students who are busily researching financial aid while the rich students are doing their best work on the assignment. Growing up in poverty stacks the cards against a kid from the very beginning.

Poorer students are often more frustrated and stressed due to the compounded challenges in different parts of their lives. On top of whatever personal/family issues they live with, they also contend with underfunded schools, crumbling facilities, inexperienced teachers, and an alienating school experience. This stress has even been linked to the development of smaller brains in impoverished students. Students’ skills suffer, they fall behind grade level, and consequently require more remediation, more support, and more scaffolding than their suburban peers. By high school many students have already gotten the message that their education is not as highly valued as that of students in richer suburbs. Rightly, they are angry, and they often take that anger out on their teachers and classmates. Students’ behavior issues (and the resulting drama that spreads throughout the school community) must be handled by teachers during the same time they could be teaching. Consequently, poor schools are much less pleasant places to teach in, so teachers often wash out or transfer to richer schools when they get the chance, perpetuating the “brain drain” from poor communities to rich ones.

Cognitive Overhead‘ is a term we teachers use for all of the other “non-information” that you have to wade through before you can get to the real content you’re supposed to learn. In a very real sense, all of these stressors that poverty brings into the classroom are things that need to be worked through before actual learning can take place. These stressors are much less common in affluent suburbs, freeing richer children to simply come into a classroom and learn to the best of their abilities. Students in poverty bring their cognitive overhead into the classroom with them like weights around their necks, and spend much of their time paddling just to stay above water. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs specifies several basic needs that must be met before we can even begin learning– nutritious food, safe shelter, clean water, a sense of security– and it’s heartbreaking how many of our students do not come into school with even these basic needs met.

I would like to see an America where all students have their most basic needs met so they can simply enter a classroom and do their best work. I fear they cannot even get started without broad changes to our social safety net that help prevent illness, promote good nutrition, and connect homeless children with safe places to sleep and study. Is that too much to ask?

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Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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