“Poverty Should Not Matter. Ever.”

I saw, today, a post on Pass The Chalk by 2010 NYC TFAer Jarell Lee called ‘Poverty Should Not Matter.  Ever’.  Jarell is living proof that ‘poverty is not destiny’ as he grew up very poor, yet went on to Harvard and then to Teach For America.  He is thankful that his own teachers, particularly Mrs. Swift and Mr. Smith, never used the fact that he was poor as an excuse for giving up on him

Jarell attended NBC’s Education Nation, and from what I’ve read about it, there were many ‘reformers,’ like Geoffrey Canada, who said things like this, countering the numerous people who have been claiming that ‘poverty is destiny’ or that ‘poverty is an excuse for not trying’.  But this is, of course, a ‘straw-man’ argument.  Nobody, certainly not me, thinks that it is impossible for someone to break the cycle of poverty.  Also, I don’t think that teachers shouldn’t try their best just because solving every out of school problem of every kid is just too much for one teacher to accomplish.

These two teachers, Mrs. Swift and Mr. Smith, did they inspire every one of their students to go to Harvard?  Most likely not.  And that doesn’t make them failures or excuse-makers, I think.

I also noticed that the charter school at which Jarell taught, The Excellence Boys Charter School of Bedford-Stuyvesant had 54% free lunch and 17% reduced lunch.  This seems low compared to the neighboring schools.

I think I prefer the message that Jarell sent when he spoke seven months ago at a NYC all corps event which I saw on YouTube (soon to be deleted!).  In this speech he talked about the power and importance of teaching, but also about the power and importance of those out of school factors.

Here are some quotes, followed by the video itself:

“We need more business people to create jobs in America.  We need more doctors committed to providing quality healthcare for all.  We need more politicians invested in making education their priority.  We need to work together to build up these communities.”

“One day our students will attend generously funded schools and be healthy enough and happy enough to focus on their studies.”

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11 Responses to “Poverty Should Not Matter. Ever.”

  1. Absolutely correct. Poverty shouldn’t matter. And that’s why all the billionaire ed deformers, their puppets, lackeys, and flacks, and the political hacks who have been bought to legislate their various agendas into law, have all agreed to donate 10% of their personal wealth and corporate assets to wiping out poverty.

    Oh, wait. I’m awake now.

  2. Michael Fiorillo says:

    Poverty and inequality shouldn’t matter, especially when industries represented on our Board of Directors are so effective in replicating them.

  3. Jim James says:

    I know Jarell and he is a fine young man and a natural born leader. However, he conveniently left out the fact that he attended the prestigious private school the Hawken School in Cleveland for middle school and high school. Surely this would have afforded him different opportunities and a different peer group than most low-income students in Cleveland enjoy.

  4. skepticnotcynic says:

    This is precisely the problem with TFA’s message. They piggy-back off these heart-felt stories using pathos as a form rhetoric to sway the masses of incredulous corps members and politically active public who largely come from upper middle-to-middle class backgrounds in order to justify flawed policies. I have taught quite a few students like Jarell, and I love working with them, but I never compare them to the vast majority of my very poor title-one students (we all know this is a wide spectrum), who often times have trouble relating to students like Jarell. They may look the same, but most of them are not even close to the same when it comes to academics, strength of character, intrinsic drive, leadership ability and even parental involvement. As a white male who grew up in a middle-class home and attended average public schools growing up, I would never compare the upbringing and opportunities I had to a poor white kid who grew up a few miles from my house, even though they attended the same schools I did. It seems to me that if Jarell went to prestigious schools in middle, high, and college; he has actually had more educational opportunity than 90% of all American students. TFA doesn’t care, because they focus on race rather than poverty. I think these stories are necessary because they do show what’s possible and keep hope alive; however, it does little to address the fundamental problems of American poverty. Unfortunately, these trite stories do keep TFA funded, so they use people like Jarell to justify their existence.

  5. nycteach says:

    Yea, it definitely doesn’t look like the kind of school that the students he is advocating for have to attend. I’m sure those teachers he mentions had a major impact on his life, but to fail to mention he attended one of the best private schools in the country and the impact that may have had on him seems a little disingenuous. That is if he wants to use himself as an example of what kids from impoverished backgrounds condemned to high poverty segregated schools can accomplish if only they had effective teachers. I hope TFA did not encourage him to leave out this important fact. But I would think attending a school like this may also help get you into harvard:


  6. edharris says:

    So, it would appear that Jarell is being very disingenuous.
    Jarell, why?

  7. Jarell Lee says:

    Hello everyone, my name is Jarell Lee. Thanks fore re-posting my Pass The Chalk post, Gary. I look forward to engaging in this discussion. I want to first clarify an important point mentioned in the above post, then I want to address some of the claims mentioned in these comments.

    In my post, I attempted to carefully construct the point that, when teachers say poverty matters to student achievement, they actually mean that poor schools matter to student achievement. I explained how I don’t believe teachers believe they shouldn’t try, but that we need to change our language because it currently sounds like we are blaming our students.

  8. Jarell Lee says:

    To address the comments, Jim James, I am not sure if we have met before, but your information is incorrect.

    Yes, I did attend Hawken School, from 10th to 12th grade. I was too poor to afford the tuition for 9th grade, and as a result, I attended East Technical High School my freshman year. In middle school, I attended Whitney M. Young Middle School, a school for Cleveland Municipal School District students in the Major Work Program.

    One could argue that these experiences afforded me different opportunities than my peers. One could argue that these opportunities negate the 20 years I spent living in poverty. One could argue that these experiences gave me that qualities my peers didn’t have. One could argue that these opportunities shielded me from the realities of my environment. Sparing you the personal details of my life, unless you want to know :), I argue yes, I was poor. Yes, I was held to high expectations. Yes, I was afforded opportunities, but I was afforded those opportunities because of the student my teachers molded me into. When I got to that prestigious high school, I had already been taught what to do by many teachers before then.

    My main point in writing was: Poor students have enough against them. We should not add their teachers’ expectations to that list.

    I understand the critiques against TFA, “ed reform”, younger teachers, etc. But please do not label me. I am willing to learn from anyone I can. I am a young teacher and all I have is my limited experience and what I’ve read. I look forward to hearing your responses.

  9. Linda Johnson says:

    All of are are sloppy once in a while with our language and one word that we use too loosely is “poverty.” When we say that “poverty affects learning,” we really mean the EFFECTS of poverty affect learning in a negative way.

    Having or not having money does not affect anyone’s ability to learn. We all know of rich kids who turned off to learning at an early age, and poor kids (many, many of them) who went on to get the very best education.

    But then there is “poor” and “profoundly poor.” Any teacher will tell you that the majority of poor children in our country have good parents who manage to meet the basic needs of their children. If necessary, they go to food banks and free clinics to make certain their sons and daughters are well fed and healthy. They are just as concerned about their children’s education as anyone else. We are not talking about these children. They are poor but not educationally disadvantaged and they usually do fairly well in school.

    Then there are the truly poor. These children do not have their basic needs met. They might go to school with hunger, toothaches or depression. They might be suffering from physical, emotional or sexual abuse and neglect. They might be kept home from school to watch younger brothers and sisters. These children often do poorly in school because of the EFFECTS of poverty. Of course good teachers can help them but these teachers need the support of the community in order to afford these students the best opportunities possible.

    For a good idea about how the debilitating effects of poverty can hurt children, and how critically important the family is, read “The Other Wes Moore” by Wes Moore.

    Mr. Lee, I accept that you were poor but I suspect you had at least one parent or guardian who provided you with the basics. Am I right?

  10. nycteach says:

    Jarell, I am also curious to know how your classmates prior to you attending the school fared in high school. Do you keep in touch with any of them? As these students would have shared the exceptional teachers that you had that molded you into the remarkable young man that you are, did most of them enjoy success comparable to yours? And if not, why do you think that might be? As a veteran teacher in the city that is Harlem born and bred, I too understand the profound challenges faced by my students firsthand. That being said, to dismiss poverty as an excuse when any time a teacher mentions the word is an insult to our students and trivializes the very real challenges that they face. Every teacher should (and most do) exhaust every effort to provide their students with a high quality education regardless of their socioeconomic background. But it is the job of the both conservative and “liberal” policymakers who have decided to wage a war on teachers as the primary cause of failing schools to address the social inequities that our students face. Despite yours and my anecdotal experiences as black males who “made it” out of poverty, the majority of our peers were not quite as fortunate. This is because there is a research consensus that over two-thirds of student achievement as measured by standardized tests is explained by out of school factors. Politicians and “ed reformers” can continue to ignore these truths as none of their policies are supported by research and evidence to begin with, but sadly that won’t change the realities. No one has attempted to label you Jarell; we simply want you to realize that you are exceptional and that in order to ensure that ALL students living in poverty have an opportunity to attend Harvard, it will require providing them early childhood education, wraparound social services, and high quality summer learning opportunities to supplement the efforts of their teachers. In order to truly provide our students with the education they deserve, we all have to share in the sacrifice in order to provide the resources necessary to address these out of school factors. But denigrating teachers constantly and judging the quality of their pedagogy based primary upon test scores will not improve teacher quality. You can’t make a cow fat by measuring it all the time. And in conclusion, as I know you are a Harvard guy, I strongly suggest you read this volume edited by Dick Murnane that discusses the major impact these out of school factors have on educational outcomes:


    And I do want to say nothing makes me happier than to see young brothers like you accomplish great things.

  11. nycteach says:

    This is something else you all actually should read as it is extremely relevant to this current topic:


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