Student Performance Isn’t the Issue — Student Survival Is
Students can’t learn, online or in person, if they’re hungry or homeless. Covid-19 multiplied the inequities.
I coach at a Title I high school. According to the most recent statistics I can find on our district (not linked here to preserve some anonymity for my students), 72.2% of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Close to one-third are technically homeless, having no fixed address. Many of our kids don’t know where they’re going to sleep tonight, nor where they’ll get their next meal.
Unsurprisingly, Covid-19 has hit our district hard. It’s hit poor families and districts across the nation the hardest.
When our school board voted to conduct the school year virtual-only, the district expended herculean efforts to ensure that every household had the tools students needed to attend their classes online. The school and the local library handed out dozens of Chromebooks and wireless hot spots. Teachers added office hours and started holding online tutoring sessions outside the normal school day. The band director makes daily delivery trips around the district, dropping off instruments, sheet music, and supplies.
Yet the number of students in our district who are failing at least one online class is astronomical. Staff meetings to address this problem always reach the same conclusion. Our struggling students are struggling not because we’re not helping them, but because they need help with things schools can’t effectively provide: adequate food, shelter from the elements, and a safe place to sleep.
The state of poverty mid-pandemic
The years leading up to 2020 demonstrated a downward trend for U.S. poverty, at least according to official measures. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that the official poverty rate dropped to 10.5% in 2019, and that the child poverty rate was also at a record low.
Whether the official poverty rate accurately reflects how many U.S. families are struggling is, of course, a matter of debate. What isn’t a matter of debate is that poverty rates are higher now, a year into the pandemic, than they were before the pandemic began.
Researchers at Columbia University’s Center on Poverty & Social Policy have been tracking the fluctuations of poverty month by month in the U.S. as the pandemic unfolds, using the supplemental poverty measure introduced in 2009 to provide a closer snapshot of poverty in the U.S. Using the supplemental poverty rate, the Columbia team estimated the U.S. poverty rate to be 15% before Covid-19 shutdowns began. Child poverty was higher, at 18.7%.
By August 2020, the month many schools prepared for students’ return, the monthly poverty rate hit 17.3%. For children, it was 21.4%. More than one in five U.S. children was living in poverty before the 2020–21 school year even began.
For racial and ethnic minorities — who make up large proportions of the student population in some districts, including ours — the situation is even worse. The monthly poverty rate for Black and Latinx families rose to 26%, while for White families it sat at 12.3%.
These abstract numbers translate into real suffering. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that in October and November 2020, 12% of U.S. households didn’t have enough food to eat over the seven days prior to the survey. That means 7 million to 11 million U.S. children are going hungry because their families can’t afford food. Again, the percentages are higher for Black and Latinx households.
Maslow’s hierarchy: Poverty, basic needs, and higher-order thinking
Most teachers are familiar with the work of Abraham Maslow, who theorized that human needs are hierarchical. According to Maslow, humans can’t attend to needs that are higher on the list until we first attend to more basic needs. Only when our more basic needs are met do we have the capacity to attend to higher-order issues.
Maslow organized human needs into five basic categories: physiological, safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Physiological needs like food, water, air, and sleep form the basis of our functioning because they involve staying alive. Once they’re met, we can think about safety and health, then belonging to social groups, gaining respect and recognition, and finally fulfilling our potential.
To date, most of the arguments I’ve seen about returning students to the classroom focus on higher-level needs. Of these, the most popular appears to be Maslow’s third level, that of social connection and belonging. The New York Times asked high schoolers to weigh in on the social and belonging aspects of distanced learning, for example. In April 2020, the American Consortium for Equity in Education provided a guide to maintaining social connections and a sense of belonging online.
Some pieces aim at Maslow’s penultimate level, that of esteem, respect, and status. A USA Today article focused on how students are “falling behind” in digital environments — “behind,” here, being relative to the leveled system we have created to move kids through their school years. One Texas district even required children to return to in-person classes if they weren’t measuring up to academic performance benchmarks for their grade.
Most pieces that aim lower on the hierarchy still miss its base, focusing on children’s safety rather than survival needs. The organizations focused here, however, are those that already deal with health and safety, like the CDC and the Mayo Clinic. Resources that address psychological safety and the trauma of living through a pandemic tend to be the work of educational organizations like the NEA, the Department of Education Regional Education Laboratory Program, and EducationWeek.
The trouble with these common arguments, even the ones about safety, is that they aim too high in the hierarchy. Are student performance, belonging, or physical and psychological safety important? Of course they are. But students are equipped to deal with none of them until their survival needs are met — and for millions of children, survival needs are not being met.
Survival needs occupy the lowest rung of Maslow’s hierarchy. They include the need to breathe air, drink water, eat food, maintain bodily homeostasis through things like shelter, clothing, toileting, and the need for adequate sleep.
These needs are foundational. Until they are met, needs like security, belonging, or respect must take a back seat.
When 20% of Black and Latinx households haven’t had enough food in the past seven days, or when 30%-plus of a school district’s students don’t know where they’re sleeping tonight, we cannot realistically expect those students to be able to focus on social or academic work. Their most basic needs have not been met. They have no foundation on which to build anything else.
Some research, like this article from McKinsey, highlights an academic achievement gap between White students and students of color made even wider by Covid-19. I’m not insensitive to this issue — in fact, I’m acutely concerned about it, given that 38% of my school’s population are students of color.
But I’m concerned about it not at the level of achievement or esteem, Maslow’s fourth of five levels. I’m concerned about it at the level of basic survival, Maslow’s first and most primal concern.
The fact that so many of my students don’t know where they’re sleeping tonight, if they’ll be warm enough in freezing Michigan temperatures, or where their next meal will come from worries me. The fact that I cannot seem to have that conversation with most people twittering about the school situation infuriates me.
I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had in which I pointed out that a large number of my students can’t succeed in online schooling because they are hungry and homeless, only to hear, “That’s why we need summer school programs!”
No. “Students are too hungry and homeless to learn” is not a problem to be solved by exposing students to more demands they cannot meet. It is a problem to be solved by feeding and housing them — whether through a robust social safety net, a living wage, or both.
Until we acknowledge how many students are struggling just to survive, we will never devise an adequate plan to help them learn. Focusing on their academic achievement or their sense of belonging or even on the trauma of living through a deadly viral pandemic will not help because a student occupied with bare survival can’t avail themselves of that help if they want to. They’re too busy trying to live.