The Perils of Poverty and Its Effect on the Achievement Gap

As a student teacher, I teach two classes, Algebra 1 and AP Statistics.  There are 37 Algebra 1 students ranging from 9th graders through 12th graders, some taking it for the first time, others for the third time.  Just over half the class is designated as an English Learner (EL), and there are less than 10% English only speakers; 80% of the class is Hispanic and 20% is Asian.  Sadly, nearly half the class failed last marking period, and of these students, a majority failed most of their other classes.  In AP Statistics, 42 students crowd into the class, most 12th graders, and a few 11th graders.  Nearly the entire class is designated Fluent English Proficient (FEP), either initially or re-classified, with 5% English only; 90% of the class is Asian and 10% Hispanic.  Around a third of the class received a D, or lower, in the prior marking period.  Both classes struggle: to listen to instruction, to take part in class without spending considerable amounts of time off-task, to complete assignments, and to prepare for summative assessments.

While those challenges are common in many high schools, they are more burdensome for underprivileged students.  All across our great nation, underserved students find themselves in a nearly inescapable bind: most lack the requisite support and guidance that is ever-present for more privileged students, so they need to work much harder to attain similar levels of achievement.  Even worse, they need to contend simultaneously with managing their present day academic challenges, with minimal support and resources available to them outside of school, while contending with the perils of poverty, which includes higher rates of malnutrition, disease, injury, depression, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, gang association, truancy, expulsion, violence, and incarceration.  Combined these make it almost impossible for underprivileged students to succeed and to break free from their socioeconomic plight.  Faced with these daunting challenges, many simply give up hope and stop trying.

With these nearly insurmountable challenges facing low-income students, poverty reveals itself as the number one contributor to the achievement gap in this country.  While its solution is unclear, its inequities are all too clear.  Hence, unless, and until, we figure out a way to address poverty, and its concomitant challenges that impede student learning, we will continue to struggle as a nation to close the gap in any meaningfully way.  It is my firm belief that all other in-school efforts, interventions, and improvements, whether focused on pedagogy, curricula, standards, development, accountability, or a myriad of other areas, even taken together, cannot overcome poverty’s enormity.  That is not to say that the improvements do not matter, or are not needed.  From a logic theory perspective, the other improvements are “a necessary but not sufficient condition” for closing the gap; combining those efforts with a nationwide program to raise our poorest citizens out of poverty, however, offers the greatest hope for academic success for all, and increases the odds that our nation will continue to thrive as an economic powerhouse for years to come.

My students represent the largest growing student population in this country.  Honored to serve these students, I do my best to help them in their struggles; I just wish I could do more, faster.  I also wish that those who have so much in our country would realize that their continued success, as well as our nation’s, depends upon all succeeding; that the wealth they accumulated sprung from the combined efforts of tens and hundreds of millions in our society, not just the effort of the élite.

For as we see spreading rampant across the Middle East, when a large segment of society feels as if they are not sharing in the benefits of freedom, to include a living wage with hope for their future, and that of their progeny, the balance of power shifts forcefully, leaving those at the top scrambling for safety.

Amazingly, a prominent philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer foresaw this over 100 years ago, as quoted below.

“What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy.” – John Dewey, 1900

I believe 111 years is plenty of time for a nation to digest this sage advice and to embrace it before it is too late.

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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6 Responses to The Perils of Poverty and Its Effect on the Achievement Gap

  1. Terence Dowling says:

    What we are currently doing is not producing a satisfactory result. There is no rational basis to believe that if we continue to do what we are currently doing that the outcome will improve. The only responsible reaction is to examine the situation and chose a new course taking into account the reasons for the current failure.

    Bill Gates has spoken out in this area challenging the status quo. The current teacher union situation is not helpful. We retain the most expensive teachers (tenure) and not the best teachers. No business would survive using that model. We’d all like to think that the problem would be “solved” if more money were available. There is very little evidence that supports this hypothesis and significant evidence that refutes it.

    The most significant change that I’ve seen in my lifetime with respect to education is the stark change in response to troublesome students. Previously, troublesome students were removed from mainstream education. While the “continuation” schools that were the “last resort” did not have great success, our current schools do not have good success with these students either. Schools with the troublesome students removed did have significantly better success for the vast majority of students and did so with fewer resources than are currently expended. I don’t think I experienced a class of fewer than 40 students until I was a Junior in college.


    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Terence. While I agree the status quo must change, and many efforts to date have been ineffective, I do not believe Bill Gates has a clue about the educational field. His perspective is myopic and misguided. There is also little very little evidence that supports your insinuation that teachers with tenure are not the best teachers. And conflating education with business is a common mistake, in my opinion. While our schools have a fiduciary responsibility, the business end of running a school, or district, should not trump the art of teaching. And I agree that more money, alone, will not improve educational attainment. What is needed is recognition that parental involvement is instrumental to a child’s academic development, and those who lack the resources, whether it is experience, knowledge, availability, or whatever, need additional support to ensure their children are provided with an environment conducive to learning.


  2. Terence Dowling says:

    Parental involvement is certainly important. Motivation, discipline, participation, nutrition, nurturing are all important, but they are not controlled by the school system (unless you want to propose public schools become full time boarding schools).

    I’d like to see some proposal that actually addresses systemic change in the school system. The current system isn’t working. Minor changes to how we test students cannot be the answer. Additional funding doesn’t substantively address the problems and complaints about resource limitations increasingly sound like excuses for poor performance. I’ve voted for all of the measures to add funding to schools but my heart and soul tells me that this isn’t the change that is needed.

    I would agree that a tenured teacher isn’t necessarily a bad teacher, but neither would I agree that a tenured teacher is necessarily a good teacher. Prudence suggests that there be some continuing evaluation. A school system and school administration needs to be able to apply its most expensive resource (its teachers) effectively, efficiently (and hopefully, compassionately).

    Mainstreaming has clearly not worked and change is needed. Schools must recognize that student abilities vary and that results will vary also. It is just as important to nurture and support the top quartile student as it is to nurture and support the bottom quartile. The results will be different. The needs are different.

    The current measurement system seems aimed at the misguided premise that it is possible to have all student achievement “above average”.

    If the school systems cannot fix themselves from within, then an external change (such as a voucher system) needs to happen. Vouchers would be incredibly disruptive to the public school system and I’d like to avoid them but unless the school systems take some initiative and develop a plan for improvement that has a chance to succeed I see no alternative.

    While my only teaching experience was as a graduate student teaching undergraduate Chemistry labs I have many, many relatives who have dedicated their entire lives to teaching in the public school systems (mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area). At one point, schools in America were the best in the world. Today, the only remnant of that glory is in our best Universities. Students world over want an education that Stanford, UC Berkley, MIT, Harvard and others offer. I doubt that many of the best and brightest are interested in an American public high school. The real threat to our nation, long term, is not our education system failure for the bottom quartile, it is the failure in the top quartile and above for that is where the future leaders and inventors that can sustain us reside.

    I know you heart is in the right place. Please help lead the school system to a place where success is possible.


    • Well said, Terence. I agree with much of what you point out here.

      My intent in this post, specifically, is to focus attention on the needs of a growing segment of our student population and the conditions in which they live and learn. Recognizing, and addressing, the challenges they face which impede their learning is critical to our future. Without a path that yields a modicum of success for these children, i.e., a living wage where they can support themselves and their progeny, there may no longer be a robust enough society for our top quartile, or even the next two.

      As wealth concentrates itself in a smaller and smaller segment of our society, less and less is available for the vast majority (>99% of the population), and pretty soon the sustainability of our economic system is in question. I am amazed that the general public, to include most of my well-educated friends do not see how our current situation is so fraught with peril. Lambasting teachers, and public unions, as the source of our deficits is just a stalking horse for those who seek to gather even more wealth from the public coffers by destroying public institutions under the guise of reform.


  3. Terence Dowling says:

    I’m sure there are many sources of information about wealth distribution and many measures of what “wealth” means. The recent debacle in housing value has certainly caused a great deal of pressure on household wealth in the middle segment.

    What data I have found ( shows little long term change (1922 and 2007 are rather similar) but great fluctuations which suggest that either the wealth measurement methods are unstable or that wealth shifts quickly. Perhaps the “good times” in the 70’s and 80’s are explained by the housing bubble. As California home owners, we certainly benefited then. In any case, the great fluctuations are not explained by then current year tax rates.

    Educational system changes will have effects measured in decades (or longer). Nothing we could imagine doing would suddenly “fix” the current situation.

    I can only suggest that the current trend to depend more on government for everything (and to solve every problem) hasn’t worked well elsewhere and when taken to the extreme (USSR, Cuba etc.) has been a disaster. What happened to personal responsibility?

    But for the education system — no more defined benefit pensions — from now on, defined contribution only and only when funded in the current fiscal year. A stable system would have relatively stable spending. The California disaster is, in part, due to an expectation of entitlement for education being a fixed fraction of the current year budget. This necessarily causes great swings in funding that are not in the best interest of anyone. The union model of “our share of the pie in rich years” and “no decrease in funding in lean years” is just not workable.


  4. Pingback: Reflections of a First Year Math Teacher

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