Review Essay: Poverty, Cognition, and Learning

Because I’ve spent most of my career working with adolescents from the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, I have developed great interest in poverty’s effect on a child’s ability to thrive in general and learn in particular. Elsewhere on this blog, I posted a review of Sendil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s first-rate Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (New York: Picador, 2014). The book, as its title suggests, addresses scarcity in household economies and its direct effect on cognition. Rather than reiterate my review of that book in this post, I seek to open a serious discourse on the challenges poverty erects to success in school for vulnerable children. There really remains no doubt that the economic reality of the students we serve circumscribes their ability to learn. Indeed, poverty may be the salient characteristic of many struggling learners. 

A few years ago, I read The Writing Revolution by Judith C. Hochman and Natalie Wexler. The book rewards a reading with, among other thing, the authors’ acknowledgement of the effect of various forms of stress–including poverty–on children’s development and, therefore, their ability to learn. This took me quite by surprise, because in my experience with the relatively dismal professional development workshops offered by the New York City Department of Education, this is not an issue that is dealt with adequately; in fact, it is all but ignored.

Moreover, over the years I’ve belonged to a variety of teachers’ interest groups on social media (e.g. the Badass Teachers Association–you can find them on Twitter and Facebook) in which I have heard it said again and again that in professional development sessions in their schools, and in discussions with administrators, the attitude toward poverty as a cause of learning problems ranged from willful ignorance to open contempt for the idea that impoverished students struggle as a direct consequence of their economic situation. One needn’t look much further than the “no-excuses” charter schools to see this ideology in action: poverty and its drag on cognition–like the rest of the myriad obstacles in life disadvantaged kids face–is simply not an “excuse” for struggling in school, this argument seems to go.

As teachers, we ignore the issue of poverty at our peril–but more importantly, we ignore it at our students’ peril.

I’ve been struggling with this essay for about eighteen months, but I heard something recently on the local news here in Vermont that animated me to finally sit down, conduct the research, and write this damn piece. Like everywhere in ‘Murica now, Vermonters of a certain socioeconomic class regularly experience food insecurity. Vermont Public Radio interviewed a man in St. Johnsbury, gateway to Vermont’s storied Northeast Kingdom, who suffers a disability and has lost work on account of the COVID19 pandemic. Hearing him describe the amount of strategizing he does to keep his mother and himself (did I mention they both contend with diabetes?) fed and sheltered left me exhausted. While I have lived in poverty (I didn’t get my first college degree until I was 35, so I dealt with some very lean times in my twenties, especially in the years I worked in migrant farm labor), I never struggled as these folks do. I always had enough to eat.

If you search ERIC (the Educational Resources Information Center) using the terms “poverty and learning,” and check “peer-reviewed only,” the site yields 1,485 articles. “Poverty and school” brings back 3,875 peer-reviewed articles. Thus, the issue of poverty and learning clearly has been studied: a review of the titles and the articles’ abstracts indicates a consensus of scholarly opinion that poverty attenuates and restricts cognition and learning and that schools must address and seek where possible to mitigate the effects of poverty on students. Why are we still debating the effects of poverty, I wonder? Why have so many people who ought to know better decided to dismiss poverty as an “excuse” when research clearly shows that the struggles of poverty hamper learning?

This essay seeks to review six articles on the subject. I chose them at random from ERIC. Let’s take a look. I’ve uploaded them all to this post as PDFs.

First up is “The Effects of Poverty on Academic Achievement” by Kendra McKenzie from the BU Journal of Graduate Studies in Education (Volume 11, Issue 2, 2019). Like so many the articles on the issue of poverty in learning, including the six sampled for this article, Ms. McKenzie starts with a straightforward assertion: “Academic success can be predicted by socioeconomic status.” This is a refereed article that serves as a review of the current literature on poverty and learning. Therefore, it relays all the things we already know about poverty as a source of stress, alienation, and conflict. This essay emphasizes the biological impediments to learning that poverty engenders; as Ms McKenzie observes, “children raised in poverty are likely to experience cognitive lags due to significant changes in brain structure in areas related to memory and emotion. Poverty may make it difficult for parents to purchase toys and books to promote cognitive stimulation for their children, thereby causing the children to have a lesser vocabulary and a more directed speech.” To put this more concretely, when families don’t have enough to eat, it follows that they don’t have money for Melissa & Doug Toys or Dr. Seuss and Eric Carle books. Moreover, the stress associated with straitened circumstances (this is the main thrust, incidentally, behind the work Mullainathan and Shafir did in preparing Scarcity) can, Ms. McKenzie observes, “…result in shrinking of neurons in the frontal lobes of a child’s brain…”, which is the area of the brain “… responsible for the child’s ability to make judgements, plan, and control impulsivity.” If you know anything about executive function, you understand the problem here.

This second article, “Middle Grades Student Achievement and Poverty Levels: Implications for Teacher Preparation” by Lauren Dotson and Virginia Foley (who are, respectively, at least at the time of this article’s publication in the fall of 2016, an assistant principal of a school in North Carolina and an associate professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at East Tennessee State University) appeared in The Journal of Learning in Higher Education in 2016. Like the rest of the literature reviewed here, this article makes the case that “Correlational studies show a strong relationship between high poverty and low academic performance.” Indeed, where testing is concerned, this essay is a carefully assembled quantitative analysis of standardized testing in our schools. The gist of this essay is that we have contrived schools that are essentially the exact opposite of what children growing up in poverty need. Instead of creating learning environments based on process, we have environments that lurch between testing and punishing students based on a set of inflexible “standards” that often bear little if any resemblance to what teaching and learning are and aim to accomplish. If you are concerned with the number of tests to which we subject students (I am, incidentally), then this quote will help you understand the gravamen of the article as well as the problems practicing educators–i.e. teachers–face in schools where impoverished children are preponderant: “However, as the push for increased accountability gained momentum it left many students falling through the cracks; standardized tests do not take the varying experiences of our students into consideration when it comes to test results, and as a result, achievement gaps became the norm for many subgroups but most noticeably for our economically disadvantaged children.” Enough said here? I think so.

Moving right along to our third article, here’s a piece titled “Poverty and Brain Development in Children: Implications for Learning” by Victor E. Dike from the Asian Journal of Education and Training (Vol. 3 No. 1, 2017). Once more we encounter a familiar thesis: “Research suggests that poverty affects brain development in children and that the implications for learning are more compelling today given the attention the issue has attracted.” In this relatively short (five pages, including the scholarly apparatus) article, Mr. Dike reviews both the biological and cultural influences of poverty in children’s ability to learn; he makes this unsurprising statement–given what the other literature in this post present and analyze on the issue of poverty and stress: “The longer a child is exposed to poverty and stress, the larger the negative impact on the cognition, emotion, and self-regulatory learning skills of the person.” If I ran a school and had anything to say about professional development obligations, I would probably use this article as an overview to open a lengthy inquiry into the research on poverty and learning and its implications for classroom practice.

This fourth article, “Neuroeducation and Early Elementary Teaching: Retrospective Innovation for Promoting Growth with Students Living in Poverty,” by Karyn Allee-Herndon and Sherron Killingsworth Roberts, respectively affiliated with Mercer University and the University of Central Florida, underlines as its purpose an examination of “the salient connections between poverty and brain development.”  It comes from the International Journal of the Whole Child (Vol. 3, No. 2, 2018). As its title indicates, this essay is considerably more technical and focuses on the neuroeducational consequences of poverty, particularly organic delays in the development of self-regulation and executive function. The article either enlightens of reminds its readers, depending on their prior knowledge of these cognitive structures, that “Existing neuroscience research suggests a predictive relationship between executive function and to literacy and numeracy skill development (Shonkoff, 2011). Blair and Raver (2015) provide further evidence linking executive function as a predictive agent for academic achievement associated with socioeconomic status for children of poverty.” After explaining the basic science and the state of research on poverty and developing brain, the authors offer a variety of suggestions for classroom practice when dealing with children living in poverty: language games, storytelling, dramatic or imaginary play, games and puzzles, and gross motor play and music and movement. The final pages of the article list a number of commercially available games, puzzles and books for expanding classroom practice to include the kinds of everyday activities people of all ages do to keep their minds engaged and agile. These are the kinds of things you would find in a home where educational attainment and sufficient disposable income are present. Nota bene that the author’s prescriptions for building responsive and nimble minds include nothing in the way of, say, reciting a litany of decontextualized facts followed by a high-stakes test demanding recall of those facts.

The fifth article I grabbed from ERIC, “Teachers’ Beliefs About Poverty and the Impact on Learning Disabilities in a Poor, Rural School District” comes to us from The Rural Educator (35 (3) 2014) and its author, Dr. Renee Chandler at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. The first sentence of this essay sounds a familiar theme (and I apologize for belaboring the point): “Socioeconomic status serves as the strongest single indicator of students’ educational outcomes.” As its title suggests, this article deals with rural poverty–something very easy to overlook in our society–and how students are identified with learning disorders in educational settings. Frankly, much of the material about identification made my eyes glaze over, mostly because of my own experience in the process of drafting the individual education plans that govern the education of a child with special needs. In my experience, these documents are drafted mostly in haste not by frontline educators but by careerist bureaucrats who happen to work in schools. Would it surprise you to learn that Dr. Chandler found that many teachers see class structure in the United States through the lens of their own experience? And that these same teachers don’t fully understand, either as a sociological abstraction or a lived experience, what poverty is? As Dr. Chandler puts it, “The teachers’ beliefs about student performance reflected our society’s emphasis on the principle that hard work surmounts all obstacles.” It’s hard to disagree with the next sentence: “The philosophy supports the practice of ‘blaming the victim’: When students in poverty fail, they must not be working hard enough.” That is and has been, in a sufficient number of my experiences in our public schools that I have begun to consider–and regret–it as the norm, the ideological dynamic that governs the consciousness of far too many teachers. In any case, this “…belief that hard work overcomes poverty does not take into account the myriad of circumstances that make hard work in school seem fruitless to many students in poverty.” If you’ve worked with poor kids, you know that a simple elaboration of the Protestant work ethic isn’t likely to motivate them–you’ll need other tools at your disposal to involve impoverished kids in their own educations.

Finally, here is a three-page fact sheet from the National Education Association on competent and effective practices for classroom teachers who educate children who have experienced poverty and trauma. There are twelve bullet points here, including “Celebrate assets,” “Create a safe atmosphere for learning,” “Give students a sense of control,” “Teach emotional skills,” and one of my own favorites in the classroom, “Build students’ vocabulary.” Most of this is common-sense stuff which should (I hope) come as no surprise to teachers. This short essay is excerpted from this twenty-one-page booklet from the NEA titled Teaching Children from Poverty and Trauma.

That’s it. As I say, I have struggled since late 2018 to find time and energy to move beyond the first two paragraphs of this essay and get it into the form in front of you now. I think there is the outline of several professional development sessions in these articles. Let me add to this lineup the professional development inquiry on executive skills and function I developed in 2016 as part of my own professional development responsibilities at the New York City school in which I served at that time.

As I write this, citizens of good conscience across the globe are taking to the streets in protest of the egregious, sadistic murder of George Floyd and the pattern of extrajudicial murders of Americans of African descent across a period of years in the United States. We live in a moment pregnant with possibility. The very least we educators can do is use this time to advocate for our most vulnerable students–those who through no fault of their own find themselves at an economic, social and sometimes cultural disadvantage in the wealthiest country in the history of the world.

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