It's Poverty, Stupid!

Why U.S. reading scores just aren't going up...

Posted Aug 14, 2017

No Child Left Behind, Reading First, Race to the Top—what these federal programs have in common is that they represent literally billions of hours of teacher and student time and billions of dollars spent over the past 12-15 years, trying to improve reading achievement in the U.S. public schools. Yet we have very little to show for all this effort and all this money. 

This graph shows U.S. reading scores from 2003-2015 on the two most respected achievement tests in education: the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) and the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment).  

Nancy F. Knapp
Source: Nancy F. Knapp

Looking at six year intervals, it's pretty clear that not much has changed. The blue and red lines, representing fourth- and eighth-graders' reading scores on the NAEP, do show some very slight progress, less than two percent overall, while the twelfth-graders NAEP reading scores (green) and the reading scores on the PISA, which tests 15-year-olds who are mainly in tenth grade (purple), have remained essentially flat.

Why can't we make any progress?  While many might (and did) argue that some of the reading reforms of the past 12 years, and much of the money spent on them, were too one-sided, ignoring or even discouraging some of the strategies we know to be most effective for reading development, there is another major factor holding us back: in 2015, more than one in five U.S. children were living in poverty, and poverty adversely affects reading development in multiple and complex ways.    

Direct effects

At its most basic, poverty can be defined as a lack of necessary material resources, which can directly affect poor children's overall development and, specifically, their development in reading. For example, children in poverty are likely to have fewer books and less access to the Internet, and we know that availability of reading materials in the home is directly connected to reading development. Poor children also tend to own fewer toys and have fewer experiences with novel or stimulating environments, all of which can adversely impact their oral language and general knowledge, which in turn will hinder their  reading development.

But most children in poverty face more fundamental problems than simple lack of books and experiences. Children in poverty frequently experience food-insecurity, and in this country, many also go without basic health and dental care, putting them at serious risk for both current illness and longer-term health issues. Poor health, painful teeth, and lack of nutritious food impact children's physical and cognitive development, and they also make it harder to learn to read.

Family-mediated effects

Poverty also affects children indirectly, through its adverse effects on their families. Families that cannot afford even inadequate housing move frequently and may suffer periods of homelessness, causing some poor children to routinely change schools two or three times within a single year. Working adults in poor families are more likely to hold low-wage, service jobs, with no benefits, no paid sick or family leave, and unpredictable hours, which means that routine health or dental care is often out of reach, quality child care is rarely available and difficult to arrange and pay for, and one car break-down, late bus, or sick child can cause tardiness or absence for both children and working parents.

According to medical researchers Wadsworth & Rienks (2012), living in that kind of stress results in "constant wear and tear on the body, dysregulating and damaging the body's stress response system, and reducing cognitive and psychological resources for battling adversity and stress" (p. 1). Such stress, along with unhealthy housing conditions, can lead to chronic health problems like asthma, which is 66 percent more common in children living below the poverty level. Higher levels of stress can also impact family relationships. Hart and Risley's classic 1995 study found that parents living in poverty even communicated with their children more negatively, averaging “five affirmatives [to] 11 prohibitions per hour” (p. 117).

Poverty also seems to be specifically related to the amount and types of reading done in families. In part due to lack of time and resources, parents in high-poverty homes are less likely to model literate behaviors like reading for pleasure, and also less likely to read aloud to their young children, who thus miss a vital foundation for school learning.

Community-mediated effects

Rather than helping to make up for the disadvantages they face, the characteristics of the communities in which many poor children live are more likely to pose additional barriers. Neighborhoods in which poor families are increasingly concentrated in this country have higher than average rates of violent and property crime as well as more open enticements to harmful behaviors such as drug or alcohol use. Because poor people have less political influence, such neighborhoods also often lack adequate civic services, from police and fire protection to trash collection. They are more likely to experience dangerous levels of traffic, outdoor air and water pollution from nearby industry and agriculture, and indoor pollution from mold, insects, and lead paint. Again, these factors all negatively impact children's emotional, physical, and cognitive health, and thus their ability to learn to read.

Susan Neuman and her colleagues at New York University have found that poorer neighborhoods also have significantly fewer reading-related resources of all kinds, from bookstores and public libraries to the very signs in the stores, and of course, the deep disparities between schools in poor and well-off neighborhoods are well-known and long-standing.

Societally-mediated effects

Interwoven and often causal in all the above-discussed issues is the way our country continues to treat people in poverty, including children. New voter-identification laws, recent restriction of advance voting and voting hours, and inadequate polling places in poor neighborhoods combine to discourage poor people from using their votes to improve their lot. The increasing influence on our political process of massive political spending also works to silence their voices. The zoning of dangerous traffic and polluting industries into poor neighborhoods, unequal school funding, deliberate concentration of poverty housing coupled with restrictive housing codes in more affluent neighborhoods, lax enforcement of housing codes and unconcern for civic services in poor neighborhoods are all common because most people in poverty lack the political power to effectively oppose them. At the same time, families in poverty are often blamed for not surmounting these societally-erected barriers, while teachers and schools lower their expectations for poor children because their parents are perceived as "not caring."

What are we trying to say here?

It is far from our intention here to imply that the problems are so large and complex that there is “nothing we can do” to help children from low-income homes learn to read, and read well. Rather, we hope that calling attention to the complex and multi-layered nature of poverty’s effects on reading development may encourage teachers and schools to look for specific ways to mitigate some of these barriers and, most of all, convince educational policy makers at all levels to look beyond carrot-and-stick efforts to raise test scores, and begin to address the real issues these children face as they try to master the reading skills which are so essential in today's world.

For further reading: 

Berliner, D. (2013). Effects of inequality and poverty vs. teachers and schooling on America’s youth. Teachers College Record115(12), 1-26.

Lauter, D. (2016, August 14).  How do Americans view poverty? Los Angeles Times.

Ullucci, K., & Howard, T. (2015). Pathologizing the poor: Implications for preparing teachers to work in high-poverty schools. Urban Education, 50(2), 170-193.

Wadsworth, M. E., & Rienks, S. L. (2012) Stress as a mechanism of poverty's ill-effects on children. CYF News, American Psychological Association.