Schools vs. poverty, racism

Can Schools Overcome Poverty and Racism? Deborah Meier tackles Mike Petrilli’s question on Ed Week’s Bridging Differences.

. . .  it isn’t money “alone” (it actually rarely comes alone) that damages the children of the poor. Still, we both agree that money helps. For example, the poor are more likely to be in school while suffering from pain (e.g. toothaches, nausea, or a fever or untreated wound.) Going to the doctor, finding someone to stay home with the baby, taking a day or two off work are advantages that money buys.

It’s worse when poverty is generational, Meier writes. And it’s also about race. “There’s a difference when you know, for sure, that your poverty is not a reflection of your racial inferiority.”

For today’s poor, schools probably are better than before World War II, “but not good enough to wipe out poverty,” Meier writes.

Children need “to belong to a place that embraces them, their families, and their communities.”

 If from Day One we acknowledge their rich language (yes) and ideas and the experiences they are trying to understand we’ll do better than imagining they come to us as blank slates. We also need space so that a group doing “x” can get excited without bothering Group Y. So that “projects” don’t have to fit inside a notebook for lack of space to think bigger or get finished in an hour for lack of storage and display space.

We need quiet places and noisy places, places full of books and computers and others full of paint and clay. We need adults with the freedom to make spontaneous decisions—shifting the conversation in response to one of those “wonderful moments” and deviating from any designed curriculum. Teachers need the time to mull over what they have learned from student work (written as well as observed) and collegial time to expand their repertoires. We need feedback from trusted and competent colleagues. We need time for families and teachers to engage in serious conversations. We need settings where it seems reasonable that kids might see the school’s adults as powerful and interesting people who are having a good time.

Success should be defined “in broader ways than test scores or college completion,” Meier concludes. And “we need to also tackle poverty directly.

She recommends My Life in School by her “hero,” Tom Sobol, New York state commissioner of education in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Does it work? asks Petrilli inPoor kids need a hand up, not a hospice.

Does your vision of schooling work to help poor children gain the skills and knowledge and confidence and connections that will allow them to climb the ladder into the middle class? Does it help them do better than they otherwise would have, if they had gone to a “regular” (boring!) school?

. . . If you were seeking an “accountability waiver” for Mission Hill, or similar schools, what would you be willing to promise in terms of student outcomes? Higher graduation rates? Lower teenage pregnancy rates? Lower incarceration rates? Higher voting rates? Higher college matriculation and completion rates (including at the AA level)? Lower unemployment rates? Higher wages?

Without some way to assess student outcomes, “we’ve turned your beautiful educational vision—complete with books and computers, paint and clay—into a form of childhood hospice—a respite from life’s daily struggles, but also a surrender to the inevitable.”

About Joanne


  1. Culture is one of the elephants in the room. If your family and community doesn’t make academic success a priority, then schools are pushing boulders uphill. Families and communities who equate academic success as “being uppity” or being an “oreo”, or who take their kids back “home” for 6 weeks starting before Christmas or who want their kids to go to work full-time as soon as possible do not have the same goals as do most in the ed world. I’ve read comments from people from very poor communities who essentially had to divorce themselves from their families and communities in order to make it through college (even CC), because they were constantly being pulled back into a culture that didn’t want kids to “escape” (their word). School can only do so much, because of competing influences, and providing an orderly place, serious content and explicit instruction is something that schools can control.

    • I’m glad you pluralized “elephant” since the other elephant in the room is an education system that, in many regards and many places, is a bitter joke.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Talking to a truant officer where my dtr used to teach, I asked what parents thought of dropping out. After all, when filling out a job app, you have, “graduated eight grade”, next to the right, ” some high school”, next to the right, “graduated high school”, and so forth.
      Wouldn’t they know that the further to the right you can go the better off you’ll be?

      “Don’t need a degree to game the welfare system. Parents know this.”
      When you’re running an average, it doesn’t take a whole lot of outliers to move the mean. Just a couple of dozen in a system more than in another system.

  2. It’s not PC to say it, but one of the most reliable ways to end up in poverty (individually and across generations) is to be a poorly-educated, young unmarried mother. It’s destroyed black communities to the point that married, fully-employed parents are almost unknown, and it’s working on poor Hispanic and white kids, too. Moynihan was excoriated for running up the warning flags when the black illegitimacy rate hit 25% and it’s now about 40% for poor whites, with the Hispanic rate higher. It’s hard to emulate the habits and behaviors of the stable, married parents if you’ve never seen them. Illegitimacy is a HUGE root cause of poverty and those always wanting more money to address “root causes” don’t want to touch that one with a10-foot pole.

  3. BadaBing says:

    I get a little tired of the idealistic bloviations of the hand-wringing people for a perfect world. Deborah Meier seems to be of that mold. 90% of the kids at my school are majoring in boyfriend or girlfriend. Those who don’t have one are referred to as being “single.” But not to worry. There are plenty of other things to celebrate, so let’s have a fiesta. In the classroom it’s “ha ha ha ha” and “talk talk talk talk.” Texting is running a close third. The community itself is a ginormous black hole of anti-education sentiment where hanging out with your homies is the top priority. This particular minority is its own worst enemy if you look at it from a teacher’s point of view. If you’re a Deborah Meier type it’s the fault of “white privilege” or some other force outside the community. But has it ever struck anyone that maybe, just maybe, the home folks like things just the way they are?

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      When you think about it, for most of human history, the expectation that one would have enough to eat for the forseeable future and be able to sleep out of the rain were the Big Things of concern.
      And the homies have that and a good deal more. It may be culturally chauvinistic to insist they have the same interest in the thinnest layer of icing on top of the Big Things cake–metaphor alert–that we have.
      And if there’s something they want and don’t have, they’ve been trained to blame the rest of us. So there’s no learning from the situation.