A Response to Diane Ravitch Blog Post, Poverty Matters

Poverty Does Matter, but not the way we like to think!

Poverty is important and it does matter, very much, in fact. And no, poverty is not a state of mind; it is a tragic condition in which millions of Americans languish.

Poverty is also an excuse for throwing up our collective hands as if the outcomes are out of our control. It is an excuse for continuing to do the same things we have always done, unquestioningly, convinced we are doing the best we can for the children in our classrooms, under adverse circumstances.

We cry out: “If only Congress would raise minimum wages; change the tax structure to more equitably spread the burden; if only they would find a way to lift the horrible mantle of poverty we could really help these kids.”

And, before you rush to stereotype reformers and their pseudo-counterparts and shut down your minds, I grew up in a low-income family and attended a school that, sixty years ago, was 30 percent black and 50% impoverished. In my first job as a juvenile probation officer I sat across a rickety card table that served as the dinner table for a mother striving to rear 4 children on welfare, drinking coffee while trying to find a way to keep her sons in school and out of the juvenile detention facility.

I sent my own three children to city public schools so they would learn to feel at home in the midst of diversity and not grow up to be elitist, upper-middleclass Americans, out of touch with how so many of our fellow citizens must live.

What I have learned from my own parents and from a lifetime of experience is that it is not poverty that keeps children from succeeding in school. For generations there have been children from the poorest families who have somehow learned how to excel academically; and these were not outliers to be discounted as not relevant to our discussion. Almost without exception there is a characteristic common to all of these youngsters. These children are blessed to have a parent or guardian who somehow still clings to hope that their child can have a better life.

Let’s cling to no illusions about the difficulties these parents face or that such parents are always successful. Sadly, many do fail in spite of the heroic efforts that are made . What matters, however, is that many do not fail and, as a result, their children enjoy some level of academic success.

It is not poverty that keeps children in poverty, it is the hopelessness that so often accompanies poverty. Poverty is, indeed, a very real condition but hopelessness is very much a state of mind. The operative question is why we do not attack hopelessness, ferociously. Hope and expectations are inextricably connected.

As much as I admire and respect public school teachers our public educators, as a whole, whether policy-makers, professors in college departments of education, administrators, or teachers cling to the traditions of an early twentieth century educational process that is woefully inadequate in a twenty-first century world; totally unaware of how what they do contributes to and reinforces the hopelessness of our nation’s disadvantaged.

These educators are blind to the fact that our educational process is focused on failure and sets the most vulnerable of our nation’s children up for failure and humiliation. Is it any wonder that these youngsters grow up to spawn new generations of children with little if any motivation to learn and even less hope for a better life.

For the love of all that is precious in life, can we not abandon our outdated assumptions and biases and open our hearts and minds to a new way of thinking about education in America? If only we will relinquish our obsession with tradition and open our minds to new possibilities we will discover answers that have existed, right in front of us, just beyond the illusory horizon of intransigence.

To you, Diane Ravitch, who for so long has been one of our best and brightest advocates for excellence in education, we need you seek to understand rather than rebut. We need you to think exponentially and to provide a whole new level of leadership in a fresh paradigm.

I am not suggesting that there is a perfect solution to the challenges of education in America; there is no such thing as a perfect solution. With each stride down a new avenue of thinking, however, we will discover new and better ideas and each new answer will lead to whole new sets of questions followed by even more answers and even better ideas.

You know better than any of us that time is of the essence. We must act before those who are rushing to privatize education, place even more reliance on standardized competency examinations, and who want to separate our schools from the communities they exist to serve lead us to disaster.

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