Poverty is Not a Learning Disability: Equalizing Opportunities for Low SES Students


Tish Howard, Sandy Grogan Dresser & Dennis R. Dunklee

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    From the time the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, through the publication in 1983 of the A Nation at Risk report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, and since the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, we've been told—and shown statistics to prove—that our public schools are failing to teach our children to read, write, and do basic mathematics, let alone keep up with the education successes of other industrialized countries. At least since the 1980s, the focus of criticism has been on inner-city or urban schools where student standardized test scores have most consistently been low. These are schools that serve a high number of students who come from poverty- or near-poverty-level homes, a high percentage of whom are also from minority or recent immigrant cultures. The unfortunate, but almost inevitable, conclusion that our nation's print and broadcast media have drawn from this situation is that children of poverty are somehow unable to learn as effectively as their middle- and upper-class peers. While the authors of this book can't argue with the reported standardized test scores, we adamantly disagree with the conclusion. We don't believe that poverty makes children unable, or even unwilling, to learn.

    The statistics that compelled us to take a stand on the education of children of poverty are those that report the incredibly high percentage of children of poverty, which we define as children from low socioeconomic environments, who are annually referred for special education identification as learning disabled (LD)—a symptom, we believe, of a perception in the minds of educators that poverty is a learning disability. Our years of experience in the field of education led us to believe that the problems low socioeconomic status (low SES) students experience in school are not based on identifiable learning disabilities but rather on the lack of readiness skills needed to be successful in schools that assume all students come to school equally prepared to learn and educators' inability to recognize and mitigate this lack.

    This book is based on the findings of a 2006 study (Howard, 2007) of teachers and principals of low SES students who have successfully, and over an extended period of time, provided equal education opportunities to low SES children and brought them into the successful mainstream of students, without resorting to special education identification. In it, we present strategies and techniques the exemplary teachers and principals we observed use to humanize the school and classroom environments and make it possible for their low SES, minority, and multicultural students to overcome the challenges of poverty, cultural differences, and school readiness and succeed academically on a par with their more economically advantaged peers. In addition to identifying the successful pedagogical and school leadership strategies and techniques we observed, we offer proven management strategies to facilitate implementation of the changes we recommend in the way schools that serve low SES children operate.

    As the authors of this book, we combined our more than 75 years of experience in the field of education, as teachers, principals, central office administrators, and university professors, with many years of experience in the fields of human resources and organizational management to present a comprehensive look at the problem and its solutions. Although the focus of this book is the overwhelming misidentification of low SES children as LD, we believe that the education and management strategies and techniques we present are applicable to the education enterprise as a whole and will be valuable to educators everywhere.


    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following individuals:

    Elizabeth Alvarez, Assistant Principal

    John C. Dore Elementary School

    Chicago, IL

    Rebecca S. Compton, Professor

    Elementary Education

    East Central University

    Ada, OK

    Mary Beth Cunat, Director, Principal Professional Development

    Chicago Public Schools

    Chicago, IL

    Daniel C. Elliott, Professor and Curriculum Specialist

    Center for Online Learning and Technology

    Azusa Pacific University

    Azusa, CA

    Jim Hoogheem, Retired Principal

    Fernbrook Elementary School

    Maple Grove, MN

    Kevin Olds, Principal

    Estacada Junior High School

    Estacada, OR

    Cathy Patterson, Assistant Principal

    Evergreen Elementary School

    Diamond Bar, CA

    Belinda J. Raines, Principal

    Northwestern High School

    Detroit, MI

    Hema Ramanathan, Associate Professor

    University of West Georgia

    Carrollton, GA

    Karen L. Tichy, Associate Superintendent for Instruction

    Catholic Education Office

    Archdiocese of Saint Louis

    Saint Louis, MO

    About the Authors

    Tish Howard has 20 years of experience as an educator working with children and parents in low SES schools. She is an elementary principal in a Title I school in which 43% of its families are classified as living in poverty. In this position, Dr. Howard is responsible for the design and implementation of numerous programs and a school climate that raised the level of student academic success and closed the achievement gap between students of poverty and those residing in homes of economic stability. Dr. Howard works with parents, civic associations, clergy, and the business community to level the economic playing field for disadvantaged students and has implemented numerous initiatives to provide the necessary background knowledge many children from poverty lack when entering school.

    Prior to her role as a school administrator, Dr. Howard served 10 years as a speech and language pathologist with a full caseload of language delayed children. She spent 8 of those 10 years delivering services to emotionally disturbed adolescent males in an alternative educational setting. It was in that capacity that Dr. Howard introduced inclusion language therapy to her school district, as opposed to the standard pull out method. This form of therapeutic delivery is now widely used districtwide.

    Dr. Howard has served as an education consultant for local preschool and summer camp experiences. She designed an educational summer experience for low SES children that focused on providing a foundation for the academic challenges they would face in the upcoming academic year. She also served on the Minority Student Achievement Board for her school system and has presented programs on intervention methods at the local school and university level.

    Dr. Howard earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in speech and language pathology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and her PhD in education leadership from George Mason University. While completing her postgraduate work, Dr. Howard was a contributing writer to the USA Today educational website, and she continues to mentor prospective administrators through the university mentoring program. She has been nominated for Principal of the Year honors in her school district, recognized by the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development for development of positive school climate, and featured in numerous television and print articles.

    Sandy Grogan Dresser is a human resources management consultant who consults with clients in the areas of compensation, performance management, management development, employee communications, and human resources policy and administration. She has more than 30 years experience in the field of human resources management, including 6 years in her private consulting practice and 15 years as an assistant vice president with Aon Consulting in Bethesda, Maryland. Prior to joining Aon, Ms. Dresser served as a human resources director in both the public and private not-for-profit sectors. She has also served as an executive development consultant to a number of federal departments and agencies.

    Ms. Dresser served 12 years as a public school teacher and administrator, during which time she was instrumental in the development and implementation of significant educational change in the implementation of middle schools and managed the human resources function of a metropolitan school district. In addition to standard personnel administration, she was responsible for coordinating a reorganization plan that included the closing of nine junior high schools, the opening of six new middle schools, and the reassignment of 300 employees. In this role, she devised and directed a staff reassignment procedure that effected minimum disruption and a high level of satisfaction among teachers, administrators, students, and parents.

    A graduate of the University of North Carolina and Kansas University, Ms. Dresser holds bachelor's degrees in history and education and a master's degree in education policy and administration. She is the author of numerous articles published in professional journals, and she frequently presents seminars for professional associations on topics in the human resources management field.

    Dennis R. Dunklee is professor emeritus in the Education Leadership Department in the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University. During his 25 years in public schools, he served as a teacher, elementary school principal, junior high and middle school principal, high school principal, and central office administrator. During his tenure as a professor, he taught courses in education law and school leadership and served as an advisor and chair for masters in school administration candidates. He continues to advise doctoral candidates in school leadership and serves as an adjunct professor. Because of his expertise and practical experience, he is frequently called on to consult in the areas of effective schools, school law, administrator evaluation, instructional supervision, school-community relations, problem solving, and conflict resolution. In addition, he has been involved as a consultant and expert witness in numerous school-related lawsuits nationwide. As a university scholar and researcher, he published 10 textbooks, 2 monographs, and more than 100 articles on issues in the fields of school law, business management, administrative practice, and leadership theory. He is active in a number of professional organizations; has presented papers at international, national, regional, state, and local conferences; and is a widely sought-after clinician for inservice workshops. Dr. Dunklee was an invited participant and presenter in the 2005 Oxford (University) Round Table on Education Law: Individual Rights and Freedoms, and in 2007, he was recognized by Kappa Delta Pi as an educator “who exemplifies the high professional, intellectual, and personal standards our society promotes, who demonstrates dedication to educators, students, and the field of education.”

    Dr. Dunklee has written or cowritten seven books for Corwin. His other Corwin books are You Sound Taller on the Telephone: A Practitioner's View of the Principalship (1999), If You Want to Lead Not Just Manage (2000), The Principal's Quick Reference Guide to School Law (with Robert J. Shoop, 2002), Strategic Listening for School Leaders (with Jeannine Tate, 2005), Anatomy of a Lawsuit: What Every Education Leader Should Know About Legal Actions (with Robert J. Shoop, 2006), and The Principal's Quick Reference Guide to School Law, 2nd edition (with Robert J. Shoop, 2006).

    He received his PhD in school administration and foundations from Kansas State University. His major area of research was in the field of education law, and his dissertation was on tort liability for negligence. He holds a master's degree in elementary and secondary school administration from Washburn University.


    “Whose child is this?” I asked one day

    Seeing a little one out at play

    “Mine,” said the parent with a tender smile

    “Mine to keep a little while To bathe his hands and comb his hair To tell him what he is to wear To prepare him that he may always be good And each day do the things he should.”

    “Whose child is this?” I asked again

    As the door opened and someone came in

    “Mine,” said the teacher with the same tender smile

    “Mine, to keep just for a little while To teach him how to be gentle and kind To train and direct his dear little mind To help him live by every rule And get the best he can from school.”

    “Whose child is this?” I ask once more

    Just as the little one entered the door

    “Ours,” said the parent and the teacher as they smiled

    And each took the hand of the little child

    “Ours to love and train together.”


    This book is dedicated to all the hopeful children waiting for us to discover their possibilities.

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    The Corwin logo—a raven striding across an open book—represents the union of courage and learning. Corwin is committed to improving education for all learners by publishing books and other professional development resources for those serving the field of PreK-12 education. By providing practical, hands-on materials, Corwin continues to carry out the promise of its motto: “Helping Educators Do Their Work Better.”

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