Schools fight poverty's influence on learning
REP. Gene Ward, Ph.D., rejects volumes of research evidence in his commentary (Star-Bulletin, Jan. 25
) when he dismisses the effects of poverty on student achievement. Study after study conclusively find that poverty is the single greatest predictor of student performance.
This is not to say that students affected by poverty cannot learn -- and the Department of Education has never remotely suggested that as the case. However, the conditions of poverty create barriers which, in general, make it more difficult for such students to fully benefit from their schooling.
Conditions of poverty might include homelessness or substandard housing without proper study space, a paucity of reading materials at home, poor nutrition, inability to afford proper health care or preschool, limited life experiences such as travel and exposure to the arts, parents with lower educational attainment or who are unemployed or underemployed, and school-age children needing to help the family by caring for siblings or working while going to school.
While the effects of poverty are deep and far-reaching, the DOE is not using poverty as an "excuse" for low student achievement.
What the entire education field understands is that poverty is a real factor that can impede student performance. Despite the fact that the effects of poverty are almost entirely outside of the schools' direct control, educators accept the task of working to overcome those external factors and are dedicated to the belief that every child can learn. This is coupled with the belief that all students -- of high or low socioeconomic background, of any race, despite physical or mental disabilities, and regardless of native tongue -- deserve the same opportunities for the best possible public education.
Other factors also affect student achievement, such as the need for special education or bilingual services. In Hawaii's public schools, more than half of all students come from low-income families, require special education services, speak English as a second language or have a combination of these special needs. This creates a particular challenge, which usually requires greater funding and the compassion of society as a whole to assist and care for its less fortunate members.
In Hawaii, the academic effect of poverty is startling. In 2006, 35 percent of students from low-income families were proficient in reading compared to 57 percent of students unaffected by poverty, a performance gap of 22 percentage points. It's similar in math, where 17 percent of students from low-income families were proficient compared to 34 percent of those unaffected by poverty -- that's twice as many and a 17-point gap.
In the recent Education Week "Quality Counts" report, "family income" was one of the most highly correlated indicators in its "Chance for Success Index."
Even the national No Child Left Behind program is founded on the recognition that poverty contributes to achievement gaps between students. NCLB directs federal dollars to support efforts to overcome those barriers.
Ward writes that "Parental involvement is a much more powerful predictor of student achievement than poverty." He's correct that parental involvement is important. Yet, poverty itself might be the primary reason some parents are unable to get involved, as they might be overwhelmed in their struggles for daily survival.
The article's phrases "dumbed-down schools" and "we dumb down our expectations" ignore the fact that Hawaii's standards are among the nation's highest. Blanket statements on poverty, socioeconomic data and parental involvement should not be made without reviewing and understanding the related data.
In his commentary, Ward misrepresents the beliefs and actions of the DOE and the professional teachers and administrators of Hawaii's public schools.
Patricia Hamamoto is the state superintendent of education.