Long before I stood in front of a classroom as a teacher, I learned from my mother how poverty frustrates the very best efforts of a dedicated teacher. She was a New York City public school teacher who taught elementary school in the East New York/Bushwick section of Brooklyn during the 1960s and 1970s. One year, she had a fifth grade which experienced close to a 90% turnover. There were some 30 odd students on register, and during the couse of the school year, there were over 30 discharges and new admits. Some students came and went in the middle of the year, in a double turnover, but there were literally only a handful of students who made it from September through June. In other years she taught, the problem was only a little less dramatic.
Social scientists call this phenomenon ‘transience.’ Poor people live from day to day and week to week, from cheque to cheque, and are therefore constantly on the move. Increased rent they can no longer afford, lost jobs, evictions, condemnations of the building in which they lived, family break-ups, deportation and a whole host of other reasons connected to their economic conditions: all of these lead to transience.
Teachers who have worked in schools serving communities with high rates of poverty know this reality well. They understand that even when they find ways to overcome some of the myriad of other disadvantages a young person living in poverty faces when it comes to schooling, they can’t teach students who are not there, and they can’t get much educational traction if they only see a child for a couple of months during the school year.
Much has been made in recent times of the ‘summer’ advantage middle class and wealthy students have, as their families ensure that their learning continues throughout the summer vacation. But truth be told, this advantage extends well into the regular school year. The biggest advantage that students from middle class and wealthy backgrounds have is regular, uninterrupted schooling. All too many students living in poverty simply do not have the benefit of regular schooling. Their education is disrupted, again and again and again.
Like poverty itself, transience is not a natural condition: human beings are not by nature a nomadic species. It is a man made artifact, easily abated in the twenty-first century with the right social and economic policies. Its rate is inversely proportional, to cite the most obvious relationship, with the stock of quality housing for low income people: the greater the stock, the less the transience. The same could be said for creating living wage jobs for low income people. Some educational effects of poverty, such as the physiological problems associated with lead poisoning, fetal alcohol syndrome and low birth weights, can not be undone, once they have occurred. But transience is a problem that can be addressed at any time, with the provision of quality, low income housing and living wage employment. All that is wanting is the political will.
Unfortunately, teachers are far removed from the power centers that determine the public policies impacting on transience among the poor. We deal with the effects, while our voices go unheeded on the causes. Those who do possess the ability to have a real impact — elected officials, policy think tanks, media pundits — generally pay little attention to what we say.
Indeed, there seems to be an entire class of education pundits, unified by never having actually taught young people living in poverty, who seem intent upon dismissing any discussion of the effects of poverty upon education and educational opportunity, and of denying the importance of social and economic anti-poverty policies for providing all Americans with equal opportunities. Any discussion of the effects of poverty is immediately condemned as alibis for the failure of schools serving young people living in poverty.
The latest manifestation of this approach appeared with the knee-jerk responses [see here, here and here] to yesterday’s New York Times education column, penned by Diana Jean Schemo. The mere mention of Richard Rothstein’s Class and Schools seems to be a lightening rod for this sort of criticism, simply because Rothstein makes a powerful argument that the promise of equal opportunity for the poor can only be met by a combination of educational reform AND anti-poverty economic and social policies. We are inclined to agree with Julie at the School of Blog, that there is little evidence that most of these critics even took the time to read Rothstein. [“I heard him say…”, the defense offered by one of Julie’s accused in the School Of Blog comments, is an awfully weak form of hearsay argument when there is an entire book to quote. Of course, when you quote a book someone might check and see if your evidence really supports your claims.]
Teachers know all too well when schools fall short of the promise we make to every young person, but especially to youth living in poverty, that education is the pathway to a better life, and we will be unsparing in our criticisms of those shortcomings. But we also know when government and society fail in their responsibility to address the conditions of poverty that hamper and hinder education. And we are not prepared to be silent about either failure.