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.