There are hundreds of studies written on the effects of poverty on learning and memory. Education scholars have replicated prior research to corroborate the findings. The studies indicate students' education performance is most profoundly affected by the home community, home life and household income. Students in high income families in the US out perform students from other countries on the PISA. The issue may not be our standards, our teachers, or teacher preparation programs. There is always room for improvement and teaching is the easiest handle to grasp. However, if any teaching levers were the main issue, students with adequate resources would likely not perform as well as they have been performing. The issue is resources.
The top country for student testing performance is Finland. Finland has a childhood poverty rate of 3%. The United States has a childhood poverty rate of 22%. The Washington post wrote an article comparing our childhood poverty rate to the rates in other countries. You can read the article here. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/04/15/map-how-35-countries-compare-on-child-poverty-the-u-s-is-ranked-34th/ We are ranked 34th in the world. There are 33 countries with lower childhood poverty rates than the US. When we examine the national scores of students around the world the charts of performance and poverty show remarkable similarities. The countries which out perform the US have lower rates of childhood poverty. The greatest issue with American education is not an educational issue. It is a broader policy issue.
Teachers see poverty affects play out every year. Students come to school without supplies. They are sent to school sick or with a toothache because the caregiver cannot get time off from work without loss of income or possible loss of a job. Students come to school in freezing weather without coats, hats or gloves. Teacher buy supplies. They talk a local dentist into helping a child with a cavity. I've known teachers who have bought coats, food, clothes and glasses. They provide for students on a meager income that on average in Tennessee draws less than a brick mason. Teachers pick up the slack but there are limits to what they can do.
Lack of resources and lack of support in the community can affect student's ability to learn in school. http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/articles/protecting_students.pdf addresses the greatest factors in student academic performance. Campbell and Ramey found if the family is impoverished while the child is preschool or younger, lack of adequate nutrition can lead to sub-optimal brain development. The length of poverty can increase the issues related to the condition. This groundbreaking study examines the differences in long term and short term poverty http://www.newriver.edu/test2/images/stories/library/Stennett_Psychology_Articles/Effects%20of%20Poverty%20on%20Children.pdf. There are hundreds of articles that correlate poverty to educational difficulties. If poverty were a food additive the EPA would have banned it years ago
Campbell and Ramey found the effects could be somewhat mitigated with early childhood education, nutrition. and wrap around services. Their study is here http://www.cckm.ca/ChildCare/pdf/Campbell1994.pdf This study set up a preschool program which was geared to fill in early childhood deficits in learning and nutrition. Part of this program was parent engagement to improve home life and to connect parents to the preschool. The wrap around services provided diapers and iron fortified cereal. The students were followed until age 12. The experimental group had double the number of students with average intelligence and higher compared to the control group.
There are some academic interventions that can make a serious difference. One of the best academic interventions is Reading Recovery. Reading Recovery has completed long term studies on the Reading Recovery intervention. Students in poverty are more likely to have difficulty learning to read. When a child begins life in poverty and does not gain literacy skills he/she is at a great disadvantage. Reading Recovery breaks this cycle. They have multiple studies showing that children gain reading skills rapidly and maintain those gains over time. It is likely one of the most disruptive forces of the schools to prison pipeline. This link will open to an abstract of a study. http://readingrecovery.org/reading-recovery/research/continued-progress/long-term-effects There are multiple studies and links on this page, all very well done.
So there are things that we can do to manage the symptoms of this chronic disease or we could reach for a cure. We can insist on a living wage so no one who works a full week should be impoverished. We can provide wrap around services, preschool education and Reading Recovery for those who need it. Poverty is a blight on our nation which is not going to improve over time without direct action. If left without intervention the poverty rates are likely to go up. Today the US has 16 million children living in poverty. As a civilized society we need to make sure there are clear paths out of poverty so children who are born into poverty do not have to raise their children in poverty. That's not just compassion, it's also common sense.