Address poverty and education together for the sake of our future

Pedro Noguera
Executive Director, Metropolitan Center for Urban Education

Poverty is not a learning disability. Poor kids can achieve, poor kids can thrive, under the right conditions. Our challenge as a nation is to make sure that we put those learning conditions in place.
And that’s the bottom line. It is our responsibility to give ALL children equal access to the resources they need to achieve and thrive academically, socially and civically.

This is the heart of the points I stressed during a panel discussion – What’s in a ZIP Code? A Look at Inequality Across Our Public Schools – at the Education Nation summit being held this week in New York City.

Educators must accept that poor children are likely to come to school with unmet needs that their more affluent peers won’t have, such as health concerns, nutritional needs, worries about physical safety.

They are less likely to have private tutors to help with homework, less likely to have easy access to a computer. And they are more likely to attend an impoverished school.

To ensure all children enjoy an opportunity to learn, we must start by guaranteeing equal access to resources that engender a culture of high standards and high achievement.

Sadly, not a single state in our nation has adopted basic educational standards that say every child, regardless of background, is entitled to a qualified teacher, a science lab, computer equipment. No one state has done this.

Instead, we continue to hold poor children and affluent children accountable to the same test even though we know that the poor child is getting something inferior and we’re doing little to address that problem.

Instead, we compound the inequities of home by not addressing the inequities in the schoolhouse.

We have too often framed this debate as either we address poverty or we address academics. We must do both, simultaneously.

We can do this by focusing like a laser on the quality of instruction our students receive and make sure teachers are well-trained to meet children’s needs and be responsive in the classroom.

We must transform the culture of our schools so that students want to be there. We need to make sure that we are providing an enriched education – and that school is not simply about test preparation. We need to be sure we’re offering electives that drive children’s interest.

And we must convince the public to care. We have to get people to understand that our future as a country, whether or not they have children in the schools, is tied to what happens in those schools. Social Security won’t be viable if you don’t have enough young people who become able-bodied workers who can then take care of retirees. And because of shifting demographics, it is increasingly going to be minority children – Latino and Black children – who are going to be supporting elderly white people through Social Security. As voters, they need to understand that when they vote to support bond measures for schools, it has bearing on their own future.

In light of the glaring shortcomings of No Child Left Behind, we are in desperate need of a new approach that begins to address both the learning conditions and the lack of opportunity that so many of our children experience.

We have the tools. We know what works. Now, let’s muster up the courage to make it happen.