Spotlight Exclusives

Navigating the Obstacle Course: Recognizing Barriers to Educational Success for Low-Income Students

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“All children can learn” is apopular clich̩, a way to criticize schools and teachers who fail the impossibletask of getting typically middle-class outcomes from typical lower-classchildren. Of course, all children can learn, and those in better schools withbetter teachers learn more.

Yet, as poverty and education advocates nowrecognize, differences in the quality of teachers and schools can۪t themselves explainmuch of the achievement gap. The reality is that socioeconomic disadvantageplays a significant role in whether students learn. Understanding theday-to-day consequences of that disadvantage in large and small ways is animportant part of any successful attempt to reduce the achievement gap.

Consider two groups of children, bothattending equally high-quality schools with good teachers; the group withgreater socioeconomic disadvantages will have lower average achievement than the more fortunate group.

Why is this?

Start with health differences. Children whocan’t see well can’t read well, and lower-class children, on average, havepoorer vision, partly because of prenatal conditions. They are also less likelyto get corrective lenses when needed.

Then consider the environment in whichchildren live. Low-income children run a higher risk of lead poisoning and poornutrition and thus experience more iron deficiency anemia, which results inimpeded cognitive ability. They also have more exposure to environmental toxins,pollution, and smoke, and thus more asthma than their middle and upper classpeers. Asthmatic children who’ve been awake at night, wheezing, are more drowsyand less attentive in class. With inferior pediatric care, these children aremore frequently absent from school because of untreated minor illnesses,including asthmatic symptoms.

Housing matters, too. Low-income families facea lack of adequate housing, and families without stable housing are more likelyto be mobile. This affects not only students who are themselves movingfrequently, but also the learning of all children in low-income communities. Teachersare forced to repeat lessons for newcomers, and classes themselves are morefrequently reconstituted with the constant influx and departure of students.

Lower-class children are also more likely tohave unstable family situations. Their parents typically have low-wage jobs andare more frequently laid off, causing family stress and more arbitrarydiscipline. Parent job loss also is associated with adolescents who are morelikely to exhibit delinquency, drug use, decreased optimism about the future,and depression.

Compounding these challenges may be thequality of sources of support outside the home. The neighborhoods where thesechildren attend school and play have more crime and drugs and fewer positive adultrole models with professional careers.

Without valuable interaction withwell-educated adults, these students are deprived of key tools in theclassroom. Lower-class children are not read to aloud or exposed to complexlanguage and large vocabularies as frequently or consistently as middle classchildren. Even if they are read to, lower-class children often still struggleto keep up with their wealthier peers. When reading to young children, morehighly educated parents are more likely to ask children questions that requirecritical thinking as opposed to less educated parents who are more likely toask recall questions.

Of course these differences do not expressthemselves consistently or in the case of every family, but they do influencethe average tendencies of families from different social classes.

Social class differences in child-rearingpractices may sound alarming or oversimplified, but they make sense when youthink about them. If upper-middle-class parents have jobs where they areexpected to collaborate and solve new problems, they are more likely toinstruct their children in a collaborative tone. Lower-class parents with jobsthat require them to perform routine tasks, follow orders, and never questionauthority are more likely to instruct children more authoritatively. Thisresults in children raised by college-educated parents, on average, having moreinquisitive attitudes toward material presented by teachers than childrenraised by working class parents. The achievement gap only increases as childrenprogress into higher grades where critical thinking becomes more importantrelative to memorization or the application of formal algorithms.

Given these conditions, efforts to raise disadvantagedchildren’s achievement must include narrowing socioeconomic inequalities aswell as school improvement. Disadvantaged children require high quality earlychildhood experiences with exposure to more educated adults, in-school healthclinics providing routine and preventive health care that support good schoolattendance, and high-quality after-school and summer programs providingcultural, organizational, artistic, and athletic experiences that more affluentchildren take for granted.

No matter how competent the teacher, theaverage academic achievement of lower-class children will inevitably fallbehind that of their middle-class peers if all of the other impediments tolearning that characterize lower-class life are allowed to fester unabated.Each of these differences make only a small contribution to the achievementgap, but cumulatively, they explain much of it.

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Richard Rothstein is a research associate at the EconomicPolicy Institute and was the national education columnist at The New York Timesfrom 1999 to 2002.

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