Texas teachers take on tougher challenges as the number of economically disadvantaged students continues to grow

The Classroom Teacher, spring 2014

The number of Texas public school students living in poverty has exploded in the new millennium. It increased 47 percent — well more than twice as much as the state’s overall child population — from 2000 to 2011, according to the 2013 Texas Kids Count report by the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

Today, 60 percent, or more than 3 million, Texas public school students are identified as economically disadvantaged. On average, Texas public school teachers have more students who face the challenges of childhood poverty than students who don’t.

In communities like Plainview, a small town in the Texas Panhandle where a beef processing plant that employed several thousand people closed last year, the numbers living in poverty are even higher. Nearly three-fourths of Plainview ISD students are identified as economically disadvantaged.

“When Cargill closed, we thought we would see a mass exodus from the schools, but we haven’t,” says TCTA member Susan Hurt, a fourth-grade teacher at LaMesa Elementary. She says that people are staying in the community and relying more than ever on the free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch programs.

“I’m seeing so many more deeply needy children,” she says. “There was a little boy in my third-grade class, and on Monday mornings he could not be wakened. He was in a deep, deep sleep." His basic needs weren’t being met so that he could be alert and focused at school. And when the student’s severe asthma attacks required the school to call his parents, school employees found that the family’s telephone had been disconnected.

When the student ended up in the hospital, Hurt visited and was able to talk with the boy’s mother face-to-face. “It was eye-opening to me that while his mother had concern for her child’s situation and the doctor tried to provide guidance, she had so many other issues [that affected the boy and his health] like black mold under the windows in their home. She also had to go from doctor to doctor because she couldn’t pay.”

The domino effect of situational poverty is all too common, Hurt says, telling the story of another student who, due to lack of transportation and sickness, missed 40 days of school.

While not all situations are so extreme, research has shown that coming from an economically disadvantaged home can have a significant impact on a student’s ability to learn and achieve academic success. So the dramatic rise in the number of children living in poverty, especially at a time when there is increasing pressure on students to score higher on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR), means major challenges not only for those students, but also for Texas schools and teachers.

Poverty’s effects on students

Hunger is just one side effect of poverty, but it’s a widespread one. In 2012, 15.9 million U.S. children (roughly 22 percent) lived in households that were food insecure — those without access to enough food to remain healthy and active. Texas has the third highest rate of food insecure households in the U.S. at 18.4 percent, according to a 2013 U.S. Department of Agriculture study. Only Mississippi and Arkansas have higher rates.

Children who struggle with hunger are more likely to experience headaches, stomachaches, colds, ear infections and fatigue. They’re also likely to get sick more often and then recover more slowly, says Share Our Strength’s 2012 No Kids Hungry report, which brings together findings from Children’s Health Watch, the National Institutes of Health, and the Harvard School Breakfast Research Summary.

Lack of enough healthy food can impair a child’s ability to concentrate and perform well in school. Those who do not get enough nutritious food to eat tend to have significantly higher levels of behavioral, emotional and academic problems and tend to be more aggressive and anxious. And teens are more likely to have difficulty getting along with other kids and to be suspended from school, according to the report.

Beyond hunger, other effects of poverty also impact students’ ability to achieve academically. “Poverty definitely plays a huge role in children being ready for school,” says Chandra Kring Villanueva, a policy analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an independent research organization focused on health care, good nutrition, jobs, and education and protection for Texas children.

“Children from low-income families often hear fewer words, so they come in to our schools with smaller vocabularies,” she explains. “Many times low-income parents aren’t very well-educated themselves. They often don’t have a lot of books in their homes, so their children aren’t always read to at night. And sometimes the parents work multiple jobs. It’s just harder for them to have the kind of resources and background to really prepare their children for school in the way that more affluent parents do.”

Given the prevalence of students in poverty, teachers must now look for the deeper reasons a student is struggling, noncompliant or defiant, according to Hurt. “I used to trust the school nurse, truant officer or the counselor to do that,” she says. “Now, as a teacher I’m doing that because these other professionals are overloaded and it’s a team effort. We all have to be on board to seek out and find what the real reason is this child can’t be educated.”

The trouble with testing

For students who struggle with the effects of economic disadvantage, standardized testing proves especially challenging. The proof is in their STAAR scores.

In 2012-13, 69 percent of economically disadvantaged students passed all subjects in all grades compared to the state average of 77 percent. Results in individual grades and subjects are the same: The economically disadvantaged student subgroup has a lower passing rate than the state average on every test.

“The biggest indicator that you get with standardized testing is which children are economically disadvantaged and which ones are not,” Villanueva says.

TCTA member Corina Flores, a bilingual first-grade teacher in Midland ISD who herself came from a home of poverty, says that economically disadvantaged students don’t do as well in school or on the tests because they don’t have the needed background knowledge or experiences. (See 7 ways to help students in poverty for Flores' teacher-to-teacher tips.)

“When we ask, ‘What are the differences in a lake, pond, river and ocean?’ many students have never been to any of these places,” she says, “so we as teachers have to find a way to help them build a bank of experiences that will help them as they go through school.”

Villanueva agrees that background knowledge plays a big role in success in standardized testing and adds that language and cultural issues also come into play. According to Hurt, the test language being written in formal register is a challenge for many economically disadvantaged students.

“I teach writing to fourth graders, and it’s very difficult because they don’t hear formal language,” she says. “For students from poverty, who often come from large families, nonverbal language or noises often get them what they want rather than using complete sentences. The squeaky wheel gets the grease in a large, loud family.”

Bilingual students face a tougher challenge, even when they take the Spanish STAAR. “The Spanish vocabulary on the STAAR is extremely difficult,” Flores says. “The language used in testing isn’t the same as the Spanish language students hear on a daily basis or the Spanish being taught in the classroom.”

Hurt says decision makers must realize that scoring well on the STAAR is a goal for students who come from impoverished families, but the focus needs to be on gains and growth because some of these students simply can’t handle the test’s rigor.

“They’re raising the bar as far as testing and accountability. The tests are much harder,” she says. “TAKS was basic skills. STAAR is higher order thinking. But now we have more struggling learners. How are we going to do that without increasing staffing? It’s a problem.”

The demands on teachers

Teachers are feeling stretched too thin and in need of reinforcements in many Texas school districts, especially since the Legislature cut $5 billion from the public education budget in 2011 (only about $3 billion has since been restored). And the increasing number of economically disadvantaged students only exacerbates the problem because they require more one-on-one, prescriptive teaching.

“Earlier in my career I could deliver a direct teach and reach a larger group of students, but now we are breaking into intervention groups and pulling in students for small group instruction,” Hurt says.

She explains that teaching economically disadvantaged students demands more of teachers because some students aren’t just financially deprived. They also sometimes lack social skills or knowledge of the “hidden rules” — a term Ruby Payne, author of “A Framework for Understanding Poverty,” uses for the unspoken cues and habits of a group. “Teachers are called upon to apply a broad spectrum of behavioral interventions to be effective,” Hurt says. “The demands on the teacher are huge.”

In some cases the demands are such that teachers just don’t want to teach anymore. Hurt says she has seen many good teachers move into more specialized jobs. “They’re becoming counselors, interventionalists and administrators because it’s overwhelming to try to do it all within a classroom,” she says. “Especially if you have a big heart for kids, you realize that there is so much you cannot do. I think this is one reason we have older, experienced teachers leaving the profession.”

The move to tie students’ STAAR scores to Texas teacher evaluations proposed for the new state teacher evaluation system, which is scheduled to launch in 2015-16, could have a similar effect on the teaching profession. Many teachers and other stakeholders in public education say student performance on standardized tests is an invalid measure of teacher effectiveness and point to research that shows that teaching accounts for less than 15 percent of student achievement outcomes, while socioeconomic factors account for about 60 percent.

“Test scores reflect income and background more than they do students’ ability to learn and achieve,” Villanueva says. “Teachers may have made amazing progress with some of their students, but because the students started so far behind, they are not going to get the students to a proficient level.”

She adds that punishing schools and teachers for low test scores “scares teachers away from working in more challenging situations. We need more rewards and incentives for teachers to tackle these harder areas.”

Flores agrees that tying STAAR scores to teacher evaluations is unfair. “We work so hard to do the best for our students,” she says. “My son’s teacher spends her weekends preparing for her students, and yet she may not be seen as an effective teacher because of the large number of her students with special needs, behavior issues or emotional issues.”

What’s being done

Economically disadvantaged students are five times less likely to graduate than more affluent students, according to a 2010 report by the National Center for Education Statistics. So organizations like Communities In Schools have made it their mission to support and empower students to stay in school.

TEA administers CIS of Texas, which has 28 affiliates that serve 129 school districts (691 campuses) that have requested CIS assistance. Site coordinators on each campus work with staff to identify students who are at risk of dropping out. While they receive state funding, they also build partnerships with the community to bring in more funding and programs to benefit students.

And they’ve been successful. According to “Best Practices in Dropout Prevention,” a 2008 study authorized by the Texas Legislature, CIS had meaningful effects on high school graduation, dropout, attendance and math achievement.

But even CIS can become overloaded. That’s the case in Plainview, according to Hurt. “Our Communities In Schools liaison helps kids who come from poverty to get glasses or dental work, and she was providing some weekend hunger intervention,” she says. “Anything that a counselor needs, Communities In Schools steps in and tries to help, but they are underfunded and overworked.”

That’s why teachers like Hurt are going beyond their classrooms to seek out community help that will make a difference. See TCTA member Susan Hurt helps end students' weekend hunger.

One way churches and other community organizations are helping is through after-school programs where students can get homework assistance, food or just positive role models and moral support. Flores says these types of efforts really pay off, but more community involvement is needed.

Villanueva agrees that school-community partnerships can do a lot to meet the needs of students in poverty, especially when schools can help identify struggling families and offer wrap-around services to connect families with the help they need.

This is happening in districts such as Austin ISD, which partners with Austin Voices for Education and Youth and helps fund family resource centers at several campuses. There, families are connected with social services such as low-cost health insurance for children and emergency financial assistance for housing or utilities. The district reports significant increases in academic achievement as a result of the schools’ outreach to the families and the stability the services help them achieve.

But while advocates for the economically disadvantaged say that programs offering wrap-around services should be expanded, they say they aren’t the ultimate solution.

“[Wrap-around services] are not going to solve the engrained systemic problems of poverty,” Villanueva says. “They help individual families, and they help some students get an education and hopefully live a better standard of life than their parents. But we as a society must address the greater issues of poverty and why it exists, and why people can work 40 hours a week and not feed their children. The schools can’t solve that problem, but they can play a role in alleviating some of the symptoms.”

What should be done

When you ask teachers what would help them better support students from poverty, one answer is more teachers. “We never feel like we have enough adults to go around,” Hurt says. “We have more needy children who aren’t getting adequate emotional support and need more guidance at school, and that takes time away from academics. So instead of [spending money on] making tests more rigorous, why not hire more teachers?”

Flores says that more teachers would definitely help in Midland ISD, where there is a teacher shortage. While the crowded classrooms there are the result of a booming oil industry that is attracting people from across the country, they make it difficult for teachers to provide enough attention to the students who need it most. (Despite the boom, the rate of economically disadvantaged students in Midland ISD is 52 percent — not far below the state average.)

“We may not be able to reach all the students with the individual attention we would like to give because there are so many students in need,” Flores says. “Some teachers volunteer and tutor students on Saturday mornings to help those in need. But teachers have families with needs too, and not all teachers want to sacrifice their personal family time. We can’t blame them for that.”

The district has had a difficult time hiring and keeping new teachers because the boom has caused housing costs to skyrocket. Many teachers who didn’t already own homes in Midland before the boom simply can’t afford to live there on teachers’ salaries. It’s also made getting by even harder for many economically disadvantaged families. “The cost of an apartment or a house is ridiculous,” Flores says. “So either you have several families living together to make ends meet or the parents are both working two jobs.”

In the search for solutions, it always comes back to funding, Villanueva says. “There’s a reason why private education costs up to $25,000 per year sometimes for high school students. Money does play a large role,” she says. “Schools are staff intensive. When you cut funding, you almost automatically increase class sizes because that’s where schools make up cuts. They cut teachers. Without funding there, you can’t provide extra tutoring.”

And when state funding is cut, schools don’t only lose needed staff. Programs directed at supporting economically disadvantaged students frequently take a hit as well. Villanueva explains that many of these programs are “low hanging fruit” because they are funded outside the foundation school formula. When state lawmakers have to make cuts, it’s easiest to strike these programs, which are separate line items in the budget.

Of the $5 billion cut in 2011, $1.3 billion came from programs that helped economically disadvantaged students, including prekindergarten expansion grants, the high school completion success program, teen parenting program, school-based prevention services, and the Limited English Proficient Student Success Initiative.

“We as a state have moved backward on our level of investment at a time when we’re seeing greater need,” Villanueva says. While she supports investing more in teachers and education, she says Texas must also invest in areas such as nutrition and health care.

“We are relying too much on the schools to mitigate the factors of poverty. Teachers and schools can only do so much,” she says. “We need livable wages. We need jobs that offer health insurance so kids can get checkups so they can be healthy, and we need jobs that offer sick days so parents don’t have to send sick kids to school when they can’t learn. … Our budget is a moral document, and it shows what’s important to the state. What we’re seeing now is that children are not important to the state of Texas.”

Villanueva urges teachers to speak up. “They should speak to their legislators and let them know what’s really going on in the classroom, the ways that their hands are tied, and what resources they need,” she says. “I want teachers to be empowered. Their voice is relevant. Their experience is important. The people who are making the decisions need to hear how they actually play out because they are not teachers and they don’t spend any time in the classroom.”

See also:

7 ways to help students in poverty (teacher-to-teacher tips)

TCTA member Susan Hurt helps end students' weekend hunger