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Martin Luther King Jr. Understood Poverty and So Do Teachers

Poverty is the one of the most handicapping conditions that a child can endure. That handicap is exacerbated when the child lives in the richest country in the world. Teachers know this because they see it every day in their classrooms; yet, education reformers and politicians seem not to understand the impact of poverty on a child's education. They often ignore it. Frequently they dismiss advocates for leveling the playing field with their mantra of "no excuses" and their advice to "pick yourself up by your boot straps."

Teachers understand that there are really two groups of poor children. In one group are the poor children who have social capital. These children have a parent or some other adult who understands the power of education to transform a life. These children have advocates, and these children will make it because those caring adult advocates will not tolerate anything less. These are the children that get picked for charter schools or are given scholarships to elite prep schools. I am never surprised when these kids are successful, and I am deeply disheartened when they are not.

Then there are the poor children with no social capital. Their parents love them but have no capacity to parent them because of their own circumstances---alcohol, drugs, incarceration, or, most frequently, the day-to-day struggle to survive. Most of the children in this second group are assigned to the public schools. Notice that I said 'assigned' rather than 'attending' because attendance is a huge issue among these children. Without addressing their basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, attention, safety, and love, we still expect them to be at school every day and on time and to take the same high stakes tests we administer to their classmates who had a good night's sleep and a nutritious breakfast. The children of poverty without social capital need a more comprehensive education, and their teachers need resources, flexibility, and support to provide it. To pigeonhole these kids into a "one size fits all" school model is malpractice.

This weekend marks the official celebration of the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the inauguration of President Barack Obama. We can acknowledge and celebrate those events best by harkening back to the message of Dr. King: pay attention to the poor in this country, the least among us. Our community service should be focused on children without social capital. Education and political leaders should begin forging new policies and new practices that are customized to ensure that this group of children can succeed in our schools.

I recently attended an event honoring Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West for their work on poverty. They received an award aptly named the "Martin Luther King, Jr. Spirit Award." I was struck by the words of Tavis Smiley when he said, "Presidents have to be pushed into greatness." He reminded the audience that Martin Luther King, Jr. pushed Lyndon Johnson and that A. Phillip Randolph pushed Franklin Roosevelt to make the decisions they made. Dr. West and Mr. Smiley are often criticized for challenging President Obama to be more forceful in fighting poverty in this country and for allowing poverty to increase, but what they are doing is essential. They are pushing this President into greatness, and we should join them.

Let us embrace the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. and dedicate ourselves to ending poverty. Let us end these education reforms that harm our children, especially poor kids who have no social capital. Let us demand new resources strategically spent to change the trajectory of a child's life. Let's join Mr. Smiley and Dr. West in pushing our President and our Congress to greatness on behalf of all of America's children.

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