Poverty, Family Stress are Thwarting Student Success, Top Teachers Say

By Lyndsey Layton May 19
The Washington Post

The greatest barriers to school success for K-12 students have little to do with anything that goes on in the classroom, according to the nation’s top teachers: It is family stress, followed by poverty, and learning and psychological problems.

Those were the factors named in a survey of the 2015 state Teachers of the Year, top educators selected annually in every U.S. state and jurisdictions such as the District of Columbia and Guam.

The survey, to be released Wednesday by the Council of Chief State School Officers and Scholastic Inc., polled the 56 Teachers of the Year, a small but elite group of educators considered among the country’s best, on a range of issues affecting public education. [Read the Survey]

Asked what barriers to learning most affect their students’ academic success, 76 percent of teachers cited “Family stress,” 63 percent cited “Poverty,” and 52 percent cited “Learning and psychological problems.”

Teachers see issues like poverty, family stress and other out-of-school barriers to learning greatly affecting student academic success, and they prioritize things like anti-poverty initiatives, early learning and other community supports and services for funding.

Teachers believe non-academic reasons bar success

The 2015 state Teachers of the Year, an elite group of top K-12 educators from around the country, were asked about barriers to student success as part of a broad survey of their views on public education. All but 10 of the 56 teachers responded to the survey, which was conducted by the Council of Chief State School Officers and Scholastic Inc




Those three factors in many ways are the white elephant in the living room for us in education,” said Jennifer Dorman, Maine’s 2015 Teacher of the Year who teaches special-education classes for seventh- and eighth-graders. “As teachers, we know those factors present huge barriers to our students’ success. Helping students cope with those three factors is probably the most important part of my job. But on a national level, those problems are not being recognized as the primary obstacles.”

The survey comes at a time when studies show a large percentage of U.S. public school students come from low-income families.

[For the first time in 50 years, most public school kids are in need]

Asked to identify three top school funding priorities, the teachers ranked “anti-poverty initiatives” as their top choice, followed by early learning and “reducing barriers to learning” such as providing health care and other services to poor children.

Few thought access to technology needed more investment and none thought funding should be devoted to research. And funding for testing and accountability had little support, ranking near the bottom.

Maggie Mabery, California’s Teacher of the Year, teaches science at Manhattan Beach Middle School in an affluent suburb outside Los Angeles. Her students are navigating family stress of a different kind, she said.

“In a rich-kid neighborhood, there’s a completely different set of stresses,”said Mabery, who has been teaching for 15 years. “The role of the teacher has become so much more than student learning. I teach about 50 percent of the time. The rest is coaching kids how to be responsible, how to be a great adolescent.”

The teachers overwhelmingly said they drew the most satisfaction from working in small groups or one-on-one with students, teaching a lesson to their class and collaborating with other teachers. The least satisfying activities were filling out paperwork, grading, applying discipline, communicating with parents and analyzing data.

The unpopularity of data is surprising in an era when schools and teachers are urged to adopt data-driven instruction.

Mark Mautone, New Jersey’s Teacher of the Year, relies heavily on data to fine-tune his work with autistic students at an elementary school in Hoboken.

“At the same time, there are other things that do drive instruction — poverty, family stress, all those multiple measures that could affect the outcome,” Mautone said. “Data is important, but if a kid doesn’t have clothes to wear or a pencil to do their homework, the main concern becomes the well-being of the child.”


LytonLyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.

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