Eric Jensen

The Prejudice of Poverty

Last week Andre Bauer, the lieutenant governor of South Carolina and a candidate to become the state's next governor, compared providing government assistance to those in need—including school kids eligible for free or reduced-price lunches—to feeding stray animals. He claimed that providing such services only encourages breeding and facilitates the problem.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their version of the facts. Bauer has it completely wrong. We need to put to rest the idea that the only way those in need will enjoy improved outcomes in life is for them to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and do it all on their own—especially when it comes to kids. Our brains don't grow up and flourish inside a test tube. Given the integrated way in which our brains work, it's simply wrong to expect hungry kids or kids who aren't exposed to healthy environments to show up at school ready to learn.

Research is compelling; the brain runs on oxygen, glucose, and nutrients. Unless kids get this at home, schools must provide it. Studies show that good nutrition not only keeps kids healthy—it also contributes to better learning. Take a look at just some of the evidence:

  • In a large-scale analysis of approximately 1 million students enrolled in New York City schools, researchers examined IQ scores before and after preservatives, dyes, colorings, and artificial flavors were removed from lunch offerings. Prior to the dietary changes, 120,000 of the students were performing two or more grade levels below average. Afterward, the figure dropped to 50,000 (Ceci, S.J., 2001).
  • In another study, elementary school children were provided with one of three breakfast options: a good breakfast, a fast-food breakfast, or no breakfast. The results replicated previous findings showing that breakfast intake enhances cognitive performance. But the study also showed differential effects based on breakfast type. Children who ate the healthy breakfast frequently demonstrated enhanced spatial memory, improved short-term memory, and better auditory attention (Fernald, L., Ani, C.C., Grantham-McGregor, S., 1997).
  • Adequate intake of minerals, phytonutrients, enzymes, and vitamins also makes a difference. School age children who received such nutrients over the course of a year behaved better (meaning they gave teachers more "on task time") and scored higher on achievement tests than their peers who just received placebos (Grantham-McGregor, S, Baker-Henningham, H., 2005).

The takeaway here is that providing kids with healthy meals and other services and supports really does help. Assumptions that disadvantaged students underperform in school because their parents aren't educated, their home environments are substandard, or their parents just don’t care only perpetuate the problem because they excuse schools and other adults in kids' lives from making a difference. There's no question that poverty changes the brain, which can negatively affect behavior and student performance. But the brain can also change for the better when kids are exposed to healthy, safe, engaging, and challenging environments. In thousands of schools across the country, only those providing nutrition for kids in poverty are meeting or exceeding the standards.

Are the lieutenant governor's statements suggesting an ignorance of the facts or is it simply prejudice? Let the voters be the judge.

Post submitted by Eric Jensen, author of the new ASCD book Teaching with Poverty in Mind. Jensen is a former teacher and a leader in the brain-based-learning movement. He's been featured as a guest on ASCD's Whole Child Podcast and is presenting at ASCD's Annual Conference in San Antonio, Tex., on Sunday, March 7, 12:45-2:45 p.m.

Comments (2)

Mary Kay Morrison

March 2, 2010

Thanks Eric for your great article. Of course nourishing the brain is critical to learning. We need to share this information with our politicians. Thanks for helping us do so.

Ina F. Delahoussaye

March 2, 2010

It might be argued that politicians and educators alike tend to assign culpability to parents for the shortcomings of their children. Those who consider themselves conservators of the education authority for children may view things from a broader lens. If parents understood the benefits of hard work, self respect, tenacious fortitude, and constant support of educating children, would there be a need to address the telling limitations of the lieutenant governor of South Carolina’s comments regarding kiddos of free and reduced lunch and stray animals? Parents are not a captured audience of politicians and educators. We cannot “make parents” do a better job in life. We ca, however, employ empowerment. Educators have an obligation to offer all children opportunities to grow their brains to full capacity. That is imperative if we want the human capital of low socio-ecomomic capital to thrive so that they may lift themselves up by their bootstraps. By the way, my dear Lieutenant Governor, Bauer, have you seen many poor kiddos lately? Many do not have boots with or without bootstraps. But, by grace, all come equipped with a powerful growing and learning brain. I challenge you to learn more, do more, and and embrace the efforts of educators who make opportunities, not thoughtless comments about those less fortunate. We must teach our brothers to walk, and sometimes we have to carry children while they are learning to walk. Read in No Excuses, Closing the achievement Gap in Learning, Thernstrm and Thernstrom(2003), of the compelling data that purports closing the achievement gap, about a principal who said to a mother that her daughter needed a mom, not a pal. Mothering means setting behavioral standards. parents are not captive audience, but many are willing to learn to make life better.

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