Poverty and Education: Some Honest Talk

There is a lot of discussion about the issue of childhood poverty within the realm of education. In the same way that education policy discussions generally exclude the voice of teachers, the discussion about poverty seems to be missing a key component—input from those of us who have actually experienced childhood poverty.

Typical of the message of the education “reform” movement is this blog post from Peter Cunningham.  Peter Cunningham is the Executive Director of Education Post, a pro-corporate education reform site. He is a former bigwig in the Department of Education during Obama’s administration and Education Post is funded by the likes of Eli Broad, the Walton foundation, and Michael Bloomberg…some of the biggest players in the move to privatize and profit from our public schools (you can read all about Mr. Cunningham and EdPost here. I met Mr. Cunningham at the NPE conference in Raleigh in April attended a session that was a debate between him and anti-reform blogger Jennifer Berkshire. You can watch their exchange here (and for fun, count how many times Mr. Cunningham uses the word accountability…I lost count at 15).

Here is a quote from his blog post: “As I said at the panel, to the shock of some who were present, education is the only real ballgame in ending poverty and teachers are the critical players. The safety net—food stamps, Medicaid, etc.— staves off destitution but education is a springboard to the middle class. Ask any middle-class person who grew up in poverty how they climbed the ladder and most of them will cite a particular teacher. All of them will cite education, combined with hard work.”

This sentiment is not unique to Mr. Cunningham, but is common throughout the education reform movement. It is the refrain used to counter those who dare point to the mountain of data that shows us that “it’s poverty stupid”—that the obstacles of childhood poverty present challenges that teachers and schools simply are not equipped to fix. No, Mr. Cunningham tells us, this is backwards. Instead of addressing childhood poverty, we must simply educate those students out of poverty. Well, I am one of those middle-class folks that grew up in poverty. Frankly no, I would not necessarily cite education or hard work as part of my journey.

It is not necessarily education that “lifts” one out of poverty, but schooling. Let me clarify the difference. Education is the overt curriculum that children are taught (you know, reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic). Schooling is the hidden curriculum of social lessons students learn. It was in school that I learned how someone middle class was supposed to act. I learned how to code switch and how to work the system of meritocracy so that I would be seen as worthy despite my deficits. I learned how to appear humble, appreciative, and driven to those who would support and encourage me. I learned how to shut up and step aside for those that were more “deserving” than me—and simply swallow my slow, simmering rage. I learned how to describe my challenges to others in ways that wouldn’t be labeled as “excuses.”

My schooling taught me to understand the systems of power and oppression that impacted my community and how to navigate them—not by direct instruction, but through the more subtle social lessons learned. The skills I needed to make a secure future for myself are not the skills found on standardized tests.

If the corporate education reform movement intends to solve poverty through education, they are going about it all wrong. To “lift” someone out of poverty, they need to be inspired and given hope. Standardized tests do not do that. Three-hour blocks of English and Math test prep—um, I mean instruction—completed by staring at a computer screen—um, I mean technology blended learning—do not do that. Students need an education that provides them with wonder, passion, connection, and inspiration through the arts, adventure, agency and empowerment. The education reform movement, as it stands now, has systematically removed those aspects of education from our schools where the most needy and most disadvantaged students attend (here is some evidence).

It has been 15 years since No Child Left Behind began to bring high-stakes standardized testing to our schools on a massive scale. Unless Mr. Cunningham knows a lot of financially independent 15-year-olds, the very people he speaks of having “climbed the ladder” out of disadvantaged circumstances through education did so in those old, rotten, unaccountable public schools that he thinks need so much fixing.

Did I work hard? Probably some times, I am really not sure. When your resources are limited, the process of simply existing is hard work. I am not sure what qualifies as hard work and what doesn’t. Did I pull my self up by my bootstraps? Well, considering that “bootstraps” is just another way to say privileges, then sure. I took advantage of those. I was born and raised in Southern Appalachia, one of the many lingering pockets of entrenched poverty in our country. I am White (though almost everyone in my community was). I had a loving family and stayed relatively sheltered from the alcoholism, abuse, and violence that was prevalent around me. I had stable schools. Poverty was common in our community and my teachers came from the same community and understood me—who I was and where I was coming from. Current education reforms, however, have resulted in the closing of neighborhood schools, funneling students into charter schools that can and have closed mid-year, and providing students with TFA teachers who will be gone in two years or less. These are not schools that can provide disadvantaged students with the kind of education that will “lift” them out of poverty.

So, what do I cite as the source of my current stable and comfortable life? Honestly, probably sheer dumb luck. The smallest poorly timed problem would have derailed my future. That is why they are called safety nets; they need to be there when all your “hard work” is wiped out by one unfortunate turn. They do not solve poverty, they simply prevent the more horrendous outcome that is always just on the horizon.

It is a ridiculously circular argument to say that education is the solution to poverty. All children deserve to have their basic needs met, not just those that are deemed worthy enough, smart enough, or hard working enough. Nor should children be asked to suffer and struggle for the years that it takes for an education to equate to a better outcome.

My path to a stable future was one followed by many of my foremothers—to become a public school teacher (with the help of a NC Teaching Fellow scholarship). How ironic is it that those who claim to want to end poverty are attacking the very path that has accomplished that for millions of women throughout our nation’s history? (Here is one of many links that highlights the current war on teachers). Privatization of schools, the attack on teacher unions and teacher tenure, the deprofessionalization of teaching with canned curriculum and online learning, TFA…all these reforms are destroying the career of teaching. They are also part of the larger attack on the very middle class that reformer such as Mr. Cunningham claim to want to “lift” students into.

So who exactly will be these teachers that “lift” students out of poverty? Ivy League graduates from privileged backgrounds with five weeks of training? Teachers who must rely on public assistance and live in as much debt and income instability as their poor students? As always with the education reform movement, accountability is only a one-way street and pundits, politicians, policy makers, vulture-capitalists and vulture-philanthropists are not willing to be held accountable for the damage that they have done to our public schools and their teachers.





10 thoughts on “Poverty and Education: Some Honest Talk

  1. Brilliant. As someone who also grew up in poverty I have had these same thoughts. You have hit the nail on the head with these three observations: (1) It was mostly luck that took us out of poverty. Probably a dozen times in my young life something happened that could just as easily have gone the other way and stopped ALL my progress toward a middle-class life. (2) When you are poor, you probably work hard all the time, but you don’t call it work, you just call it life. Rich folks see a difference between being idle and working, because they had that choice when they were young and they were taught the difference. Poor folks just live. (3) Yes, I can point to a few teachers that made a huge difference in my life, but that difference had nothing to do with them preparing me for a standardized test. Nothing.

    Somebody like Peter Cunningham is wholly unqualified to understand the path we have taken out of poverty.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent blog about “poverty” in education. If someone never lived in poverty how can you relate your life to those of the middle class. How can one say Mr.Cunningham say something he doesn’t know first hand. Right now I can tell you how some school are behind in education while others are succeeding.


      • Indeed a number of people will, with work and fortune, climb out or poverty. It is not a systematic answer to the problem which poverty presents though. Finland shows an outstanding example of a nation which decided to make an education system which would reduce the effects of poverty. It bears looking at closely; no simple copying would work though. But the main principles would help.
        One of the things which is common to the education superpowers is respect for teachers. When absent there are bound to be problems, in any nation. Within the present framework they simply cannot address the problems which face them. A child born and raised in a rather poor neighborhood faces daunting problems, one of which is that they subscribe to the very idea of not seeming to be working hard.
        Overworked teachers cannot help to pull such students out of the state of mind they are in. Additionally when a student begins to flounder an education system, as Finland shows, needs to immediately and effectively address it, without putting too much strain on the main teacher; another professional then is needed to work with the child. All that takes money, and the recognition that the expenditure is worth the people rescued from their difficulties. If any country can make the necessary changes it is America but our people and politicians need to come to a common decision that the lives saved will be worth the expenditure of making the needed changes.


      • sigmapsi8–Your comments belie a deficient approach to children in poverty and an lack of personal experience with poverty. Poor kids don’t need to be “pulled out of a state of mind.” Educators need to approach disadvantaged children not as broken things to be fixed but as capable and complete humans.


  3. Poverty is a public health crisis in the United States today and NO AMOUNT OF EDUCATIONAL CHANGES, good or bad, are going to impact low-achieving students who are overwhelmed daily by family survival issues. We have a socioeconomic system that is a clear cut abomination to the human spirit. Fix that first and then address educational endeavors. Whether a mansion or shack if built on quicksand the results will be assuredly unremittingly bad. I’ve “been there” and “done that” in my childhood and I understand all too well.


  4. Pingback: Cartoon gravity and reform logic | The Patiently Impatient Teacher

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