Overwhelmed By Poverty: It Takes More Than Just Good Teaching

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I am currently trying to integrate the voices of some extraordinary educators regarding poverty and its impact on education.  This began with a video by Dr. Vickie Markavitch, Superintendent of Oakland Schools.   The video was in response to Michigan’s Focus School initiative, which places schools on the list based on disproportionality between the test scores of the lowest and highest 30% .  (Losing Focus with Focus Schools (http://bit.ly/MWHLZe) .

I will always be concerned about the lower 30%, regardless of the economic situation of their family or community.  Being at the bottom in a highly social context is not a place any student would choose.  Still, searching further via twitter and google and my 48 years of living- I began focusing on the issue of poverty and segregation.  Diane Ravitch and many others on Twitter lead me to a book:  How Children Succeed  by Paul Tough.

Tough has spent years thinking about this issue.  In his book, he argues that cognitive and academic skills –and “good teaching” cannot overcome the stressors involved with growing up in poverty.   Instead, the kids who overcome their history of poverty have “resilience, integrity, resourcefulness, professionalism and ambition”:  non-cognitive, character traits.

In his NYTimes article “Reading, Math and Grit”  , Joe Nocera says   “On some level, these are traits we all try to instill in our children. But poor children too often don’t have parents who can serve that role. They develop habits that impede their ability to learn. Often they can’t even see what the point of learning is. They act indifferently or hostile in school, though that often masks feelings of hopelessness and anxiety. “

Knowing that it isn’t just about the money, teaching, tests or curriculm, people like Jeff Nelson, who runs a program in partnership with 23 Chicago high schools called One Goal and Geoffrey Canada who founded  Harlem Children’s Zone,  are attempting a comprehensive approach to supporting kids in highly segregated and  economically disadvantaged areas.  The Harlem Children’s Zone, in particular,   “combines educational, social and medical services. It starts at birth and follows children to college. It meshes those services into an interlocking web, and then it drops that web over an entire neighbourhood. The objective is to create a safety net woven so tightly that children in the neighbourhood just can’t slip through.”

I began to feel hopeful that someone was going to the core.  My work in our county alone tells me the disparity (in every way you can measure it)   is enormous.  You can drive 15 minutes and see just about everything in terms of the physical and social environment of the school and the overall vitality of the community.  The playing field is not even for teachers or students.  It disturbs me deeply.

Then today, I read an article at Dropout Nation:   “Voices of the Dropout Nation: Matt Barnum on Diane Ravitch and the Faulty Data Behind the Poverty Myth”.   Barnum sharp-shoots some of Ravitch’s recent statements:    “family income is the most-reliable predictor of test score performance”;  “single most reliable predictor of low academic achievement is poverty”. Barnum reports that Ravitch “ declared that the U.S. leads the advanced nations of the world in poverty with nearly a quarter of kids in poor households, while in other highly developed nations the child poverty rate is under five percent”. From where she sits, Barnum goes on, “ it is the shame of our nation.”

He challenges Ravitch because the US is actually SECOND to last and not LAST.  He refers to a world poverty chart  , which puts the US second from the bottom (directly between Romania and Latvia).   

 Barnum concludes with this:  “Most school reformers agree that poverty does indeed matter. The idea behind the education reform movement, however, is that we can improve our impoverished schools as a means of overcoming the debilitating effects of poverty. So it is hard to hear poverty as an excuse for poor-quality education – especially when it’s backed by misleading data.”  Barnum seems to believe it is “one or the other”.

And so, I go back to a great quote last week from Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention:  “nobody’s right all the time, and a broken clock is right twice a day”.

My belief is that the answer is “both/and”, not “either/or”.  With the economic re-segregation and enormous gaps between the haves and have-nots, the job of “overcoming the debilitating effects of poverty” is going to take more than just good teaching.  Note:  I did not say that good teaching wasn’t needed.  In fact, I suspect NOBODY has ever said that in education.  That is always expected.  Instead, we need to look past that  and out into the school community as there is much evidence that good teaching is not enough for the long haul.

Until we pair good teaching in economically diverse neighborhoods with the kind of comprehensive support that Nelson and Canada are providing in Chicago and Harlem, we will be placing band-aids on deep wounds.  And anyone who has skinned their knee knows:

band-aids don’t last after the first bath.

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