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Poverty & Education: Meaningful Discussions or Misguided Diatribes?

Today's guest post is written by Angel L. Cintron Jr., a 7th grade social studies teacher at Charles Hart Middle School in Washington, D.C.

When it comes to discussing the link between poverty and education, education reform debates, often times, diverge into two "corners." In the blue corner, one can find the "poverty is not an excuse" camp. While in the red corner, one will find the "poverty is an explanation" group. Both corners vehemently defend their positions with "data," coupled with a heavy dose of anecdotal evidence. Both sides claim student advocacy. The good news is that both corners are right. The bad news, however, is that both are also wrong.

In The Blue Corner: Do Teachers Matter?

The proponents of the "poverty is not an excuse" motto are correct in stating that teachers are the single most important "in-school factor." Teachers do, and should, matter.  In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find someone who can't recall the name of his or her "favorite" teacher. And. That's a great thing! It means our profession impacts students' lives, well beyond the classroom. We - teachers - shouldn't run away from this reality or responsibility. So, yes, while a student is "in school," we - teachers - do influence their lives, greatly. Therefore, the "poverty is not an excuse" camp is correct in claiming that teachers DO play a vital role in the lives of ALL students, especially the most vulnerable.

Sounds great, doesn't it?

Well, there's a slight problem with this unbridled, idealistic view of education. The proponents of the "poverty is not an excuse" motto are wrong, as well. Teachers can help students overcome poverty by building meaningful relationships, and not by increasing test scores. A student's performance on a standardized, high-stakes test does very little to alleviate the day-to-day challenges associated with poverty. Although a student's performance may produce confidence, it's the teacher's ability to initiate, or increase, a student's self-worth that matters most. Unfortunately for the blue corner, teacher-student relationships aren't quantifiable. Nor should they be.

A healthy teacher-student relationship can overcome poverty's stigmatization, both in the short- and long-term. However, a teacher must gain a student's trust before the student is willing to learn from them. There's simply no magic formula or accelerated training program that can manufacture this trust. Genuine trust takes time to develop. But, once it's established, the demoralizing grip of poverty cannot stand up against a student who has a reliable support network, i.e. teachers, and a healthy dose of self-worth.

So, there!

Case closed, right?

Ummm...not so fast!

In The Red Corner: Why Should Teachers Be Held Accountable?

The proponents of the "poverty is an explanation" motto are right, too. Although a teacher influences a student's life, a student spends most of his or her time outside of the classroom, away from his or her teacher's sphere of influence. Thus, a student's environment (i.e. the home, the neighborhood, or both) matters, as well. It's impossible, impractical, and unrealistic to assume that a student is separate from the "child," or the school is separate from the neighborhood. To do so is to view education through a conveniently disconnected lens. Yes, a student attends school, at best, for one hundred and eighty days per school year. However, this same student spends three hundred and sixty-five days, per year, living within his or her primary environment.

At first glance, a teacher's influence seems significant. One hundred eighty days divided by three hundred and sixty-five days equals forty-nine percent. Forty-nine percent isn't great, but it isn't awful, either. However, convert the actual "face-time" into hours, and an entirely different picture emerges. Assuming an average class period is sixty-minutes long, a teacher has one hundred and eighty hours worth of face time with his or her students, per school year. There are eight thousand, seven hundred and sixty hours in a calendar year. So, if you divide the actual "face-time", in hours, by the amount of hours in a calendar year, then the teacher holds two percent of a student's time. Two percent!

How can a teacher be held accountable for any given student's performance with such a low percentage of actual "face-time?"

Seems like a fair argument, no?

Perhaps, but there's a slight problem with this unbridled, pessimistic view of education. The proponents of the "poverty is an explanation" motto, too, are wrong. Such a pessimistic view of one's role - a teacher - is troubling, to say the least. Using poverty to pass blame or judgment on everyone else, i.e. parents or students, isn't a productive argument. Neither is waiting for the government to create a program that will eradicate poverty. Yes, the home environment is critical to any, and every, student's chance for success.

However, for those economically disadvantaged students, we - teachers - must bridge the gap. Although a teacher isn't able to reach every student, he or she must try to reach as many as students as physically possible. Teaching isn't a typical forty-hour a week job. Period. Teachers must invest in the lives of their students beyond a traditional forty-hour workweek. Sorry, but dodging this responsibility is, in the words of a southern friend of mine, "weak sauce."

In Closing

For those who advocate that poverty is not an excuse, you're right and wrong. And...for those who advocate that poverty is an explanation, you, too, are right and wrong. So, congratulations to both camps. Both corners win, and lose, this particular battle. Now, my question to both corners is this: can we finally engage in meaningful discussions, or must we suffer, for yet another year, from more misguided diatribes?

Connect with Angel on Twitter and WordPress

Bio:

In addition to teaching, Angel serves as the social studies department chair, a DCPS Lift Ambassador to Hart Middle School, a GeoPlunge coach, a DC SCORES assistant coach, and a 2014 CityBridge Foundation Education Innovation Fellow. Prior to teaching at Charles Hart Middle School, Angel taught introductory undergraduate courses in international relations in Leiden, The Netherlands, and worked as a teaching assistant to the Department Head of International Relations in Webster University Leiden, The Netherlands. He received a Bachelor's degree in Psychology from Palm Beach Atlantic University, and a Master's degree in International Relations from Webster University, The Netherlands.

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