Whether you’re a newly accepted 2012 corps member or a 20 year veteran teacher, you’ve heard the expression ‘poverty is not destiny’ thrown around and, depending on what your experiences have been, the expression will affect you in different ways.
For the newbies, it is inspirational — a battle cry. Because they feel that the opposite (i.e. that ‘poverty is destiny’) is defeatist, an ‘excuse’, and somewhat racist. (G.W. Bush once called it in a speech, ‘the soft bigotry of low-expectations.’) But for me, the expression ‘poverty is not destiny’ makes me cringe because I see it as a misleading way to manipulate uninformed people to support a movement that I view as a threat to the education system.
If ‘poverty is not destiny’ means that every child is born with the potential to have a very fulfilling and prosperous life then I agree. Though it is true that poor children suffer a disproportionate share of learning disabilities when they are born prematurely, often because the mother did not take care of herself properly while pregnant, a learning disability is not something that makes it impossible for someone to live a great life.
One problem I have with ‘poverty is not destiny’ is that ‘destiny’ is not properly defined. Implied by corporate reformers is that it is every student’s destiny to graduate from a 4 year university and then go on to be very rich (after, possibly, ‘giving back’ by doing TFA for two years.) When I was a younger teacher, I thought this too. I still regret something I once said to my homeroom class back in my 4th year of teaching in 1995. I had a senior homeroom and they were asking me about what kind of celebration I remember having after my own high school graduation. I said something like, “In my family they really didn’t make a big deal about my graduating high school since it was certain that I was going to graduate college 4 years later and we’d celebrate then.” At the time I said that, I felt like it was a good thing to say. It was like me saying that I have confidence that all of them will go on to graduate college too, at least in my mind. Now I think it was a stupid thing to say. Basically I was telling them that they don’t have a right to be proud of themselves for overcoming all the obstacles that prevented at least half of the people they entered high school with from graduating. I’ve gotten more wise since then — but the corporate reformers haven’t learned that lesson yet. Call me a ‘soft-bigot,’ but I don’t think that college is for everyone. And that doesn’t just mean poor people, either.
The bigger problem I have with ‘poverty is not destiny’ is that in it, there is an implied last part. ‘Poverty is not destiny’ is short for ‘Poverty is not destiny since poor kids with good teachers do just fine so if we just fire all the bad teachers and replace them with more of those good ones then every student will excel, get excellent standardized test scores, graduate high school in 4 years, not become a teenage parent during high school, go on to college and graduate there in 4 years too.’
Thinking that the obstacles of poverty can be overcome by having better teachers really disrespects how much it takes to overcome those obstacles. Though we often hear that teachers are the most important in-school factor, we don’t often hear that the school factors are known to only contribute a small percent, something like 20% altogether, of what determines if a student will be a high academic achiever. And thinking that schools can overcome all the obstacles of poverty by making teachers fear for their jobs is something that can only be believed by someone who knows very little about schools.
Though this should be completely obvious, I’m going to write a very important three word sentence here. Teaching is hard. I currently teach at one of the top schools in the country and when the bell rings to end one of my classes, I rarely think, “nailed it!” I curse myself for not calling on enough students. I curse myself for answering a student’s question too quickly, and answered it in a way that implicitly suggested that my answer was as good as he was going to get — all I had time for. I can’t work individually with every kid every day. There just are too many kids and too little time. And that’s with kids who, though they are not generally ‘rich’ — my school has something like 40% free or reduced lunch, I think, they do, in general, have a lot of parental support at home. Parent teacher conference night in my school is like a rock concert. I have to give out numbers like I’m a deli. So if even under ideal conditions, it is hard, then it is really, really hard when 6 or 7 kids are absent every period because they are unhealthy due to poor nutrition, or because they have to stay home to babysit, or all the other reasons that keep poor kids from coming to school more consistently.
Teach For America, in their PR and their recruitment, does its part to promote the idea that it is not that hard to educate kids out of poverty. ‘Good’ teachers are proving it every day. Those good teachers are often TFA alums who are teaching at charter schools started by other TFA alums. Which is great except that it is not true. Take the gold standard, the KIPP schools. They get the most motivated kids, kick out the ones that aren’t cutting it, arrange for the most promising 8th graders to go to a elite $50,000 a year private school, and even then, they only have gotten about 16% of their graduates to graduate college. (They say 33%, but they don’t factor in the 50% attrition — sorry.) Still this is better than the 8% national average for poor kids graduating college. But have they really proved ‘poverty is not destiny’ in the way it is implied when it is said by corporate reformers? Or is it just proving what nearly everyone knows, that there is nothing about being poor that makes it impossible to go to and graduate college?
When I joined TFA in 1991, I wasn’t thinking I could get every one of my students to go to and graduate college. Back then the idea was that we were going to teach in a school in which there was a teacher shortage so it was either us or a rotating group of substitutes. I hoped that I could make all my students like math a little more. I don’t know how many of my former students went to college. A large percent of the smartest girls in my classes were pregnant before they graduated high school. Other boys in my classes were often the fathers. I don’t know. Maybe in a parallel world where I didn’t do TFA, 10% of my former students graduated college. Maybe my teaching (this was after my horrible first year) nudged a few more kids who were on the fence. Maybe 11% have graduated college. Hopefully 100% of them enjoy math more than they would without me. A former student who I taught in 1995 looked me up on Facebook and wrote to me that even though he cut class a lot back then, when he came to my class he learned a lot. This student didn’t graduate college. This student did not even graduate high school. Still, he felt the need to write me a note almost 20 years later.
Why is it so important, anyway, if poverty is ‘destiny’ or not? If I could definitively prove that every school that is claiming to get outstanding results despite the poverty of its students was lying by either kicking out the toughest kids, recruiting only the easiest kids, treating the kids with such disrespect that the students will have to overcome that now, teaching just math and reading at the expense of all else because that is all that ‘counts’ right now when schools are trying to get people to donate money to their schools? Would that mean that joining TFA is a waste of time?
There was no lying like that going on in 1991, but we joined TFA anyway, back then. And I believe that we worked just as hard and believed in our students and since we were not constrained by the testing mania we have today, we could do things that truly enriched our students education.
If you’re about to begin your career as a TFA teacher, I think you will take your job much more seriously if you know that you are about to attempt something that nobody has really figured out how to conquer yet. You will, in all likelihood, fail when you compare what you thought you would accomplish to what you actually accomplish (at least on the superficial level of high test scores and college rates). The rate of child poverty has been climbing for years and now it is at a staggering 22% including 39% of black kids. As nobody, and I mean nobody, has proved otherwise, poverty ‘is’ destiny.
Even though I’m in the ‘poverty is destiny’ camp, I think that it is extremely important that we give these kids the best chance possible to succeed in life. That’s also why I get so upset at how inadequate TFA training is. They think poverty is so easy to overcome through good teaching, that they don’t even have to do such a great job of training. I’m the big pessimist raining on the ‘poverty is not destiny’ parade with statistics, yet I’m also the one begging TFA to give corps members a well rounded training that includes all sides of the complex issues surrounding, not just teaching methods, but also the political background that you are being dropped into which I, thankfully, did not have to deal with back then. To the 2012s I’d advise you to get as complete a picture as possible of what you’re about to experience. You’ve got a destiny to avoid too.