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A half a century ago, President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty and launched several initiatives intended to battle the ravages of a chronic and persistent problem. Among these was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). It required that any institution receiving federal funding could not deny anyone access to any program or activity based on race, color, or national origin (Hanna, 2005). There were many educational initiatives that occurred during this time period. Each focused on equality of social justice and social benefits and better ensuring that underserved minority student populations (i.e., students living in poverty and students from diverse racial, cultural, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds) would receive equal access to an appropriate education.

Where Are We Now?

Fifty years later, has the achievement gap experienced by groups of underserved students been closed? While the Common Core State Standards are being used widely by almost every state in the nation and many hope that they will remedy the gap, they have not been in effect long enough to know whether they will have a significant impact on this outcome.  Also, they do not call for a different approach to be used in the classroom. Rather, they call for a common set of outcomes for what it is students should know and be able to do.

In a report released in June 2011, completed by the Editorial Project in Education Research Center and using data on high school graduates, we learn that underserved groups continue to be among the most underachieving and vulnerable or at-risk of failing school (Swanson, 2011).  This is a particularly important when we consider that 51% of the nation’s students live in poverty.

What Are the Major Characteristics of Students Who Are Doing Poorly in U.S. Schools?

While it is critical to understand racial, economic, and gender differences, a closer look at language and literacy, especially the type of language and literacy that are needed to perform successfully in school, is an important key to unlocking more effective ways for closing the achievement gap. In the United States, along with 350 different languages spoken among the nation’s English learners (Garcia, Jensen, & Scribner, 2009) many many dialects are spoken. While African American Vernacular English is the most widely studied of the dialects of English spoken in America, many other dialects are also used by our nation’s students, including Latin American Vernacular English, Alaskan American Vernacular English, Hawaain American Vernacular English, and Indigenous American Vernacular English (Labov, 2006).

In addition, there are regional dialect differences (Delpit, 2011). Moreover, like any language system, dialects evolve with the culture and context in which they occur, making communication more descriptive and dynamic. As a result, students come to school using dialects and languages that reflect their home cultures and their language systems are richly diverse and constantly evolving. Some of these students come to school with a deep foundation in the language system that is used in school (what many refer to as school or academic language) while others do not.

Literacy Framework

To look at this more closely, it is helpful to understand what it means to be a proficient user of academic language. The federal definition of the abilities that an English learner must obtain to be considered proficient in English sheds some light on the academic language that is needed by ALL of our nation’s students. It includes the following: (i) the ability to meet the State’s proficient level of achievement on State assessments; (ii) the ability to successfully achieve in classrooms where the language of instruction is English; and (iii) the opportunity to participate fully in society (U.S. Department of Education, 2004)

An important characteristic of the federal definition is that a student must be able “to meet the state’s proficient level of achievement on State assessments.” While these may vary from state to state, the common requirement is that a student is highly fluent and competent in academic language. Let’s look at a classroom interaction that occurs between a student and her Kindergarten teacher.

Teacher: Do you have the permission slip for the class trip?

Student: It be at home.

In this short exchange, what do we note about the student’s speech and its relation to academic language? First, some of us might respond that the student understands the question, uses precise language, and her response is dialectally rich. At the same time, we might also find ourselves using deficit-based language, such as non-standard speaker, to describe the differences that we see between the language that she uses and school language. These divergent views are particularly relevant for us to consider for three primary reasons. First, rural, suburban, and urban schools across our nation are becoming more populated by students who possess language systems that are distinct from the academic language that is needed to be successful in school (Calderon & Minaye-Rowe, 2010; Zacarian, 2011; 2013). While, the highest concentrations are in urban areas, rural and suburban communities are rapidly finding themselves teaching students from these experiences. Second, we must value and honor these language systems as opposed to viewing them as a deficit. Third, we must support the learning of academic language while simultaneously supporting the learning of the curriculum across all subject matters.

This type of teaching is critical. It calls for transforming our understandings, values, and practices about working with the growing population of academic language learners. Until it is done in a more intentional and meaningful way, the legacy of poverty is likely to continue as some groups of students will not have the access that is sorely needed to close the academic language gap.


This article should be referenced/cited as: Zacarian, D. (January 8, 2014).  The war on poverty: fifty years and counting.  It has been excerpted, in part, from Zacarian (2013) Mastering academic language: a framework for supporting student achievement.

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