On Poverty and Education

Daniel Willingham is a Psychology professor at the University of Virginia. His work focuses primarily on the application of cognitive psychology and neuroscience to K-12 education. I first became acquainted with Dr. Willingham when a friend who is a teacher posted a link several years ago to an article on his Science & Education blog. Since that time, I have read his blog daily, often finding material that prompts me to think and to think differently (which I love).

I need to be clear, for those who don’t know me: I am not a teacher. I am the daughter of teachers, but I am a social worker by training. I work with children; I am the Director of Children’s Ministries at my church; and I care deeply about the learning process that occurs in each child, indeed, in each one of us. Education policy and programs, and learning theory were common topics of conversation at the dinner table when I was a child. I couldn’t have told you that, at the time, but looking back on it, the framework of these sorts of discussions are familiar to me because my parents, both teachers, talked about them . . . with us, and over us, across the dining room table.

Most of all, I am a Mom. My three children are in Willingham’s K-12 “sweet spot,” so much of what he writes about touches me where I live and touches the things that concern me about our schools and the children alongside whom my children are educated.

I was perusing some of Willingham’s articles from 2012, and came across this one worth re-reading. Take a look. The blog post links to the longer article Willingham wrote for the American Educator, “Why Does Family Wealth Affect Learning?” Have you ever wondered that? Most of us have the vague sense that this is true. Willingham says, “The data are unequivocal: kids from wealthy families do better in school than kids from poor families. It’s observable across ages, on all sorts of different measures, and (to varying degrees) in every country.”

It feels uncomfortable to say this. As if, by saying so, we were blaming the poor people for their children’s poor performance. If, however, we can lift the lid a bit and take a look inside the phenomenon, there is a lot that we can learn, even we lay-people who care about education for very personal reasons: our own children and their classmates.

Willingham summarizes the last decade of research on the topic as falling into two categories of theories: Family Investment Theories & Stress Theory. If you’ve given these topics any thought at all, you won’t find anything new here. You’ll read it and say, “Uh huh, uh huh, yup, exactly.” And sometimes that’s exactly what we want to do and need to do. We need to hear the researcher and cognitive psychologist tell us that what we think to be true, is. Even if your not a social worker, teacher, psychologist, or sociologist, take a look at Willingham’s brief description in the blog article. You’ll get what he’s talking about. It will make sense.

By the way, do you like flow charts? Willingham has a terrific one here that summarizes how chronic stress impacts academic performance. Check it out if these sorts of things interest you.

I will leave you with Willingham’s final paragraph. This is really why I like the guy. Well, it’s the combination of the fact that he’s smart and a good communicator, but he is also practical and compassionate. Here is his message of hope, following an article that might leave you quite discouraged and feeling helpless for all children in poverty:

The research literature on the impact of socio economic status on children’s learning is sobering, and it’s easy to see why an individual teacher might feel helpless in the face of these effects. Teachers should not be alone in confronting the impact of poverty on children’s learning. One hopes that the advances in our understanding the terrible consequences of poverty for the mind and brain will spur policymakers to serious action. but still, teachers should not despair. All children can learn, whatever their backgrounds, and whatever challenges they face.

May we each play a part in spurring policymakers to serious action. May we each encourage teachers not to despair. May we each find ways, in our own neighborhoods, our own schools and communities, to make a difference in the life of a child. What is your task? Will you help get books into the hands and home of a child who has few? Will you be the human capital a child needs, helping with homework, encouraging him to stay in school? Will your home be a safe place after school for a child going home to an insecure home setting? What is your task?

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