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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How Does Poverty Influence Learning?

William Parrett and Kathleen Budge

Director Center for School Improvement and Policy Studies / Associate Professor Educational Leadership
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Editor's note: This piece was adapted from Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools by William H. Parrett and Kathleen M. Budge.

People in poverty are as diverse as people in any other socioeconomic class. They present, like other groups, a wide array of values, beliefs, dispositions, experiences, backgrounds, and life chances. As educators, in order to be responsive to the needs of our students, it is helpful to consider the constraints that poverty often places on people's lives, particularly children's, and how such conditions influence learning and academic achievement. Poverty affects intervening factors that, in turn, affect outcomes for people (Duncan & Brooks-Gunn, 1997). These factors include students' health and well-being; literacy and language development; access to physical and material resources; and level of mobility.

Health and Well-Being

These factors are interrelated, and one factor can compound another. For instance, substandard housing, inadequate medical care, and poor nutrition can affect the rate of childhood disease, premature births, and low birth weights, all of which affect a child's physical and cognitive development. Such factors influence students' ability to benefit from schooling. Living in daily economic hardship can also adversely affect students' mental health (Winters & Cowie, 2009), self-efficacy (Conrath, 1988, 2001), self-image (Ciaccio, 2000a, 2000b), and motivation to do well in school (Beegle, 2006).

Language and Literacy Development

Children who live in poverty often come to school behind their more affluent peers in terms of literacy and language development. In Educating the Other America, Susan Neuman (2008) states that more than 50 years of research indicate that "children who are poor hear a smaller number of words with more limited syntactic complexity and fewer conversation-eliciting questions, making it difficult for them to quickly acquire new words and to discriminate among words" (p. 5). A significant body of literature also points to differences in access to reading materials by students from low-income families in comparison to their more affluent peers (Allington & McGill-Franzen, 2008).

Material Resources

Poverty often places constraints on the family's ability to provide other material resources for their children as well. For example, they may have limited access to high-quality day care, limited access to before- or after-school care, and limited physical space in their homes to create private or quiet environments conducive to study. They may not own a computer or have the fiscal resources necessary to complete out-of-class projects.


Poverty often places another kind of constraint on families -- the ability to provide stable housing. Students often move from one location to another because their parents are in search of work or are dealing with other issues that require them to move. Frequent moves almost always have a negative academic and social impact on students.

Much is known about the far-reaching influences of poverty on a student's learning. An understanding of these factors provides invaluable knowledge to educators in their efforts to support and teach students who live in poverty. In high-poverty, high-performing schools, this knowledge does not result in lowered expectations for students living in poverty. To the contrary, it leads to empathy and an understanding of the differentiation, scaffolding, and support that students may need to meet high expectations. Like high-poverty, high-performing schools, any school that enrolls students who live in poverty should seek to acquire as much understanding as possible about the life circumstances of their students.

When children and adolescents know that their teachers care about them and are trying their best to relate to the realities of their lives, they become far more inclined to trust and actively engage in learning.


  • Allington, R., & McGill-Franzen, A. (2008). "Got books?" Educational Leadership, 65(7), pp.20-23.
  • Beegle, D. M. (2006). See poverty . . . be the difference! Discover the missing pieces for helping people move out of poverty. Tigard, OR: Communication Across Barriers.
  • Ciaccio, J. (2000a). "Helping kids excel on state-mandated tests." Education Digest, 65(5), p.21.
  • Ciaccio, J. (2000b). "A teacher's chance for immortality." Education Digest, 65(6), pp.44-48.
  • Conrath, J. (1988). Full-year prevention curriculum: Secondary dropout prevention. Gig Harbor, WA: Author.
  • Conrath, J. (2001). "Changing the odds for young people: Next steps for alternative education." Phi Delta Kappan, 82(8), pp.585-587.
  • Duncan, G.J., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (1997). Consequences of growing up poor. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Neuman, S. B. (2008). Educating the other America: Top experts tackle poverty, literacy, and achievement in our schools. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
  • Winters, V. E., & Cowie, B. (2009). "Cross-cultural communications: Implications for social work practice and a departure from Payne." Journal of Educational Controversy.
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Turning Around High-Poverty Schools
This series includes excerpts from "Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools" by William Parrett and Kathleen Budge, published by ASCD.

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tommcd's picture

The thing that we seem to perpetually ignore is poor pedagogy is the real culprit for the lack of ALL students receiving 21 st Century adaptive learning, that results in sustained individual performance improvement outcomes.

This is especially true for at risk students

Lets fix poor pedagogy, the real cause of poor student success outcomes

Paradigm Paralysis

More Money

Education Crisis or Poverty Crisis?

Education Change Teaching to Learning

Research Available, BUT Not Properly Utilized


Joseph's picture

I suggest the following journals be used to support professional development at the EC / Elementarylevels:
*American Educator, The Magic of Words, vol.38, No. 21, Summer 2014
*American Educator, The Fourth Grade Plunge- The Cause. The Cure. Spring 2003
Also,included in the spring 2003 journal, find The Classic Study on Poor Children's Fourth Grade Slump by Jeanne S. Chall and Vicki A. Jacobs.
School leaders, Coaches and teachers who work with parents will find these resources very useful.

CarolTW's picture

If you, as an educator, take the time to build rapport, ensure that your lessons are engaging and have scaffolds in place to assist and to meet the needs of the student, have spare pens and books (or whatever is needed for the lesson) so that the students are able to complete the work; they will rise to the challenge. These students should never be punished nor made to feel like second class citizens because of their backgrounds mean they do not have what the other more affluent students have access to or support networks these students do not. Rapport, respect and genuine caring makes a huge difference. An understanding that for many of these students, their families will resist changes you make which mean their child is shining and progressing...resistance is largely due to them being able to leave their life of poverty behind and hence their family ( a very real fear because families living in poverty only truly have their family)...being aware of this doesn't mean you don't try, my mantra to my students' is, you can do anything achieve anything and the only person who can stop you is yourself... and I come from generational poverty, I have lived as these students and I am the first in my family to be University educated. I have fought the prejudices from both sides, encourage and support all to learn.

Rebekah Price's picture

Rapport building is key. Do not be fake. Students have the ability to know when a teacher is being fake. Throughout the school year, my kids seem to have a constant sickness/cough. I can't imagine what type of strain this places on their tiny bodies. I have to keep in mind that their lack of ability to access health/well being treatments takes a toll on their families.


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