Poverty and The State of Education–It’s All About Societal Attitudes


I have recently been reading some articles on the effects of poverty on education, and I just had to comment—on one in particular from the Tucson Weekly, titled Which Has a Greater Effect On Student Achievement: Inequality/Poverty or Teachers/Schooling?

The outlook is pretty grim from the perspective of the distinguished author, David Berliner, of the scholarly article “Effects of Inequality and Poverty vs. Teachers and Schooling on America’s Youth” who was extensively quoted in the Tucson Weekly’s post. In his article, he asserts that there is not one single factor from education that has produced more successful students, and that society and the general attitude of the public and policy-makers toward poverty is what keeps education from making any headway. He states,

“America’s dirty little secret is that a large majority of poor kids attending schools that serve the poor are not going to have successful lives. Reality is not nearly as comforting as myth. Reality does not make us feel good. But the facts are clear. Most children born into the lower social classes will not make it out of that class, even when exposed to heroic educators. A simple statistic illustrates this point: In an age where college degrees are important for determining success in life, only 9% of low-income children will obtain those degrees (Bailey & Dynarski, 2011). And that discouraging figure is based on data from before the recent recession that has hurt family income and resulted in large increases in college tuition. Thus, the current rate of college completion by low-income students is probably lower than suggested by those data. Powerful social forces exist to constrain the lives led by the poor, and our nation pays an enormous price for not trying harder to ameliorate these conditions.” ~David Berliner

Then, we read the work of another thinker in the world of education, Ruby Payne, PhD., a self-proclaimed “authority on poverty in education”. Her theories and models have been used in some schools since around the mid-2000’s. Whatever one might glean from her article, or whether her work is based on solid scientific research, is not specifically in question here. It is merely provided as an example on the mindset of those researching and speaking about impoverished populations, and the effects poverty has had on education. One of Payne’s assertions, among many, is that students in poverty need a role-model, someone at a higher “status” than themselves, in order the overcome their situation. She states:

“Individuals who made it out of poverty usually cite an individual who made a significant difference for them.” and, if you believe it, “The hidden rules of the middle class must be taught so students can choose to follow them if they wish”. ~Ruby Payne, PhD.

For those of us who have been working in the public schools for some time, and have studied the effects of poverty from “researchers” such as Ruby Payne, PhD., the fact that poverty is a great inhibitor is a “no-brainer”. And, although the quotes above may be true for those who do in fact make it out of poverty, the problem remains that so many more children and their families, do not. Payne’s work seems to suggest that many choose this way of life, which I categorically disagree with.

Take those of us who grew up in the Recession of the 1970’s: Long before the influx of refugee and immigrant populations (though they were still here, albeit not in as great a number as today), we were struggling in an education system that was still mired in outdated methodologies AND experiencing poverty on many levels. The line between the “haves” and “have nots” in society, and in terms of educational accessibility, were pretty clearly defined. As one of those “have nots” from that era, I can say honestly that, yes, although several individuals encouraged me to keep going academically, it was a lack of money and resources that kept me from doing so at a practical pace. I am certain that I am not the only one of my generation that had to work full time, while attending junior college, or perhaps even during high school. And if we did “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps”, it was because our parents, and those from the previous generation, believed in a good work ethic and in the “American Dream” or something similarly iconic. Those of us (working poor) who did manage to make it to undergraduate and graduate programs, did so through years of blood, sweat and tears.

I did not make more than minimum wage until I began teaching, at the advanced age of 41 yrs. I had to take out huge loans, and counted on scant scholarships to pick up part of the tab, in addition to working part-time (at the very least). Poverty was always looming (and still does, to a lesser degree) in my life. But I see MANY more parents, who live in abject poverty today…they barely believe in the “American Dream” anymore. They try to instill good work ethics or hope into their children; they live day to day, moment to moment, just staying above water; many more seem to have drug and mental problems, then pass these on to their kids, who by no means choose such a lifestyle, but may be born into it. And no amount of masterful teaching, mandated curriculum, or standardized testing is fixing the problem. The problem is oppression, and misunderstanding of the poorest students.  Students today do not have a realistic frame of reference for the importance of education being equal to future success, because it seems unattainable.

So, even with studies such as those conducted by Ruby Payne, PhD. and Professor Emeritus David Berliner being shared with the public, the problem persists, while so few heed the pleas of educators and other authorities on the subject, to make any real changes at a societal level. Instead, this negative type of rhetoric remains all too popular, in statements like: “Public schools are failing our kids”, and “Liberals and (insert typical racist remark) are destroying our country and Education!”. And now, it looks as if the Donald Trumps of our society will dictate who should have and have not, further dividing society, and widening the gap to a “nearly free” and equal education for all. Sad, sad times, indeed. We still have such a long, long way to go.

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