Educating Students Who Live in Poverty: Maybe Demonizing the Poor Isn’t the Answer

There’s an interesting piece in the New York Times magazine this morning, discussing a variety of strategies to deal with the difficulty of educating students from the lowest economic brackets. The strategies discussed in the article range from the answer Mississippi has adopted (lowering standards to claim that all students are proficient) to controversial charter schools with strict standards and expectations. One proposal, both in the article and making the rounds in the inevitable way of educational fads, that middle class class values need to be instilled in poor students, deserves a closer look.

I teach in a school that is struggling with reading issues. A large percentage of our students are not at high school proficiency in terms of reading when they arrive, and, unsurprisingly, they struggle mightily when confronted with reading heavy classes like social studies, science, and English in the freshman year. Our experience is similar to the information presented in the article: while students across the economic spectrum struggle, the most pervasive problems are found in students who live in poverty. This gap, as the article notes, is not an isolated problem:

The gap between economic classes isn’t disappearing, either: in 2002, 17 percent of poor eighth-grade students (measured by eligibility for free or reduced-price school lunches) were proficient in reading; in 2005, that number fell to 15 percent.

Both our district and the article advocate an approach that is premised, in part, on teaching ‘middle class values’ to students who come from backgrounds with pervasive poverty. The article approvingly claims that teaching poor students is about more than teaching them facts and figures:

Duckworth’s paper connects with a new wave of research being done around the country showing that “noncognitive” abilities like self-control, adaptability, patience and openness — the kinds of qualities that middle-class parents pass on to their children every day, in all kinds of subtle and indirect ways — have a huge and measurable impact on a child’s future success.

This isn’t far removed from one of the approaches we have tried as a district. We’ve listened to speakers who presented information from Ruby Payne, a self-appointed guru of poverty issues who believes, largely based on her personal experience, rather than research, that the primary reason poor students fail is because they lack these “middle class values.”  In fact, according to Payne, leaving poverty is more about the values than it is about financial resources:

. . . the reality is that financial resources, while extremely important, do not explain the differences in the success with which individuals leave poverty nor the reasons that many stay in poverty. The ability to leave poverty is more dependent upon other resources than it is upon financial resources.

It’s a pretty appealing formula: rather than address the root causes of poverty in this country or community, demonize the poor through condescension and disapproval rather than outright hostility.One of the presenters we listened to chose exactly this approach, regaling our teachers with increasingly improbable stories about the sexual and economic (often linked) immorality of the poor, ostensibly to illustrate the need for more structured  lesson plans to suit the poor. The poor, in Payne’s work, are “spiritually deficient,” and in desperate need of the values of the middle class.

This argument is troubling on a number of levels, but most importantly, for how it essentializes the experience of poverty. For those who would fix education by fixing the value structure of the poor, poverty is not only inevitably marked by experience with substance abuse, laziness, crime, and sexual abuse; they are inherent characteristics. Valorizing the middle class as emblematic of virtue, these critics ignore a country that has a class independent problem with morality. To argue, in the country with the greatest wealth and greatest debt per person in the world, that the poor lack the structure to save money is an unbelievably simplistic and empirically incorrect argument.

The danger of this approach is more profound than demonizing the poor, however: it threatens the structures that should be put in place to help the poor.  Dr. Paul Gorksi argues that this approach is incredibly dangerous, asking students:

in poverty to assimilate into a system they experience often as oppressive, and she calls on predominantly middle class teachers to facilitate and enforce this assimilation. This, again, is a hallmark of the deficit perspective, and the implications are frightening. At an institutional level, when Payne casts people in poverty as morally or spiritually deficient she reinforces the middle and upper class concept of what Herbert Gans (1995) calls the “undeserving poor” (p. 1). According to Gans, this concept threatens public support for antipoverty public and educational policy.

And therein lies the danger of educational programs designed not to eliminate the structural poverty that separates the poor from the middle and upper classes, but to improve their behavior: it provides cover for reactionary policies that blame students and their parents for their poverty. The logical extension of these well-meaning policies is no different than the myth that has sustained enormous class differences in the United States for hundreds of years: that people deserve to be poor because of personal failings.

Only a systematic deconstruction of that self-serving myth, starting in our educational system, can begin to address the needs of our students. Fortunately, though, the answer, at least in terms of education, isn’t hard to find:

“We want to change the conversation from ‘You can’t educate these kids’ to ‘You can only educate these kids if. …’ ” And to a great extent, she and the other principals have done so. The message inherent in the success of their schools is that if poor students are going to catch up, they will require not the same education that middle-class children receive but one that is considerably better; they need more time in class than middle-class students, better-trained teachers and a curriculum that prepares them psychologically and emotionally, as well as intellectually, for the challenges ahead of them.

In that sense, I think my district is making moves in the right direction. New academic programs are being tested, and there is a real committment to the educational achievement of all students in our buiding. That’s a hopeful sign, but one that would be stronger without demonizing the values of the poor. The answer to the critical issue of helping students who live in poverty is best solved if we leave the 1960s ‘culture of poverty’ nonsense and the sanitized middle class values at the door, and focus on the ideas that will really help students: better opportunities and more financial resources for the students who need them the most.