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Pedagogy over Poverty

Between poverty and impoverished pedagogy there is a high correlation. Quality of education goes down with income.  Wealthier children go to better schools, and children who grow up in poverty have a very high probability of getting a bad education. We all know this.

Then we adults make the standard mistake of turning correlation into causation, and get into a liberal-conservative debate. Is the bad schooling the result of bad homes, neighborhoods and no money or does bad schooling—schooling designed to train unthinking followers—naturally turn out millions of young people slated for poverty or prison. This debate continues with no positive impact on the children, and the cycle of poverty and bad teaching perpetuates itself. Debating causation does not lead designing solutions.

Some of the people reading this blog are working or volunteering in schools in order to make sure that at least our children will get a good education and grow into adults whose lives are enriched, happy, fulfilling and economically acceptable. Others have given up on schools and are homeschooling their children toward these same goals. Still others are philanthropists looking for a way to make a difference in education. Perhaps others are trapped in a bad school.

But who are our children? There are about 55,000,000 children in school this year. What percent are getting even a good education? What percent are attending schools that consistently take five-year-olds and subject them to activities that convince them in the course of the next five years that they are stupid or bad?

Having observed and participated in this cycle for my lifetime, I have spent the last half trying to figure a way out. There is a way out. Focus on the delivery system. Notice the schools that work and make that delivery system available to all children.

Impossible? Not so. Last August I visited three such schools that ran six-week summer programs for inner-city elementary school children. I saw five- to fourteen-year-olds all doing academics—and loving it. Huh? Doing school in the summer and loving it? Just these six weeks make enough difference for these students to end up being successful even in their less-than-ideal schools.

There are 19 such private schools across the country serving children of color from high poverty neighborhoods, and all these children are alive with learning and obviously headed toward enriched, happy, fulfilling lives. These schools are running Horizons National summer programs, and showing that their success in turning out creative, empowered, well-educated young people is a function of a good delivery system.

Recent research shows that Horizons programs make a three to six-month difference in the academic achievement of these children for each summer they attend, and Horizons students attend for an average of five years. Unlike some other summer programs whose purpose is to rescue a few promising students from poverty, Horizons students are not “cherry picked.” By design two-thirds of them are behind when they start in kindergarten.

Research about what works in education? This is action/research, and you don’t even need to see the test results to know in ten minutes that all of these children are getting a great education. You can see it in their shining eyes, in the way they speak up in class and at assemblies, the way they carry their heads and the way they move through space. Horizons programs are proving that it is the educational delivery system that makes the difference, not the “material” that teachers are working with.

Private school people who start Horizons programs may at first be motivated by some kind of altruism—or perhaps even guilt, but their schools have learned that starting a Horizons summer program is an act of enlightened self-interest. It’s not just that the school community is strengthened by the pride of serving a public purpose and making a difference to others; the institution also benefits from a strengthening of its finances by attracting community attention and philanthropic support for reaching out to others. A school’s bottom line improves when it embraces a Horizons program. Most of all, such schools prove that their apparent greatness is the result of a first class delivery system.

Horizons YoutubeFrom now on every time you hear “It’s all about parent involvement” think how disgraceful it would be for a doctor or a lawyer to complain about clients this way. It is time to stop blaming the victims and get professional.

It is, also, time for each of us to ask ourselves the question, “Who are my children?” If you are a parent, a teacher, an administrator or a trustee at one of the few thousand privileged schools in the country, get your school to start a Horizons program. If you are not and are frustrated, find someone who has a handle on a good delivery system and work with them. Or heck, call me; we’ll figure something out.

Each of us can play a part in proving that poverty need not sentence a child to an impoverished educational system.

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6 Responses to “Pedagogy over Poverty”

  1. Marty Fletcher February 22, 2011 at 12:40 pm #

    I got into education because I came to believe that education was the best bet for children to get out of poverty. Poverty causes stress in a variety of ways, e.g., exposure to violence, maternal depression, absent father, poorly educated parents, less support for the child’s learning, etc. This is not true in every instance of poverty, but we are talking probability.
    I certainly would never blame a child for being born into poverty. I believe that disadvantaged children can be educated. I know it b/c I did it myself. But, disadvantaged children face special challenges.
    If we take any of the factors that may apply to poverty, say food scarcity, we can safely assume that there would be some effect on the child’s learning. The solution would be, as many schools do, feed the child in the morning. The schools you mention sound like great models and we should look to them. Income level does remain a strong predictor of academic and life success. http://bio.fsu.edu/~tschink/school_performance/Democrat2.html
    Ideally, we could address both issues simultaneously. While correlation doesn’t suggest causation, we do know that a strong relationship exists.

  2. Dawn February 22, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

    Literacy is a huge factor here. Children who start Kindergarten, already having been read aloud to regularly, will have a much easier time learning to read. And when you know how to read, you can teach yourself just about anything.

    In areas of poverty, there should be increased funding and awareness of public libraries. And if caregivers cannot read, then there should be literacy volunteers coming in to serve the community. The first five years of a child’s life matter more than many of us realize. Literacy comes in many forms, and when there’s not much of it at home, you can always find it at the public library.

    Abraham Lincoln’s schooling was extremely limited, and yet he became an avid reader and developed a passion for learning. His parents and stepmother didn’t have much education either, but they shared stories and sang together often, and encouraged him to read and attend school when family responsibilities didn’t get in the way. Abe was always in search of books – he would walk for miles to borrow them from neighbors. And he had no access to a public library!

    So, while I do agree that schools need to be improved, I know in my heart that what happens at home during those first few years often makes a HUGE difference in the life of a child, especially if her caregivers surround her with words, words, and more words. Books, books, and more books. Libraries matter more than many of us realize, and we should be supporting them and encouraging people to visit them regularly.

    By the way, a must-read book relating to literacy is The Read-Aloud Handbook, by Jim Trelease. It should go home with every parent of a newborn child, and every teacher should read it as well.

  3. Marty Fletcher February 22, 2011 at 7:10 pm #

    I strongly disagree with all of your statements, Dawn. I especially like, “[l]iteracy comes in many forms.” We need to be clear about what we are calling literacy. Reading instruction can be part of literacy, but in some schools it passes as the sum. I’m sure Abraham Lincoln read “real” books. I have children ages 12, 7, 7, and 5. The best stuff they bring home is the stuff they get from the library. Most of it they choose and some of it they are guided by their teachers. The textbooks are absolutely horrible. They have gotten worse, imho. Our kids deserve inspired authors and scholars writing for them. I love Trelease.

  4. Marty Fletcher February 23, 2011 at 10:35 am #

    Dawn, I strongly AGREE w/ your statements. I’m sorry about that typo. Gosh, that must have been shocking for you to read. Sorry about that, friend.

  5. Dawn February 23, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

    Don’t worry, Marty! Even if you did disagree, it’s all about opening up a conversation, isn’t it?

    While I’m here, I’d just like to add that the Horizons summer program sounds wonderful. I’m just saying that children could be getting ahead (during their many hours of free time) by taking advantage of free resources and programs at their public libraries. I have no data about the quality of such facilities in lower income neighborhoods. Hopefully one day, when the economy improves, we can rethink their design and function, instead of writing them off as obsolete.

    And Marty, you raise an important point about children going to school hungry. It’s hard to concentrate when your basic needs are not being met. There are so many factors like this that need to be taken into account. It’s never just about the curriculum and the testing, or at least it shouldn’t be.

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