From 2013-2014, I visited high school English classes across the socioeconomic spectrum in Los Angeles in an attempt to understand what makes a great teacher and what we mean when we say “education.” This is one of the most important lessons I learned: that we need a new language to talk about poverty.
I recently worked with three groups of 8th and 9th grade students. All of the groups are comprised of students of color from families in poverty, which means they qualify for free or reduced-price lunch under a California program whose cutoff is for a family of four is an income of under $30,615 (free), or under $43,568 (reduced-price). Students from families like these who qualify for free and reduced lunch are generally the students we talk about when we talk about children in poverty.
My three student groups all meet this criterion. In addition, they all are highly motivated and academically proficient, with supportive parents who have enrolled them in an after-school college-prep enrichment program. They must all be alike, right?
In fact, these three groups of students seem markedly different. The first is a racially diverse group that includes Latino/a, African-American, Pacific Islander and Indian students; several of the parents and many of the students’ older siblings have attended college, often very prestigious colleges. They live in the Westside of L.A., a socioeconomically diverse area, and attend an honors magnet school that includes middle- and upper-middle class students of all races. This group is both more academically advanced and more sophisticated than the other groups. Some of the students have travelled with their families to other cities or countries, not just to visit family but for tourism. They read at or above grade level and their writing is generally fluid, with some complex sentences—a quality that in my experience indicates frequent outside reading.
The second group lives in a very high-poverty community in South L.A. and attends a “no excuses” charter school in the neighborhood that is known for its rigorous academics and high test scores. Most are Latino/a and come from two-parent immigrant families but do not have a parent who attended college (though one boy has a sister at UCLA.) Academically, I don’t see the sophistication I see in the first group—I don’t hear talk of travel or see them eagerly reading books intended for adults—but they have strong study skills, easily use academic terms like “thesis” and “evidence” and in general are confident and poised in a new setting. All of them have computers and internet access at home. Except for one student, they all attend enrichment sessions faithfully, on time.
The third group is from Compton and attends a district school that has struggled for years with low test scores and high suspension rates. All of them are Latino/a, reflecting a demographic shift in Compton’s population over the last decade. Several have single mothers and, like the second group, none have parents who attended college. This group is the least proficient academically. Despite their intelligence and motivation, grammar and spelling are not strong. When invited to read independently, they tend to select books targeted at younger audiences; the “Wimpy Kid” books are popular here. The kids are extremely sweet, but shyer in general with adults than the other two groups. With several of them, attendance is an issue, in some cases a serious issue. Though parents have signed a contract with the program and are updated on the schedule regularly, they still sometimes do not bring their children to classes or programs and sometimes don’t answer phone calls. Some do not have computers or internet access. Some do not have regular access to a working car. One student stopped showing up for a week; after many phone calls and a home visit, it turned out her family had no gas money and their food stamps had run out.
How do we measure differences like these? It would be easy to attribute them to the quality of the students’ schools, of course. But how do you separate out the fact that the Westside kids go to a school where teachers can set the bar high, knowing that parents generally have the wherewithal to support their children academically—not to mention the social network and confidence to navigate L.A.’s byzantine magnet system?
For the other two groups, I’m not gonna sugar-coat it: the South L.A. kids from the charter school are straight-up getting a better education than the Compton kids. You can feel it in their skills and their academic vocabulary, something almost nobody develops at home. But how do you separate out the fact that these kids have parents who for whatever reason were able to do the research to locate one of the top charter schools in Los Angeles and get their kids there every day? Conversely, it would be easy to blame the Compton school for the kids’ lower academic levels. But how do you study when your family’s food stamps have run out? How do you get yourself to the library when your family doesn’t always have access to a car?
The differences in these three low-income groups reflect differences I saw in my year of visiting schools across the socioeconomic spectrum in L.A. When Principal Nat Pickering talks about a student body in which 18% are in Special Ed, 5% are in foster care and there’s a 25% turnover of the school population every year, those are not the circumstances we faced when we taught at an excellent charter school in a high-poverty community in South L.A. When I visit Cynthia Castillo at the beginning of the school year at Augustus Hawkins and see 45 kids in her classroom, some of whom speak little or no English, some of whom cannot sit still or stop talking, some of whom are in gangs, at least one of whom has recently been in the criminal justice system, I guarantee you that none of those students will ever be at the excellent charter school attended by my second group of students, even though the two schools are only a few blocks apart.
Using the word “poverty” to describe these students’ living conditions may be a jumping-off point, but it’s far too general to be helpful. If I tell you that I’m standing in the rain, you can’t know how to help me without knowing whether I’m standing in a drizzle or a downpour or a hurricane, without knowing whether I’m ten feet from shelter or twenty miles from anywhere.
Right now it seems to me that high-performing magnets, charters and other schools have developed some terrific techniques that are working reasonably well with many students who are in a drizzle or even a downpour, who are close enough to basic resources like a relatively stable home, a network of family or friends, reliable housing, transportation, internet and phone access. They do especially well with students who are living in socioeconomically diverse communities where they are exposed to many styles of speaking and relating to others, along with resources like libraries, bookstores and cultural institutions.
These programs do not do as well with students for whom poverty is a hurricane, whose family resources have been wiped out, who live in the kind of geographic and socioeconomic isolation that sometimes comes with communities like Compton and South L.A. Some families, like my charter-school families, seem to have the social resources to opt into the best available schools. Other families, like my Compton school families, do not appear to have these resources, perhaps because they’re dealing with other emergency needs.
When we talk about all of these students as if they’re living in the same circumstances, we do a terrible disservice to our most at-risk students by denying the trauma of deep generational poverty, which is not always synonymous with poverty that is primarily financial. When we punish schools and teachers that fail to reach our most at-risk students in communities of deep generational poverty because charters and magnets have raised test scores in financially similar populations, we need to ask ourselves first if a blanket description of “poverty” is sufficient to understand the needs of those communities.
In a scathing article in the New Yorker that is the best piece on education I’ve read all year, writer Rachel Aviv describes a struggling Atlanta school in an historically high-poverty community where teachers frantically trying against all odds to turn the school around were forced to produce ever-rising test scores regardless of the students’ needs and made the tragic choice to cheat on the state tests in order to stay open. Aviv quotes the former dean of education at Arizona State, who says “the people who say poverty is no excuse for low performance are now using teacher accountability as an excuse for doing nothing about poverty.”
In order to do something about poverty, we first have to understand it. Let’s start by acknowledging that as a society we need to look more closely at the real and complex conditions in which children in this country are growing up. Then, and only then, we may be able to find words to describe those conditions—and what it will really take for our most at-risk children to begin to heal and learn.