School Mental Health Project

What is a School's Role in
Addressing the Impact of Poverty?

In a recent Washington Post online exchange (November 28, 2008), Staff Writer Jay Mathews asked: Should Teachers Ignore Poverty's Impact?

He framed the matter as follows: There are those whose view is that

good teachers should be able to raise the achievement of even the poorest kids. That is my belief, and the belief of the educators I most admire. But most Americans ... think people like me are wrongly discounting the effects of poverty and thus hurting, rather than helping, the national movement to raise the level of instruction in impoverished neighborhoods.

He also notes that: The issue can get very personal, which might explain why I rarely hear discussions of it. It is too easy to make one side think they are being called racists and the other side think they are being called bullies.

While the discussions that do arise often make it sound like there is a substantive issue. This is because of the way it is framed by folks. As framed below, it really is a nonissue. But, the topic certainly is a hot one, and when it comes to what to do about the impact of poverty, we face a range of problems.

One problem has to do with the impact that expectations can have on students. Problems can arise because of low or too high expectations in determining what is a optimal match for facilitating effective learning and performance (i.e., personalizing instruction in terms of a student's motivation and capability).

Another problem involves anyone who brings to school a negative attitude about the students, families, school, and/or neighborhood. (Too often this is labeled a "deficit model"-- a term that has many problems associated with it.)

A third problem is that the discussion often colludes with inappropriate negative stereotypes about teachers and school (e.g., the accusation that the impact of poverty is being used as an excuse for not doing a better job").

And, then, there is the core problem that the role of schools in addressing the impact of poverty too often is framed in the way Mathews formulates it: "good teachers should be able to raise the achievement of even the poorest kids." Framing it in this way can hinder development of a comprehensive system of classroom and school-wide learning supports that can enable learning by addressing interfering factors.

No one argues against the need for good teaching. Good teaching is essential. No issue there. The problem is that for many students, good teaching is insufficient. Necessary, but insufficient. No issue there.

And, while schools cannot be expected to address all the problems arising from poverty, as the Carnegie Task Force on Education has stated, when the impact affects learning, the school must meet the challenge. That is, it is necessary to do whatever can be done to address the impact of poverty both in the classroom and school-wide.

For those concerned about ensuring that all children and youth have an equal opportunity to succeed, it is clear, however, that prevailing school improvement designs are too limited in nature and scope to counter factors that interfere with effective school learning and teaching. The need is not for additional piecemeal and ad hoc initiatives; the need is for fundamental transformation of how schools provide equity of opportunity and how schools and communities weave resources to achieve this result.

In recent years, there has been a remarkable disconnect between what is planned and what is needed. A significant shift in policy and practice is essential to promote development of a comprehensive system of student and learning supports through first and foremost a rethinking and redeployment of existing school resources allocated for student and learning supports followed by well-conceived enhanced outreach to a wide range of community resources designed to fill high priority gaps.

Pioneering efforts already are underway. Iowa provides a statewide example. See the state's design document entitled: Enhancing Iowa's Systems of Supports For Development And Learning ��

As Judy Jeffrey, then chief state school officer for Iowa states in the introduction:

"Through our collective efforts, we must meet the learning needs of all students. Not every student comes to school motivationally ready and able to learn. Some experience barriers that interfere with their ability to profit from classroom instruction. Supports are needed to remove, or at least to alleviate, the effects of these barriers. Each student is entitled to receive the supports needed to ensure that he or she has an equal opportunity to learn and to succeed in school. This paper provides guidance for a new direction for student support that brings together the efforts of schools, families, and communities.

If every student in every school and community in Iowa is to achieve at high levels, we must rethink how student supports are organized and delivered to address barriers to learning. This will require that schools and school districts, in collaboration with their community partners, develop a comprehensive, cohesive approach to delivery of learning supports that is an integral part of their school improvement efforts."

Our Center at UCLA has produced policy and practice analyses and prototype frameworks that can be helpful in articulating the need and frameworks for systemic transformation of school improvement efforts to fully encompass development of a comprehensive, multifaceted, and cohesive system for addressing factors that interfere with learning, development, and teaching. Such transformation goes well beyond enhancing coordination of fragmented efforts. For a quick look at what we have been sharing with policy makers and planners, see What is a Comprehensive Approach to Student Supports? -

And a recent list of related policy and practice analyses can be accessed online at:

This body of work represents a fresh approach to long-standing problems that have been marginalized in education policy at all levels. Hopefully, you will see the relevance of the work and use it as you help clarify how to move forward in addressing psychosocial and mental and physical health concerns, closing the achievement gap, reducing school violence, stemming the tide of dropouts, and shutting down the school to prison pipeline.

In this time of change and as the reauthorization process for the ESEA resumes, it is essential to encourage policy makers to incorporate a fresh focus on how districts can develop a comprehensive system of student and learning supports at every school.

For more on this, see previous hot topics and the many resources the Center offers related to addressing barriers to learning.

And let us know your take on all this. Send to


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