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  • Writer's pictureTheresa Capra

Poverty & Its Impact on Education: 2020

Covid-19 has forced us to evaluate many aspects of our society that are broken such as elder care, hospital capacities, and now the purpose and function of education. As we reflect on these critical components, we would be remiss to ignore the glaring social and economic disparities that underscore the issues. #theresacapra #remotelearning #covid19 #research


In 2009 the journal Thought & Action published my paper about poverty’s corrosive impact on education. My research found that the United States, the wealthiest nation, had the largest income gap between the rich and the poor. I also demonstrated that poverty discriminated harshly; African-Americans, Hispanics, and women had income levels far lower than White males.

My overarching analysis was that eradicating poverty and reforming education are inextricably connected. I argued that until society begins to treat poverty as a condition and not a circumstance, educational reform will remain stuck in the mud.

I decided to go back and take a look with 11 years in the rear view mirror. America is still filthy rich. The Credit Suisse Research Institute has been tracking global wealth for a decade and in 2019 their report concluded that the United States still dominates the globe with any measure economists use to assess wealth (net worth, GDP, PPP). According to Forbes, the United States has 614 billionaires with folks such as MacKenzie Bezos and Kylie Jenner joining the elite club. China is on our heels --they’ve moved from 64 billionaires in 2010 to 389 in 2020. So much for Marx’s communist view of wealth distribution.

What Covid-19 will do to all of this glory is unclear, but it’s indisputable that there are more Americans with excessive dough to wall paper their bathrooms and buy Picassos than ever before.

Despite this, income inequality still permeates our society in shocking ways. According to the United States Census (2018) and the Pew Research Center (2020), the gulf between America’s richest and poorest families more than doubled between 1989 and 2016. Presently, America has the highest income inequality out of all G7 nations. The black and white income gap continues to rage, and middle class incomes have grown at a snail’s pace in comparison to gains by the wealthiest families.

Historical figures forewarned about the detriment of such effects. Adam Smith, author of the seminal blueprint for capitalism, Wealth of Nations, was concerned about poverty’s erosive effects when he highlighted the alarming mortality rate of children born to poor Scottish women in the Highlands.

Horace Mann, the father of public education, cautioned America's decline if it allowed poverty to fester below opulence. America must aggressively seek to eradicate chronic poverty and tie those efforts to educational reform.

Even though the United States spends the most on education worldwide, income inequality has led to inconsistent results at best, and shameful ones at worst. It’s a complex problem rooted in centuries of discriminatory practices, policies, and beliefs, but there is some low hanging fruit that America can grab.

Close the Digital Divide.

Our society runs on technology and access to the Internet isn't a luxury anymore. Want to buy a home, file for unemployment, get a line of credit, apply to a college, apply for federal or state financial aid, apply for a job, and now, in the wake of Covi-19, access education --all online.

No one was prepared for the thrust into remote learning but the low-income districts were completely blindsided. According to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics (2019), at least half of families hovering the poverty line do not have Internet access or appropriate devices to stay connected. The Wall Street Journal (June, 2020) reported that remote education was a failure, but when you read between the lines, it’s really been more of an inconvenience for affluent families, not the academic train wreck with lasting consequences experienced by low-income families.

During this pandemic, tech companies are providing limited access to tools such as Zoom, but what happens when the dust settles? Society needs to learn from this pandemic and move to define the Internet as a basic utility for low-income families while ensuring that at-risk school aged children have appropriate devices to participate in learning beyond the physical classroom. This is an investment that can return immediate results in comparison to the inconsistent outcomes generated by charter schools.

Attract and retain the finest.

Student achievement is tantamount to teacher quality and as I found in 2009, the revolving door of teachers in low-income areas hinders progress--this remains true in 2020. Additionally, the field of education is short on leadership. Education is desperately in need of transformational leaders who are not near-sighted managers incapable of seeing the big picture merely trained to follow and give orders to get ahead--education is not the military--school leaders must get beyond compliance and inspire.

Federal, state, and local governments should put incentives and supports in place to retain highly effective teachers and leaders in the neediest areas. Such incentives could get beyond the typical “hazard pay” offered to take on a job in a low-performing district and instead tie recruitment to retention.

For example, tax-credits for highly effective teachers and leaders in high poverty areas, attractive longevity increments beyond a salary grid, high quality professional development and support that is not a chore, empowerment to exercise academic freedom, the ability to experiment with pedagogical techniques, departure from the use of standardized test scores to evaluate teacher performance, and a blend of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards to celebrate outcomes--all the time.

Such a system must be built on trust between teachers and administrators, students and teachers, families and school districts, but sadly, trust is lacking in most of our key government and social institutions. But to beckon Horace Mann once more, "America cannot sustain both ignorance and freedom."

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