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Prioritize Educating Children Living in Poverty

By Kevin P. Dwyer

Most school psychologists know that the vast majority of children who live in poverty go to public schools that are inferior in meeting their educational needs. This is a longstanding problem and is the elephant on the table in our national public equal education effort. Most school psychologists know that a few schools (and systems) have successfully educated children living in poverty at a rate that is comparable to children with economic advantage. Among states, Maryland has been more successful than many in graduation rates of children in poverty, including the racial and ethnic groups who are disproportionately living in communities of poverty.

However, even in Maryland, some districts continue to offer inferior educational opportunities to children in poverty. Nationally, we have 2,000 high schools in poor communities labeled “drop-out factories” by Balfanz (2007) from the Center for Social Organization of Schools at The Johns Hopkins University. School systems that primarily serve children in poverty are too frequently embarrassingly unsuccessful, having graduation rates below 50% and special education rates above 20%. As school psychologists, we know that special education is not a remedy for poverty or poor schooling.

We are required to base our practice on research-proven interventions for the children we serve. Is there any evidence that special education is effective for Black, Hispanic, or White children suffering from poverty and its related risk factors? In selfcontained special education high school classes in urban districts, I have seen teens Susan Jacob is a professor of psychology at Central Michigan University and she is cochair of the NASP Ethical and Professional Practices Committee. Leigh Armistead is an associate professor in the Winthrop University school psychology program and chairs the NASP Ethical and Professional Practices Committee. relearning long division instead of algebra, writing simple sentences instead of discussing Shakespeare or Baldwin or comparing today’s news with yesterday’s history.

Are categories of “behavior disordered” and “mental retardation” used in a biased manner toward children in poverty? Disproportionate placement in special education can be one measure of institutional negligence. Dumb-down teaching and curriculum is another.

We know where the problems are in the delivery of effective education. We know that successful systems and schools require effective, challenging curriculum standards combined with intensive instructional services available in regular classrooms. Research has confirmed our own observations of the need to reform our service delivery and help improve the educational opportunity for children placed at risk by poverty. Highly trained and supported teachers succeed by providing excellent classroom instruction and targeted, individualized support so that all become proficient. School principals support this effective instruction and systems demand it. This happens in well-managed and well-funded schools that monitor each child’s learning.

How we presently educate the poor is one of the most serious national crises we face as a country. So, if we know there is a national crisis in education, what can we do to remove these chronic barriers to learning? We are the schools’ experts in learning and behavior. We are the resiliency leaders, the prevention specialists, the systems change advocates (see Blueprint for Training & Practice III). We know that most of these children in poverty do not come to us with broken brains but with unmet needs in communication, reading, and learning strategies that their better-off peers have. We know that all of these skills can be taught—and the sooner the better. We have credentials that should be used to support children’s learning, not to sort and label them after they have been miseducated. We need a moratorium on labeling and a mandate on improving regular public education for all.

NASP, as a professional organization, needs to make successfully educating children in poverty its highest priority. NASP needs to assertively address the education of all children in poverty, of all ethnicities. We must be leaders, not bystanders, and dramatically address systemic prejudice and neglect toward those that are poor. We must dispel the myths and biases that excuse systems from properly shaping the minds and hopes of 25% of our nation’s children. Let’s get started.


Balfanz, R. (2007, August). Locating and transforming the low performing high schools which produce the nation’s dropouts. Presentation at the Center for Social Organization of Schools, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore MD.

Kevin P. Dwyer, NCSP, is a Maryland school psychologist, NASP past-president, and recipient of the NASP Lifetime Achievement Award. He is an associate of the American Institutes for Research, consulting in Cleveland, Ohio.