Thursday, May 3, 2012

When It Rains, It Pours

Having gone to school in a middle-class community, and having been placed in classes with similarly-motivated peers, my first year teaching in a low-income school caught me off-guard in lots of ways. That only three or four of my students would do the homework I assigned; that the consequences I assigned for coming late were generally greeted with apathy; that I only met three parents on open-house night....all of those things astonished me.

I think we generally blow over the vast differences that exist between schools in our national education debate. As many erudite observers have noted, the problem with education in the United States is NOT that we don't know how to do it; the problem is that we're unwilling to do it for everyone. Public education is still catastrophically inequitable.

On a daily basis, I am reminded of the myriad ways the students I teach are disadvantaged. I am, however, far less often cognizant of the widespread public ignorance regarding schools like mine and the challenges they face.

Students coming from low-income urban communities generally receive a vastly inferior quality of education for so many reasons. I thought it'd be useful to try to explain five of them.....for now.

1) Students from low-income communities often come from families who value very different kinds of knowledge than our culture's traditional public school curriculum. While there exist vast stores of knowledge in these communities, that knowledge is usually very different than what's being taught in school. While students of affluent background's are taught to value the content more traditionally taught in our mainstream curriculum prior to entering school (and outside of school on family visits to museums or foreign countries), poor students of color are sometimes faced with learning material in school for which there is no support at home.

2) Diversity is a great thing, but not if you don't know how to handle it. Urban classrooms contain students who are different in lots of different ways, many more ways than is usually the case in suburban communities. While I would argue that there are great benefits to being educated in such an environment, they are often not measured in traditional assessment of a student's learning, and therefore, pose more often a barrier, particularly when differentiation is done poorly, cultures clash, and students are tracked.

3) Low-income schools experience drastic changes every year. This is especially true in the wake of NCLB, when every district is trying something new all the time in the hope of raising test scores. However, real solutions take real time to work. And changes in staff, curriculum, instruction, and school leadership are more harmful than helpful when they happen so regularly. Few people outside of schools understand exactly how destructive these changes are.

4) The teacher turnover rate in underprivileged communities is particularly sad. "Survive five," they tell you in grad school. Five years being the point at which over fifty percent of teachers in these schools leave. Good teaching, particularly in schools in which students don't know how to learn or behave appropriately to facilitate learning, takes lots of time, effort, and consistency. Unfortunately, many people in the educational debate today argue that new teachers are often more energetic, and that this phenomenon is, in fact, not all that harmful (and perhaps even beneficial). The VAST majority of these people, however, have very little experience in schools and generally aim to promote a misguided ideology that does not align well with reality.

5) Students in urban schools come from families who speak languages other than English FAR MORE OFTEN than those in suburban schools. Many teacher training programs do a poor job of preparing new teachers well for English language learners. And imagine being new to a school where most of your teachers neither speak your language nor know how to help you. It's hard to think of a challenge that requires more intellectual and emotional perseverance for a child.

These are merely five ways students of low-income urban communities face a much greater challenge than their peers in suburban communities. I will write about more of them, and more of what I perceive to be the public's misconceptions about these schools when I have more time under the label, "Urban Schools."


  1. It's so hard to explain this repeatedly to people who don't understand. Then they think you only have excuses. Thank you speaking up about these challenges and continuing to work with our challenging children. The general public outside of low income areas have no idea, and those in low income areas usually don't know what is really on the other side either. Keep fighting!

  2. Well said. And I would add that native English speakers in poor communities have a vocabulary so limited in comparison to middle class and affluent students that for instructional purposes, they too can be considered second language learners. ( if you want some data on vocabulary learning and implications for school success).

  3. Add to all of the above the difference in supplementary support than can be provided by way of a PTA's annual budget in comparatively wealthy areas vs. comparatively poor ones.

  4. Basically, you don't have five reasons, you really have one reason - the families just don't value education - and a bunch of excuses. The simple fact is that kids from cultures that value education succeed in public schools despite poverty and language barriers.

  5. Anon at 330: I can think of many more than five. I only wrote about five here because that's all I had time for. And while I agree with you that families who don't value schooling contribute to some of these problems, I think it is untrue that students whose families value education succeed in low-income schools the same way the would had they been given the opportunity to learn in more affluent schools. It is often significantly easier to succeed in communities with more resources.

    I am extremely resistant your attempt to attribute many students' struggles to one "simple fact." I think that mindset does an injustice to the families who struggle every day just to make ends meet. If all you had to do to succeed was value education, I think a lot of people would have a much easier time of it. Obviously you'd disagree, but it's a question worth arguing over - because I think most people who misunderstand schools and student achievement do so as a result of the same black and white worldview as you seem to have.

  6. It's not just urban schools. Low-income rural schools suffer in a similar manner but with different dynamics:
    *More likely to have less diversity
    *More isolated from cultural options/help/alternatives
    *Much smaller communities with fewer options to escape bullies....

    and so on. My rural school is at 60% free and reduced lunch. I'm sure the actual poverty rate is more like 70+%.

    We've had a lot of churn in the past three years and next year is not any different...teaching with a bare bones staff. Oy.

    The recession clobbered us pretty hard, and it's really showing the toll this year. Families that were otherwise surviving are struggling. It's...well, I just don't have words tonight.

  7. Although all of your points hit home, #3 truly hits me. Every year, we are changing something within our school in the hopes to raise test scores. As teachers, we bang our heads against the wall (desks during staff meetings) and scream (in our heads) stop the madness. Another good food for thought article.

  8. Awesome post. Thanks a lot for sharing this with us.