Is Poverty Destiny?

Which of the following two statements would get a standing ovation at a TFA event?

1.  “Poverty is not destiny. Social challenges in the community are not destiny. We can take you to school after school in some of the toughest neighborhoods in urban areas around the country where, again, every single student is graduating from high school and the overwhelming majority is going to college. We, as adults, have to lift our game. If we don’t do it, we perpetuate poverty and social failure. It’s incumbent upon us to give our students the opportunities they need to fulfill their god-given potential.” — Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education

2.  “I think the things that are being done now by Sec. Duncan, by the Gates Foundation, by the Broad Foundation, by all of these very wealthy and powerful people, are taking us on the wrong track because they’re focused solely on ‘how do we find the bad teachers’?  I don’t think America is overrun by bad teachers.  I think America is overrun by too much poverty, too much poverty among children.  If we’re going to talk about what works, we’re not going to talk about which teacher do you find and punish because their kids didn’t get high scores.  We should be talking about is how do we make sure that our children have adequate healthcare, and that we have pre-K education, birth to 5-year-old education, because there’s a gap when kids start school, there’s a gap at age 3 where poor kids begin and they’re already behind because they don’t have access to healthcare or vocabulary.” — Diane Ravitch, Historian of Education.

If I were a new corps member, I’d agree with Duncan’s statement on CNN and would see Diane Ravitch’s comments on The Daily Show as a cop out.

In my opinion, though, the way the school system is right now, poverty is destiny.  That’s not to say that poor children are not smart or not capable or that all of them are destined to be poorly educated.  It’s just that things are not that different than they were ten years ago and the 28 year olds who were poor 18 year olds ten years ago are, on average, not doing very well.

I can think this, and might be accused of being defeatist, or worse, even racist since the statement ‘poverty is not destiny’ is a clever one that you have to be very careful when you argue against it.

Duncan puts all the responsibility on teachers who are supposed to overcome all the effects of poverty by ‘lifting our game.’  Unfortunately, as Ravitch says, it’s a lot more complicated than that.  Poverty is a factor that won’t go away just because we choose to ignore it.  Kids who are homeless or hungry or who miss fifty school days a year because they are ill.  These are real problems that are tough for teachers to overcome.  Threatening to fire teachers or close down their schools is not going to be the factor that motivates teachers to become miracle workers.

Duncan says that he can show all kinds of schools with high graduation rate and college acceptance rates as proof.  However, when you really research some of these miracle schools you often find that there are games they play with the numbers.  Kids they kicked out to get their scores up and other tricks.  The truth is that there are not many (if any) of these mythical schools where poverty has been overcome by teachers working harder.

This is not to say that teachers should give up trying, and I don’t think that teachers have given up.  We do the best we can, trying to make the biggest difference we can.  I taught in Houston for four years and I think — not counting my first year — I did a very good job.  It’s hard to measure exactly what impact I had, individually.  My students did very well, they passed their standardized test and my class also, in general.  I hope this gave them confidence and made them like math more.  I don’t know if I changed many ‘life trajectories’ by getting kids to go to college who wouldn’t have in a parallel world where I had not taught them.  Still, I think I enriched their lives.  I tried to ‘make a difference’ in each of my student’s lives, and I hope I did.  (I taught in Houston from 1991 to 1995 and many of my former students, who are now in their late thirties, have befriended me on facebook so I must have accomplished something with them.)

But I was not able to overcome all the effects of poverty.  I think it is unfair to expect teachers to perform miracles, which is why I’m not happy with the current education reform agenda.  Now to blame poverty definitely can be viewed as ‘passing the buck’ to the government.  Teachers can’t fix poverty so they should focus on the things they do control and do as much good as they can with what they can control.  And I think, in general, they do.

I think the theory is that by making teachers more ‘accountable’ they will work their butts off since they have a massive amount of power to overcome the effects of poverty but are just too lazy to do it.

Now fixing poverty, that’s a tough one, so assuming that poverty is not going to get fixed, what should we do as teachers, principals, all the way up to the Secretary of Education?  Well, first we have to honest about what is working and what is not.  Early childhood education, as Ravitch suggests, is something good which I think many politicians support.  But putting up a fake miracle school as proof that teachers have powers that we don’t actually have and then basing a national education reform agenda on it which includes shutting down failing schools and replacing them with charters, firing veteran teachers who are finally making a decent living wage, and narrowing the curriculum so schools can teach to the test are only moving us backwards.

Right now, poverty (on average) is destiny and the ed reforms seem like they are going to make things worse.

If you want to read an excellent post on this topic from a magazine called Educational Leadership click here also there was a great New York Times Op-Ed recently that has similar themes.

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2 Responses to Is Poverty Destiny?

  1. Ray says:

    Childhood poverty is the shame of the nation. It is especially aggravating to realize that poverty could be eliminated if only the rich were to pay their fair share, either through offering their workers a living wage or through forgoing tax breaks for the wealthy.

    That said, improving teacher quality remains an issue. While Finland has a very low rate of childhood poverty, (about 5% compared to nearly 25% in the US) there are countries with comparable or even lower rates of childhood poverty that do not get their educational results. Teaching is a demanding profession that requires a great deal of skill. It cannot be done effectively by a teacher workforce composed of the bottom third of college students. High achieving nations recruit teachers from the top 10% of students.

    What is discouraging is that the goal of attracting high quality teachers has been replaced with the idea of firing “bad teachers”. In my experience, there are very few bad teachers. The teachers I work with are caring people who love children and work very hard, but they are not all that effective. They often don’t have a good conceptual understanding of math, they don’t write well, and they don’t follow or even understand educational research. They are about as good as can be expected in a field that pays so badly and has such poor working conditions. Firing them would do little good since they are not about to be replaced with a massive influx of teachers from the top 10% of their class.

    I know that you are hostile to standardized testing, but I would encourage you to reconsider. It’s important to have objective feedback on how well you are doing in the classroom. The first year that my school did value added, I was sky high in reading but pretty dismal in other subjects. This information allowed me to analyze my weaknesses and improve. Studies show that teachers with high value added scores are less likely to waste time on test prep. In my own experience, I credit a large part of my success with the fact that I quietly throw away the test prep books that my school issues and work on higher order thinking skills instead.

  2. Peter says:

    I completely agree with what you’ve written, but I think you’ve bought into their false dichotomy by saying that poverty is destiny and posing the question as you have. I think everyone should agree that poverty isn’t destiny; the reason Arne Duncan and other so-called “reformers” use that as a buzz-phrase is because it is, at its base, essentially true. Students don’t have destinies, and no factor in their lives will inevitability determine for them any given result.

    Saying that poverty isn’t destiny should actually be making us work harder to reduce poverty. After all, if we are realizing that poverty isn’t inevitably self-perpetuating, that should inspire us to work directly at challenging it. Instead, the Arne Duncan types only use this bastardization of the concept in order to draw attention away from the problem. It’s really, truly disgusting.

    Ray – I would just add to what you said by pointing out that firing “bad” teachers not only doesn’t achieve the goal of attracting new quality candidates, but it actually discourages them. Who wants to join a profession that has become so persecuted? That said, I still want to become a teacher, but I know it’ll be a battle from the very beginning.

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