Select Page

In my recent readings and discussions I’ve realized there is a philosophical debate going on about what the biggest cause of low achievement in poverty-stricken areas is. This debate is important because it determines what our plan of action should be to support this demographic. From my perspective,  the United States of America barely lifts a finger to improve these school systems, and I think addressing and improving upon any of these issues is a big step in the right direction.  Of course, we should aim for an efficient solution though, rather than just running around in circles.   Here are the conflicting philosophies I have run across:

1. Poverty causes low achievement.  Students who do not have a healthy diet or enough money to pay for necessities like glasses, doctors appointments, or birth control (arguably a necessity) simply do not have a shot in the classroom.  These students are likely to have a generational history of poverty– illiterate and perhaps neglectful parents.  Occasionally these families are terrified at the thought that their children will succeed in life and perhaps abandon them– in other words they hold their children back.  But more often, these students simply have no social capital.  They don’t know how to get or use a library card.  They don’t know what foods to eat when they’re sick.  They don’t know that your body needs water to stay hydrated.  They don’t know how to use the internet or who to ask when they have a specific question.

These students are likely to face terrible neglect, abuse, and deep depression  in their lives.  I taught high school in the projects and I remember that it often felt as if I hit a wall of darkness when I walked in to class.   Emotions felt heavy and overwhelming; sleeping, whining, unending sicknesses, pain. I had students who, had they stayed home for every sickness they had had in the school year, would have never come to school.

Students cannot learn when their basic needs are not met.

I love hearing brand new teachers (or non-educators) talk about having ‘high expectations’ for this demographic.  Of course, every good teacher must have high expectations for his or her students.  That is non-negotiable.  But high expectations are different for every student.  They are extremely subjective and good teachers develop and refine their instincts (over years) to gauge what is challenging for each individual student.  Most of these students have hundreds of little holes in their skill sets and it is very time-consuming for teachers to individually identify these holes.  The spectrum of abilities in this demographic is much broader than students with cultured, literate parents. In fact, I found taking inventory of this demographic and then creating differentiated work to be completely life-consuming.

And humans simply do not learn when they are starving, sick, uncomfortably cold,  deathly sleep-deprived, or wanting to die.  For many students who live in abject poverty, that is reality, every day.  I don’t know the solution to this, but I know that we need to do a better job of tackling poverty head-on, as a nation.

2. Incompetent teachers with low expectations cause low achievement.  Teachers who are burned out, lazy, lacking a vision, feckless, unprepared, behind, emotionally unstable, pessimistic, faithless, you name it.

These teachers exist and they make the learning process miserable for their poor students.

The worst of these teachers is the faithless teacher.  Because, as long as you have faith in yourself and in your students, you’re automatically moving in the right direction.  The vision will come; the plan will come; the preparation will come. But without faith in your students, you’re dead on arrival.  You will fail, and when you fail, you won’t have they energy to return to  battle.

I was surprised at the number of faithless, pessimistic teachers I ran across at my underprivileged high school. I heard of teachers who spent their entire day shopping online in front of their students  and then had the gaul to give F’s to their students– all of them!  I’ve seen teachers who had no respect for their students or for their questions and teachers who sort of fooled around and made it look like they were teaching; but in reality they didn’t do much at all.   Fortunately, most teachers are hard-working, generous, and capable professionals, but there are some really bad teachers out there.

But then again, as I’ve written earlier, we don’t do much to attract our best and brightest to the workplace.  Our weeding out/ teacher preparation  process is not exactly rigorous from the get-go.  So what do we expect?

2b. Perhaps a sub-category could be poor working conditions and lack of administrative support and professional development for teachers cause under-achievement.

Our working conditions do not make for a sustainable lifestyle.  I’ve been reading the blog Gatsby in L.A. by Ellie Herman and she nails it:

“What’s unsustainable? Working more than 60 hours a week in relentlessly stressful conditions without adequate supplies, mentoring, peer support or time to collaborate, learn or think. Working in a state of continual crisis, with students who are often in crisis, without resources to help or even time to listen. Being continually told that you are “ineffective” because your 11th grade students came in reading at 5th grade level, their self-esteem in the toilet, a negative history in school, low attention span due to possible trauma and instability at home, and over the last few months you have not succeeded in ratcheting up their reading levels so that they can go to college after next year. Being presented every year with a whole new way to teach everything, to replace last year’s whole new way to teach everything.”

My brother works at Google.  He has a healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner to eat each day there.  They offer exercise programs to keep their employees healthy.  They have a nap room!  Google wants their employees to have what they need to be effective.  If we’re not going to pay teachers like professionals, let’s at least give them some options to keep them healthy and sane.

Let’s attract better teachers with a sustainable salary and good working conditions.  Let’s weed-out the incompetent teachers before they get to the classroom.  Let’s  treat teachers like professionals.

3. Socioeconomic Segregation causes low achievement.

The United States pays for its schools via property taxes.  So parents who want their kids to go to good schools move into nice neighborhoods and families without money get stuck together in the leftovers school systems.  Students who need extra interventions and care end up in school systems that can’t pay for enough teachers to support them.  Our self-segregation makes our education system exponentially worse.

I don’t know how to deal with this but I have a feeling that Europe does.  I don’t know why we as humans are often so distrustful of people who are different from us, but it’s not helping anyone in the classroom, or in society for that matter.  My ESOL classroom  felt so segregated from the school.  Everyone was the same color, the same level of literacy, and incredibly poor.  And the feeling was of crabs at the bottom of a barrel. The bad students pulled the good students down and the good students, even when they ignored the insults of their peers, had no idea how far behind they were from most other teenagers.  It was an incredibly unfortunate scenario.

Again, I don’t know the solution to this, but I do know we need to find one.  We need to mix the different types of people around in our schools.

In my current classroom (which is a Montessori elementary class) the students have several choices once they have finished their assignments.  And one of those choices is to help teach something to someone who is struggling.  And you know what?  My sweet little students relish the chance to help another student.  To them, it’s a great privilege to explain addition, subtraction, long division or capitalization to a friend.  And that’s how it should be.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had that same mindset?


So there you have it.  Those are three of the variables that I know are debated in the education realm. In reality, a society of 300 million is very different from a science experiment and perhaps we can’t simply identify one variable that could fix education.  In my opinion, we need to address all three issues in order to improve achievement for students living in poverty.


Education matters!  Thank you for reading along and for caring.    What do you think the solutions are?