“Grandma, are we poor?” 4-year-old Angelica (not her real name) asked, with a twinge of anxiety. “No baby, we are blessed,” her 53-year-old grandmother replied, with an exhausted half-smile.
At a city-sponsored early childhood education fair where we met, mental health resources, classes, and after-school programs were on display for enrollment. Organizations like First 5 have a strong presence, and there are multiple subsidized preschool and early childhood extracurricular resources represented. Angelica is fortunate to have a familial caretaker who actively seeks out and utilizes these resources for her and her siblings—a family of beautiful, well-behaved, and inquisitive kids.
Angelica and her three older siblings, ages 5 to 12, are well below the poverty line in one of the most diverse counties in the United States: Los Angeles. They live in Compton, one of its poorest neighborhoods, with a poverty rate that is almost double California’s average. Eighty-six percent of its K-12 students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
If the opposite of “good” in school is “poor,” how do we expect children who hear their parents called “poor” to develop positive self-identity?
Although Compton has made remarkable advancements in recent years with the support of the Los Angeles County Board of Education—the city council and independent school district now allocate more funding to extracurricular, mental health, and community enrichment than ever—fewer than 10 percent of adults hold a bachelor’s degree. Nearly 40 percent of residents over the age of 25 have not graduated from high school.
In an environment that is considered low-income by California’s diverse standards, the word “poor” has permeated Angelica’s conscious and vocabulary. It has definitive, fear-inducing connotations for the rising kindergartener. Her grandmother didn’t attempt to convince her that there was nothing wrong with being poor, opting instead to dispel the idea that the term applied to them. This instinct to protect Angelica’s self-identity and sense of security exemplified just how damaging the term “poor” can be.
Common grading scale for a typical report card
Which is why I find it striking that on progress updates and report cards, many K-12 schools still use “poor” in one of the most potentially destructive ways—to imply that a child isn’t meeting expectations. If the opposite of “good” in school is “poor,” how do we expect children who hear their parents called “poor” to develop positive self-identity? Do we expect them to understand the drastically different connotation of this term, when it is applied to their parents’ incomes or codified on a school report card?
Those who spend time with children in elementary grades definitely reply “no”. Homonyms and synonyms are not taught immediately, as they are relatively advanced language concepts.
Because many children will not grasp the difference of how “poor” can be used in different contexts, it is likely that they’ll hear this same term as an indictment of their parents—potentially the first of many times in their lives—as they struggle with systemic poverty that is often cyclical within families. Many children impacted in this way feel personal shame about their perceived shortcomings or wrongdoings, and are not able to articulate the cause or impact to their teachers or parents.
As students learn and memorize vocabulary, the context in which new words are introduced shapes the definitions that stick in their minds. For young learners, “poor” in either context—as a measure of poor performance, or socioeconomic status—should never be conflated with the other meaning. Young children aren’t able to separate the definitions.
Example of an alternative grading scale
If there were a dearth of acceptable synonyms, I may feel less strongly. Yet there are ample, and many schools have already adopted them. “Unsatisfactory,” “needs improvement,” or even numbered or color-labeled scales all convey the same information to parents without the potential trauma that the label “poor” can have on students in poverty. For parents whose native language is not English, these gradient scales are also more useful: parents themselves may be learning to translate the terms on their students’ report cards.
It took me years to write this article, because I assumed that it was only a matter of time before “poor” would be phased out of use. I believed that educators nationwide would make similar realizations and soon replace the term altogether. Sadly, three years after the encounter with Angelica, I see this word misused as commonly now as it was then.
It’s time that school leaders and districts nationwide stop using the label “poor” to report on a child’s behavior or academic performance. There are many more effective alternatives that are less potentially damaging.