Education

Bill Gates on Poverty and Education: Blame the Poor

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Bill Gates recently spoke to the National Urban League, arguing that it is a “myth that we have to solve poverty before we improve education.”

“Let me acknowledge that I don’t understand in a personal way the challenges that poverty creates for families, and schools and teachers,” the billionaire said at the civil rights group’s annual convention. “I don’t ever want to minimize it. Poverty is a terrible obstacle. But we can’t let it be an excuse.”

Half-hearted effort to walk back what is patently false aside, Gates’s remarks do demonstrate the real danger of the corporate-Republican nexus on education. No matter how compelling the evidence, both nationally and internationally, they can’t help but shake this almost religious faith in the idea that most of what ails schools is poor decisions by students and poor work habits by teachers.

Deep-seated, crushing poverty and intermittent hunger?  A lack of the resources that allow middle and upper class students to succeed? Those are hardly excuses; they are the reality for far too many American children–and it’s just possible that those kids, poor through no fault of their own, might struggle to see the promise of education.

It’s admirable that Gates and other business leaders want to give back to improve American education. It would be even more admirable if they acknowledged just how difficult improving American education without addressing poverty will be.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a seventeen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

3 Comments

  • I agree that poverty can put roadblocks in the way of academic success, but I also think it’s more complicated than simply “poverty = academic failure”.

    Obviously students facing hunger, lack of transportation, and other hurdles have a harder time succeeding in school. But students in this situation are hardly the only ones dropping out and failing at school, so technically Bill is right to say that education can be improved (to an extent) in a situation of poverty. And students who face these barriers inherent in poverty can also be helped a great deal by simple social programs to alleviate hunger, improve health care, and make transportation easier without a car.

    But a whole other class of students have all of their basic needs met, as well as phones and iPods, and yet are stuck in a culture that is perhaps related to poverty, but far more difficult to solve than simply taking care of a person’s basic needs. This is reinforced by strong messages from the media, particularly the music industry, that poorer people can’t help but be criminals, substance abusers, and perpetrators of violence.

    And while that stereotype of the poor is hardly new, it is now glorified, meaning the low expectations we have of students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are now compounded by very high expectations from their peers – expectations to not listen to anyone, to disregard the law, to fight at the slightest provocation, and above all to avoid working hard for ‘The Man’, which unfortunately includes both school and potential employers.

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