The Biggest Elephant in the Schoolhouse: Poverty

Among wealthy reformers and others who have little experience with the reality of a classroom it has become sexy to blame teachers for the low test scores some students achieve in school. Teachers are apparently lazy, working for payday, uninspired, just needing a kick in the pants in order to produce better student testing outcomes.

Teachers see the matter differently. They see many students walk through their doors absolutely unready to learn – hungry, dirty, sickly, angry at life, wondering who will stay with them at home that night, worried about their mentally-ill or substance-abusing parents, unable to control their impulses, media-saturated, unpracticed in the social niceties that allow for people to get along in groups, skeptical that learning what a school has to offer could be helpful in life, starved for physical play.

These factors together are the elephants in the room that teacher-blamers will not face, and the biggest elephant of them all is named Poverty. The current focus on teacher evaluation plans, standards-based education, and standardized testing is a distraction from facing and addressing our real problem, which is how we can help families prepare their children for school and thereby inherit a fighting chance at experiencing some of the satisfactions their wealthier peers will enjoy.

Children who are not in good emotional and physical shape generally do worse in school than intact children. Suffering children don’t want to comply with the rules of programs they find irrelevant to their problem-riddled lives. Legions of talented teachers work like crazy across this land, sometimes without much to show for their efforts in terms of test scores, but it is an insult to their Herculean efforts to blame them for not being able to erase the debilitating effects of poverty and other social ills from the children they strive to help.

Certainly inspired teaching in the context of a great school can do a lot to help students learn. Exciting curriculum can engage even the most disenfranchised student. However we fool ourselves if we think individual teachers can turn grave situations around single-handedly. We do not live in a Hollywood movie – the plight of our schools and our children is real and progress requires honest, sustained effort at a systemic level.

We need to move the conversation away from finding scapegoats to one where we look for ways to solve the social problems of childhood poverty and unreadiness for school. Certainly we need to do all we can to create great schools, and support our teachers and administrators as they try to meet the emotional, physical, and intellectual needs of our students. Simultaneously, however, we need to create the conditions that will allow families to ready their children to walk through the schoolhouse door adequately fed, rested, calm, healthy, and excited to learn.


Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.