Poverty & Education: What We Learned


By Sean Slade

WCS What We learnedOn May 6, 2015, I moderated the 3rd ASCD Whole Child Symposium at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. This symposium—an opportunity to put educators back at the forefront of the education debate—looked at how poverty affects learning and what we can do to address poverty as a sector, as a school, and as a classroom.

It is difficult to ignore or argue against the effects that poverty has across society and education. As Charles Blow stated in the New York Times, “[T]he corrosive cruelties of childhood poverty [include] worse health and educational outcomes, impaired cognitive development and the effects of ‘toxic stress’ on brain functions.”

But there are other reasons why this topic was (and is) particularly timely:

  1. 2013 data from the Southern Education Foundation indicates that the majority of public schools students throughout the nation—51 percent—come from low-income households
  2. It has been 51 years since the launch of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Low income students are now a majority of the schoolchildren attending the nation’s public schools. The latest data collected from the states by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), show that 51 percent of the students across the nation’s public schools were low income in 2013.

This administration today [January 8, 1964], here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.

  • President Lyndon B. Johnson, State of the Union Address 1/8/1964

The video archives of the event and the three discussions—Research and Systems, Schools and Classrooms, and Questions and Answers—are up and available for viewing in their entirety.

But what were some of the key takeaways from the symposium discussions?

Research and Systems

From a War on Poverty to a War on the Poor

The War on Poverty has slowly become a war on the poor. What began as a safety net and a leveling of the playing field has in recent decades been turned on its head, and now more vitriol than funding and support is being directed to those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

We got here in large part because that War on Poverty, 51 years ago, came to a screeching halt in the early 1970s. And by the 1980s in this country, the War on Poverty became a war on the poor. We had massive cutbacks in the programs that were to uplift poor families, low-income families. And so by the late 1980s we began to see this clear growth and the return of a substantial number of low-income students enrolled in the public schools, and it has continued. And it will continue.

Steve Suitts (16:10)


The current system for funding education has deep flaws, and it often hinders rather than helps any efforts to reduce poverty and utilize the potential for education to be generational game changer. The achievement gap too often highlights an economic gap and an opportunity gap, and it is this vicious circle that must be broken. Funding education via county or district property taxes exacerbates the differences. Schools that sit in wealthier areas have more funding, more resources, more experienced teachers, and less turnover. Additionally, they are more likely to receive local and state funding via grants, parent teacher association initiatives, and partnerships.

The whole funding system for public education needs to be rethought. Most school districts get most of their dollars from local property taxes . . . and that creates inequities in neighboring districts, particularly the inner rings of many of the large cities—they are really underfunded. And the ripple effects of that in terms of recruiting quality staff [and] being able to maintain and repair and build new buildings just goes on and on. So I think there’s a really core issue of how we fund public education.

Judy Seltz (49:50)

Schools and Classrooms

Not Of, But In

While the experiences of students living in poverty must be understood and accounted for, we should not and cannot view this as a culture. By doing so, we are inadvertently declaring that students living in poverty are predetermined to remain in poverty. We must know our students and our communities— their expectations and their struggles—but we also must view their economic situation as a temporary environment. To do any different is to create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What kids who live in poverty do is that they live in it, they’re not of it—and although that may seem like a real splitting hairs, being in something is different than being of it. And there’s such a more hopeful message that’s very real when we think about separating kids’ growing identities from their living conditions.

Kathleen Budge (25:25)


The clearest message that came from both panels is that relationships are still key. They are the closest thing we have to a silver bullet. Know your students. Know your communities. Understand where they come from and what they aspire to. Extend your students, encourage them, reach them, but you can only do this if you truly know them.

The most important one is relationships. That’s relationships between student to student, student to teacher, principal to teacher, and I’ll tell you why that’s important—kids will work hard for you if they trust you and they won’t if you don’t.

Tiffany Anderson (31:10)

I really feel like that if I form a bond with these students where they want to be in my room every day, and they want to ask me questions, and then go somewhere and just have a support system, because you never really know when they go home if they have that support system for them or not.

Brittney Maness (21:20)

The relationships are absolutely paramount. If I had 30 seconds in an elevator to tell you what are the two things [that work]—it would be to use data, and the other one is build relationships.

Kathleen Budge (36:50)

Regardless of who the students were – ethnicity, location, rural/urban or even the school size – the responses from the panelists were similar in how best to start to ameliorate the effects of poverty in the school. Know your students and know your community. From that vantage point, and only from that vantage point can you make choices, enact decisions and evaluate success.

I looked at the needs of the community, looked at the resources of the school, and I figured out what were the things we needed to put into the building so that we can meet the needs of the whole child.

Luis Torres (3:46)

Watch all the archives at www.ascd.org/wcsymposium and follow the conversation on Twitter using #WCS15.


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