Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Poverty and the Ability to Learn
Being the ever dutiful hearing officer, I'll start with a disclosure before I get to the substance of this post: I am passionate about the need to eliminate poverty in the USA, or at least to substantially ameliorate its effects. That having been said, let me state that I firmly believe there is an unfortunate and nearly direct relationship between the poverty of a child's family and his poor performance in school.
This makes sense. If a child doesn't eat properly, it affects the brain negatively. If a household is constantly under the extreme stress associated with being poor, a child suffers emotionally. The side effects of poverty, high crime neighborhoods, the lack of the prospect of a better life, etc. also take their toll. It is difficult enough to educate a child under the best of conditions. Poverty causes many extreme obstacles to the learning process.
The effect of poverty upon learning also has an effect upon certain legal issues. Concerning No Child Left Behind data crunching for example, it may well be the relative poverty rate among the groups studied separately, much more so than their status as a subgroup member, that explains their poor performance. The whole group data analysis of NCLB may be flawed because there is an "intervening variable" as they say.
With regard to special education, one of the assumptions underlying the law is that parents will exercise their procedural safeguards if a school district does not provide FAPE to a student. The Supreme Court referred to these procedural safeguards as having the effect of equalizing the field of play in rejecting the argument that school districts should bear the burden of persuasion in due process hearings because they have an advantage in information. Schaffer v. Weast 546 U.S. 49, 126 S.Ct. 528, 44 IDELR 150 (2005). If, however, as many suspect, due process hearings and mediation and other procedural safeguards are accessed almost exclusively by the wealthiest of parents, there may be a flaw in the fundamental design of the compliance sections of the law. OSEP only collects data, and presumably therefore defines success, for the the state dispute resolution systems in terms of the number of settlements (for mediations and resolution sessions) and in terms of timeliness (for hearings and state complaints.) See state performance plan indicators 16 to 19. It would be quite nice if OSEP would develop some data to show who is really utilizing he procedural safeguards. If the families of children with disabilities who are poor only rarely exercise their rights, something is wrong.
Now for an announcement, we are collecting information, studies, opinions, and anecdotes about the relationship between poverty and the ability to learn. In addition to this general topic, please send us whatever you may have regarding poverty and special education in general, and more specifically whether poor families are accessing their procedural safeguards. We are interested in everything from the physical effects of poverty upon the brain to any information on the use of the due process hearing system by various income groups. Please post a comment or send an email with the information. Thanks in advance for any help you can give us.