Poverty and the Achievement Gap


Fifty-eight percent of children enrolled in South Carolina schools are being raised in poverty, a reality tied to potentially damaging consequences, including food insecurity, inadequate nutrition and health care, substandard childcare, and homelessness. Of the wide-reaching implications of childhood poverty, one issue that often comes to the fore is the widening achievement gap between children of lower income households and those of middle-class households. This gap – evident as early as preschool – grows considerably as a child progresses through the K-12 continuum, and is often cited as a contributing factor to dropout rates. In a country where children are afforded equal access to education, why does such an achievement gap exist?

Children raised in poverty are subject to a range of physical, emotional, and environmental factors – depending on the depth and duration of poverty – which can negatively impact early cognitive development and school readiness. Years before they are to enter kindergarten, these children are already at a marked disadvantage, often demonstrating poor physical health, developmental delays, and deficits in areas such as attentiveness, concentration and memory. Children in low-income families also show an alarming discrepancy in vocabulary acquisition when compared to middle-class peers: by the age of three, children in poverty have heard 30 million fewer words than those from more affluent homes. In South Carolina, 76% of children entering kindergarten fail to meet vocabulary proficiency standards.

While some children in poverty present with delays due to poor maternal health or low-birth weight, the readiness gap is generally attributable to external factors, particularly the absence of resources, both in and outside of the home. Children in lower income homes are not afforded the advantages that their middle-class peers enjoy, such as educational toys, playgroups, or early intervention, and frequently miss out on the most basic of childhood experiences, such as regular exposure to books: fewer than half of preschool-aged children in low- income families are read to on a daily basis. Community resources in poorer neighborhoods are often insufficient – or non-existent – and low-income parents may have few options in terms of learning proper role-modeling behaviors or obtaining outside support. These combined factors deprive children of the attention and stimulation needed to thrive developmentally, resulting in the aforementioned deficits in school readiness and social skills.

Once enrolled in school, children in poverty continue to face unique challenges, some due to lack of readiness, and others due to societal stigma and the continued absence of resources. Schools in low-income neighborhoods often struggle to meet the needs of these students, and cannot provide the same support system – or attract the same highly-trained teachers – as schools in middle-class communities. Students in poverty typically gain an early awareness of their deficits, as they may not understand the words their teachers are using, may lack the support necessary to complete at-home projects, and may not be able to obtain required school supplies. This awareness, coupled with the general hardships related to poverty and lack of parental involvement, can lead to emotional issues, such as low self-esteem and insecurity, and behavioral problems, such aggression and conduct disorders. Children from low-income homes are more likely to be placed in special education programs – sometimes simply as a means of behavior management – and are more frequently screened out of gifted and talented programs – regardless of academic potential. They tend to receive significantly lower scores on standardized tests than their middle-class peers, and are prone to being placed in lower-level “tracks,” or retained at grade-level. This staggering combination of challenges can manifest in hopelessness, absenteeism, and – eventually – failure to earn a high school diploma. The latter scenario – a reality for 30% of children raised in low- income homes – serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty, making it difficult for future generations to rise above the obstacles.

While the hardships faced by children in poverty may seem overwhelming, if not insurmountable, there is much that can be done to help close the achievement gap. Research has demonstrated that as much as 43% of student achievement can be attributed to the strength of their teachers, with engagement being a key determinant in student retention. Educators who realize these children are not broken, and who truly invest in their students, can help them to not only adapt, but excel. Quality teacher-preparation programs, such as the Master at Teaching Special Education – to be offered at the Lowcountry Graduate Center by the College of Charleston in Fall 2016 – are necessary to help tomorrow’s teachers gain an understanding of the unique challenges presented by students from low-income homes, and provide them with the knowledge and skills necessary to deliver purposeful instruction and develop meaningful relationships.

Community supported programs, such as the Charleston County BEGIN WITH BOOKS (an affiliate of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library), can also engender academic readiness, by providing parents of young children with resources to foster emergent literacy.

While the effects of poverty are certainly devastating, and have a lasting effect on children raised with such deprivation, the disparity in academic achievement between children of lower and middle class backgrounds is also predicted to have a lasting effect on the Southern economy as a whole. Without an educated populace, South Carolina, and states with similar childhood-poverty rates, will lack the human capital necessary to sustain industries, advance technology, and compete in a global market.

Our children, regardless of parental income-level, must be provided with the resources and opportunities necessary to thrive in academic settings. It is incumbent upon all of us to support measures that will help close the achievement gap, and encourage educators in our midst to help nurture and develop the potential of all students.