Poverty cannot excuse failure

Harrison Blackmond

While students were on summer break, America got a lesson on education. Organizations across the country released reports on students and schools with striking findings, such as the annual Kids Count report, which showed a growing number of children living below the poverty line.

As students head back to school, a critical issue for education stakeholders to address is how educators react to poverty in their classrooms and adapt their methods in low-income schools. Too often poverty is used as the excuse for why students and schools are not improving.

Many educators assume that children from poor families cannot learn at high levels. I know; I was born in Alabama into a sharecropping family. Black boys were expected to leave school when they reached age 12 to work on a farm. That was the future that awaited me. I owe all of my success as a professional, lawyer, and civil rights activist to education, and to good teachers and schools that supported me throughout my life.

Certainly, poverty has a large impact on the conditions in which children grow up, and how they perform in school. Gains in education are positively correlated with income. Studies of Michigan in particular examine the bottom half of this relationship, with reports on the State of the Detroit Child annually showing that those who never graduated high school are much more likely to live in poverty than those with at least a high school diploma.

With nearly a quarter of Michigan’s children living in poverty and with even higher rates in urban areas like Detroit, the challenges posed by socioeconomic disparities are real and relevant to the conversation surrounding education in our state.

But poverty in itself is not an insurmountable barrier to learning. While it is tied to academic struggles, along with factors like race and ZIP code, it doesn’t determine outcomes. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to achieve less academically, it is true, but this is due to a school system and teachers that don’t meet their needs, not because the students themselves inherently lack potential. The societal failure to eradicate poverty does not excuse the failure of schools and teachers to effectively educate those living in poverty.

There are many schools, in fact, that demonstrate that students with high-quality instruction can outperform their peers, low-income or not. Innovators like the national KIPP network and the Detroit Edison Public School Academy—named high performing by local and national foundations and a Michigan blue ribbon winner—have exemplified the power of instruction to elevate low-income student learning. And it’s not just charter schools: high-quality district schools can have a huge impact as well. Bates Academy and Renaissance High School in Detroit are but two.

If students aren’t learning, it is within the teacher’s and the school’s power—and their professional responsibility—to adapt teaching methods and attitudes to better meet student needs. Part of the problem is the way in which teachers themselves are being educated, with most teaching programs designed to train educators for jobs in middle-income schools, equipping them with a fixed set of tools that may be ill-suited to the classroom they end up in, unprepared for the myriad of challenges that don’t typically exist in the “average” classroom. Further up, state and district-level policies that allocate funds equally rather than based on school need may be another part of the problem, too often leaving the most underserved classrooms and teachers with the fewest resources.

Rather than waiting for poverty to disappear, we must adapt to it, and quickly. What do great schools and teachers do differently when faced with these challenges? Is it leadership? Is it uncompromising expectations? Is it school culture in general? And most importantly, is there any reason why successful approaches can’t be replicated?

Harrison Blackmond is the Michigan state director of Democrats for Education Reform.