The Effects of Poverty in the Classroom

The economy has done more than take away jobs. It’s forced families from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds to be homeless, hungry, and lose the comfort of  having other basic needs. Nearly three-quarters of all U.S. households with income below the federal poverty line spend over 50 percent of monthly household income on rent (

We are often reminded of the number of Americans losing jobs, or graduating into a bad economy, or taking low-level, minimum wage jobs just to get by. However, what about the students in these families? We also hear a lot about poor student performance on standardized tests, college grads who graduate without critical skills, decreases in school budgets, and the lack of student proficiency in literacy and STEM subjects. We’ve known for decades that students don’t do well if they are hungry, sleep-deprived, or stressed. As more families hit the poverty line, is it any wonder that more students aren’t successful?

“The results are plain to see,” writes Mark Naison in his article “America’s Teachers See Growing Poverty Up Close.” “After ten years of No Child Left Behind, three years of Race to the Top, and twenty years of Teach for America, we have seen no change in the global standing of America’s schools and no reduction in the test score gap between racially and economically disadvantaged groups and the rest of the population.”  Teachers on the frontline of teaching kids in “generational poverty” or those “made newly poor by the economic crisis” are an untapped resource in finding an answer to education reform.

Naison illustrates the picture that many educators see in today’s schools, a perspective he believes many “education reformers” don’t have:

  • Many students who live in poor and working class neighborhoods don’t have a secure place to stay, moving from apartment to apartment, experience bouts of homelessness, and move in and out of foster care.
  • Students may disappear from school for days or weeks at a time, sometimes not returning altogether.
  • Those who attend class often fall asleep in class from sleep deprivation due to crowded homes and homelessness.
  • Many students go hungry, and fear the weekend when they don’t get school meals.
  • Many live without healthcare.

As many questions about education reform remain unanswered, consider what you can do to give legislators the perspective of a teacher. Is there more you can do to illustrate the struggles and achievements of your students? What would you do to solve the problem of poverty in the classroom? What can you do with your resources to make a difference in a child’s life? How can you use academic coaching to coach a child who is having a hard time at home and in school?




“America’s Teachers See Growing Poverty Up Close,” By Mark Naison. 17 January 2012. Beyond Chron. Accessed on 18 January 2012.

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