I wrote about this topic a few months ago, but on Twitter I recently saw this:
This got a lot of ‘amens’ and retweets, of course.
What I’m about to say needs to be prefaced VERY carefully so as to not … Oh, the heck with it, Poverty IS Destiny.
Wait. Wait. Don’t go away. Let me explain why I think that.
Well, first I’d like to clarify what they could be implying by the phrase “Poverty Is Not Destiny.” If it means that it is POSSIBLE for a student born and raised in poverty to overcome the odds and graduate high school, graduate college, and go on to have a very successful life then YES, I agree with that.
But when they say “Poverty Is Not Destiny” they are not saying that it is just possible and that a small percent of outliers will accomplish that. They are saying that with enough hard work by adults, schools can help a large percent of kids rise out of their poverty. This hard work, presumably, takes the form of the ‘best and the brightest’ including 12% of the graduating class of Yale or something. And by giving these poor students very bright teachers with almost no training, this is supposed to help those needy kids rise out of poverty. Many people who apply to TFA probably believe this. Certainly I did twenty years ago when I applied. (Back then the equivalent catch phrase was ‘All Children Can Learn’).
But in my twenty years of experience, I have yet to be convinced that schools and teachers have the power to lift a very high percentage of kids suffering from the many distractions that come along with living well below the poverty line. The supposed schools that are defying the odds, I’ve learned, are always doing something beyond just getting hard working teachers with a relentless attitude. They kick out the disruptive kids. They focus exclusively on getting math scores up at the expense of reading scores. They lie about all the extra money they are spending that they got from private donations and then claim they deserve more federal money since they have ‘proved’ they can do ‘more’ with ‘less’ so what could they do if they had ‘more.’
So now the question is: Can someone who believes ‘Poverty Is Destiny’ be a good teacher? Can someone with this belief be a good principal?
TFA would argue ‘no,’ but I, of course, would say ‘yes.’
Believing that ‘Poverty Is Destiny’ does not mean that teachers and principals give up. It might even make them work harder.
Imagine, to use an analogy, two track team coaches. Coach A is very optimistic and believes that although his runners currently run 10 minute miles, they can, eventually, run 4 minute miles. Coach B is well-versed in physiology and has a similar team that runs 10 minute miles. He believes that even with hard work his runners will not, on average, run faster than 7 minute miles.
Who is the better coach? I’d argue it is coach B since he is the smarter one. Now coach A has to get his times down to 7 minutes on the way to his ultimate goal of 4 minutes. Coach B is also trying to get his times down to 7 minutes. Who will get to the 7 minute mark first? Probably coach B. His realism is derived from research which will also guide him to the best ways of getting kids to lower times from 10 to 7 minutes.
Another analogy: If someone had lung cancer, would he want to go to the doctor who says “Cancer Is Not Destiny” or the one who says “94% of people who get this kind of Cancer die within 8 months.” If it were me, I’d want the smart doctor.
So I think if you want to applaud the phrase ‘Poverty Is Not Destiny’ because it says the most obvious thing — that there is no ‘genetic’ obstacle that makes poor kids incapable of succeeding, then go ahead.
But if you are applauding because you believe that TFA has ‘proved’ that with enough grit schools and teachers can overcome all the distractions of poverty, then you are just naive. That naivete might be the thing that causes you to be a failure in the classroom, ironically.
Research has shown that even though there is nothing about the ‘nature’ of poor kids that prevents them from learning, there are issues with the ‘nurture.’ The first one is that many poor pregnant women have poor pre-natal health care. This often causes babies to be born prematurely which causes a high number of learning disabilities (often undiagnosed). Again, this is not to say it is anything genetic, but it’s just a medical fact. And even for poor kids who do not have any learning disabilities, when a kid is preoccupied wondering if he will eat dinner that night, well, he’s going to have trouble concentrating on his homework.
The ‘Poverty Is Not Destiny’ (or ‘Demography Is Not Destiny’ if you like alliteration, or ‘Your Zip Code Doesn’t Have To Determine Your Income Tax Bracket’ or something like that, or, the worst, ‘Poverty Is Not An Excuse’) crowd implies that these issues are not very relevant since they are out of the teacher’s control. They say that people like me don’t have a sense of urgency, that we deny that there is an education problem. I’d say that they are worse since they deny the importance of the poverty problem.
The most recent statistics are that 22% of children are living in poverty and 39% of black children. At TFA they like to say “I don’t think we have to wait to fix poverty before we can fix education” but the question is whether or not it is truly possible to ‘fix’ education without addressing the bigger issue and the root cause of the education problem. Think of all the money this country spends on standardized testing. Perhaps some of that can be diverted to work on the huge poverty problem which if improved would help with a lot of other problems in this country too.
This post is not meant to scare people away from becoming teachers because it is a waste of time to try to teach ‘those kids.’ No, this is a post meant to make potential teachers smarter and more aware of the entire landscape. The more informed you are about all the relevant issues (and I hope I’ve convinced you a little that poverty is relevant) the more of an effective teacher you will be.