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.

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  • One concrete issue school districts need to address is homework help. Successful students tend to have parents who can and will help with homework (and make sure that homework is done.) When you don’t have that, you are starting many steps behind.

    A secondary issue is easy computer access. In the higher grades, doing well is easier if there’s a computer in the house.

    The first issue is sometimes–but not always–linked to poverty. The second is almost certainly linked. Both must be dealt with if there is to be any possibility of a level playing field.

  • Thanks for directing my attention to the NYT article on poverty and education. I teach at a MT HS with a high % of minority students. The article made many good points relative to our situation.

  • Thank you for your article. I do agree with you that demonizing the poor is never the way to go when teaching students in poverty. I am intrigued how you say that teaching middle class values deserves a closer look. First off, I want to make it known that middle class values is not exactly what needs to be taught to students in poverty. However, teaching students in poverty how to effectively live and communicate in the middle class is something to be taught. You quoted Ruby Payne’s work saying:

    ” . . . 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.”

    While this is a quote from Payne’s work, there seems to be a lack of background on this quote that you used. What Payne is saying is that people cannot leave poverty on financial resources alone. There is always a story about a poor person who won the lottery, blew all the money in a few years, and then went back to living in poverty. Financial resources are not the only way out of poverty and that is what Payne is trying to say. What she is saying is that there are other elements that come in to play for a person to climb out of poverty. The resources she suggests are: financial, emotional, mental/cognitive, spiritual, physical, support systems, relationships/role models, knowledge of hidden rules, and language/formal register. One needs to have these resources, or at least a few, in order to get out of poverty. Without money, being able to control our emotions, mental ability, spiritual guidance, physical capability, support systems from friends and family, role models to look up to, knowing the hidden rules or unspoken cues in different social and economic groups, and the vocabulary and language ability to succeed in school and work, a person is not going to be able to move out of poverty.

    Another place where you inserted a quote from Payne without looking at the context is when you said that, “The poor, in Payne’s work, are “spiritually deficient,” and in desperate need of the values of the middle class.” “Spiritually deficient” according to Payne’s work doesn’t mean that people in poverty don’t believe in God and have a lack of morals. Again as I stated above, spiritual resources are something that people in poverty need to get out of poverty. What Payne means by spiritual resources is that a person believes that there is a purpose for living and that they are not hopeless or useless. This resource also gives a person a “future story” which gives a person hope for a future life outside of poverty. What Payne is saying is that people need to believe that there is a purpose for each of us and that we all can aspire to what we dream to achieve. This doesn’t mean that people are of poor moral character.

    I do want to tell you that I fully agree with your statement that, “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.” This is a completely overly-simplistic argument about people in poverty. I believe that people in poverty do have an issue with saving money. That comes from what people value in poverty compared to middle class. People who live in poverty value relationships with people and live in the moment rather than looking toward the future. For people in poverty, they may not see a future because their lives are about survival from one day to the next. So when a person in poverty has extra money, that money isn’t going to be set aside for a rainy day like middle class people would do. That money is instead used to celebrate or entertain in the now because that is where they are able to focus. This isn’t to say that they lack structure to save money, but it is to say that their value on saving money isn’t the same as people in the middle class. When you don’t know what the next day will hold, you’re going to take the opportunity to live well in the moment. The value of saving money is what needs to be taught for people in poverty to help get out of poverty. This again comes with needing spiritual resources and a future story. When there is no future story to work towards, there is no reason to save money for the future.

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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-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.

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