Recent years have seen an increasingly difficult environment for America’s teachers; half now leave the profession within five years. These difficulties in retaining quality teachers only makes the existing problems of educational inequality experienced by poor black and Hispanic students worse. So how can teachers help to address poverty’s negative impact on education? In new research which covers thousands of teachers in the Northeast, Tabitha Dell’Angelo finds that those teachers who stay in the profession, show control when dealing with classroom challenges, and recognize student’s barriers to learning are more likely to mediate the impact of poverty and help students to better achieve.
The context for teachers in American schools is bleak. Half of all teachers leave the profession within 5 years, 16 percent change schools, and 17 percent leave and never return to teaching. Imagine having to show up at your job every day, feeling like you have no power and being told that children are failing and it is your fault. It is no wonder that the recruitment and retention of teachers in high needs schools is so difficult. For the past two decades, in relation to the No Child Left Behind Act, there was a strong feeling that schools in the United States were set up to test and punish. Hundreds of thousands of teachers lost their jobs as both schools and those that worked in them were labelled as “failures”.
It is troubling that in spite of initiatives and funding directed at this issue, not much has changed in recent decades. While debate exists about variables that lead to student achievement, one linkage that stands out clearly is the relationship between poverty and low student achievement. This is of particular concern because many areas in which poverty is high are often places dominated by Black and Hispanic students. The challenges faced by these students is compounded by the oppression experienced in a White dominated culture. Limited access to quality education can only serve to add to the level of powerlessness experienced by these groups.
If we are to believe, as the data suggest, that poverty can predict student achievement, we must find a way to break this cycle. The reality is that inequities and inequality are still prominent features in public schools. And, these inequities definitely have a substantial impact on students in low-resourced, urban school districts. Classroom teachers have no control over students’ immediate economic situation. Instead, teachers must think broadly about where they have power and in what ways they might be able to mediate the negative impact of poverty.
In a study of more than a thousand teachers in an underperforming school district in the Northeastern United States, I found that there is a combination of variables related to teachers that is able to mediate the impact of poverty and lead to better student achievement. These factors include a perception from the teacher that they have some agency in supporting student learning, the number of years they have been in the district and the total number of years teaching. These are teachers who persist in the profession and express and internal locus of control when approaching classroom challenges. Having an internal locus of control means that while they recognize obstacles to student learning, they see them as manageable and within their control. They focus less on factors such as “lack of basic skills of students,” “lack of motivation among students,” and “poor student attendance” — variables that are outside of the control of the teacher and put the entire onus on the student. Instead, these teachers cope with obstacles to student learning in adaptive ways that lead to greater student success. These may very well be teachers whose perspective does not get in the way of their ability to solve classroom problems effectively.
The reality of the link between poverty and student achievement remains. And, it is not acceptable to decide that educators have no power in contexts serving students with limited economic resources and that these students are destined for failure. My research suggests that teachers have the power to mediate the impact of poverty by refocusing their view about the challenges that they face. Teachers must be supported in their efforts to understand and embrace the places in which they have power. These places include exploring ways that a teacher could change his or her own practice to make positive change for students and to spend time strategizing about the areas in which teachers have control instead of tunnelling in on issues that are beyond a teacher’s reach. One possible strategy for teachers is to approach the classroom like a site for research and to be systematic, intentional, and consistent in planning, implementation and evaluation of curriculum. Teachers must look closely at their practice and think like researchers to determine what works for their students, in their context. Once they determine what works and for whom they can modify content and modality to accommodate the students for whom the original methodology did not work.
In the current educational context, teachers may be feeling overburdened by testing requirements and, quite frankly, scared that their performance and dedication to the profession will be judged as a function of students’ test scores. This anxiety is understandable and especially salient in schools that serve children from low-resourced backgrounds. More than ever teachers need to be militant about building supports in their classrooms and using their expertise and agency to create sustainable change.
This article is based on the paper, ‘The Power of Perception Mediating the Impact of Poverty on Student Achievement’ in Education and Urban Society.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USApp– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Tabitha Dell’Angelo – The College of New Jersey
Dr. Tabitha Dell’Angelo is an Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Urban Education Program at The College of New Jersey. Her research interests include social justice in education, cultural identity development, stress tolerance, and coping strategies for teachers. She uses improvisational acting and Theater of the Oppressed to support teacher development and arts based approaches in her research.