Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Is poverty an excuse?

When some people hear that poverty is the number one problem plaguing public education and our society, they sometimes interpret this as meaning poor people can't learn or be successful. This stance can often be summarized as a "no excuses" mindset that basically stands for poverty is not an excuse for poor academic achievement.

Let's dig a little deeper into this mindset. Consider this:

Let's pretend you are a farmer and you have two seeds. One is planted in black, fertile soil where it received plenty of water, sunlight, and fertilizer while the other is planted in infertile sand where it received very little to no water, sunlight and fertilizer.

Which seed is likely to grow? Which is likely to struggle? 

I guess we could blame the seed that struggled, but I'm not sure that would be a great use of our limited time, effort and resources. It's true that some of the seed's success can be attributed to the seed itself, but even the strongest most determined seed can only do so much without the appropriate fertile environment. To say that the environment is important is not to make excuses for the struggling seed, it's acknowledging truth.

I am a fifth generation farmer from Alberta, Canada, so I've learned a lot from my father and grand-father about how important the growing conditions are to the success of any crop. Just because we might purchase the best seeds in the country does not mean we will grow the best crops. Even inside the same field, a crop may not grow uniformly because the quality of the seed is far from the only factor that contributes to its growth. 

As a teacher, I see the growth and development of my students as analogous to the growth and development of my family's crops. Every good farmer spends countless time and effort cultivating the best growing conditions for their seed. Every good parent and educator spends countless time and effort cultivating the best learning conditions possible for their students. 

Every good farmer also grows or purchases the best seed they can afford. Alas, here is where my analogy breaks down. Public educators don't get to select their students. Public educators are charged with educating all children, even the hardest to educate. Because public educators have absolutely no control over the quality of the students they are charged with educating, they have to spend even more time, effort and resources on creating the best learning conditions they can provide; however, their efforts can only begin to influence family and other out of school factors.

When people say that poverty matters, they are not making excuses and they aren't saying poor people can't learn. All people can learn and people living in poverty are people, too. What they are saying is that poverty stunts potential growth. It's true, we don't have to choose between providing a good learning environment and waging war on poverty, but let's not pretend we are doing enough to reduce the number of children in poverty.

People who say poverty is no excuse are making excuses about doing nothing about poverty. Children never choose to live in poverty, but society can choose not to ignore it.


  1. Poverty afflicts children's brains. Researchers have long pointed to the ravages of malnutrition, stress, illiteracy and toxic environments in low-income children's lives. Research has shown that the neural systems of poor children develop differently from those of middle-class children, affecting language development and "executive function," or the ability to plan, remember details and pay attention in school.

  2. Society tolerates child poverty. As Stephen Downes says the ultimate assessment of the education system would be a reduction in indicators of social maladaption including incarceration, social assistance, and crime rates.

    To borrow and perhaps extend a expression of Stephen's our Canadian society "needs to be the soil, that grows the plant that produces the flower." In a society based on economic and social justice, all the children will have greater opportunity to produce the flowers that make society flourish.

  3. There are indications that the genes that modify the amount of cortisol produced are 'set' at a level based upon the stress/threat level children and their mothers are under- higher stress=higher levels of cortisol. High levels of cortisol production are associated with poorer health and learning outcomes. The tragic thing is that while subsequent changes in environment can reduce the cortisol production levels in the short term, the 'setting' lasts for a lifetime! I think this is the best thing to focus upon is the mental health of mothers. That should be reported upon in the same way that GNP is now.

  4. Great post, Joe. I think it's important to point out, too, that our students are transplanted at least twice a day from one 'field' to another. If there's great disparity in the conditions of the different fields it can cause stress.

    I'm not suggesting that everyone be home-schooled, but I do think we need to note stressors in our students lives and do what we can to accommodate the differences. This would actually make a case that poorer neighborhoods should have the best schools to make up for the shortcomings at home.

  5. so, the argument here is since we didn't get to choose the right "seed" nor the soil, we shouldn't expect the amount of watering and sunlight that we normally give to "the proper seeds" to work? farming is just as poor of an analogy as the factory model is. in both examples the end product is assumed to be mass produced clone. When in reality we should expect each child to be able to meet their highest potential, an outcome unknown by their social status


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