Poverty an Hour’s Drive From Campus

The Southern Educational Foundation reported last week that over half of all public school students in the region are now living in low income households. Commenting on the report, John Norton, of the Teacher Leadership Network, writes that in the South, “the most important ‘export’ has become factory jobs in textiles, furniture and other manufacturing”.

I’m challenged by how to teach my students about the complexities of making one’s living in this new economy. I struggle to find relevant readings and media to represent the scope of economic change in the past generation.

Just last week, I was talking with a colleague about my frustration with the reading materials available for our courses. Many of our students come from families that have been set economically adrift in a single generation. The parents of many of our students worked in manufacturing, in natural resources, in small businesses that couldn’t compete with the now ubiquitous Big Box stores. Many will teach in semi-rural and small town school districts in which privileged children living in new developments built on failed farmland will ( at least until rising property values drive out even moderate income families) attend school alongside the children of the milk truck drivers and convenience store clerks who haven’t seen black ink in the ledger book for the past 5 years and are weeks away from bankruptcy.

And in the rural South, children of parents who were laid off from the mill after decades of back-breaking work attend school with the children of the immigrants working in the poultry plants and in decaying orchards. There is virtually no chance that new family-wage jobs will be available to these kids if they do graduate from high school. The more privileged kids are in private schools down the street.

Yet the readings with which I might teach about critical perspectives on schooling are almost all focused on urban schools.

There are, of course, common challenges in teaching kids without health care or hope, regardless of where they live.

But too few texts in education represent the many faces of childhood poverty. Too few explain that many of the children living on farms, in decaying small towns, in the inner ring suburbs in our classrooms will be simply puzzled by teachers’ promises that doing well in school will shield them from the fate of their parents. Too few texts represent the lives of children who live just beyond the reach of the travel budgets of research grants, whose parents and grandparents thought that they were playing by the rules but now can no longer feed their families.

How do we prepare teachers for work in small towns, in rural areas, in the small cities built around “the mills”, in places in which the residents themselves are still trying to understand what happened to their dreams, where schools may well seem to simply be part of “the system” that betrayed them beyond measure? How do we trouble teachers’ understandings of the place of schooling in these new economic times?

More from the Ruby Round-up (update)

More on Ruby Payne from Nancy Flanagan of the Teacher Leader Network, with whom I agree that the issues being deliberated in all of this blogging are fundamentally important.

Update: A bit more of a response to Nancy’s thought-provoking post, now that I have a bit more time to write.

First, Ruby Payne isn’t really working “from her gut”. She’s working within a research tradition that, if I’m doing my math on her age right, was likely being taught and deliberated about when she was in teacher education in the late 60’s, early 70’s. This body of work tried to show that a “culture of poverty” was the reason that people were poor and that the solution to poverty was to get people to act better. One of the central — and widely read — books in this tradition was a novel Children of Sanchez, by anthropologist Oscar Lewis. This tradition informed welfare and other social policies (many of you will remember the stereotypes of the welfare queen driving her Cadillac).

The problem is that the research didn’t hold up. No one could really find common cultural practices between poor people in rural areas, in cities, in small towns, across ethnic groups. People started looking very closely for instances of generational poverty (in Ruby’s words) and actually didn’t find very much of it (and where it did occur, economic conditions were often such that even the best dressed, verbal, going-to-bed-early, reformed poor people couldn’t have found work. I saw this when I taught in Southern Appalachia where there was literally no flat land on which to build factories, the soil was about 2 cm deep so agriculture was a problem, and the coal was all owned by people up on the East Coast who decided when and how to mine it).

In other places, people born poor are likely to move up and down into and out of poverty depending on such things as the kinds of jobs that open in their areas, the extent to which the minimum wage is keeping up with inflation (or not, as lately), the depth of debt that they accrue for things like medical bills. Katherine Newman has done really beautiful, accessible work on the economic trajectories of people who begin their work lives in fast food restaurants and the ways that some move up, some stay in essentially the same place, and some fall back. She of course found some people who couldn’t get their acts together (I saw similar people in grad school, fully supported by their wealthy parents), but that was not the main story of how people fared.

So when Ruby Payne comes out 30 years later essentially repeating the “Culture of Poverty” line of thought, and supporting it with what seem to be pretty serious stereoypes of hard-drinking, loud-shouting, jail serving poor people (just as the Welfare Queen was used in the 70’s) it does raise questions. Does she have some new evidence that those who walked away from that line of thinking long ago missed? Did she simply draw on what “research” was familiar to her when she whipped out Frameworks in week, because she hadn’t kept up with what was going on in that conversation, even to the extent of reading debates in newspapers and magazines about whether a “culture of poverty” exists ? Those are fair questions.

But she’s not working from her “gut”. She’s seeing the world through a particular scholarly framework. And that framework doesn’t just say that there are “differences” (you eat cheez whiz, I eat brie). The framework says that we would not have poverty if everyone would stay out of jail and eat brie.

Second, I think that we could use some more shades of grey when talking about how universities and schools contribute to professional knowledge. I think that pretty much everyone understands that when research comes out of universities, it’s going to be translated and transformed multiple times to make sense for informing practice, and there is a long tradition of “consultants” and staff developers taking on the work of that translation, often building tidy little businesses as they go. Rick Stiggins in assessment comes to mind. I don’t know all of their names, but a whole cadre of consultants marched around the country doing workshops on cooperative learning after the original work of Slavin, the Johnson brothers, Elizabeth Cohen. There are scores of people out there doing classroom management workshops and math workshops and literacy workshops, most of them grounded at least at some level on current research on kids and learning. Academics get that that’s how it works.

And most of these people are visible and active in professional organizations. They write for professional publications. They go to conferences to hear what other people are saying about things. There are others doing the same work, so that they need to stay current and relevant. Pretty much none of them are saying the exact same things that they were saying 10 years ago (and, as far as I know, none of them are also selling coffee mugs and t shirts).

And then, the normal cycle would be that researchers would come back into schools to study (often, now, in collaborations with teachers, or teachers would do the action research themselves) how things were going in actual classroom practice.

But Payne seems to be operating pretty much outside of any other professional conversations — even to the point of publishing her books herself. That’s pretty unprecedented.

And third, critical scholars are often out there in schools themselves, not sitting back writing articles that they hope will spark the revolution. I think of Christine Sleeter and Carl Grant, Jo Beth Allen, Stephanie Jones (who writes brilliantly for scholarly audiences and also published a brilliant book with Heinemann, so that it would be accessible for teachers), Deborah Meier, Mike Rose, Carole Edelsky, all the folks who I mentioned in my last post who have often developed their practices to demonstrate how wrong “culture of poverty” theories were.

Many more of us invest pretty heavily in teaching in teacher education when we might otherwise be cranking out articles, and when districts clamor to hire the people we teach, and those teachers come back to fill our grad classes, we can sense that we’re probably doing something valuable in the work of teaching kids well.
So our objections to Payne really aren’t based on our cluelessness; nor is it based on the belief that poor folks should just sit around waiting until the intellectuals figure out how to write their way into social change.

Finally (phew!), I completely agree that we should be listening to teachers. And. We really haven’t talked about social class enough in teacher ed or in staff development. That’s the soap box I’ve been on now for a number of years. And there’s no question that teachers had a lot of questions about kids that they couldn’t understand. So when someone came along with what seemed to be answers to those questions, it of course was valuable and meaningful. The same thing would have happened if teachers had been grappling for years with how to teach music and a funny, witty woman came along with great stories “from her gut” about kids and music. People would have been all over that.

But I can’t imagine that person then being written up in the NTY as “the” expert on music education, and those who raised questions about her being dismissed as angry, jealous, self-interested, or worse. That’s just not how professional knowledge develops in any other part of the work of teaching.

So why are we settling for that in the work of figuring out how schools can help to address the problems of poverty?

Poor Children in Wealthy Nations

A friend sent me this UNICEF report, An Overview of Child Well-Being in Rich Nations. It provides yet more evidence that children in the United States fare less well on many measures of education, health and well-being than do children in other Western nations. The report states

given levels of child well-being are not inevitable, but are policy susceptible. The wide differences in child well-being seen throughout this report card can therefore be interpreted as a broad and realistic guide to the potential for improvement in all OECD countries.

Yet how to begin discussions around policy change, when our national credo is that to place themselves on equal footing with other people’s kids, children raised in poor and working-class families need only do all of their homework and save their allowance for college?