Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Is "Poverty" The Problem in Education?

Agree or not, this post certainly doesn't mince any words:

A favorite scapegoat, used shamelessly and with impunity, is poverty. I heard it from self-identified teachers at a March 12 legislative town hall meeting. I saw it in the March 9 weekly The Inlander. I hear it frequently from district administrators.

“We have so many poor people,” they say sadly, bellies up and paws waving. “Can’t you see we’re doing our best? It’s the poverty. We can’t overcome poverty. Poverty is the problem. We also have ineffective teachers, uninvolved parents, unmotivated students, social issues, lack of money, changing standards, testing, No Child Left Behind, huge classes, and … uh … a bunch of other things for which we’re definitely NOT responsible … But, the main problem is poverty.”

“Poverty is the key,” a district employee said at our Feb. 7 forum. “If you could fix poverty, you would fix the math problem.” He thinks he’s absolved from responsibility. Pass rates on standardized math tests do tend to be lower for disadvantaged students, but that isn’t because poverty is the problem with math. Jaime Escalante, Ben Chavis and Geoffrey Canada all have capably taught math to disadvantaged children.

I could give every poor family in Spokane millions of dollars, fancy suits, and a Lamborghini. If their children went through the district math program, and without outside intervention, they would eventually park the family Lamborghini in the community college parking lot and walk inside to take multiple remedial math classes – which about half would fail.

Four things are required for any classroom to be effective. I call those things the “Square of Effective Learning.” These are its four corners:

1. Effective teacher
2. Prepared student
3. Efficient and effective curriculum (learning materials)
4. Focused and effective learning environment

Poverty is not in this Square. (Careful now, lest you accidentally stereotype low-income families.)

Provocative, to say the least!

Personally, I don't think the problem is "poverty" as much as it is "culture". There is a "culture of poverty" and those that participate in that culture have a harder time than those who do not; poverty, then, isn't the direct link to trouble in school, culture is.


Anonymous said...

But on the other hand, I would wager that it can be difficult to concentrate on math, and can be difficult for a parent to make their child focus on math, when they are both starving, or the parent is unsure of where next month's rent will come from, or if any of their other basic needs are not being met.

Mary Elliott said...

As an educator who most recently taught in a school that had a significant population that was considered "economically disadvantaged", I came to the opinion that while poverty influenced a child's desire to learn, it never interfered in their ability to learn. And, that's the key...

There's a difference between desire and ability.

I've seen so much money available to poor students, by way of free breakfasts, lunches, school supplies, technology, transportation, even college tuition. And yet, in a lot of cases it did little to improve achievement.

I've seen so much abuse of financial aide in schools. Students that supposedly live in poverty, yet drive a nicer car than I do, have newer cell phones, designer clothing, etc., yet we're giving them free everything, and they could care less about their education.

I agree with this, poverty is not preventing students from learning, and we've had enough years of dumping money into the system to show that is not the solution.

neko said...

When all of your basic necessities are being paid for by someone else, it frees up all of your money to be spent on toys and gadgets.

Ellen K said...

After Katrina an extended NOLA family was adopted by a midsized Ohio town. They were given a house and checks to buy clothing and food. Instead they bought big screen televisions and other luxury items. The townsfolks were up in arms because they knew winter was coming and feared the children didn't have warm clothing. Of course then the argument became a shouting match around racism. The real debate was that one group knew what to expect with a cold Ohio winter and the other group did not.