Teachers in Osceola County, Florida schools were encouraged to complete an “Understanding Poverty” book and seminar. The central theme is that teachers need to understand where their students come from, accommodate them where they are at, and design the curriculum and assessment in such a way as to increase performance. Many traditional teaching techniques are self-defeating when we are dealing with students who are in poverty. The impoverished have a needs hierarchy that values basic necessities and immediate outcomes. Yet a teacher from the middle class tends to be more forward looking and seeks to impose the same standards and worldview on his students. This causes problems in connecting with students who will become increasingly frustrated and see the school curriculum as irrelevant and even oppressive to their need for social interaction and immediate gratification.
It is an oversimplification to say that kids can’t learn is because they are poor. But on the simplest level, this is the thesis of the seminar. It is reinforced by appealing to sociological theory. And I do not doubt that there are many good points of truth here. The problem with this idea is two things. First, students in poverty can learn to be forward looking. Second, the American standard for what is “poverty level” is not poverty at all compared to most of the world throughout history.
The writer of Understanding Poverty points out that poverty has just as much to do with income as an ability to allocate intangible resources, such as relationships, time, talents, etc. I wholeheartedly agree that poverty is as much of a spirit as it is a financial reality. I do not agree that teachers ought to accommodate a spirit of poverty. Every student can learn and make the most of their time. The fact that they often do not should not be reinforced with our accommodations. While it may look like we are doing them a service, we are actually training them to think that adult life is a time with few responsibilities that have hard consequences.
What we ought to be teaching students is that even if they do not have the opportunity to master the reading, writing, math and science curricula, they need to work in class, complete assignments on time and come to each class on time each day ready to work. “Eighty percent of success is showing up” does not mean they will automatically become 4.0 students and qualify for scholarships at the college of their choice. But it does mean that they will be trained with the necessary skills to either hold a steady job or succeed in some type of higher education. In today’s fallen culture, it will mean they will be in positions of leadership somewhere.
In a few years, the reality will become more apparent to many of these students. If car payments are not made bad credit and possible repossession will occur. If they do not show up for work on time, they will not keep their jobs for long and will not advance in their position and salary. If utility bills are not paid, they will have the added stress of the possibility of losing their water, heat and lights until they can make a payment.
For several months of my life, I have had opportunities to work closely with high school and college students in Ukraine, Russia, Venezuela and Peru. These were countries that had fallen at one time into a slavish oppressive society. One of the greatest problems to overcome in former communist nations is not an oppressive government, but rather a socialistic mentality of the people that expects the government to do everything. Dependence can lead to a slave mentality. The irony of this is that even in these countries, educational standards are much higher than in the United States. The United States of America is the most affluent nation in the world. We have many social programs in place that purport to provide assistance, food, education and housing to our poor. The average welfare recipient in our country has more material wealth than the middle class in many other nations. Our “poor” are materially rich. Many have cars, multi-room apartments, computers, disposable income for entertainment and food. Our “poor” are poor mainly in spirit rather than in material goods.
Bluntly put, our current system rewards the poor for a lack of initiative and industry. This indoctrination begins in school with a free education, thousands of dollars of free tuition per year and many more in resources that are wasted by educators who believe that if we only had more money, we could attract better teachers. More resources will supposedly solve the problem. The sad truth is that more money is being spent on public education than ever before. American teachers, although still underpaid, still make more than in any other nation at any time in the history of the world.
We could point to the breakdown of the family unit, but other nations that have the same divorce rate as America and a lower economic prosperity do better with their schools. The reason for educational decline among the lower income is not poverty. In my years as a teacher among lower income students, I have come across many theories on how achievement can be raised. These are the same theories I heard in the 1980s when I was an education major in college. After several years of some thought, I have reached a conclusion.
In the words of Walt Kelly, creator of the comic strip Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”