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Systemic Poverty, the Psychology of Poverty, and Misleading Binaries

Recently, I examined the importance of tone in the education reform debate. Here, I turn more directly to the substance of that debate, although I increasingly find it difficult to separate fully substance from tone.

Two binaries have been expressed that serve as clear windows into both that substance and tone: Paul Bruno's claim that the education reform debate is failing because "reformers" and "anti-reformers" are underestimating out-of-school factors ("reformers") and in-school influence ("anti-reformers") and Wendy Kopp's argument that Teacher for America (TFA) represents the "builders" and TFA's detractors are "haters."

Kopp's binary goes further, however, as she asserts the "naysayers have the power."

If tone matters, and I believe it does, let's start by noting that Bruno and Kopp position the so-called "reformers" and "builders" with positive (and misleading) labels while marginalizing "anti-reformers" and "haters/naysayers" with negative and pejorative (and inaccurate) terms.

Next, I have offered that the education reform debate is best characterized as a struggle between "No Excuses" Reformers (utilizing the language embraced by those advocates) and Social Context Reformers, conceding to both groups equal status as reformers and without negatively positioning either group (although I identify with the Social Context Reformers):

"'No Excuses' Reformers insist that the source of success and failure lies in each child and each teacher, requiring only the adequate level of effort to rise out of the circumstances not of her/his making. As well, 'No Excuses' Reformers remain committed to addressing poverty solely or primarily through education, viewed as an opportunity offered each child and within which...effort will result in success.

"Social Context Reformers have concluded that the source of success and failure lies primarily in the social and political forces that govern our lives. By acknowledging social privilege and inequity, Social Context Reformers are calling for education reform within a larger plan to reform social inequity—such as access to health care, food security, higher employment along with better wages and job security."

While Bruno's and Kopp's characterizations are both corrosive and misleading in tone and substance, let's consider how these claims look in the light of evidence regarding poverty, sitting central to claims made throughout the wide spectrum of those offering commentary and scholarship on education and education reform.


Education Reform, Poverty, and Equity

Bruno's and Kopp's binaries are not simply unfair positioning; they are inaccurate.

Bruno suggests some group exists as advocates against educational reform, and Kopp takes that further by characterizing the same group as purely driven by hate, adding, surprisingly, that the power lies with anyone opposing her and the reformers with whom she identifies.

Let's, then, examine briefly the group portrayed positively by Bruno and Kopp. This group of reformers, whom I call "No Excuses" Reformers, include Kopp and TFA, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and Michelle Rhee. This branch of education reform tends to be supported by several powerful think tanks as well, particularly in terms of similar ideologies grounded in free market principals—Fordham Institute, Friedman Foundation, and many others.

While it is entirely fair to frame these advocates as reformers, it seems beyond comprehension to suggest that people holding political appointments and controlling tremendous financial resources are the powerless. We must also clarify that "No Excuses" Reformers state very clearly in their own arguments that "poverty is not destiny," thus embracing themselves a position that marginalizes out-of-school influences on educational outcomes.

Yet, these reformers are rarely confronted for the single greatest weakness in their claims: They disproportionately bring to the reform debate either no or little experience or expertise in education.

Next, the so-called "anti-reformers" and "haters" are almost exclusively career educators, scholars, and researchers focusing on the field of education. Most significantly, as well, is that these marginalized voices in the education reform debate also include educators who have spent their entire careers calling for significant education reform.

This cannot be stressed enough: No group exists calling for no education reform.

And this must also be acknowledged: When Kopp and others claim educators have all the power, this phrase and those like it are code for "teachers' unions." While the union bashing, both directly and indirectly, is effective, it is a strawman argument when we note the powerful evidence about educational outcomes framed against states, primarily throughout the South, that routinely are labeled "failing" but currently and historically have had no union contracts or protection for teachers as many of these states are right-to-work (thus non-union) environments.

The "No Excuses" Reformers have the political and public power in the education reform debate primarily because they have political and financial power over teachers, scholars, and researchers. "No Excuses" Reformers also receive disproportionate access to the media and are rarely challenged by that media since their narratives sound true (consider the free pass received by Waiting for "Superman" and nearly daily stories of miracle schools).

Yet, Social Context Reformers, smeared as "anti-reformers," "haters," and "naysayers," are overwhelmingly walking into classrooms all across the U.S. and teaching in environments that directly tell them to be quite and do what they are told.

These Social Context Reformers work and call for genuine reform that addresses the staggering inequity in both U.S. society and public schools.

Ultimately, the education reform debate is about power, and parallel to the current attacks on powerless teachers, political and public sentiment about people trapped in poverty exposes why power begets power and inequity protects the status quo, as Nick Baez explains about the psychology of poverty:

"As a result, even highly intelligent individuals easily make irrational decisions surrounding risk.

"This line of research has subsequently produced another mountain of studies over the past two decades, which have applied the lessons of human decision making to greater systemic issues. The studies have generated enormous implications, particularly with respect to systemic poverty.

"The answers have been quite clear: the experience of poverty generates its own psychology."

While the "No Excuses" Reform ideology seeks to focus entirely on individuals, and thus ignore social dynamics, evidence confirming the reform calls coming from Social Context Reformers shows:

"Most of us judge poor people, viewing them at worst as lazy, at best as suffering from deficient financial behavior. We've gotten used to thinking that being poor is their fault: If they were smarter or more industrious they surely would have overcome their poverty [emphasis added].

"Shafir, however, claims that the real culprit isn't lack of ability but problems created by poverty. 'These problems are distracting and cause mistakes,' he told Markerweek in an interview.

"'When you're poor you're surrounded by bad decisions of people around you,' he says. 'You're so concerned about the present that you can't begin thinking about the future, and that's the big irony: People with the greatest need to think about the future don't have the leisure or emotional capacity to do so. The very essence of poverty complicates decisions and makes immediate needs so urgent that you start making wrong choices. These mistakes aren't any different from anyone else's, but they occur more frequently due to the element of stress, and their implications are much greater.'"

To acknowledge this psychology of poverty, as Social Context Reformers do, is not to reject the importance of quality schools and teachers—and the impact both can have on children.

But to perpetuate the rugged individualism myth by focusing exclusively on teacher quality and student effort ("no excuses" charter chains such as Knowledge Is Power Program [KIPP]) does allow the ruling elite in the U.S. to ignore—and distract the public from—childhood inequity in their lives outside of school: Of 35 economically advanced countries, the U.S. sits next to the bottom in childhood relative poverty (Iceland, 4.7%, and Finland, 5.3 %, at the top, and the U.S., 23.1%, and Romania, 25.5%, at the bottom, see page 3).

Social Context Reformers are the only voices in the education reform debate who are acknowledging social inequity as well as the systemic failure of public education: Where schools fail children is when those schools reflect and perpetuate inequity, patterns far too common in public schools and almost uniformly existing in the exact schools promoted by "No Excuses" Reformers.

"No Excuses" Reformers are essentially confronting powerless populations—people and children in poverty and teachers—and demanding that these groups simply work harder.

That message benefits only the messengers.

And to privilege that position while marginalizing the voices and work of educators, scholars, and researchers benefits only the privileged as well—while also ignoring a tremendous wealth of evidence that the U.S. as free people needs to confront inequity in all of our lives and our institutions.

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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He...