Student voice: Supporting high achievers from low-income backgrounds

When seeking ways to improve students' academic outcomes, sometimes teachers and school leaders fail to ask for input from those who can offer perhaps the most important perspective – the students themselves.

A recent US study interviewed a group of high-achieving middle years students from low-income backgrounds to get their views on how schools could best promote the academic achievement of those living below the poverty line. The results have been published in the journal Improving Schools.

Three main themes emerged from the interviews. The students said schools should: build a culture of hope; help students build relationships and networks with peers from different backgrounds and positive relationships with teachers; and collaborate with parents to help build their capacity and networks (Williams, Greenleaf, Barnes & Scott, 2019).

Researchers Joseph Williams, Arie Greenleaf, Erin Barnes and Tracey Scott say this is an important topic as 51 per cent of public school students in the US now live in families with incomes below the poverty line – up from 32 per cent in 1989.

Their small-scale study involved 24 high-achieving students (indicated by earning mostly A grades and no C grades in core subjects such as English and Maths) aged 12 and 13 living across the US. Interviewers asked them about their own experience and their views on what schools should do to support other students from low-income backgrounds.

Hope, high expectations and teachers' beliefs

The study participants said there were three ways schools could build a culture of hope. The vast majority (83 per cent) said educators needed to go beyond telling them they had high expectations for them – they had to demonstrate it too.

‘Teachers have to understand that, high expectations is something you do, not just say or believe,' one commented. Another said teachers' own beliefs about what low-income students are capable of, impact how those students think and feel about themselves. ‘… if there is one ounce of doubt that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds can succeed, they will sense it and start giving up on both the teacher and themselves'.

Around two-thirds of participants (63 per cent) highlighted the importance of challenging teacher perspectives. Three-quarters said school staff should demand students have high aspirations and help them develop those aspirations – in terms of school, further study, and future life and work.

Relationships and networks

Positive relationships with teachers were seen as important, but the students said schools could also help them build networks with peers and culturally responsive relationships. Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) said schools should set up mentoring and coaching to help students build peer networks and ‘negotiate or navigate cultural or class barriers'.

For example, one student commented: ‘… being in a different income bracket from your peers can be tough … but if it weren't for my wealthier friends, I wouldn't know about so many cool programs, activities, or camps that help you improve your grades and develop others skills. They learn about this stuff from their parents …'

Working with parents

The final theme focused on schools collaborating with parents in low-income families – to help them build their knowledge and skills so that, like students in the previous example, they can better navigate school systems and identify and access resources. One student in the study commented her mum would be more involved in her schooling but she doesn't know where to begin when it comes to understanding some of the subjects, assessments or how to work with teachers.

The researchers say, at a time when the proportion of students from low-income backgrounds (and the achievement gap between them and their wealthy peers) is on the up, their study gives a missing point of view in the discussion – that of the students themselves. ‘Listening closely to them about the challenges they face and how schools can help is critical for identifying and framing the problem and rethinking policies and practices.'


Williams, J. M., Greenleaf, A. T., Barnes, E. F., & Scott, T. R. (2019). High-achieving, low-income students' perspectives of how schools can promote the academic achievement of students living in poverty. Improving Schools, 22(3), 224-236.

When was the last time you asked students for their views about how to best to support them?

As a teacher or school leader, do you have high expectations of all students? How do you demonstrate this to them?

How do you ensure that all students, and their parents and carers, are aware of the opportunities and resources that exist?