Friday, July 20, 2012

It's The Poverty, Stupid

This is something I'll bet you didn't know: if we only count the US schools with a student poverty rate of less than 10 percent, our students outperform the kids in China, Singapore, and yes, even Finland on the Programme for International Achievement tests in reading, the very benchmark tests that have caused corporate education reformers to shriek, "The Chinese are beating us!"

US schools that serve a student population with a poverty rate over 75 percent wind up ranked near the bottom of the list. 

The evidence is crystal clear. Poverty is really the only national education reform issue that matters. Poverty is by far the number one reason children "fail" in school. Poverty, poverty, poverty. To phrase it as Bill Clinton might: It's the poverty, stupid. It's not a lack of a progressive play-based curriculum, it's not a lack of accountability, it's not about lazy teachers . . . Say it with me: it's the poverty.

The reason you probably didn't know this is that the corporate education reformers don't want you to know it. Guys like Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, Arnie Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and Barack Obama do not want you to look behind that particular curtain. They want you to believe that it's all about cracking the whip on those lazy asses and voila the kids (and their teachers) will chase those carrots and run away from those sticks all the way to the head of the class. They don't want you to know that the problem is poverty because they can't make money off of solving poverty the way they can off drill-and-kill education reform. So as part of their business plan, the American people have been subjected to an all-out public relations campaign in which they are attempting to claim the mantel of civil rights leaders. And it's working, but only to an extent: over 80 percent of us give our public school system as a whole, the devil we don't know, the ones other people's kids attend, a "C" or lower. When asked about our own public schools, the devil we know, the ones our own children attend, we hand out "A's" and "B's."

I don't think our educational system is perfect by any means. This whole blog is about better ways to educate children, but the assertion that our public schools are failing is, on its face, false. The failure is in an economy that leaves so many children in poverty. And that's actually something about which these Wall Street types really could do something, given that they have their hands on the levers of power and all. The Finns and Singaporians have strong safety nets that insure their poverty rates don't exceed 10 percent and just like US schools with low poverty rates the kids excel. Poverty is the national education emergency and it's on that front the Finns are beating us.

And if you've read this far and still need convincing, check out this fantastic piece from The Washington Post Answer Sheet entitled The Hard Bigotry of Poverty

In education, there are choices to be made that can indeed move the needle of student achievement. Developing a collaborative model, for example, can lead to improvements in the skills and study habits of disadvantaged children. But closing the so-called achievement gap between rich and poor will first require Americans to recognize a far more uncomfortable reality: The policies employed to purportedly address the struggles of low-income children have ushered in a new era of school segregation. Claiming that poverty is no excuse for student failure trivializes the damage caused by years of actions and inactions that have widened the gaps between rich and poor communities. Good schools aren’t molded through harsh sanctions, private takeovers, or even soaring rhetoric. They emerge from healthy, stable communities. That is, they emerge from a commitment to justice.

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Stephanie said...

Great post Teacher Tom. I am wondering about everyone's thoughts on how exactly poverty contributes to children failing in school. My suspicision, especially when you are considering districts with poverty rates over 75 percent, is that a large part of the problem is possibly that impoverished parents likely do not have much education themselves, and do not value it the way non-impoverished parents do. How do you help these children?

carmen said...

I follow your blog for a long time now and I really appreciate your work with the kids.
This post is short but it has a clear message I support completely.
I grew up in a "poor" city district with intelligent peers who didn't reach an education level they could have.
This problem exists in every part of the world (as far as I know).

Greetings from Germany

Anonymous said...

Teacher Tom: yes, yes, a thousand times yes! previous commentor: I have taught eighth grade and currently preschool in a state that is consistently in the top two of poverty rates, and I can say that it is difficult. I have found Ruby Payne's work to be very helpful. You should look her up. We have entrenched, generational poverty, and so the pathologies and characteristics described in Payne's work have become cultural norms. I have to tell you, it is much easier at the preschool level, where if you can establish a good relationship and very clear expectations with parents at the beginning of the year you stand a good chance of being able to at least crack that conditioning. With eight grade, I would focus on the students, and I would tell then point blank, "if you quit school you will always be poor. Is this what you want?" (because I had some eighth graders who had failed sufficient number of times that they were of age to be able to quit school. It is really hard to understand the poverty mindset when you come from a middle class upbringing yourself. I highly recommend Ruby Payne, and stick with preschool, you can make so much more of a difference! :)

Stephanie said...

Anonymous, thank you for the recommendation, I will check it out. I definitely see preschool as the best opportunity to help these kids and families. To me the issue of poverty isn't simply lack, but also (perhaps even mostly) of cultural barriers. Where I live, there is a large population of Hmong refugees. A few years ago, former President George W. Bush visited one of our high schools specifically because there was a very high poverty rate (due to the higher immigrant population at this particular school) yet the test scores were extremely high. It seems clear that the reason for this was because the Hmong culture places a high value on education. Maybe the differences between the Hmong culture and others in poverty lie in the perceived possibility of success.

Robin Frisella said...

Thanks for this post. We just need to figure out how we can get every single American to read it.....

Anonymous said...

Stephanie, I think you have hit the nail on the head with your comment about the perceived possibility of success. I believe it all comes down to hope. When generations of poverty are what you know, then a lack of hope can be an immense load to bear.

Anonymous said...

I have worked in one of the poorest school districts in the country for the last 13 years representing children on educational issues. Poverty is without a doubt the main reason why schools in the communities I work in continue to fail no matter who is the superintendent; no matter what new reading program the principal ushers in; or in spite of the adoption of a new uniform policy. The main reason why poverty is not talked about is that by acknowledging it, you would have to do something about it. Unfortunately our society has adopted the right wing notion that nothing can be done about poverty; it is simply a choice of the lazy, ignorant and naturally selected.

Christian said...

Another great post. Right on.

christie said...

I think you're ablsolutely right, Teacher Tom! The problem, as I see it, is that this type of societal and governemental shift to actually addressing poverty, will not happen overnight - if it happens at all. Anonymous (above) mentioned Payne's work. I think her work has merit is giving educators insight into the culture of some students living in poverty. I don't know that we can say it will explain the mindset and actions of all students, but her work may help us to better reach some kids while we're waiting for the government and society to catch up.

Shanna said...

"Poverty [is] the single largest common denominator among children who [fail] at reading." (The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease - a study done by Sarah Ransdell)

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