"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, October 03, 2011

Success despite poverty

This is the first of three posts written in response to a post on the NCTE connected community listserv in reaction to Krashen and Ohanian, "Arne Duncan's position on education and poverty." I will not post the original comment and will refer to it only minimally, because, although I have given my permission to quote and share my posts, others posting on the NCTE listserv have not.

This post deals with the question of those who succeed despite poverty.

How do we explain the fact that many people did well in school even though they experienced poverty growing up?

Note that it is not poverty per se but the conditions resulting from poverty that count: In our post (Krashen and Ohanian, Council Chronicles 2) and elsewhere, we mentioned poor nutrition, poor heatlh care, and lack of access to books.

From what I have seen and read, individuals who succeeded despite growing up in poverty are rare. When it happens, they had reasonably good food and health care, despite poverty, and somehow managed to have access to reading material and developed a reading habit, thanks to a local library and/or someone who helped them get access to books.

An interesting case:

In his autobiography, Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, credits reading for his own school success, despite growing up in poverty: "I loved reading, and my mother, who read voraciously too, allowed me to have her novels after she finished them. My strong reading background allowed me to have an easier time of it in most of my classes" (Canada, 2010, p. 89).

Ironically, Canada promotes longer school days, increased accountability, and "data to drive instruction" for children of poverty (New York Post, October 13, 2010), despite the lack of data supporting these approaches and the overwhelming data supporting wide reading.

Most children in poverty do not have these advantages. Funding for school and public libraries, for example, have been cut, while public library use has increased since the current economic troubles began. Instead of supporting libraries, improved health care, etc, money is going for more tests. Yes, there are breakfast and lunch programs, and there is talk of improving them, which is great. But children of poverty do not receive enough help in other areas. David Berliner, for example, points out that there are more school nurses per child in middle class schools than in high poverty schools, as well as other inequities in health care.

Note that those who managed to get a reasonable diet, some health care, and had access to books, are did well, are able to tell us about it. Those who grew up in poverty without these advantages, and did not succeed, don't tell us about it.

Each case of "success despite poverty" should be evaluated in this way: Did the child get an adequate diet and health care? Did the child have access to books?

Of course, all children deserve all three.

Berliner, D. (2009). Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved [date] from http://epicpolicy.org/publication/poverty-and-potential

Canada, G. (1995) Fist, stick, knife, gun: A personal history of violence. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.

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