Kids in Poverty Can Still Learn

During slavery, under some of the worse conditions known to man, slaves taught their kids to read by candlelight under the threat of death. And those kids learned.

On the heels of the great depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's new deal invigorated educational opportunities for poor white kids in places like Appalachia. And those kids learned.

Following the Vietnam War, thousands of Vietnamese refugees came to our nation. The vast majority of those children came to America unable to speak English and often lived with several families under one roof. And those kids learned.

In California, folks like Cesar Chavez fought for better working conditions for Latino migrant workers. While those families struggled to make ends meet, many strived to put their children in schools that would meet their needs. And those kids learned.

Throughout the history of our country, the unifying promise of America has been the hope for a better life for one's children through education. Especially those children trapped in poverty. At every turn in our history, kids in poverty have demonstrated their ability to learn and succeed.

Today, as we struggle with what ails many of our schools, more and more emphasis is being placed on the linkage between poverty and education. It seems as though each week there is a new study trumpeting the difficulty of teaching low income children and; the fact that poverty needs to be taken into account when we delve into tissues pertaining to teacher effectiveness and the quality of a school's overall performance.

I get all that. And I do agree that there must be better coordination of services between schools and those entities that help families in poverty. Without question, Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children Zone should be replicated all over America. Geoffrey understands the need to take a holistic, community wide approach to health care, poverty and education. From his innovative Baby College for expectant mothers to his successful charter school to his offering of adult centered services, Geoffrey fills a much needed gap for thousands of Harlem families.

But poverty cannot be used as an excuse for bad teaching or our failure to better educate children who live in poverty. Frankly, some of the growing articles and studies on this topic often times engage in excuse-making and justify the 'throwing up of the hands' as it relates to trying to teach kids in poverty. Isn't it curious that we are hearing more about poverty being a factor in a child's educational experience as we talk more and more about linking teacher evaluations to their students performance? I discussed this issue with a terrific school leader in St. Louis who bemoaned the fact that far too many people blatantly say to her things like "It's impossible to educate poor black kids," and "You need to change your school's demographic to have any real success." To me, this line of thinking is ridiculous. All kids can learn. But all kids cannot learn in the same way. It is incumbent upon us to meet these kids where they are and utilize the approach that best serves them, including offering more quality options for them. There are many teachers who have worked their magic with kids who come from the most challenged environments imaginable. From my vantage point, as opposed to using poverty as the easy reason why some kids in poverty can't learn, let's put an excellent teacher in the classroom of every low income child in America and see what happens. And once and for all, let's stop talking about poverty being a barrier to positive educational outcomes for our kids.