The Real 21st-Century Problem in Public Education is Poverty

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This post first appeared in The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog.

Teacher Lori Peck, helps first grader Timia Harris at Grace L. Patterson Elementary school in Vallejo, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Teacher Lori Peck, helps first grader Timia Harris at Grace L. Patterson Elementary school in Vallejo, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

So much has been said about new “21st century” skills, standards and learning requirements, that they have become virtually synonymous with “college and career readiness” (a similarly poorly defined goal). The purportedly new demand for higher-level and different skills has further increased the pressure for more tests and higher stakes attached to them.

A new study showing explosive growth in student poverty suggests, though, that we have misidentified the problem. What if we have actually been teaching the right skills in US schools all along – math and reading, science and civics, along with creativity, perseverance and team-building? What if these were as important a hundred years ago for nurturing innovative farmers and developers of new automobiles as they are now for creating the next generation of tech innovators? What if these are the very characteristics of US schools that have made us such a strong public education nation, and the current shift toward a narrower agenda just dilutes that strength? What if, rather than raising standards, and testing students more, the biggest change we need to address is that of our student body?

The October 2013 Southern Education Foundation study indicates clearly that poverty, which has long been the biggest obstacle to educational achievement, is more important than ever. It is our true 21st century problem. Fifty years ago, we educated mostly working-class kids and up, and we did not expect those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to graduate. Now we educate all students, including the very poorest and otherwise disadvantaged. And we expect them all to graduate. Compounding this shift, a large and growing proportion of US students students live in poverty and even concentrated poverty, have a disability, and/or are learning English as a second language. THAT is the paradigm shift, and we need a totally new set of policies to address that 21st century reality.

In 2000, students who were eligible for free or reduced-price meals made up at least half of the student body in four states. Just eleven years later, over half of public school students are poor in 17 states, including every Southern state but Virginia and Maryland, and most Western states. Student poverty is the dominant reality in schools in three of the biggest states – California, Texas and Florida—and nearly the majority in New York, Michigan and Illinois. The 21st century has sharply increased the proportion of parents who are unemployed, whose jobs do not pay enough to provide basic food, shelter, clothing and health care for their children, and/or whose immigrant status limit their capacity to navigate the education system and restrict them to a shadow economy.

This devastating reality demands a set of education reforms radically different from those on which policy has fixated of late. Without a set of supports that enable all students to acquire basic literacy, problem-solving and communications skills, kindergarten teachers must tailor their instruction to an ever-broader range of academic capacities and behavioral challenges. And too many students will be doomed from a very early age to remedial education and dim prospects of life success. Until we ensure that basic, preventable medical problems do not keep large numbers of students out of class and lack of food does not prevent them from focusing, effective teaching will become further out of reach. So long as we put school nurses, social workers and counselors on the “expendable” list when budgets are tight, teachers will shoulder more non-teaching burdens, and instruction will be impeded. In the absence of systemic, consistent after-school and summer enrichment, a growing number of students will lose much of what they gain during the day and over the school year, wasting taxpayer dollars and future talent.

Not only have we not addressed these realities, we have exacerbated them. Pressure on test scores has crowded out the art, music and drama that cultivate a love of learning and that draw out children’s unique skills. In high-poverty schools especially, drilling in math and reading has dumbed down lessons, frustrated teachers and put students at an even greater disadvantage relative to high-income, experienced, well-rounded peers. Standardization has made it harder to tailor lessons to the unique culture of the community, making instruction more distant and less relevant. This pressure has also sidelined physical education and recess, both of which boost student capacity to focus and learn, and of course are critical to combat our growing child obesity crisis. Finally, it has increased the prevalence of “zero-tolerance” policies that establish harsh disciplinary consequences for even minor infractions and that treat the natural responses to poverty- and school-related stress as near-criminal behaviors.

Kids who are living in poverty need more, not less, of the supports that help upper-class children thrive. These include small classes, challenging, rich curriculum, individualized instruction and supportive responses to emotional and behavioral challenges. It also means ensuring a meaningful “floor” – in terms of school readiness, physical and mental health, and nutrition – on which they can stand in order to viably learn.

We do have a 21st century education crisis – poverty. Until we properly diagnose the illness, however, our prescribed remedies will continue to fall far short.

Elaine Weiss, Economic Policy Institute
Elaine Weiss is the national coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education (BBA), where she works with a high-level task force and coalition partners to promote a comprehensive, evidence-based set of policies to allow all children to thrive.
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  • Anonymous

    One of the consequences of poverty is that parents may be too physically and/or emotionally exhausted to support learning activities at home. They may not take part in learning activities themselves. The family may rarely go anywhere. And that means too many hours sitting in front of a screen, being passively “entertained.” Children from this kind of environment often make very poor students.

  • Leslie Lehmann

    Many of these students are virtually trapped inside their homes as they live in neighborhoods that are too dangerous to play outside in. Even in rural areas there are gangs, drug dealers, vicious dogs running loose, and sexual predators. They areoften home alone while their parents work 2 and 3 jobs. And they are hungry. (former Texaselementa ry school teacher)

  • Constantine Thomas

    I have worked in schools where the SES of the students is very low. Many of the parents do not see education as a priority when they are trying to make a living. The parents actually are apathetic; I learned this 18 years ago when I was doing my field experiences. My supervising teacher told me that irresponsibility does breed apathy because the parents are not accountable for student learning. Also, many of the students are not socialized in a middle class setting. Standardized tests are actually culturally biased because they do not take into account the environment of where the student was raised.

  • Rachel Hellenga

    I’m so glad to see you call out this issue. Many government-funded initiatives go toward developing innovative and valuable evidence-based approaches to education, but many government and private foundations want to fund models and hope someone else will pick up the tab for replicating the innovative work once it’s been completed. If we reframe wide-spread poverty as a strategic education issue instead of simply nodding sadly and framing it as something we can’t solve, maybe we can elevate the issue of poverty beyond a question of fairness, beyond the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” attitude embedded in American culture, and recognize that addressing poverty is fundamental to the well-being and progress of the nation. Imagine if we looked back at slavery or at the Holocaust and framed those issues as something each American slave or each European Jew should have addressed on their own, through effort and hard work, without the intervention of bystanders who had more liberty and more resources. The bottom 40% of Americans own .2% (not even 2% – 1 tenth of 2%) of all the wealth. They are hungry and working 3 jobs to keep from being thrown into the streets. The top 5% of Americans own 55% of the wealth, allowing them to influence legislation and grow more wealth. The disparity between rich and poor is the highest it’s been since the Great Depression when steel magnates and other wealthy tycoons had all the cash. Yet people’s perception of the distribution of wealth is far from accurate. We are hampered from dealing with this due to the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. What if you don’t even have bootstraps…and other people have their boots planted firmly on your neck? Those of us who have more resources need to address this crisis and stop framing it as a moral issue or a problem that individuals can solve by their own efforts. We can give up an hour now and then to get to the polls and vote or a minute or two to sign an online petition instead of allowing busy-ness and “I can’t make a difference” attitudes to justify a bystander role.

  • calas500

    Young children are not responsible for their poverty. Neither are their teachers. This SHOULD BE obvious as in elephant in the room.

  • Anonymous

    You are giving them what they need the most. They will take the seeds of love you planted and blossom. But I know how you feel. My 27 year old daughter was made far too aware of the limits of poverty. She is successful but a little too paranoid about all things financial.

  • Jane C Conoley

    The research is absolutely clear and well articulated in this report. Income level is the strongest predictor of academic achievement. This is sad commentary on U.S. policies that we have allowed income inequities to exist in our public schools by underfunding the schools that have the biggest challenges. The easy targets are teachers and parents but the real culprit is an economy that is leaving a whole lot of people behind.

  • Janie Smith

    Our daughter is an accelerated reader and we do our best to always allow her one book per book order. Unfortunately, money is very tight for us and the book fairs, both this year and last, were a nightmare of begging and pleading and we just didn’t have the money. It’s heartbreaking. Sometimes people just can’t wrap their brains around the difference between being frugal because you don’t make a lot and not having $5 for a book because you don’t have $5 at all.

  • DragonMama

    my kids’ school sent home notes with baggies stapled to them asking parents who could to contribute some cash to essentially a scholarship fund for kids whose families couldn’t afford a book fair purchase. My household has so many books in it (for all ages) that they are falling off the bookshelves and I mostly buy from the book fair just to be suportive of the school/PTA not because we actually NEED more. I would be QUITE happy to get my kids to by books as “Secret Santas” for kids in your kids’ situation instead of adding to our bookshelves, maybe with some guidance from teachers who know what kids/families need and would welcome the gift. I will suggest this as an option to explore with the Parent Resource Coordinator at our (inner ring suburb) school.

  • DragonMama

    PLEASE talk to people at your daughter’s school. I’m sure my own family isn’t the only one that would be VERY happy to lend/give some of our abundance of books to others who would like to read them – and then enjoy having conversations about what they read afterward. Everyone is always trying to give my kids physical books, and I’m trying to switch us over to ebooks more because of the clutter issues. I don’t think I’m alone (possibly not even a minority anymore) in this. Also, check your local library if you have anything that she could be reading ebooks on – many of them now have ebooks on offer so you don’t even have to find the time/energy/travel resources to get to the library for her.

  • DragonMama

    Thank you for everything you do. I hope it helps a little to have others see and understand what amazing things you’re attempting. Your efforts will have ripple effects that improve lives. Please don’t lose heart.

  • DragonMama

    it starts before birth – nutrition and other prenatal issues (partner abuse, drug dependency, etc) can trigger ripple effects that follow the whole family through time. We need to support one another more and blame individual failings less.

  • JonThomas

    Are you just commenting to point out a possibility, or are you allowing a pessimism to infect earnest people?

    Addressing income inequality is a worthy goal that is worth a try.

    Either way, every human life should have economic security. Further, there is no reason, except selfish back climbing greed, to systemically reward people in such unequal terms as this society does now.

    Wages are no longer used as incentives. Instead, people in positions of power are using low wages to exploit the efforts of other humans.

    One important subject in which young people should be educated in, is that regardless of ability, they have a right to a secure life, and should have enough self-worth so as to demand economic security.

  • NotARedneck

    “Now we educate all students, including the very poorest and otherwise disadvantaged. And we expect them all to graduate.”

    This “expectation” has done a tremendous disservice to the real students in any school. By placing a high value on graduation rather than skill attainment, the value of a HS diploma has dropped to almost zero. Employers now demand a degree and often more merely to keep the number of applicants down to a manageable level and to weed out the vast numbers of HS “graduates” with poor to non existent literacy and numeracy skills.

    The poor are the big losers in this because they do not have the financial wherewithal to pursue the ever increasing demands for more and more post secondary education – a process that has very little to do with developing job skills and everything to keeping the unemployed youth off the unemployment rolls.

    More and more, what is happening is that those who are bound to lose in this charade, determine this at a relatively early age and either drop out or hang around the schools to have fun disrupting the educational process.

  • NotARedneck

    You hit the point exactly. Testing used to be a way of measuring student’s ongoing progress and was used to ensure that there was intervention when the lessons were not being learned. Now it is mainly a tool for right wing criminals to hammer the public school system.

    Unfortunately, in far too many instances, the school boards, educational administrators and teachers did their best to eliminate this very important aspect of the educational process. Too much work and too embarrassing were the reasons but they tried to tell us that it was bad for students “self worth”. This is nonsense and this allowed it to be replaced by a travesty.

  • Stuart Dunn

    Add: automatic, geometric redistricting; public funding of elections,limited private contributions and no corporate contributions, term limits all elected officials; number of Senators proportional to population; eliminate electoral college.

  • Ginny

    This is not new news.

  • Jan Priddy

    Thank you so very much for this article. Ginny is right: This isn’t new, but it is about time someone addressed the issue of poverty from a major platform for what it is, not “a problem” but THE PROBLEM. I just wrote a letter of recommendation for a high school student who has worked 30 hours a week in order to help his family pay bills and rent. He is the exception, a young man who is brilliant and had help from a federal program to encourage him to become the first in his family seek a higher education. In what reality is his life at a parr with the students in my classes who vacation in the tropics? As long as so many students live insecure lives as a result of poverty, it’s a miracle that any of them thrive.

  • Jane Berryhill

    This is right on.

  • lela

    What an excellent article and true. It was coming 10 years ago when I retired from an urban southern California school district. I could no longer bear mandatory daily check offs of standards posted in the back of the room, pressure NOT to teach themes, cuts to P.E. , music, art and true literacy. It was a train wreck. It is so sad to watch and see children loose out on instruction of the things that make us human. Thank you for writing this. I wish you well in your efforts, Elaine

  • Anonymous

    How about as a culture we stop having children when there is no money and no plan to support them? I don’t want to support someone’s unwanted mistakes.

  • Janet Cater

    The Gop response is to take away nutrition programs. Seeming they want to make the problem worse or maybe just punish poor children.

  • Janet Cater

    Tough to avoid unwanted children if you can’t access birth control…even if you are raped per Gop plank.

    According to Gop women are just brainless vessels but if so why don’t men keep their pants zipped?

  • Anonymous

    And what happens if we can afford them when we have them, but something catastrophic happens? Do we just farm them out? Give them back? Send them to the 21st century equivalent of the Victorian poor house? Do tell.

  • onyxkitteh

    Rose 1 957 does raise a good point. How about A Modest Proposal. Then, you’ll never have to pay for anyone but yourself, and you can be happy.

  • lausdteacher

    Frijolitofarmer, You don’t understand. By poverty, I mean a culture of poverty. I have many students with parents in jail. I have students who live in a two-room house with 10 people and no English is spoken in the home. I have students who smoke dope and other drugs daily and who are absent constantly. The parents are concerned but when you inquire as to home life, the mother replies she is living with a boyfriend and six other kids and she is not working. It’s not just poverty. It’s poverty and instability and the inability of some parents to understand what their kids need for school.

    Then there are the chronically abusive students who complain bitterly about completing any assignments no matter how creative they are. Obviously the parents did not socialize them for the school experience.
    Am I middle class? I’m not sure. I have two jobs other than teaching and I rent a run down house and drive a 7 year old car. Most teachers I know are in my same position.

  • lausdteacher

    But they can’t just “want” the best for their kids, they have to prepare them. This means finding out when free museum nights are and taking the kids. It means not buying them video games and getting books instead. It means not letting them wear sagging pants. Too many parents are not doing the job.

  • onyxkitteh

    Well stated. To “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” presumes that one has boots. I am weary of people implying that the Horatio Alger model actually works.

  • Barbara Straub

    Government policies since the “War on Poverty” have only exacerbated the problem. Statistics show it.

  • Anonymous

    The problems may run even deeper than that. Our education system focuses primarily on intellectual learning, which is necessary, but not at the expense of emotional and physical training. A program combining all three elements would ideally make students more balanced and ready for adulthood.

  • Anonymous

    It’s just astounding to me that the onus is always on us, society, to provide for the children of people who can’t afford to take care of them. Why can’t we bring into this discussion strategies for reducing the number of children engendered by people who are too poor to care properly for them? It’s just taken as a given that we’re going to have all these kids that require extra resources—and of course it’s not the kids’ fault: it’s the fault of parents with poor planning and reasoning skills. It might be cheaper in the long run to just pay at-risk youth a stipend for remaining childless, or a lump sum to have tubes or vas deferenses tied.

  • JonThomas

    It’s the Grandparents’ fault isn’t it? They raised the kids who don’t know how to raise their kids. Wait… wait… it’s the Great Grandparents’ fault they raised the kids, who raised the kids, who are raising the kids…

    And your kids are perfect… so just kill off and neuter everyone except you right?

    Oh, it’s the poor people! Neuter all of them! And since you are happy and well off, who cares about the poor!

    Oh yeah, I almost forgot… this is EXACTLY the eugenics argument from the early 20th century from which the Nazi’s sprung… concentration camps for everyone!! We can use the private prison system already in place! WOOHOO!

    Wait, it’s the sardonic cynics’ fault… neuter me!

  • Anonymous

    Just to clarify, I’m not being sarcastic when I say it’s the parents’ fault and not the kids’. Your reply appears to imply you think I am. And not having children would significantly improve the lives of the poor, in addition to saving the rest of us a lot of money, time and trouble.

    It would only be eugenics if I were suggesting that it’s some kind of inherent attribute of a certain class of the population that renders them unfit to breed. I’m not talking about their genome, but rather the cost borne by society for poorly-planned and ill-cared-for children.

  • JonThomas

    Oh no, I don’t think you are being sarcastic. I think you are being incredibly obtuse.

    It’s quite obvious that you are so much more enlightened than the people who want to purify the gene pool. No, you don’t blame it on bad genes,

  • Anonymous

    “Frijolitofarmer, You don’t understand.”

    Oh, great start. Try to be a little more condescending.

    “By poverty, I mean a culture of poverty.”

    Ah, here we go. Classist buzz words meaning, “Poor people aren’t poor because wages are obscenely low. They’re poor because they’re morally deficient and don’t practice the ’10 Habits of Highly Successful People.'” The only other culture of poverty I’m aware of is the culture that arises around coping with poverty–the culture of crisis and resource management that separates us socially from the other classes, the cultures of which are basically about consumerism–and that’s clearly not what you’re talking about.

    “I have students who smoke dope and other drugs daily and who are absent constantly.”

    I grew up middle class and went to a private middle school. They have those problems in the burbs, too. It’s a result of bad parenting, which is not at all the exclusive domain of the poor.

    “…when you inquire as to home life, the mother replies she is living with a boyfriend and six other kids and she is not working.”

    As you said, I don’t understand. Which part is it that you find more deleterious to the child’s education–the idea of a couple living together without benefit of a marriage license, or the idea of a stay-at-home mom raising a large family? Is it that they’re too modern, or too old fashioned?

    “Am I middle class?”

    It doesn’t sound as though you’ve internalized the “culture of poverty” enough to identify yourself as a member, so yes, I’d say you are. In my city, elementary teachers make between $38K and $88K a year. I don’t see any jalopies sitting in the teachers’ parking lot. I once worked with someone whose wife was starting at over $70K, fresh out of college, as a high school science teacher in an affluent suburb. Here, you can buy a house in a poor neighborhood for what one of these teachers makes in a year. You have earning potential. How you manage it is your business.

  • Cam


  • Cam

    Looks like you need to go back to school too.

  • Linda Britt Lemon

    How about supporting birth control so that any woman who cannot or doesn’t want to get pregnant has that option? Hope you are in favor of birth control and not just for the poor!

  • inkognito

    You people are just full of IT! You don’t have to be rich to learn….. Why do I hear this only in USA? Is this your motto? You have to be rich to be educated? I am from a tiny country and from even tinnier village. I walked to school every day. I went to a public school where you had to bring your own toilet paper, because school didn’t provide it. You had to buy some crayons, pencils, erasers and notebooks. Books were for free……..I speak 2 different languages, I have a master degree, I used to be a professional tennis player and I have a great career. But I can assure you- it was not money that gave me education. It was my parents and my approach yo life.

    One teacher told this one great example:
    ” I teach children of all races. Black children for some reason always lack of less vocabulary then other kids. They are behind with reading, they can’t spell, they have problems with math as well……. Lots of people tell me that they do not have the same conditions to learn as white children. Well I say this to them: Library and Books are free for everybody”

    If you want to make an excuse why we have problems in education, you can always find it. You just found it………..but poverty is not the good one.

  • Anonymous

    Sounds like a fantastic idea. You first. Because NO ONE EVER HAS ENOUGH IN THIS COUNTRY.

    I’m not kidding. I can’t tell you the number of dickbags just like you who love to tell parents like me that I’m not doing enough for my kid because he isn’t getting all the “magic” that has been contrived into childhood for the past two decades (at the very least… it could be worse).

    What do you do when the family had enough, and this fantastic economic situation put us into crap? Retroactive abortion?

    You talk like someone who came out of the public system. Narrow sighted and mindless parrot.

  • Anonymous

    PLease. Do you know how many liberals fucked my family, too?

    Save the party cowtowing for… well, yourself. Because you buy it like the blind plantation livestock you speak like.

  • Bre

    The article did not say you had to be rich to
    be educated. I believe you are missing the point. Ms. Weiss clearly points out
    what she feels is a major drawback and hindrance to education in the urban
    setting. You have to be able to look at this issue from a broader
    perspective other than YOUR own personal experience. Every child’s life is not
    YOUR life, so we have to look at the overall picture and break it down from
    there. I agree with Ms Weiss. I think the insaneness of teaching tests
    rather than concepts has done a great disservice to the future of our young. I
    believe the testing is about somebody making money on the backs of our
    children. I feel the same about PBL(Project Based Learning). Kids are not
    learning basic concepts of Math, English and Science. Since when do elementary
    age students need to act like they’re working in corporate America and we all
    know that is not about ‘teamwork’ but about ‘power’ to control others. Sure,
    ‘teamwork’ on projects is important but it should not remove the teacher from
    actually teaching. Just what exactly were we fixing by bringing in this
    constant testing? What has it done to improve the caliber of students we turn
    out? Where’s the measurement stick for the changes we’ve made to our education
    systems? What did we get in return for the dollars spent so far and I want the
    truth, not some fabricated results chart.

  • Bre

    And yes – the Zero-Tolerance policies are also insane. Mean people must have written those policies. Why, America, do we let them get away with such insanity???.

  • Bro

    There are examples of schools who have been successful in improving the academic outcomes of students despite poverty. Mostly, they collaborated with the larger school community and together, supported student needs. Poverty is a HUGE factor in challenging academic success for students, but it is by no means, the only predictor for their future success. IT CAN BE DONE (read K. Chenoweth). If there are committed adults who are willing to invest in the future of students. It is not working harder, but smarter. It can be done.