Yes, out-of-school factors related to poverty affect learning.
Back in Spring 2011 a Harvard-convened think tank called Futures of School Reform—20 well-respected educators, academics, and politicians—predicted that over the next few years the education reform conversation will shift away from blaming teacher tenure for student achievement results to considering how out-of-school factors related to poverty affect learning.
When you watch the above clip of Sera, an 11-year-old girl living in a one-room rent-subsidized apartment in San Francisco's Tenderloin with her mother and sister, it's not hard to see why that shift has to happen. Her story is part of the PBS Frontline Poor Kids series and it's pretty heartbreaking to watch Sera describe her life as "not a fun experience." She goes on to note that "It's annoying that people say 'It doesn't matter, it's just a little problem, it's over now, get over it.' No, it's not over. It changes you. I'm still the same old obnoxious Sera but, deep down, I'm a whole new person. Well, I'm a whole different person."
Sera's walking into school every day with the burden of everything her family's going through—and there are too many other kids out there being changed like her. According to UNICEF, a full 23.1 percent of American kids now live in poverty. Many education reformers worry that acknowledging that a kid like Sera isn't able to walk outside because of drug addicts and crime will be used as an excuse for lowering academic expectations. Sure, no one wants lowered expectations—a "you can't achieve because there are addicts in your hood" mentality. But it's also a mistake to act like schools packed with kids in Sera's situation don't need extra help and resources, not just on a school level, but on a community level.
The Futures of School Reform group said the shift to addressing poverty as key to education reform would happen, "not because of sudden prosperity and deep public-sector pockets, nor because of a broad shift in public sentiment that activates new moral commitments to the ideal of educating other people's children, but as an outgrowth of the same hard-nosed, pragmatic, evidence-based orientation that for the moment is supporting the unlikely claim that schools can do it alone."
When you listen to a kid like Sera though, it's hard not to feel like what we need is to find the kind of deep moral commitment that refuses to allow children to live in such conditions. After all, isn't that what democracy, at its heart, should be about?