Poverty and Education

The holiday season is officially upon us. And, at our school, this tends to mean that our student population is fluctuating as winter arrives and families struggle even more to make ends meet. I got my first new student last year at this time and, like clockwork, a new student arrived in my room just a few days before the Thanksgiving break. I continue to see new faces in the cafeteria and others that I recognize are here one day and gone the next.

The arrival of my new student coincides with the first time this year that I have to send out student report cards. And, as I look over their performance in the first half of the year, the pattern is pretty predictable: the students who are advanced are generally those who come from supportive, better-off families, and those who are struggling come from less-supported, more financially-unstable households.This is not to say that I’m not working with all of my students. I am, of course, and all of my students seem to making positive forward progress.

However, as a teacher, I’m told by the media and pundits that this “achievement gap” can and must be closed. The rhetoric about “equal opportunity” and examples of charter and other types of  schools that are educating all students suggests that schools and educators ought to be able to “fix” poverty and the difficulties and instabilities that it brings for students.A new book on the subject seems to come out every year, each operating from a deficit-perspective that focuses on solving the problems that students bring to school and making up for their deficiencies. This climate puts exceptional pressure on teachers, who have to deal with the daily realities from which those who espouse policy and these lofty goals are often so far removed.

I’d challenge anyone who thinks that schools alone can fix poverty to spend a day in any classroom in a public school. These days, I’m not sure it even matters whether that school is in a rural, urban, or suburban area — the suburbs are actually where some statistics suggest that poverty is growing most rapidly. Take my student, for example, she has been in three different schools this year — less than a month at each of the first two. Essentially, she has missed all of the first part of second grade. While I am sure that she will be able to make progress, it is highly unlikely that, despite my best efforts, she will be able to finish the year on par with the students who received a full year of uninterrupted instruction.

By saying this, I’m not trying to do what some policymakers accuse teachers of doing — making excuses to justify their own incompetence in providing instruction. And I’m certainly not saying that I’m throwing in the towel on my students who come from difficult circumstances. I strongly believe that all children can learn, and that doesn’t change if I assert that other factors than mental hardware alone influence educational outcomes. Nor am I blaming my students’ families. Having met all of them, I can attest that the vast majority are hard-working parents who are dedicated to their children. In many cases, they themselves have suffered at the hands of the education system, stymieing their options for making a sustainable living.

What I am saying is that it seems, (to me, at least), like schools will never be able to solve the “poverty problem” (as many pundits call it) alone. I can be providing the best instruction in the entire country (and I’m not, by the way), but it doesn’t matter if my students aren’t available for instruction because they missed the bus and their family doesn’t have a car, or they have to move for the third time that year, or they come to school hungry and worried about what’s going to happen when they get home from school that night.

Don’t get me wrong — schools can and must do a lot to help accommodate and ameliorate what they can about their students’ situations. But, without systemic, societal interventions that go hand in hand with quality schooling, I think I’m going to keep seeing a certain pattern on my report cards regardless of the quality of my instruction.

Nancy Lett’s 2013 piece in the Huffington Post speaks to this issue. You can read her thoughts here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nancy-letts/its-time-to-change-the-conversation-about-public-education_b_3112801.html