It’s a sobering fact: 1 in 5 American children live in poverty and more than half of K12 students nationwide come from low-income families.  Academic disparities based on socioeconomic status now eclipse those based on race. As educators, we need a deeper understanding of socioeconomic inequalities, the impacts on student achievement, and how reframing your curriculum can improve student outcomes.

Thinking about thinking: Deficit narratives and the better alternative

The first step is to step back and examine our beliefs about why students in poverty are struggling to achieve. How do we explain the problem? What “scripts” do we use with our colleagues? Let’s look at two types of narratives.

Deficit narratives 

This way of thinking explains poverty as an individual defect caused by laziness and lack of character. Deficit thinking assumes students and their families don’t value education (which is a myth). The scripts go like this:

  • “Those kids are going to drop out anyways. Why bother?”
  • “Those kids are fine with [the run-down  schools, old books, etc.] since that’s how they live.  They wouldn’t know how to take care of anything nice.”
  • “Those kids can’t handle the harder work. They’re just going to be [insert low-status job] anyways, so I’ll just focus on test preparation so they can at least graduate.”

Deficit narratives ask, “What’s wrong with them?” This way of thinking drives a response focused on “fixing” students or assuming the lower expectations are best for the students.  

Instead, focus on addressing the barriers of poverty with asset-based narratives.

A different type of narrative focuses on identifying and eliminating challenges that prevent students from reaching their potential. This way of thinking asks, “What’s going on?” It aims to uncover issues on the educator’s end such as low expectations and deficit narratives, plus the physical and emotional barriers students face like inadequate health care, chronic exposure to violence, or other forms of trauma. Because it sees a bigger picture, this narrative refrains from blaming, sets high expectations, and emphasizes students’ potential. The scripts sound like this:

  • “I know the kids will rise to the challenge if we engage and support them.”
  • “Let’s learn more about what’s going on in students’ communities. We can build inquiry around that and make learning more relevant to students’ lived experiences.”

This asset-based way of thinking asks, “What’s really going on?”, “What’s getting in the way?”,  “What do students bring to the table?”, and “How can we change the situation?”

What do students need to be successful?

Curriculum is a potent leverage point to build the skills and mindsets that students need to succeed academically and personally/socially. These “success factors” include:

  •       Strong relationships
  •       Supportive families
  •       Physical health
  •       Social-emotional health
  •       A sense of hope/vision/possibilities
  •       Safe and healthy community
  •       High quality learning experiences

Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind: Curriculum Design

We can build these outcomes into the learning experience when units truly engage students with the issues relevant to their lives and communities. Lessons should ask students to draw upon their experiences, but that isn’t enough on its own. Rather than reinforcing the narratives of “things can’t change” and “that’s the way it is,” the classroom experience should help students develop agency.

Students need both the skills and the mindsets to affect change individually and in communities. Discussions and projects should challenge them to envision possibilities and solutions. Lastly, teachers should also strive to reach out and engage students’ families in positive ways.

Think “curriculum makeover,” not starting from scratch.

The goal is to make content more relevant to your students. In math, use real-world data as the basis of lessons on fraction, percentages, and statistics. In science, help students discover how biology and chemistry can solve community problems such as pollution or public health. In social studies, engage students in making connections across time and place, e.g., “What types of economic and social problems did Ancient civilizations face? Do we see any of this in our community today?” And, language arts curriculum is full of opportunities for students to develop literacy and communication skills on any topic.

Regardless of discipline, build in opportunities for students to ask their own questions and develop solutions. These case studies show what it looks like and how these approaches helped high-poverty districts improve academic achievement.

Improving outcomes for students in poverty is within your reach. Here are a few initial steps:

  1. Look: Take stock of your district’s situation. Examine the data on socioeconomic status and learning outcomes. Are there patterns?
  2. Listen: Notice the “scripts” used to talk about poverty in your district or building. Determine if the conversations focus on students’ deficits or their potential.
  3. Act: Work to reframe instruction to challenge and support students. Engage students in building agency to change barriers to success.

Are you ready to make a change?

Could professional development on asset-based approaches to poverty make a difference for your students?  Would more relevant and challenging curriculum make a difference for your students?

Let’s start the conversation. Convene your team, and we’ll provide a free readiness assessment to help you identify where and how to start.

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