In education, is poverty destiny?

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Periodically, someone will appear and claim that educational outcomes are not largely due to the quality of teaching. Instead, home circumstances, particularly poverty, play a massive role. 

I understand where this reaction comes from. The No Child Left Behind act in the U.S. seemed to have been based upon the premise that if you provide strong enough carrots and sticks then teachers will somehow figure out how to eliminate educational disadvantage – the ‘motivate the teachers’ hypothesis. 

This approach doesn’t work and socioeconomic reasons are part of the explanation. The other factor is that teacher simply don’t know the best approaches for mitigating disadvantage. It’s not what they are taught at college.

And I use the word ‘mitigate’ deliberately. Neither extreme of this argument represents a rational position. Clearly, teaching cannot eliminate disadvantages caused by social background. Teachers cannot fix poor nutrition or a chaotic family life. Yet teaching does have the potential to reduce disadvantage. Anyone interested in social justice as a practice, rather than a posture, should examine teaching methods in this light. What approaches are best for reducing educational inequality?

I think a key principle is to rely as little as possible on the resources children possess outside the classroom. What does this look like in practice?

At a basic level, we cannot expect all children to know what kinds of behaviours are acceptable and so we will need to directly teach these. Yes, some children will pick up normal behaviours implicitly from being in an environment that models and supports these behaviours but this cannot be assumed.

At an academic level, we should again focus on the agency of the school. An approach to early reading that places heavy emphasis on children taking lists of sight words home to learn is inequitable. So is an approach that hinges on practising reading at home. Instead, children need to be explicitly and systematically taught to read while they are in school

Similarly, the latest Australian craze for Project Based Learning (PBL), which has seen the importation of experts from across the world to advise teachers and schools on the technique, is also inequitable because it relies on the resources that a child can marshal and bring to bear on the project. It is far better to directly teach the key facts and concepts before asking students to conduct open-ended work. 

Those who dismiss the ability of teachers to mitigate social disadvantage are not on the side of social justice. As teachers, we cannot cure poverty and inequality but we can choose the best methods to address their effects.

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25 Comments on “In education, is poverty destiny?”

  1. Tempe Laver says:

    In a similar vein there was this piece in The Courier Mail today claiming that parents really need to do better if kids are going to do better. Apparently our woes can not be blamed on poor teaching methods and a content light curriculum. http://www.couriermail.com.au/rendezview/parents-not-schools-are-to-blame-for-our-education-crisis/news-story/d903a7af8e9a9581ab279b8a384e6b80

  2. howardat58 says:

    Kids are also people.

  3. cbokhove says:

    Both classroom (and school) and systemic aspects play a role. I see far more often people positioning education as ‘the great equalizer’ without saying or doing anything about the systemic aspect. Of course one could argue that the political realm of systemic inequality can not be influenced by teachers. In a sense you could indeed say that they’rd not there for that, they are there to ‘just teach’. Unfortunately, it often are teachers and various educational charities (e.g. see Fair Education Alliance) that claim they are confronting educational disadvantage. THEY are making those claims, often without empirical evidence of the effect. I concur that the school and classroom context have a role to play; but afaik bases on research the systemic aspect (SES) might be much larger. So you need both. It would be refreshing if the people who say they are doing all this to address educational inequality would be a bit more vocal on this, and let their zeal reign, not a sudden pragmatism that they can’t mean much outside the education context. One would hope that it’s not such pragmatism of not biting the hand that feeds you, the government. After all, the government is the one that gains most if education picks up the pieces they left, namely increasing inequality and (child) poverty.

    • Greg Ashman says:

      It is teacher’s professional responsibility to address issues in their classrooms. They have no such responsibility to be political advocates, even if I would defend their right to be such. Perhaps you are confused about this. Certainly, in teacher education, flying the red flag often seems to be prioritised over practical concerns about how to teach better. Maybe you should devote your time to the overthrow of the government so that you can tackle inequality and leave teachers to their more mundane practical concerns. I’m sure Jeremy Corbyn could use some new talent on his team.

      • cbokhove says:

        I’m afraid you forgot to pick up that systemic SES *is* an influential factor. Parental engagement etc *does* influence pupils. Early literacy *does* influence it too. I propose you read up on this. What I’m simply saying is that it makes sense to then take evidence into account, whereby I -a point conveniently left out in your reaction- mainly focus on all those educational organisations that have taken up ‘inequality’ any way. They all outdo each other in their supposedly inequality reducing work, but leave out the strongest predictor. You leave it out as well, framing it something political. No, it is about predictors of achievement.

      • Greg Ashman says:

        I have never suggested SES doesn’t impact on educational outcomes. I have repeated that it is an influence. But SES is not something that a teacher can fix in a classroom. Fine, go and campaign about poverty. That’s good citizenship. But in the meantime, choose classroom practices that minimise its effects. There are factors that are within the agency of an individual teacher – such as teaching methods – and factors that are not – such as SES, IQ etc. Do you understand this point?

    • teachwell says:

      The idea that teachers should wait for the government to solve poverty before they examine what they could be doing is to absolve oneself of professional responsibility. Neither does it explain why some children grow up in poverty and succeed and others don’t. As for the research base, it’s clear that there is no real diversity of views among researchers in this country at least.

      Why do some children who grow up poor or in poverty succeed? What are the factors? What do they share with those of other socio-economic groups and what is different? Why have some groups e.g. Chinese/Indian/West African fared better despite parents being in low paid jobs and others haven’t? What impact does income have in comparison to culture for example.

      Many of these questions aren’t asked because the echo chamber of the education world rests on assumptions that they are not willing to challenge or examine.

      The fact that some academics and teachers see themselves as political activists also limits their ability to understand the problems faced, the reasons why and the solutions as no solution they have deemed politically unacceptable (usually right wing) is ever going to be on the table.

      Sacrificing children’s life chances on the pyre of left wing ideology is one of the few things that the education system in the UK does succeed in.

      • cbokhove says:

        Perhaps you could read first? ‘Both’ does not mean ‘wait for government to solve poverty’ nor is it a plea for teachers not to take responsibility. It simply is about research evidence. “Some succeed and some not” – yes, some people who smoke make 100 yrs old, still smoking on the whole is damaging (that I even have to explain…). *What* factors interact with SES is unclear but to my knowledge there is quite some agreement it *is* a factor. All these factors also are topic of research in sociology, economics, education, and unfortunately some think that any conclusion that shows a SES effect is political advocacy. It is disappointing that even balanced, evidence informed positions, simply are discarded as ‘left wing’. Sure, there are many people on the left and right sides of the spectrum that love political activism (some even argue it *should* be political, I disagree with that), the irony being that the last sentence of your comment does exactly that, political activism with the rhetoric of ‘life chances’. If only it really only was about teaching. Unfortunately not, SES effects are there, and we need to acknowledge and study them ALSO in relation to effective teaching, but so much more.

      • Greg Ashman says:

        Could you explain who it is you are arguing against who thinks that SES is not a factor, given that you keeping highlighting the fact that it is?

      • teachwell says:

        Perhaps you could read first?
        I did – thanks.

        ‘Both’ does not mean ‘wait for government to solve poverty’ nor is it a plea for teachers not to take responsibility.

        Yet in practice that is exactly what you are asking for.

        It simply is about research evidence.

        Indeed and the state of that in education is poor partly because the questions asked are politically motivated and avoid tough questions that would challenge the methods that have been advocated.

        “Some succeed and some not” – yes, some people who smoke make 100 yrs old, still smoking on the whole is damaging (that I even have to explain…).

        Strawman argument.

        *What* factors interact with SES is unclear but to my knowledge there is quite some agreement it *is* a factor.

        Then it’s worth actually investigating it instead of making correlation, causation.

        All these factors also are topic of research in sociology, economics, education, and unfortunately some think that any conclusion that shows a SES effect is political advocacy.

        I didn’t say that SES doesn’t have an effect, I am questioning why it has a differential effect. The figures for different ethnic groups have been around for decades, if the education researchers in this country were actually any good they would have investigated this already to figure out what was going on. Their brushing this evidence under the carpet while making the argument that poverty is the problem not the ideology and methods they advocate is the result of political advocacy.

        It is disappointing that even balanced, evidence informed positions, simply are discarded as ‘left wing’.

        The education research field is almost entirely left-wing and you can’t claim to be informed when the research is biased and dismisses evidence that is inconvenient. Also “informed” by what standard? Your own?

        Sure, there are many people on the left and right sides of the spectrum that love political activism

        Who on the right argues this precisely?

        (some even argue it *should* be political,

        Actually it’s only the left that argue it should be political by making unevidenced claims that it was anyway, hence justifying their own stance.

        I disagree with that)

        Yet you promote it all the same without any scrutiny.

        , the irony being that the last sentence of your comment does exactly that, political activism with the rhetoric of ‘life chances’.

        Political activism within education has not been about life chances but about defeating capitalism or racism or some other cause that the believers feel they can indoctrinate their way out of. I was simply stating the truth as I see it. It’s because of my experiences in education that I put this on the doorstep of the left because it is their ideas that have resulted in the situation we are in now. Arguing that certain types of education were “elitist” and using this to promote a lower standard of education for the children of the poor then blame their poverty for the failings of the approach.

        If only it really only was about teaching.

        I didn’t say that. There are differences in outcome for children in all education settings. You probably don’t know why that is either.

        Unfortunately not, SES effects are there, and we need to acknowledge and study them ALSO in relation to effective teaching, but so much more.

        I agree with that – unfortunately the education departments in this country are more interested in maintaining their left wing cartels than actually researching anything that would help. When that changes I will change my mind about them.

      • Mitch says:

        “Could you explain who it is you are arguing against who thinks that SES is not a factor, given that you keeping highlighting the fact that it is?”
        What about Kevin Donnelly’s article
        http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/public-schools-in-poor-areas-dont-need-gonski-funds-to-improve/news-story/fbe5017a4e2779c8583fd443cdfbd421 and the other ones he writes saying the same thing?
        He is directly saying that SES is a minor factor. Primarily so he can feel good about continually supporting a system of directing taxpayer funds to schools who don’t need it and exclude students on the basis of their parents pay packets.
        Of course teachers can’t control SES and of course we are the biggest factor inside the classroom but while we in Australia want to head down the direction of stratified education based not on ability but parental income we will only see SES increase as a determining factor of educational outcomes.

      • Greg Ashman says:

        Right. So this is not an argument against what I have written but against the views of people like Donnelly. Fair enough.

      • teachwell says:

        Thank you – am happy to read the articles and article. I would also point you towards the following data from the UK which does look at SES and the differences between different ethnic groups. If poverty were THE factor then how do you explain differences between different individuals and groups in educational attainment?

        https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/439861/RR439A-Ethnic_minorities_and_attainment_the_effects_of_poverty.pdf

        This shows tables with the differences between different groups based on children who are eligible for free schools meals as well:

        http://theconversation.com/against-the-odds-how-ethnic-minority-students-are-excelling-at-school-53324

        I don’t think school factors alone explain it but neither does SES and when one factors in the performance of different groups who are all low SES then money can not be the causal explanation the “deprivation is destiny” crowd want to insist it is.

        Given that the UK education system is one where the progressive left-wing orthodoxy has deliberately argued against excluding poorer children from the same education as their middle class peers based on ideas of “elitism”, one can hardly argue that equality of opportunity has been given and that poverty is the reason why so many from poorer families fail.

        I think the responsibility is not totally with teachers and the school but they play their part in providing opportunity. In my experience, the expectations and standards for behaviour/education do vary for different groups of children. This is the only thing schools can do anything about. Parents too need to think about their role, groups need to consider how culture impacts on their children’s outcomes.

        Does this require a complex solution – yes but as far as teachers and schools are concerned – they can a) ensure equality of opportunity, b) not use poverty as an excuse to allow poor behaviour by individuals (which has a knock on impact primarily on other poor children) and c) question their own methods and ideas instead of expecting poverty to go away.

      • Mitch says:

        @Greg
        I could see where you were both coming from. I know you acknowledged the role of SES but there is a push from people like Donnelly (who I don’t completely disagree with about a lot of things) to dismiss SES for their own political reasons. I think there is the potential problem in education to say “SES is the major factor so nothing else is important” or the exact opposite “SES is not a factor so don’t mind me while i move funding to schools that don’t need it”. Both are problematic. While an individual teacher should focus on their classes and do the best they can with them, they are a part of an education system that could do more to address disadvantage. This is more realistic than just saying that the government should solve ‘poverty’.

      • teachwell says:

        If you want to “address disadvantage” as a teacher the most proven way is to provide equality of opportunity rather than lower standards of behaviour and learning based on the amount of money you think the parent of a child has.

      • Mitch says:

        @teachwell talk about strawman, i explicitly said that a teacher can only focus on the students in their class but that the system can do more to get funds where they are needed

      • teachwell says:

        What does that mean? What funds? To alleviate poverty? You have no evidence that poverty is the main cause for failure rather than other factors such as culture, teaching methods, etc. Really look at your assumptions and I ask again why does the evidence show such differences between groups who have experienced poverty? It just doesn’t fit the SES is THE answer argument because people succeed despite being poor. The question is why. If you can’t work out what the problem is then you certainly can’t work on a solution, much less ask the state to spend money.

  4. Hi Greg, this is such an important topic which you have raised most succinctly. I’ve reposted via the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction here:

    http://www.iferi.org/iferi_forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=720&p=1313#p1313

  5. David F says:

    Hi Greg,

    I live in Philadelphia where these issues are front and center. I’d just say that while I am sympathetic to your post, things are complicated here in the US when it comes to the nexus of poverty and teaching.

    First, in the US we have a really poor system of allocating educational dollars–public schools are generally funded through local property taxes within a school district’s geographic boundaries. These funds are supplemented by the state. As you can imagine, this leads to tremendously gross inequalities–just outside of the Philly city limits is the wealthiest school district in the state, with an amazing campus for its high school….yet just a short distance away across the imaginary line of the city limits, is an ancient building with rats running through the ceiling. This also provides opportunities for weathy individuals or foundations to push their reform agendas, regardless of the research (see what Zuckerberg tried to do in Newark, NJ, or the current confirmation hearings of Trump’s education nominee, Betsy Devos).

    The students I work with on the side who attend the local public schools in the city are also in bad circumstances at home–unsafe neighborhoods (we were called “Killadelphia” several years ago by the media due to our murder rates), lack of parental support, lack of places for students to study at home, etc. And there is still the issues of racial segregation, school-to-prison pipelines, mass incarceration, overpolicing, etc.

    Teaching can definitely make a difference for these kids, but the battle is an uphill one, given the lack of resources and the non-school environments. These are also tough schools to work in, with many teachers burning out or running away.

    • Greg Ashman says:

      I do not seek to minimise any of that. However, if the teaching profession itself had a clearer view of what constituted the best, most equitable forms of teaching then I think it could defend itself better from the latest ideas of wealthy individuals or foundations and their reform agendas.

      • David F says:

        Hi Greg, I didn’t think you had…it’s just complicated, that’s all. I’d argue that our decentralized and property-based revenue system is the worst part of what we do in education in the US.

        The inadequacies of our decentralization led to the development of Common Core, but that too was subject to outside forces (see ED Hirsch’s chapter in his new book on how a noble project failed). Now, it looks like the US Ed Dept will be in the hands of privatizers.

        At least in Australia, the UK or Canada, there is a gate to crash re: pedagogy, funding, assessment, etc.. Here, we’re not even sure where the gate is.

      • David F says:

        And just to add, I think it’s hard to wrap one’s head around the violence we have in our cities in the US…for 2014, there were 238 homicides in all of Australia (from the Australian Bureau of Stats) out of a population of over 23 million. In my city of Philadelphia, with a population of 1.4 million, we had 248 in 2014 according to the city police, and that was a good year–in 2007 we had 391. Heck, we had a homicide in my neighborhood last summer, just around the corner from where I live in a relatively safe working class neighborhood. I heard the shots fired while grading papers. Now just imagine living in a neighborhood where this stuff happens every day.

        While a bit outdated, I’d recommend the BBC show, Louis Theroux Presents: Law and Disorder in Philadelphia to see the challenges that are in the US, and then try to imagine how to teach those kids in that environment.

    • cbokhove says:

      Maybe less extreme, but this also is the case in the UK. It partly shows in the numerous educational charities. Things like neighbourhood, resources, teacher recruitment, family SES are all *real* variables that influence children. Some are afraid that in acknowledging this, it serves as excuse to not work on other factors like teaching and behaviour, or that it lies outside the responsibility of education. I never understood that; if we *know* they impact on students (and achievement) for the life of me I wouldn’t know why you would want to minimise them.

  6. Dick Schutz says:

    There are factors that are within the agency of an individual teacher – such as teaching methods – and factors that are not – such as SES, IQ etc. Do you understand this point?
    The list of “etc.” is a long one, but the answer to the question is “NO” The point is NOT generally understood in EdLand. Unfortunately, the practice in ResearchLand to “control” SES statistically, using Hierarchical Linear Analysis methodology, also evades the point.

    The intent of instruction is to equip students with specified academic capability. To accomplish this reliably requires products/protocols that do the job in-the-face-of-but-despite-of the “important complicating influences.” Both EdLand and ResearchLand are short the products/protocols=technology that are commonplace elsewhere but are not even sought in E&R.

    It’s worth noting that the introduction of the simple Alphabetic Code [Phonics] Screening Check in England has eliminated the impact of SES and the “usual suspect” obstacles to equipping kids to read in more than 600 schools. There is still variability among schools but “it’s in the instruction”–the products/protocols–not in the complicating obstacles.


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