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Poverty is no excuse, but it should never be overlooked

By Eileen DiFranco on Mar 24, 2014 11:59 AM

One of my granddaughter’s favorite requests to her parents is "read to me." My son and his wife read three books to their children each night before bedtime and make weekly trips to the public library. At 5 years old, one child can explain the word “symmetry.” Their 3-year-old uses words like “specific” in context.  

A high school English teacher I know once asked in each of his five classes how many of his students had parents who read to them when they were little. Not one student raised a hand.

Most of these students had caring parents. Most had loving parents. However, in just about every case, each student had parents who worked too hard at low-paying jobs and were gone early in the morning until late at night. Aside from time dedicated to daily chores, there simply was no money, no time, and no energy to buy books or go to the library and then read. Reading to their children is a luxury the families can’t afford. 

Words like “symmetry” and “specific” appear on standardized tests, along with many other words that significant numbers of children have neither read nor used in a sentence. There are those who would offer that a good teacher can close learning deficits and bring children who were never read to as pre-schoolers up to the level of those children who were read to every night.

Dr. Hallam Hurt, a Philadelphia pediatrician, who completed a recent study evaluating the effects on children of cocaine exposure in the womb, found otherwise. 

Hurt began measuring the IQs of 224 babies who were born in 1989-1992. Half of the babies were exposed to crack cocaine in utero. Half were not. The common denominator in the study was that all of these babies came from low-income families. 

The study reached an unexpected conclusion. Although there was little statistical difference between the developmental and intellectual abilities of exposed and non-exposed children, there was a significant difference between the children in the study and their peers who were not born into poverty.

For instance, by age 4, significant numbers of the children in the study had IQs between 10 and 30 points below normal. By age 6, a quarter of the children were testing in the abnormal range for math, letter and word recognition.

After nearly two decades of tracking children, Hurt concluded that “poverty is a more powerful influence on the outcome of inner-city children than gestational exposure to cocaine.”

For those of us who work in the educational trenches, Hurt’s conclusion is a no-brainer. We have seen the devastating effects of poverty on our students. Schools in higher-income areas have higher test scores because a higher parental income translates into more opportunities and more time for children. While educational leaders and politicians wring their hands and scrounge around for answers to poor test scores, the answer is right there in Hurt’s study. 

It isn’t the fault of the school. It isn’t the fault of the teachers. It isn’t the fault of the parents. It’s the fault of a society that continues to tolerate unemployment, low-wage jobs, cuts in the social safety net, and draconian drug laws that incarcerate the poor at intolerable levels. 

With Philadelphia having one of the highest poverty levels and lowest household incomes among the nation’s major cities, where 20 percent of our citizens live below the poverty line in half of our city’s zip codes, those who would solve the “problem” of education would do well to heed the wise words of Hallam Hurt:

“The overall effects of poverty are placing children at a clinically significant disadvantage compared to other children. An important priority for those who care for children born into high-risk environments is to address the problems that contribute to their disadvantage, including not only maternal drug use, but also limited access to resources needed to provide cognitively and emotionally stimulating experiences early in life.”

Poverty is not an excuse for educational failure. It is a reason -- an important one that should never be ignored, minimized, or explained away.

Eileen M. DiFranco, R.N., is a certified school nurse who has proudly served the schoolchildren of Philadelphia for 23 years. She is a lifelong resident of Philadelphia.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (23)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 24, 2014 12:02 pm
lock her up folks.....she is making too much sense.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on March 24, 2014 1:07 pm
Enriching experiences needed, agreed. What do we spend our Title I money on, that was specifically for enriching experiences? Certainly not that. It goes to padding bureaucratic jobs instead. "Expert" jobs. Take the Title I money, and give it to the social services agencies instead.
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This was a truly awesome challenge and ideally I can go to the following one. It was alot of fun and I truly had a ball.. His Secret Obsession
Submitted by Deborah Grill (not verified) on March 24, 2014 3:30 pm
Eileen is right on target. Results of the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study demonstrate the adverse effects of poverty on an individual's cognitive ability and physical health well into adulthood. This article from Education Week explains the physiological changes that result from the "toxic stressors" of poverty and the toll it takes on individuals. A msut read for anyone who makes educational policy.
Submitted by Notebook reader (not verified) on March 24, 2014 3:42 pm
Submitted by Lisa Haver on March 24, 2014 8:54 pm
The two longest wars in our history are not Iran and Afghanistan. They are the War on Poverty and the War on Drugs. We are now living in an age with the greatest income disparity since the Depression. And as Michelle Alexander points out in "The New Jim Crow", the war on drugs has resulted in an astounding number of African-American men incarcerated, many for minor offenses. If the wealthiest nation in the history of mankind cannot provide for its own citizens, it is because it does not really want to. Thanks, Eileen, for talking about what this does to our children.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 25, 2014 11:55 am
"It does not really want to" because there's money to be made on the "War on Poverty" and of course, the war on drugs and the war on crime. Whose crime?? The kid on the corner selling crack or the huge shot callers white collar crime like on Wall Street??
Submitted by Wanda Lassiter (not verified) on March 25, 2014 6:05 am
Thanks, Eileen, for the courage to call a spade, a spade. This age-old problem does not go unrecognized but is simply ignored. I pray I live to see the days of 1) acknowledgement of the real issues, 2) the implementation of a plan to address these issues, and 3) the positive changes that will occur as a result. As the kids say Eileen, 'you are the'! God bless you for your tireless efforts.
Submitted by Diane (not verified) on March 25, 2014 1:53 pm
Thanks Eileen, Your article so very true and so very well said. It is a convenient "fix" for politicians and their minions in educational administration to starve the poor school districts, then point fingers at "failing" schools as the issue. That is their double-speak so they can deflect any fingers from pointing at them to address real problems. Pretend the real problems are schools and teachers and that poverty is "no excuse." We need to call out our politicians and vote with knowledge. Yesterday, while at a conference in Texas, Hillary Clinton supposedly praised Jeb Bush from Florida. Really!! Keep up the good work Eileen.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 25, 2014 7:35 pm
Wow! Powerful and poignantly well written. And unfortunately true!
Submitted by Connie Loveland (not verified) on March 27, 2014 12:47 pm
Thanks Ellen for covering such an important topic that is unfortunately ignored. With my profession, I work with students who are displaced from their home environments. It is very troubling to hear what types of environment that some of these students describe as a place for education to take place. How can productive education with acceptable standardized tests results occur when materials are not available to the students. We need to stop using the excuse that students coming from poverty don't care. If they don't have materials that affluent schools have how can they expect them to have the same results?
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