Budget & Finance Opinion

Race, Poverty, and Leadership

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 06, 2014 5 min read
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We are still struggling with the issue of racial inequity in our schools. But is it properly defined as a racial problem? A New York Times article by Mokoto Rich entitled “School Data Finds Pattern of Inequality Along Racial Lines” reported the disturbing discovery that the suspension rate we are familiar with in k-12 schools regarding black and Hispanic children exists even in pre-school. The study the article is based upon was done by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. It is based on 15 years of information gathered from all 97,000 public schools in our nation. The pattern uncovered was one of race being the “dividing factor.”

We agree it is important to monitor our progress or lack thereof in the troubling inequities our children suffer. The current reality is that black and Hispanic youth are more likely to be suspended, educated in schools with less experienced teachers, and are less likely to take more rigorous classes in high school than their white peers. It causes us to hear Carrie Newcomer’s song “If Not Now Tell Me When ?” ringing in our ears. We have had a century or two to resolve these societal and educational issues. Is there a lack of will or can we, really, not find the way?

Does the key to the solution lie in investigating other causes for these disparities? Is race such a high wall that we need to explore for a common denominator that can give us incentive to find solutions. What if factors in addition to skin color or national origin are at work in these unchanging statistics?

A Census Report entitled Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012 reported the percentage of blacks living in poverty was 27.2%, and Hispanics, 25.6% while the percentage of whites living in poverty was12.7%, and Asians, 11.7%. That may shed some light on why the suspension rate for blacks and Hispanic students reaches down into the pre-school years. In addition to skin color and national origin, the factor that exists in their pre-school years and remains throughout their school years is POVERTY.

Our country has long held that education is the path out of poverty. Public education prepares us for our roles in a democratic society and supplies the engine for our economic growth. “Get a good education and you can get a good job” has been our mantra. Berliner and Glass, authors of 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools acknowledge that there are legitimate reasons to believe this mantra is true. There are a plethora of studies that show people with more years of education earn more money. But Berliner and Glass posit it is only for some people.

The correlation between education, income, and employment contributes more to the myth that education is the way out of poverty than actually happens in real life. Education will not end systemic and persistent poverty without contributions from other social and economic reforms (p. 230).

If education was the path out of poverty then why haven’t we made a dent? The answer may be that we have not had the will or the help we need in order to make those changes. And the answer may be that we have not found the way to make a difference in the lives of those students who are living in a world we may not truly understand.

In her book, Understanding Poverty in the Classroom, Beth Lindsay Templeton asks us to think about this:

Depending on where you live, you may never see poverty in the normal routine of your day. You may live in a financially stable neighborhood. You may drive on streets that meander through vibrant business districts, easily obtain the fresh foods that your family enjoys, and attend worship with people who share similar viewpoints (p.9).

Although we may acknowledge poverty exists, do we truly know what cost it extracts? Templeton described poverty as being much more than a lack of money. “It becomes a way of thinking reacting, and making decisions” (p.20). Their world view is different. For a moment, think about this... “It becomes a way of thinking, reaction, and making decisions.” Aren’t these three things exactly what the report is talking about? Is the way these children think, react, and make decisions a result of skin color and nationality or poverty?

These authors raise the question about teacher quality in high poverty schools. Some are called to work in high poverty schools. But there are cases in which high poverty schools have less experienced, or transient faculties. And in schools with all socio-economic levels attending, the potential lack of understanding of the actual impact of poverty on thinking, reacting, and decision making may be just as damaging. We may be able to teach children in poverty but we may not be contributing to their path out of it.

There are convincing reasons to believe that education can increase wages for some, but there are even more convincing reasons to believe that education by itself will not end poverty. Education can do a lot of things, but it cannot resolve the persistent economic problem of extreme poverty felt by tens of millions of Americans. The longstanding, persistent myth that education alone can cure poverty is dangerous because it has caused schools to become overly focused on economic outcomes that will not be achieved without fundamental social and economic reforms (Berliner & Glass pp.228-229).

As with many other things, we can not allow the lack of social and economic reforms to give us a free pass out of the responsibility to figure this out in our schools. Talking about poverty and race makes us uncomfortable, especially if we invite those who are living in poverty, who are of differing races and ethnicities to sit around the table with us. We need to have those courageous conversations and ask the difficult questions. What do we know about poverty, about living in poverty, about the dreams of parents hold regardless of how remote they may seem? Isn’t our calling to help make those dreams come true?

Surely, it’s about the leadership and the will. And perhaps, those will come from small places like the City of Schenectady, New York, where Superintendent Larry Spring and his board have decided to sue New York State under federal civil rights laws for a more equal distribution of school aid. Poor children have been waiting for a long time. Carrie Newcomer, an American singer, wrote and sings these words:

If not now, tell me when?
If not now, tell me when?
We may never see this moment
Or place in time again
If not now, if not now, tell me when?

Berliner, David C. & Glass, Gene V. (2014). 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools. New York: Teacher’s College Press
Templeton, Beth Lindsay (2011). Understanding Poverty in the Classroom. NewYork: Rowman & Littlefield Education

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.