While it might seem encouraging for education and civil rights leaders to assert that poverty isn’t an obstacle to higher student achievement, the evidence does not support such claims. Over 50 years, numerous studies have documented how poverty and related social conditions – such as lack of access to health care, early childhood education and stable housing – affect child development and student achievement.
The research never suggests that poor children are incapable of learning or that poverty itself should be regarded as a learning disability. Rather, research suggests that poor children encounter obstacles that often adversely affect their development and learning outcomes.
To ignore this reality and make bold assertions that all children can achieve while doing nothing to address the outside-of-school challenges they face is neither fair nor a sound basis for developing public policy, as I wrote in a recent issue of the Phi Delta Kappan Magazine.
Despite compelling evidence that education policy must at least mitigate the harmful effects of poverty on student achievement and child development, most state and federal policies have failed to do so. However, there is growing awareness among a number of educators, mayors, and policy advocates of the need to do so based on the realization that a great deal can be done to counter the effects of poverty on children’s lives and their education. Mitigation is not the same as solving a problem, but it’s nonetheless an important strategy.
In Newark, N.J., for example, the Broader, Bolder Approach (BBA) reform plan is developing a comprehensive school reform strategy. Operating in seven schools in Newark’s Central Ward (six kindergarten through 8th-grade schools and one large comprehensive high school), BBA has introduced school-based interventions that are responsive to the issues and challenges.
BBA is working to:
• Expand learning opportunities by providing quality early childhood education and extending the school day;
• Enrich the curriculum through enhanced literacy development in all content areas and greater emphasis on project-based learning;
• Build critical partnerships that will strengthen the capacity of schools to respond to student needs and enable community interests to come together so parents and their allies can hold schools and their leaders accountable for academic outcomes.
The BBA strategy draws on research that suggests a more comprehensive approach is needed to increase academic outcomes for poor students and to improve schools that serve them. Specifically, the BBA strategy aims at combining research-based education strategies with school-based social services, after-school programs and interventions to increase the capacity of schools to respond to issues that are endemic to the social and environmental context, such as the need for health, nutrition, jobs and safety.
The BBA strategy is based on the theory that improving the schools could spur economic development and improve the quality of life for a greater number of residents. Though this proposition has never been tested at such a large scale before, the theory behind BBA is based on the recognition that education is both a cause of many of the problems that plague the city and a potential solution.
BBA seeks to transform schools by creating a series of strategic partnerships between schools, businesses, universities, hospitals, local government and an array of neighborhood-based service organizations.
The BBA strategy also seeks to change how urban public schools typically serve low-income children of color and their families. In many low-income urban communities, complacency, low expectations, disorder and dysfunction are endemic to the public schools. In such schools, failure has been normalized, and change often seems impossible.
American policy makers and reformers must be willing to accept the obvious: School reform efforts can’t ignore the effects of poverty on children’s lives or on the performance of schools. We need a more holistic strategy, one that enables schools that serve the most disadvantaged children to meet their academic and social needs so that they can overcome a track record of failure.
As promising as it is, the BBA strategy can’t do this by itself. It must be combined with state and federal reforms that promote enriched learning environments, that make it possible to attract and retain excellent teachers, and that create clear criteria for accountability of all stakeholders in the education process — educators, parents and students.