How Poverty Influences the Learning Environment
Academic success is essential because it is linked to positive outcomes. People with strong educational backgrounds are more likely to secure employment as well as decent salaries. Academic achievement also increases the chances of having health insurance, and hence, reduced dependence on social assistance and the likelihood of engaging in criminal activity. However, the issue of poverty has plagued the learning environment and education system around the world. Even rich countries, such as Canada and the United States, have not been spared. Poverty has been shown to induce psychiatric disorders, chronic physical and health problems, including social and academic functioning (Ferguson, Bovaird, & Mueller, 2007). Academic life is one of the key areas that poverty influences. It is imperative to explore the effects of poverty on education to find a solution to the problem and ensure that students get the most out of their education. Quantitative and qualitative sources are some of the excellent tools that can be used to examine the effects of poverty on the learning environment.
Definition of Poverty and Its Prevalence
Before delving into the literature review, it is important to define poverty. The term is defined in the economic context and as a social disadvantage. Economically, it is measured using the poverty line, which is the minimum level of income that is perceived to be adequate for a specific country (Engle & Black, 2008). As such, it is the measure of income deemed adequate for basic needs differs across countries. Ravallion (1992) explains that the poverty line is measured as “food expenditure necessary to meet dietary recommendations, supplemented by a small allowance for non-food goods.” However, numerous researchers have explored poverty from a broader perspective to include social status, cultural identity, education, and respect and identity besides material items and health capabilities (Engle & Black, 2008). For instance, Sen defines poverty as the deprivation of capability (1995). In general, poverty is defined in the context of powerlessness, material lack (finances, food, and shelter), discomfort, hunger, pain, and isolation (Narayan 2002). Narayan also defines the term in terms of insecurity, vulnerability, low self-confidence, frustration, and helplessness (2002). As stated, poverty has permeated not only developing countries but also the most developed ones such as the U.S. and Canada. According to the World Bank (2018), the number of people in the world who are living in abject poverty is disturbingly high, and it might deter the 2030 goal of eliminating extreme poverty. In 2015, as the World Bank documents, 10% of the people in the world lived on $1.90 and below a day while the rate was 11% in 2013 and 36% in 1990 (2018). While a significant drop in the level of poverty has been observed, some regions are still experiencing acute poverty. For example, in Pacific and East Asia, 47 million people live in extreme poverty while in Central Asia and Europe, poverty levels have declined by 3%. Moreover, over 50% of the extremely poor population lives in Sub-Saharan Africa (World Bank, 2018). In fact, the number of people living in extreme poverty rose by 9 million, with 413 million people living on $1.90 and below per day. If this trend persists, the World Bank projects that 9 out of 10 extremely poor people will be from Sub-Saharan Africa.
The connection between poverty and educational performance has been broadly documented. Such a relationship can be analyzed in the context of child development, which directly links to academic performance and educational outcomes, including school readiness, enrollment, retention, educational achievement, drop-out, and completion. Poverty can directly affect child development through physical health and indirectly via cognitive abilities. Children born to poor parents have been found to have low birth weight (LBW), whose effect goes beyond mortality rates (Aber et al., 1997). Furthermore, children born with LBW are likely to experience neurological deficits (Teberg et al. 1991). According to a 1994 anonymous study (as cited in Aber et al. 1997), LBW alters the development of language comprehension skills. Additionally, Dobson (1994) revealed that LBW causes visual recognition acuity. Compared to non-poor children, the poor ones are more likely to experience diminished physical health (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997). McGaughey et al. (1991) cite a study by the National Health Interview Study Child Supplement, which directly linked poverty to increased school absences and bed days in children. Per Wise & Meyers (1988), poor children experience higher rates of morbidity due to limited odds of early intervention and a higher risk of illnesses compared to other children. Low odds of early intervention can be attributed to the lack or inadequate cover of Medicaid while higher susceptibility to illnesses is induced by limited physician accessibility and immunization (Aber et al., 1997). Studies have also revealed that poor children are subjected to otitis media (middle ear infection), higher levels of blood lead, asthma, injuries, iron deficiency, reduced stature, and social abuse or neglect (Aber et al., 1997). These factors are powerful predictors of education readiness and achievement.
Poverty can indirectly affect the cognitive development of children. LBW and premature births – both linked to poverty, have been associated with diminished intellectual and psychological development. Research by Bradley et al. (1994) indicated that at three years old, only 12% of poor premature babies demonstrated normal cognitive functions. Similarly, Dobson (1994) revealed that 4year old children born with LBW performed poorly in IQ test while children as old as 11 years born with LBW scored relatively lower on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) (Aber et al., 1997). Furthermore, poverty-related issues such as stress, poor parenting, and separation/divorce can impact a child’s development Duncan et al. (1994) showed that family income greatly impacts an infant’s mental health compared to maternal education. Lack of or inadequate finances can also hinder a child’s mental health. Financially unstable parents can be unable to buy stimulating intellectual tools like books, toys, and quality day-care, which can stunt a child’s cognitive ability. Conger et al. (1992) found out that poor parents are more likely to exhibit punitive behaviors such as yelling and slapping and score low on love and caring acts, including cuddling and hugging due to chronic stress economic instability. Long-term harsh parenting subjects children to poor goal orientation, low levels of social competence and self-esteem, and an increased likelihood of inconsistent behavior (Elder 1995). Such experiences affect a child’s development, hence, their capability to thrive in their learning environment.
Extensive research has revealed how poverty, through its impact on a child’s development, affects the learning environment. Ferguson et al. (2007) showed that poverty negatively impacts a child’s readiness for school through health, home life, and neighborhoods. Some of the factors concerning poverty that influence a child’s school preparedness include poverty timing, duration, incidence, and depth, among others. Additionally, the challenges that children encounter at home, including parental inconsistency, exposure to many caregivers, and lack of supervision and role models affect a child’s performance (Ferguson et al., 2007). Statistic reveals that wealthy students perform better academically compared to their less privileged counterparts. Edwards (2012) cites the thematic reviews by Pedro (2003) and Jensen (2009) that looked into the issue of poverty and the learning environment. Edwards also notes the works of Rubenstein and Dickert-Conlin (2007) that examine how the income level influences accessibility to higher education. The author contends that students from low-income backgrounds struggle to access higher education (Edwards, 2012). Canadian scholars have also reported positive results concerning the relationship between poverty and the learning environment.
A report by Thomas (2007) establishes that children from low-income backgrounds score poorly in regards to vocabulary and communication, concentration, and knowledge of numbers. Another study in Canada indicated that schools that scored low on institutional readiness have children from lower socioeconomic neighborhoods. In their qualitative analysis of 2007, Ferguson et al. examined how poverty influences Canadian children. While analyzing the findings of the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY), Ferguson et al.’s (2007) study focused on education. NLSCY has consistently demonstrated that socioeconomic factors greatly affect school achievement (Ferguson et al., 2007). These findings also incorporate studies from the United States with the same results. Living in extreme poverty affects cognitive development and academic performance. Besides the American studies, international ones have also presented similar findings concerning the effect of socioeconomic status on academic outcomes. One instance in this regard is seen in the determination of performance patterns in science, math, and reading, whereby the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) analyzed data from multiple countries. The results revealed that socioeconomic status played an important role in educational attainment from elementary school to high school (Ferguson et al., 2007). International bodies, including the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and Institute of Research and Public Policy, have conducted similar researches. From the studies, it was noted that students from low-income backgrounds were more likely to drop out of school due to various challenges, unlike those from financially stable families. It is backed by a qualitative study by Ferguson et al. (2007), which indicates that 50% of learners who drop out of school in Ontario are from homes with incomes below $30,000.
Edwards (2012) (as cited by Ferguson et al., 2007) conducted a study to examine the effects of poverty on the achievement gap. The study is based on the stratification theory, which distinguishes individuals by their social status and party. In the context of the study, stratification implies that socioeconomic status influences educational achievement (Edwards, 2012). The theory was helpful in developing a comparison between the academic performances of scholars from affluent backgrounds and those from the poor ones. The research utilizes a quantitative approach with structured questions. Data was collected from books, online media along with scholarly journals, and the proposed variables were age, sex, and gender. The study, which involves Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics, reveals that many African-American students live in poverty and attend low standard schools, which affects their educational achievement.
School accountability has gained prominence among educational reformists and leaders in the United States as manifested in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, which focuses on the performance of students and teachers (Breger, 2014). The law has sparked intense debate on how to track school progress and follow up on students’ and educators’ performance. While examining how to measure performance effectively, the impact of school resource inputs and external inputs, including the student’s background, parents, and community on performance has been analyzed (Breger, 2014). The effect of poverty on student performance has taken a central position in these debates. Comparisons of academic performance between students from low-income backgrounds and those from high-income backgrounds have also been performed. For instance, Andrews et al. (2003) studied the effect of poverty in 817 K-8 schools in Louisiana, and they found out that poverty was a powerful predictor of academic performance. Breger et al. (2014) examined the impact of poverty on student achievement among Chicago public schools. The research involved 495 schools that are listed as regular or charter, with varied academic performance, school size, poverty levels, and school attendance. The team measured the school’s overall performance in mathematics, science, and reading. Poverty was measured by calculating the number of student’s from backgrounds that live below the poverty line within the schools’ communities. Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), a recommended measure of school performance was used to determine the schools’ performance. The results indicated how poverty immensely affects school performance among public schools in Chicago. Some schools, due to the high poverty levels of students, recorded attendance rates as low as 49%, which was reflected in their performance.
Another approach to the effect of poverty on the learning environment is education enrollment and attainment. Filmer & Pritchett (2004) researched the connection between household wealth and educational attainment around the world. Numerous studies have been conducted in this discipline (Baro, 1993). Some country-specific studies have explored rates of enrollment across different wealth groups while others have focused on cross-national compilation of the country-specific results. Filmer & Pritchett directly compared nation-specific results of educational data to analyze the entire enrollment patterns across the world (2004). The researchers also compared the methodology utilized to present educational attainment differences as influenced by household wealth. Data were collected using the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), which are national household surveys conducted in over fifty developing countries (Filmer & Pritchett, 2004). DHS reveals school enrolment, achievement, retention, and completion. The research explored 35countries across the world. DHS data is limited since it does not specify household income or expenditures, therefore, the researchers constructed an “asset index” to include two questions on the DHS survey tools in order to determine the households’ economic status (Filmer & Pritchett, 2004). The first question required respondents to indicate their properties such as television, radio, motorcycle, refrigerator, and a car. The second question sought for housing characteristics including source of water, electricity usage, type of toilets, number of bedrooms, and construction materials for housing. The questions provided 15 variables, which were divided into an index to rank countries by their economic status. The principal components technique is used to summarize the data of a set of variables to a smaller number (Filmer & Pretchitt, 2004). When examining household expenditure, the researchers found out that the enrollment profile was continually flat, indicating smaller gaps between the rich and the poor.
Using the asset index, households were defined as poor, middle, and rich (Filmer & Pritchett, 2004). In Benin, 26% of poor students aged 15 to 19 were found to have finished grade 1 or higher, which indicated that 74% of the poor had not completed a year in school. Filmer and Pretchitt revealed that only 7.9% had completed grade 5 and above while those who had finished grade 9 were just 0.7%. On the contrary, 80% of the rich students had completed grade 1or higher in Benin while 54% completed grade 5. 80% of the rich had completed grade 1 and above while the poor recorded only 26% in this category. These statistics indicate the significant impact of poverty on the learning environment (Filmer & Pritchett, 2004). Those who completed grade 9 among the rich were only 17%. Looking at enrollment and dropout patterns among the poor in other parts of the world, low enrollment and high dropout patterns were noted in Western/Central Africa and low enrollment and low dropout rates in South Asia. In Latin America, high enrollment was experienced as well as high rates of early dropout. In East Africa, high enrollment and late dropout rates were recorded while East Asia and Central Asia/North Africa/Europe had high enrollment rates and high rate dropout rates (Filmer &Pretchitt, 2004). While the enrollment rates in South Asia were too low, the study recorded high retention rates for those who started school. For instance, 55% and 80% of those who enrolled school in Bangladesh and India respectively stayed through school to grade 5. While Latin America recorded high enrollment rates, the study revealed steep dropout rates among poor learners. In South America, almost all poor children start school but the dropout levels were very high. The attainment profiles of poor South American children were low, while the middle and rich students recorded high retention rates (Filmer & Pretchitt, 2004). These results continue to show how poverty plays a central part in the learning environment. Importantly, the researchers found out that educational attainment among poor Latin Americans was strikingly lower than those in East Asia and Eastern/Central Africa. Grade 5 completion rates among the poor were 75% in Peru, 63% in Colombia, 57% in the Dominican Republic, and 46% in Brazil. On the other hand, the completion rate of grade 5 among the poor in Zimbabwe were 89%, 84% in Kenya, Ghana scored 69%, and 62% in Tanzania (Filmer & Pretchitt, 2004). Uganda was the only country in Eastern and Southern Africa, whose attainment rates among the poor were lower than Brazil. This indicates that East and Central African countries, even though experience low enrollment among the poor, their retention rates were extremely higher than South American countries.
Another important element analyzed in Filmer & Pretchitt’s study is universal attainment among the poor. All countries have standardized goals for reaching universal educational attainment through stages like primary or secondary. The results revealed that in some countries, only the poor were unable to finish the primary level while in others, the middle and extremely poor did not complete this basic level (Filmer & Pritchett, 2004). Very few states had the rich that did not have the basic universal achievement. In Western and Central Africa, the attainment deficit of grade 5 was 80%, with even distribution across the rich, the middle, and the poor. While South Asia also recorded high attainment deficit for grade 5 among the poor, the deficit was evenly distributed. Countries like Pakistan and India had a large wealth gap due to high attainment deficit among the poor and the middle (Filmer & Pretchitt, 2004). In Latin America, the effects of poverty were further reflected in lower completion rates among the poor. In South America, however, those who failed to finish grade 5 due to poverty were 32% in Brazil and 12% in Peru. Eastern/Southern African countries again presented contrasting results from the above. The attainment deficit of grade 5 in these regions of African was relatively lower than those witnessed in Latin America and Western/Central Africa (Filmer & Pretchitt, 2004). Eastern/Southern Africa’s deficit from grade 5 completion was extremely lower compared to South Asia and Western/Central Africa. Lastly, East Asia had smaller gaps, concentrating among the poor. The Philippines recorded a 13% deficit for primary level completion, of which 72% of the cases were attributed to poverty.
While Filmer and Pritchett explored the effect of household wealth on education attainment worldwide, Child Fund International (2013) reported on the effect of poverty on education in the United States. According to the organization, the rate of poverty in the United States was 15% in 2013, which translates to 1 in every 6 American lived below or at the poverty line. The statistics revealed that over one child among 5 was living in poverty in America while the poverty score for American single mothers was 31%, meaning that in every three single mothers, one lived in poverty (Child Fund International, 2013). Furthermore, statistics showed that 1 out of 11 or 6.8 million children lived halfway below the federal line poverty. These poverty levels revealed a strong effect on educational attainment in America. The reports indicated that 30% of poor children were unable to finish high school and their schooling years were shorter compared to those from well-off families (Child Fund International, 2013). Consistent with the previously discussed studies, Child Fund International also reported that impoverished children are likely to suffer adverse health problems, which directly influences educational attainment and performance. Looking at the statistics, Child Fund International concluded that the U.S. is one of the most developed nations with high poverty rates among children (2013). Moreover, in line with previous studies, Child Fund International indicated that poverty induced poor physical health and alters motor skills. Moreover, poverty deters attentiveness, motivation, ability to memorize, and curiosity, which are the pillars of learning.
Poverty has a negative impact on the learning environment since it affects elements, such as physical health, cognitive functioning, social skills, and access to quality education. The problem is experienced worldwide at all levels of schools, including those in rich countries. Since educational success is pivotal in excelling in future, there is need to fix the situation to enable students from low-income families to excel academically. School systems should be reformed to allow students from poor backgrounds to learn at the same level as their rich counterparts. Prevention programs can also contribute to solving health challenges for children from poor communities. Lastly, schools can incorporate activities, for instance, sports and arts, which are essential to improving learners’ readiness.
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