Top teachers say that poverty is the most important barrier facing them in their classrooms. Reformers insist that those teachers are merely making excuses for poor achievement of low-income students.
Having worked in and with many high-poverty schools I am, on the one hand, discouraged by the current fad du jour of ignoring poverty as a detractor, and on the other hand, inspired by the fact that I know that, if schools do the right things, the right way, long enough, their students can achieve at high levels. Every day, we learn that more and more schools are beating the odds.
While the mantra of education reformers continues to be ‘No excuses, because poverty is not destiny,’ researchers and practitioners know that “socio-economic circumstance matters to education outcomes.”
Blaming Only Hurts Those Most In Need
Poverty is not an excuse, but a reason for low achievement that can and must be overcome. Ignoring poverty and its impact on under-resourced students, will not improve student performance, nor will it close the achievement gap. In fact, refusing to acknowledge poverty as a barrier to achievement only serves to perpetuate the very conditions that reformers seek to eradicate.
Those of us who have worked in high-poverty schools know all too well about the destructive effect poverty has on children and learning. Poverty’s corrosive effects can only be overcome by ensuring that the best, most experienced teachers and the best, most experienced school leaders are working in the best-equipped schools with the neediest students.
Instead, we have precisely the opposite–the least experienced work with the neediest. Threats, sanctions, punishments, restructuring, closings, and firings only serve to ensure that working in under-resourced schools is viewed as a “career killer” further perpetuating the flight of the best and brightest from those schools.
Under-resourced students are what they are–under-resourced. These children can learn and achieve at high levels if they are provided the resources–teachers, principals, technology, and supports–they need to succeed. They cannot make up for their lack of resources on their own or by working on the same time line as their more advantaged, middle class peers. Nor can they make up for their lack of resources when they are served by the least experienced among us.
The Bottom Line
We must do for other people’s children what we would want done for our children. We must treat every child as though that child were our own. Instead, the reformers, who send their children to expensive private schools, loudly proclaim the failure of public education and advocate for larger classes and less experienced teachers–practices that they would never permit to be used on their own children.
Poverty is not an excuse for low achievement, but poverty is the reason WHY we need reading and math interventions, more learning time for some students, smaller class sizes and more funding for schools serving under-resourced students.