Saturday, July 12, 2014

Poverty and the Moral Imperative of Education

We are being bombarded regularly with arguments about poverty and education that are fallaciously constructed, used to support the wrong conclusion, and, ironically, are unnecessary.

The Big Scary Facts

It usually begins with a list of assorted research factoids like these:

* Students who fail school are three times more likely to be unemployed.
* Students who fail school will make far less than what a high school grad makes, which is in turn far less than what a college grad makes.
* Students who drop out are hugely more likely to end up in jail.
* Students who fail school are more likely to end up uninsured, have poor health, a die as much as decade sooner than graduates.
* In 1970, most of the middle class had high school diplomas. In 2007, it was about a quarter.

And So, Education

The conclusion we're asked to reach from these data is always the same-- education. We must make sure that every student completes high school with a full education, because that's how we will fix all of the above problems.

This is the "education fixes poverty" mantra. If we get everybody through high school prepared for a good job (defined in many PD sessions as "a job with an above-the-poverty-line" wage) then nobody will be poor and everybody will be healthy and happy and successful.

There are two huge problems with this argument.

How Much Does a Workforce Shape An Economy, Anyway?

Let's imagine that over the next five years, every young American in the pipeline made it all the way to a bachelor's degree. Would we suddenly find ourselves in a country in which every job paid well above minimum wage (a necessity if we're all going to live above the poverty line). Would the vast service sector, the whole workforce of, say. Micky D's, get a raise, or would those jobs just disappear, the be replaced by well-paying tech jobs?

There's a huge number of twenty-something's living at home right now that suggest that having a great education does not make a job appear. "Well, that's because they got some useless liberal arts degree," say our hardnosed economics experts. "If everybody got, say, a computer degree, then we wouldn't have this problem." Because, yes, if the country were filled with trained computer guys, tech companies would just say, "Heck, hire them all!"

But more importantly...

Correlation Is Not Causation

It must be something about the age we live in. I'm an English teacher and even I am tired of pointing out the correlation-not-causation thing to people.

If A and B tend to appear together, it's always wise to look for a C that connects to both of them. It's that simple. And for the data above, C is not particularly hard to find.

Here's a group of people who tend to have bad outcomes-- low income, poor health (because no insurance and poor nutrition and lousy home situation), high rate of actual "criminal" (as defined by the dominant culture) behavior as well as high rate of navigating the justice system badly once they get hoovered up into it (almost as if they can't afford good lawyers), difficulty getting and holding jobs. What emerges as a likely cause of most of this? That's right-- poverty.

Here's another group of people. They may see no real use in education, they get the most poorly-managed and under-resourced schools, they have an unstable home life that makes school difficult, they come from a different culture than the dominant culture around which schools are organized. For these reasons and others, they often do not finish school. What do many of them have in common? Yessirreebob-- poverty.

These two groups are mostly the same group. They are A and B-- poverty is our C. Failing school does not lead to all these other outcomes. Failing school is one more outcome on the list of Effects of Poverty.

Two Incorrect Conclusions

I want to absolutely clear. It is absolutely, categorically, unequivocally, dead-wrong wrong to conclude that poverty is such an obstacle to educating some children that we should just give up or pack it in or settle for doing a crappy job because, after all, poverty. Just as it is wrong to say that education is helpless before the power of poverty and therefor we should just shrug and expect that we won't do any good. No, no, no, no, no, no, NO, no, and also, no.

It is also incorrect to conclude that delivering a middle class education to poor students will turn them into middle class adults.

A Better Conclusion

Look, research may conclude that the happiest animals in the zoo are the ones that roll in the mud and eat hay with their trunks. But I would be a fool to then declare that I will make the penguins happier by feeding them straw and teaching them to roll in the mud.

Whenever a PD leaders or a politician or a reformster of some sort throws these details at me, I do not think, "Oh, man. We are failing to educate well enough to end poverty." I think, "We are delivering the wrong product to some of our students."

I think we are making a huge mistake in trying to deliver the same product to students living in poverty that we deliver to students living in comfy middle class life. What we keep proposing is that we approach a population of students with distinct needs and a distinct culture and declaring that if we just educate them real hard, we will make those differences go away. We are figuratively suggesting that students in the ELL population will become fluent speakers of English if we just teach them as if they already were. And of course the Secretary of Education has already literally suggested that students with special needs will no longer have those special needs if we just demand that they stop behaving as if they have special needs.

This is dumb.

It's Teacher 101. You meet students where they are. And what all this data says to me is that students living in systemic generational poverty are somewhere different than where we are setting up schools.

Important Clarification

I know that nobody wants to have a conversation about schools designed for areas of poverty and the students trapped there, because for decades "schools serving high-poverty populations" has been synonymous with "crappy schools that are underfunded, understaffed, chaotic and crappy." On the list if Things Anti-Reform Resistance Fighters Don't Get is just how powerful it is for people living in those areas to hear, "We are going to get you schools just as good as the ones in the 'burbs." Nobody has made that promise in a long, long time.

But we can't confuse "just the same as"  with "just as good as." Feeding my penguins straw in the mud is just the same as what I do for elephants, but its worse care, because it doesn't recognize the needs and nature of the penguins.

We are missing the boat for students living in poverty because we are not committing to finding out what resources they need. Instead of meeting their needs, we are trying to create a system that erases those needs-- not by meeting them, but by denying them. We are doing the educational equivalent of saying, "You would not be so hungry if you were wearing a polo shirt. People who wear polo shirts are never hungry."

Why The Whole Argument Is Irrelevant

The whole "we must educate students because failing school leads to all these awful things" argument is used to create a sense of urgency, to convince everyone that we must use all our educational might to bring about social justice. It's a moral imperative to teach all these students who are failing school so that our society won't have all these bad effects any more.

Maybe this is useful when addressing civilians and politicians and trying to create a sense of moral urgency, but I wish folks would stop using it with teachers. Here's why--

Teachers already have a moral imperative to teach every single student to the best of our ability and to the fullest of his or her potential.

This whole argument hits me about like someone saying, "Hey, let me explain to you some good reasons for helping people get out of a burning building." It's okay. Really- I don't really think I need a set of extra reasons, particularly ill-formed ones, to convince me of what I already know.

Every young human in America deserves a high-quality education, which will be best created in a relationship with an institution that recognizes the student's potential, abilities, needs and situation. Every young human deserves an education of the highest quality, an education that will open up a whole world of awesome possibilities. Every young human in America deserves an education that is a journey, one that begins right where the student is, and opens up a vast network of pathways that give the student infinite choices to reach the destination of his or her choosing. That's the moral imperative.

Failing school does not cause poverty. And it's not even right to say poverty causes failing school. The high level of failure among students living in poverty is a sign that our schools are not meeting the needs of those students.


  1. You lay out the case that education is failing students who come from impoverished backgrounds due to it not being a product that is useful to them. What do you propose in its place? The form that school takes is hard from its onset for these kids. A structured environment where you sit in your desk doing things that only the adult in the room seems to think are important. I have thought a lot about how it could be different but its form must follow its function. Keeping a room full of kids under control to learn things that they may not find interesting.I would say that by most measures a lack of money is poverty. Where do middle class people get money? From their jobs. Why do poor people get so little money? The answer is they don't fit in well with the labor market. There are a number of reasons a person could be unemployed or in poorly paying work disability, behaviors that dont coexist well with working or a lack of skills for which people will pay for. Needless to say people will pay more for an ok doctor than they would the words best dish washer. Education is the difference. Does one have a shot at becoming a doctor if they read at a 5 grade level? This business of a living wage is a relative one. I live in Vietnam and my wage and what it can buy would be poverty in the US but in Vietnam I am middle class. I don't feel poor.

  2. Ooh, ooh, pick me, pick me!

    OK, for kids in poorer schools with less support outside the school, who are less likely to have access to regular meals or medical care, wraparound services can be a great complement to the classroom. There are some local programs (most funded privately, very few with municipal help of any kind) that go so far as to offer English classes (we have a lot of immigrants from a lot of countries here, and many are illiterate even in their native tongues) and parenting classes and social workers to help them find resources like SNAP benefits and medical clinics. Healthy kids learn better. Kids who aren't hungry learn better too, so breakfast AND lunch - day may have to start earlier to accomplish that, and these are things that wealthier schools aren't likely to need (but will require more funding).

    In the schools themselves: working facilities: heat, air conditioning, plumbing that functions without leaking, windows and roofs that do the same - the physical plant does matter. Especially in elementary schools, a safe outdoor space for play is crucial; at home, these kids might not have access to safe places to play, whether swings on the playground or basketball in the park.

    In the classrooms: enough adults to provide for a low student-teacher ratio, so kids who need so much more support can GET it; these schools are typically more likely to have too-LARGE classes especially in the crucial early grades, where if you don't get it, you don't get it, probably EVER.

    Wealthier families generally are better-able to provide arts & athletic enrichment on their own dimes; poorer schools are often lucky to HAVE any arts at all, and too often "music" and "art" are the regular elementary classroom teacher singing songs (without a piano - those used to be in most elementary classrooms in America once upon a time, did you know that? I'm old enough to remember it still!) and giving kids paper and crayons now and again, certainly not a band or orchestra or chorus or drama or sometimes PE or a sports team unless there's a staff member with enough expertise and/or determination to give it a go.

    ALL those things above contribute to increased test scores, so the research is there - but generally speaking, NONE of them are funded even if schools WANT to do them.

    They'd collectively be a good place to start, though: reach the WHOLE CHILD, and watch the rest of the process unfold in a manner more typically associated with better-off schools and students. Current ed policy doesn't allow for all that much wiggle room, though: emphasis on test scores and academics-first learning crowd out the arts and athletics and play (and thus childhood :-( ) and lack of funding for the rest pretty much kills small classes and wraparound services.

    Until we're looking at equity of opportunity first and foremost, if we're not meeting the kids where they are, we're gonna continue to get more of what we're getting and recently have gotten, especially since the last Recession (which I personally refuse to believe is really over - lipstick on a pig and all that, but another diatribe for another day).