When people have said "poverty is no excuse," my response has been, "Yes, you're right. Poverty is not an excuse. It's a condition. It's like gravity. Gravity affects everything you do on the planet. So does poverty."
Obviously, poverty, per se, does not cause school failure. It sets up the conditions and a dynamic that make it tough for poor kids to succeed. Perhaps the quickest way to understand that dynamic in the concrete is to read passages in Linda Perlstein's new book, Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade. Former Washington Post education reporter Perlstein spent a year in Tyler Heights, a poor school in a rich county (Anne Arundel, MD).
The kids get off to a bad start physically: they get sugar water or Oodles of Noodles as infants, Froot Loops as toddlers and show up at school overweight, undernourished, their teeth rotting.
Their academic beginnings aren't healthy, either. A segment from Chapter 3:
"Mrs. Facchine felt no small measure of distress when she asked what adding an 's' does to a noun and every face in her class went blank. Mill Milhoan was mortified when she handed out Post-it notes for questions about friendship and got back, "Ho do friend go yon" and "The kestos is the kmblso." One girl doesn't know what a paragraph is; one boy asked the character trait that describes him said, "Word." Another, asked how much is between seventeen and eighteen answered, Four."
I hear complaints about teachers treating kids as passive vessels. Given the school-oriented knowledge deficits these kids have and the behaviors that actively prevent learning, more progress could be made if they were passive vessels for a while. One teacher was baffled by a boy who farted all day and announced, "I smell like salad." There was the boy who, complimented on his new sneakers and said, "Thanks! My mom stole them!" During sharing time, one girl spoke of speaking to her father through the glass using a phone. One girl, asked the meaning of "stray," said "Like a homeless person." "Is Mars a lifetime?" One boy wanted to know. On multiple choice tests, kids answered the questions without reading the stems and quit early, beaming to be done even though segments of the test were unfinished. And we haven't even talked about kids who don't know English.
Passive would be good for a while. A third grader, denied a request to see the nurse (again), "put her face in her teacher's and said, "Excuse me. My rash hurts. What if I die?'" Then she swung her book in front of the screen, blocking a math problem, hopped to the side of the room, ran the faucet and created so much tension that all the other children were distracted. "I'll have to remove you," her teacher said. "I'll have someone remove you too!" said the girl. Comments Perlstein at one point, "The amount of individual attention that goes into soothing the truly dysfunctional children and keeping them in class is extraordinary" (p. 110). Occasionally, physical restraint or a police officer's visit was necessary (remember, we're talking mostly about kindergartners to third graders here), but mostly through conversation which some children required daily.
In Chapter 11, Perlstein contrasts Tyler Heights with Crofton Elementary in an affluent development I used to admire each summer as I drove from Virginia to the jazz joints in Manhattan, although, I wondered then why the gates were shut, a knowledge shortcoming from my own cultural upbringing. Crofton is no longer a gated community, but its third graders "created fairy tales on the computer, posted staff biographies on the school's website, and wrote 10 persuasive letters. They sat in circles, discussed what they read and proofread one another's work."
Fifth graders studied the political positions of candidates and ran a bank and managed savings accounts. Fourth graders gave speeches on Olympic sports (some of them had been to the Winter Games in Turin). Despite the presence of NCLB and its obsession with reading and math, they get 45 minutes a day of science or social studies which included maintaining a compost pile, making tortilla tepees and sugar cube igloos, creating picture stories about Native Americans and composing pictograph stories on faux animal hides.
Perlstein observes that NCLB and the standards movement, designed to reduce the disparities between rich and poor has actually increased it. "The practice of focusing on the tested subjects of reading and math at the expense of a well-rounded curriculum is far more prevalent where children are poor and minority" (p. 136) (I discussed this also in "Revenge of the Liberal Arts?" August 15, and "Growing an Achievement Gap," July 15). Says Perlstein, "President Bush, in introducing NCLB, vowed to banish the 'soft bigotry of low expectations' for the nation's disadvantaged children. To condemn them to a rudimentary education in the name of improvement is bigotry too."
Crofton kids arrive as kindergartners knowing their numbers and letters. Many can read. "Middle class students see every day how schooling relates positively to the riches of everyday life. They see this through their parents' jobs. They see this through travel and cultural exposure that extends beyond the Chuck E. Cheese's-shopping mall-television circuit that narrowly bounds the experiences of many children at Tyler Heights. This exposure fuels motivation..." (p. 137). Kids at Tyler Heights get many, many external rewards for doing what they are supposed to. Crofton kids don't get any. Crofton doesn't even have an honor roll. Tyler Heights is about prepping for the state test (even though the teachers hate to). Crofton is about knowledge.
These are only brief snap shots of life at Tyler Heights where Perlstein paints the teachers and, especially the principal, as pretty damn heroic. You might want to show them to the next person who tells you "poverty is no excuse."