Skip to main content
female etfo members standing together having a discussion

ETFO's Poverty and Education Symposium: What Teachers Can Do to Help All Students Succeed—and Why They Must

Johanna Brand


It is well known that children from poor families are less likely to succeed academically. Moreover, the factors that contribute to their lack of success often lie outside the school. Nevertheless, according to Dr. Charles Ungerleider, there is much that teachers can do to improve the academic success of these students.

Furthermore, Dr. Ungerleider argues, failing to do so undermines public education because opponents use these students’ lack of success to indict the whole system.

"If public education fails our country will fail,” Ungerleider told those attending ETFO’s Poverty and Education Symposium. “Addressing the education of children living in poverty is pivotally important for them, for Canada, and for the survival of public schooling in Canada"

“If we do not ensure success for all students, members of the public who do not support public schooling will use those failures to erode support for public schools …They will strengthen their attempts to return schooling to the private privilege it once was – and is in some countries – instead of the public benefit it should be.”

Ungerleider noted that critics of public education highlight the experiences of the poor “to make their case for privatizing public schooling.”

Schools are limited in what they can do to address the impact of poverty, Ungerleider said, noting that less than 30 percent of the total variation in student achievement can be attributed to schooling. “But,” he added, “recognizing the limitations of schooling does not absolve us of our responsibility for both its successes and its failures.”

Teachers and schools “can’t have it both ways,” he argued. “We can’t claim success if we are unprepared to assume responsibility for failure.

“Nor can we in all honesty make claims that our professional knowledge and expertise should be properly recognized and remunerated if we don’t apply that knowledge and expertise in the service of educating students who face the most serious challenges … We must demand more of ourselves and promote the success of all students – especially those students living in poverty. They must be our first priority.” Ungerleider outlined specific steps that schools and school boards can take to enhance student success, as well as specific classroom strategies that teachers can employ.

What Schools Can Do

Here are some essential systemic elements in a strategy to improve students’ academic success:

  • Identify children at risk of poor performance upon entry to school.
    There are assessments teachers can make with just a few minutes spent with each student that will help identify such factors as limited vocabulary or poor visual or auditory processing.
  • Address the most vulnerable students immediately.
    Raising the performance of the students who perform least well will benefit everyone in the class by diminishing, in the long run, the amount of time and attention they will need.
  • Provide the additional assistance that vulnerable students need in the classroom.
    Students who must leave class for special help are often stigmatized, make time management for teachers difficult, miss in-class work, and achieve less well as a result.
  • Ensure an orderly and productive school and classroom environment.
    Reducing misbehaviour increases student achievement.
  • Provide vulnerable students with instruction
    designed to address the difficulties identified and maintain the additional effort until the student consistently performs within grade-level expectations.
  • Collect and systematically analyze data about individual student progress over time.

As Well 

  • A school board faced with scarce resources should devote differential resources to under-achieving students.
  • Create smaller classes with intense attention to foundational academic knowledge (reading, writing and numeracy).
  • Focus on learning to learn skills (note taking, organizational skills, etc.).
  • Provide assistance to students so they learn to complete work on time and successfully.

Classroom practices to enhance success

“We can ensure that students perform well in core subjects. That is something that we know how to do.” Dr. Charles Ungerleider

Here are Dr. Ungerleider's recommended classroom practices. These are particularly important for struggling students.

  1. Daily review
    Daily review and successful repetition are essential for learning. Review is essential for solidifying knowledge and for ensuring that learners have the foundation knowledge upon which new learning builds. Review of foundational knowledge is crucial prior to beginning a new lesson or unit that is based upon prior learning.
  2. Systematic presentation of new material
    Break complex tasks into smaller, more manageable parts. Arrange the material from simple to complex. Provide a meaningful context. Use advance organizers. Provide an overview of how the small parts fit into a larger pattern. Ask many questions that require students to be actively engaged. Maintain a clear focus.
  3. Guided practice
    Clearly describe the task to be performed. Demonstrate how to go about the task. Use prompts to direct student attention to key features. Carefully observe how students perform the task. Reteaching when students encounter difficulty is essential. Maintaining the practice until students are able to perform the task accurately with success well above the 80 percent mark is essential.
  4. Correction and feedback
    Praise should be used sparingly, be genuine and be specific. Prompt students who are hesitant about what they know. Correction is essential.
  5. Independent practice
    Students should practise independently – “without supervision” – after they have achieved high levels of accuracy under the teacher’s direction. If they practise independently before they can perform well, they will make mistakes and practise them, making it difficult for them to unlearn the mistaken practice and substitute the accurate process for the inaccurate one.
  6. Weekly and monthly reviews
    Without such reviews, especially with a crowded curriculum, students will not draw upon the foundational knowledge they need to succeed and will not consolidate their learning.

Praise for ETFO's Anti-Poverty Work

An emotional Dr. Avis Glaze commended ETFO’s poverty and education work.

“You have absolutely exceeded expectations,” Dr. Glaze told the conference. “It shows what can happen when you trust teachers. … It is the best retirement gift I could have received.”

In 2006 ETFO received funds from the Ministry of Education to develop professional learning programs so that members could improve their effectiveness as they worked with students from low income families. As head of the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, Dr. Glaze was an advocate for having the federation develop this professional learning. (The programs and research ETFO has supported were the focus of the June special issue of Voice.)

ETFO’s programs included a strong emphasis on arts programming, which Dr. Glaze singled out as important for children without a lot of money. She reinforced the importance of teaching the whole child: “It matters that we educate their hearts as well as their minds.” The conference heard that the play Danny, King of the Basement allowed children in some schools to have their first-ever experience of live theatre. It became an important catalyst for focusing attention on the causes of poverty and its impact on student achievement.

Dr. Glaze said reading writing and numeracy were crucial foundational skills for poor children, but certainly should not be the only focus of their education. She also noted the importance of character education and of providing equal access to technology.

Facts to consider

  • The average Canadian family requires 75.4 weeks per year on the job at an average wage – more than one full time job – to cover basic annual expenses.
  • Women earn 30 percent less than men performing the same work, making it much more likely that single mothers and their children will live in poverty. While two-thirds of men’s work is paid, two-thirds of women’s work is unpaid.
  • Hunger is common for children from low-income households. It is ver y difficult to think clearly on an empty stomach.
  • More than 50 percent of the households that experience hunger receive their main income from employment. Poorly paid jobs mean they don’t earn enough to meet their needs.
  • Children from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds have fewer resources at home, such as books and computers. Low-income parents often have less time to spend with their children.
  • Children in low-income families are over two and one-half times more likely to have a problem with basic abilities such as vision, hearing, speech, or mobility.
  • Only one-quarter of children in low-income families participate in organized sports compared to three-quarters of high-income children.

Source: “Why Failing Kids is not an Option,” Address by Dr. Charles ungerleider to ETFO’s Poverty and Education symposium, Nov. 7, 2008. see also One in Six –Education and Poverty in Ontario, a DVD produced by the Elementary teachers’ Federation of Ontario, 2008

Know Your Students; Know Their Community

American sociologist and educator Pedro Noguera told the Poverty and Education Symposium that there are three main areas that teachers and schools must address in their effort to create equitable schools. Successful schools have teachers who know how to teach the students they serve. They are teachers who know how to teach across cultural differences, how to make material relevant, and how to teach in a variety of ways. They adapt their teaching styles to their students. Teachers demonstrate that they care and have high expectations of their students. Teachers and schools focus on building relationships with children and parents. Parental involvement is a key factor in student success. Schools and teachers should help parents understand the importance of teacher-parent conferences and should work to make parents feel comfortable at such meetings. Teachers must also understand the reality their students live outside the classroom.

Schools have to have strategies to address the non-academic needs of students – their health, social, and emotional needs. Thus they need to make available ancillary services such as social workers and health care professionals.

Pedro Noguera is a professor in the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University and Director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education. He is the author of City Schools and the American Dream and co-author of Unfinished Business: Closing Our Nation’s Achievement Gap. You can hear him at konopka/home.html.