Academic journal article New England Reading Association Journal

Protecting Students against the Effects of Poverty: Libraries

Academic journal article New England Reading Association Journal

Protecting Students against the Effects of Poverty: Libraries

Article excerpt

Despite the current interest in school "reform," and despite the current movement to radically change schools and teaching, there is no evidence that school itself needs to change dramatically. There is no evidence that teachers these days are worse than they were in the past, that parents these days are more irresponsible than they were in the past, or that students these days are lazier than they were in the past.

Can schools improve? Of course. Nearly all educators work for improvement all the time. But we do not need "reform." We do not need radical changes in the structure of school, in teacher evaluation, or in teacher education.

The main evidence for the claim that our schools have failed is the fact that American students have not done especially well on international tests of math and science. Studies show, however, that American students from well-funded schools who come from highincome families outscore nearly all other countries on these kinds of tests (Payne and Biddle, 1999; Bracey, 2009; Martin, 2009). The mediocre overall scores are because the United States has a very high percentage of children in poverty, over 20%, compared to Denmark's 3% ( (1)

Our educational system has been successful; the problem is poverty.

How poverty hurts children

More poverty means lower scores on all measures of school achievement (White, 1982). There are also many studies that show us just how poverty negatively impacts school performance:

* Children of poverty are more likely to suffer from "food insecurity," which means slower language development as well as behavioral problems (Coles, 2008/2009).

* High-poverty families are more likely to lack medical insurance or have high co-payments, which means less medical care, and more childhood illness and absenteeism, which of course negatively impacts school achievement. School is not helping: Poor schools are more likely to have no school nurse or have a high ratio of nurses to students (Berliner, 2009).

* Children of poverty are more likely to Uve in high-pollution areas, with more exposure to mercury, lead, PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls) and smog, all of which influence health and learning, and often impact behavior as well (Berliner, 2009, p. 23; Martin, 2004).

* Children of poverty have very little access to books at home and in their communities, with less access to good public libraries and bookstores (Neuman and Celano, 2001). Once again, school is not helping: Children of poverty attend schools with poorly supported classroom libraries and school libraries (Smith, Constantino, and Krashen, 1996; De Loreto and Tse, 1999; Duke, 2000; Neuman and Celano, 2001). Studies confirm that increased access to books is related to increased reading achievement (Lance, 1994; McQuillan, 1997; Krashen, 2004; Lindsay, 2010), which makes sense in view of findings that show that self-selected reading is a powerful predictor of reading achievement (McQuillan, 1998; Krashen, 2004).

Poverty is clearly the most serious problem. In fact, it may be the only serious problem in American education. What this brief review suggests is that when the problem of poverty is solved, when all children have the advantages that right now only middle-class children have, the "achievement gap" between children from high and low-income families will be closed.

What schools can do

Until poverty is drastically reduced or eliminated, schools need to defend children against the effects of poverty. This means providing nutrition, health care, a clean environment, and books. For policy, this means continued and expanded support for free/reduced meal programs, increased school nursing care, and, of course, improved school and classroom libraries.

The dramatic impact of providing access to books

There is recent evidence suggesting that increasing access to books can not only help students enormously - it can even mitigate the effects of poverty on school achievement and literacy development. …

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