The "Poverty Matters" Trap
About two weeks ago, a new Twitter hashtag was born: #povertymatters. For a little over a week, hundreds of people came up with 140-character tweets that were essentially one-line zingers aimed at the policymakers?they believe are ?blaming? teachers for ?low achievement in urban schools, while ignoring the impact poverty has on students' lives and learning. Two examples:
- ?Poverty matters,? @cyndyw2, tweets to @DianeRavitch and her followers, ?when kids don't have ?homes', instead they have ?the place where I stay'.? (Jun 16, 2011 12:04:52 AM)
- Or, according to @JSamuelCook,? ?#PovertyMatters when students can't do their homework because their electricity has been disconnected.? (Jun 16, 2011 12:04:03 AM)
The crux of the argument is that, because we have so many children living in poverty, we can't possibly expect schools to close the achievement gap. Instead, we need to eliminate poverty?or treat the symptoms of poverty?first.
The implication, in short: stop asking so much of schools and teachers, these problems run deeper than they can be expected to solve.
Of course, the link between student achievement and socioeconomic status is unmistakable. Students who come from middle class or affluent families tend to start school ahead of their more disadvantaged peers. And, without serious, direct, and deliberate intervention, that gap only grows wider over time.
But saying we need to fix poverty before we can fix schools is like a doctor saying that he's going to wait until you get better before he treats you.? Education is the path out of poverty, not the consolation prize offered to children whose families have managed to dig their way out on their own.
As anyone who has worked in gap-closing schools can tell you, that path is twisted and rocky, with almost innumerable setbacks and roadblocks. What powers teachers in these schools forward is the unshakable belief that they can have a life-changing impact on their students. That, while poverty matters, it doesn't need to constrain what's possible.
It's this belief in the power of schools that makes places like KIPP Infinity possible?a school that wins over nearly every visitor who walks through its doors with its energy, it's passion for learning, and its deep commitment to its students.
Can you create the same kind of energy and commitment in a school on a foundation of ?poverty matters??
In the end, the ?fix poverty first? rhetoric is not only misguided, but saps the energy from those who oppose today's education reforms. Why try to compete with new models of schools reform if the culture of poverty is insurmountable?
It's a rhetorical trap that binds these advocates to a culture antithetical to the ?roll up your selves and do whatever it takes? attitude that powers not only high-performing charter schools but every major burst of social entrepreneurship over the past century.
And, it makes you wonder: If these critics don't believe that schools matter more than poverty, why would anyone trust them with our schools?