Is Poverty Destiny?

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Re: Is Poverty Destiny?

Post by palisadesk » Tue Feb 12, 2013 10:13 pm

When considering the issues of poverty and student achievement, people often steer into either Scylla or Charybdis – on the one hand, taking the position that good teaching will neutralize the effects of poverty and equalize opportunity, or on the other hand that we cannot teach children well and further their life chances until such time as we have successfully conquered the poverty problem.

Both these positions are untenable. The first is not supported by evidence -- even the best teaching doesn't close the achievement gap -- and the second is IMO unethical. Poverty is likely to be with us in varying degrees forever (although we can do much to ameliorate its effects and work towards reducing it), but children cannot wait and we must teach them NOW.

There are more literacy problems among the poor than the well-to-do, but being poor does not automatically translate into poor literacy outcomes. California data show that 30% of children with moderate to severe reading problems are middle class and have two college-educated parents. The U.S. situation is an extreme one of people locked in poverty and having concomitant issues of inadequate or nonexistent medical care, no access to healthy foods, substandard, (even dangerous) and deplorable housing, exposure to violence and toxic chemicals, and so on. One reason for Canada’s higher success rate with poor children is doubtless due to better social supports – adequate medical care, often reasonably good housing, better-resourced schools, community resources and social safety nets. These make the effects of poverty less dire and make it more possible for children to succeed. Good instruction alone cannot do the job when children are suffering from a variety of untreated medical problems, are poorly housed, hungry, etc. We don't have such extremes to deal with, but low-income families still suffer from frequent moves, inadequate diet, lack of resources and parental ability to foster learning, etc.

Mona might be surprised, as I was, to learn that inmates in jails and prisons are no more likely to have low literacy levels than a matched population of non-offenders from the same social class. Many can read quite well. Bigger causative factors in chronic recidivism and troubles with the law are substance abuse, mental health problems, and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome which rarely affects the ability to learn to read but has drastic and permanent effects on the individual’s ability to learn from experience and regulate his or her behavior.

A good start in reading and writing is a goal for all students, but children in poverty often fall by the wayside for other reasons – they quit school to work at low wage jobs to help support their families, or they cannot afford higher education, or they lack proper guidance to take the necessary courses to prepare them for post-secondary education, and so on. Robert Pondiscio (formerly of Core Knowledge) and others have written about how their students, even the brightest and most able, did not go on to college or university for a variety of reasons.

Why Canadian students do better is probably the result of numerous factors. One is certainly that the system is more forgiving of late bloomers – students whose skills improve over time, even if they were quite low in the elementary years. Now that we can track our graduates electronically, I have been surprised how many “remedial” kids ended up graduating from secondary school with good grades and scholarship offers from prestigious universities. Others sought out community colleges with job-oriented technical programs like nuclear medicine and industrial design. I’ve been seeing more and more who are simply unready to learn to read well (or at all) at ages 5 and 6 – they cannot even SPEAK in many cases, and their language development is too limited. With support in the language area they can start to progress and there are some effective middle and secondary programs to accelerate the reading skills later on. We need more of these, but we do know they work and teach both systematic phonics/decoding and text comprehension skills.

I used to believe that getting reading right first off would almost certainly lead the student to success later on. It turns out that, while it is certainly important to do this, it is not enough. Many continue to need support and extra tutelage all through elementary school and perhaps beyond. This is more likely to be true of low-income students, who often lack home resources, but it is true of plenty of middle-lass children as well.

Getting it right from the beginning is the way to go, but it's only the first step for children with many challenges ahead of them.

Susan S.

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Re: Is Poverty Destiny?

Post by MonaMMcNee » Wed Feb 13, 2013 10:07 am

Thank you, Susan. I agree with you, but learning to read is about teh only factor that need not cost money!
Also, many programmes begin with single letters,Listen for the first ( last, middle) sound. I teach in DAy 1, c-a-t: cat. The pupil then SEES, theat c is thefirst sound, .t.. and that you go left-right, letters sit on lines, and those three letters make a WORD that you READ and they UNDERSTAND what they are doing.
(And I spend no time on "environmental sounds" !)
One item you did not mention is self-confidence. I taught a 19 yr old who could just make t-e-n into "ten". At first he came behind his mother, head down, then he came behind his mother, head up, then he came on his own! You could have photographed teh change in his self-confidence. He learned in 2 months. I would like prisoners to learn in their first 2 months, to make jail constructive and happier! To be taught in groups of 10 or 20-, not (as now) 1-1.

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