Friday, May 13, 2011

Impact of Poverty on Student Learning

Recently, I reviewed a story about poverty and the impact on education outcomes in Texas. Michael Marder, who is a professor of physics at the University of Texas at Austin, also is co-director of the UTeach program that encourages university grads to become math and science teachers.

In the article, Marder discusses his research around student learning outcomes and the correlations with poverty and ethnicity. Interested readers can connect to an excellent video at

Marder’s research shows the strong correlation of poverty to low student achievement and also shows how schools are failing to educate many children of color. Marder clearly states that we have not been able to take a solution to the poverty challenge to scale. He also points out that, while there are a few charter schools that are “beating the odds,” most charter schools in Texas are not achieving strong results.

Marder used the “Boeing” story to illustrate his key point. After World War II, the British tried to regain transportation supremacy through air travel with the de Havilland aircraft. After numerous crashes, the British were unable to develop a theory that would improve the aircraft; however, a young engineer with Boeing came up with a new way of thinking that allowed Boeing and the U.S. to take supremacy in air travel. The British theory had been “flaw free” and had failed. The Boeing theory was a “flaw tolerant” design of aircraft, and it succeeded.

Marder makes the point that “poverty is causing our public school system to crash and burn and fail many children.” He says that if we do not figure out how to address poverty, then we will lose our technical supremacy – as many reports have also documented (Gathering Storm, Incarceration and Social Inequity, a Center for American Progress report and more). Marder says that our current theory of only addressing teacher quality and accountability through standardized tests has not been proven to address failures on a sustained basis. He says we need a new “Boeing” theory.

During my recent visit to China, it was apparent the country is struggling with the same issues – poverty in rural and urban settings, poor performance of schools and failure of schools/society to meet the needs of a diverse group of children. The Chinese have developed five- and 10-year plans that have strategies of strong schools helping weaker schools and strong leaders and teachers helping weaker leaders and teachers. Also, there is a strong push to meet needs of individual learners and use higher level skills of problem solving, creativity and innovation.

Looking at our current national and state reform strategies, I do believe that we also are addressing a systemic approach to improving student learning outcomes. We are not focusing solely on standardized test results and accountability. We have a strong push for a more balanced approach to accountability, strong teachers and leaders, strong instructional support systems, and early childhood.

Marder has posed the concern about our public policy theories of action. The key for policy leaders is to not use poverty as the excuse, but to look for the “Boeing” theory of action that will meet the needs of our children and the future of our Commonwealth.

There are two issues that arise when we discuss poverty and impact on student learning. Either we do not believe children of poverty can learn to high levels, or we do not know how to help children of poverty achieve at high levels. It is difficult to say that we do not know how; however, that response can be addressed. If we do not believe that children of poverty can learn at high levels as well as any child, then we have a more difficult issue.

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