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Philly Education News + Views
Independent. Reader-Supported

Poverty is no excuse, but it should never be overlooked





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One of my granddaughter’s favorite requests to her parents is "read to me." My son and his wife read three books to their children each night before bedtime and make weekly trips to the public library. At 5 years old, one child can explain the word “symmetry.” Their 3-year-old uses words like “specific” in context.  

A high school English teacher I know once asked in each of his five classes how many of his students had parents who read to them when they were little. Not one student raised a hand.

Most of these students had caring parents. Most had loving parents. However, in just about every case, each student had parents who worked too hard at low-paying jobs and were gone early in the morning until late at night. Aside from time dedicated to daily chores, there simply was no money, no time, and no energy to buy books or go to the library and then read. Reading to their children is a luxury the families can’t afford. 

Words like “symmetry” and “specific” appear on standardized tests, along with many other words that significant numbers of children have neither read nor used in a sentence. There are those who would offer that a good teacher can close learning deficits and bring children who were never read to as pre-schoolers up to the level of those children who were read to every night.

Dr. Hallam Hurt, a Philadelphia pediatrician, who completed a recent study evaluating the effects on children of cocaine exposure in the womb, found otherwise. 

Hurt began measuring the IQs of 224 babies who were born in 1989-1992. Half of the babies were exposed to crack cocaine in utero. Half were not. The common denominator in the study was that all of these babies came from low-income families. 

The study reached an unexpected conclusion. Although there was little statistical difference between the developmental and intellectual abilities of exposed and non-exposed children, there was a significant difference between the children in the study and their peers who were not born into poverty.

For instance, by age 4, significant numbers of the children in the study had IQs between 10 and 30 points below normal. By age 6, a quarter of the children were testing in the abnormal range for math, letter and word recognition.

After nearly two decades of tracking children, Hurt concluded that “poverty is a more powerful influence on the outcome of inner-city children than gestational exposure to cocaine.”

For those of us who work in the educational trenches, Hurt’s conclusion is a no-brainer. We have seen the devastating effects of poverty on our students. Schools in higher-income areas have higher test scores because a higher parental income translates into more opportunities and more time for children. While educational leaders and politicians wring their hands and scrounge around for answers to poor test scores, the answer is right there in Hurt’s study. 

It isn’t the fault of the school. It isn’t the fault of the teachers. It isn’t the fault of the parents. It’s the fault of a society that continues to tolerate unemployment, low-wage jobs, cuts in the social safety net, and draconian drug laws that incarcerate the poor at intolerable levels. 

With Philadelphia having one of the highest poverty levels and lowest household incomes among the nation’s major cities, where 20 percent of our citizens live below the poverty line in half of our city’s zip codes, those who would solve the “problem” of education would do well to heed the wise words of Hallam Hurt:

“The overall effects of poverty are placing children at a clinically significant disadvantage compared to other children. An important priority for those who care for children born into high-risk environments is to address the problems that contribute to their disadvantage, including not only maternal drug use, but also limited access to resources needed to provide cognitively and emotionally stimulating experiences early in life.”

Poverty is not an excuse for educational failure. It is a reason -- an important one that should never be ignored, minimized, or explained away.

Eileen M. DiFranco, R.N., is a certified school nurse who has proudly served the schoolchildren of Philadelphia for 23 years. She is a lifelong resident of Philadelphia.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Eileen DiFranco

Eileen M. DiFranco, R.N., is a certified school nurse who has proudly served the schoolchildren of Philadelphia for 25 years. She is a lifelong resident of Philadelphia.

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