To the Editor:
In a recent letter to the editor, Frank Ferguson, the chairman of Billerica, Mass.-based Curriculum Associates, makes one of the most naive assessments of the impact poverty has on student learning that we have encountered to date.
“Poverty, per se, has very little to do with observed lower functioning,” he writes, citing 1990s research around the 30 million word gap between impoverished families and those from wealthier circumstances.
Space does not allow us to expose all the methodological flaws and inconsistencies in the Betty Hart and Todd Risley research that Mr. Ferguson references. But suffice it to say, the effects of poverty on students are palpable, and range from poor health, nutrition, and eyesight to unequal access to the tools (linguistic, cognitive, and dispositional) of academic and economic advancement.
Rather than add to the discourses of “deficit” that we hear all too often when we talk about poor and minority children (not enough language, not enough knowledge, not enough experience), our time—and theirs—would be better spent promoting, rather than marginalizing, the funds of knowledge these students do bring to the classroom.
The language practices these students have developed are well-suited to effectively function in family and community settings. Rather than a weakness, then, students’ home languages provide opportunities to bridge the academic gaps they may experience in school settings.
Children know what they know. They bring what they bring. Our job is not to wish that students knew more or knew differently. Our job is to turn students’ individual knowledge—and the collective range of knowledge the whole class brings—into a curricular strength, rather than to regard it as an instructional inconvenience. We can do that only if we hold high expectations for all students, convey great respect for the knowledge, language, and culture each brings to the classroom, and offer support in helping each student achieve those high expectations.
Eric J. Cooper
President and Founder
National Urban Alliance for Effective Education
P. David Pearson
Member, NUA Board of Directors
Professor, Graduate School of Education
University of California, Berkeley
A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as View of Poverty’s Impact Is ‘Naive’ and Limited