The Crosshairs of High Expectations and Poverty

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

Everything is for the kids.

Want to create a new program? Say it’s for the kids. Want to implement a new policy? Tell them it’s for the kids. Need to raze an entire school in a densely populated school district? Preface it with “We did it for the kids.” Need to convince the public that a frivolous measure of student learning like a VAM score should be weighted more than the collective work of everything else the educator does? Just tell some sympathetic media that the kids benefit here. Want to tell kids you’re right only because you’re in the classroom? Hide behind kids. Need to take cover while people of color don’t like your racist remarks? Tell them the kids you work with are predominantly poor and definitely Black or Latino.

I’m not here for the “both sides” nonsense. This discussion merits more than that.

Our schools are currently underfunded, and our governments currently exacerbates this through long-standing property tax laws and inadequate state and federal formulas for funding schools. With such little political will to truly overhaul our public education system, frustrations ought to bubble. The safety net has withered from under us as our student population has become more diverse, and we’ve had little recourse in the educational debate but to stick to linguistic bunkers when discussing under-performing students:

“Kids don’t do well because of poverty!”
“Are you saying poor kids can’t learn?”
“Poverty means kids can’t sleep or eat well, and when they come hungry to school, they can’t concentrate.”
“That just sounds like an excuse to not teach students to the best of their abilities. We can’t accept that!”

These are arguments all worth listening to, even if the sources sometimes come off as suspect. On the one end, we have to acknowledge that poverty sucks the life out of our kids on multiple measures, from health care and life expectancy to school resources and college admissions. The more we use the word “poverty” to discuss learning and living conditions, the more we speak to social justice because, for many of our students, just getting to the classroom can be a struggle that many of my colleagues can’t comprehend. With the way poverty manifests itself in our schools, schools can’t always take the same trips, have the same lunches, or afford the same speakers to galvanize students. Schools in these environments are more likely to get shut down or restructured, and their teachers and administrators turn over more often because it’s that much more difficult.

On the other, too many of us in communities of color (not just Black or Latino, but Asian-American and Native-American communities too) have seen “highly trained” teachers who come into classrooms with pity and, eventually, resentment when teaching the students there. Many people of color acknowledge the condition they’re in, but they can’t afford for teachers to think of them as “poor” kids. In Latino communities for instance, when they hear “poor,” they also hear pobrecito, which translates to poor thing. People in poverty don’t want others to see their kids as poor things, but as people living in a condition they can’t control right now. They entrust their local institutions to do the best job possible, and for every good or average teacher who buoys up their children, there are those one or two who ruin the experience for a generation, too.

Racism, classism, and sexism manifests not just in the structures that hinder our most troubled schools, but also in many individuals within the system itself, carrying their rather visible knapsacks into our schools and dropping their bag of rocks on our kids.

That resentment leads people to turn to homeschooling or, in more recent times, charter schools. (Mostly white) activists are quick to dismiss the concerns of these parents, so, under the guise of “We want you and those schools don’t,” parents will turn to charter schools in these instances. Of course, it also means we have no idea what happens when our students get into school. For profit schools and the non-profit industrial complex have partnered up to shift the national dialogue about what school means, but those schools have made their names with zero-tolerance discipline policies and rampant de-matriculation too, so perhaps people are too quick to call it a solution.

With folks willing to give away our children of color to poverty pimps and school-to-prison-pipeline funders while so-called progressives build canoes for the kids to swim down the tubes (and all of them thinking they’re working against each other), perhaps political talking points for social justice activists of color just won’t do.

It’s important for all stakeholders to recognize that poverty matters and that achievement is a complex manifestation of environmental factors. It’s also why we shouldn’t treat outliers as miracles nor as rebuttals, but as case studies for us to examine in full (one of my bigger beefs with EdTrust / Doug Reeves 90-90-90 Theory). It’s important for all stakeholders to recognize that, despite and because of this, educators have to work to the best of their abilities because we are what’s left of the social safety net. Educators have to work in the aura of hope because our job is necessarily different, complex, and public. That also means our government officials need to vociferously support and properly fund schools in ways that make equity possible.

Instead of dwelling in the frustration of black parents or using the word “poverty” whenever we need an argument about the achievement of students of color, we’re better off discussing the systemic marriage of poverty and achievement while using our individual pockets of influence to affect change.

This isn’t an either / or argument. It’s a lot closer to the truth than 99% of what I read, though.

Hope that helps. Because, whether good or bad, all of it is for the kids.