Equity & Diversity Opinion

Can Schools Overcome Poverty and Racism?

By Deborah Meier — May 30, 2013 7 min read
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Dear Michael,

I just recently wrote a blog column for my website (deborahmeier.com) about the problem I have with data—the “facts.” Still, I’m not an atheist about data, just an agnostic, including data in the form of graphs.

Graphs can correlate, but they cannot tell us what poverty does to people. My interpretation of the data leads me to suggest that “my” reforms are better than “yours.” (I’ve spent too many years in the schoolyard!) So, five “thoughts” on schooling and poverty, plus race:

I. You are right; 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. Poverty means you are unlikely to belong to a network (via family and neighborhood) that introduces you to “useful” people, digs up letters of reference for you, or gets you a summertime job. All these have something to do with money. An advantage is an advantage.

It would be easier too if the “poor” haven’t for centuries been perceived as members of a caste different than the non-poor. Long before we had genetic theories we believed in something akin to it. The poor didn’t “feel” about death or disaster or being an outcast the way the better-off would. Their tastes were different—in food, art, music—because they were less “sensitive,” less “discriminating.” We still carry seeds of these views.

But, of course, not all poor have been seen as the same. Not surprisingly, we view a generational dip in status differently than generations of poverty. Becoming poor because we had to escape Hitler, the Communists, or some other catastrophe is very different than climbing out of a history of poverty and disrespect. Or whether we came to poverty in chains. There’s a reason why it took so many generations for the Italian, Polish, and Irish poor to go to college, but only one for Jews fleeing Europe, Cubans fleeing Castro, or Chinese fleeing Communism. (Even, a la Dickens, if you were unbeknownst the child of an aristocrat gives you a better chance.)

II. Yes, 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. When we studied American history I was startled at first at the anger expressed toward their forebears for not escaping slavery even if it meant committing suicide. This morning I came across a photo of black teenagers being frisked. I shuddered—knowing how cruelly such powerlessness feels. How hard to escape. I know, as an old white lady, how to “win over” the traffic cop (sometimes). But these young people know that even to try is risky. Furthermore, they have witnessed their own parents being similarly helpless and sometimes imprisoned for making a mistake. For a small number such experiences may lead to a greater determination to get the best revenge of all—to be in a position someday to return the treatment. For most it just simmers inside over and over—and for some creates a numbness that is not an ideal state of mind for developing passions of the mind, or putting up with school.

As modern research confirms, we pay a price for stress—especially in our earliest years. There are obvious reasons to assume that children born into poverty and/or discrimination or both are likely to experience stress at an early age. All the more so if the father is unemployed or unavailable—which, reminder, once affected so many Irish, Polish, and Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Single-parenthood is not a modern invention.

III. “Unfairness” is comparative. Yes, the absence of what money can buy may hurts less if no one else has much either. ( Maybe old-fashioned segregation had one advantage; it created a separate world where one could occasionally forget race and unfairness.)

But today’s discrepancies are “in your face.” TV, movies, and advertising present a picture of the world in which wealth is the norm, success is just around the corner—over and over and over. None of the official answers are useful even if some are more and some less true! The schools weren’t the salvation for most poor white immigrants. It took three-plus generations, and in the end success came to the Irish, Italians, and Poles largely because they were part of that “new middle class” that benefitted by the collective action of the labor movement, city political machines, World War II, GI mortgages, and a free college education. Not paths in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s that many poor people of color could use to climb out of poverty. And perhaps not the path today.

IV. Schools did not get worse, and we are not facing an economic crisis caused by schools. There were no “good old days.” For today’s poor—including special pockets of intense white poverty—schools are probably better than they were before World War II. But not good enough to wipe out poverty. The stunning reality I discovered in two years of subbing in Chicago’s South Side schools in the late 1950s and 1960s was that the schools designed for the poor have probably always been places that smell of humiliation, fear, and boredom. I wrote about it in my early years of teaching. It has gotten better. More poor kids succeed in school—including kids of color. Just not enough better to influence the comparative data on those graphs, Michael.

The one thing alike about schools for the rich and poor is that they are BORING. (Try spending a day doing what kids do.) No one deserves or needs to be deliberately bored. The youngster who chooses to throw ball after ball at the same basketball rim for hours isn’t bored. He’s serious about what he has decided is important to him. If I were forced to practice throwing that ball for hours, I’d find ways to get out of it—by hiding, pretending, or creating distractions to help the time pass faster. That’s what many kids are doing in school—but more so in schools that serve the poor.

V. I haven’t a recipe for solving it. Just ideas—which I described last week. None of which can be imposed. In short, what the children need is to belong to a place that embraces them, their families, and their communities. They need schools in a position to acknowledge immediately, without question, that ALL kids are full of interesting ideas and questions, and enter the school “ready to learn.” They’ve been doing so since birth. They need schools where they and their families are known well. No teacher should be responsible for knowing well 150 students at a time. They need schools that provide a world as interesting as the one they see outside the window—rather than eliminating windows to keep the kids from being distracted.

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.

We need schools that define success in broader ways than test scores or college completion. I want ways that “allow” me to feel pride and pleasure about a former student who didn’t shine at either. It took all our staffs combined ingenuity (and patience) to get her a well-earned high school diploma—in five-and-a-half, not four years. She got a full-time stable job working in a nursery school and soon hopes to get an AA degree. She tells me proudly that she is also taking care of the grandmother who took care of her during a very tough childhood. She also volunteers once a week at a local center for the aged. I’m impressed and tell her so.

Scaling up means developing “systems” that improve the odds that we can create and sustain schools seeking ways to make even such successes possible. It means that we stop closing schools in poor neighborhoods because they are under-utilized (or have low scores). Underutilization offers a golden opportunity to create the space needed for true community education centers. And, while I’m dreaming, we might even, possibly, someday live up to the much-celebrated 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Yes, it sounds unrealistic. It is. Which is why we need to also tackle poverty directly.

Best, Deb

P.S. Michael, read My Life in School, by my hero, Tom Sobol. Tom’s experience as New York state commissioner in the late 1980s and early 1990s is very instructive.

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