Let Us Not Misunderstand Poverty

Students from lower income families obtain poorer scores in standardized exams. Graduation rates are likewise lower for students whose parents are struggling economically. The correlation is clear: Poor academic performance aligns with lower household income. In fact, this is not a mere correlation. Evidence suggests that the relationship between the two is a causation: Poverty causes lower academic performance, but before we haphazardly arrive at the mechanism behind this causation, a thoughtful analysis of factors affecting learning outcomes is important. Otherwise, we would simply fall into an abyss of myths and misconceptions regarding poverty. This is especially true for those who see poverty only from the outside.

There is a paper published in the journal Demography in 2000 that examines how poverty affects early childhood learning. This, of course, is quite a limited study since it only focuses on the early years. Not surprisingly, however, the study, "The mechanisms mediating the effects of poverty on children’s intellectual development", found that out of five possible factors; cognitive stimulation, parenting style, physical environment, child’s ill health at birth, and ill health in childhood, one factor stands out as a dominant mechanism. It is cognitive stimulation. This factor depends largely on the resources available at home while a child is growing up. This study is a good example of why it is necessary to approach scientifically broad correlations that we see in order to arrive at a clearer picture of why such relationships exist. Not doing so can easily lead us to misunderstanding the situation. And with regard to poverty and learning, there are quite a number of myths out there. Paul Gorski, currently a professor at George Mason University in Virginia, enumerated in an article in Educational Leadership, popular myths regarding poverty:
  • Poor people are unmotivated and have weak work ethics.
  • Poor parents are uninvolved in their children's learning, largely because they do not value education.
  • Poor people are linguistically deficient.
  • Poor people tend to abuse drugs and alcohol.
The above untruths are especially attractive to someone who tries to explain why poor children are weaker students. These are all false. Gorski emphasizes the importance of debunking the above myths because believing in these simply prevents us from correctly addressing the problems in basic education. Gorski writes:
...The socioeconomic opportunity gap can be eliminated only when we stop trying to "fix" poor students and start addressing the ways in which our schools perpetuate classism. This includes destroying the inequities listed above as well as abolishing such practices as tracking and ability grouping, segregational redistricting, and the privatization of public schools. We must demand the best possible education for all students—higher-order pedagogies, innovative learning materials, and holistic teaching and learning. But first, we must demand basic human rights for all people: adequate housing and health care, living-wage jobs, and so on....
Poor people do not lack motivation. Poor people are not lazy. Some even do multiple jobs just to make ends meet. Poor people lack resources. Poor people lack opportunity. These are the same factors that hinder education.

What Gorski describes in the above paragraph applies so clearly to the situation in the Philippines. The country has elite schools equipped with resources and manned by effective teachers. The wealthy send their children to these schools. Thus, no one really cares about the quality of education provided to the poor and powerless. The current president of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino III, demonstrates how much we often confuse equality with equity. The first item in his vision of how to improve education in the Philippines illustrates how little he understands how poverty actually affects learning:
...We need to add two years to our basic education. Those who can afford to pay for up to fourteen years of schooling before university. Thus, their children are getting into the best universities and the best jobs after graduation. I want at least 12 years for our public school children to give them an even chance at succeeding. My education team has designed a way to go from our current 10 years (6 elementary, 4 high school) to a K-12 system in five years starting SY 2011-12. Kindergarten (K) to Grade 12 is what the rest of the world gives their children....
Here is a great picture (copied from the Office of Equity and Human Rights, Portland, Oregon) that captures what Aquino sorely misses:
The problem with the Philippines is that the country even lacks equality or fairness. Schools for the poor are marked with crowded classrooms and multiple shifts. Learning materials are often lacking where these are needed most. Of course, what can one realistically expect from a society that is marked with great inequality. The political landscape alone loudly proclaims how the wealthy and powerful are above the law. Where else can one find a majority of lawmakers continuing to sit in their powerful positions in spite of serious allegations of plunder?

Above infographic copied from Interaksyon
Let us not blame the poor people. We should know who we really should blame and shame....