Poverty and the Achievement Gap
Students of poverty face a myriad of unique problems that may affect their learning. Poverty can manifest itself in hunger, homelessness, and moving from school to school, or even from district to district. On this page you find an ever-growing archive of articles, tools, and resources focused on effectively teaching these students.
Recently, Mesmin Destin, PhD, from Northwestern University, spoke at Michigan State University on the topic of how identity connects socioeconomic status (SES) to academic outcomes, and presented his findings on low-SES middle and high school students. Destin’s research was conducted via implicit attitude tests, and based on the Identity-Based Motivation (IBM) model, which assumes identities are dynamically constructed in context. In this model, people identify situations as identity-congruent or identity-incongruent.
Careful consideration of institutional and school-level data is an important tool to foster student success and to develop targeted services that reduce achievement gaps and/or help struggling schools identify domains in need of targeted intervention. While 'hard data' such as these are vital components of school success and data-driven decision-making, consideration of 'hard data' shouldn't come at the expense of other metrics of a school's success.
If you ask any parent if they want their child to get a good education, they will undoubtedly say 'yes.' If you ask that same parent if they believe education is important to fulfilling one's life dreams, in almost all cases the answer will still be 'yes.' Yet when I ask educators what factors contribute to the achievement gap, a common response is the lack of parent involvement in their child's schooling. In my career as a K-12 educator, teacher educator, and researcher I have often been in conversations where the topic of parental involvement is being discussed. I cringe each time I hear these remarks: "they just don't value education," "they don't care about education" or "we just can't get them to come to school." These comments are about parents. My recent experiences working to close achievement gaps with educators in one rural school district with a high percentage of working class and low-income Latino families and in an urban school district with a high percentage of working class and low-income African American families underscores the normative nature of such sentiments. Far too often these comments reflect individuals' coded racialized and classed perceptions of parents of non-white and high-poverty children. A study of high school teachers' beliefs about the reasons for low achievement in Black male high school students reported that 45 of 50 teachers and counselors surveyed cited home factors as the primary factor explaining these students' lack of success. While we know that parental involvement in the educational process enhances students' academic performance, a variety of barriers related to culture, social class, and language diversity all contribute to lower levels of engagement by many parents, particularly non-white parents and lower-income parents. Thus, it is too simplistic to reduce the lack of parental involvement to an issue of family values.
As a high school math teacher at a charter school in Boston, I struggled to teach algebra to students with varying levels of math skills. Some entered my classroom still needing to master changing fractions to decimals and percentages, while others were ready to grapple with the quadratic equation, point-slope form and writing linear equations. At this school I was one of two ninth-grade algebra teachers among a team of four math teachers in the building. Through regular dialogue with my colleague Jeff, I learned that he faced similar challenges in his algebra classroom. Together we decided at the end of the first term of the school year to engage in a discussion with the math staff around how to better meet the mathematical learning needs of all of our ninth-grade students. We believed something could be done to correct the teaching and learning challenges in our classrooms before the end of the school year. It was evident to Jeff and me that heterogeneous grouping in the algebra classroom was not working. The inability to provide curricular challenge for higher performers was affecting student engagement and motivation, and the inability to adequately support struggling students (due to lack of time and resources) was impacting students’ self-efficacy in math and overall academic self-confidence.
Today’s young people (aged 18-24) are being raised in a ‘college for all’ ethos and are enrolling in college in unprecedented numbers.1 Despite increasing enrollment from across the socioeconomic distribution, longstanding socioeconomic disparities in completing postsecondary degrees linger.2 In fact, recent studies have suggested that socioeconomic disparities in degree attainment are even wider than the more widely known racial/ethnic disparities in degree attainment.3