Public Education's Eight Ball: Student Poverty

Steve Strieker, Social Studies Teacher, Janesville School District

The following post was written by Steve Strieker, a veteran Social Studies teacher in Janesville, WI. This has been reposted, with Strieker's permission, from his blog "One Teacher's Perspective."


As noted in an earlier blog, one of my summer reads was P.L. Thomas’ book, Ignoring Poverty in the U.S. It is one of the most important education books I have read. He has reframed my thinking.

Contrary to what too many scapegoaters claim, I've never believed public education to be the cause of America's socioeconomic ills. However, I had fallen into the trap of repeating the mantra that quality public education is the cure-all for the poor. Thomas’ research highlights what all of us should be repeating in our communities and schools over and over. This is now my Thomas-induced mantra:

Reforming public education does little to reduce poverty. Reducing poverty does lots to reform public education.

Student poverty is the eight ball. I realize this is a tough concept for many Americans and some educators to embrace, but the research is there. We are the richest nation in the world, yet we have a third-world poverty rate. As Thomas and others remind us, nothing is more correlated to success in schools and life than the family income of our students. Many politicians and many American cultural myths work against this understanding. The research is showing the falsehood of so-called miracle schools. Educators need to focus on the eight ball and become the leading voice speaking against the poverty crippling our public schools.

Some well-meaning staff in my own district, who I respect very much, have already done some important work on this matter. However, my district seems to be investing heavily in some of the the "no-excuses" ideology that falls short of recognizing the agonizing reality of poverty. Working harder and smarter without more direct resources for our poor students is not a lasting solution.

Also, focusing precious resources on improving standardized testing scores distracts us from the eight ball. As educational psychologist Robert Sternberg's research finds, intelligence judged on standardized tests matter, but not near as much as other untested abilities--like creative and practical skills--that help students become successful in life.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and now Race to the Top (RTTT) have had us taking our eye off the eight ball for over a decade now. Both of these federal programs emphasize improving student achievement on standardized tests--which has not proven successful in lifting our poor students to the middle class. A recent Pew study shows how rare it is for the poor to move up the social ladder in America. Also, note how rare it is for people born into the top quintile to fall out of the upper class--giving more evidence that money matters in social mobility.

My district is not unique with its "no-excuses" approach to managing student poverty. It is a charade played out in schools and communities across America. I personally have to recognize that the efforts and improvements I make as an educator only result in marginal (if any) movement toward the middle class for my students living in poverty. As noted in my superintendent's blog, the publicized student achievement gains made at the school I teach at had more to do with a school culture committed to social justice than any other academic initiative.

If teachers and administrators are truly interested in educating every child, then we need to embrace this truth: Communities with dramatically less poverty will have dramatically reformed school systems. Yes, we keep teaching. Yes, we keep believing in our students. Yes, we can continue to improve our instructional practices. However, above all, we must become a unified voice for reducing childhood poverty at its core.

Consequently, I am “officially” (in a grassroots way) a Social Context Reformer.

"Social Context Reformers have concluded that the source of success and failure lies primarily in the social and political forces that govern our lives. By acknowledging social privilege and inequity, Social Context Reformers are calling for education reform within a larger plan to reform social inequity—such as access to health care, food security, higher employment along with better wages and job security" (Thomas, "Systemic Poverty, the Psychology of Poverty, and Misleading Binaries").

Thomas explains where to start. National, state, and local governments must commit to social support services--like public education, health and dental care, social work, daycare, counseling, security, continuing education, and early childhood schooling--for the poor.

On a school district level, this reform model will require a collective voice for increased resources, community-wide collaboration, private and public partnerships that include teachers and schools, shifting accountability measures from standardized testing to real-life outcomes, extensive support networks for the needy, ongoing research, and a relentless PR program that promotes a culture committed to reducing poverty and increasing learning in our students' community, schools, and homes.

As Linda Darling-Hammond said, “Education is not a private good, it is a public good…we all profit and we all hurt depending on the quality of education other people’s kids get.”

This public good of improved public education is best attained by keeping our eye on the eight ball and reduce childhood poverty in the United States.

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