The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The Bumpy Road for Poor Children

on September 29, 2017

Today I write as a career-long educator, a researcher, and a frequent visitor to all kinds of schools in the U.S. and some foreign countries.  

I have never doubted the truth of the school reformers’ slogan, “All children can learn.” But that slogan doesn’t tell us whether children will learn what their schools think is important or concentrate on how to get a great smart phone and be popular in their neighborhood. What makes the difference for children living in poverty?   Maybe it’s the large number of potholes and roadblocks they meet on their way to getting an education. Or it may be the meager amount of support they are given to overcome them.

To understand the nature of potholes and roadblocks and the damage they do, consider the situations of poor children who make up almost 25% of our nation’s K-12 students and largely populate the schools deemed “failing” by the government.  For them potholes are the adverse conditions in their personal lives, while roadblocks are the school practices that do not serve their needs, aptitudes, or interests.

Most of us recognize that the biggest potholes for poor children are malnutrition or outright hunger, lack of adequate medical and dental care, and family economic instability. But there are others just as dangerous and less visible. Significant research done in the 1980’s showed that the oral vocabularies of young children in welfare families lagged far behind those in working class families, and even farther behind children of professional parents. Recordings of language interactions between pre-school children and their family members revealed that the children in poor families heard almost 1,500 words less per hour than their wealthier counterparts, and were rarely engaged in conversation with their family members. As a result, many of them entered school at a great disadvantage, which proved to be a big pothole in learning to read, write and understand teacher directions.

Another language related pothole is the difficulty poor parents have in supporting their children’s education. Again, research shows that there are few, if any, books in the homes of most poor children and that their parents do not read to them regularly.  Those facts should not be surprising, since buying books is not a high priority when you’re working to pay the rent and put food on the table; neither is finding time to read to your children when you are working two jobs.

Clearly, another big pothole is not having a stable and livable home. According to a report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2.5 million children are homeless in the U.S. today. In an Oregon elementary school I visited, 25 % of the student body was counted as “homeless” in 2016. But even when parents have jobs and places to live, they may need to move frequently to follow those jobs or find cheaper living quarters. It’s no wonder that many children living in such unstable conditions have trouble managing their schoolwork.

Outside the home there are more potholes. Young children want to look and act like the strongest, most daring kids in the neighborhood and hope that one day they will be like them.   Besides, if they avoid the neighborhood stars and their followers, they may become targets of bullying. No internal deficits lead poor children to skip school, join gangs, or experiment with drugs; it’s the presence of social potholes in their streets and the difficulty of stepping around them.

The adults in charge of running high poverty schools are not blind; they see the potholes for poor children just as clearly as we do. But too often they choose remedies that turn out to be “roadblocks” instead. The general strategy of school reformers today is to work at changing students from the outside-in by prohibiting the behaviors they consider dysfunctional and replacing them with a narrow set of “right ways” to learn and behave and a body of “good for everybody” lessons.

We see this approach in the classrooms of many public and charter schools where individual desks are lined up in straight rows facing front, walls are bare of children’s writing and art, and bookcases contain only the prescribed textbooks. In those classrooms teachers stand in front of the class “delivering instruction” and demanding “all eyes on me.” We see it also in teaching methods that present only facts and algorithms, define learning as memorization, and ask questions that have only one right answer. Above all, we see it in the endless test-prep exercises that are not so much practice of the skills taught as they are indoctrination in how to respond to test questions in ways that will please the test scorers.

Ironically, many supplementary and remedial programs, such as “Response to Intervention” and “English language Development” often turn out to be another roadblock. Although those programs are good in theory, for the children involved they are disruptions to the continuity and consistency they need. When high-needs students leave their classrooms to receive instruction from a specialist who may be seeing up to a hundred students a day, they miss the work that everyone else in their class is doing and the support of the one teacher who really knows them and their needs.

The final and deciding roadblock for many poor children is harsh school discipline. Under the banner of “No Excuses” or “Zero tolerance,” children from diverse cultures and dangerous neighborhoods, are expected to adopt the norms of traditional American middle class society as soon as they walk through the schoolhouse door. Those who fail to make the prescribed changes in dress, demeanor, and language are likely to suffer repeated detentions, suspensions, and, perhaps, expulsion. What many children learn from those punishments is not only to hate school but also to hate themselves.

Unfortunately, a major effort to fill in all the potholes and remove all the roadblocks for poor children would be a long and expensive process; plus, one that many of today’s education policy makers and legislators will not support. Still, I believe that efforts of some non-profit organizations and parent groups to improve the home situations of poor children will make a difference. And, I also have hopes for the increase in wrap-around schools that provide many of the health and social services poor children need. As a career-long educator, I will continue to do what I can through writing about the futility of the current school reform practices and suggesting more effective and humane ways to educate all our children.


4 responses to “The Bumpy Road for Poor Children

  1. Wonderful article, Joan. So very “spot on”. Keep up the great writing and observations.


  2. Frankey Jones says:

    Thanks Joanne! Until we recognize and address these truths, we will continue to see the gap in performance between the poor and the middle class. Sometimes I wonder if ignoring these problems is an intentional sell-out to survival of the fittest.


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