How does poverty affect education?

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Poverty definitely makes a difference to education. Students must have their basic needs met before they are able to learn. If a student is not sure where their next meal is coming from or where they are staying tonight, learning is not very important to them.

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In Florida, many inner-city schools with students from lower-class, poverty-stricken families receive "F" grades due to their less than satisfactory FCAT scores, due in part to the students' poor educational skills and training. The "F" grades result in less state funding and further embarrassment to the students, teachers and administrators, who are branded as failures.

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I think poverty's impact on education probably depends in large measure on whether it is situational or generational poverty.  The poverty experienced by a newly divorced mother struggling to provide for her children without a husband is somewhat different from that experienced by a child of the inner city whose parent(s) and grandparent(s) have perhaps never known anything else.  In either case, however, it is difficult for a parent to prioritize a child's education when he or she is struggling daily to simply put food on the table.  If a parent is working two jobs, for example, the child may spend much time alone after school, with no one to supervise or help with homework, or even fix dinner.  The child may come to school fatigued, if no one was there to see that he or she got to bed on time, and in the poorest households, whether or not someone was there to fix dinner may be a moot point if there is no money for food.  To say that a child should just learn to want a better life for him or herself is a vast oversimplification of a complicated problem because he or she may not be aware that there is a better life anywhere.  Even if he or she were, the connection between education and attaining a better life may seem abstract at best, or just plain impossible at worst.  However, I think we have to be careful not to assume that all poor people, and their circumstances, are exactly alike, either.  There are patterns and rules, but poor people's individual situations vary just as anyone else's situation might differ from his or her neighbor's. 

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If you have never read the works of Dr. Ruby Payne, you should. She has dedicated a large portion of her life studying the affects of poverty on students. What she explains is that not only do children suffer the economic issues that go along with poverty, but they suffer when they and others with whom they interact do not understand the rules that go along with each socio-economic class.

So in actuality, it's the unspoken and unwritten rules of the different classes that affect the student in a more critical way. Schools are operated from a middle class set of rules, and if a student is enduring generational poverty (poverty that is ongoing from one generation to the next) vs. situational poverty (unemployment, divorce, death) it is entirely possible that s/he will not know the unspoken and unwritten rules that govern the middle class.

One brief example of the difference an unspoken rule of the poverty class might be that they will physically fight to settle a dispute over a grievance. Whereas the middle class unspoken rule is to talk it out or pursue it through legal means.

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As the previous posts mentioned, poverty literally affects all aspects of a child's life.  Whether it be the student having to take on adult responsibilities leaving little time for school work or a child moving from school to school with no continuity in education because his caretaker cannot maintain a permanent place to live.  On a personal note, simply trying to contact the caregivers of impoverished students is difficult because I often reach disconnected numbers or send information to old addresses (there is usually not e-mail contact available).  If I cannot contact a parent to let him/her know about the struggles of a student or improvements, it has an extremely negative effect on the student and his/her progress in school.

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I'd like to add to both posts that although we have free K-12 education, poverty sets students at a disadvantage for higher education. Students may have to get a job to help support their family, affecting the hours they sleep and work on their homework. This can harm grades, and subsequently harm chances of going to a highly ranked school. Also, students who are socio-economically disadvantaged may not have internet access, & may not perform as well on standardized tests. Imagine, if your family can afford to spend $100 on a prep book or course for the SATs or AP exams, you will most likely be better prepared than someone who cannot. Similarly, students may have to pick and choose what exams they can actually take. If one is taking 5 AP exams in one year, even with fee reductions, the price adds up. Finally, students who are living with poverty will be at a disadvantage when applying to college, because they must consider price. They will need to work harder than their peers in order to gain merit-based scholarships. You might argue that all students can take out loans to pay for their education. Even if they are accepted and take out loans to pay, they will automatically be economically disadvantaged when they graduate, because they will be tens of thousands of dollars in debt, whereas students from wealthier families may be able to pay without taking out loans and incurring debt.

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The previous post examines the issue quite well from the student's point of view.  From an institutional and structural valence, poverty impacts education in a variety of ways.  Initially, areas that are economically challenged can feature sub- standard facilities, such as buildings, grounds, classrooms, and textbooks.  Students, especially older ones, begin to see this feature in their educational worlds and it creates for a disparity between the opportunity ideology, which stresses what should be done, and the reality of the situation, stressing what is.  Additionally, there is a likelihood that schools which are immersed in conditions which constitute poverty might not be able to place immediate primacy on educational needs, as other and more pressing economic realities might drive the attention and focus of stakeholders.  Finally, with standards based educational reform manifested through initiatives such as No Child Left Behind, solutions to help students meet or exceed state standards might not be able to present themselves as readily.  For example, if a school is in an impoverished area and cannot afford to do so, tutoring programs and other types of assistance might have to be sacrificed, impacting the overall quality of a child's educational needs.

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Poverty affects education in a myriad of ways, for reasons individual and societal. Let's look at a few of each.

At the individual level, a learner who comes from a background of poverty has decided disadvantages. This is a student who is more likely to experience food and housing insecurities.  We cannot learn properly when we are hungry. Nor can we find a spot to do homework while living in a shelter or a car.  And these, sadly, are situations in which poor students find themselves.  Children from impoverished families are also often lacking in parental support, not because parents do not want to provide support, but because they are working too hard and are too stressed, just to provide even the basics.  Children from impoverished families usually lack the amenities that their more comfortable schoolmates have access to, such as summer camps, music lessons, museums, and science centers.  These place poor children behind, since this sort of informal learning is so powerful and important. Research shows that poor students have smaller vocabularies than their schoolmates. Some of this is no doubt because poorer parents have less time to talk to their children, but also because the parenting styles are often different, with less emphasis placed on informal conversation in the household, a more authoritative "Children are to be seen and not heard" style. I would also guess that in poorer households parents do not spend much time reading to their children, because of a lack of time and energy and a lack of knowledge of the importance of this, not just for vocabulary development, but for emotional and cognitive development generally.  Thus, the poor student begins school at a considerable disadvantage that he or she endures throughout.

At a societal level, the effects of poverty are at least as dismaying. Funding for school comes from federal, state, and local coffers, with the largest proportion provided by the local level. In a school district that is poor, this means there is not enough money for the physical plants, the schools, to be properly cared for, there is not enough money for teaching and support staff, there is not enough money for textbooks and supplies, and there is not enough money for a well-rounded curriculum, which should include art, music, and physical education.  Poor students typically have worn or outdated textbooks, to the degree they have textbooks at all.  The classrooms are often crowded.  Handouts are fewer because the budget for paper usually has run out well before the school year is over.  School nurses and counselors might be at a given school once or twice a week, if there are any school nurses or counselors. At a larger societal level, the implications of this are staggering, since we are trying to educate children who are in no position to learn, students who have little or no access to the tools of education because of the poverty of their communities.  This used to be thought of as solely an urban problem, but it is becoming increasingly clear that suburban and rural school districts can be impoverished, too. All of society does and will bear the burden of these effects, with increasing crime rates, higher rates of incarceration, increasing poverty, poor health, lower consumption, and fewer tax dollars.  

This upcoming generation of poor students, I fear, is a generation that is educationally lost. We seem to be lacking in the societal and political will necessary to properly educate all students from all parts of society. A proper education is not one that simply prepares one for a job, but one that molds a student into a well-rounded, empathetic, and thoughtful person who is able to be an effective participant in a democracy.     

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