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Benjamin Swall-Yarrington

CO 301-D
12/11/15

What We Talk About When We Talk About Education:


Addressing Poverty in Education and its Absence from the
Public Dialogue

(from left) Samantha Wright, Justin Carter, and teacher Simon Hauger working on an engine in the
school funded EVX team

Zoom in on high schooler Justin Earl, living in one of the most impoverished
neighborhoods in Philadelphia. A couple years ago, he was just one of the many
students in his district on track to drop out. I was just that guy who showed up
when I wanted to, he says, in the Frontline Documentary Fast Times at West Philly
High. My life wasnt going anywhere. But when his schools car building team
recruited him, his performance in school did a 180. This team made [him] want to
come to school. It gave [him] something to care about. This club did not boost his
attendance necessarily because he had a passion for cars but, as his mother puts it,
because [The EVX team] basically blanketed him with attention, with
understanding, with affection. You know, they cared. Justins story, among those of
his fellow students, documented in the film Fast Times at West Philly High, proves
that increased testing or competition does not bring up students grades. Programs
that care for and engage students do.
Truckloads of solutions have been dumped on the festering problems that
poverty has on students success. Increase testing. Make schools compete for
funding. Fire teachers and abolish tenure. Though these solutions are well
intentioned, they only pick away at the problem while the roots grow beneath. The
root of failing students in many school districts, no one can deny, is poverty. No
amount of tests or overly qualified teachers can change the fact that countless
impoverished students arrive at school beaten down from a lack of food or turmoil
at home. We as the public, some of us educators and some of us not, have a role to
play too. The public dialogue on education both reacts to the commotion in
education and tells us how we should talk about education. The voice of the public
has the power to shift the direction in educational policy to one that tackles the
problem of poverty in education head on. Since an onslaught of articles on poverty
and education is starting to appear, we must ask ourselves how to talk about
poverty so that it fosters actual change in impoverished schools?
Nancy Letts, columnist for the Huffington Post, emphasizes the importance of
simply talking about povertys impact on education. She calls poverty the Gorilla in
the room: the heavy force in education that no one wants to talk about, yet,
according to her, is the root of all the problems. According to her, teachers can do
little to remedy the toll that poverty takes on students. She argues that society
must begin to focus our discussion on poverty when talking about failing schools.
While she does not offer a specific solution to children in
poverty, she alludes to the point that increased funding
should play an integral role in increasing impoverished
students chances of success.
The documentary Middle School Moment
addresses not only povertys effect on failing schools
but how a certain school lifted impoverished students
Omarina Cabrera from PBSs from poverty. In under thirty minutes, this documentary
FRONTLINE: Middle School proves how analysis of students progress and
Moment aggressive intervention can prevent students from
failure just as their grades begin to slip. Its hero
Omarina goes from a failing student living in a slum to being accepted into six
stellar private high schools on full ride scholarships. How? Because her schools
statistic tracking program caught her just as her grades began to fail, and assigned
a councilor to help Omarina raise her
grades. This councilors dedicated
intervention released Omarinas full
HOW DO WE TALK ABOUT THIS potential as a student. Other of the
ISSUE SO THAT WE FOSTER schools impoverished students testified
ACTUAL CHANGE IN before the camera about how this school
IMPOVERISHED SCHOOLS? turned their lives around.
Nancy Letts article The Gorilla
Speaks and the documentary Middle
School Moment support each other. While The Gorilla Speaks aims to start a
conversation on poverty, Middle School Moment actually presents a solution to
lifting students out of poverty. Being a documentary, Middle School Moment also
shows povertys effect on children firsthand in a way that a one page editorial
couldnt. When Omarina testifies that she would have succumb to the forces of
poverty without her schools intervention we see the power that poverty can have
over people. Nancy Letts conversational tone, light on statistics, fails to capture
actual student poverty in the way Middle School Moment does. The closest picture
of poverty that Letts offers is a cursory description between affluent and
impoverished schools. According to Letts,
The difference is in the kids and many of the schools in which these
kids must sit all day. The difference is in the bathrooms and in the
lunch thats served and in the amount of professional development and
who pays for it. The difference is in the number of days the students
come to school and in the health care available to them. The difference
is in who comes in hungry and who gets to eat on the weekends and
holidays.
While these comparisons refer to no specific school district Letts does get us
thinking about the differences between affluent and poorer schools. While many
people know that poorer students live in substandard schools few actually take the
time to imagine the numerous differences between them and affluent schools until
someone like Letts points it out. Her article does spark a deeper interest about
poverty, which is her goal. As she puts it, she wants to begin the dialogue about
what we want the purpose of education to be. Inserting Omarinas story and others
like hers into the conversation about education can allow us to talk about solutions
as well as the problems. However, talking about individual schools and poverty in
broad terms does not tell us how our federal, local, and state governments have
hindered impoverished school districts from succeeding. How can we discuss
poverty in schools so that we can spark change from local, state, and government
levels?
First, we must understand how our government has addressed education
inequality. For the past decade and a half our federal government has attempted to
bring all students to academic proficiency. Yet under Presidents Bush and Obama,
education policy has attempted to raise accountability through tests and
competition, not through attacking poverty head on. Obamas education initiative,
Race to the Top, in particular puts states against each other by forcing them to
compete for funding. According to the White House Report Setting the Pace:
Expanding Opportunity for Americas Students Under Race to the Top RTTT awards
money to states whose student test scores have increased the most. Unsurprisingly,
according to the U.S. Department Educations article Scopes of Works Decisions
Letters the more affluent states have been the primary recipients of Race to the
Top. Out of the ten states that Forbes ranked the poorest in America in 2014, only
Kentucky, the ninth poorest, received funding from RTTT (Forbes, 10 Richest and
Poorest States in the U.S. 2014, 2015). I do not intend to blame either program for
causing all of educations ills, but RTTT is certainly not helping the impoverished
areas of the country that need funding the most. However well-intentioned RTTT
may be richer states are the primary beneficiaries of grant money while poorer
states miss out on the share, such as Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia, and South
Carolina among others. And these states lacking in recourses, surprise surprise,
remain poor. This tells me that the government should funnel more money into the
poorer states than the ones that can
succeed without additional funding.

UNDER PRESIDENTS BUSH AND But can funding alone turn


OBAMA, EDUCATION POLICY HAS around impoverished schools?
ATTEMPTED TO RAISE Funding alone did not give her
ACCOUNTABILITY THROUGH TESTS school the power to boost her from
AND COMPETITION, NOT THROUGH poverty. Funding combined with a
ATTACKING POVERTY HEAD ON. strategic plan to catch students
before they slip and dedicated
professional councilors helped her
out of poverty. When asked what
really made Omarina improve her study habits, she did not mention school funding
or even the schools program that helped them identify at risk students. She said
her councilor Katherines belief in her and the accountability that she put on
Omarina motivated her to succeed, despite her two hour train rides to school and
the stresses of living in a torn up apartment. Across the board, education success
stories of students who climb out of poverty, the students always cite their teachers
or councilors as the factor towards success. People change other peoples lives, not
money. Justins story in Fast Times at Philly High proves this. Even people from a
poorly organized organization can do it, according to education journalist Dana
Goldstein. She proves in her book, The Teacher Wars that even the poorly funded
Teach for America, with a rushed training process for its volunteers, has had a
positive impact on certain impoverished students lives because certain volunteers
have made turned struggling students into scholars. Goldstein documents the
classrooms Teach for America volunteers, Samantha Arpino and Terik Walmsey,
whose underprivileged students were engaged and well disciplined. These examples
prove once again that involved teachers who care for students and hold them
accountable create student growth (Goldstein, pg. 198-9, 2014).
In my opinion we should talk about ways to get the best teachers, counselors,
and turn-around programs into these schools. Governments at all levels should be
investing When the government puts money
into programs that help impoverished schools,
those impoverished students grades actually
improve. Such can be seen with the program
Project Aspire, which found gifted students in
impoverished rural settings and provided them
PEOPLE
with the needed support to boost their grades.
CHANGE OTHER Giving grants to every failing school in the
PEOPLES LIVES, country, or even half that amount, may seem like
a daunting task. However when you take into
NOT MONEY. account that RTTT has divvied up millions of
dollars amongst the few states that have shown
growth, they should be able to send that amount
of money to the poorest states. One could argue
that giving more money to poorer states would
encourage those states to keep their achievement rates stagnant. I would propose
that the federal government gives these states more money on the condition that
their schools improve, and test scores dont go up to withdraw the yearly funding.
Giving impoverished states more school funding would allow them to implement
programs of the likes of Project Aspire or the EVX, that require impassioned
professionals and engage students.
So long as the public remains silent on the issue of poverty in education the
federal and state governments may very well continue its rewards-based practices,
leaving the success rate of the impoverished students stagnate. If the government
has an ounce of possibility of change it will be through a massive outcry of the
American people. Of course, it should be an educated outcry. To take the first steps
of changing the way education in poverty is addressed is to speak about the
problem openly but also discuss the solutions that have worked. Focusing our
conversation on poverty, the root of the problem, instead of test scores and broad
funding, we can begin the gradual path towards a nation that favors helping the
poorest neighborhoods. If the voice gets loud enough, law makers just might listen.

Works Cited
10 Richest and Poorest States in the U.S. 2014. Forbes.com. Web. 2015.
Burney, Virginia H., Cross, Tracy L. Impoverished Students in Rural Settings with
Academic Promise. Gifted Child Today, vol. 29 no. 2: 2006. Accessed through
ERIC database. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
Fast Times at West Philly High pro. Morton, Debra. Frontline. 2012. Film.
Goldstein, Dana. The Teacher Wars. New York: Doubleday, 2014. Print
Letts, Nancy. The Gorilla Speaks: Its Time to Change the Conversation About Public
Education. The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post, 23 Apr. 2013. Web. 10
Nov. 2015
Middle School Moment pro. Robertson, Mary. Frontline. 2012. Film.
Scopes of Works Decision Letters. U.S. Department of Education. Web. 18 Mar. 2013
White House Report Setting the Pace: Expanding Opportunity for Americas
Students Under Race to the Top. Whitehouse.gov U.S. Department of
Education. Mar. 2014. Web. 27 Nov. 2015